Nara represents a huge milestone for me as it’s the first significant travelling I’ve done in Japan without anyone to help me. To most normal people this isn’t that impressive but I’m facing the handicaps of a) not speaking or reading the language b) not really understanding how the train timetables work c) having the worst sense of direction of any human being ever and d) being generally without feck.
Only one of these setbacks significantly affected my journey and that was my inability to understand how train time tables work, a problem that caused my trip to Nara to take about 3 hours.
When I got there though, more than worth it.
Nara famously has wild sort’ve tamed deer roaming the streets. These animals are held sacred in the Shinto religion as messengers from the gods. It is said that the city was founded when a god riding a white deer landed on the spot of the shrine and pledged his protection to the people if they would build him a shrine there. Consequently deer have always been kept in Nara rather than hunted as they are in the rest of Japan.
I knew all of this from the guidebook but it doesn’t really explain quite how many deer there are. I assumed they would be confined to forest areas and park land but they wander about the open parks and the city proper fairly freely. And there’s thousands of them! You can barely go 10 ft without crossing a deer, they’re literally everywhere you look. It’s a totally disconcerting experience but very, very cool.
You can buy deer biscuits for the almost nothing price of 150Yen but as I didn’t have anyone with me feeding deer seemed a little bit of a waste. I spent plenty of time watching the various tourists feeding deer though, including 2 memorable girls. One of whom was really, really freaked out that deer were coming so near her and started running, but as she still had food in her hand the deer gave chase and so she ran faster leading to the deer running even faster. God only knows what would have happened if her boyfriend hadn’t calmed her down.
The 2nd happened later in the day where I saw a Japanese girl being swamped by at least 15 deer and probably more. They were inches from her butting up against her body trying to get at the food in her hand. She was squealing like a cartoon character faced with a mouse, needless to see both me and her friends thought this was piss funny and howled in laughter. Problem was the girl was stood in front of a shop which was being overrun by deer and the shopkeeper was significantly less pleased. He was screeching at her to go away and she was both terrified of the deer and him.
There’s not many places you can see a 3 way battle between deer, scared girls and shopkeepers.
Also some of the deer have learned to bow over the years too and that’s phenomenally creepy. Really they bow when you give them a biscuit. This isn’t training as such, it’s a learned response which is the same principle you train animals with but nobody set out to teach the deer to bow, they just… do. It’s really weird but more than a little bit cool.
Anyway having taken 3 hours to get there I briefly refreshed myself with lunch of Tempura (basically anything deep fried in a really light batter) and Miso-shiro (soy and fish stock soup) before I set out to explore Nara proper.
My first stop was the Todai-ji temple complex , home to Daibutsu-den, literally “the big Buddha hall”, the largest wooden building in the world.
Daibutsu-den is impressive enough on its own. It’s a truly gorgeous building and rises with a sort of stately grace from the surrounding countryside. Nara is a lot more park-like than other Japanese cities with lots of open grass areas, something you almost never see in Japan and all this wide open space really suits Daibutsu-den. It makes it look huger and even more impressive.
But the real draw would be the big Buddha the building is named for. The big Buddha in this case daibutsu (which means great Buddha) is actually Dainichi, the Japanese name for the Buddha that represents dharmakaya. Dainichi is not a Buddha proper but rather an unmanifested aspect of Buddha. He belongs to a section of Buddhism that functions a bit like agnostic christianity. Basically Dainichi is the sum total of everything in the entire universe but is simultaneously empty (because in most Buddhist thinking the universe doesn’t exist). He is for all intents and purposes god and when all things in the universe die or decay they become Dainichi.
Inside Daibutsuden is a statue of Dainichi and it is the largest image of Buddha in the entire world. To give some sense of scale one of his fingers there is the size of a grown man. He is enormous! He is also incredible to look at and simple breathtaking. Daibutsu is easily one of the most stunning, awe inspiring purely amazing sights I have ever seen in my life. He doesn’t quite top the Basilica De San Marco in Venice but he’s certainly right up there.
Dainichi is seated on a lotus leaf with 7 petals, 7 in Buddhist numerology being a symbol for infinity and symbolising that all if infinity is contained within dainichi. Behind him is a golden wheel featuring numerous Bodhisattva’s (basically trainee Buddhas or saints to Buddha’s god). This symbolises the sun and also that all the aspects of Buddha stem from Dainichi.
Size aside he isn’t much of a looker. There’s not a lot of detail and his face is frankly pretty badly done but this detracts not one bit from the experience of looking up at him. Truly one of the wonders of the world.
Alas because he is so big and high up and because the temple is so under lit my camera’s flash couldn’t penetrate the darkness and get a photo of him. I could see the statue perfectly well but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get a photo, so I’m resorting to nicking one off the internet.
And while the lighting was not conducive to photography it certainly helped the impact. Todai-ji uses the temple trick of putting wooden bars across all the windows. This means even in bright light the light in the temple is slanted slightly and everything is a little indistinct. This helps give a really holy mystical air to the space and really enhances the impact of this enormous statue.
Seriously, It’s big!
One thing I noticed again was the horrible capitalist money grabbing of the temple. There stalls inside the temple gates outside Daibutsu-den selling tat which I didn’t mind but there were tat stops right inside Daibutsu-den practically next to the statue in the same general space that Buddhist services were held. I don’t look it when catholic churches do it and I like it even less with something so magnificent within spitting distance.
I did buy a few postcards though…..I mean I had no pictures did I.
there are also 2 enormous Nioo guardians protecting the Buddha inside the hall. But frankly while they are really impressive they suffer a little by comparison.
After Daibutsu the rest of Nara is a little bit unimpressive. It’s a really nice place for a walk full of gorgeous autumn leaves, deer and glorious views but it’s all a bit second rate after the big Buddha. Still I was there and it is a really lovely city, or at least the parks in the centre are.
The main attractions after the big Buddha are an enormous bell affiliated with the temple and the Kasuga Taisha shrine.
The bell is in all fairness properly enormous and apparently takes 17 monks to ring it but again suffering by comparison next to the enormous statue.
Kasuga Taisha is the shrine. Typically in Japan shrines are affiliated with Shinto (which was the dominant religion in Japan for centuries) the pagan religion which ancestor and pagan god (kami) worship ideas in Japan stem from. Temples are associated with Buddhism which was imported from China. At some point the two separate religions got smooshed together into the pseudo religion which is the most common religion in Japan. Kasuga Tasiha is a Shinto shrine and the origin of all the deer roaming about. Sadly despite it’s historic import (of which I know little) it’s a pretty poor shrine in my view. The approach to it is lovely though. A path winding through the forest surrounded by deer and lined on every side with stone lanterns. In certain festival every single one of these lamps is lit and the effect must be quite dazzling. I’ll try to check it out.
A bit tired of temples and shrines by this point I decided to do some museum hopping and managed to see a collection of ancient Japanese statues in various materials (interesting…but not for very long) and lots and lots of swords and armour (extraordinarily cool).
During my museum hopping i managed in the course of taking off and putting on my shoes (a little tip to anyone who visits Japan. Buy shoes without laces.) to tear a big gash down one side and having done a full day of walking about my feet were in agony so I headed off home.
On the way I stopped to pick up some Doriyaki from a street vendor.
Doriyaki is a Japanese dessert that is the favourite food of flying blue robot cat and Japanese cartoon character Doraemon. He’s onto something because Doriyaki are amazing.
They consist of 2 little discs a bit like pancakes but tiny and much thicker. The 2 discs form a sandwich with a filling of “an”. An is a sweet red bean paste that gets used in a lot of Japanese desserts. Basically imagine really sweet kidney beans. I go back and forth on an. In some places I really like it but other times its just waaaay too sweet. The an soup that Japanese kids eat sometimes is just waaay too sicky sweet but Doriyaki are amazing. Just the right sweetness, cakey but always moist, warm and filling but small too. I love Doriyaki.
Anyway I finally got to the train station and headed home.
Of course this time I knew what my time table mistake was and cut an hour off my return journey.