When I was writing about Jizō in my last post, I realized that I hadn’t mentioned my trip to Nara. I’ll fix that now.

Way back in December, I made a day trip to the city of Nara, which was the capital from 710 to 784, and also the first permanent capital in Japan. Previously, the court moved after each emperor’s death. The changing of this custom was part of the adoption of Chinese culture that was occurring at the time. Chinese writing, art, architecture, laws, and Buddhism were all actively taken up by the imperial court.

You may wonder: If Nara was supposed to be a permanent capital, then why did it not keep that status for long? What happened was that the Buddhist temples, which were imperially sponsored, had grown too powerful and were meddling in politics. It got so out of hand that the emperor finally decided to move the capital to distance the court from Nara’s temples. In 794, Kyoto was founded as the new capital. The imperial court remained in Kyoto until 1868, although after 1185, real power was held by the shoguns, who ruled from Kamakura, then Kyoto, and then Edo (which became Tokyo).

I’m getting sidetracked. Nara. Nara is directly east of Osaka and directly south of Kyoto, isolated from both cities by mountains. Today, it has a population of about 370,000, and is more relaxed and rural than its big neighbors. Nara’s temples declined significantly after the court left, but the most important ones have stuck around.

One of these is Kōfuku-ji. Kōfuku-ji is the clan temple of the Fujiwara family (the bad guys from the last post) and thus retained its splendor while other temples diminished. It has an impressive collection of status and other artifacts, with a museum displaying the works that aren’t in active use.

This is one of the many buildings in the complex.

Nara Kofukuji Roundhall

To my utterly untrained eye, the design seems much more Chinese than later Japanese temples, which would make sense.

These are the statues of Jizō that I was reminded of. They are just downhill of the round hall.

Nara Kofukuji Jizo

You can see the little cups placed by the statues. A sad sight when you know what they signify.

Directly east of Kōfuku-ji is Nara Park, which contains an important shrine, the temple that houses Nara’s main attraction, and a national museum.

This building is currently the museum’s Buddhist art library.

Nara Museum Library

It was built in 1902 and is a particularly handsome example of Western-influenced Japanese architecture from that period.

Getting back to the park itself, everywhere you go, you’ll encounter semi-tame deer like these.

Nara Park Deer

The deer were once regarded as divine messengers and it was forbidden to harm them. They’re generally well behaved, but they’ll hound you relentlessly if you have food.

There were droves of the critters in front of Tōdai-ji, Nara’s most important temple.

Nara Todaiji Gate

They were probably attracted by the carts selling roasted chestnuts. There were no deer inside the gate, though. There could be a number of reasons for this, but one is tempted to think that the gate guardians are scaring them away.

Nara Todaiji Angyo

These guys are the Buddhist equivalent of angels with flaming swords. Evil beware.

Nara Todaiji Ungyo

Beyond the intimidating guardians lies another gate and then the main hall, purportedly the largest wooden building in the world.

Nara Todaiji Hall

For all its size, this 1704 construction is only two-thirds as large as the 751 original. Inside is the famous Great Buddha statue.

Nara Todaiji Daibutsu

The statue is 15 meters tall and weighs 500 metric tons. That’s a lot of bronze.  [Edit:  Some sources say 250 tons, but either number is only an estimate anyway.]

After Tōdai-ji, I wanted to visit Kasuga Shrine (the one I mentioned above). Alas, it was too late in the day, and the shrine was closed by the time I got there. I’ll have to go some other time.

But at least I happened to pass by this teahouse with a neat roof.

Nara Park Teahouse


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9 Responses to “Nara”

  1. Nicole Says:

    oh wow….once again wonderful wonderful pictures and tidbits of history and culture…so many things to comment on! I have deemed Jizo a cute little guy – as it should be, eh? (but yeah, you don’t want to dwell too long on those little cups…..). That library building is gorgeous. And then there’s the teahouse roof. Did you partake of tea there? Did you try roasted chestnuts? (I never have – but over the years I’ve been curious because they pop up in all kinds of books every now and then.) Once again, it’s all so relative – 350,000 being relaxed and rural!!!

  2. kevinjames Says:

    I passed by the teahouse while hurrying to Kasuga Shrine, so I didn’t stop to go inside. I also didn’t have any roasted chestnuts. I’ll have to try some when I’m over there again. I did have the traditional Nara confection of sake manju – mochi filled with sake infused sweet red bean paste. I bought them freshly steamed and they were really good. For dinner, I had two more traditional Nara foods: sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves and cha ga yu, which is sort of gruel made with rice and tea. With the sushi, you don’t eat the leaves, by the way. They are highly tannic, and thus act as preservatives.

  3. Nicole Says:

    okay, what’s mochi? I’m assuming some kind of dough?

  4. kevinjames Says:

    Mochi is a sticky dough made by pounding glutinous rice (that’s a misnomer, since rice doesn’t contain gluten, but I think that’s the common name). Do you remember the confection I brought home last Christmas? That was also mochi filled with sweet red bean paste. The sake manju had a thicker layer of mochi and no powdered millet.

  5. Nicole Says:

    just before I checked to see your reply, I rememberd the Christmas confections……so have you learned how to make them yet?!

  6. kevinjames Says:

    I’d need the right sort of steamer. As for ingredients, I’ve seen various types of anko (sweet red bean paste) in grocery stores, but I don’t know about the mochi. You can buy blocks of the stuff for use in soup, but I’m not sure about pastry-quality mochi. Of course, a true gourmand would go the homemade route. There are machines for the task, but the traditional method involves a big mortar and a specialized mallet.

    Short answer: No.

  7. Nicole Says:

    yeah, I would think pastry-quality is different then what one would use in soups….so, a big mortar and a specialized mallet AND lots & lots of time. But hey, I’ve made mayonaise ‘by hand’ (only takes about 1/2 hour of slowly dripping oil while beating non-stop by hand with a whisk) (it is pretty cool when you’re done!).

  8. Miss Ingles Says:

    Hello, would it be okay if i used one of your shrine pictures for a piece of my school assignment?
    please e-mail me back
    yours thankfully
    Mss Ingles

  9. Nara Revisited: Day 1 « Erratic Dispatches Says:

    […] Revisited: Day 1 By kevinjames When I first visited Nara, I only had enough time to see a fraction of what I wanted to.  I resolved to make another trip, […]

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