Saturday’s day trip was to Japan’s most ancient capitol, Nara (奈良), which is about an hour’s train ride from Kyoto. It is of course famous for its temples, shrines and historic sights, but equally famous for the Nara deer which roam at will through the park and around town. I was told “Nara ni wa shika ga shikanai” – In Nara, there are nothing but deer! (BTW, please see the Nara Photo album on the Photos page.)
After meeting our tour guide at Nara station, we set off to see some of the world’s most amazing places—eight of them have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, including our first destination, the 5-story pagoda at Kofukuji Temple. Just missing being the tallest in Japan by a mere 2 inches, it was nonetheless incredibly beautiful and very impressive—and it was built in 1426. The nearby 3-story one was built in 1143 and the temple’s been here since 710. This was also our first “Deer Sighting”, with everyone eager to pet them and feed them sembei at ¥150 a pack. Luckily, the weather started out sunny and beautiful and not too hot or humid (started out, that is…).
Being a bit early for lunch, we strolled through the grounds of the Nara National Museum. One of the buildings there is a fairly rare example of Meiji period architecture from the initial westernization of Japan in the late 1800s. There’s also a somewhat more modern building where everyone had a good time with the Koi in the pond. Lunch was at a nearby restaurant where, as you can see in the photos, we ate in traditional Japanese style—and the food was delicious. (I must confess that I ate everything except my little fish, ‘cause he was still looking at me…)
Continuing on, we visited the centerpiece and crowning jewel of the city, the Todaiji temple and Daibutsu (Great Buddha). It was truly amazing, too. The building is the largest wooden structure in the entire world, and the current rebuild dating from 1692 is only a mere 2/3 scale replica! (That’s the picture above, BTW) The Buddha was cast out of bronze by building a framework, sculpting a model around it, building a mold around that and supporting it all by building a small hill around it. In went the molten bronze, and everything was dug out and polished up for the great unveiling in 746. A few fires and a recasting in the Edo period take nothing away from its impressive stature. I bought a postcard (which can’t possibly do it justice) and a charm—to grant me success in my studies!
We continued through the Nara historical park to other shrines and temples like the Nigatsu-do where every year they have a huge torch ceremony (and miraculously the wooden structures don’t burn down) and saw the great bell. The last major attraction was a visit to the Kasuga Grand Shrine, famous for its 700-year-old wisteria and row upon row of lanterns. The stroll through the cool, peaceful woods surrounding the shrine was also very moving—as you walk through this ancient place, you can’t help but feel awe, reverence and history flowing around you. Many, many things I’ve learned about the Japanese people and their character really struck home just by being in this place.
A train ride back brought the day to its end. Most everyone else went out on the town, but I came back to the dorms (grumpy old man that I am…) and ate there with Alia and Kishi-sensei. We were both pretty excited when we were able to finally carry on a decent conversation including making plans for dinner in town tomorrow, where to meet and at what time (We’ll meet Kishi-sensei downtown in front of the Junkudo bookstore at 5:00 PM for Okonomiyaki). It just keeps getting a tiny bit easier each day…