Japan – Nara

This day, we checked out of the ryokan at 8:00 and had breakfast of coffee and breads at the train station. By 9:15, we were on the train to Nara. We met Betty Ann from North Carolina who was traveling throughout Japan by herself. She was trying to decide if she wanted to quite corporate life in the US to become an English teacher in Japan. It was nice chatting with her and made the train trip pass quickly.

In Nara at the information center, we got a referral for a business hotel. A business hotel is usually more economical option than the Western-style hotel. For us, it was fine. It was a small room with an adjoining bathroom but not the extras like room service, porters, etc. The services that David and I never use, anyway. The “People’s Hanakomichi” was on one of the pedestrian streets not far from the train station. It was very clean and quiet. The room was actually quite large with a small desk and sofa in it. However, the beds were twins!

After checking in and dropping off our backpacks, we headed out to explore Nara. Nara had the “small town” feel to it that I was expecting from Kyoto. I really like Nara. The park was not far from our hotel and is Japan’s largest city park covering 1,235 acres.

Walking to the park we saw the first of what was to be several deer. I had read that there were some 1,500 deer in Nara, mostly in the park area. The deer have roamed Nara for several centuries. According to Shinto, one of the major religions in Japan (the other is Buddhism), deer are considered to be divine messengers. Today, they roam freely throughout the park, unafraid of people and expect handouts. There are stalls in the park that sell deer crackers (shika sembei). You have to careful around them as they tend to be aggressive looking for a hand-out.

At the entrance of the park, where the Kofuku-ji Temple once stood. It was built in 669 by the wife of Fujiwara Kamatari. At the height of the Heian period, it comprised of 157 buildings. In 1180, the temple buildings were set on fire after the defeat of the warrior monks by the Taira clan. Today, there are 4 buildings that remain. The Northern Octagonal Hall, the three-story pagoda, the Eastern Golden Hall and the five story pagoda, which is the most photographed of Nara’s sights.

From this area of the park, we made our way over to the Todai-ji Temple. This temple was built by Emperor Shomu (701-758). He built the temple to house the bronze statue that he had commissioned. At one point, Shomu renounced the world and became a monk. In 749, he came out of seclusion to dedicate what is now the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, the Daibutsu. The original temple was burned at the end of the Heian period in 1185. Other fires have happened and the Hall of the Great Budda (Daibutsuden) was last constructed in 1708. It is one of the world’s largest wooden structures, measuring 187 ft wide by 164 ft deep and 157 ft high. It is very impressive as you approach it.

Inside is an even more impressive Buddha. It is amazing that this statue was cast in 749! It is over 1260 years old! It is 53 ft tall, weighs 550 pounds of which 290 pounds is gold. Looking at it just makes you wonder what means they used to cast such a grand statue in those early years without the technology that we have today!

There were several other large statues in the main building. A couple of major wooden statues, known as the “Heavenly Guardians”. A note of interest was a large pillar that had a small hole at the base. It is thought that it is to open the path to enlightenment to those who are able to crawl through. To be enlighten, you have to be mighty thin! The day we were there, there was a large group of school children becoming enlightened!

From this temple, we walked to the Kasuga Grand Shrine. This shrine was built in 768 by ruler Fujiwara-no-Michinaga to honor his family. It comprises of 4 buildings. The major buildings, like most Shinto shrines, these have been ritually demolished and identically rebuilt every 20 years. The last rebuilt of two of the major buildings being done in 1893, for the 56th time!

The shrine is bordered by some 2,000 stone lanterns (like the one the deer is standing by in the above picture) and hanging from the eves of the buildings are a 1,000 bronze lanterns. These have been donated, out of respect for the virtue of the Kasuga dieties, by devotees since the 11th century. To quote Conrad D. Totman, from his book “The History of Japan” “such is the incomparable virtue of the Kasuga diety, then, that it cherishes and saves all creatures. Hence, presumably, in any quest for guidance and help, one need seek no farther than Kasuga and its affiliated Kofukuji.

At this point, David and I have visited enough temples and shrines for the day. So, we made our way back into the town of Nara and had a small snack at the local bakery. They had some wonderful breads there! Then we just walked around looking at the different souvenirs offered in the shops. Eventually, we made our way to the Sarusawa-ike Pond close to the shopping district. We sat there and watched the locals for quite sometime. There were children feeding the turtles in the pond. Gracious, there were quite a few turtles! Plus, I saw my one and only geisha. Honestly, I chased after her to ask her for a picture, which she graciously posed for. To clarify, geisha are women who are trained in an array of visual (flower arranging, tea ceremonies) and performing arts (playing the shamisen, singing and dancing). They are not prostitutes as many people in the west tend to believe. The guide book said that patrons will pay up to $3,000 a night to spend an evening in the company of two or three geisha. A performance is given on the shamisen, the three string Japanese instrument, a fan dance usually follows while the other geisha pours drinks, lights cigarettes and engages in charming banter. “Joe Public” cannot enter a tea house and expect to see a geisha performance. They only perform for select customers.

We looked for a restaurant to eat dinner but eventually ended up at a grocery store and bought Asian pears, rice crackers and sushi for dinner. It took awhile to figure out what to get as it is impossible to read Japanese. So, if it didn’t have a clear wrapper or picture on the packaging, we didn’t dare buy it. My “pseudo-vegetarian”(I eat fish) practice was seriously compromised on several occasions during this trip, simply because I didn’t know what was in the ingredients. For example, I purchased rice balls that appeared to be flavored with soy sauce, like Michiko had made. It turned out that they had chicken in them…..there were other times as well….I just had to let it go and not get too upset..and no, I didn’t finish the rice ball!

Back at the room, we ate a late dinner and called it a day! Walked 10.65 miles and 22, 489 steps.

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