Monday, 14 July 2008

奈良 Nara

2 weeks ago I set out on a trip through west Japan. There were a lot of places I have not yet visited, but was eager to see, so I saddled my horse, borrowed a tent, packed some provisions and set out to freedom.

奈良 Nara

Nara Park

My first stop should be in 奈良 Nara.
Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 and 784. The city was modeled after China's Xi'an during the Tang Dynasty, during a time when Japan still looked to China and Korea in how to do things. Today it is the capital of Nara Prefecture and the time of having been the country's capital lies more than a millennium in the past. However some things from that time still remain, especially a large collection of famous temples.

Nara Youth Hostel

I spent one night in Nara and choose the Youth Hostel. The price is quite expensive for a Youth Hostel (3000 Yen), it is a bit far of and the accommodation is not the best. Still as a Youth Hostel it is a nice place to meet interesting people: I met a Japanese man who lives climbing and living on mountains. I first mistook him for a bum, because of the similar outfit and looks and indeed he was homeless, but instead of living in one city trying to find food, he spends spring to autumn in mountains, where you can often still live by the land, forests, animals and kindness of local farmers. Only in winter, he would seek refuge in a larger town and try to find warmth and shelter there. He was currently traveling from one mountain to another and crossed Nara midways and decided to give himself a luxurious stay in a Youth Hostel with Showers, Newspapers and Television.

The homepage of the Youth Hostel is here:
The owner is able to communicate in English.

奈良公園 Nara Park

Like 宮島 Miyajima Nara is home of tamed but free running deer. You can see them at various places, but they are most concentrated in Nara Park. According to legend Nara was once blessed by a Japanese kami (god) riding on deer and ever since then locally deer count as holy blessed animals and are not to be killed or harmed, playing and stroking petting them is ok.
However be careful about deer kids, their parents sometimes get afraid if you do something to their offspring.

仏塔 Pagoda

Nara Park hosts also two interesting pagodae. They are really old and a wonderful sigh. You should pay them a visit, when you are in Nara Park.

in Nara Park there is one five level pagoda

and a smaller three level one

東大寺 Toudaiji

Nara's biggest tourist attraction and sight is the Toudai Temple. It is the oldest biggest wooden structure still standing and host of one of the biggest Buddha statues in Asia and the biggest of Japan (Big Buddha's are called 大仏 Daibutsu, which means just that Big Buddha). The buildings itself is an impressive sight with the ancient wood withstanding time and erosion, but also the inside is worth seeing. Apart from the huge Buddha there are a number of very interesting other statues, like fierce demon generals, which I really grew fond of in Japan.
However as said above, this is Nara's biggest sight and the number of tourists visiting it is accordingly. Therefore two tips if you want to enjoy it: go on weekdays and get up early...

the huge wooden gate is at least as impressive as the temple itself

especially because of the two giant guardians guarding the outside

and these strange "snakes" how remind me of David Lynch's Eraser Head and give me the chills

well there there is the big lad

and his associates left and right

since he is peaceful, he needs two less peaceful guardians

even flowers and butterflies are huge in proportion with the Daibutsu

outside you find a small medical Buddha, whose face has been shaped a little bit scary by time

春日大社 Kasuga Taisha

What Fushimi Inari Taisha is for 鳥居 Torii, 春日大社 Kasuga Taisha is for lanterns. This Shinto Shrine hosts a huge collection of wonderful stone and metal lanterns neatly ordered in long rows. It is no match for Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, but it is nice to walk next to the lanterns for a while and look at them in different angles.

Also to get to this shrine you need to cross 春日森 Kasuga forest and the forest is really nice especially in summer, when the shadows of the tree shield you from the burning sun and the cool air within the forests cools you down.

新薬師寺 Shinyakushiji

A small templ, which you can easily pass on your way back from 春日 Kasuga. It hosts 12 of the ferocious demon generals. Alas the entrance is not free and there is not much else to see than the statues, but if you have a like for them I think you should step inside, cool down from the heat and fear the ferocious warriors...

That was my visit to Nara. When the afternoon began to settle I said farewell to this ancient capital, eager to travel even further back in time to see the capital before the capital, indeed Japan's first capital at all: 飛鳥 Asuka awaits.

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