So following my exciting day in Kanazawa and Super-K, we got on a train and headed over to Nara. Nara, like Kyoto, is a steeped in historical sites, since it was the capital of Japan before it was later moved to Kyoto. So let’s do a short crash course on the early history of Buddhism in Japan. Which I hope is decently accurate, as I haven’t looked at my notes in several months.
In the late 6th century, a centralized state (at least in central Japan) began to emerge, led by Prince Shoutoku. Shoutoku helped establish a Chinese-style hierarchy of court ranks (because Tang-dynasty China is both a political and cultural powerhouse at this point so everyone wants to copy what they’re doing) and even issues a type of constitution. His most important contribution though was aggressively promoting Buddhism among the nobility/high class (it didn’t become popular among commoners until much later). It essentially became the religion of the state. Priests had intimate ties with the nobility and temples quickly gained power and influence. It also became a type of dick-measuring contest among the noble houses, who would go and build/fund grand temples all over the place to showcase their prestige and win the favor of the Emperor.
Nara, which was the capital from 710 – 794, was subject to this surge in Buddhist-related construction. Furthermore, at the time, the idea that temples were meant to be in remote places far from centers of civilization hadn’t really taken hold, so the city is surrounded and chock full of Buddhist architecture, sculptures, and what have you. It was only towards the end of the century, when temples started gaining enough influence in their own right that the Emperor and nobility started to feel threatened, did that sort of shift begin. In fact, the prevalence of religious influence in and around Nara was one of the reasons the capital would later move to Kyoto, and why many of the large temples afterwards would be built at a nontrivial distance from the city.
And then, much later, one of them would be razed to the ground by Oda Nobunaga (Grade A badass). FUCK YEA. If there was a historical figure from whom I’m a total fanboy, it’d be Nobunaga for sure.
We started the day off in Koufuku-ji, arriving decently early in the morning. Let me post a modified the Wikipedia summary of it’s history below, because it’s kind of ridiculous:
Kōfuku-ji has its origin as a temple that was established in 669 by the Fujiwara clan. Its original site was in Yamashina, Yamashiro Province (present-day Kyoto). In 672, the temple was moved to Fujiwara-kyō, the first planned Japanese capital to copy the orthogonal grid pattern of Chang’an. In 710 the temple was dismantled for the second time and moved to its present location, on the east side of the newly constructed capital, Heijō-kyō, today’s Nara.
Kōfuku-ji was the Fujiwara‘s tutelary temple, and enjoyed much prosperty while the family flourished. The temple was not only an important center for the Buddhist religion, but also retained significant influence over the imperial government. While many temples’ influence waned after the move of capital to Heian-kyō (Kyoto), Kōfuku-ji remained powerful thanks to its connection to the Fujiwara. The temple was damaged and destroyed by civil wars and fires many times, and was rebuilt as many times.
Like seriously wtf. Moving the entire thing twice and reconstructing it at least half a dozen times. That’s pretty badass.
The place nowadays is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (which are all over the place in Nara, to give a sense of just how much stuff is here).
Outside the grounds were a bunch of deer. Like actual deer, left to wander around in the streets that you could feed crackers (that you bought, of course) and somehow didn’t get hit by cars. I didn’t end up buying any crackers, but I did manage to pet several and touch their antlers. Also, seeing a deer somehow scratch itself with its hind legs is actually really impressive.
It’s always hard to capture the exact atmosphere in pictures when you visit a place like this, but hopefully the pictures do a decent job. Beginning photodump:
As I’m sure you can tell, the architecture is quite something. Especially considering all this was moved – twice. And then painstakingly reconstructed god knows how many times.
Another cool thing: all these places also function as active shrines to this day. So throughout the day while we were traveling around we encountered a fair share of people offering up their prayers, burning incense, and all the other ritualistic stuff you see people do in anime. It’s a bit strange when you see it happening in real life, especially in such a different context than is frequently seen in shows, but it was fascinating to watch nonetheless.
There’s also a nice museum nearby that housed most of the historical artifacts which once resided in many of the temples in the area. Sadly, the main exhibit hall was down for renovations for the summer, and so we didn’t get a chance to see much of the Buddhist works that used to be inside these buildings.
However, we did discover this great sign warning us of all the dangers of deer present.
Followed by this great mascot for the area. Because literally everything in Japan has a mascot.
I’m not sure about you, but I find the Buddhist deer to be creepy as fuck. I also found the “no pet” sign to be particularly ironic, given that the entire area was full of wild (but decently nonviolent) deer. But maybe dogs and deer just don’t get along?
Following Kofuku-ji, we moved onto Toudai-ji, most famous for housing the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana. Who’s like the cosmic Buddha figure, being the “Dharma body” or “bliss body” or whatever you want to call it – it’s a celestial-esque body – of the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama.
The entrance is flanked by two guardian deities, who both are absolutely enormous and take up the wooden pillars on each side of the entrance. They still pale in comparison to the Buddha though, just to showcase how massive this thing was.
Inside the entrance there was a nice garden with a fish pond, so I took a couple pictures while I contemplated samsara and how our life is suffering. And I’m being completely serious here – I had taken a Buddhism/Japanese Culture course the semester before, and so was thinking about all the stuff we had learned about in the course while I was visiting these places. Although I’m not fundamentally a Buddhist myself, I do find the philosophy/religion extremely interesting (along with Confucianism and Daoism), since it presents such a drastic different worldview than what we grow up with. I’ve also very crudely applied my limited knowledge of them to anime (analyzing Kara no Kyoukai and Kino’s Journey), which is yet another connection between my 3D, real journeys and my 2D, fantastic ones.
Besides all that nonsense above, I also found this tori across the pond/lake to be quite beautiful. Makes me curious how much I’d love Itsukushima Shrine if I ever end up visiting Hiroshima.
The main temple itself was quite impressive.
Now, this picture does it no justice, because the thing is absolutely enormous. So I’ve included some numbers below (like that ever works):
- Height: 14.98 m (49.1 ft)
- Face: 5.33 m (17.5 ft)
- Eyes: 1.02 m (3.3 ft)
- Nose: 0.5 m (1.6 ft)
- Ears: 2.54 m (8.3 ft)
Essentially, its face is so large three people could lay end to end and still not cover the whole thing. It’s ears are larger than Yao Ming. And of course the statue weighs 550 tons (500 tonnes, or 500,000 kg, for everyone else who uses the metric system what losers). 550 tons. I’m not even sure how they built that thing. And I’m pretty sure it’s so heavy they actually built the temple around the thing, if I’m remembering correctly. Regardless, it’s big (that’s what she said).
Plus they couldn’t just end with just a statue. Oh no. They had to make a huge backboard to go with it, cover it in gold, and then put a bunch of little Buddha’s, each probably life-sized.
And you all know which ferris wheel I’m talking about, of course.
After heading out, we encountered what probably ranks as one of the most bizarre sights I’ve seen here. Namely, Oktoberfest booths.
Yes – Oktoberfest booths. It seems Nara was holding an Oktoberfest…quite a bit ways off from October. But it was in a few weeks I think. Moral of the story: the Japanese like their beer.
We then headed out to Houryuu-ji, home to some of the oldest wooden structures in the world.
For comparison, here’s Wikipedia’s.
YEA WIKIPEDIA. Knowing where it’s at.
There were also sculptures and things inside the buildings, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures. They even had a monk or two walking around (always practicing temples) just in case. Around the main complex though was another beautiful garden. And you know me and gardens by the point (damn you Shinkai).
To finish off the day, we then hurried over to the Byoudou-in, one of those iconic buildings you’re supposed to try and see because it’s on the back of money.
Still, it could’ve been worse. The city the Byoudou-in is located in actually has a huge thing for The Tale of Genji since I think one of its stories took place there, and so I got to geek out a little bit at…well 1) actually knowing what The Tale of Genji was and why it’s “cool” and 2) I read sections so obviously DEEP INTELLECTUAL CONNECTION.
Still, it was a great sight, and there’s no better way to end a day than by admiring Genji romance some chick on a sign (does he count as the original lolicon, by the way? Because that Murasaki chapter was quite something).All in all another intense but satisfying day. :)