Nara – the ancient capital

Wednesday 16th October

While Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, from 710 for 74 years the capital was Heijokyo, now the city of Nara, about 40km south of Kyoto and a 75 minute ride on the slow train, through rural Japan.

It is an easy walk from the station to most of the important and interesting sites, many of them registered with UNESCO, past the normal range of souvenir shops and restaurants touting for our custom.

The first Buddhist temple in Japan, founded in the 6th century is in Nara, called Gangoji Temple.

We visited the Kofukuji temple and its five storey pagoda, which had celebrated its 1300th birthday in 2010. Its five storey pagoda is the symbol of Nara City. Like so many historical sites, there was renovation and reconstruction in progress.

Walking through the primeval forest to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine on a warm and sunny autumn afternoon was delightful. I think we saw about half of the estimated 1200 wild deer that roam the park. They are friendly and not hungry for your attention. Stalls along the way sell deer biscuits and a few of the deer hang around the stalls, but politely refrain from begging for food.

As we approached the shrine the number of stone lanterns on the side of the path increased, until they were lined up side-by-side and in deep rows like waiting soldiers. The shrine was founded in the 8th century for the Fujiwaras family. According to legend, the family invited a mighty god from Kashima Shrine (in current day Ibaraki Prefecture). He came riding a white deer. Since then the deer have been respected and protected as divine messengers by the local people.

The temple was large and along all its corridors brass lanterns were hung in neat rows, making a very pretty sight against the orange woodwork and brown window frames.

We lucked it again to see a wedding ceremony in progress. The groom took great care to ensure his new bride negotiated the uneven stone steps from the temple in her layers of kimono and dainty Japanese sandals.

There are many shrines in the area, each of them with a different aspect and meaning. Wishing messages are left at many of them, some even in English and other European languages.

We were competing with school children to see the Nigatsudo Hall, which is set on a hill with a view over Nara and its many temples and shrines. School children seem to be constantly on excursions. The youngest are in uniform, looking very cute. The middle aged, elementary school children are in plain clothes and sport a coloured hat, most often yellow, and the secondary children are in their immaculate uniforms. No matter what their dress, shoes appear to be of a personal choice, ranging from fashionable sports shoes to slip ons.

It was at this hall that elementary students stopped us to practice their English – “Where are you from?…” It seemed necessary for us to continue the conversation for them in the simplest words we could think of. We were each presented with a folded paper crane as a thank you gift.

We found the Great Bell in front of the Todaiji Temple – it is massive and has a mighty sound to it. The temple is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world, but a mere two-thirds of its original size prior to being destroyed by fire in 1709. The temple houses a massive Vairocana statue, popularly known as Daibutsu (Great Buddha) and a host of other statues and icons, including a couple of worrisome looking Samurai. School children were again in great numbers, with their workbooks, completing questionnaires and taking photos of artefacts, themselves and their friends.

It was too short a time in Nara, as there was more to explore in this city of ancient places. But that is the story of travelling.