My trip to Nara began on this green train called the Osaka Loop.
And this is where the real journey started for me because from Shin-Osaka to Osaka is a mad house.
Several trains travel to and from Nara.
After arriving at Nara Station, about an hour from Osaka, I was met by a lovely Jukujo of Kyushu extraction. She has been working as a tour guide for Nara for over one score, so I was very happy that both our paths intersected serendipitously. What luck! So for the better half of the afternoon, she had shown me around to some famous landmarks, the first being Kofukuji Temple, which by the way is one of the four great temples of Nara and was originally built in Kyoto. Years later it was moved here (below)
Pointing up to some ancient script upon this wooden community sign board with her index finger, noticing the lines in her neck and around her mouth contract as she was trying to utter difficult to pronounce words, an edict was written on what was expected of the community. Whenever she would complete a full sentence she would nod her head up and down and say "neh, neh," which roughly means in an emphatic way " 'right' or ‘you see!" I guess my eyes had been in a dreamy state, so maybe she thought I wasn't listening. I was listening - intensely.
The gods of Nara knew I was there on holy ground because the weather that day was incredibly beautiful despite being in the middle of the rainy season. And then this lovely woman accompanying me was all predestined maybe...? After all, it was her holiday that day and she really didn't have to show me around - a portly stranger. Below is a photo of the pagoda which is said to be the most important symbol of Nara.
The Great Hall
Nara, my first impressions, were impressive. No blog on Japan would be complete unless Nara was featured somewhere on it. The importance of Nara, being one of the ancient capitals of Japan, is fundamentally one of the most important centers of Japanese culture and religion.
Here at Nara you can see first hand the fusion between two very old and venerated religions; Buddhism and Shintoism. The former being from outside of Japan, and the latter being of Japanese origin. Evidence of this union can be found when visiting the temples in and around Nara, where one can immediately notice Shinto shrines on the same grounds as the temples.
Both religions had existed in spiritual harmony for centuries in this country and has shaped the minds of hundreds of millions of Japanese people since time immemorial. However, after the Meiji era was established a new law was enacted called shinbutsu bunri, which was designed to clearly split the two religions apart from each other with Shintoism on one side, and Buddhism on the other side.
The original split was a culmination of a lot of factors: Rising nationalistic sentiments, the bureaucratization and deputation of Buddhism and its effects on the general population, and the Samurai class under Tokugawa, and finally, a means to an end against the spread of Christianity! All of these factors at play left and indelible mark on the evolution of Japanese culture and thought, and can still be felt in present-day Japan centuries later.
Nara is also a wildlife sanctuary replete with free roaming deer and birds of various species and trees all in their natural form. A natural balance between two religions and nature.
Grazing, roaming. Freely.
Moving beyond where the deer were grazing another side of Nara began to take form. Another path stretching deeper into this solemn land.
Himuro Jinja Buden Shrine, which roughly translates as “ ice house” or house dedicated to the God of ice.
This bell is called a suzu bell, and is usually pulled before you make a prayer.
This Shrine is a designated cultural property of Nara. And finally, the guardian, a beautiful lion dog, which can be found at almost any Shinto Shrine in Japan.
After rinsing my hands and mouth, a form of purification. I headed over to the Great South Gate which is the largest wooden gate in the world and a national treasure of Nara.
Here are more photos in clearer detail. You can see a partial image of a gaurdian.
The two most important national and cultural treasures in this gate would be the two muscular guardians called Ni-o(Two Kings). I mean, personally I have seen wooden statues before in other parts of the world, but these two were the largest and most menacing looking monumental statues I have ever seen!
After proceeding through these mammoth gates my eyes were immediately arrested by beauty in the form of Todaiji, the main hall and spiritual epicenter of Buddhism in Japan. The roof of this great temple was a glorious site to behold, for all the world to behold.
I was several hundred meters from the actually entrance gate from this photo, so I took my time, sat down and had a short break. So many people that day.
Tour guide looking around for her guest.
Some people far beyond in years trying to keep up with the pace. So many young people were there that day, too.
But, another thing that was moving for me was watching people light incense. As the smoke filled the air people would fan the smoke into their hair for a blessing of some sort.
And then after, the temple of all temples. Stretching more than five bays in width. Todaiji temple is the largest wooden building in the world and is a World Heritage Site.
And then up close in order to see the imperial seal and gaurdians.
Temple Measurements: Frontage - 57.01m / 187.03ft Depth - 50.48m / 165.61ft Height - 48.74m / 159.89ft.
The type of Buddhism practiced here in Nara is called Kegon Buddhism of the Kegon sect, which places emphasis on the image of Vairocana and the ecumenical doctrine of world peace.
NARA DAIBUTSU - 15 meters in height, gilt bronze The famous Big Buddha statue at Tōdai-ji Temple 東大寺 is an effigy of Birushana. Also known as the Rushana Daibutsu 盧舎那大仏 or Nara no Daibutsu 奈良の大仏 (Great Buddha of Nara). Photo by Tony L. Alexander (The Soul of Japan).
Vairocana Buddha Height of Body 14.98m / 48.91ft Length of Head 5.41m / 17.75ft Length of Eye 1.02m / 3.34ft Length of Ear 2.54m / 8.33ft
The lotus measurements:
Height of Lotus Pedal 3.05m / 10.00ft
Octagonal Lantern an ancient treasure and was around when this temple was first built. Height 4.62m / 15.15ft
One thing you should be prepare for is walking. I was toting camera gear the whole time, then I found out that no tripods were allowed in or around Todaiji.
Another treasure is the Pindola statue. There’s a similar one in Yakushima, but this one is larger. If you rub this statue with your hand, then touch wherever you have a physical ailment on your body, you will be healed.
Other notes regarding most of the temples in Nara would be that many of them were, at one point in history, either burned to the ground or severely damaged by natural elements like typhoons and lightening. The original Todaiji hall was rebuilt three times requiring the efforts of over 2,600,000 people and hundreds of millions of yen. The original hall was also 33% larger than the present Todaiji hall.
I often wonder about life’s temporality, and how each and every human being is tied into a certain dynamic. The human spirit prevails.
Erecting mammoth monuments in the name of gods and trying to justify their existence and how our humanity intertwines with their fate and our own. These beautiful edifices are a testament to the human spirit’s will to ascend beyond himself, by discovering within himself the beauty of his/her own kundalini. That quantity of drive that possess us all and makes us do things above and beyond our own physical and mental ability.
Looking into the eyes of the aged I can imagine for a moment them saying “ at least we were able to leave something behind for other generations to cherish. This temple has survived the worst of times and so will the nation of Japan. “
“Even I survived.” And then he walks off and disappears into the crowd never to be seen again.
The statue of Nara
And then, the Big Bell of Nara.
Another treasure to behold is this temple below
The Nigatsu-do Hall Temple. Up these stone steps will lead you to a plateau overlooking the Ikoma Mountains and far beyond the Yamato plains, but before we get there we must once again purify ourselves at the fountain.
Know that from this plateau, one can witness the same eternal view as the ancient people of Nara did.
Buddhism flourishes in Japan still to this day through the gifts and donations of its people
But how exactly was Buddhism able to exist in harmony with Shintoism, and for so long?
It all started with the god head, much like in Christianity where you have God the father, or a central figure of sorts. In the case of the Japanese it was their emperor(Shomu) who was believed to be the direct descendant of the sun Goddess Amaterasu, whereas for the Japanese Buddhist their god head is the great Dainichi Nyorai Tathagata, the cosmic Buddha, all encompassing Buddha. Dainichi literally means "Great Sun." Thus, because of this central point the syncretism between the two faiths were possible. Another note, in Shintoism you don't worship man - made statuary, everything is faith based. However, in Buddhism statues were built and deified as Gods.
What Japanese Buddhism did, through the dispensation of the emperor’s power and influence, was give Shinto form through allowing man-made bodies in the form of Statues to be erected in order to represent Shinto deities, this is why statues around Nara share both Shinto and Buddhism symbols. Plus, the majority of Japanese were considered illiterate according to modern day standards during the Nara period, since most of your scriptures and canons were written in and translated in Chinese form, as well as how people were educated, it also made it easier for Japanese to absorb since the characters were more familiar. The Japanese language, the way it's understood today, was still evolving around that time period.
Roben, the first ordained abbot priest of Todaiji is pictured below.
This fusion or co-existence between the two faiths did a lot of good for the country: One, it helped add refinement to the samurai making them more altruistic. It didn't stop them from having civil wars , though. But it produced better samurai of higher quality. One such Japanese great was Minamoto no Yorimasa, a Buddhist priest, samurai, and poet. And the first person in recorded history to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, which was continued up until Mishima Yukio, the last man to commit it.
The second thing, while Buddhism helped establish a better and more organized form of bureaucracy and governance for its citizenry, it was also used to help weed out other foreign religions, despite Buddhism being a foreign religion itself.
Under Tokugawa Christianity was banned, which Buddhism inadvertently helped bring about, by deputizing the Buddhist clergy and making them the “ State Police.” Each and every household had to be registered with a local temple in order to be considered citizens, otherwise they were suspected as being Christian and were removed from society. This created problems later on.
Thirdly, there was no infrastructure for how the dead were handled prior to Buddhism, since Shinto had no system for dealing with the dead, it was only logically the best option that Buddhist Temples take responsibility for this. Even today Buddhism is the central organization for dealing with the dead and the afterlife, then and now. The miracle is that while Japan may not be a religious country today, it has a very long history rooted in religion.