Nara (奈良) was established as the first permanent capital of Japan from 710 to 794 (also known as the Nara period) before Kyoto was. Nara was chosen as the capital of Japan owing to its location being right in the centre of Japan. Today the only remanent of the imperial palace used during the Nara Period is an open space where the former Palace sat, located north-west of Nara JR station. Nara remains an important historical centre for Buddhism in Japan and is home to the largest wooden structure in the world. Our trip today mainly focuses on the temples East of Nara JR station. Visitors can either take the JR or the Kintetsu line to Nara. As my friend and I wanted to maximise the use of our Kansai-Wide JR Pass, we opted to take the JR to Nara. The way to visit the major sights in Nara is not difficult to locate, I was telling my friend “just follow the crowd, they will bring us to the places we wanted to visit”. The Kintetsu railway is much closer to the major sights and Nara Park.
Main Street in Nara
Coming from the JR Station, we walked along the main shopping street in Nara. As it was still rather early, most of the shops have yet to open. Along this street, I can spot shops selling souvenirs as well as a handful of restaurants. The streets of Nara is very clean, however along the street since leaving the JR station, we couldn’t find any rubbish bin. This means visitors would have to carry their trash with them till Todaiji Temple where we found some trash bins, which is a 15 to 20 mins walk.
Kofukuji is our first stop in Nara. The temple was transferred to its current location from Kyoto in 710. Coming up from the stairs, the first structure we spot is an octagonal building. This Southern Round Hall (南円堂) is an important cultural property in Japan and houses some of the valuable Buddha statues. With pillars and beams painted in bright red, the Southern Round Hall was first built in 819 and was destroyed by fire 3 times. The current building is constructed in 1789.
Leaving the Southern Round Hall, we headed along a stretch of gravel road towards the main prayer hall. On the way we spotted a building that is covered with canvas, seems like this building is undergoing preservation. At the end of the road, we came to a 5-storey pagoda and the large prayer hall. The wooden 5-Storey Pagoda (五重塔) is originally constructed in 730, however, it was destroyed by fire a few times and the current version of the pagoda is built in 1426. The grand 5-Storey pagoda is the 2nd tallest wooden building in Japan and is a magnificent sight to look at. Like the temples we saw in Mt Shosha, the 5-Storey Pagoda seem to be constructed without using any nails.
Next to the 5-Storey Pagoda lies the Eastern Golden Hall (東金堂), one of the 3 Golden Halls in Kofukuji. The original Eastern Golden Hall was built in 726, like the other buildings in Kofukuji, it was destroyed by fire several times. The current Eastern Golden Hall was built in 1415. Unlike its name suggests, the Eastern Golden Hall is a single storey wooden building clad with white walls. As we are eager to feed the deer in the park, we did not enter the Eastern Golden Hall.
Nara Park (奈良公園)
A small road between the 5-Storey Pagoda and the Eastern Golden Hall leads to Nara Park. Nara Park is a large park that we have to pass through to get to Todaiji. As soon as we hit the park, we saw numerous deer roaming around the park waiting for visitors to feed them. Deers are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, hence the locals have been keeping the 1,200 deer in Nara Park. These deer have become the mascot of Nara City and even been designated as a natural treasure. As we were approaching the park, we were approached by some deer, thinking we have food to feed them. My friend bought some deer crackers from a nearby vendor and started to feed them. Some of these deer would bow to my friend, a gesture that they have learnt when asking for food. As my friend was feeding 2 of the deer, a few more deer approached him wanting food from him. As he was feeding 1 of the deer, I saw a deer shoving another deer away. Yet a 3rd deer sneaked up to my friend, passing the other 2 deer and pulling my friend’s shirt in an attempt to get attention from my friend to feed it. My friend bought another set of crackers to feed the deer. After much feeding, we crossed the road to the other side of the park to find more deer. The deer seem to understand the human language when one of them approached me, I told it I have no crackers. The deer left us alone then. Nara Park is a huge area, with deer roaming around the park, either looking for visitors for food or resting below trees.
As we were walking out of Nara Park heading towards Todaiji, we spotted a building that welcomes visitors to rest, use their toilet and top up their water bottles. This building exhibits technology that earthquake-proof buildings. As we were walking in, one of the staff welcomed us and suggested that we visit the rooftop of this building, where we can see Todaiji from. We heeded her recommendation and went to the rooftop. Indeed we were able to see Todaiji as well as the hill behind it. Weary visitors can come in here for a rest, which the staffs welcomed us to do so.
My friend and I soon find ourselves at the gate leading to Todaiji. There are a lot of visitors coming to Todaji despite being a Monday. We saw crowds of Japanese students on a field trip here. As with Nara Park, there are pockets of deer roaming around near the entrance of Todaiji.
As we were walking towards the temple gate Nandaimon, I am awed by the sheer size of the gate. This is the biggest wooden temple gate that we have come across so far in our travels in Kansai. Indeed Nandaimon is the largest temple gate in entire Japan and was originally built in 1203. I am amazed by how the architects came out with this unique way of constructing the gate, it is visible that the individual woods are pieced together like Lego bricks, using ingenious ways of fitting each block to another. Upon closer inspection of the gate, it seems that Nandaimon was originally painted in red, as traces of peeled red paints can be spotted on the beams of Nandaimon. Walking through Nandaimon makes me feels like an ant on by the side of a giant. 2 gigantic statues of Heavenly Kings (or Ni-o) are installed inside both sides of Nandaimon. A little further from Nandaimon I saw a pond with a small piece of land in the middle. A red torii gate and a small building, which I think is a shrine hide beyond trees planted on this small island.
A stone’s throw from the pond, we came to the inner gate (中門) to Daibutsuden. Unlike Nandaimon, the inner gate dons on bright red on its pillars and beams with white walls. The path towards Daibutsuden from the inner gate is blocked off, there are signs that points to a side entrance to Daibutsuden. This is where we got our tickets and secured our entrance to the biggest wooden structure in the world.
As soon as we passed the ticketing side gates, the majestic Daibutsuden sitting in the centre of a large courtyard come into our view, looking like a gentle giant resting in its den welcoming visitors. Daibutsuden was built in 798. As we were walking to Daibutsuden, its grandeur started to reveal itself. Daibutsuden does not require any fanciful or bright colour to make itself stand out, its sheer size is sufficient to awe visitors. Clad in simple white colour and using its natural colour of the wood it was built with, the only bright colour on Daibutsuden is the pair of golden shachis (decorative ornaments mounted on the top of the roof). From outside, Daibutsuden appears to be a 2-storey building with its 2-tiered roof design. Walking into the building, Daibutsuden is a single storey building with very high roofs. In the centre of Daibutsuden is a large statue of Buddha (Daibutsu). The nearby 15m tall Daibutsu was cast in bronze over in 8 castings over a period of 3 years. The Daibutsu was covered in gold leaf when it was first made, these days the bronze castings gave the big Buddha statue a character if its own. My friend and I walked around the Buddha to explore Daibutsuden. There are 4 other statues on either side of the bid Buddha. Behind the Buddha statue, tucked by the back wall of the hall are 3 models of Daibutsuden. It appears the hall was rebuilt 3 times and the original hall was much bigger than it is today. After walking 1 round in Daibutsuden, we headed out of the hall.
We noticed a wooden and somewhat creepy statue on the right of the entrance of Daibutsuden. Several visitors are looking at this statue. Upon closer inspection, a sign by this statute states that the locals believed by touching the statue and rubbing against the parts where one would feel pain, the pain will go away.
After visiting Daibutsuden, my friend and I followed a pathway outside the parameters of Daibutsuden. There is hardly anyone going this way. Our plan is to visit some of the side temple buildings in Todaiji. Most visitors would head out of Todaiji after visiting Daibutsuden, however, there are more interesting buildings around. One of these is the Nigatsudo. Nigatsudo (translates to “The Hall of the Second Month”) is one of the important structures in Todaiji, ceremonies are held here in the 2nd month of the lunar calendar. Nigatsudo is first built between 756 to 772 but was destroyed by a fire in 1667. The current building is built in 1669. Nigatsudo was built on the foot of Mt Wakakusa. The 2-storey wooden building is one of the biggest buildings in Todaiji (after Daibutsuden). To get the temple halls, we had to climb a flight of stairs as the temple halls are perched on the side of a hill. Nigatsudo is a great place to get away from the crowds of visitors to Daibutsuden. It is peaceful and quiet here as there are just a handful of visitors (mostly Japanese) here. The biggest draw of us coming to Nigatsudo is the view from the veranda. Other than shielding is from the heat of late spring Kansai (it was getting hot), the view from the veranda allows us to see the whole of Nara City with Daibutsuden in the foreground. It is peaceful and scenic here, coupled with the late spring breeze, the benches on the veranda in Nigatsudo is a great place to relax. It is a shame that most visitors to Todaiji make a u-turn for the exit after visiting Daibutsuden.
Coming down the stairs from Nigatsudo, we spotted a small building on stilts. Sangatsudo is the oldest temple building in Todaiji, dating back to the year 740. The rather simple building holds some valuable statues. Sangatsudo look closed at the time of our visit, my friend and I took some pictures of it and left for Nara City where we grabbed our late lunch.
Back To Himeji
It is still early by the time we are done with visiting the temples in Nara. My Friend and I headed back to Himeji to shop around its shopping Malls at Himeji JR station. Using the Shinkansen ( another way for us to maximise the use of our JR pass) we got to Himeji in less than 1 hour from Nara. After some shopping, we headed back to our accommodation in Osaka to rest for the night, getting ready to visit the sights in Kyoto the next day.