Monday, September 28, 2009

Trip to Nara: Temples, temples, temples!

Nara deer lying around munching stuff.

A couple weeks after our trip to Hagi and Tsuwano, Joe and I took off for Nara, a city near Kyoto that is famed for its ancient temples and an overabundance of tame deer. As the capital of Japan in the 8th century, Nara was considered the cradle of Japanese culture, arts and crafts, and several of its ancient temples are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Needless to say, we went prepared to see temples... lots of 'em.

The first thing you run into in Nara, though, is the deer. With somewhere around 1,200 of them in Nara Park, its not hard to see why deer are considered a symbol of Nara. In fact, they are even designated as a National Monument of Japan. That may sound bizarre to us, but you have to understand that, unlike for you or I, the deer represent more than just a road hazard to the Japanese.

According to a little tourism guide I picked up, back in the year 768, an ancient historical record was found in one of the shrines in Nara, the Kasuga Grand Shrine. This record stated that a deity riding on a sacred white deer appeared on a mountain behind the shrine. After that, people started to worship deer as a sacred symbol and started looking after them.

And so now, like Miyajima, Nara is teeming with deer. The main difference is that the deer in Nara are healthier and more aggressive. They have not resigned themselves to eating tourists' paper maps and cigarette butts like the Miyajima deer, which rather look like overgrown rats with patches of hair missing here and there. No, the Nara deer know you're probably a big enough sucker to buy the little deer biscuits sold by street vendors, and they waste no time letting you know that they will not wait around while you decide you're ready to feed them. They are going to take what's rightfully theirs, dammit!

One deer tries to snatch someone's purse while other deer chase a poor Japanese woman.

No sooner had I bought some biscuits then the deer were literally trying to rip chunks out of my shirt and gore me with their horns. I'm not joking when I say they actually chased me around the park. I think they might have ripped off a finger if I'd actually tried to hold a biscuit out and feed them nicely. Dumb deer. So uncivilized!

A deer scopes out its next victim.

Having learned the tough way that the deer are to be avoided, not coddled, we spent the rest of the time admiring Nara's gardens and ancient temples. It would be overkill to talk about them all, so I'll just highlight a couple of my favorites.

The grandest of them all was without a doubt Todaiji Temple. Originally, its construction was completed in 752, but it's burned down twice over the years and was last reconstructed in 1709. Despite being just two-thirds the size of the original, the current structure is touted as the largest wooden building in the world. And, it is pretty awe inspiring.

In Todaiji's shadow, people look like ants.

Inside the temple is an impressive, gigantic Buddha statue giving us all the hand.

Giant Buddha

Some wooden statues of kings stand guard on both sides of the Buddha. It's a little surreal to be next to these things in real life, feeling like they are staring down on you.

This old stone monument was leaning up against a wall on the inside. Rather creepy. Reminded me of the Joker.

The last really notable thing about Todaiji was this totally wicked statue out front, next to the giant doors.

This wooden statue is from the 18th century and the plaque labeled it as one of the disciples of Buddha. This disciple excelled in the mastery of occult powers. The common belief is that if you rub part of the statue and then rub the corresponding part of your own body, an ailment there will disappear. I didn't try it so I can't vouch for it.

After Todaiji, the next most fascinating place had to be the Kasuga Grand Shrine — that's the one I mentioned earlier where the deity appeared on the sacred white deer. The structure itself is pretty though probably not so extraordinary. What makes this place special, though, is its 1,000 bronze lanterns and 2,000 stone lanterns.

I very much admired these intricate old lanterns and only wished I could be there on one of the two nights a year when they are all lit. It would be a sight to behold.

There were many other temples and a few impressive pagodas, but these two sites were my favorites. All in all, a pleasant trip for the memory books, though by the end it's safe to say Joe and I were definitely "templed out".

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