SYNOPSIS:  A quick run-through of some features of Buddhist architecture.  About huge bronze Buddhas and deer that pull on your pants if you don’t feed them.  More temples and big crowds of people.   About “classical” Nara.


Nara is often done as a one-day excursion from Kyoto.  How, that is beyond me.  But if you have that little time, there is but one thing to do:  dash up to Nara Park, ooh and ah at the freely roaming deer, if you are daring, buy some deer biscuits and watch what happens, and then throw yourself into the sea of humanity that seems to be on a pilgrimage towards something behind a humungous red, wooden gate.

I skipped the biscuits since there would have been nobody to photograph me while I was the center of attention.  I watched a few people do this.  Sometimes kids get caught up in this frenzy and then get scared.  These deer are after all, big and real.  As comfortable as they are with humans, they are wild animals.  But they are amazing: you can make them bow and they actually left me alone while I was eating an ice cream cone.  That surprised me.

But then, as I was minding my own business reading a map, a hefty tug at my blouse came out of nowhere — somebody did not get enough attention and that was a full bite into my clothes!  I am glad it was my cotton blouse and not my silk pants.  Over 1000 freely roaming deer have been counted in this relatively confined area.  The deer eat the grass down to a neat, short stubble everywhere, which makes for nice landscaping.

I also saw a deer venturing to the bus stop and pressing its head against the windows of an arriving bus.  And there was one getting very interested in the wooden tablets at the Shinto shrine.  The attending Shinto priestess was obviously caught between the holy deer and the blessed tablets — you could tell by her hesitation in shooing the deer away that this made her very uncomfortable; but then, people could not have nibbled up votive plates either…  What a dilemma.

After all that grass, cloth, and wood, these guys poop.  1000 deer pooping — that occupied me for a while.  Isn’t that like walking 1000 dogs every day in the same park…?  There should be mountains of deer poop everywhere.  But wouldn’t you know it, every shop owner, monk, and volunteer in the area seems to ceaselessly take care of what they can get hauled off on public walkways and in open areas.  Overall, the park is clean.  Only in Japan!

I have 4.5 days in Nara, but at some point, I had to get through this part.  The colossal bronze Buddha at the Todaiji cannot be missed and you just have to take the people with it.  Any picture you see that gives you the illusion that there was nobody there either took me a lot of time or some fast maneuvering with my zoom lens.

Since for the next ten days or so, there will be a lot of temples, I will quickly point out the main features of Buddhist monasteries for general orientation.  Just like with Shinto shrines, there are ultimately a limited number of standard architectural components which make up any Buddhist temple.  Knowing those will help one understand not only the general art-historical developments, but get a quick orientation.

Unlike Shinto shrines, which can be open, Buddhist temples are enclosed.  Ji– is the syllable at the end of the name that indicates a Buddhist Temple.  Shinto shrines are named either Taisha or Jinja.  There can be one or multiple enclosures depending on the size and the increasing holiness of the buildings.  Walls are punctured by gates, called MonChu-mon, for example would refer to the central gate.  At Todaiji, you walk through one of the biggest gates ever with two of the largest guardian figures in all of Japan facing each other.  They are carved by one of the most famous Japanese sculptors of the 13th Century, Unkei.

Behind the main gate of any temple is the heart of the complex with lecture hall(s) — Kodo, image hall(s) — Kondo, a reliquary or two — Pagoda(s), a bell tower, and a building for the sutras.  Over time, the arrangement of these parts developed.  As they first were lined up along a central axis, later Kondo and Kodo could face each other, a single pagoda may be balanced more gracefully with a second one, or several halls may be lined up behind each other.  There also may be special halls for special people or occasions as in the case of Horyuji where a famous octagonal hall was built to commemorate a vision Prince Shotoku is believed to have had at the age of two.  Buddhist temples of the Pure Land variety in particular, also like to incorporate ponds.

In addition to these standard parts, usually spread to the left and right or behind the innermost compound, you can find dormitories, more storage facilities, and utilitarian quarters.  Some of these temples at their heydays would have occupied 2-10 city blocks!

Everywhere I have been so far — earlier in the day I went to Kofukuji, a temple just down the road undergoing a massive reconstruction project — photography inside the halls is strictly forbidden and guards as well as surveillance cameras are making sure.  Imagine my surprise when in the greatest of all halls, the Daibutsu-den, displaying one of the greatest of all Buddhas, photography seemed to bother nobody.

The Daibutsu-den is the largest wooden building in the world.  One building has to get that rank — but what is truly amazing is that in its current state it is only 2/3 of what it used to be.   And it still is the largest!  Like so many wooden buildings it burned twice and the current structure dates merely from 1709.   It contains the largest Bronze figure in the world.  At 437 tons of bronze and 130 kg of gold this 15 meter tall Buddha is no slouch.

That Buddhas increase in size is not just arbitrary but a reflection of the shift from the historical concept of the Buddha Sakyamuni who was a person (Hinayana or Therevada Buddhism), to a universal one (Mahayana).  This is the Buddha of the Center, the Cosmic Buddha who is radiating Buddhahood into the entire world.

The hall was squirreling with dozens of school kids, hundreds of visitors and multiple guides expounding their wisdom.  At the edges souvenir stands were selling items too kitschy and embarrassing to list.  This felt a lot more like an art fair than a Buddhist hall and was quite a contrast to the awesome and truly spiritual feeling you could get in some of the smaller halls where there was silence.  No wonder that photography here did not matter.

Behind the Daibutsu-den, the park starts leading up to a protected Primeval Forest as well as to two important Buddhist halls, once part of the vast complex of the temple.  Today, they seem almost disconnected.  Only a handful of people ventured that way to enjoy a great view from the veranda of the Nigatsu-do and to a truly magnificent sculptural group inside the oldest building at Todaiji, the Sangatsu-do.

The Nigatsu-do is known for a crazy festival, the Omizutori Matsuri, a fire and water fest where among other things, eleven monks and their eleven attendants (in honor of the 11-headed Kannon) roll eleven huge flaming torches along the veranda spewing fire sparks in all directions. I saw a video of this and could not believe it.  In the proximity of ancient wooden structures, they do this!  I hope all of the prefecture’s firemen are standing by when that happens!  No wonder in the past these buildings burned to the ground!  All in all I covered two temples, two special halls, a magnificent temple museum, and a lot of walking today.

I returned to the guest house via the busy Sanjodori shopping street.  Nara definitely knows what tourists want.  Any imaginable type of souvenir of good quality can be found here, especially Buddhist sculptures, masks, local handicraft products, and what have you.  And there is no end to the restaurants and cafes either.  I admit, I bought a few things… and I treated myself to a nice dinner for a change.   Nara is special, after all.

Good night.