Sunday, 5 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part VII: Nara

Nara is the prettiest thing. It was the first central capital of Japan and there are still many buildings that show the historic roots of the country, like the influence of the Chinese on the national culture. Besides, it is beautiful. All the buildings are beautifully kept in the extensive grounds and there is plenty of woods around to cycle through. And so we took the train from Kyoto for the day to visit. We rented bikes at the station and cycled our way down the main touristy street to the central park.

It is a pleasure to move around by bike. We Dutchies are already used to it so the biking itself takes little effort. It is a convenient, noiseless, and quick way to get around, quicker than walking anyway. Plus you get to see and experience much more of the surroundings. Not only does the pace allow for more looking around than on a coach or car, it also leaves you open for smells and sounds and other sensations (such as swallowing bugs…) that you would otherwise miss. Also, on bike it is possible to see much of the sights in Nara in a single day. That would not be possible on foot.

First stop: the five-storey pagoda. Awe. Added benefits: the octagonal shrine opposite it which is extremely charming, plus the deer that wander around the park. In the past the deer were considered holy animals because they were believed to be messengers from the gods. And so it became custom to feed them, and pet them, and they stayed in the park. Nowadays they harass visitors for food – a right claimed by any domesticated animal. They are charming creatures and besides, seeing little kids toppled over by eager deer is just funny. (No children were hurt during the making of this diary entry.)

Next stop, and the next, and the next: beautiful temples and shrines. Absolutely wonderful heritage sites. We also found a botanical garden in which plants were grown and displayed that were mentioned in ancient works of poetry. All originally Japanese plants, flowers and trees, in a beautifully laid garden that followed the rules of Japanese landscaping art. This of course includes a carp pond. There were little boxes with bags of carp food for sale for 100 yen. I bought one and unknowingly threw some of it in the water.

Forget piranhas. Piranhas are sissies, wet ones with teeth, compared to the gobble-up power of the common carp. They were struggling to get as close to the side of the pond as possible, fighting over a single morsel of food, mouths wide open. They seemed wide enough to swallow us whole. The throng was so thick that occasionally one of the carp was forced upwards by its fellows and found itself on top of the other fish, out of the water. It had to wiggle its way over their backs to get to water again. We were relatively safe (I think!) but you wouldn’t want to be an insect in that pond.

We had visited one beautiful temple, a big wooden building built on the side of a hill. It was awe-inspiring and we had heard about a giant Buddha. Unfortunately we could only see the outside of the temple because visitors were not allowed inside. Oh well, we said, we have seen so many beautiful things today that missing this one Buddha is not going to put us down. And so we went back to our bikes, only to discover on the map that this was not the hall of the Buddha, that was further down. It was almost five so we needed to get moving to see that! Hey, if there is still a chance to see this wonder, we go for it! We raced down.

The hall containing the Buddha is the largest wooden structure in the world. The original (the current one was rebuilt in the 18th century) was 1.5 times bigger even! Inside is a bronze Buddha, adorned with about 130 kilos of gold, and it stands 16 metres high. It is flanked by two more statues of god(desse)s. You can take a walking tour around the temple which allows you to see the Buddha from all sides, and there are a few more enormous statues of warrior gods to admire.

It is difficult to describe with words the beauty of buildings, structures, art. I could go into metaphor or talk sizes and colours but it will leave you with no idea whatsoever what it is like. Maybe the best way to describe it is by telling you what it did to me.

As I entered the hall of the Buddha it was a bit dark compared to the bright daylight outside. As my eyes adjusted properly my jaw dropped. I looked at everything in the temple with deep astonishment. The scale of the hall and the Buddha in it seemed to me to press upon the world, drawing all perception to that point. Moreover, it wasn’t until I was three quarters round the temple that I remembered to close my mouth again. I must have looked really charming.

In this temple, for the first time, I bought a little talisman to help wishes come true. It is very pretty.

Please forgive the picture quality of the Buddha. By this time my camera battery was low so I took some photos with my phone instead. I hope my friend’s pictures are better.

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