Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nara Japan

Kyoto might be the more famous historical city near Osaka (especially because of the climate treaty that was signed here a few years ago) but Nara, which is another city located about one hour away, is also a definite must-visit place. It was the location of the first permanent capital of Japan and is currently celebrating the 1300th (!!!) anniversary of the establishment of the capital. There's a lot of excitement about Nara in Japan right now so I decided to take a day trip and check it out.

The highlights of the area are Nara Park and Naramachi, both of which I visited with a guide. I've actually become a fan of using local tour guides, especially in places where I am unable to speak the language, because I end up getting a lot more out of the visit. In this particular case, I got really lucky and ended up being the only person taking the tour that day. I had the guide all to myself!!!

Our first stop was Nara Park, which is a large public park that contains a whole bunch of historical and religious sites. My guide did a great job explaining to me the difference between the two major religions of Japan while we were there. The two are Buddhism and Shinto and they coexist and sometimes overlap all over Japan. As far as super-high-level (for site-seeing) purposes, all the temples you visit are Buddhist and all the shrines are Shinto. You can tell if its a shrine or a temple by the presence of a Torii gate like this one, which indicates the presence of a Shinto shrine:

If you zoom in on the above photo, you'll see a ton of lanterns lining the sides of the path. My guide said that there are something 1800 or so in the park and that in the past people would go around and light them all but I guess they only do that a couple of times a year now.

All over Japan at the shrines are places where people hang wishes that they've written out. They are called "Ema" and I particularly liked this one that is for lovers who are hoping for good luck with their relationships.

This next photo is here just because I thought it was a great contrast between the red wood of the shrine on the left and the natural wood and screens on the right. If you look on the left side, you'll see some of the probably 200 or so lamps that are hanging. They are the same as those hanging between the buildings.

Next on the tour was a visit to what is the highlight of Nara Park, the Todai temple. To get there, you walk through this gate, which itself is huge:

The gate has giant wooden guardians, one on each side. They're there to protect the entrance. Oh, yeah, that's a deer walking through the gate. More on that later...

The Todai is a Buddhist temple that is the largest wooden building in the world. It's a beautiful and impressive structure. (The scaffolding on the left side, which isn't normally there, is part of the setup for a special event that was going to take place.)

Here's a shot of our aimless world traveler in front of the temple. To give the building some scale, the walkway that I'm standing on is the same width as the two gold "horns" that are on the top of the building. Yeah, it's BIG!

Inside the world's largest wooden building can be found the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha. The ears of the statue are over eight feet (2.5m) tall! The whole place is just massive and it's really difficult to grasp the scale while you're there since everything inside is so big.

I loved this next thing. One of the columns that holds up the roof of the temple has a hole cut in it. Legend says that if you can pass your body through it you can become enlightened. I think the idea is that if you're a child (or perhaps just small???) that it is easier for you to become enlightened. Yes, I tried to get through it. I was unable to do it as I'm an average sized guy and not particularly flexible. My guide did say something that made me happy though. When I said that I wasn't able to do it he told me "the important thing is that you tried". I want to be more like that.

Did I mention the deer? There's tons of them in the park area and they're super people friendly. They hang out right near food and drink stands all day waiting for people to feed them "deer biscuits" that the stands sell. The story goes that one of the gods arrived on a white deer and ever since they've been treated like heavenly animals. The funniest thing is that the deer actually bow to you if you bow to them. It's an amazing sight.

My guide and I left Nara Park and went for a quick visit to the roof of the local prefecture office located about a block away. The roof-top viewing area is open to the public and apparently unknown by anyone that isn't a local. You have a full 360-degree view of Nara. Here's a shot of the towards the five-story pagoda:

The pagoda is "modern" take on the original burial place of the Buddha. It takes some explanation to see the relevant features but they're there. This is a close-up of the Goju-No-To (five-storied) pagaoda:

Another block away we took a quick break at the Yoshikien Gardens. This garden is free to foreign visitors, has three types of Japanese gardens, and is very beautiful. Here's a shot from a hill inside:

The last part of the tour was a walk through the Naramachi, which means Nara Town. It's basically the "old town" area of Nara and it has lots of historical buildings like this old pharmacy:

In Naramachi, we went to a Machiya, which is sort of an industrial townhouse (the original live-work loft?) constructed from wood that were used by craftsmen as both their home and and place of business. Evidence of these types of houses goes back almost 1000 years. Because taxes were assessed based on street-frontage width, they tended to be long and narrow. The first floor has a kitchen, a business-style office, a garden area, and a detached back building/room that served as the workshop and/or storage area. Bedrooms and other private rooms were located upstairs. This is the view from the garden area out towards the street:

The final thing I wanted to share was this photo of something that was hanging outside of quite a few houses in the area. My guide told me that each of the rounded things represents a different member of the household. It reminds me the stickers that people put on the back of their cars (at least in southern California) that show each member of the family. They are something that the family likes and I've seen Disney ones, surfboards, and even flip flops. I'm thinking that these are there for some sort of protection or something.

I had a great day visiting Nara and I think a big part of it was my guide Ken. If you find yourself in Nara one day, you should take one of their tours. Thanks Ken!


  1. Beautiful park, nice story. Are those guards actually carved out of giant chunks of wood?

  2. Nara was very cool. I'm pretty sure that the guards were not made from one piece of wood because I thought that I saw where the pieces were assembled but I could be wrong.


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