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The first Imperial city – Nara

Wed 31 Jul – day 81 Following yet another good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast it was time to pack my suitcase with everything that I did not need for the next couple of days as I was about to use the baggage forwarding service that had been suggested by Inside Japan.  The forwarding company had set up a desk in hotel foyer and all I had to do was to tell them where I wanted the suitcase sent and when I would arrive; the cost was determined by the bags dimensions and weight and was extremely reasonable.  This was going to be absolutely ideal as the last thing I wanted to do was carry unwanted luggage during the next leg of my journey.

So having sorted out my luggage transfer and packed my day sac I was off by bus to the station, but my first stop was at the adjacent post office from where I sent yet another package of ‘stuff’ home and then used the ATM to get more cash.  Following the transactions in the post office I made my way across the concourse and up to the bridge that crossed the tracks as the platforms for the JR Nara Line where on the south side of the complex.  I popped into a newsagent on the way and bought the Japan Times and a sandwich for lunch.

Although this was a local line I was able to board a JR Rapid Train using my JR Railpass and as this a limited stopping service it took just 44 minutes to cover the 40 km to Nara.

Nara has a longer history than Kyoto as it became Japan’s first permanent capital in 710 and even though its time at the top was short-lived (the Imperial court moved to Kyoto in 794), this period was marked by the influence of Buddhism from mainland China.

In the last few years the railway track through the city had been rebuilt and it was now on an elevated line, this meant that a brand new station was required (with the obligatory department store), but instead of demolishing the original station building, it was renovated and incorporated into the new structure as the main tourist information office and a fine job they did too.  As always the staff were very helpful and there was lots of info in English; they also sold a day pass for all the buses so it was easy to get around.

With eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the city limits, Nara was second only to Kyoto as a repository of the countries cultural legacy.

Having boarded the bus that did the rounds of the main tourist sites my first stop was near the Köfuku-ji which was a temple complex that at its height had contained as many as 175 buildings, but most of them had burnt down.  Having crossed the road into the park the first thing that I saw were the deer which wandered freely throughout the area.  There were about 1200 deer in the park and for generations they had been protected because in pre-Buddhist times they were considered to be messengers of the gods and at one point they were even considered to be higher in status than humans.  Today they are still protected as they have the status of National Treasures and it was an offence to kill them.

Although there were tourists around, the numbers were much less than in Kyoto and so it made seeing the sites much more pleasurable when there was no crush.  The 50 meter high five story pagoda is the second tallest in the country, just seven meters shorter than the five story pagoda at Kyoto’s Toji Temple.  First built in 730, the pagoda and was most recently rebuilt in 1426.

As there was a very large party of Japanese tourists entering the Eastern Golden Hall I decided to give it a miss and so continued walking around the grounds.  The main building in the complex, the Central Golden Hall, was being totally reconstructed in order to restore it to its former glory, but a photo of a scaffold clad building was not of much interest.

Like all the Buddhist temples that I had visited there were lots of buildings plus the obligatory bell and dragon bath.




Having walked back to and crossedthe main road, I went passed a Shinto shrine before entering the Okumura Commemorative Museum; this was not a museum in the true sense of the word, but as it was air-conditioned, it was pleasant place to be out of the almost oppressive heat and humidity.  The ‘museum’ had been constructed by the Okumura Corporation, a company that designed earthquake-prevention systems for buildings and its principle attraction was the grandly named ‘Earthquake and Seismic Isolation Experience Device’; basically a chair into which you could be strapped in order to experience the full force of an extreme earthquake.

It was then onwards to the Todai-ji, the Great Eastern Temple.  On the approach road were many more deer on the lookout for shika senbei, special crackers made especially for them.  The animals were so prolific in this area that the staff in the many souvenir shops had to continually chase out of the shops.

The Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate is watched over by two fierce looking statues which represent the Nio Guardian Kings; the statues and gate are designated national treasures.





The main entrance gate was closed so that people had to go to the left in order to pay the ¥500 entrance fee.

Although Todai-ji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) was the world’s largest wooden building, it was only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size following the reconstruction in 1692.  At the entrance the scale of the structure really comes home as people are dwarfed by the massive building.

The building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu) and the statute is 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold; the open hand alone is as tall as a human being.

In the area behind the Daibutsu was a model of the Todai-ji before it was reconstructed and it would have been an absolutely colossal structure.  As there was no artificial light inside the building it proved to be quite difficult to take any photos that showed the detail of the construction.

The lawn outside the entrance to the Daibutsuden was something that any gardener would be proud to have and certainly on a par with that at Kings College Cambridge.

Having walked back towards the entrance gate it was then a left turn to exit the immediate vicinity of the Daibutsuden; however the Todai-ji grounds were extensive and covered most of northern Nara Park.  As the paths were tree lined I decided to walk through the park as this provided some shade from the burning mid-day sun.

The first thing that I passed was an enormous bell tower which contained a colossal bell which was rung in the traditional manner of swinging a large log against the ball.  Next was a large Buddhist symbol and there were quite a few temples of various sizes in the woods.





One strange sight was a Chinese juniper with a Japanese cedar growing through an air hole in the stump.


Every so often there would be a line of stone Chinese lanterns lining the path and a natural pool had been made into a dragon bath at the entrance to a temple.  There were a number of locations where prayers to Buddha have been written to a piece of wood and left on a rack and I found this particularly interesting as the English translation of these items was ‘Emma’, the same as my niece.  At the end of this walk were yet another row of stone lanterns leading to a temple.

Having emerged from the woods into the heat of the sun I boarded the sightseeing bus and headed back to the station.  Here I took another bus out to Heijo Palace which was the site of the original Imperial Palace.  None of the original buildings exist and excavations had uncovered some the original foundations.  Using ancient texts and pictures, replica buildings and walls had been constructed; the most impressive on these was the Imperial Audience Hall.  The vast interior of the hall contained the Imperial Throne, while on the roof were solid gold symbols of imperial power.  In front of the Imperial Audience Hall was the parade ground and this was much larger than anything in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

This was certainly not on the tourist path (local of foreign) and the curators did not have a lot of work to do.

After the short bus journey back to the station I had to wait a considerable time for a train back to Kyoto as it appeared that there had been a suicide further down the line and all trains had been halted.  Eventually and with two changes I got back to the big city and the hordes of tourists.

Tomorrow I head for the mountains and hopefully will get some piece and quiet.