first trip to nara


28 April, 2005Nara: Professor Gerry Yokoto takes me to Nara to see an exhibit of ancient Japanese art/artifacts at the Nara National Museum. The exhibit, called “The Dawning Age,” has just returned from Germany and is an extremely comprehensive exhibit of Jomon, Yayoi, Kofun, and Nara Period objects. The Jomon period is especially interesting because of the large terracotta ear plugs on display, as well as the terracotta ear rings the size of silver dollars that were intended to be shoved through tall slits in the ears. Of course there is the requisite phallic stone, which isn’t so interesting in comparison with the fertility figures on display. Especially interesting, although not necessarily a fertility figure, is the insect-eyed figurine that Erich von Däniken insisted was an extra-terrestrial in a spacesuit. Some of the most amazing Jomon artifacts are the “flame-style” vessels from the Umadaka site. These vessels look Gothic, or even almost biomorphic in the sense that the ornamental grooves that cover them give them an eerie kind of skinness, as if they had a thick tree-bark or elephant hide. They way they are lit, however, is spectacular — light from below casts flame shadows on the wall so there is a vast shadow fire that sits behind the lit display.

The Kofun Period artifacts are also remarkable — especially the haniwa that encircled the key-shaped grave mounds of Kofun era kings. These haniwa are hollow clay people, and houses, and boats as well. Their hollowness, the space behind the haniwa woman’s eyes, says more about death and the hidden pressure of its mysteries than any corpse does. The emptiness inside these figures is not a nothing, but a something — a kind of force-field of pastness. “Haniwa in essence represent the inhabitant of the tomb or objects of which the divinities or the soul of the deceased have taken possession.”

Deer Park: The deer (shika in Japanese) in Nara are entirely tame. They roam around in the vast lawns of Deer Park beneath pine trees and ceders and wait for tourists to come and feed them deer crackers that can be bought from any of the surrounding stands for 150 yen. As soon as you have a packet of the crackers in hand, two or three deer will approach you and begin nuzzling you with their noses. Feeding the deer is a strange thing. One after the other the biscuits fall into their mouths and disappear almost immediately. These deer gobble their food like a pet dog would. Still, they are graceful, and their neck-angles seem to indicate a bashfulness or quietness, though this disappears as soon as the crackers make their appearance. Often when they’re done they make a strange bowing movement.

Similarly, the carp in the shrine-ponds will circle in front of you as soon as you come near the shore of the ponds. Mouths open, they look up at you from under the water, waiting for bread crumbs, or whatever else you might want to throw them. At the edge of the pond, one large, grey, brave carp even pushes it’s entire head out of the water to perch on the stone, mouth agape.

To experience the deer and the fish in this way feels like living in a fable. In Osama Tezuka’s Life of the Buddha, the Buddha gives his first sermon at Deer Park, in India, to tame deer, who listen intently. At Deer Park in Nara, one of the most important sites of Japanese Buddhism, the tame deer and the brave carp are almost a vision of a world in which nature and humanity exist in a different relation to one another. There is a lot of wonder in this experience.


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