ancient history

21Nov05
My trip to Nara with J. seems like the perfect excuse to finally finish my long overdue narration of Melissa and Marie’s visit to Osaka on the weekend of May 28, 29. On the 29th of May, the three of us took the train to Nara, stopping off at the Senrichuo shopping complex just long enough to grab lunch and check out the Hanshin Tigers Lotus (which was painted, naturally, with bright yellow tiger stripes).

After sitting in the Lotus we ended up in Nara, which was swamped with volumes of school kids, many of them wearing little white deer-horn headbands on their heads. Nara, of course, is home to herds of tame deer that roam around the city, accepting offers of shika-sembe (deer crackers), which you can buy at stands for about 150 yen. The deer come right up and eat out of your hand, which is really fun, though the deer can be quite pushy (as my friend Misa can attest to, as she was once pushed to the ground by deer in Nara). The deer in Nara are protected since they are considered to be the sacred messengers of the gods, though there is also the annual ceremonial cutting of the horns to ensure that the messengers don’t gore tourists during the mating season in Autumn. The deer also have this interesting habit of making bowing motions with their heads before you feed them — the jury is still out on whether this is some kind of instinctual movement, or whether it’s a behavioral byproduct of customary Japanese bowing practices.

Since it was already late in the day we decided to head straight toward Todaiji, a temple complex that contains both the Daibutsuden, the largest wooden structure in the world, and the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), one of the largest bronze sculptures in the world). On our way to the Nandaimon, the entry gate to Todaiji, we passed a group of people in full samurai gear who were standing around the park adjacent to the line of stalls selling such tchotchkies as Buddha hand puppets and Buddha’s snot candy, in addition to the shika horns. These weekender samurai were basically the equivalent of your Renaissance Faire and Society for Creative Anachronism types, coming out to Nara in their (mostly) handmade costumes to enjoy inhabiting some kind of historical otherhood. They were really nice, posed for a ton of photos, and when it was mentioned that Marie studies iado (the art of drawing the sword — apparently Zatoichi’s métier) one of the samurai dropped into a crouching pose and drew his (incredibly long) sword with a perfect circular arcing motion.

After the samurai we continued on to the Daibutsuden, which is an incredibly impressive building, and surprisingly graceful despite the sheer effect of monumentality as you approach it. Todaiji was originally completed in 752 by order of the Emperor Shomyo to house the Daibutsu and to symbolically embody Nara’s position as both an important Buddhist center and as the ancient imperial capital. The original Daibutsuden was burned down, and the rebuilt structure, as impressive as it is, is only two-thirds the size of the original. Here’s what the Lonely Planet has to say about the Daibutsu (other than the fact that it’s made of 437 tons of bronze): “The Daibutsu is an image of the Dainichi Buddha, the cosmic Buddha believed to give rise to all worlds and their respective historical Buddhas.” To the left and the right of the Great Buddha are two slightly smaller gilded bodhisattva figures — the Kokuzo Bosatsu and the Niyorin Kannon Bosatsu — that are centered in circles of flaming light. Toward the rear of the structure are the heavenly guardians Koumokuten and Tamonten. There is a also a column with a hole in the base that is exactly the size of the Buddha’s nostril, and it’s rumored that if you crawl through you will be guaranteed enlightenment, or at least good health. Mostly it’s children that crawl through, but of course Melissa, Marie, and myself all crawled through as well. My passage through was a bit of a tight fit, though I was able to do it on my own instead of being pulled through like several other people. If it weren’t for the fact that the interior of the nostril has been highly polished by the passage of thousands, however, I probably would never have made it through.

As we were leaving the temple I bought my first goshuin book. These books were originally for pilgrims who collected stamps as they moved from temple to temple on pilgrimage. Each temple has its own unique stamp and (after you pay your 300 yen) a monk will stamp your book and then write an appropriate message using a calligraphy brush. The central Todaiji stamp looks like a flaming stupa, though there is definitely a lotus motif at the base of the image. In any case, the different goshuin stamps are all quite beautiful and I expect to have a full book by the time I get home.

We ended our day by watching the sunset from Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do Halls, two beautiful wooden halls in the hills above the Daibutsuden. As evening was falling we walked back into Nara through the lower reaches of Kasuga Grand Shrine’s lantern walkway, and then through the Kofukuji grounds, with its dark and beautiful spires in the dark blue young night.

Melissa gets to test drive the Hanshin Tigers Lotus. The Hanshin Tigers are the hometown team in Osaka. They play in Koshien Stadium, the oldest baseball stadium in Japan, and when they win the championship hundreds of Hanshin Tigers fans jump into the Dotombori Canal.
These girls asked us to sign their travel books after we asked them if we could take a photo of them. There were thousands of school kids roaming the area while we were there, many of them wearing the deer-horn headbands.
The big sword belongs to the man in the middle, who crouched down and drew it with an amazing circular flourish.
I like his red devil horns.
Todaiji. The largest wooden structure in the world.
The Daibutsu at Todaiji.
Um. One source referred to this figure as Tamokoten, and another says Koumokuten. Who knows? I think it’s the second. One of two heavenly guardian figures in Todaiji. I especially like this one because of the brush in his hand.
One source referred to this figure as Bishamon, and another as Tamonten. In any case, it’s another heavenly guardian figure.
Here’s Marie crawling through the hole of one of the supporting pillars of Todaiji. This is supposed to guarantee you enlightenment. Or at least good health. I managed to drag my way through it, but just barely, with one arm out like Superman and the other stuck to my side like glue.
Kofukuji at night as we’re on our way back from Kasuga Grand Shrine.
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