Japan's Ancient Capital

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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Trip End Oct 11, 2006


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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Nara

Imagine strolling 3 hours through a forested Japanese Garden populated with freely roaming deer. Imagine tons of ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines hidden in the shaded woods. Imagine sipping tea and meditating to the sound of a trickling cascade and brook nearby. This is Nara, a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site that prospered from 350-800 AD as Japan's First Capital. It was here that the cultures, religion, and technologies of China were imported into the collective consciousness of the Japanese nation. As Florence was for Italy during the Renaissance, Nara symbolizes the birth of the modern written language of the country. It was in Nara that the court ladies, who were banned from studying Chinese like their male counterparts, invented the Hiragana and Katakana writing system that the nation uses today.

Taking a short 40 minute train ride from Osaka Namba-Nankai Station, I traveled back into time as the modern skyline of skyscrapers disappeared. Instead, pagodas and temples emerged in the distance, vaguely shimmeing in the summer air, rising above the rolling hills which surrounded this town.

The delicate sense of beauty so inherent in Japanese aestheics was exemplary in Nara. Resting in a Japanese garden inside Todaiji Temple Complex, one could admire the refined beauty of nature in a giant pond with iridescent Koi fish. In fact, water always played an important role in a Japanese garden. Like an actor, water would change its mood, reflecting the changing colors of the sky, the rocks, the trees. And its volatile temperament would be reflected by the ripples caused by agitated fish.

I always wanted to go to Nara but never had the time before. It had to take me four trips to Japan before I could finally set foot in this town. And it was well worth the wait. I was trying to imagine what court life was like in Nara during its period of prosperity (600-800 AD). While Europe was reeling from the after-effects of the Fall of the Roman Empire and the native Mesoamerican civilizations were taking shape in the Western Hemisphere, Nara was the center of a highly developed cultural, religious, and political system in Japan. Walking throuh the same ancient temple grounds and forests, I tried to retrace the ancient steps of the people, to follow the whispers of the past behind the giant temple gates, to listen to the haunting voices of nature that were engraved on the silent cedar trees.

There was so much vibrant history encapsulated in this small town. The Statue of the Great Buddha, completed in 752 AD, stood unchanged in its 53 feet (16m) of splendor inside Todaiji Temple. The stone lanterns lining the vast forest trail were used to guide ancient priests from one temple to the next. One impression of Japanese architecture I had was that because of their deely-rooted respect and worship of nature incarnated in Shintoism, the people of Japan would develop their buildings and entire civilization around nature, preserving its intact beauty and hamonizing with the surroundings.

The people of Nara were also very friendly to me. I strolled past a Shinto Shrine in the dense forest and ran into a family who was bringing their newborn to a ceremonial blessing by a Shinto priest. Before the ceremony, I asked the grandmother in Japanese about the ritual. After listening to her explanation, I was invited in as an observer. It was a very beautiful experience. I also met tourists from other regions of Japan, who were as curious as me about the grand history of Nara. One of them shared with me his knowledge of the origins of the Japanese writing system, born more than 1700 years ago, while we were walking through the Path of Stone Lanterns.

By sunset, I wrapped up my visit of this tranquil town and started heading back to the metropolis of Osaka. The train departed Nara Kintestsu Station and transported me almost 2000 years into the modern world. With a Starbucks coffee in hand, I stared out the window and wondered how lucky for us Nara had survived the ravaged bombing of World War II. Kimono-clad women, who were quite numerous in Nara, were now replaced by a group of brunette girls sporting small strapless white tops, jean miniskirts, Louis Vuitton bags, and designer sunglasses. This is the face of modern Japan.
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