Day 9: Nara, the first historical capital of Japan

Trip Start Apr 08, 2010
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Trip End May 06, 2010


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Where I stayed
K's House Kyoto

Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Nara was the first true capital in history of Japan, before Kyoto and Tokyo. 8 sites are listed World Heritage by UNESCO, making Nara the second contributor to japanese cultural heritage after Kyoto. We could not miss that !


From Kyoto, the easiest way with a JR pass is to take JR Nara Line which brings you there in less than an hour. 
Before making the "classical tour" of Nara in Nara-koen (huge park on the east side of the city where you can find almost all major attractions of Nara), we decided to spend the morning in the south-west region of Nara, which is less invaded by tourists but not less interesting. Hence we took a local train at Nara station (JR Kansai Line, 10 minutes) to Horyu-ji station. 


Horyu-ji is a buddhist temple composed of several building. The temple's pagoda is widely acknowledged to be one of the oldest wooden
buildings existing in the world, and Horyu-ji temple was inscribed in 1992 as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The visit of the temple was very interesting, especially due to the fact that there were not many toursits and especially not many foreign toursits.

We took the train back to Nara and arrived there around 13:00. We tried to rent a bike as the Lonely Planet Guide suggested, but we never found the "Eko Rent a Car" shop...  The information center situated inside JR Nara station indicated an other shop, but when we arrived, there was no bike left... :-( We finally walked and it was ok.

The fisrt impression you get when you arrive in Nikko is quite disappointing compared to what you expect. Indeed, before entering the gigantic park where most of all interesting sites of Nara are located, you have to walk along a very ugly shopping street, full of tourists walking from or to the train station. But you soon forget that feeling when the street finally brings you to the park, Nara-koen.

While the official size of the park is about 502 ha, the
area including the grounds of Todai-ji, Kofuku-ji
and Kasuga shrine, which are either on the
edge or surrounded by Nara Park, is as large as 660 ha.
Tame deer roam through the town, especially in the park. These deer might not be considered "tame" should the visitor
not have any "shika sembei - Deer Biscuits" when they see them.
According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, a mythological god
arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijo-kyo. Since then the deer have been
regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. Snack vendors sell small biscuits to visitors so they can enjoy feeding
the deer. Some of the deer have learned to bow in response to tourists'
bows. They nudge, jostle, and even bite for food.

For the record, killing one of these sacred deer was a capital offense punishable by
death up until 1637, the last recorded date of that law having been
enforced. Post WWII, the deer were officially stripped of their
sacred/divine status, and were instead designated as National Treasures and are protected as
such.

So, when you enter the park, after the deer, the first thing you notice is the big five-storied pagoda of Kofuku-ji temple. The temple consists in 5 main buildings: Tokondo (the remaining of the three golden halls), a five-storied pagoda, a three-storied pagoda, Hoku'endo (noth octogonal hall) and Nan'endo (south octogonal hall).

The temple was damaged and destroyed by civil wars and fires many
times, and was rebuilt as many times as well, although finally some of
the important buildings, such as two of the three golden halls, the
nandaimon, chūmon and the corridor were never reconstructed and are
missing today.
We basically focused our attention on the impressive five-storied pagoda, symbolically marking the entrance of the park and the beginning of its majesty.

We then walked to the famous attraction of Nara: Todai-ji temple. Nandai-mon gate keeps the entrance ; you can not miss it: it is a gigantic wooden gate, with two giant Nio guardians wooden statues. It gives you an appetizer of what is coming next...

Next being daibutsu-den, the largest wooden building in the world, which houses the world's largest statueof the Buddha Vairocana, know in japanes simply as Daibutsu. Contrary to Horyu-ji temple, this place was really crowded, but the building is so hude, you do not even realize it.
Anyway, the dimensions of the building are really impressive, especially when you learn that the original was destroyed and what you can see is a rebuilt 2/3 smaller than the original :-o !
When you finally enter the huge building, you discover the as impressive enormous bronze statue of the big Buddha, sitting on a lotus flower.
Dimensions: 14.98m height, 500 tons weight, one eye is 1m large, and one ear is 2.54m long !!!
Just unbelievable... The funniest part is that the statue lost his head several times, and it has been remade, which explains the difference of bronze colour between the face and the body.

When we finally left Todai-ji temple, we headed to Nigatsu-do pavillion, from where you can enjoy a very nice view over the city. We then finished our trip in the park by going to its south-east corner where we could fin Kasuga Taisha shrine. It is a shinto shrine established in 768 AD. The interior is famous for its many bronze lanterns, as well as the
many stone lanterns that lead up the shrine. We arrived at Kasuga shrine around 18:00, when the place had been completely deserted by tourists. We could enjoy the beautiful sunset light on the orange painted walls of the shrine.

The way back to Nara station was quick since we had to run to catch the 6:40 train for Kyoto. Otherwise, we should have waited an other hour for the next train. Believe it or not, we did the 2km separating Kasuga shrine to Nara JR station in less than 20 minutes... and managed to catch the train !

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