December 7, 2012
The city of Nara Japan is known for two things: Deer and the Big Buddha at Todaiji Temple.
Which is why their mascot looks like this:
Nara’s mascot – Buddha with deer antlers
My last big sightseeing trip in Japan was to the Todaiji Temple in Nara. Maiko and I took a train from Osaka to Kintetsu. We missed the train going to Nara, so we had to wait twenty minutes for the next one to arrive.
It was cold outside, so to keep myself warm, I bought a hot bottle of milk tea from the vending machine (That’s right, there are hot drinks in Japanese vending machines).
Well, that’s my excuse anyway. The truth is, I’d have gotten something from the vending machine regardless of the weather. Japan has vending machines on almost every block—and I love that they offer hot drinks during winter.
The train finally arrived. An hour later, we made our way from the Nara station and out into the city proper.
The first thing I said as I stepped out from the station was, “Oh my God! It’s freezing!”
It was so cold I couldn’t feel my face. I couldn’t take a proper breath. I felt like I was breathing in ice instead air. In fact, it was so cold Maiko and I couldn’t even speak as we made our way down the street.
A few minutes of walking warmed me up a bit, and I was able to utter my second sentence for the day: “Look! ADeer!”
Deer clopped casually down the street, sometimes sniffing out people who passed them by, but otherwise going about their business.
I found a few signs along the street warning tourists about the deer. I thought the signs were funny—and also very effective in making me paranoid about being headbutted by a deer.
We passed some vendors on the way to the temple. Most of them sold crackers for 150 Yen—but these weren’t for human consumption. The shika senbai or crackers were for the deer. Tourists could buy a bundle and feed the many deer who were milling about.
Deer crackers vendor
One vendor we came across sold steamed sweet potato, and Maiko bought one for us to share. Eating the hot root was one way for us to warm ourselves, since we were still pretty much freezing despite the lack of snow.
Buying some steamed sweet potato
Half an hour later, we reached the temple. We paid the 500 Yen entrance fee and made our way toward the temple gates.
The Nandaimon Gate has two fierce looking statues on either side, representing the Nio Guardian Kings. Along with the wooden gate, the statues are designated as a national treasure.
A Little Bit of History:
Todaiji Temple or the Great Eastern Temple was built at the height of Buddhism in 743. Todaiji was constructed as the head temple for the religion. It’s influence on government affairs became so strong that the capital was actually moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 so the government could establish its independence from Todaiji.
Todaiji is a composed of many different buildings, but it is most known for its main hall. At a height of 157 feet (or 48 meters), the Daibutsu-den (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building. What’s more impressive is that the current structure of the Daibutsu-den is only two-thirds of the original main hall’s size.
The Daibutsu-den houses Todaiji’s most important relic—the 15 meter tall bronze statue of Vairocana Buddha (Daibutsu). Two Bodhisattvas (wisdom beings) flank the big Buddha on either side.
The Big Buddha
The main hall houses other Buddhist statues, as well as a model replica of different versions of the temple as it was built and rebuilt throughout the centuries.
Model buildings -replicas of the various stages of Todaiji’s construction
On one side of the hall was a steep & narrow stairway which the monks used in ancient times to climb up to the rafters. The stairs are no longer in use, of course, and instead serve as a reminder of how the monks used to live in the old days.
Steep and narrow steps to nowhere
One attraction which seemed to draw a lot of locals was a pillar with a hole at its base. The hole is the same size as the Buddha’s nostril, and it is said that all who can squeeze through the opening would be granted enlightenment in their next life.
Tourist squeezing through the hole
A big stall selling souvenirs like magnets, charms, and other little trinkets was located at the back of the main hall. We made our way toward it to buy some souvenirs before heading back toward the main hall’s entrance.
Souvenir shop inside the main hall
On the way out, we saw another stall where monks sold actual charms, blessed and prayed over by the monks of Todaiji temple. There were charms for wealth, happiness, success, fertility, and even one specifically for students taking exams. (I bought a charm for success, because hey, you can never get enough good luck.)
Monks selling a variety of good luck charms
Eager to get back to the warmth of the house, and away from the bitter cold of Nara city, Maiko and I quickly made our way down the temple steps. We stopped only long enough to take a picture of this beautiful red arch before walking back toward the train station.
And that’s the end of my Japan adventures. Osaka, Kyoto and Nara were all beautiful cities in their own right, and despite the freezing weather, I enjoyed my stay in Japan.
I’m already missing the vending machines and the automatic toilets with a seat warmer, bidet, and all sorts of buttons for one’s convenience.
One day I hope to return, maybe in the spring, so I can enjoy the cherry blossoms and a milder climate.
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