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21 March 2019. We know about the deer of course. It seems they are the first thing we come to, though that’s not exactly true. After taking the train from Kyoto there’s a twenty minute walk through the ordinary streets of Nara before you get to the deer park; well as ordinary as a walk in a Japanese city can be. No matter where we go in Japan there are always people like this

and this.

The traditions of the country are strong and seen everywhere in big and small ways. We’re headed to one of the biggest ways. But first the deer!

Of course they are traditional too.

From 710 to 794 CE Nara, originally called Heijo, was the first capital of the fledgling kingdom of Japan. According to legend the Shinto god Takemikazuchi, god of thunder, was born from the blood on the sword that severed the head of the god of fire. A momentous birth if ever there was one. This fearless, spine-chilling, formidable deity appeared in Heijo riding a white deer to guard the newly built capital. Consequently deer are considered sacred animals that protect both the city and the country. It seems somehow incongruous that a wild and fierce warrior-god would ride a deer, a shimmering white deer, like a patronus, but that is the magical nature of legends. And the magical nature of deer.

The deer in Nara Park are tame Sika Deer, and about 1500 of them roam unhindered in the park where there are plenty of tourists to feed them. Vendors sell special deer crackers, and some deer have even learned to bow for their supper. Nevertheless they are still beautiful magical wild animals, and I am smitten.

Of course we buy some deer crackers and Don hands them out. First one deer comes up to him, then two, then three. Then there are four, and more, pushing and shoving to get the treats. They are not aggressive, just pushy and crowding in. Well maybe a little aggressive.

Finally Don wisely gives up trying to hand them out one by one to each and each, and throws them on the ground in an act of self-preservation. They are all eaten in about five seconds flat.

During 2017-2018 164 people were injured feeding deer in the park.

We continue along a wide pedestrian boulevard that cuts through the park, past many deer, past the fresh bright pink blossoms of spring, past gnarled trees,

and straight trees, and some of the more than 1000 stone lanterns of Kasuga Shrine,

past small creeks, past the tall grey stone torii marking the entrance to a shrine, past several buildings, and huge stone guardian lions, until eventually we are climbing.

Nara Park is dotted with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The original buildings date back to the 8th century though most have been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, some more than once.

Up and up we go. There are exquisite architectural and decorative details,

tourists posing for photos,

a cleric counting the donations in the collection box,

and another rearranging incense sticks.

There is a peek into a bright gilded shrine altar,

and views of the distant blue hills,

until at last we arrive at the main event!

This is Todaiji Temple. The original temple, when completed in the 740’s, was the largest building project ever undertaken in Japan, and bears witness to the complex fusion of Buddhism and politics in the budding empire. Members of the Imperial court embraced Buddhism and this interrelatedness of the spiritual and the secular would be the hallmark of Japan’s ruling elite for centuries. The warlords gradually shifted their focus from military readiness to religion, attempting to strengthen their divine authority over the population: we are not just kings, we are god-kings. It was ever thus.

Ultimately, in an ironic twist of fate, the clergy, and this imposing building, became so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara in 784 to lessen the impact of the temple and religion on government affairs. It was a harbinger of trouble to come even though the temple had become central to, and deeply important in the spiritual life of the people. The original building was destroyed in the 12th century civil war between opposing Buddhist clans, which shocked Japan. At the end of the war reconstruction was one of the first projects undertaken by the new ruling Shogun. Once again Todaiji became the largest building project in Japan. It burned down and was rebuilt again in the 17th century, and until recently held the record as the world’s largest wooden building. It was built to impress. Three times.

Perhaps even more impressive than the building itself is the gigantic bronze statue of the Buddha in the Main Hall, which eventually replaced the original that had been destroyed in the fire.

The man on the platform gives an idea of its size.

The original statue, finished in 752 used all the available copper in Japan and 163,000 cubic feet of charcoal (all that wood – all those trees!) to produce the metal alloy and cast the bronze figure. Not surprisingly it almost bankrupted Japan’s economy at the time. The statue seen today, made in the 17th century and 15 metres tall (49 ft), is equally as impressive and equally revered.

The Buddha is flanked by two golden bodhisattvas, which are almost as big.

All three statues are truly awesome. Not in the way awesome is used now but in the original meaning of the word, that is, inspiring awe, wonderment, reverence, which, no doubt, was their intended purpose.

And in contrast, right close by we watch delighted children crawling through a hole at the base of a huge wooden pillar.

The hole is said to be the same size as the Buddha’s nostril and that if you can fit through it you will be granted enlightenment in your next life. Such creative story tellers we humans are!

And here’s a couple more creative stories. In the main hall there are two fierce guardians of the temple. My searching gave me no answers as to what fine artist(s) made them, nor when, nor how big they are, though for that at least I can hazard a guess at about 3 metres (10 ft). Tall and imposing and intricately carved, along with the Buddha and the bodhisattvas they too command attention.

This is Koumokuten whose piercing eyes see through evil,

and this is Bishamonten (or Tamonten) the god of wealth and treasure who hears everything, heals illness, and expels evil.

I think between the two of them they’ve got it covered.

Leaving the temple we walk past Nara Park’s small lake,

through Nandaimon, Todaiji’s Great South Gate, which was built in the 13th century,

and so back to town and our train back to Kyoto.

We didn’t see even a fraction of what Nara has to offer. There are seven buildings and a forest that together are a UNESCO world heritage site, which includes an ancient palace, and of course the main temple, but in the end the deer and Todaiji with its imposing Buddha felt like plenty.

Next post: some flowers to spread a little joy and beauty.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.