We visited Nara in early November, when my mother came over for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san. Nara was basically the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 (with some breaks), before the capital moved to Kyoto. As a result, it has a number of very important shrines and temples built in those years, although many of them burned down and had to be rebuilt several times. It is also, unlike Kyoto, not currently a large city, which gives the whole place a very different feel from Kyoto. Mum had never been, Yuriko hadn’t been since she was in school, and I’d only done a day trip while I was at Yamasa, so it seemed like a good choice.
Another reason for going last year was that, as you can tell from the dates, last year was the 1300th anniversary of Nara’s foundation, and there were a number of events held to celebrate that. We were visiting right at the end of the celebration, but we were still able to take advantage of it.
We got the Shinkansen from Yokohama to Kyoto, and then an ordinary JR express to Nara. We actually walked from the station to the ryokan, which was a little further than I anticipated, especially since Mayuki was asleep most of the time and I had to carry her. I’d walk it next time if I was going by myself, but we did get a taxi back to the station on the last day. We left our bags at Edosan, and then set off on our first bit of sightseeing.
I’d planned our schedule to avoid being at the most popular locations at their peak times, so for the first afternoon we headed for Kasuga Taisha. This is the shrine to the tutelary kami of the Fujiwara family, and I’ve written about the Shinto tradition around it before. As I mentioned, Edosan is just inside the first torii of the main entrance road to the shrine, so we were well located.
The walk takes you through Nara Park, which is beautiful and full of deer. Mayuki was fascinated by the deer, but scared if they got too close. That was a reasonable reaction, as the deer are taller than she is, and as long as I was holding her out of their reach, she was fine with them. The deer are sacred to the kami of Kasuga Taisha, and the symbol of Nara.
At the shrine itself, we looked around, and Mayuki practised “writing” in one of the waiting rooms. We did see the main things, but obviously I’d like to see more. I can’t really do that when other people are with me, however, as they’d get bored.
From Kasuga Taisha, we went round the back way, along the hills, to Todaiji Temple. That is the temple with the largest bronze Buddha in Japan, but we didn’t go to the main hall on the first day. Instead, we visited some of the locations up in the hills.
The first was Hitokotonushi Shrine, which is attached to Kasuga Shrine. The name of the kami means “Master of One Word”, and it is said that if you ask for exactly one thing at the shrine, your wish will be granted. However, you must not ask for more than one thing.
Next, we came to Tamukeyama Hachimangu. This is a very significant shrine, because it was probably the first shrine deliberately founded to enshrine a kami from another shrine; Hachiman came from Usa Hachimangu in Kyushu to help with the creation of the Great Buddha, and this shrine was founded for him. This started the trend of enshrining important kami all over Japan, and also indicates the very close relationship between Hachiman, in particular, and Buddhism. We got there just before the shrine closed, so I managed to get my Goshuin, but they closed the gates behind us as we left.
From there, we went to the Nigatsudo of Todaiji. This hall, which is called “Second Month Hall”, is the site of a ceremony in the second month. It is also on top of a hill, with a large platform veranda that affords spectacular views over Nara. We went down the covered steps into the main temple precincts, but instead of going on to the Great Buddha Hall, we went round the back, along some very quiet and rather charming roads.
These roads take you to Shosoin, an eighth-century storehouse about which I will say more later. You can only see the outside, and we couldn’t even do that, as we were just a bit too late, and the gates had closed. So, we continued round the back of Todaiji, to a point where you can get very nice photographs of the Great Buddha Hall. So I did. Mayuki was, unsurprisingly, getting a bit tired by this point, so we headed back to the ryokan for dinner.
I think I may have planned slightly too much walking for the first day, but only slightly too much. We did manage to avoid the crowds for the most part; Kasuga Taisha and Nigatsudo were busy, but not heaving with people. We also saw a couple of places I hadn’t been to, because we didn’t go to Tamukeyama Hachimangu or Nigatsudo when I came on the day trip. Overall, it was a very good first day.
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