Nara, Day Two

On the second day of our visit to Nara, we started by visiting Todaiji, home of the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Todaiji was founded in the mid-eighth century, to get the protection of Buddha for the Japanese state, but it was burned down a couple of times in civil wars, and the head fell off the Buddha, to be finally rebuilt by the Tokugawa Shoguns in its current state. The hall housing the Buddha is, apparently, the largest wooden structure in the world, even though it’s only two-thirds the width of the original version.

Mayuki coming out of the hole at the bottom of the pillar

Here I come!

As you might expect, it’s a major tourist attraction, which is why we planned to go fairly early in the morning, before it got too packed. We didn’t get out quite as early as I’d hoped, but the temple is only a short walk from Edosan, so we still got there quite early. There were, however, a lot of school parties. Todaiji is, unsurprisingly, a popular destination for school trips; as I mentioned, Yuriko went on a school trip last time. Just walking up the main road to the temple gave us the opportunity to see a wide-ranging sample of Japanese school uniforms; quite a lot of schools don’t use the sailor suits you see in anime.

Inside the temple, Mayuki was a bit scared of the big Buddha, and my mother and I agreed that the statue was rather more effective if viewed from off to one side, rather than straight on. Much like an English cathedral, the Buddha hall includes some exhibitions about the history of the temple and a gift shop. The other important site is one of the pillars supporting the roof, which has a hole through the bottom. It’s quite a big pillar, and a substantial hole, and the superstition is that if you can get through it, you will have good fortune. A group of elementary school students were being photographed coming through it by their teacher, and some of the boys found it a bit of a squeeze. Watching them overcame Mayuki’s initial reluctance, and she had no trouble at all. Obviously, the way to be lucky is to go to Todaiji when you’re young.

Mayuki running away from the camera, pulling the deer behind her

Let's go!

As we left Todaiji, Mayuki’s attention was caught by a red inflatable deer on wheels being sold in one of the stalls lining the path through the temple. Yuriko decided to buy one for her, a decision about which I was initially sceptical. However, Mayuki was really taken with the deer, pulling her everywhere for the rest of the day. It was nice to watch her when she reached obstacles that she couldn’t just pull the deer over, because she would stop and think about the best way to get herself and the deer round, and then, when she had succeeded, run off on the other side. It was only when Mayuki got sleepy and needed carrying that the additional item became a problem.

Yuriko, Mayuki, and my mother standing in front of the south gate to the palace complex

The rebuilt Suzakumon, the southern gate into the Imperial Palace

Our next stop, to which we got a taxi, was the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was also the main site for the celebrations of the 1300th anniversary. There is nothing original left at the site, although the outer gate to the palace has been reconstructed, as has the main hall, although one person told us that the main hall was a temporary structure; a very large one, if so. The Imperial Palace in Nara was enormous, as was Nara. It was built to the same pattern as the contemporary capital of Tang China, but on a larger scale. A fairly superficial knowledge of history will inform you that Tang China was the larger state, by a substantial margin, and I believe that Nara was never fully populated before the capital was moved again, to Kyoto.

One particularly interesting point at the palace site was a reconstructed garden. The site had been excavated, and the pattern of paths, ponds, and stones could be inferred from the results. Pollen and the like revealed the plants grown there, and provided hints as to where. Based on this information, the garden has been replanted, so that you can see what an eighth century Japanese garden looked like. It’s rather different from a contemporary one, but you can see where some elements have been continued.

In the evening, we went to the Nara National Museum. The Shosoin, which we visited on the first day, was a store room for items that had been used by, or important to, Emperor Shomu, dedicated by his empress when he died. For centuries it was opened once a year to air the items, and this created almost ideal conditions, so that even fabrics have survived in astonishingly good condition. Quite a few things have gone missing, due to rulers of Japan demanding private viewings and taking souvenirs, but the surviving items are priceless. These days, some of the items are displayed to the public once a year in the Nara National Museum. The exhibition is only on for three weeks, but we were lucky enough to be there during it.

We went in the evening because the staff at Aobajaya (the ryokan where we stayed the second night, which had absolutely nothing wrong with it but lost out in comparison to Edosan) told us that it wouldn’t be so crowded then, and they were right. We didn’t have to queue to get in, although the exhibit hall was still crowded. The central exhibit this year was a biwa, a musical instrument like a lute, decorated with mother-of-pearl, and still in good enough condition to be played, after about 1300 years. They don’t play it much, of course, but there was a recording of the last time it was played, about sixty years ago. I do suspect that the strings needed replacing, but things like that have survived in very good shape, so maybe not.

There are two classes of treasure from the Shosoin. One is the valuable and beautiful items that are displayed in the museum. The other is the bits of paper they were wrapped in, which were used records from the central government, and provide a staggering amount of detail on how that period worked. Obviously, they don’t look like much, but in historical terms they are far more informative. I’ve read quite a bit based on them, so I was about as excited to see them for real as to see the biwa.

Mayuki was getting a bit fractious by this time, so we called it a day after the museum.

Posted in Japan, Travel.

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