ALL THE WONDERS OF NARA-KOEN IN ONE DAY
Our mission today: to explore as much of Nara-koen (i.e. Nara Park) as we could in 1 day. We didn’t quite get around all 502 hectares of it, but we certainly saw some of the major highlights of this historical corner of the world. We got to see Kofukuji Temple and its accompanying Five Storey Pagoda; Todaiji Temple and its magnificent giant Buddha; the hill-top Nigatsudo Temple with its great views; and the woodland Kasuga-taisha Temple. So much history!
After yesterday’s crowds at Yoshino we decided to wake up extra early today and start exploring Nara-koen whilst else was still asleep. We were ready and rearing to go by 7:00am and already exploring Kofukuji Temple by 7:15am. Kofukuji is one of the “Seven Great Temples” of Nara and, built in 669, also one of the oldest in Japan. It still functions as the central temple for the Hosso sect of Buddhism and is the destination for many pilgrims who come from all over Asia to worship here. Unfortunately the main temple itself is currently under restoration so we couldn’t go inside it, though we did get to see the surrounding auxiliary buildings, including Tokondo Hall and the Five Storey Pagoda*. What little we did get to see was certainly impressive.
*Multi-storeyed pagodas are always part of Japanese Buddhist compounds and traditionally functioned as reliquaries (i.e. where religious relics were kept).
As impressive as Kofukuji Temple was, however, it wasn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as Todiji Temple. Originally built in 728, this large temple complex is another of Nara’s “Seven Great Temples”, and is the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism.
Todiji Temple is most famous for its resident giant bronze Buddha, which, at almost 15m height, certainly had the intended effect of making us feel very small and insignificant.
The Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) of Todiji has been rebuilt twice due to fire. The current building was finished in 1709, and is immense (vital statistics: 57m long and 50m wide).
The grounds of Todiji were as impressive as the temple and the giant Buddha itself. Especially as we were there early enough that there was no one else around to disturb our enjoyment of the place. It was one of those sites that, even if you do subscribe to the particular religion associated with the place, the beauty and enormity of it cannot help but affect you. We left Todiji feeling humbled, but really fortunate to have been to enjoy such a place in silence.
From Todiji Temple we walked through Nara Park, past herds of the famous semi-tame Nara deer, across little red bridges, and past red torii gates and lovingly tended shrines. In the early morning light it was all quite beautiful.
Along the way we also came across a grove of cherry blossoms in bloom. We chose this spot to stop for a breakfast picnic and to bask in the morning sun for a while.
From there we we walked up towards Nigatsudo Temple. Built on the hillside of Mt Wakakusa in the 8th century this temple is dedicated to peace and prosperity and has been in use since 760. The views from the temple, across Nara Park, were lovely, as was the temple itself.
Walking along the Eastern edge of Nara-koen we then made our way to Kasuga-taisha Temple. This large temple, dedicated to love and harmony, is situated deep in the forest, amongst a sea of green. There were thousands of o-mikuji (i.e. wishes or prayers) written on small wooden hearts strung around the temple, all from supplicants asking for blessings in matters of the heart no doubt.
The walkway to Kasuga-taisha Temple is lined with over 3,000 carved stone lanterns that are all lit during the August Obon Mantoro Festival. They must look spectacular all alight!
From there we went for a walk through the woodland behind Nara Park, which is, rather dramatically called the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. It was calm and quiet under the canopy of trees, with just the sounds of bird calls keeping us company. This forest region has been sacred since the 8th century, with logging and hunting banned within its grounds since 841. As a result many of the trees within the forest are truly ancient.
On the long walk back to our guesthouse we passed back through the park, once again admiring the gorgeous landscaping. Weeping willows overhanging ponds; cherry blossoms framing little bridges over rivulets; and green mossy rock gardens under a canopy of green. The Japanese aesthetic is certainly unique, and beautiful.
And so ended our final day in Nara-shi, because tomorrow we move on to Shikoku for some new Japanese sights and wonders…
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