NARA / HORYUJI (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 30)
The year 2010 will mark the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Nara, the Heijo-kyo Capital.
During the period Nara operated as the capital, many different forms of culture and new forms of civilization were imported from the Asian mainland, mingled with the indigenous culture as was and prospered jointly under the title of Tenpyo Culture. Even today, remnants of the Tenpyo Culture of old can be seen in the architecture and artifacts preserved in Nara.
In Nara and in Horyuji in particular, there are a number of national and local treasures from statues of the Buddha to ancient wooden forms of architecture to precious works of art. The World Heritage Sites and historical works that make up Nara include not only Japan’s oldest buildings and works of art but are areas and items that feature on similar global lists.
Compared to the temples found in Kyoto, the scale of the temples in Nara is much larger which means that it is vital to take your time and not overdo it. Seeing just one or two temples a day in a relaxed manner is highly recommended.
Around Nara Park
The area around Nara Park is easy to access from both JR Nara Station and Kintetsu Nara Station. The park is 4 km east to west and 2 km north to south with places of worship such as Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Kofukuji Temple in or around the huge park that is perhaps most well known for its deer. The area of the park includes Mount Wakakusa, Mount Takamado and Kasugaokuyama; renowned for its virgin forests, and, all around the park can be found buildings enshrining Buddhist statues, museums and treasure halls. If you have had your fill of culture though ? just buying food for the deer and feeding them is a fun way to relax.
Todaiji Temple is known for its Great Buddha. The temple was built by order of Emperor Shomu in 743AD and the Great Buddha was completed almost a decade later in 752AD. The Nandai-mon Gate is the largest main gate at any of Japan’s Buddhist temples; quite fitting for the Daibutsu-den hosts of the Great Buddha. Two Deva King statues which are recognized as national treasures stand either side of the gate and in a recent period of repair were proven to be the work of Unkei and Kaikei – famous sculptors in the medieval period.
The Daibutsu-den Kondo, or main hall, is the largest wooden building in the world. The current building however, is a 1709 reconstruction of the original two thirds of the original size. That said, even the current building took more than 20 years to complete, in the process using up 26,000 trees. The hall measures 57m east to west, 50m north to south and stands 48m in height.
The Great Buddha inside the kondo is 15m in height and weighs 380 tons. The total number of workers involved in the construction of the Great Buddha is believed to have been approximately 2.6 million – fully half of the nations 8th century population making it a truly nationwide effort indeed. Todaiji Temple, Chu-mon Gate, Kondo Hall and Kodo Hall stand in a straight line with the Great Buddha sandwiched between the 100m high seven story pagodas on its east and west. The statue was damaged several times due to conflict but was reconstructed each time. A symbolic pillar is also present with a hole equal in size to that of the entrance to the Great Buddha’s nostril (30cm high by 37cm wide and 120cm in length). Both children and adults who are deemed slim enough wait in line to pass through.
The Sangatsu-do is the oldest building at Todaiji Temple and contains a number of splendid statues of the Buddha. Tamukeyama Hachimangu stands to the front of Sangatsu-do and the stone steps beside Sangatsu-do lead up to the Nigatsu-do, in which Omizutori and Otaimatsu (Shuni-e meetings) are held in March each year. The landscape visible from the Nigatsu-do balcony is breathtaking and takes in the city of Nara as well as Mount Ikoma in the distance. To venture to the rear of the building will bring into sight an Urasando; a pretty stone paved rear approach, surrounded by earthen walls.
Shoso-in is the treasure hall of Todaiji and home to the belongings of Emperor Shomu that include pieces from along the Silk Road and historically important and extremely old documents. It was constructed in the seven decade long Nara period (710-784AD) in the Azekura-zukuri-style of high floors made of triangular shaped logs. An exhibition of items not usually displayed to the public is held under the title of Shoso-in Exhibition at the Nara National Museum each autumn.
Kofukuji once prospered under the patronage of the famous Fujiwara family and was considered one of the seven premier temples of Nara. A five-storied pagoda, Tokondo Hall and several other buildings along with Buddhist images are ranked as national treasures. The reflection of the pagoda on the surface of Sarusawaike Pond is one of the most famous scenes in the city.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
Kasuga Taisha flourished alongside Kofukuji due to its connections with the Fujiwaras and the majestic buildings here are also deemed to be national treasures and important cultural assets. More along the lines of nature, Japanese wisterias have long grown wild at the shrine and are still seen as a symbol of the Fujiwara family. Some of the wisteria trees are 800-years-old.
Mount Wakakusa is a 342m high hill covering 330,000 square meters and is covered in grass with a large keyhole-shaped tomb named Uguisu-zuka situated at the top. From this vantage point, it is possible to overlook the Todaiji Daibutsuden and the pagoda at Kofukuji but the walk to the summit does require half an hour.
Naramachi was once a temple town in front of Gangoji ? another of the seven premier temples in Nara. The town was built during the 11th & 12th centuries and is the oldest part of Nara. Already self-governing by the 16th century, Naramachi’s own unique and energy filled culture flourished. Today, the lattice worked houses of commoners’ can still be seen as can Naramachi Shiryo-kan – an old merchant’s house built in the Edo period that displays daily utensils, signboards and artwork. Latticework was once used to give privacy before glass came into use yet from the interior, the view out is unhindered and clear. Naramachi Koshi-no-ie is another lattice worked building with rooms, gardens, and a warehouse on display.
The Yamayaki, or burning ceremony, is held on the second Sunday of January each year at Mount Wakakusa. At 5.50pm fireworks shoot up into the sky and at 6pm the grass is ignited. The fire spreads until the hill is completely ablaze and the night sky turns back to day.
Kasuga Taisha’s Mantoro lantern festival, is held twice a year; on “setsubun” in early February and between August 14th and 15th. More than 1800 stone lanterns and some 1000 hanging lanterns are lit up and their subtle light illuminates the nearby pine forests and vermillion lacquered columns.
The Omizutori is held at Nigatsu-do in Todaiji Temple from March 1st to 14th with the climax on March 12th. During the period of the festival events using torches are held every night, and the “kago-taimatsu” event on the 12th is particularly attractive. Torches are paraded through the corridors of Nigatsu-do turning it into a stage of sorts with its fire shower raining down.
The Shika-no-tsunokiri (horn cutting (of the deer)) has an impressive 300-year history and is a popular autumnal event in Nara. Deer in Nara Park are thought to be divine messengers of the Kasuga Taisha Shrine and as stags shed their horns naturally in March and they start to grow again in May, October is the time they have become fully developed and thus potentially dangerous. For public safety therefore, the horns are reduced in length each October in a painless ceremony using a saw.
Nara Toukae is held between August 6th and 15th each year at venues illuminated by candles that create an atmosphere not felt during the daylight hours.
Horyuji Temple stands in the tranquil village of Ikaruga and is home to the world’s oldest wooden structures. Registered today on the World Heritage Site list as “Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area” along with Hokkiji Temple, the temples have held this honor since 1993 and were the first such recognition for Japan.
Horyuji Temple was supposedly founded jointly by Prince Shotoku and Emperor Suiko in 607AD and still contains many structures and works of art with 2300 items including statues of the Buddha designated as national treasures or important cultural properties. There are 2 parts; (the) Saiin Garan, or western precinct with its pagoda and Kondo (Main Hall), and (the) Toin Garan, eastern precinct with its Yumedono (Dream Hall).
When entering via Nandai-mon (South Gate), turn to the west. The Kondo is on the right side and Goju-no-to (five-storied pagoda) on the left; best viewed with your back to Chu-mon (Main Gate). The Kairo (corridor) begins either side of the Chu-mon and surrounds the Kondo and Goju-no-to. The Daikodo (Great Lecture Hall), Shoro (Bell Tower) and Kyozo (Sutra Repository) are also to be found in this area.
The Kondo here is the oldest wooden building in the world and the paintings still visible on the walls survive thanks to restoration following a fire in 1949. Statues including Shakasanzon-zo are contained within.
Pagodas are considered to be the most important buildings in Buddhist temples. The Goju-no-to in Horyuji is no exception and is Japan’s oldest five-storied structure standing approximately 31.5m in height. As the higher the stories go, the smaller their eaves prove to be and this effect only adds to the stability and beauty of the building.
The East and West Treasure Houses (Kudara-Kannon-do included) are the locations to find displays of Japanese treasures such as Kudara-Kannon-zo. Buddhist statues, paintings or altar related articles, masks and music used in court dance as well as scriptures and mural paintings are all displayed in turn. It is said that a look at the treasures and buildings of Horyuji will provide the wisdom of the nation’s earliest days of Buddhism worship.
The Eastern precinct, originally “Ikarugano-miya,” was once the residential area of Prince Shotoku and is also the location of the octagonal shaped Yumedono.
Chuguji Temple / Hokkiji Temple
Chuguji Temple contains (the) Miroku-bosatsu-zo with its famed smile – known as one of the world’s three best smiles. This piece was produced in the Asuka era (between the 6th and early 7th centuries). Hokkiji, designated a World Heritage Site along with the Horyuji, contains a 24m high Sanju-no-to (three-storied pagoda) that was built in 706AD ? the country’s oldest.
Toshodaiji was founded by the Chinese priest Ganjin. The huge precincts resemble a calm forest filled with the nature and flowers of each passing season. As there are so many buildings and Buddhist statues designated as national treasures or important cultural assets, this is truly a place at which to take your time and stroll slowly around the area. The Kondo is one of the largest examples of Tenpyo style architecture in Japan (now under repair and dismantled) and the Uchiwamaki event held on May 19th each year involves the handing out to visitors of pretty heart shaped uchiwa (fans) and rice cakes.
Yakushiji Temple was first built at Kashihara in 680AD and was moved to its current location during the capital relocation to Nara. Yet another of the famed seven great temples of Nara, (the) Yakushi-sanzon-zo, Nikko-bosatsu-zo and Gakko-bosatsu-zo (The Buddha of Healing & both side samurai images) are considered the very best works of Japanese Buddhist art. The Toto (Eastern tower) is a beautiful 33.6 m high three-storied pagoda in original form and the Saito (Western pagoda); also a three-storied pagoda was reconstructed in 1981. The contrast of the two pagodas is captivating.
Nara is a treasure trove and there are so many places to see and feel – Yamanobe-no-michi, Asuka, Hase, Yoshino, Totsukawa and Tenkawa to name but a few that we are unable to feature all herein so will come back to this fascinating town in the future.
From JR Tokyo Station to JR Kyoto Station: 2.5hrs using Nozomi Super Express Bullet Train. From JR Kyoto Station to JR Nara Station: 40mins on the JR Miyako-ji Rapid Train. Alternatively – from JR Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station: 40mins on the Kintetsu Line.
There are various types of discount tickets available for the Kintetsu lines in the Nara area. For the latest offers, please check the Kintetsu website.
http://www.kintetsu.co.jp/senden/Railway/Ticket/A20003.html (Japanese only)