Sunday, December 28, 2008

Nara Trip: Chapter One: I Go to a Park

This morning I found myself in Yagi-shi in the middle of Nara prefecture. So I decided to go to a park. In fact, I decided to go to Nara Park. After a brief stop at the Softbank store to see if they could fix my phone that got dropped in the toilet last night (no, they couldn't) and another at a Tully's to grab some coffee (left) I made my way to Nara Koen right near Kintetsu-Nara train station.

Since I first walked down some shopping streets I ended up beginning my tour with Sarusawa-no-Ike pond (right). This pond had a very lovely view of Kofukuji Temple's Five-Story Pagoda and Nan-endo Hall. The Five-Story Pagoda (below left) is a National Treasure and the second highest pagoda in Japan. Built in 1426, the pagoda now standing is an exact replica of the original built in 730. Alternately, Nan-endo Hall (below right) was constructed in the 18th century.

Also in the Kofukuji Temple complex is Tokondo Hall (above middle). You can go into the hall for a small fee, but I decided to just stay out and watch other people go in. It's like they were making prayers for me. Since this strategy worked so well at Tokondo Hall, I took it on for the rest of the temples too: other people ring the bell and acknowledge the diety/buddha while I look on and sponge off their spiritual cleansing by proximity. Come on, it's the oldest trick in the book!

As I was walking around, I of course saw the famous Nara deer (or shika as they say over here ("When in Rome... ") or Sika Deer as they say in U.S. zoos, or Cervus nippon as they say in more academic circles). While not especially excited at the nearness of them, I do think they added to the overall ambiance of the temples and shrines throughout the park.

After Kofukuji Temple, I wandered towards the Nara National Museum (right). Since it was still early when I first passed the temple, I decided to come back to it when it was colder outside. When I did, it was so late that unfortunately I only had an hour in the museum and so only got to look around the East and West wings and not the original museum building pictured here. Although I did not get to see any of the Todaiji Temple treasures, they did have a special exhibit on On-Matsuri and Kasuga which was really interesting. Although not all of the plaques on the exhibits had English translations, for the most part the beauty of the pieces, whether they were silk paintings, reliquary shrines, or scrolls of edicts or inventory, was enough. I would recommend you designate two hours if you go, though, so that you're not caught halfway through the museum at closing time.

With a bit more wandering, dazed and confused because I refused to continually check my location in my guidebook and it seemed every public map I looked at was of a different park (very confusing), but anyway I eventually found myself walking up the lantern-lined pathway to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Unfortunately, I was so enthralled by the stone lanterns, I kind of skimmed over the shrine bit to get back to the pathways leading to, from, and around it. I guess it's a testament to the beauty of the over-all layout of the park that you can walk down a path and feel just as at-peace as if you were sitting in a quiet church. Because of this infinite regress (word choice?), I decided to put a picture up of lanterns in Kasuga Taisha Shrine (left).

Outside of Kasuga Taisha Shrine is a beautiful botanical garden. Even though it's the last week of December and all the leaves have made a brown blanket over the entire forest floor, I found the walk through the woods refreshing. It reminded me of hiking in the woods back in New York and I was left with the thinking to myself, "If it was summer, I wouldn't have to worry about startling a rattler. Isn't that nice?" And it is.

The next point of interest in Nara Park was Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine (right). Keep in mind, though, there is a lot between point A and point B, but this is supposed to be a chapter, not a Bronte book. Just like with Kasuga Taisha Shrine, I was wandering without a map and it made my path just a little different than the average course. I came upon the shrine through the back entrance and that's why the photo looks a bit run-down. I didn't realize my mistake until I got on the internet and tried to confirm the name of the shrine. All the photos on google were of the front entrance to the shrine which looks quite grand. The back entrance I came in and the side entrance I went out were not so grand, but their authentic/eclectic (I can't think of the word that really describes it for me) looks were yet impressive where they lacked grandeur.

Right next to Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine is Nigatsudo Hall (left). From what I've gathered, this place is famous for two things. Firstly, it's got a killer view of Nara city. Even though I got there a bit late in the afternoon and a haze had just settled over the hills in the distance, I was still able to see quite far and the peak of Daibutsuden Hall in the distance was the ultimate teaser for this tourist. Secondly, apparently there is some ritual (annual?) at the temple in which fires are lit to give it the appearance of burning down. Yeah, you don't believe me or think that it doesn't actually look like it's on fire, but I seriously thought that the pictures I was were of the temple burning down.

Daibutsuden Hall (right) was more impressive than I thought it would be, but also more crowded than any other area of the park. The inside of the hall is filled with magnificent, giant statues. I thought that the Buddha would be the main attraction, but he's flanked by two giant, though smaller, attendants. The detail in these giant statues is incredible. You need to put down your camera, zone out the buzz of the crowd, and just concentrate on the statues. Even then, though, you'll leave feeling like you didn't get to really appreciate the hall. At least, that's how I felt. The gift shops were in the hall with the statues as well as right before the exit. I guess that's just an inevitable symptom of being one of the main attractions of the city.

Traveling out Nandaimon Gate (below) I started heading back to Yagi. Of course, I stopped at the National Museum on my way back to the station and then had to wait twenty minutes at the station for my train(!), but it was a really great day. Somewhere between Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine I started to get hungry, but I wasn't about to over pay for poor Japanese food so I neglected to eat lunch. By the time I was on the train, I was incredibly hungry. Maybe next time I'll bring a bento.