Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ancient Nara


Saturday, 12/02/2011 10:00, Kozenji, Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture
We woke up after a late-night manly beer session and found out that most of us had already ventured into the nearby mountains to explore some abandoned railway tunnels. Since the rain was pouring heavily, Grega and I decided not to go hiking. Instead, we went to visit our friends in Nara and see some of the ancient city. Yes, just like Kyoto and Kamakura, Nara used to be the capital of Japan. It can, however, boast being the first capital of the classical Japanese state back in the VIII century. Out of political reasons, the capital was then moved to the newly built Kyoto, yet Nara remained an important religious and commercial centre. It is sometimes still referred to as 'Nanto', which means 'southern capital', in opposition to Kyoto lying to the north.

Saturday, 12/02/2011 12:00, Nara Station
After a four train changes we finally got to the central station. We were welcomed by the locals - Emmanuel and his girlfriend Yuko, whom we had met the previous day in Kyoto. Together we ventured into the nearby Nara Park and I was immediately struck by the view of one of the town's symbols - the sika deers. The vast park and it's surroundings are inhabited by tamed deers, which according to a legend came to Nara with a god to protect the newly established capital. The deers wander carelessly around the streets and alleys, not being intimidated by passers-by or even cars. Mostly they are harmless and even bow to you in response (amazing trick) but once they spot food or any other item of interest, they can become a bit insolent to get it from your hands or even pockets (they ate one of my friends' paper temple ticket he had in his trouser's back pocket). Fortunately, their horns are regularly trimmed.

Anyway, we eventually reached the National Treasure of Todai-ji ('Eastern Great Temple') from the VIII century: home of the great Buddha statue and one of the biggest wooden buildings in the world. Honestly, it made a huge impression on me and is probably the most beautiful and overwhelming temple I've seen in Japan so far. Also by that time the sky cleared up a bit and allowed us to admire Todai-ji in it's full sunshine glory, from the Nandaimon (the Great Southern Gate) and it's two Nio guard statues to the middle gate, the Main Hall and the Daibutsu, the biggest copper Buddha statue in the world. The Daibutsu actually didn't look bigger than the Kamakura one, but that's maybe because it was located indoors. At the temple we met with the rest of our Nara friends: Nadia and Giuseppe and some guests from Yamaguchi (Marco) and Tokyo (Fifi).

After seeing the marvels of Todai-ji we retreated to have lunch in a local ramen joint and spent some time in a European style cafe recommended by Yuko. Some persuasive phone calls later we were joined by the tunnel hiking team and in full force went back to Nara Park to see some sort of light festival with beautiful illuminated decorations and very original artistic compositions of projected images. If this sounds dull and unclear, check out the attached movie. We also passed through another precious temple - Kofuku-ji.

In the end, we had a group dinner at an Indian restaurant, paid a short visit to our friends' dormitory and rushed back to catch the last train to Kozenji. Nara definitely surprised me in a positive way and felt so different then the nearby and also historic Kyoto. Modelled after old Chinese capitals, Nara seemed ancient, calm and harmonious. The deers wandering freely among humans also added to the magical impression of a bit forgotten city, where the time stood still and kept the past beauty alive. The bonus movie shows how traditional Japanese sweets are made in the streets of Nara.

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