Monday, September 16, 2013


I'm falling a bit behind in my blogging. I started writing this post yesterday morning as were sitting in our room listening to it rain. It had been raining all night. Japan was experiencing a typhoon, but apparently the worst of it missed Kyoto. It is supposed to clear up by the afternoon - which it did - and be beautiful the rest of the week. Considering that the extended forecast we saw before we left Maui, which called for rain in every place we were planning to go, I consider one day of rain very good fortune.

On Sunday, we went to Nara, which is about 45 minutes by train from here. It was the capital before it was moved to Kyoto, and there are several World Heritage Sites there that we wanted to see. Our guide, Meiko, met us here at our inn, then helped us obtain the bus and train tickets we would need. 

Our first destination in Nara was the Todaiji Temple. Meiko was encyclopedic in her knowledge of the place, which dates back to the 8th Century and until very recently was the world's largest wooden building. Many of the original buildings are no longer there because they were destroyed in Japan’s civil wars. However, the buildings that were rebuilt in the same style are still 400 years old. The Great Buddha housed in the main temple, which is the world's largest bronze statue, has been recast several times, but it is still remarkable that it was originally made in the 8th century.

The first thing that greeted us, however, as we turned the corner to head up to the temple were small herds of Nara deer. I had read something about there being deer in Nara, but hadn’t really focused on it. Meiko, however, explained that the "Sika" deer are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, and it is forbidden by law to deliberately hurt or kill the deer.

To say that the deer are tame would be an understatement. Frankly, however, I didn’t care much for them, especially after a male butted me in the rear as we were walking down the sidewalk because, according to Mark, I was too close to his harem. I didn’t particularly appreciate that – not Mark’s comment, but being butted. And of course you had to watch where you were stepping. It reminded me of trying to avoid Canada Goose poop in Stanley Park in Vancouver.

The gate to the temple grounds was something in and of itself. Part of it is visible in the above photograph. Here’s the whole thing, along with a couple of pictures taken inside the gate:

Pictured below is one of the guardians in the gate. There are two, one on each side. Meiko pointed out that one guardian’s mouth is always open saying “Ah” – the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet; the other’s mouth is closed, saying “Ummm” – the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. I couldn’t help but thing of the scripture, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end …” (Alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet, Omega being the last, which, now that I think about it, strikes me as an anachronism, i.e., for Jesus to be recorded as speaking Greek – but what do I know.)

Like so many things at these temples, the guardians were protected with a kind of chicken wire to keep out, I suppose, things like pigeons, which would poop all over everything. (Which reminds me of a story: I am driving in Salt Lake one day with the kids, and there was some bird poop on my windshield. Levi says, perfectly serious, “That’s why I don’t like birds. It’s like, you’re walking outside, and all of a sudden, a bird poops on you.” )

So to take the above picture, I had to get down close to the ground between the picket fence that they had placed there. It doesn’t really show in the above picture, but we could see how vivid and how delicately these figures would have been colored originally.

The main temple was beyond the gate, of course, and you had to go through a sort of queue to come around to see the temple (after paying the admission fee, of course).

I’m including the above picture to give an idea of the size of the temple. Notice how small the people are entering the temple. The lantern, pictured below, is the only element of the temple that is 100% original to the 8th century.

 The feelings I felt upon looking at the Great Buddha were not really similar to those I felt gazing upon the Kamakura Buddha. In Kamakura, I definitely felt a presence, a spiritual sensation. In Todaiji, however, I simply felt awe at the sheer size of the Buddha and the incredible skill that went into producing this huge statue in the middle of the 8th century.

Of course, during our tour of this place, Meiko was plying us with facts. How many tiles were on the roof, how tall the building was, when it had been rebuilt after being burned down, who burned it down and why, etc. She also told us that, at the time this statue/temple was constructed, half of the then-existing Japanese population had contributed, in some form, to its construction. That was impressive.

Upon coming out of the temple, we encountered a wooden statue. Meiko explained that this was Binzuru, and, well, the following picture explains part of it. Meiko also told us that Buddha forbade Binzuru from going in any temples, and that is why his statute is outside.

So here’s Mark rubbing/touching the statue …

When I told him he was supposed to rub the part of his body that was diseased, well, let’s just say he declined.

After leaving the temple, it was time for lunch. Meiko had recommended a place that served a local specialty, sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, with pickled cherry blossom. We partook.

After lunch, we went to the Kasuga Grand Shrine, which was originally established in 768 AD. The Shinto shrine is famous for all of the stone lanterns that lead the way through the park in front of the shrine and for the many bronze lanterns that hang within.

Mark's picture of some of the many lanterns that hang within the shrine complex

We were very fortunate that day to see parts of both a wedding and some baby blessings. As we approached the main part of the shrine, we heard flute-like music drifting through the air, and Meiko turned to us and excitedly said, "They're having some sort of ceremony! That's the sacred Shinto music!" Sure enough, we shortly walked right past a wedding ceremony in which the bride and groom were dressed in traditional Japanese wedding attire. We didn't stop to gawk, of course, but Mark and I managed to take a few pictures a bit later after the wedding ceremony concluded.

The Shinto priest who had performed the ceremony

Mark stopped to have a calligraphist write the shrine's message inside his journal. We had discovered while in Kamakura that each temple and shrine does this sort of thing for 300-yen ($3). People buy special little notebooks and collect these inscriptions as they visit temples and shrines.

After leaving the shrine, we visited another temple and its accompanying museum, in which we saw dozens of priceless works of Buddhist art and statuary. From the end of the museum tour comes today's Engrish-ism:

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