Nara Express Tour

Octogonal hall with rolling roof, metal lantern in the foreground

Saturday morning (March 8) we took a train from Ise to 奈良 (Nara). Nara is a very old city and was the capital of Japan during the aptly named Nara period in the 8th century, although technically there was a short intermission.

Octogonal hall with rolling roof, metal lantern in the foreground
南円堂 (Nanen-dō) of 興福寺 (Kōfuku-ji temple) in Nara

Our first destination, just a few minutes walk from the Kintetsu Nara Station, was 興福寺 (Kōfuku-ji temple), which has several old buildings. The thing about these old buildings is that (at least) most of them burnt down at some point or another and were reconstructed — some centuries ago, but two halls are being reconstructed right now, with completion scheduled for 2018. After hearing similar stories about other temples later during the day, it kind of seemed like most of old Nara burned down at some point or another and was reconstructed. Those red boxes in front of the 東金堂 (Tōkon-dō, East Golden Hall) are there for a reason… 😉

Huge wooden hall surrounded by a fence, two red boxes just outside the fence
東金堂 (Tōkon-dō, “East Golden Hall”) of 興福寺 (Kōfuku-ji temple)

Part of the temple site is a museum housing several valuable pieces of Buddhist art, including the head of a bronze Buddha statue which was recovered after a fire (yes, they had a lot of those) had destroyed the rest of the statue. The museum seemed kind of strange to me because while it had displays of statues and other art like a museum would, it also had boxes for offerings in front of some of the statues, and even burning incense and fake (electrical) candles in front of the over 5 meters high statue in the center. All in all, it seemed like a mix of of a museum and a temple.

Some deer standing on the road as people walk by. Stall selling rice crackers for feeding deer on the right.
They’re waiting just waiting for someone to buy from the stall…

From Kōfuku-ji we walked through Nara Park to 東大寺 (Tōdai-ji temple), with a brief detour for lunch. In the park, we saw many more of Nara’s famous deer, and I’m writing more here because there also were some around Kōfuku-ji. The deer roam freely around the park and aren’t shy at all. Quite to the contrary, they can get quite pushy when they think that someone has food. You can buy special rice crackers (鹿せんべい, shika-senbei) to feed the deer all over the place, but be aware of the risk of getting overrun by a dozen or so hungry (or greedy) deer. 😉

Deer standing in the gutter, looking up at people walking by
A deer, which was totally unimpressed as we walked by.

The park has some very beautiful spots, I saw a few people sketching or drawing on the shore near this gazebo.

Gazebo on pillars in the middle of a lake, connected to a bridge
Gazebo in Nara Park

Like Kōfuku-ji, Tōdai-ji is a huge complex of buildings rather than a singular temple. The main hall reflected in the pond is my favorite photo from the trip, so I’ve uploaded it at full resolution.

A row of trees, temple gate and huge temple hall reflecting in a pond in the foreground
東大寺 (Tōdai-ji) and its reflection

In another example of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism (神仏習合, shinbutsu-shūgō), Tōdai-ji has a shrine to 八幡 (Hachiman), the Shinto god of war, to ensure his protection for the Buddhist temple. The style of the buildings is still similar to the typical temple.

Wooden Gate and wall in white and red, with a black roof, stone lanterns on both sides of the road to the gate
Entrance to the 八幡 (Hachiman) shrine at 東大寺 (Tōdai-ji)

Sadly, we didn’t have time to enter the main hall of Tōdai-ji and see the famous Buddha statue inside. Instead, we continued to 春日大社 (Kasuga-taisha shrine). The road leading up to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns, which kind of reminded me of 伏見稲荷大社 (Fushimi Inari Taisha) in Kyoto, which I’ve seen almost 3 years ago.

Wide road lined with stone lanterns, and two deer on the right
Lanterns near 春日大社 (Kasuga-taisha)

Deer not only walk around in Nara, they also frequently occur in designs and as mascots related to Nara, even on the shrine lanterns and the fountain where you’re supposed to clean your hands before entering the shrine.

Large stone lanterns, two with relief images of deer
Lanterns near 春日大社 (Kasuga-taisha), they are lit up for certain festivals.
Statue of a deer, water flows from a "branch" in its mouth into the basin of the hands washing fountain
The hands washing fountain at 春日大社 (Kasuga-taisha)

The shrine integrates beautifully with the surrounding forest, but the buildings once again remind me more of Buddhist temples than the shrines in Ise.

Shrine buildings partially hidden behind trees, metal lantern in the foreground
Inside 春日大社 (Kasuga-taisha)

On the way back to the station, our guide pointed out this shrine called 氷室神社 (Himuro-jinja), which literally means “ice house shrine”, and explained that it was built because the emperor at the time wanted to eat ice cream. The explanation on the shrine’s homepage is rather complicated Japanese, but the establishment of the shrine seems to be connected to the production of ice by imperial order in the 8th century. Interesting. 😉

Torii and stone lanterns marking the entrance to a shrine right next to a bus stop
Entrance to 氷室神社 (Himuro-jinja)

Since we had only 6 hours for the tour before we had to take the train to Kyoto, it was rather rushed. Still very interesting, and the weather was good. 🙂 If you want to visit Nara, I’d recommend taking more time.

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