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For anyone interested in the history of Japanese art and culture, no visit will be complete bereft of a tour of Nara. Note that as well as it's magnificent cultural treasures; Nara offers the unlikely phenomenon of the world's most aggressive deer.
Although Kyoto endures as Japan's major historical and cultural centre, Japanese tourists, and you too should equally revere this the Kansai region's other fasinating historical center.
During the Imperial period Nara was Japan's capital, and today it is home to many important temples, shrines, and Buddhist art treasures.
Nara is considered by many to be home to the very roots of Japanese culture and one of the cornerstones of Japan's unique forms of Buddhism. Present-day Nara began life in 710 as Heijo-kyo, meaning "Citadel of Peace". Originally a flat, nondescript tract of farmland in the Yamato Plain, it was selected as the site for a new imperial capital by the Emperor Mommu, just before his early death, and by Fujiwara-no-Fuhito, the head of the powerful aristocratic Fujiwara clan and father-in law of the succeeding emperor, Shomu.
In the year 710 it was decided new to set up a permanent residential capital for the imperial court, initially to the west of here Naniwa (present-day Osaka) and then here at Nara.
Laid out like a chessboard (nearly half the size of China’s similarly designed capital, Change’an), Nara had its imperial palace at the northern end, with court residences, Buddhist monasteries, and Shinto shrines stretching to the south. In those peaceful years, without threat of foreign invasion or civil war, there were no city ramparts.
At the height of its glory, Heijo-kyo's skyline was punctuated by 50 pagodas, together with numerous temples, mansions, and the imposing imperial court itself. Despite serving as Japan's imperial capital for only 74 years, Nara's influence on Japan's cultural development has loomed large throughout the city's 1,300-year history.
The era known as the Nara Period was marked by the religious fervour of the Buddhist monks and also by their accompanying artistic achievements. The Japanese were attracted more to Buddhism’s ritual and art than to its complex philosophy, rendered all the more difficult because its texts were, for several centuries, available only in Chinese, the language of a small court elite. Buddhist monks initiated great progress in Japanese architecture, bronze-casting, bridge building, and sculpture. To this day, historians of Chinese art find the best surviving examples of Tang-dynasty architecture among the seventh and eighth-century temples in and around Nara.
By marrying his daughters to sons of the reigning emperor and then engineering timely abdications, a Fujiwara contrived always to be father-in-law, uncle, or grandfather behind the throne. Very often the emperor was only a minor, so that the Fujiwara patriarch acted as regent. He then persuaded the emperor to abdicate soon after his majority, and the regency would continue for the next youthful incumbent. The important thing was to have the emperor’s sanctions for the regent’s political decisions.
Very few emperors were reluctant to submit to Fujiwara domination. The burden of his spiritual functions as high priest of Shinto and the tasks of administration led the emperor to welcome and early abdication, frequently to retire to a life of Buddhist meditation and scholarship. The Fujiwara resented the Buddhist clergy’s great and growing influence in imperial affairs. There were too many monasteries in and around Nara. It was time to move the capital.
Although there are no reliable accounts of this period, third-century Chinese documents speak of a Japanese priestess-queen, Himiko, ruling over a land of law-abiding people who enjoyed alcohol and were divided into classes distinguished by tattoo marks. Five centuries later, Japan’s own Kojiki and Nihon-shoki chronicles describe the creation of the imperial dynasty in the year 660 B.C : the first emperor, Jimmu (“Divine Warrior”)—great grandson of the Sun Goddess’s grandson—embarked on an expedition of conquest from Kyushu along the Inland Sea coast to the Yamato Plain of the Kinki region (near modern-day Nara).
Shrouded from the modern travelers by its more famous cousin, Kyoto, Nara stands as one of the more beautiful and historical cities in Japan, yet despite its various temples and World Heritage Sites such as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, it has remained largely off the grid when it comes to mass tourism. A once-upon-a-time capital of Japan (from 710 to 784), Nara is just as mystical as any of the other cities within the country, yet there is something here that the other places lack: an indescribable sense of magic and ancient history that has to be experienced first-hand to be understood.
Nara was Japan’s first actual capital, which makes it a historically significant place. However, the city also boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of Tōdai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine, Gangō-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji and the Heijō Palace remains, and together with Kasugayama Primeval Forest, collectively form "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara". For these reasons Nara is considered to be second only to Kyoto as a treasury of cultural history and legacy. And all of that is packed into a tiny space that almost defies logic, and really brings home the old adage of “size doesn’t matter”. From Heijo Palace to Kasuga Shrine to the Tōdai-ji temple complex and other various Buddhist temples scattered around the city, the sense of mysticism pervades everything here, from daily routines to nightly outings.
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The Toshodaiji temple boasts rare examples of ancient architecture and sculpture. Less spectacular than some of the temples in expensively restored Nishi-nokyo which is its neighbor to the south, Toshodaiji nevertheless is the largest remaining example of Nara period architecture.
It has numerous period sculptures - the most celebrated is a 5-m (16.5-ft) thousand-armed Kannon statue.
Found in the Nara Park and at the edge of the Sarusawa-ike pond is Kofukuji temple. It's impressive 50 metre or 165 foot, pagoda with 5 floors.
It is Japan's second-largest after the Toji pagoda which is located in Kyoto.
It is undoubtedly one of Nara's most photographed places. The present structure, which is still very old, as it dates from 1426, replacing some 5 pagodas each one destroyed by fire and then rebuilt.
In the past Kofukuji has comprised around 175 buildings, most of which have been lost. These include the Kasuga Grand Shrine, with which it has been closely associated for well over a thousand years. This is found at the foot of Mt. Wakakusa.
The surviving artworks of Kofukuji and other artifacts are housed in its newest building, the Museum of National Treasures. This is now a fire-proof building which was constructed in 1958 to honour Kofukuji's cultural and historic importance.
This is originally built part of museum. It is connected by a subterranean tunnel to a newer, tile-roofed structure just beyond it.
This museum of ancient art displays Buddhist statues and sculptural types from around the year 600 through the Middle Ages.
The permanent collection is housed in the old wing, and its fascinating exhibits showcase the development of Chinese influenced Buddhist art and design.
The gift shop in the underpass between the two buildings offers an excellent selection of quality souvenirs, reproductions, and posters of Nan culture.
Found on the west side of Nara Park is Todaiji, which—like many elaborate temple complexes—comprises many remarkable structures and artifacts.
Here you will find the majestic Nandaimon. standing over 19 m (63 ft) high and dating from 1199. Built in a classical Indian architectural style, this huge structure is only two-thirds the size of the original destroyed by a typhoon in 962.
The gate houses the two Benevolent Kings, guardian deities created in the twelfth century by master sculptors Unkei and Kaikei to guard the inner temple compound.
Pass through the gate (it means Great South Gate in Japanese) for your first view of the massive roof of the Daibutsuden straight ahead. This build, constructed around 1709, is only ⅔rds of the first one which was destroyed by fire decades before.
On the right of the door is Binzuru, a disciple of Prince Gautama (the Buddha's original name before achieving enlightenment). His statue is said to have special healing powers; sections of the statue shine with the polish of thousands—if not millions—of hands rubbing away ailments over the centuries.
At last you find Dalbutsu or Great Buddha inside a huge hall, in the oft-depicted posture of deep contemplation on a giant platform within a loop of massive lotus leaves.
At almost 15 metre, or just under 50 foot tall, the enormous bronze statue is somewhat shorter than the first one which constructed and covered in gold leaf, in the year 752. As with all Buddha images the positions of the hands are highly significant.
The Great Buddha's right hand is bestowing spiritual tranquility, while the left symbolizes the granting of wishes. Seated on one side is the Nyorin Kannon, in whose hand is a jewel used to answer prayers and grant wishes; on the other is Kokuzo, who embodies wisdom and happiness.
Nigatsu-do (Second Month Hall), one of Todaiji's most famous sub-temples, whose front portion rests on a vast network of wooden beams. The covered northern staircase and the broad stone southern staircase both lead up to the main walkway encircling the temple, which has massive lanterns and a strange assortment of artwork donated by supporting companies.
Nigatsu-do hosts a spectacular fire purification festival in the second month of the lunar calendar (hence its name): the O-mizu Torii, or Water-Drawing Festival.
Every night for two weeks, temple priests brandish long poles each with a flaming cedar ball at the end. They run along the front of the verandah, deliberately showering the large crowd below with burning embers that are believed to bring good luck for the coming year, burning away transgressions from the previous one. In long-exposure photographs, the entire temple appears to be on fire.
Along the foot of Mt. Wakakusa is the Kasuga Grand Shrine, established to house the Shinto deities of the powerful Fujiwara family.
It has been a place of worship for both emperors and aristocrats for centuries. The main approach from the east (from Kofukuji temple) is lined with thousands of stone lanterns set amid lush greenery.
These are illuminated in dramatic crowd-drawing ceremonies held in early February and mid-August every year. The shrine's renowned Treasure House is one of the newest here, with wooden plaques in the shape of rice paddles reflecting the importance of rice in Shinto—and, by definition, Japanese—culture.
A rice-planting ceremony is held in mid-March, during which the shrine's sacred rice field is symbolically replanted.
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