Saturday, August 21, 2010

Nara - Splendour of an Ancient Capital

Nara, the ancient capital of Japan and famous for its deer park, is another one of Japan's "must-visit" attractions should you be travelling to the Kansai region. Whether you are based in Kyoto or Osaka (or even Kobe), Nara is only about an hour's (or two) train ride away, and makes for an interesting and informative day trip, particularly for history buffs like me. 

For us, we made the trip from our Osaka base in Namba. From Namba Station, we took the Kintetsu Rail, with its colourfully decorated train carriages, directly to the Nara station in under an hour. A one way ticket cost about 1,040 yen (SGD16).

The Historical Bit

The beautiful sewage cover of Nara, with a prominent deer motif

Nara served as the capital of Japan from 710-784, when it was moved again before Kyoto remained the capital for nearly a millennia till 1868. The imperial palace at Nara was modelled after the capital of Tang China, Chang 'an. It was during the Nara period that Japan began to adopt Chinese culture, such as the introduction of Chinese characters (kanji). Frequent missions were dispatched to China and Buddhism also became increasingly entrenched. It was also during this period that the first national histories of Japan, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were written.

Dear galore!!!

Simultaneously cleaning their asses in front of a row of souvenir shops

Any visitor to Nara would have to experience the 'welcome' extended by the deer at Nara Park. Once considered to be divine creatures, these animals have become a veritable attraction in their own right. Vendors selling deer biscuits (Shika-senbei) are found at strategic spots along the footpath and visitors can rarely resist the temptation of buying these biscuits for a hands-on experience at feeding the deer. Come on, how many times do you get up close with a deer and feed it from your hand? However, be forewarned that you may suffer some collateral damage during the feeding process. The deer are so acclimatised to the sight of tourists that they will make a beeline for you even before you can buy the biscuits. They jostle with each other and nudge you to get a treat. My pullover was mistaken for a biscuit and was chewed on by an overly enthusiastic stag. Buying a serving of deer biscuits is grossly insufficient, so be prepared to part with more yen to satisfy their insatiable appetites. Coming into close contact with the deer at Nara Park was indeed a unique experience, save for some saliva-stained shirts and pullovers.

The over eager deer biting my pullover in a bid to get to the food

The Todai-ji ( 東大寺)

Its name literally means the Eastern Great Temple, and building began in the eighth century AD. Its Great Buddha Hall is the world's largest wooden building and in it resides the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like most religious precincts in Nara, Sika deer roam freely on its grounds. While Todaiji may not look very impressive in pictures, it is in fact enormous up close. Just look at how tiny the humans are in relation to the building, and you will get an idea how big the structure really is. It is also amazing how the wooden building has been rebuilt many times, the last time in 1709 and was 30% smaller than the original, after  Japan's numerous earthquakes and fires throughout the centuries.

The largest bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) in the world

The Kōfuku-ji (興福寺)
Begun in the seventh century AD by the Fujiwara family, the temple was moved to its current location in 710 AD and enjoyed a period of prosperity as long as the Fujiwara clan stayed in power. Over the centuries, the temple was destroyed in wars and natural disasters and subsequently rebuilt. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most spectacular structures in the temple complex is the five-storied pagoda, designated a national treasure, and one of the tallest in the whole of Japan.

Besides the numerous historical sights in Nara (we did not go to all due to time constraints), you can also walk around the town centre of Naramachi, which is lovely and quaint. You may also chance upon traditional craft shops for a wee bit of shopping for local products or sweets. All in all, it would be a day well-spent.

Note: This year, Nara is celebrating its 1,300 years of founding, and there will be events held in commemoration of this historic occasion. Do check out the Nara Prefecture website below for more details:

A street in Naramachi

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