“The next station is Nara Station. The doors on the left side will open. Please change here for-”
It was about there that I stopped listening to the train announcements. The next station was where I wanted to go, Nara Station, the main JR station in the city of Nara (奈良). Nara is about an hour train ride from Kyoto, and is the home of this week’s site, the massive Tōdai-ji Temple (東大寺). After repeating the message in both English and Japanese a couple of more times, the train was silent other than the rumbling on the tracks. Then withint a minute, the train stopped and the doors on the left opened. I quickly shuffled out before the many people waiting to get on the train forced their way in. It wasn’t rush hour, so the passengers weren’t packed in like sardines, but there were enough people that a few had to stand. As I made my way through the station, there were plenty of familiar convenience stores, like the Japanese Family Mart and the not-so-Japanese 7-11. I decided to grab some lunch to go and made my way to the Tōdai-ji Temple, which I had heard so much about.
From the train station, the temple was about 1.6 miles (2.5 km) away and in the center of a very large park in the middle of the city. I decided to walk. Relying on nothing but my handy-dandy Lonely Planet Guide, I navigated Nara, which was actually pretty easy considering there was a main street that ran through the town and at the end of it, was Nara Park, which housed the temple. The walk from the train station to the park took about 45 minutes.
As I walked through the park, and noticed many Sika deer running around. And these deer were fearless! They walked right up to people and tried to nibble on any food they could find. I later found out that these deer are regarded as messengers of the gods in Shintoism, so they are left to their own devices. There were even stands where you could buy food (shika senbei crackers) to feed them with for about 150 yen. I saw one school girl do this and she was quickly swarmed by what seemed like all of the deer in the park. The look in her eyes quickly shifted from joy to terror, as it seemed like they were ready to eat her as well as the crackers! Fortunately, the deer haven’t developed a taste for human flesh (though at the rate those deer were going, it wouldn’t surprise me if they nibbled a finger or two), so after they finished, they left the poor girl alone.
I continued on in the park and was greeted by the Nandaimon Gate. Within this gate are two large, fierce looking statues that represent the Nio Guardian Kings, which ward off evil spirits. And if I was an evil spirt, I’d be scared of those giant monsters too! It surprises me that they aren’t the evil spirits with their massive size and ferocious look on their faces.
Then came the main attraction, the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall). As I walked through the gates and towards this temple. I had to stop a moment to take it all end. The building is HUGE! It’s actually the largest wooden building in the world right now. Though what’s funny is it’s actually only about 2/3 the size of the original one, which burned down in a fire. And within the building is one of the largest bronze Buddha statues (Daibutsu) in Japan.
This temple is nothing short of incredible. Everything is on such a massive scale that you can’t help but feel so small in comparison. In addition to the Daibutsu, the temple houses two large Bodhisattvas and several other smaller Buddhist statues. Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base that is the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through the opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. But before trying to squeeze through, know that it’s only large enough for a small child to fit. I looked at the hole, but quickly realized that getting me to fit through that hole would have been as likely as squeezing an elephant into one of those itty, bitty clown cars. In other words, it wasn’t going to happen. I guess I’ll just have to earn enlightenment the old fashioned way by sitting under a Bodhi tree for weeks at a time, just like the original Buddha (though that doesn’t sound very practical either).
There are some other buildings on the grounds as well that I didn’t get the chance to visit. They include a museum which has rotating exhibits of art/treasures from the temple and some smaller halls that supposedly have great views of the city and ceremonies that take place at the temple. These areas aren’t vital to a visit to Japan, but if you come be sure to visit the Daibutsuden, even just the view from the outside is nothing short of spectacular!
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