July 14, 2009

After watching the sumo tournament in Nagoya, we headed further west to spend a day in Nara.


For a long time Japan had no permanent capital.  Cultural taboos dictated that the capital must be moved with the passing of each emperor.  This philosophy eroded in the 7th century under the influence of Buddhism.  Eventually the rulers decided to build the first permanent capital in Nara in the year 710.  Only it wasn’t really that “permanent” because 75 years later the capital moved, once again, to nearby Kyoto, where it actually remained for a long time — until 1868.  But even though Nara’s stint as capital was short-lived, it still produced a large number of impressive monuments.  Today Nara has 8 Unesco World Heritage sites, which makes it second only to Kyoto in terms of cultural significance.

You shouldn’t be riding a bicycle

Nara is a fairly compact city, so it’s easy enough to explore without a car.  Pnina and I opted to get around using bicycles that we rented from the Nara Youth Hostel (which, BTW, was an OK place to stay, nothing special).  This was a good idea except for one thing: I suddenly developed a nasty eye infection.  It actually started back in Nagoya, but by the time we reached Nara it was full blown.  My eyes were really sore, so I decided to give them a break by wearing glasses instead of contacts (for the first time in the trip).  The trouble was that my eyes were also very sensitive to bright light, as if my pupils were dilated, and this was a very sunny day.  I had to choose between wearing sunglasses (in which case I could deal with the sun but I couldn’t see much) and wearing my regular glasses (in which case I saw perfectly but it was too painful to lift my head up).  I ended up riding around Nara half-blind all day, frequently shutting my eyes and hoping for the best.  It’s a miracle that I didn’t hit a pedestrian or get hit myself.


We didn’t get very far before we encountered this group of school kids who asked to be photographed with us.  We said “sure”.

Getting our photo taken with the local kids.  I have no idea why we’re all posing with our fingers up to our mouths like we’re saying “shhh”.  That was their idea, those wacky Japanese 🙂

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Anyhow, we started chatting and we discovered that these kids follow a religion called Tenrikyo.  We’d never heard of this religion so we asked them a bunch of questions, and they replied with a bunch of answers plus a pamphlet (which isn’t very surprising – they kind of look like Mormon missionaries, don’t they?).  Well, the cool thing about Tenrikyo is that it was founded by a woman!  The woman, Miki Nakayama (aka “Oyasama”), was chosen by God to save all humankind way back in 1838.  The basic philosophy of the religion is the same good stuff you would expect from most religions these days: God created us in order to enjoy seeing us live; we are all God’s children and therefore we are all brothers and sisters; and so on.  It all sounds good, but then the religion shoots itself in the foot by claiming that humans originate from the town of Tenri in Japan (which is why the religion is called Tenrikyo).  Why, oh why, do religions insist on claiming things that eventually get disproven by science??

Deer Everywhere

One of the best things about Nara is that there are a whole bunch of deer that roam around the city, mostly in the parks surrounding the various temples.  Our guide book says that altogether there are about 1200 deer in Nara.  In pre-Buddhist times they were considered messengers from the gods, and today they enjoy the status of “National Treasures”.  The deer spend most of their time approaching tourists for handouts.  They are completely unafraid of humans, so you can walk right up to them and pet them.

Nara’s Mascot, created in 2008 to celebrate the city’s 1300 year anniversary:


Pnina approaching some deer hanging out in the shade:

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When you pet a deer between his antlers, it’s hard not to imagine what would happen to your forearm if the deer decided to shake his head side to side:

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The biggest attraction in Nara is the temple complex called Todai-Ji.  More specifically, people come to see one of the buildings — Daibutsu-den (“the Hall of the Great Buddha”).  This is the largest wooden building in the world, which is even more impressive when you learn that this building is just 2/3 the size of the original building that stood in this place.  Inside this building sits a huge Buddha statue – 16 meters high, made of 437 tons of bronze and 130 kg of gold.

The Hall of the Great Buddha:

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A spot to wash your hands before entering the temple:

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Inside the building, Pnina standing in front of the giant Buddha statue:

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A wooden guardian statue beside the giant Buddha:

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In the back of the Buddha hall there’s a column with a rectangular hole through it.  The hole is exactly the size of the Buddha’s nostrils, and popular belief goes that if you manage to squeeze through this hole then you are guaranteed enlightenment.  Pnina is safe!  (and it really wasn’t much of a challenge for her)

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Pnina riding out of the Todai-ji complex:

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Other Temples and Gardens

Here are some random shots from the rest of our afternoon wandering through a few of the temples in Nara.

A local guy sketching one of the temples  we saw (we think this was Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine):

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One of the alleys we wandered through had homes on both sides with really beautiful gardens:

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A rainbow colored lizard we saw along the way.  He was pretty skittish so it was hard to get a non-blurry shot:

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Same lizard next to Pnina’s foot – shows you how tiny he really is:

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We wandered through a primeval forest and entered a temple called Kasuga Taisha.  Here I am in one of the very orange hallways:

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Pnina by the entrance doors:

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Pnina in one of the prayer halls:

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Hanging lanterns:

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Still in Kasuga Taisha:

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The taller of the two pagodas in Kofuku-Ji:

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Naramachi Neighborhood

In the evening most of the temples closed, so we headed to a neighborhood called Naramachi (which literally means “Nara town”).  This was the old merchant neighborhood.  It has narrow lanes and buildings designed to have a shop in the front and residences in the back.  These days it’s not much of a commercial zone, but it still has some coffee shops and galleries, and it’s a good area for a walk.

Wandering through Naramachi:

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Many of the homes have these red dolls hanging outside the front door.  They are called Migawari-Zaru, which literally means “substitution monkey”.  The idea was to offer these monkey-shaped (?) dolls as sacrifices to the gods, so they’ll protect the home:

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One of the shops in Naramachi:

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We saw a lot of these foldable bicycles everywhere:

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We also saw this group of students in a parking lot, practicing for an upcoming dance show:

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Bonus Shots

We can’t read Japanese but we can only guess that this poster asks locals to pick up after their dogs.  This is sooo Japanese – where else would you see a smiling pile of poo?  And where else would it be this cute??  By the way, it would be great if someone could tell us what the dog and the poo are saying to each other:

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You can get pretty much anything from vending machines on the street in Japan, even beer:

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