By Georgia Payne
In my time off after Bunkasai (school festival) I decided to travel out of the Kanto region to the Kansai region, famous for tourism and home to Kyoto and Nara.
My first stop was Nara. After catching a train to the airport, flying from Tokyo to Osaka and then catching two trains, I finally arrived in the historic town of Nara.
My flight had been delayed for over an hour so by the time I reached Nara, it was quite late, so I checked into my hostel (a 100 year old Japanese inn) and went to find some dinner. I found an Udon place where the bowl was bigger than my head and the noodles were soaking in a Japanese curry. It was 美味し oishi (delicious).
Nara is renowned for the 1100 semi-wild deer that roam the streets. While walking back to my hostel, I saw my first glimpse of the rather large deer population and witnessed the fairly severe friendliness of the deer.
I decided spontaneously, to take a walking tour of the sights, as it is sometimes quite difficult to gain a real understanding of the historic sights because the signs are in complex Japanese. My guide was very knowledgable and I came away with some awesome facts about Nara.
On our tour we visited the Kasuga-Taisha 春日大社 shinto shrine that dates back to 768A.D. when Nara was the capital of Japan. Nara is the original capital of Japan because it had the first centralised government. The Emperor lived here for approximately 80 years before the capital was moved to Kyoto, along with the imperial palace that was dismantled and re-assembled in Kyoto.
The path to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns that are donated by people and businesses. Twice a year the lanterns are lit, but the rest of the year they grow lovely amounts of moss and provide places for the deer to hang out for photos.
Just before we reached the shrine our tour guide pointed our some sake barrels and explained that a lot of the sake in Nara was, and still is brewed at shinto shrine!
Being incredibly old, the shrine is home to a number of beautiful artefacts such as golden lanterns and special prayer sites. Shinto-ism celebrates and worships nature and before the shrines people would worship at trees and mountains. To make the worship more central and convenient, structures were built which are now the shinto shrines. One of the buildings at Kasuga-Taisha houses a tree that is hundreds of years old. The tree began to grow towards the building and so they altered the building to accomodate the tree. That is how serious they are about nature.
After the shinto shrine we headed to a Buddhist temple called Todai-ji 東大寺. The buildings on the hillside above the temple offer incredible views of Nara and are home to a fire ceremony once a year. The structure is made of wood and they have amazingly only burnt it down once in the fire ceremony.
Todai-ji houses ‘The Big Buddha’ which, as you may remember from our trip to Kamakura, is also the name of the Buddha there. This, however, is a different ‘Big Buddha’. The structure housing the ‘Big Buddha’ is the largest wooden structure of its kind, and believe me, it is HUGE.
Inside the temple, there is a hole the size of the Buddha’s nostril in one of the columns through which small people (mostly children) slide and it brings them enlightenment in the next life.
Interestingly, buildings in Japan often have purposeful mistakes in them because a perfect building can only decline, whereas a building with mistakes in it can always be improved.
After the walking tour ended and our group parted ways, I found some lunch, headed back to the hostel to resupply and set out on the next adventure. I had heard that some of the best views in Nara were from the top of Mt. Wakakusa so after lunch I headed back towards the shrine and the foot of the mountain.
Wakakusa literally means ‘young grass’ because once a year they burn the mountainside, making way for new shoots of grass. This results in a stunning hillside where the deer roam freely.
Mt. Wakakusa is more of a hill than a mountain as it only takes 20 minutes to ascend to the top. But, goodness me are there some spectacular views from the top! It is quite popular with tourists and there are lots of people taking photos with the deer and of the view. Sunset was a beautiful time to visit.
Nara is full of other historic treasures that I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit, however, I will endeavour to return and take in more of the history of this quaint former capital.