Kyoto is known as the ancient capital of Japan but actually, there is a Japanese capital older than Kyoto – Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. Not surprisingly, Nara is a very popular place for Japanese students to go on field trips. I got to Nara from Kyoto by Kintetsu Kyoto line (about 600 Yen one-way). Most of the major tourist sights in Nara are centered around Nara Park. I got a map from the tourist office and it was easy to find my way to the tourist sights around the park. In retrospect, I should have taken 2 maps because a hungry deer devoured my map! I felt bad that I fed the deer with a map so I went to get some deer biscuits to feed it. Speaking of deer, similar to Miyajima, there are many deers roaming around in Nara. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha (a temple in Nara) came riding a white deer in the old days, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god. There were so many deers and so many people feeding them that it got quite messy at some places, especially before Nandaimon!
Todaiji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-see temple in Nara because it is the home of the largest Buddha statue (Daibutsu) in Japan. This Buddha statue is inside Daibutsuden which is the world’s largest wooden building. What is even more stunning is the fact that this building is only 2/3 of its original size! Daibutsu is 15 m tall and to give visitors a good sense of its size, the Japanese even put a replica of the Daibutsu’s hand at one side of temple. There is also a supporting post which has a small hole that is said to be the same size as one of the Daibutsu‘s nostrils. Legend has it that those who pass through it will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life. Well, the small children who had so much fun crawling through that hole will certainly be blessed with enlightenment in their next life! I spent quite a bit of time just staring at Daibutsu and a strange feeling overwhelmed me as I wondered how the people who built this Buddha statue would think if they could see the number of tourists who are marveled by its size. I always feel sad when I see how powerful and prominent religious sites in the past are reduced into mere attraction sites today. This Buddha statue deserves to be prayed to.
Besides Todaiji, another famous temple in Nara is Kofukuji which is also an UNESCO site. Kofukuji was established in 710 and it was the family temple of the Fujiwara – the most powerful clan when Nara was acting as the capital of Japan. At its peak, there were over 150 buildings in Kofukuji! But today, visitors are drawn to Kofukuji to see the pagoda – the second tallest pagoda in Japan. Personally, I don’t think it looks special but certainly some knowledge of its history would add depth to the visit. There were some construction going on at the moment so it probably did not look as great as it should at the time of my visit.
Another gem of Nara is the Kasuga Taisha where the legend about the deer as the messenger of god began. Kasuga Taisha is the most celebrated shrine in Nara and it is dedicated to the deity who protects the city. As you might have expected, it is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. My favourite part of Kasuga Taisha is the enchanting path to the temple which is lined with many stone lanterns which have been donated by worshippers. Some of the stone lanterns have moss growing on it and that probably gives a sense of how long this tradition of donation has been around. Beside the temple, there is a botanical garden and a deer sanctuary in the vicinity. However, I did not visit any of them. Instead, I walked every path that is lined with the stone lanterns and enjoyed the relaxing and peaceful walk.