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Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. Like Kyoto it is rich in history with many temples and shrines. Nara can be done as a side trip from Kyoto, but if you have more time, although small, with temples, shops, museums, parks, gardens there is a lot to see.
If you go to Nara many of the temples and museums will have a free pamphlet in English. You may not be given this automatically so don't forget to ask for it. Also many of the temples like Yakushiji Temple may have a more detailed English guide book for sale. Nara is small enough that bicycles are a effitient means of travel. Sunflower rental shop rents bikes for about 1000 yen per day. They are located about a 1 min. walk from the south exit of the Kintetsu station across from the Paket super market. You can save a lot of time and see more if you tool around the town on your mamachari. I also went to Toshodaiji Temple near Yakushiji Temple. The grounds are nice, but be aware that the main hall is under complete restoration and will remain closed until 2009.
Two-man team make mochi (rice pounded into paste) at a street shop in Nara
A bucket filled with water sits ready by an old wooden structure in case of a fire.
Lanterns hang from a temple roof
Once you get a couple blocks away from the main road you may start to see a red bucket filled with water in front of each house. These are ready in case of a fire. I saw these buckets lined up in front of all the houses leading down to the Ryokan I stayed at (Seikan-so 0742-22-2670). Seikan-so, by the way, is about a 10-15 min. walk from the main road and was a nice place for only 4000 yen. The private room was clean as were the bathrooms and bath. The ryokan has rental cycles, internet access, a common room with a large TV, and a beautiful garden.
An old liquor shop still has tracks (use?) in the floor
A Todaiji deer strikes the kouyou hanafuda pose for my camera
One of the main attractions in Nara is Nara park where both the national museum Todaiji Temple are located. Within the grounds deer, considered sacred, are allowed to roam free. The are many shikasenbei or deer cracker vendors selling packs of crackers for feeding the deer. Somehow the deer know not to steel from the vendors although it would be quite easy. Instead they wait until someone buys some shikasenbei and then they rush them. If you hold the cracker out indicating you will give it to the deer, the deer will usually bow their head to show their appreciation. However, there is another approach for getting attention. I been bitten more than once and one time the bite left quite a welt. The males tend to be a bit (excuse the pun) more aggressive.
If you visit the park, visit the Nara National Museum. There are some excellent Buddha images including a dream changing Cannon, a 9-headed Cannon (not as common as the 11-headed Cannon) and many more. There is lots of good English information. The last week in Oct. and the first week in Nov. the "Treasure of Todaiji" are displayed. In 2003, 66 of the 9000 pieces were on display. This was the most crowded I have ever seen a museum in my life. All exhibits were packed 3 people deep. Most of the treasures were scrolls, small tables, small ornate boxes and similar items.
If you are interested in Buddhist art check out the underground hall that connects the two buildings. There is a snack shop and a souvenir shop. There is also some great photos and explanations about how the statues are created. Nara Nara Kan located inside the same building as the Nara Kintetsu station is another great place to learn more about Buddhist art. You can see the entire display in about an hour. There are various statues, some description of various mudra the meaning of the hand positions of the Buddhist images. These are used to help determine which Buddha an image is depicting. There is even a copy of the hole in the pillar at Todaiji Temple you can try to squeeze through if Todaiji was too crowded. And there is also a copy of the hand of the daibutsu in Todaiji Temple that you can climb into and take you photo.
"Cross on the green, not in between!"
Traditional Meiji era structures at the Isuien garden in Nara Park
Girl celebrates shichigosan with her family at a Nara Temple
October 15 is a national holiday called shichigosan meaning seven-five-three. Girls age seven and three and boys age five dress up in kimono and visit the temples. Although the holiday is in October, you will see families celebrating at the temples throughout October and November. If you ask to take a photo of their little girls or boy, most will be happy to quickly say yes.
Vines and red leaves cover the side of a building in Nara Park
Todaiji Temple which houses a daibutsu or big Buddha is probably the largest attraction in Nara. After being destroyed by a fire, the temple was rebuilt to only 2/3 of the original size. But it is still the largest wooden structure in Japan. The Buddha inside the main hall is one of the largest bronze statues in the world, and the Nio kings at the South Gate are the largest in Japan. During my April 2006 visit to Todaiji, the temple roof was being restored. For 1000 yen you could write anything you wanted on one of the new roof tiles to be added to the temple roof during restoration!
Todaiji Temple, the largest wooded structure in Japan.
Largest bronze Buddha in Japan and a close up of the Buddha's aura (right)
This image of Rushana Nyorai is the largest bronze Buddha in Japan. On the right is a close up of the Buddha aura containing many mini-Buddha. Behind the Buddha there is a large wooden pillar with a tunnel bored through the same size as one of the images nostrils. If you can pass through the tunnel, it is said you will find happiness.
One of the two Bodhisattvas in the triad with the Big Buddha
Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing
This is an image of Yakushi Nyorai just out side the main hall. Yakushi is the Buddha of healing and so he is often depicted holding a jar of medicine as seen here. If you have some illness or injury, touching this buddha then yourself at the location is said to help cure the illness and heel the injury. The white stains seem to be salt from people touching the statue.
Tamonten, the deity of victory and fortune stands inside the main hall
If you are looking for old stuff, look no further. Horyuji Temple houses the oldest wooden structures still standing in Japan today. The five story pagoda (shown below) is said to date back to 670 although there has been some recent discoveries that have cause controversy over this date. Nov. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd there is a special exhibit of Sakyamuni or Shaka Nyorai also called Oshakasama. This is a triad with Shaka flanked by two attendants. I was lucky enough to have seen this during both my trips to Horyuji.
The oldest Nio king statues in Japan at Horyuji Temple South Gate
A peaceful corridor ar Horyoji Temple
A monk leaves his shoes outside while preparing to lock up the temple
Five-Story pagoda at Horyuji Temple
If you go to Nara, make time to see Yakushiji Temple. If you do go, make sure to visit all the buildings including the Toindo, the East Temple which houses a beautiful standing image of Sho Cannon Bodhisattva, which unfortunately I did not see in person.
A mud wall with an ornate top on the approach to Yakushiji Temple.
Nio (two kings) stand on demons at the Center Gate.
The Nio kings along with the Tenmon are often depicted standing on demons or rocks.
A pair of newly restored doors creates a nice frame for the trees outside
Yakushiji Temple West pagoda, the main hall, and the East pagoda
As you approach Yakushiji Temple though the chuumon Center Gate you will see the West pagoda on the left and the East pagoda on the right of the kondo the main hall. The West pagoda was lost to a fire and rebuilt which is why it appears new. Behind the main hall to the right just barely visible in this center photo is the new lecture hall finished in March 2003 which houses an triad of the Buddha Miroku and two attendants. Inside the main hall seen in the center photo is a triad of the Buddha Yakushi and two attendants Nikko Bosatsu (Sun Bodhisattva) and Gakko Bosatsu (Moon Bodhisattva). These images are incredibly beautiful and are considered to be some of the finest Buddhist statues in the world. The East pagoda is one of only a few of the original structures not destroyed by fire. Inside there is an unusual image of starved Buddha. Both pagodas are 3-story pagodas but appear as 6-story pagodas due to the extra 3 "skirts".