Amid soaring temple pagodas, countless bursts of cherry blossoms, and herds of deer that rove among yards, parks, and even the streets, a springtime visit to the ancient city of Nara feels like stepping into a fairy tale. Japan often strikes foreigners with its unique interweavings of modernity and tradition, ancient and new, artifice and nature. Nara embodies this balance and brings it to its apotheosis.
Before Tokyo there was Kyoto, Japan's thousand-year cultural jewel; before Kyoto, there was Nara, the capital founded by an empress. Countless stories and poems written over the centuries celebrate Nara's beauty, and its fame is well-deserved. From the swooping, phoenix-wing rooftops of Yakushi-ji Temple to the flower cloaked, gilt-crowned Hall of The Great Buddha, a powerful energy resides here that captivates the heart and humbles the spirit. Eras change, rulers come and go, generations shift, and cultures modernize - yet the enchantment Nara holds for the pilgrims and sightseers who pass through its sacred places is immortal.
I had been meaning to visit Nara for years. I had read about it in books, essays, and poems, and always knew that one day I would need to see it for myself. The perfect chance came this spring, so I took advantage of the pleasant weather and planned a multi-prefecture trip with Nara as the centerpiece. From Osaka I made my way to Iga (of ninja renown); from Iga I headed through Yagyu (valley of the famed Yagyu swordsmen); then from Yagyu, I at last headed down into Nara City.
I had intended to stay for only two days, but Nara surpassed even my high expectations. There was just too much to see, too much to experience, and it would have felt a crime to rush through it all. So I stayed for three days instead.
Nara Park. Yakushiji Temple. The Great Buddha. The roaming deer herds. Nara is famed for all of these. But to enjoy a visit that truly does justice to the city, it helps to know a bit of history. And the Nara Period (710-794), when Nara dominated as Japan's Imperial Capital, is a fascinating era.
I mentioned earlier that Nara was a capital founded by an empress. Women rulers are exceedingly rare in Japanese history, yet three of them reigned during the Nara Period (one even went so far as to rule twice). Before Nara, the capital would change every time a new ruler took the throne, but Empress Genmei and her court ended that chaotic practice in the year 710 when they established Nara to be Japan’s first fixed, permanent capital. The city was built on a grid pattern according to the time-honored principles of feng shui, with the Imperial Palace at the north end in reflection of the Pole Star, bringing Heaven and Earth into alignment. Surely, they thought, harmony throughout the realm would follow.
Harmony did not follow.
Within a short three decades, Japan was devastated by drought and famine. A plague broke out that wiped out a third of the entire Japanese population, including many key figures in the government. A vengeful, exiled nobleman raised an army and rebelled against the Imperial Court. The nation managed to survive these catastrophes, but a deep, lingering trauma remained.
Hoping to appease an angry cosmos, Emperor Shomu (reigned 724-749 CE) became a very religious man. He initiated a vast, nation-wide temple-building program, promoting Buddhism throughout the land. The government raised new temples in every province like talismans to ward away evil, and Shomu oversaw the construction of both the mighty Todai-ji Temple and the Great Buddha in Nara. Though Buddhism had already existed in Japan for nearly two-hundred years, under Emperor Shomu it truly became a dominant force in Japanese culture and politics.
To this day, Todai-ji Temple* and its Great Buddha are among the most popular historical sites in Japan. I visited them in the early morning, beating the crowds that invariably come streaming through by the hundreds as the day wears on. Deer wandered freely among the temple grounds, sometimes even seeming to outnumber the people.
Grand and imposing as it is, Todai-ji is still only a fragment of its early glory. The original, including the original Great Buddha, was destroyed by samurai of the powerful Taira Clan during the great Gempei War (1181-1185) - a shocking crime that Heaven was swift to avenge, first with the agonizing fever-death of the Taira leader and then with the annihilation of their entire clan. The temple was rebuilt soon after, and has undergone various repairs over the centuries as needed. Todai-ji today is slightly smaller than it once was, but its grounds are still large enough to contain a small town. It's gates and mighty halls still awe the heart and take away the breath.
Todai-ji is perhaps the most famed of the Seven Powerful Temples of Nara, but Horyu-ji and Yakushi-ji were even higher on my list of temples to see. I'd researched the structures and layouts of these two temples years ago as inspiration for a key location in my novel, and now I was thrilled for the chance to finally visit them in person. Each temple boasts multiple compounds, high pagodas, scenic courtyards, and cloisters. Yakushi-ji delights with its fiery colors; Horyu-ji contains the oldest wooden buildings in the world.
In the end, I visited all of the Seven Powerful Temples, collecting seals and blessings from each. Some of those temples are still mighty; most, however, have languished greatly over the last 1,200 years. Still, they are all worth visiting, each with its own history and unique characteristics. The final temple on my list - and the last stop in on my Nara itinerary - was the previously great, now very humble temple of Daian-ji.
I admit, after the mighty Hall of the Great Buddha, after Horyu-ji's sprawling compounds and cloisters, after Yakushi-ji's colored pagodas and regal courtyards...
...Daian-ji didn't look like much.
Somewhat disappointed at first, I stopped by anyway, determined to see the last temple on my list, this last of the Seven (once) Powerful Temples of Nara. But I found more than I anticipated, in unassuming little Daian-ji. It turned out that this final temple had a lesson in store.
"We're holding a special event today," said the monk at Daian-ji's office as he finished stamping my temple book (completing my circuit of the Seven Great Temples of Nara). He gave a kindly smile, the sort you associate with acceptance and warmth and everything good in the world. He handed my book back to me. "It started ten minutes ago, but you can still join if you like. Today is the Buddha's birthday, and one of our priests is giving a historical talk. It's free to join, if you like."
"Sure," I said, figuring I had a half hour or so to spare before I needed to be on the road. Besides, how fortuitous - out of 365 days in a year, I just happened to be here in Nara, in a historical Buddhist temple, on the Buddha's own birthday. Of course I accepted.
The monk showed me to a connected building, which seemed to be something of a small meeting or lecture hall. There were a handful of people in attendance, as well as a reporter from the local news. The monk giving the discussion was an older man, somewhere in his sixties; though I arrived late, he smiled and offered me the remaining seat it the front row. My Japanese is still not so fluent that I was able to understand everything, but I could glean the overall content; he recounted the story of the Buddha's birth, and of the Buddha's mother, Maya, who died seven days after delivering her child, and talked about how different countries and cultures throughout Asia observed this day. It reminded me a bit of sitting in Father Robouam's class at Sophia University, delving into and comparing the histories and traditions surrounding the lives of both the Buddha and Christ - that had been one of my favorite classes, and religious studies has always been a fascinating topic for me. This was my first time to attend a lecture on the subject in Japanese, and there's material there that I definitely mean to explore more in a future post.
After the talk, as the other visitors were leaving, the monk invited me, personally, to sit down with him for some tea. I was a traveler and not a member of the temple community, nor was I Buddhist, but he was curious about my background, my visit to Nara, and my experiences living, working, and studying in Japan. The tea he served was some of the best I've ever had, and we bonded over our shared loves of history, religious studies, and philosophy. And it occurred to me that none of the other temples--not Todai-ji with its glorious halls, nor Yakushi-ji with its glittering pagodas - had given me such a personal welcome. They couldn't have; most of them see hundreds, even thousands of visitors every day, and having the monks sit down with individual guests to share tea and conversation just isn't feasible. But Daian-ji's temporal glory lies behind it; as my new monk friend told me, it had been destroyed by fire and earthquakes and rebuilt many times over the centuries, growing smaller each time, until now it is simply a fragment of its previous beauty and power. As such, it doesn't get the crush of visitors that many of Nara's other temples do. But stripped of worldly grandeur, its heart lies very much intact. And that very modesty allowed Daian-ji to receive me personally, as an individual, rather than just one of a thousand daily guests coming and going through its gates. I left that afternoon musing that it really was a lovely temple after all, and that it had, unexpectedly, given me one of my best experiences in Nara. It seems that even in a city that gleams with myriad historical, religious, and cultural jewels, some of the most profound gems still lie tucked where you least expect to find them.
*Note: "-ji" (寺) literally means "temple." Therefore, "Todai-ji Temple" and "Yakushi-ji Temple are technically redundant, but are still often written this way for the comprehension of English readers.