2019 BLOG VII: Nara


I was helped up the stairs to the platform for the train to Nara by two young people, one male, one female. I was very grateful. There must have been an elevator somewhere. On the train I talked in Spanish and English with a couple who, just finishing their trip, were about to fly home to Tarragona. In Nara station I ran into two Mexicans for a quick Spanish chat.

The hotel, although quite luxe, is next door to the station. It was not at all noisy and faces the mountains. What’s between it and the mountains looked pretty ugly. This turned out to be quite untrue.

I discovered the next morning that breakfast, not included in my reservation, was around 20US. Since the hotel was steps from the station I had a choice of places to breakfast at. That morning, however, I had breakfast in the hotel. It was a high sodium Japanese breakfast but there were delicious tiny pastries, good yogurt, salad and scrambled eggs I suspect came out of a plastic bag.

I bought stamps at 7 Eleven, almost wiping out their supply of postcard stamps. I received directions to the bus that would take me to Kasuga Taisha Shrine on the other side of town. I could have walked it but I didn’t know that then. There were a few Westerners on the bus but no one who wanted to talk or join up. It was a hot day. I acquired my first prickly-heat rash; it is with me still.

You come into Kasuga Taisha through an orange torii gate, tori means “bird abode”. D tells me the orange color means the institution is Shinto.  I don’t think I went inside anything except a darkened room full of lit lanterns. It was serene to stand in the dark surrounded by lanterns each with its own pattern silhouetted by its light. Lanterns are the motif of Kasuga Taisha. People pray outside or at an open door. As you walk you are accompanied by the sharp clap people make at the end of a prayer or the sound of a bell announcing a prayer’s completion. Unlike other roofs, Kasuga’s have crossed sticks on their gable ends.

The paths are lined with moss-covered lanterns. They and the deer are a constant. The deer are everywhere being photographed, petted, not something they are very interested in, and fed, something they expect.

A wedding was going on in one court, the bride in a white kimono and white fabric hat like a folded flour tortilla. Then more lanterns, these were golden, hanging from chains in an orange corridor.

I went to a little museum that had an exhibit of Dadaiko, a pair of gigantic drums used in the performance of Bugaku, a traditional courtyard dance. The painting on the drum was worn off in the center. There were other musical instruments, strings and flutes. The masks were astonishing objects—I can only recall two—one in red lacquer descended in a series of folds from furrowed brow to his creased cheeks, to chin. The other was a bulgy eyed demon with a dragon curling over his brow, its tongue sticking out.  They were magnificent works of imagination.

I asked directions from the ticket taker at the museum for Shin-Yakushiji Temple, but it was too much for her. Japanese, it seems to me are not very good at directions. Luckily there were plenty of signs that lead me through the woods passing a blasted, enormous old tree, trunk largely stripped of bark, all branches amputated, but from one amputee sprang a bouquet of leaves. Out of the woods, across a large but empty road, and up a lane. Here I walked around a little temple that houses, I believe, a Kannon, but you need permission to see it.  A couple was worshiping despite the closed door.

A bit further along the lane was Shin-Yakushiji constructed in 747 by Empress Komyo in thanks for the recovery of Emperor Shomu’s health. All that remains is the main hall that now contains the seated Yakushi Nyorai, the Physician of the Soul. His body is carved from a block of Japanese nutmeg. His right hand forms the “Do Not Fear” mudra while in his left he holds a jar of medicine. Around him are the 12 Divine Generals whom I had never met before but who came to be more and more important in my feelings about Japanese sculpture.  Eleven of the Generals are original, made of clay, with some paint remaining on them—reds and gold. Very fierce looking, some are shouting with open mouths as they threaten with spears, swords and tridents.  They are in motion and are quite wonderful.

I was hungry, but the place I looked into only offered cakes and tea. I asked two sets of people for directions once I found the big road again. Then I realized that idiotically I was asking my fellow tourists for directions.

I came upon a restaurant by the side of the road where four or five women in my age group were having lunch together. Later I realized they live in the neighborhood. The chef-proprietor had some English. He drew me a map to the road I would need to get home. I ordered tempura and cold soba that came with the usual fixings. It was excellent. I told him so. He grinned ear to ear and said, “You make me very happy.”

I had no difficulty walking home.

The next morning I walked across to the train station and had a bacon, lettuce and tomato croissant at a sort of Deli France. Not bad. I followed that with an egg, a caramel something that was small, a regular croissant and several cups of coffee.

When I had looked out my window, it gave a fine view across town to the mountains, it was raining hard enough for me to take my poncho, the light one I’d brought with me, not the new one I’d bought in Kyoto. I also saw a woman doing her morning exercise, walking up and down, at least 20 times a long flight of stairs. Not a bad way of exercising when traveling.  I thought she was smart.

While I was eating my various croissants and coffee two Europeans came in, the man lean and a bit dour looking, the woman cheery, pretty with a mass of blond curls. They came and sat next to me. She is Dutch, he from Valencia. They live in Brussels. We talked about traveling, Japan, the Japanese, our various countries. He tried to get his morning tea in a cup with a handle, but the rule is you can have coffee in a cup with a handle but not tea. He was defeated by the rules. He noted with resignation that the Japanese are, “a little rigid.”

I walked, not a pleasant walk, beside a six lane highway, Sanjo-dori, but it got greener as I went along until on either side there was a park full of deer, the Celestial Messengers. You buy crackers at little stands to feed them. Their attitude is rather cat like, “The only reason for your existence is to buy crackers and feed them to us. If you don’t do that your have no reason to exist.” I did not buy crackers. My friend L had suggested buying carrots and I had yet to do that.

I had intended to go to the Todai-ji and its surrounding temples but was fed up enough with the rain to turn into Kofukuji Temple and the Five Story Pagoda, a 1426 rebuild of a 730 structure, very impressive even in rain. There are two other buildings the Eastern Golden Hall, rebuilt in the 15th century, and the Central Golden Hall, that my Frommer’s not-very-good guidebook doesn’t even mention.

This was my second splendiferous day but not because of mountains. This time it was a crescendo of sculptures that filled me head with dashing,, dancing leaping shapes. The experience was so intense I had to stop looking at statues because I wanted to retain and adding more was going to cause erasure.

In the Central Hall is a golden Medicine Buddha in the usual pose; behind him a leaf shaped filigree carved halo, what in Tibet is called a torana. He dates from 1877. He and the Bodhisattvas on either side of him are calm as they stand on lotuses whose petals curl up around their feet. Moving outward the Four Heavenly Kings come next—in Tibet these are the Kings of the Four Directions and some play musical instruments—with grimacing facial expressions, vigorous body movements, garments in a swirl about and behind them, all is in motion. Three have tridents and one a sword for weapons. One has a lion on his belt. They stand yelling and grimacing on rocky outcroppings. They may be 13th century by Unkei.

They are not as you might expect carved from one block of wood but parts of the body, arms, legs were carved from separate blocks, sometimes of different woods, and then joined together.

They are, and this was true of the other sculptures that overwhelmed me that day, all intense turmoil, all swirl.

Daikokuten, a version of Mahakala, is carved out of one block. In Tibet and Nepal this is a fanged, roaringly fierce god who wears a crown of skulls. Here in Japan in short trousers and tunic, carrying a sack, wearing a hood he is the protective deity of the kitchen.

The Eastern Golden Hall, besides its Medicine Buddha, accompanying Bodhisattvas, and Four Heavenly Generals, has Twelve Divine Generals fierce-faced as Kabuki masks. They are furiously theatrical.  I would love a book of photographs of the most famous carvings of these Generals in Japan.  Statues are static and still but I have never seen sculptures that more vividly portray movement, not just in arms, legs, and clothing but in facial expression. These are knock out art works. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that there is no prescribed iconography for the Generals.  The sculptor choses the posture, the expression, the weapons of each one.

I then wandered, still in the rain, into a small museum of exceptional old sculptures, unmentioned by Frommers. The first Buddha, small, of the Kamakura period, has hands and feet of exquisite delicacy. Next to him is his shrine box with shining paintings on it and above where his head would be if he were in the box, a number of small, dainty, floating spirits whether carved from wood or cast in brass I don’t know.

The Twelve Heavenly Generals here are portrayed in relief carving on cypress panels. One, Basara Taisho, glares at you with his tongue pushing out his lower lip. Nearby, Mekira Taisho, does a stomp dance brimming with ferocious glee, the sole of one foot pointing flat out at you like a kick boxer about to knock you out. I hope to carry the mental image of these carvings with me for the rest of my life.

There is as well a big room with super Buddha after awe inspiring Buddha. Shakija Nyorai from the 11th or 12th century has sinuous fingers. His left middle finger is impossibly long. There is a cast copper Buddha dating to 685.

The information on the wall says over and over of the temples of these objects, “Most recently lost to fire in 1181,” or “Most recently lost to fire in 1717.” It’s the “most recently” that gets to me.

There is a sweet-faced Kannon from the 13th century carved from wood with not 1,000 arms, but plenty, each hand grasping an object.  There are the Mythical Beings, one with a bird’s head but several with the fresh faces of young boys. A 13th century head of Shaka Nyorai by Unkei has full lips, unusually his ears are flat against his head, but the centuries have chipped away the curls on his head. Aside from the Generals, my favorite is someone called Kongo Rokish, whom you would want on your side in any conflict, portrayed with mouth open and in a second sculpture, closed. Veins protrude on his arms and legs. His eyes and eyebrows drawn together thrust a V down from his forehead. The protector of the Buddha he is all vigorous, fierce turbulence with his skirt swinging out behind him.

I went to the National Museum but could do no more sculpture. They had a special exhibit of tea bowls for which people were waiting an hour to see one in particular. I rested by looking at charming scroll paintings of the 7th century journey of the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, from Xian to India to bring back sutras. It is a wonder tale full of mountains to be climbed and rivers crossed with a successful homecoming.

3 thoughts on “2019 BLOG VII: Nara

  1. Enjoying traveling with you via your vivid descriptions. I travel with many of the same methods. I love to converse in another country with others using a third language.


  2. Those deer are quite dear. They may be Celestial Messengers, but are quite demanding. I am not sure what the Buddha would make of that. The medicine Buddha is quite different than the one I have in silkscreen at the masia. Nevertheless, I am told the the collective power of chanting can bring his healing and sometimes miracles. I miss my weekly devotion. I see that you are very much in a state of graciousness as you bring these messages/descriptions to us armchair travelers.


  3. I too love the “recent” events that have occurred to, in this case buildings,York and Exeter cathedrals that I have just visited. It puts the recent fire this year in Notre Dame in Paris into perspective. It is a hiccup in its life. It is the fate of Visual Art such as sculptures and churches and no doubt, temples in Japan. The sculptures all sound extraordinary. I love the way you came down with 7th century painted scrolls!


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