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Published: March 21st 2014
Temple complex near five-story pagoda.
Tuesday, March 18
Today I went back to the Kyoto Station but took the JR Nara line further out to the city of Nara, a former capital of Japan. Nara is famous for its herds of deer that roam the large park area freely and are fed by visitors. Nara is a very assessable city to tourists and has a smaller, quainter atmosphere than the big cities. It’s a good place to go if you’re looking for a relaxing pace but still lots to do. I actually got seven go-shuin in Nara, too, and I traveled only by foot from the JR station. It was overcast and a little rainy on my visit, which may have controlled the crowds a bit, but I was really impressed with the small-historical-town atmosphere. Nodokana might be the word for it, which I think means something like idyllic, but I’m not sure if it has to be more inaka to be nodokana or not. But I heard another person say it, so lets go with it.
I first visited the Kofuki-ji on the way towards the deer park, known for its five-story pagoda.
Rainy day at Kofuku-ji.
Deer hung out on the temple grounds, looking for food from the people there. Most of the time when a deer sees me, it looks up as if it deciding to run or not, in the mindset of the prey. These deer would look at you with hungry eyes, deciding whether or not you had food. When the big alter hall was pretty occupied, I went to a smaller one on the side instead and looked around. When I got my go-shuin nearby, the calligrapher gave me a choice to get the stamp for the whole area, the bigger building, or the small building I had just visited, so I went with the one I had visited by chance. Later, by the pagoda, I got one from another calligrapher for the whole area. The two serve as reminders to the different scales at which you can learn about a place.
After that, I decided to swing down to another temple, Gango-ji, to the south before heading to the deer park. A little more removed from the main tourist route, I got to walk though a part of town where English was a little less common, which is also nice
Located between the large shrine on the left and the booths on the right, behind the vine holder, is the small shrine I visited.
to experience when traveling. The man at the entrance gave me a pamphlet on the temple, one in English after he asked where I was from, and I left my go-shuin-cho with him. I took off my shoes at the hondo and went inside and kneeled on the tatami floor, appreciating the alter. I took the time there to read the pamphlet about the history of the temple, and found that it was a temple where Korean monks helped introduce Buddhism to Japan and later had a long history of Jodo Shinshu scholasticism, making it perhaps the one shuin I have from a somewhat Jodo Shinshu temple, which usually do not do go-shuin. I also learned that the whole temple had actually been moved from another site to Nara when Nara was the capital of a fledgling Japan. Later, when I looked at the treasure hall, which housed a lot of building material for the temple, I realized that they probably move temples instead of just building new ones because of the intensity of labor that goes into the workmanship, let alone the art that a temple houses. I spend a bit of time there, over all, and when I
checked out and picked up my go-shuin-cho, I found that the paper put between the sheets had some calligraphy on it as well. I think he gave me a bonus calligraphy piece. Sometimes it’s hard to learn the whole history of the temples I visit, but I’m glad I took the time to read the material at the temple, while I was there appreciating it.
After that, I cut north again to the deer park. I stopped on a bridge crossing a lake where there was a small pavilion and had lunch. A light, misty rain had started up while I was walking, but the rain actually started falling just for the time I was eating lunch. As I left, it strangely subsided, the drops on the pond rescinding.
I went to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine after that, which is meant to enshrine the deities of the mountain there. The wisteria (hongangi/fuji?) plants there are a source of pride and the mon for the temple is wisteria that looks similar to the Jodo Shinshu hongangi crest. Some of the individual plants there are said to be eight hundred years old. The paths around the shrine are
lined with lanterns, which are covered in green moss. The area has a very primeval forest feel to it and a magical atmosphere. I got another shuin there before continuing down the forest path.
Not too far away was another shrine set up for love called the Wakamiya Jinji Shrine. A few couples were there and there was a room where couples could sit together and perform a ceremony that involved a drum and some other ritual items in front of an alter. As you can see, I was mostly interested in the drum, and I don’t remember what the other things were. A lot of the temples have taiko, but most are in areas where photography isn’t acceptable or permitted, so I don’t have pictures. Most of the musical ceremonies I have witnessed involve rhythmic taiko, though, usually just keeping the backbeat. There was also a table where couples could write their wishes on a pentagonal wooden tile to be hung on a rack of them at the shrine. This custom is common at most of the temples and shrines I visit, though I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. I think you just write wishes or prayers
Deer at Kofuku-ji
Deer roamed around looking for people to feed them.
on the back and hang it with the others to clink around in the wind. While there, I got a shuin from a nice, old lady who did things at her own pace and encouraged the couples that visited to use the couples’ alter. She seemed like a jolly matchmaker from days before.
Having traveled towards the edge of the forest, I decided that I would pop out and visit a small temple on the map called Shin-Yakushi-ji. The forest ends abruptly in this part of town, and the town begins as such, so I went back to navigating city streets again, which is not quite as pleasant as the forest, but still a fun, new experience. When I made it there, I found that there was indeed a cover charge despite it being a smaller temple off the map. Once I got inside, though, I was a little disappointed at what was there. It seemed like it was just a few buildings and a very small zen garden. By the zen garden, there was a room that you could go in that was showing a video about the temple, but I didn't stay to watch long. Saving the
main building, the treasure hall, for last, I took off my shoes and went inside. I found that my initial disappointment was unwarranted. The room was large and dark with a great stone Buddha in the center. Surrounding the Buddha were stone statues of “generals,” which might have meant bodhisattvas. I think there were eight of them, each facing outwards so that you went in a large circle around the room to view them all. Inside the room, a calligrapher gave me my go-shuin, a reminder to not judge a temple from the outside.
After that I took a long walk back through the forest over to the north part of the preserve to the last temple, Todai-ji. This temple, however, impressed me from a kilometer away. As I came to a big grass clearing, deer grazing intermittently across the rolling field, I saw the outline of a massive building in the distance. I couldn’t believe its size at first. From my vantage point, I was the only person in sight. A meadow of deer before me, then a dark line of trees, and behind it, an ancient and massive monument. It was unbelievable. I walked a path around
the field and through some tress, and then I heard the sound of a crowd. I came through the trees to find the plaza incredibly packed with people, many of them students on school trips. Guides in red hats with loudspeakers lead masses of them around the grounds and photographers lined classes up for their pictures, deer nibbling at the fronts of their uniforms. I saw a guide nonchalantly hiss through his microphone at a deer, who reluctantly yielded to the human. How I got from such tranquility to such a huge crowd was shocking. There were vendors selling food for people to feed the deer, too, which explains why the deer hung out in such mass. I haven’t been able to figure out how the deer know not to walk into open shops or take things that are out for display in front of the shops. I mean, they could if they wanted, but they don’t. They must know not to or are in cahoots with the tourism industry.
After passing though a massive gate towards the temple, I reached the outer walls of the temple. Once inside, there were no deer, though, probably because they couldn’t afford
Five Story Pagoda
Rising into the misty rain.
the admission. It was about 500 yen to get in, but if a deer had 150, it would probably go spend it on a pack of those vendor-sold bread-crackers that they go nuts for.
The temple building housed a massive statue of the Buddha, probably the biggest pre-industrial statue I have ever seen. It was awesome. The temple allowed photography, too, so I can share some pictures with you. There were other large statues there, too, as well as models of what the building had looked like in the past. This building looked to be the third incarnation of the treasure hall to house the giant statue of the Buddha. There was a hole in one of the pillars that people crawled though, too, though I’m sure what the story behind that is. The wood is worn, so I’m pretty sure it’s not just the people I saw.
After spending my time there looking around, I got my last go-shuin of the day on the way out. I was told not to take pictures of the process, and most places have signs forbidding it. In the past, I have moved over to let other people, usually tourists, watch
with me as the calligrapher writes (though not all do so in a place where you can watch). This time, a guy straight up edges me out a little and takes a picture without a word to the calligrapher or me. So I don’t have a picture of the process for you, but some guy does. If you look it up online, there are some pictures from other travelers, too, most who claim to have asked permission, so you can see what a standard booth looks like, but they come in different forms.
For the most part, I have gotten along with the other tourists I’ve met, but occasionally I’ve been a little embarrassed for our country. This reminds me of Kyoto, where a large group of “American Bros” walked down the street in matching hachimaki they had bought. It wouldn’t have been embarrassing if I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and they were saying it quite loud. They were talking about taking their shirts off to get even more attention. Like really, that’s what they were talking about. Pretty much all they talked about was how much attention they were getting or who was getting more attention.
Everyone they passed laughed amiably, though, sometimes saying “hi” or complementing them. Except for another American, who said in a sarcastic voice, “Oh, great. You have matching headbands.” The funniest part, though, was when they passed a parade of girls in yukata. Situationally, it was pretty hilarious when the two groups passed, and they both laughed at the situation.
But in this case, I didn’t reveal myself to them and let them think like many other tourists do, that I’m Japanese. I’ve noticed and met other Asian-Americans, though, in Japan, though, so I’m not alone. Being non-Japanese speaking in Japan, I try to be humble and I don’t assume anyone doesn’t speak Japanese. I’ll always start in Japanese if they haven’t started in English or Spanish, both of which I’ve heard. It’s actually funny that being in an environment where English isn’t common, my Spanish kicks in and I’m remembering all kinds of stuff. Also, one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s not uncommon for people to peg me as American, and I’m told it’s in part because of my clothes. Actually, sometimes I can spot other Asian-Americans, too, based on clothing. I think mannerism, too, makes
Deer and a Bus
Deer live right along the urban interface and have to learn to deal with traffic, which they seem really good at.
it easy to spot. Anyway, I usually don’t hide being American, but I didn’t want to be a part of the Bro Parade.
I think the thing is to try to be respectful no matter what language you speak. And maybe I could learn a few things from the Bros. Despite being a little egocentric at a temple, they humored the people they saw. They didn’t let their personality get dampened by their inability to speak the language. When I catch myself thinking too hard, I tell myself to not worry so much about getting it right and to say it genuinely with a smile. That seems to work better anyhow. Well, that’s all about that.
It was another day of getting back to Kure pretty late at night, which worked out because Ellen had another dinner plan. But I’ll try to get back earlier tomorrow to spend more time with Ellen.
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