Thursday, December 19, 2013


While Kyoto exudes the old-world charm and Osaka glaringly contrasts as the modern melting pot, Nara is a wonderful getaway - quaint, tranquil and green - that bespeaks the harmonious coexistence of its rich history and the contemporaneous lifestyle. Host to eight World heritage Sites in Unesco's listing of Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, the town is a walker's paradise. Navigating through the different sites is no difficult task, and strolling down the serene paths and exploring the nooks and corners is in itself  a refreshing experience.
Ambling down the Sanjodori Street, admiring the old wooden houses standing amicably by new age shops and restaurants, crossing the lovely Higashimuki covered promenade, we reach a flight of stairs that would take us to the Kofuku-ji Temple - a family temple of an erstwhile powerful clan, Fujiwara. It was built in early-8th century and then rebuilt again in early 15th century. Housing a number of buildings (pagodas and temples) within its vast premises, its five-storey pagoda is one of the most famous icons of Nara and the second largest pagoda of Japan. The National treasure Museum within its precincts houses the three-faced Ashura Statue, one of the most famous Buddhist statues in Japan, among other artefacts.
The Nara Park is an almost inevitable destination if you are in the town. The wild sika deers freely roaming on its premises are the highlight of this scenic park. Considered to be sacred - messengers of God - in Shinto, they mingle with the crowd easily and often become overbearing and aggressive when offered food. There are vendors selling crackers for them, and one can buy and feed them, though one needs to be extra cautious, cause despite their innocent eyes and high cuteness quotient, they can just catch you off-guard.
At the edge of the Nara Park, nestled in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, is the shinto shrine Kasuga-Taisha, which is another World Heritage Site of Historical Nara. The temple belonged to the Fujiwara family and has four deities enshrined. Quiet and flanked by the forest around, what first strikes one while approaching the shrine are the 2,000 concrete lanterns that pave the way to the main gate. Even as I walked appreciating the beauty around, I couldn't stop thinking how ethereal would it look when the lanterns are lit up. It almost captured my imagination all the way, till I reached the shrine. Inside, there are 1,000 bronze lanterns to add further fuel to one's fancy. Interestingly, we got to witness the tradition of 'Omiya Mairi' - a Shinto tradition much akin to Christian baptism - where the new-born baby is brought by the parents and the grandparents to the shrine to express their gratitude to the deities for the birth and also have the priest pray for the baby's health and happiness and well-being. Photo-ops were much in demand by the tourists and the family gladly relented, even as they had their personal photographer capture the events. 
A short walk from the Kasuga-Taisha is the world's largest wooden structure - the Todai-ji temple - that houses the enormous Buddha, which is again the world's largest bronze Buddha statue. The imposing structure almost immediately captures your fancy with its magnificence, more for us, as we perhaps were not prepared (did not read much on Todai-ji) for that much of grandness when we crossed the Nandaimon gate. Despite its hugeness, it however, never felt dominating or intimidating, only splendid. The 15 metre high Daibutsu (the Buddha statue in japanese) is flanked by two Bodhisatvas on either side. There are numerous miniature models of the former structure, that had to be built and rebuilt down the centuries. The current one, in fact, has been cut down to 2/3 rd of the original one, it is said. The temple premises is expansive and covers north of the Nara park, in fact. There's a Todai-ji museum as well. 

There is a statue of Komoku-ten, the Guardian King of the South, holding a writing brush and a scroll, symbolising the copying of the sutras. 

The beautiful garden surrounding the temple can be a lovely resting place for those tired achy feet and one can just let the mind run free amidst the boundless nature.
Nara is beautiful and any visit to the Kansai region should include this treasure trove, even if it is only for a day-trip. 

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