Nara Park (10 minute walk from Nara Station) is a fine, open green space with forests and lawns and some of Japan’s greatest historical buildings. Also known as Deer Park and Todaji Park, is home to the great Todaji Buddha and over 1,500 deer, who wander through the park and are tame enough to fed by hand by visitors. See Below
The park was created in 1880 and designated a place of scenic beauty in 1922. Most of Nara's most famous temples and cultural relics are conveniently located in the park, which is flanked by a Wakakusa-yama Hill (Mount Mikasa) and Mt. Kasuga and measures two kilometers from north to south and four kilometers from east to west.
Most of the temples in Nara park are Buddhist structures whose designs are based on designs that came from India, China and Korea in the 8th century. The top of Wakakusa-yama Hill is covered in grass and offers wonderful views. There are numerous hiking trails from the park to the mountains on the east side of the park.
During the summer 11 designated spots in Nara, many of them in Nara Park, are illuminated from 6:00pm to 10:00pm. The walkway from the Nara Station to the park is lined with interesting shops, restaurants and street vendors. Website: Japan Guide japan-guide.com
Deer at Nara Park
The 1,500 or so sika deer at Nara Park have been designated as national natural treasures and referecnes to them have been found in Japan’s oldest historical records the “Kojiki” .and “Nohongi”. In the evening they are called to a feeding area by the blowing of a trumpet. Tourists feed them “shikaenbei” (“discs of food”) that can be bought in the park and are are exclusively sold by the WNOW company. According to legend the deer are offspring of a sacred white deer from Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture and are messengers of the gods.
According to local folklore, Sika deer from this area were considered sacred due to a visit from Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine. He was said to have come from Kashima Shrine in the Tokyo area and appeared on Mount Mikasa riding a white deer. Killing one of these sacred deer was a capital offense punishable by death up until 1637. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred status, and were designated as national treasures instead. The number of deer grew to around 1,200 in 2008, leading to concerns about environmental damage and discussions of culling.
On Sundays and holidays in October, during the Deer Antler Cutting in Nara Park, a Japanese version of a round up and rodeo, the deer are chased into the Kasunga Taisha Shrine area and corralled off and then wrestled to the ground so their antlers can be sawn off. In December 2007, a deer in Nara Park managed to get a purse wrapped around it abdomen, A woman was feeding the deer a cracker and her handbag — with her purse and money inside — became entangled in the animal's antlers and somehow slid downs its body and lodged between its two pairs of legs. Efforts to catch deer were unsuccessful. The deer was finally shot with a tranquilizer gun. The woman got all of her possessions back. In 2010 a man was sentenced to six months in prison for killing a deer with a crossbow.
During fiscal 2016 a record number of 121 people were injured by deer. In 2016 the the area around Nara was divided into four different zones, with the outer zones allowing deer to be captured and killed. In 2017, around 120 deer were culled. during 2017. At least 164 people were injured by deer in fiscal 2017-2018. Most of them were tourists feeding the deer. In August 2017 traps were set to catch deer on the outskirts of Nara. After the deer were caught they were killed, a point not brought out in most Japanese news coverage. In April 2018, signs in English, Chinese and Japanese were posted imploring tourists not tease the deer while feeding them.
Kofukuji Temple (within Nara Park)
Kokofuji pagoda in the 19th century Kofukuji Temple(on the west side of Nara Park) contains a 170-foot-high, five-level pagoda that is reflected in Sarusawa Pond. Founded in 710 by the Fujiwara family and rebuilt seven times, it is regarded as one of the most photogenic sights in Japan. The entire temple complex contains only about two dozen of the original 175 buildings that once stood here.
Kofukuji Temple was the tutelary temple of the powerful Fujiwara family. Although much of the temple was destroyed in the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of buildings and Buddhist images designated National Treasures have survived to the present day. These include the five-storied pagoda.The treasure house contains 20,000 objects, the most famous of which is the wooden statue of Ashura, carved in the 8th century. In 1998, Kofukuji Temple was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kofukuji is regarded as the birthplace of Noh drama. I hosted Noh performances as far back as A.D. 869. Today the temple hosts two major noh events — Takigi O-noh in May and Toei-Noh in October. Both are held outdoors at night. Kofukuji was originally built in Kyoto in 669 before being moved to Nara in 710. Between the 10th and 12th centuries it was integrated with nearby Kasuga Shrine. The pagoda is said to have been built in 730 on the orders of Empress Komyo. The other a pagoda at Kofukuji, a three-story, 19-meter-high structure, was built in 1143. The 1.5-,meter-high statue of shura was made in 734. It is displayed in the Kokuhokan national treasure hall,
Many houses from the Edo period still stand in the Naramichi area on the south side of Sarusawa Pond in front of Kofukuji Temple. To win merit people release fish kept in captivity into the pond. Websites: Kofukuji site kohfukuji.com; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website
Kasuga Taisha Shrine (within Nara Park)
Kasuga Taishi Kasuga Taisha Shrine (eastern Nara Park) is considered one the "Three Great Shinto Shrines in Japan." Built by Fuhito Fujiwara as the Fujiwara clan's tutelary shrine, it contains a classic red inner sanctuary, a treasure house with relics and armor from the Heian and Kamakura Periods. About 3,000 lanterns — 2,000 made of stone, the rest bronze — line the paths and hang from the trees were donated by the clan from the 11th century and then later by ordinary people as an expression of their faith. During Lantern Festivals on February 3rd and August 4th, the lanterns are lit, producing a wonderful glowing atmosphere.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Kasuga Taisha Shrine is rebuilt from scratch every 20 years like other important shrines in Japan such as the ones in Ise. Kasuga has been rebuilt 57 times. The shrine is surrounded a thick forest. The garden at the shrine contains 270 plants mentioned in the “Manyo-shu” , the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry. Next to each plant is a pillar with the corresponding poem from the Manyoshu.
Founded in 768, Kasuga Taisha Shrine is actually four shrines consecrated to different Shinto deities. Among the notable features are the vermilion color which creates a striking contrast to the surrounding verdant groves, the graceful deer that return to their pens at the call of a trumpet in the evening, and the 3,000 stone and hanging bronze lanterns donated from the 11th century on. Although repeatedly rebuilt. it has always been based on the original plans, making it an outstanding example of mid-8th century Japanese architecture.
Shina-Yakushiji Temple (10 minute walk to the southwest from Kasuga Shrine) was founded by the Empress Komyo in 747 as an expression of thanks for the curing of her husband's eye disease. The Main Hall and several Buddhist statues housed here date back to the early 8th century and have been designated as National Treasures.
Todaiji Todaiji Temple (in Nara Park, 20 minutes by foot from Nara Station) was built in 741 by the Emperor Shomu to be the central temple of all provincial temples established in Japan. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and restored in the mid-1990s, it embraces several buildings and draws lots of school groups and tourists. Todaiji is the main temple of the Kegonshu sect of Buddhism, built under Emperor Shomu (701-756) in hopes of keeping Japan peaceful so he could devote himself to Buddhism, and rebuilt in 1692 and 1709. Websites: Todaji site todaiji.or.jp; Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website
Nandaimon Gate (leading to Todaiji temple) houses two massive wooden statues of Nio guardian-warrior gods. Known as Kongo Rikishi and regarded as two of the finest wooden sculptures in Japan, they are about eight meters (28 feet) tall and particularly impressive at night when the are beautifully illuminated. The two wooden Nio statues are over 800 years old and have been designated national treasures. They were carved during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) by Unkei and Kaikei, leading sculptors of Buddhist statues. The open-mouthed statue is called on "agyo,", the close-mouthed one, "ungyo." In 2015 the statues were restored. The repairs involved removing of dust and dirt that had accumulated over the years. Resin and glue were be applied to some areas to prevent further discoloration of the statues.
Daibutsuden (within Todaiji Temple) is the world's largest wooden structure. Built to house the world's largest Buddha, it is a masterpiece of wooden architecture. Many of the criss-crossing beams are positioned without nails. In addition to the Buddha there are towering 30-foot-high wooden statues of warriors and gods.
One large wooden pillar contains a small hole large enough for some people to crawl through and is about the size of one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. The pillar shows that the structure is imperfect and has room for improvement. It is said that those who crawl though it will receive enlightenment and have all their prayers answered. Nearby is Kaidan-in Hall, which was once used for ordination ceremonies and contains clay images of the Four Heavenly Guardians; Sangatsu-do-Hall, the oldest building in the Todaiji Temple complex; and Nigatsu-do Hall. The two stone lions at the temples south gate are believed to have been made in China.
History of Todaiji Temple
The original main temple is said to have been even more spectacular than the one that exists now. The original was 86 meters wide, 29 meters wider than the current building, and the Buddha was covered in gold. Built in the style of a Chinese palace building, the main hall had enormous red columns along with a yellow ceiling, green window frames, white walls and a black tile roof. Two 90-meter-tall, seven-story pagodas stood at opposite ends of the from hall. Both were later destroyed.
According to Kanshu Tsutsui, the chief administrator of Todaji, to build such a large statue and buildings, workers had to dig down 2.5 meters over a 90 meters by 60 meter area — larger than a football field — to find firm ground. The concrete-like layers of clay, ballast and sand placed on the firm ground were similar that layers below the Great Wall of China. After completing the 2.5-meter-high platform craftsmen made a mold to cast the Buddha statue. After the casting was done then the columns were raised for the building. The platform as well was the statue from the knees down are filled with sand. These parts survived the fire that brought down the original buildings.
According to Todaji records 1.6 million people were employed to construct the original Daibutsu wood building and more than half million worked on gold plating the bronze statue. About 500 tons of copper and 8.5 tons of tin was used to cast the original Buddha and 440 kilograms of gold and 2.5 tons of mercury were used to plate the statue using a technique in which the gold was mixed with mercury at a ratio of 1 to 5 and placed on the statue and heated so the mercury evaporated away leaving the gold. The work was done relatively quickly so the construction could be completed in time for the 200th anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 752.
At the consecration ceremony, Korean, Southeast Asian and Chinese dances were performed and an India monk who lived in Tang-era China brushed ink into the Buddha’s eyes.
Daibutsusan: the Great Buddha of Nara
Daibutsusan (within Daibutsuden) is the world's largest bronze Buddha. Originally constructed between 735 and 749, the colossal sitting Buddha statue is 72 feet high, weighs over 550 tons and is covered with almost 300 pounds of gold.
The Buddha is a representation of the Cosmic Buddha, who gives rise to new worlds. Buddhists believe the statue emits divine light to the far corners of the universe and each lotus leaf it sits upon represents a separate universe. The Buddha is believed to have been built to pray for peace and bring relief to a people who had suffered years of drought, famine, political violence, earthquakes and smallpox. It was also intended, some say, to show off the power of Emperor Shomu, who is said to have wanted a Buddha large enough to bring good fortune to everyone. The Great Buddha was completed three years after his death.
The statue's sullen facial expression may have something to with the fact it lost its head and its feet in fires in the 12th and 18th century. The entire statue was rebuilt in the Edo period and is only two thirds the size of the original. During the annual cleaning event in August the giant Buddha statue is dusted by monks sitting on chairs suspended by ropes from the ceiling. The cleaning takes 2½ hours and is conducted b 210 monks, who wear white uniforms and begin their work after a ceremony to remove the statue’s soul to avoid any impurity to Buddha’s image.
Shosoin Treasury Repository
Shosoin Treasury Repository (near Todaiji) once contained a priceless collection of art objects that are now shown at Nara National Museum in the fall. Built to respond to changing weather conditions, Shosoin looks somewhat like a log cabin and is a rebuilt version of the structure that stood here in the 8th century. The building rests on 40 wooden pillars. Inside are three separate warehouses that have two floors connected by a set of stairs. The roof is made up of triangular timber that expands during wet weather to protect the interior from rain and shrinks during hot, dry weather to allow ventilation. Websites: Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp; Shosoin site shosoin.kunaicho.go
The original repository was built in the Nara Period (710-794) and dates to the same period as the treasures it once held inside. The only one of its kind still in existence in Japan, it was built under Empress Komyo to honor husband Emperor Shomu (701-756) after he died, and survived the fire that destroyed Todaiji. The heart of the collection is more than 600 items she contributed at a memorial service 49 days after the Emperor’s death. The treasures once belonged to the Imperial Family but were turned over to the state after World War II.
According to Heritage Japan: “The Shosoin was not a unique building in the eighth century. At that time, every major Buddhist temple and government office had its own storehouse, called a shoso. “Shosoin” meant the ”precincts of the shoso” and originally stood for the warehouse area that many of the Buddhist temples and governmental sites in the ages of Nara period and Heian period were known to have. However, all but the one such building in Todai-ji Temple were lost over time, and today Shosoin Repository of Todaiji is the only one of these still standing. Thus over time, Shosoin also became a proper noun for the only remaining treasure house building at Todai-ji.[Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
“The original Shosoin building is in the azekura log-cabin style, with a raised floor. It lies to the northwest of the Daibutsuden (which houses the Great Buddha) Set on stone-based pillars a few feet off the ground, insuring the free circulation of air underneath the building, the walls consist of logs laid one on top of the other in log-cabin fashion. The critical feature is that the logs are triangular in cross-section, allowing the air to pass through the walls when the humidity is low in fall and winter, and swelling to keep the moisture out when the weather is oppressively humid in the summer and the June and September rainy seasons. For a time after the new structures were built, the mechanical controls did not seem to work as well as the built-in adaptability of the old storehouse, but now the bugs have been eliminated, officials say.
“Today the treasures are no longer housed in the original, log cabin-style storehouse but since 1962 the treasures themselves have occupied two reinforced-concrete structures in the Nara National Museum that were built to house them. Visitors go there to view choice pieces on display by rotation of the 9,000-odd objects that have been catalogued and restored so far … at the annual Shosoin exhibition. The Shosoin exhibition takes place only once a year, for several weeks spanning the end of October and beginning of November (October 25 to November 10 this year) because this is when the artefacts are least likely to be damaged due to the dry autumn air.”
Art Shosoin Treasury Repository
Each year only a few items from the treasury are shown for a couple of in late October and early November. Many of the items are stored in wooden cases called “karabitsu”. The staff of restorers and repairmen can spend hours repairing a single piece of cloth. Every year in early October the Emperor visits the storehouse for an examination and inspection.
The items include the “Odo no Gosu” , a brass bowl with a pagoda-shaped lid used as an incense burner; the “Midori Ruri no Junikyoku Chohai” , a 12-lobed oblong cup of green glass with floral designs on surface that look like tulips; “Summie no Dankyu bow” , a toy designed to shoot balls instead of arrows; a wu-type musical instrument piece made of 17 small bamboo pipes set on a wooden receptacle with a pipe-like mouth piece with images of celestial children, birds in heaven and butterflies; and the “Koge Bachiru no Shaku” a red-stained ivory foot rule decorated with designs or animals, birds and flowers.
The “Kujakumon Shishu no Ban” is a Buddhist ritual banner embroidered with a peacock design that was displayed on the temple grounds during religious rituals. The banner is 81 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide. It is believed to be have been made by court ladies but because there were no peacocks in Japan at the time it was made the design is thought to have come from abroad . Some of the cloth and textile pieces are in amazing condition considering how old they are.
kept in Shosoin Among the objects from ancient Korea and Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) China are a wooly Kasen rug, covered with floral designs; the “Mokuga Shitan no Kikyoku” , a red sandalwood go board; “Shichijo Shino Juhishoku no Kesa”, a quilted priest’s robe made of seven strips of molted colors that was worn by Emperor Shomu; “Saikaku no Nyoi” , a stick made of rhinoceros horn decorated with ivory, crystals, pearls and lapis lazuli; and the “Ruri no Tsubo” , a lazurite jar with a funnel-shaped mouth with beautiful cobalt blue glass originally used as a spittoon.
Some regard Nara as the eastern most terminal and last stop of the Silk Road. Treasures brought on the Silk Road include reindeer antlers, a Persian brocade, an amber and mother-of-pearl inlaid mirror, an inlaid red sandalwood go board of Emperor Shomu. The surface of the go board is made of ivory. On the sides are images of camels and designs associated with Central Asia. The go stones are pieces of ivory died red and navy blue.
Objects in the collection lined to Empress Komyo, according to Heritage Japan, include “many items used during Great Buddha’s eye-opening ceremony (including the giant paintbrush that the Indian monk Bodhisena used to “open” the original Buddha’s eyes in 752) to the temple.At the same time, the Empress dedicated 60 types of medicines from the imperial treasuries as a form of prayer for the sick. In the past, the Shosoin has exhibited daily items like medicines and containers or textile medicine bags in which they were kept. Other daily items like an ivory ruler, marked only with black lines in segments of 5 and 10 divisions but without numerals, shows us the long continuity of tradition in the simplest tools that is passed down since bamboo rulers are still in use today in the traditional arts.[Source: Heritage Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
“The empress also donated many items that hinted of Silk Road influences or origin such as a Roman glass, a Byzantine cup, an Egyptian chest, an Afghan mace, Indian and Persian styled harps, Persian brocade, Chinese felt rugs modeled on Central and North Asian carpets, over seventy musical instruments, including a koto (shiragi-goto) from the Korean kingdom of Silla, Go and other gameboards, engraved saddles and other military equipment, Buddhist regalia, and calligraphy by Komyo and Shomu.
“The Shosoin exhibition has also featured in the past textiles and lacquer pieces decorated with painted or dyed figural representations and musical instruments that are spectacularly decorated, like the four-stringed lute or genkan, made of red sandalwood with a design of parrots and jewels inlaid in mother-of-pearl and amber. The circular leather plectrum-guard was painted with a scene of four figures sitting under a tree. Since 1994, the Imperial Household Agency’s Office of the Shosoin Treasure House, which is responsible for the administration of the repository, has been producing exact reproduction of ancient Nara textiles. Apart from the appearance and colour, care has been given to reproduce the production and weaving style. The silk is donated each year by Empress Michiko, who personally runs the Momijiyama Imperial Cocoonery at Tokyo Imperial Palace. The Kamakura “
Nara National Museum
Nara National Museum (in Nara Park) specializes in Buddhist art and has a great series of paintings that show the punishments in Buddhist hell. In addition to the regular exhibit of Buddhist relics such as sculptures, paintings, applied arts, calligraphy and archeological objects there is a special exhibition in May. The priceless collection of art objects in Shosoin is shown at the Nara National Museum for two weeks from late October to early November. Website: Nara National Museum site narahaku.go.jp
Nara National Museum houses a remarkable collection of Buddhist art. Besides items owned by the museum itself are important objects entrusted to the museum for safekeeping by various temples and shrines throughout the country, and in particular those in the Kansai area. The Western-style structure of the “Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall” is representative of the Meiji Era. The new wing, designed by Junzo Yoshimura in 1972, houses one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in Japan. The museum frequently changes its permanent exhibition display of statues, sculptures, and scrolls, and offers the opportunity for Buddhist art lovers to return frequently to its galleries. Location: 50 Noborioji-cho, Nara-shi, Nara 630-8213 +81-50-5542-8600. Hours Open: Open 9:30am to 5:00pm Closed on Monday and January 1.
Image Sources: 1) 6) 7) 8) Ray Kinnane 2) MIT Education 3) JNTO Map 4) 9) 10) 11) 12) Nara City site 5) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education
Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2020