01.07.2009, Nara 10th day


Nara is just south of Kyoto by about a 40 minute train journey through thick urban sprawl with impressive infrastructure in the form of dams, viaducts, industry and stuff, occasionally thinning out sufficiently so that you can see rice fields and traditional houses and mountains at an almost fictional distance. Nara, as Wikipedia will no doubt confirm, was the first capital of Japan. Its reverent age is only conveyed through its temples however. For the rest it is just like other cities in the area: clean in the sense that there is no litter, no graffiti and ordered in that the city is structured and disciplined by its grid. At the same time it is visually just as messy, because each lot within the city grid does its own thing; so you get the weirdest juxtapositions between high and low buildings, garish and sober buildings, huge apartment blocks and tiny traditional houses all happily, and occasionally rather less happily, coexisting. Because the high buildings expect the low building next to it to be torn down in the near future so that another high building can be put up in its stead, they keep their party walls either blind or sparsely punctured with small windows. So you get lively facades with dead sides. A curious kind of advantage Nara has over Kyoto is the plethora of signage and neon light, flags and eye-catching stuff hung out in the main shopping streets. They somehow help to make the wirescape above seem more festive than in Kyoto where they have banned most neon advertising. I am not sure whether that was a good thing. The wirescape in Kyoto seems sombre and invasive by comparison, whereas Nara appears a permanent festival of colour. Mind you it is much smaller than Kyoto and I am only talking about the shopping streets which seemed fun, bright and lively, even though it was as hot as a monkey s bottom during our visit..

After we arrived and adjusted our fair because we had paid too little, a wonderfully generous and patient way of dealing with underground and train travel somehow, we made our way slowly to the temple park district to the east of the city. We had been warned about the deer. We had been told that there would be deer about; what we hadn t prepared for was the number of the beggars and the way they just wandered about all over the place, coming and going wherever they please. They are not preciously fenced in like in the parks of The Hague, and they are certainly not afraid. They are not only not scared of you, but if you have something edible, they can become quite insistent and even aggressive, nudging and trying to steal your biscuits. We had fun watching an old man having his biscuits robbed off him before he had a chance to distribute them fairly among the deer surrounding him.

The main goal for the day was the Todai-Ji temple-complex and more specifically the Daibutsu-den, the biggest wooden building in the world. It was big. Think wooden building, then think French Gothic cathedral and you've sort of got there. I've talked about size before in relation to the Nishi and Higashi Hongang-ji in Kyoto and I don't need to repeat that story. This temple, even though the same curious scale phenomenon occurs, certainly blew all expectations. The columns are vast, made up of large beams fitted together to make neat round columns held together by metal bands, and reaching way up into the air and then branching out in that curious bracketed way to support a monstrous roof structure. In the middle, facing the entrance, sits this majestic Buddha on a lotus flower and against a golden halo, flanked by two smaller Buddha s  (I am bo doubt getting all the names wrong and for this I apologise) which were still many times bigger than we were. The big one took some 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kilogrammes of gold to make. That kind of statistics is, I am well aware, all part of a borishly male aesthetics, but it worked on me (being male) I was impressed. As we entered the temple, a monk or priest, sitting quietly with his back to, and seemingly unimpressed by the heavy duty tourist logistics, was doing his thing in front of the enormous Buddha, ringing his bell and chanting his chant. It was magical and a bit psychodysleptic as the hordes of occasionally rather loud and inappropriately hysterical tourists were cleverly and efficiently manoeuvred clockwise through the building. It was a bit distressing that some of them seemed to have no sense of occasion, but there you are. It all had to do, as I discovered when I was three quarters of the way around the circuit, with a hole at the base of one of the columns, which, because of its being the same size as the Buddha's nostril, woulld ensure enlightenment to all who could worm their way through it. It seemed a curious way to guarantee such things and it certainly shut me off from all chance of enlightenment, which seems a shame. But there were rows of people trying their luck and for some the attempt overreached their capacity for decorum. Mind you Buddhism is a rather joyful, noisy and clangy religion, so perhaps the hysterical laughter ringing through the temple every now and then was all part of things. Noone but me appeared botherd by it, so I think I'm just an old fuddy duddy, stick-in-the-mud crypto-calvinist and will shut up about it. To compensate I went mad photographing materials: wood, stones, flagstones, walls. Loved it all.

After the Daibutsu-den we went to up the hill to the Nigatsu-do which had a "free resting place" with a "drink-wash-return" policy on free cups of green tea or cold water, both from a dispensing machine. You could sit quietly in a hall next to the temple, resting from the hot climb up the hill and listen to a taperecording of an involved Buddhist ceremony which had no doubt taken place in the temple sometime earlier. I photographed an obliging dragon-fly as well as the toilet facilities, as the urinals had little racks mounted above them on which you could put any swinging bags or awkward camera's as you needed to concentrate on your nether regions, when bags and camera's can get in the way with unfortunate results. Then we walked back into Nara. As I said, it is all much smaller that Kyoto, much more manageable and if it hadn t been so hot we would have walked happily for hours. As it was, we simply did not have the energy and after a hot noodle soup and Arata Isozaki's Centennial hall we had no more energy for the Horyu-ji, but there you are. We strolled back to the station and fought sleep all the way home as the conductor of the train did his thing, bowing as he went to and from each carriage, an act which everyone except us appeared to ignore completely. Tomorrow is my last day in Kyoto, I am going to visit the golden temple in the morning and do shopping in the afternoon. And then on Friday we ll move to Osaka and spend Saturday there so as to be near Kansai airport for Sunday



This is the only picture I want to show you of Nara's beautiful centenial hall by Arata Isozaki. The building itself I could not do justice to. But this was a gem: