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The broad gravel path to Todaiji Temple is littered -- the only word -- with "sacred" deer. They bide their time until they spot someone who has bought the special crackers sold by local vendors. Then they attack, poking soft, wet noses into pockets, handbags, growing in number until the poor victim surrenders the goodies and flees.

According to Shinto belief, deer are the messengers of the gods. So hundreds of them, as tame and mischievous as puppies, roam the vast park of Nara, the 8th century capital of Japan. A broad-minded lot, they're as likely to raid visitors to Buddhist temples as to Shinto shrines.

Nara is 26 miles south of Kyoto. But unlike that other imperial city, whose treasures are often overwhelmed by skyscrapers and apartment buildings, Nara's are set in a park of rolling meadows, fir-tufted hills and rambling gardens. In age and beauty they are unsurpassed, and walking from one to another is itself a delight.

Each guidebook to Japan has its favorite Nara Park itinerary, but the truth is, it doesn't really matter. I happened to start at the Todaiji Temple because it is near the entrance. It was there that I met the deer and the deer met me.

How friendly, I thought, as they nuzzled my backside. But as soon as they discovered I had nothing to offer, they dropped me like a hot potato. Fickle Nara deer.

Todaiji Temple, I had thought, was a single building, but that is a Western idea. In Japan a temple is a complex of structures. When Todaiji was built over 1,200 years ago, it had pagodas, treasure chambers, halls and, midway down the path, the great Nandaimon Gate.

Most people walk through its soaring portals quickly, drawn by two immense wing-like roofs in the distance. They seldom notice the 28-foot-high figures housed in shadowy niches on either side of the gate.

The Nio, as these guardians are called, are young, only 800 years old. Recently, for the first time since their birth, they were dismantled and treated with preservatives. In spite of being partially exposed to elements for centuries, they were found to be in excellent condition, all 3,000 parts and 7 tons each. Today they are back at their posts, bare-chested, garments flowing, ferocious works of art.

It's appropriate to be impressed by a 49-foot bronze Buddha. That, of course, is the idea. The Daibutsu, the Great Buddha of Nara, was cast in 746 and is housed in the Daibutsuden, said to be the largest wooden building in the world. From the Nandaimon Gate it almost obliterates the horizon.

Inside, the 500-ton Buddha sits on a lotus flower, his right hand raised in peace. (Five monks can stand in his left hand when he's being washed down.) His eyes are 3 feet wide, his ears 8 feet long.

To accumulate the 437 tons of bronze and 288 pounds of gold, Shomu, the 45th emperor of Japan, almost impoverished the nation. At its inauguration, 10,000 monks watched while Bodhisena, a monk from India, painted in its irises and gave the Buddha life.

But like its colossal repository, the Buddha has had a checkered career. In 855 it lost its head in an earthquake, and later it melted when the great hall burned. The present head dates from 1692 and has a rather resigned expression.

Also in the temple grounds is the lovely Isuien Strolling Garden. A bit further, in the Kaidan-in Hall, ancient clay sculptures repose. Behind the main hall, the Shoso-in repository preserves gifts brought from throughout the Asian world in 752.

Up a hill lined with stone lanterns, Nigatsu-do Hall seems complete unto itself, but like the others is only part of the great temple complex. From its high perch it looks down on the gold-tipped roof protecting the Buddha to the city of Nara and beyond to the Yamato Plain.

From the hall it is possible to take several paths, none marked in English. One leads to the Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine, dedicate to the Shinto god of war. Though quite lovely, it is not one of the great monuments in the park. The guidebooks hardly mention it.

But it is the first indication of the difference between the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Within its precinct, trees are hung and girdled with crisp folds of paper, prayers to the kami, gods that reside in every feature of nature. In buildings whose walls are open to the elements, it is difficult to determine where outside ends and inside begins.

Until the sixth century Shinto and Japan were one. Even today thousands of festivals honor local kami. Nevertheless, though Shinto mythology was potent and it symbolism pervasive, Buddhism was a more sophisticated theology and by the seventh century was declared Japan's national faith. In the process it incorporated rather than rejected Shinto beliefs.

An early example of this "syncretism" is the great Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Coming from the Tamukeyama Shrine, the Kasuga Taisha is entered through the back door, though the Looking Glass might be a better analogy.

In a flash the somber immensity of Todaiji is replaced with fanciful buildings painted in vermilion and green. Under trees on the surrounding hills, thousands of temple-shaped stone lanterns sprout like magic mushrooms. On festival days in August and February, each one is lighted, fluttering in the groves like giant fireflies.

Within the compound, a ritual is most likely taking place. Over the beat of the huge Gagaku drum, a Japanese flute slips from note to note. A monk intones a repetitive chant, and young women in white robes hover over a kneeling congregation.

Or there may be a festival of ancient court music or drama or dance, many of which were created on this spot. The kami of the Fujiwara clan, for whom the shrine was founded in 707, apparently like to be entertained.

On the way out, it's worth paying a visit to the Manyo Botanical Gardens. Among the flowers are many early varieties of plants, some mentioned in Japan's oldest surviving collection of poetry.

Continuing straight ahead, the path leads to a Buddhist Temple the Shinto kami were enlisted to guard. The Kofuku-ji also was associated with the Fujiwaras and shared the ups and downs of their 500-year reign.

In the 12th century, the 175 buildings were burned to the ground, but what was rebuilt is spectacular enough. Tier after tier, the five curving roofs of Japan's second tallest pagoda reach for the sky, as they have for 800 years.

In addition to the temples, shrines and gardens, Nara Park contains two fine museums. And a short walk away is another ancient temple, Shin-Jakushiji. But those who are templed out should stray to the shops along the eastern border of the park or in the colorful neighborhood of Nara-machi.

Where Samurai once lived in the houses of latticework and earthen walls, crafts people now create handwoven linens, lacquer ware, pottery, writing brushes and ink sticks. A community of galleries, shops and old houses, Nara-machi is a pleasant way to ease back into the 20th century.

Not that the present isn't plentiful in the park. Behind the Great Buddha of Nara is a large wooden pillar with a smallish hole in its base. Tradition has it that those who squeeze through have been measured for paradise. So a few feet from the solemn and dignified statute, peals of laughter ring out and cameras flash as adults scramble on the floor like children.

This would be shocking in a great cathedral, but in Japan attitudes are different. Tour groups of Japanese parade through their ancient temples as if they're visiting Disneyland. In the most sacred shrines, good-luck charms are sold that promise assistance with sickness, sex and safe driving. Large animals are encouraged to tromp on consecrated ground, deer that are more likely to steal your lunch than carry messages from heaven.

When introduced to a couple from New York, a rotund monk, robed and with a clean-shaven head, raised his hands and launched into song, "Start spreading the news." While they stood dumbstruck, feeling as if they'd been dropped into a scene from a Mel Brooks movie, he sang a spirited, word-perfect rendition of "New York, New York."

Nara Park is spiritual, intellectually stimulating and exotic but also laugh-out-loud funny. Nara Park was and is the glory of Nara. It is good for both body and soul.

Travel information

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Nara. Summers can be hot, humid and crowded. For those who don't mind temperatures in the 30s and 40s, winters are much less congested.

Contact the Japanese National Tourist Organization, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, N.Y. 10020; (212) 757-5641. Request the "Nara" brochure and the "Walking Tour Courses in Nara" printout.

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