A couple of days ago, I joined yet another network feed that relies entirely on photographs. And, I quickly discovered functionality that with one click tests any photo on repeatability with those made by others. The test, which I promptly named ‘my Pinterest test’ is as revealing and blunt as it only can be. Any even original shot depicting a popular tourist attraction has its numerous duplicates on the Web. As there are some thumb rules on a photograph geometry, the layouts are repeatable, too.
In the copy and paste world, the repeatability is also true for web entries. For years I was tutoring students in writing their final papers before graduation. Copy and paste practice became a serious problem with emerging of the World Wide Web. There was a moment we were even equipped with software helping us to pick any kind of piracy in our students’ texts. When prepping this entry, which is a note on a visit to a place that is on the absolutely must-see list in Japan, I found numerous blog and web entries repeating the same information. With long-term practice in picking too long passages of exactly the same wording, I am sure I saw much copy and paste work here and there. I must say, however, I found one or two blog entries, where the authors did an excellent job (chapeau bas).
Now I stand before a travel blogger’s dilemma. I was to a place well described by all possible Internet resources. My photos do not hold the Pinterest test (are fully repeatable with those by many other photographers and bloggers). Yet the place is that kind of impressive that I want to write about that I saw. And I do not necessarily want to repeat all that what I read the last couple of hours on the Internet.
The place is Nara, a small town but also a province quite close to Kyoto, which used to be a location of seven temples famous for the Japanese Buddhist teachings. That time the province was the official seat of the Japanese emperors, who still had real power. In later ages the actual power was with the shogun, who was the chief military, whereas the emperor had a symbolic role instead. And all of these happened already one thousand and two hundred years ago in the VIIIth century.
For different reasons that may be altogether summed up as a desire for divine protection, a big statue of Buddha was cast. The process took years, was labor-intensive and costly, and depleted the country’s bronze resources. The statue was partially recast a couple of times, but still, much of its structure is older than the oldest Gothic cathedrals preserved in Europe!!! And, it is told to be the biggest bronze statue of Buddha in the world. The statue was placed in a big wooden hall of the Tōdai-Ji temple, since called the Great Buddha Hall.
As in Japan many old wooden buildings were destroyed by fire, earthquakes, or other disasters, the current structure, like many others, is not the original one. But still, it is more than three hundred years old. It is smaller than its predecessor. Still, until not a long time ago, it was classified as the biggest wooden building in the world. (It was dethroned in the late XX century by an American football stadium in Northern Japan).
Besides the Great Buddha, there are at least eight (to my recollection) other impressive statues of figures traditional for the Buddhist temples in the Tōdai-Ji temple premises. Two are at the Great South Gate, two in the Central Gate and four inside the Great Hall. Some of them you can see on the photos below.
But Nara is famous for yet another thing that brings much fun for visitors. It is 1,200 deers walking freely around the park complex (that covers quite a huge area), but also the surrounding streets. Deers are accustomed to people, which is a genuinely great and pleasant experience. Imagine a group of people and a group of deers together crossing a street on a zebra.
The Nara deers have a divine status. There were even times as harming them was punishable by death.
There are many stands in the park where you can buy particular kinds of wafers, with which it is allowed to feed the deers. The stands belong to the authorities managing the complex. The feeding is hence fully legal, provided you use those wafers and not other food. But once you have the crackers in your hand, you will have a few deers around you keen to catch a piece. Much fun is guaranteed, but watch your hands against bites.
To get to the Tōdai-Ji temple from the Nara railway station, we can either walk the streets or cross a park area. I would recommend the park because of the deer experience. To get to the temple area, we have to cross the Great South Gate. The Great South Gate, otherwise called Nandaimon, was first constructed in the VIIIth century during the Nara period, when Tōdai-ji was first established. It was later rebuilt in the XIIIth century after it was destroyed by a typhoon. The Gate is hence even older than the preserved Buddha Hall. It is an impressive structure that stands at over 25 meters tall and is decorated with intricate carvings and paintings. The gate is supported by massive pillars and is topped by a large tiled roof.
Crossing the Gate do not forget the two fierce-looking figures that stand inside the corners, even if they are ring-fenced by a dense net. They are crucial to the Buddhist traditions. The figures called Niō, are ugly and muscled. According to one of the legends Nio used to follow Buddha and protected him. Those in the gate were carved in the XIIth century. They are believed to protect the temple from evil spirits and other dangers
The Great South Gate is the first stop on the way to the temple complex. Behind it, there is a lake (Japanese: ponds) full of carps. Most of them are grey, but some are orange (or gold). Carps are a vital part of the Japanese symbolism. They can get upstream, a feature that is treated as a sign of strength and vitality, and some other virtues. As far as I can recall, in each of the temple complexes we visited in Japan, there was a ponds full of carps.
The next stop is yet another gate, the Chū-mon, which is the Central Gate. The Chūmon gate was first built in the XIIth century, and it was later rebuilt in the XVIth century after it was destroyed by a fire. The gate is decorated with intricate carvings and paintings, and it is supported by massive wooden pillars. Like the Nandaimon gate, the Chūmon gate is guarded by two fierce-looking statues of the Niō.
A series of gates or gateways is a common feature in Buddhist temple architecture, particularly in East Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Korea. These gates are often part of a larger complex of buildings and structures that make up a Buddhist temple or shrine. In Japanese Buddhism, the series of gates leading to the main hall of a temple is called a “sanmon.” The sanmon typically consists of two or three gates, each of which serves as a symbolic threshold that marks the transition from the secular world to the sacred world of the temple. The gates are often decorated with ornate carvings and paintings, and they may be guarded by fierce-looking statues or other guardians. In addition to marking the transition from the secular to the sacred, the gates also serve as a way to focus the mind and prepare the visitor for the spiritual experience of the temple. Passing through each gate is seen as a ritual act that helps to purify the mind and body and prepare the visitor for prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practices. In Tōdai-Ji directly behind the Central Gate you may find a cleansing facility (see below).
The Central Gate is not open in front. To buy the entry ticket and enter the temple premises, you go to a door on its left-hand side. The exit is at its right-hand side. Close to the exits, there are souvenir stands. I quite rarely look for souvenirs, but to my recollection, the stands there had quite an interesting offer.
Below the upfront view onto the Great Buddha Hall. I did this photo standing with my back to the middle of the Central Gate you can see on the upper picture.
The Great Buddha Hall measures about 57 meters in length and 50 meters in width, and it stands at a height of 48 meters. The structure is supported by massive wooden pillars that are over 25 meters tall and 1.4 meters in diameter. The Great Buddha Hall was constructed using traditional Japanese architectural techniques, including bracketing systems and mortise-and-tenon joints. The building’s massive wooden beams and pillars are held together without the use of nails or screws, relying instead on the precision of the joints and the weight of the wood to keep the structure stable.
All Japanese temples, no matter Buddhist (came to Japan from continental Asia) or Shinto (indigenous Japanese religion or rather belief system) is equipped with a symbolic cleansing facility. The cleansing or “misogi” in Japanese may happen through the usage of water, fumes, sand, etc. In Tōdai-Ji this is a fuming ritual. These rituals are designed to purify the mind and body and create a sense of spiritual cleanliness and purity.
And finally, the Great Buddha. The statue is of bronze, the seat is of gold. The statue, known also as the Daibutsu, is over 15 meters tall and weighs more than 500 tons. The statue was cast in the VIIIth century and was originally housed in a smaller hall, but it was later moved to the Great Buddha Hall. The temple web page states that some parts of the Buddha were x-rayed. Several artifacts, things that probably belonged to the emperor that commissioned the cast were seemingly melted into one of the knees.
Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, was the founder of Buddhism. He was born in Lumbini, in what is now Nepal, in the VIth century BCE. His exact birth date is uncertain, but it is believed to have been around 563 BCE. Siddhartha Gautama was born into a wealthy family, but he renounced his material possessions and set out on a spiritual quest to understand the nature of suffering and find a path to liberation. After many years of study and meditation, he achieved enlightenment, or awakening, under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. Buddha’s teachings, known as the Dharma, emphasize the importance of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering. These teachings are meant to guide individuals on the path to liberation from suffering and ultimately to enlightenment.
To the left of the Great Buddha, there is a smaller Buddha statue. Yet another one is located to the right.
After paying respect to Buddha, and lighting a candle, the visitors are guided to take a route around inside of the Great Hall. Of things interesting to me were two statues of the Great Hall guardians. The one on the picture below is called Komokuten.
There were also several small wooden models on display showing the previous layouts of the temple complex, including pagodas (tiered towers), that were not rebuilt after the original buildings were destroyed.
Kids may go through a hole in the bottom of one of the pillars that support the Great Hall. This should provide them with a prosperous life.
Finally, as in many temples around Japan, you can buy there various kinds of charms and religious accessories. These will be luck charms in the form of protective amulets, wooden votive plaques that you hang on special stands, or fortune-telling pieces (rolls of paper) that you take home when the telling is positive, and leave in the temple premises when it is negative.
Children can crawl through a hole in one of the wooden pillars supporting the Great Buddha Hall. This pillar, known as the “Wishing Pillar” or “Vow Pillar”, is located near the entrance to the Hall. The hole in the pillar is just big enough for a small child to crawl through, and according to tradition, doing so will bring the child good luck and a prosperous life. The practice is especially popular among parents with young children, who often bring their kids to the temple specifically to crawl through the hole. The tradition is believed to have originated from the idea that passing through a narrow space, such as a small hole, can help to purify the body and mind, and bring good luck and blessings. This practice is not officially part of Buddhist teachings or practices, and it is viewed by some as a superstitious practice rather than a spiritual one.
The pillar itself is also considered to be sacred, as it is one of the original pillars from the VIIIth century, when the Hall was first built.
Komokuten on the photo above is a deity in Buddhism, who is associated with protection and wisdom. In Japanese Buddhism, he is also known as “Tamonten” and is often depicted as one of the Four Heavenly Kings who guard the four cardinal directions. Komokuten is said to have originated from Hindu mythology, where he was known as “Kubera,” the god of wealth and prosperity. However, in Buddhist mythology, he is associated more with protection and wisdom than with material wealth. In Japanese Buddhism, Komokuten is often depicted as a fierce-looking warrior with a sword and a lasso. He is typically shown standing on top of a demon or evil spirit, symbolizing his power to conquer negativity and protect those who follow the Buddhist path. Komokuten is also associated with wisdom and learning. In some depictions, he is shown holding a scroll or a book, symbolizing his role as a teacher and protector of knowledge.
Inside the Tōdai-Ji temple you may find wooden models of how the temple looked like in past ages. This model is showing XIIIth century look with Toto (east pagoda) with the Great Buddha Hall visible in the background. The pagoda may have towered 100 meters. This one was the reconstruction of even elder pagoda. A pair of pagodas, Toto (east pagoda) and Saito (west pagoda), were built around the 750s or 760s to the southeast and southwest, respectively. Toto was set on fire by the Taira warrior clan in 1180 and rebuilt in 1227. Saito was lost to a lightning strike in 934 and not rebuilt.
Pagodas in Japanese Buddhist temples are believed to have been adopted from the Chinese style of pagodas. The earliest form of pagodas in Japan, known as “tahoto” or “many-treasure pagodas,” were built during the Asuka period (538-710 CE) and were based on the style of pagodas that were popular in China at the time. As Buddhism spread to Japan from China and Korea, so too did the architectural styles associated with the religion. Japanese architects and builders adapted Chinese pagoda designs to suit their own needs and tastes, incorporating unique features and elements that were specific to Japanese culture.
Pagodas in Japanese Buddhist temples serve several purposes, both practical and symbolic. One practical purpose of pagodas is to provide a space for the storage of sacred relics, such as the ashes of prominent figures, Buddhist scriptures, or other important religious objects. Pagodas are often constructed with multiple levels or chambers, each of which can be used to house different types of relics or offerings. In addition to their practical function, pagodas also serve important symbolic roles. They are often regarded as representations of Buddhist cosmology, with each level of the pagoda symbolizing a different realm or stage on the path to enlightenment. The shape of the pagoda, with its tiered structure and upturned eaves, is also believed to represent the sacred mountain of the Buddha and the various deities that inhabit it.
In many Buddhist temples, candles are lit in front of images of the Buddha or other deities as a form of offering. The candles are often placed on an altar or shrine along with other offerings such as flowers, incense, and food. The act of lighting a candle and making an offering is believed to generate positive energy and create a connection with the divine. Candle offerings are also believed to have a purifying effect on the mind and environment. The light and heat generated by the candles can be seen as symbolic of wisdom and enlightenment, dispelling darkness and ignorance. The act of lighting candles can also be a form of meditation or mindfulness practice, helping to calm and focus the mind.
As in all temples in Japan, you can buy charms and other religious accesories. In Japan they are called Engimono. These are various lucky charms, talismans, or amulets believed to bring good fortune, prosperity, health, or protection from evil. Engimono can take many forms, including small figurines, charms made of paper or fabric, lucky bags, and other symbolic items. In Japanese culture, Engimono are often associated with Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, which emphasizes the importance of nature, harmony, and respect for ancestors and spirits. Engimono are commonly sold at Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and other religious or cultural sites throughout Japan.
Yet another figure important for Buddhist rituals, Binzuru, you may find at the entrance to the Great Hall. Binzuru is a Japanese Buddhist figure associated with healing and compassion. Also known as Pindola Bharadvaja, Binzuru was one of the Buddha’s original disciples and is said to have been known for his healing powers. In Japan, Binzuru is often depicted as an elderly monk with a kind and gentle expression. He is typically shown sitting in a meditative pose, holding a cane and a beggar’s bowl. It is believed that he has the power to cure illnesses and alleviate suffering, and many people visit his shrines and temples to pray for healing and good health. One popular practice associated with Binzuru is the rubbing of his statue. It is believed that by rubbing the statue, one can transfer Binzuru’s healing power to themselves or a loved one who is ill. Binzuru is also known for his compassionate nature, and it is believed that he will listen to the prayers of anyone who approaches him with sincerity and humility. As a result, he is often revered as a symbol of hope and comfort for those who are suffering or in need of healing.
Binzuru wears an orange robe, which is a traditional color for Buddhist monks in Japan and other Asian countries. The color orange is considered significant in Buddhism, as it represents the color of the robes worn by the Buddha and his followers. It is also said to represent the qualities of wisdom, humility, and detachment from material possessions. The orange robe worn by Binzuru is thus a symbol of his status as a Buddhist monk and his dedication to the practice of the Buddhist teachings. It is also believed to represent his compassion and willingness to help those in need, as Buddhist monks are known for their role in providing spiritual guidance and support to their communities.
Yet, another pair of deers we saw on our way back to the railway station. Seemingly, they can move freely not only around temples, but also around other parts of the city.