Saturday, July 3, 2010

Nara - Kyoto Mark I... What the... Kofuku-ji

25th October, 2006 - It's only the start of the fifth day in Kyōto, but it seems that we've seen so much already. Today we were heading out to the nearby city to Nara; one of the former capital cities of Japan, and only a 30-45 min train trip from Kyōto Station. Nara was the seat of power in Japan from about 710 – 784 AD, before Emperor Kammu (the instigator of Kyōto) decided to escape the grip of Buddhist power that had come to dominate over his court. As it stands now, Nara is famous for three things: the Buddhist temples of Nara park (Nara Koen); the temples of the southwest, in particular Hōryū-ji (which is now the oldest existing Buddhist temple in Japan); and the Kofun burial mounds.

As you can see from below, whilst we talk about Kyōto , Osaka and Nara as three distinct cities, the reality is that they are rapidly forming a single concrete megapolis (though I'm sure they still remain proudly distinct 

The capital Nara (then known as Heijō-kyō) was initially planned by Emperor Mommu prior to his death in 707, then later completed by Fujiwara-no-Fuhito in 710. It had all of the proper ingredients suitable for a capital according to the ancient Chinese geomancy: protective mountains; two joining rivers; fertile land. As with Kyōto, the city was designed after the ancient Chinese city of Cháng-an, with broad boulevards setting out a grid-like pattern. It was Fuhito’s grandson (Emperor Shōmu) that would expand the city, and build upon it’s rich Buddhist infrastructure. This was in part due to the occurrence of a smallpox epidemic which hit Japan in 737 and destroyed much of the population. Shōmu sought redemption (for such a catastrophe must be caused by some sin of the ruler) by becoming a devout Buddhist and in doing so, seeking the protection of the state through the guidance of Buddha. And the priests.

Whilst it's possible to see more than one area in Nara in one day, it'd make for a very, very long day. As such we, decided to only concentrate on one area - Nara Koen. From Nara Station, it's a short walk (1.5km)... and if you make a small detour (see B below), you can visit one of the ancient Kofun burial mounds - actually where the 9th Emperor of Japan was buried, Emperor Kaika.... Though to be honest, as we didn't have a detailed map, we missed it.

The first of the temples belonging to Nara proper, and the head of the Hossō sect. The Kōfuku-ji (the Happiness Producing Temple) was constructed in 710, or more precisely relocated from the previous capital, Fujiwara-kyo to become his own family temple. Such was the power of the Fujiwara family at this stage that the temple was always supported generously by the Imperial family, with some 175 buildings at its height. The temple used to hold a hospital, orphanage, old persons home, and public bath-house.

The most striking feature of Kōfuku-ji is the pagodaThe five storied pagoda was first constructed in 730, but the present one (below) dates from 1426 – and standing at 50 metres in height, it is the second tallest in Japan after the one at Tō-ji

At it's base are housed four Buddhas: Yakushi the healing Buddha (east), Shaka the historical Buddha (south), Amida Buddha of the Western Paradise (of course, the west), and finally Miroku the Buddha of the future (north).

Next to the pagoda sits the Tōkondo. This would normally be but a secondary hall of worship, but with all of the turmoil that has befallen this neck of Nara, this has now come to be the main place of worship. An interesting insight into the ways of the monks back in the olden days... after the temple burned down, the monks were somewhat put out that their treasured  art were destroyed that they went off (piously...) and ransacked a nearby temple to get their treasured art. They then built this hall around those images... possession was nine-tenths of the law back in those days too.

One of the first things that you see coming into Kōfuku-ji from Nara Station is the Nan'en-dō, an unusual octogonal hall. The main treasure inside is a statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon... however, this only gets opened once per year - on the 17th of October. Missed out by > < this much.

Behind the Nan'en-dō is the three story pagoda, Sanju-no-to, that dates back to 1143. Whilst not as visually impressive as it's big brother, it retains much of the original feel and artwork.

In many ways, this is not that impressive temple complex in that it sits in a large cleared square - the site of the original temple - but as if it were plonked down here as an afterthought. There's no sense that this quite fits.

It was the Emperor Shōmu's daughter, Empress Shōtoku (who became Empress twice and was given a new name each time, and died in 770 of smallpox) who would almost bring about the complete enthrallment of the Imperial Throne to the Buddhist monks. She had an infamous affair with a priest , known as Dōkyō, who is thought to have nearly become Emperor. Whilst Shōtoku was the sixth of 8 women to rule over Japan as Empress, following the Dōkyō, it would be another 850 years or so before there would be an Empress again.

This growing power of the temples over the Imperial line lead the young Emperor Kammu to escape, first to Nagaoka and then finally to where present day Kyōto lies. Unlike previously abandoned capitals however, this one retained much of the majesty through the continuing existence of the Buddhist temples of Nara.

In 1180 the Taira destroyed Kōfuku-ji, Tōdai-ji and with them much of Nara during the Gempei War with the Minamoto clan. Thankfully both Kōfuku-ji and Tōdai-ji were reconstructed... and then Kōfuku-ji was then almost totally destroyed again in 1717. With the rise of the anti-Buddhist Meiji government however, the temple was harshly treated, and gradually torn down like many other such temples. It’s main restoration has only occurred recently.

The deer's of Nara Koen take it all in... when they're not pestering you for a feed.

Our next stop along is Tōdai-ji itself. The road approaching, like many temples in Japan, is lined with shops selling food, gifts, and all assortment of tourist crap. This isn't a new thing - as these temples have been tourist magnets for many hundreds of years.

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  1. Nara is such a beautiful city, almost as beautiful as Kyoto, agree the deers although cute in concept, can be an annoyance when asking for food (always). Love the colors on the first photo.

  2. Thnx... I really enjoyed Nara - and will definitely go back to see the other temple districts. The deers... well... er... yes annoying is the right word. Kinda frustrating really. Still great place to visit from Kyoto.