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Nara it is, then それで、奈良に行きます

May 14, 2010

My original plan was to head out to Mie prefecture for a day trip to Itsukushima shrine, quite possibly the most important Shinto shrine in Japan.  It didn’t quite work out the way I had planned.  The weather didn’t cooperate and I didn’t feel like spending the time (over 1 1/2 hours by special rapid train, one-way) or the money (almost $100 CDN round-trip) for a so-so day.  More to the point, I slept in.


So, what’s a guy to do so the day isn’t completely wasted for travel?  I hopped on the Kintetsu line at Nanba and took a nice trip out to Nara, that’s what.  Part of the reason for heading to Nara and not elsewhere was due to the fact that 2010 marks the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Nara.  That’s a lot of history.  That some of the wooden buildings still standing date back to that time is also amazing to me.


Going to see the sights of Nara isn’t the same as say, Kyoto.  The buildings of interest are much more spread out so you pretty much need to pick an area or spend more than one day.  I decided that a loop around the Nara park area would be good especially since I really wanted to hike up Wakakusa hill this time.  At almost 400 metres, it would give an entirely different view of Todai-ji and Nara city in general.  There are also a few other sights in that area that I’d been meaning to see but hadn’t yet.   In fact, this trip I avoided Todai-ji except for peeking in as I walked by at the end of the loop back to the station.  No problem, I’ve been there several times before and, as the number one tourist destination in Nara I really wasn’t interested in dealing with the crowds.


Kasuga taisha shrine dates back to the 8th century around the time of the founding of Nara as the ancient capitol of Japan.  This particular shrine is the primary one of the 3000 Kasuga taisha shrines throughout Japan.  There are 3000 stone and bronze lanterns within the shrine precincts corresponding to each of the sub-shrines.  Twice a year, in February and August, all the lanterns are lit in the evening in a special ceremony.  I’ve not yet seen this but it must be quite a sight.  As I was standing in line to pay the entry fee to the inner shrine buildings, an older Japanese woman was wondering to her husband why a foreigner would bother to pay to go in since I couldn’t possibly understand about Shinto.  I resisted the temptation to turn around and reply to her in Japanese that I understood just fine, thank-you very much.  Though, in retrospect, it might have been fun to see the expression on her face.


The view of Todai-ji and all of Nara is pretty spectacular.  Can’t get away from the sacred deer of Nara though; a herd of them was right at the top of the hill.  Maybe they thought they were mountain goats?  Thankfully there was a wind at the top because that day decided to be one of the hot ones of the hot/cold cycle.  From the top of the hill, I made the journey down and around first to Sangatsu-do (Third month hall) and then to the larger Nigatsu-do (Second month hall).  I can’t say I understand the nomenclature but, there you go.  Nigatsu-do has a large verandah and looks out over Nara toward Todai-ji.  Its construction reminds me a little of Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto.  This is also where the water drawing festival takes place every March 12th evening.  The priests of the temple race around carrying a huge torch which then drops embers onto the gathered crowd below as a means of purification.  The actual water drawing ceremony takes place after midnight.  Like the lantern lighting of Kasuga-taisha, this is something worth seeing in Nara.


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