Dessi, a Javanese hostess who sought to adapt to Nara's traditionalist and closed soul, had told us wonders of the Todai-ji shrine, the Great Temple of the East.
Despite being sensational, its description only increased our curiosity and made us rush to discover the monument.
The Sudden Sighting of the Great Todai-ji
We toured the entire vast Nara Park. After passing the various access portals to the enclosure, we come across the huge main temple Daibutsuden (Great Hall of Buddha) that does not disappoint.
Elegant and imposing, typical Buddhist architectural lines stand out in it, culminating in a double roof that projects laterally from the base body like a kind of Asian chapel.
In the center of the great hall, protected by two guardians Child The colossal and record-breaking bronze statue (15 meters high, 500 tons) of the Vairocana Buddha – in Japan, Daibutsu – stands out as menacing.
It greets visitors and believers who, after purifying themselves at the entrance with incense smoke, now admire its magnificence.
Past the Nio Guardians, various faces of Buddha and Buddhism
The immensity of the building's wood is renewed in distinct spaces. In each of them, Buddhism demands different proofs of faith. One of them turns out to be a real contortionist challenge.
A line is formed in front of one of the pillars that support the Daibutsuden. Entire families and school trips of young Japanese are photographed passing back and forth through a tight hole in its base believed to be the same width as Daibutsu's nostrils.
This passage is supposed to grant spiritual liberation to those who achieve it, but when it comes to some suitors from northern Europe and North America, the challenge becomes serious. Instead of being freed, some have to be rescued from a distressing suffocation.
Faithful to Buddhist mythology, any ailments resulting from the squeeze can always be resolved by Binzuru Sonja, Japanese god of healing and good vision.
Leaving Daibutsuden, we see several elderly faithful simultaneously touching and rubbing their hands on different parts of the statue of this deity in order to try to overcome health problems they have in equivalent areas of their bodies.
With the mobility that Japanese longevity grants them, patients rush to follow their guides, always clearly identified by colored flags.
The Millennial Chinese Origin of Architecture, Writing and So Much More
Despite the centuries-old Sino-Japanese enmity, more and more of these tourist entourages are also Chinese and their participants delight in the exuberant Japanese culture. Some of them only discover on the spot that it was their Han nation that inspired them.
With less than 400.000 inhabitants, Nara is today an insignificant city by Japanese standards. But from 710 to 784 AD, it was promoted to revolutionary capital. By that time, Japanese society was predominantly rural, based on primitive villages and made up of communities that worshiped the kami (spirits) of natural forces and their ancestors.
But the political and cultural influence of powerful China was felt like never before.
And when the emperors dictated the construction of Heijo-Kyo (Nara's predecessor), following the Chang'an grid and Confucian model (today's Xi'an), a city of palaces, silks, wealth and widespread opulence changed to always the local landscape, until then formed by forests and agricultural fields.
Writing also arrived from China (which the Japanese continue to use as an alphabet kanji) and various artistic currents.
And the Passage of Buddhism across the Sea of Japan
The most important cultural development carried out by Nara was, however, the flourishing of Buddhism, consolidated by the installation of large monasteries and their schools of thought that had distinguished themselves on the other side of the Sea of Japan, during the Tang dynasty.
The practice of the new religion began by being confined to the capital, but under the rule of Prince Shotoku, it definitely influenced the Japanese government, which was fascinated in particular by the Golden Light Sutra, according to which Buddha was defined not only as a human being. historical but as the Law and Truth of the Universe.
Adoption by rulers and by the palace aristocracy, in general, gave Buddhism an unprecedented vitality and its teachings – adapted to reality and crossed with ancient Shinto mythology – quickly infected the Japanese islands.
These days, Buddhism continues to govern its spirituality and culture, in tune with the much older precepts of the shinto.
In Nara, like all over the country, this dichotomy is displayed in the most varied forms, from the refined and sublime to the most caricatured.
Visitors vs Deer, Todai-ji and Nara Park's Inescapable Battle
A longitudinal crowd roams the centuries-old avenue that leads outside the Todai-ji shrine and into the heart of vast Nara Park.
Its flow is disturbed only by the presence of squads of the city's famous deer (deer nippon) who keep a keen eye and scrutinize passersby to beg or steal from them the delicacies they carry, in particular the biscuits shika sembei, for sale in stalls distributed throughout the gardens and concentrated outside the monuments.
At first amused by the bad experiences of others, we soon found ourselves also afflicted and having to run to get rid of their relentless pursuits.
According to Shinto mythology recorded in the Kazuga shrine of Nara, the god Takemikazuchi would have arrived riding a white deer to protect the newly built capital.
When the legend became popular, animals came to be considered sacred messengers of the gods. Several centuries later, they still roam the streets and parks, now protected by city law.
A Providential Refuge in the Heights
Desperate to get rid of the deer harassment, we climbed to the highest point of the village, Mount Kaigahira-yama (822m). From there, we unveil an impressive panorama of the city in general and some of the imposing buildings that project from it.
We also observed how the inevitable urban development had invaded the adjoining valley, extending around the historic center and from the urban axis that is Sanjo-dori, the most important of its commercial avenues.