In a geographical battle for the hearts and minds of Japanese people, Kyoto would win hands down as the wellspring of so much of their culture for which they feel such reverence.
But while Kyoto certainly has its magnificent fistfuls of historical treasures, it also happens to be Japan’s seventh-biggest city, and a journey from one of its celebrated sites to another often involves a long bus ride through cityscapes of spectacular drabness.
In contrast, for a city with ancient origins that has managed to preserve more consistently its old character — and also boasts an attractive green setting — the visitor is better off heading to nearby Nara.
As Nara is keen to make everyone aware, this year marks the 1,300th anniversary of the city’s founding and its rise as the national capital. Before the establishment of Nara, then known as Heijokyo, the location of the capital underwent frequent changes. But then, from 710 almost continuously until 784, Nara was the seat of power and, in effect, Japan’s first city. The stability afforded by a semipermanent capital was instrumental in allowing an exceptional flourishing of arts, crafts and industry.
Though Japan’s confidence as a nation then was growing apace, it was still under the cultural sway of its mighty neighbor, China. So when Japan came to plan its bold new city, it took as its model the Chinese capital of Changan, then the world’s largest metropolis. Like Changan, Nara was executed on a grand scale, built to a grid pattern of square blocks intersected by broad avenues. Nothing like it had been seen in Japan before. And the Chinese influences were also evident in the red color of its major buildings and its siting in accordance with feng shui principles intended to promote balance and comfort.
Nara’s grandeur, alas, was not to last. Not too long after the capital was abandoned toward the end of the eighth century, the former palatial spaces were reclaimed as rice paddies. A taste of Nara’s glory days can, however, be had today in the shape of the Imperial Audience Hall, once the center of state ceremonies, that has been recently rebuilt for the big anniversary. Also part of the Imperial palace was the Suzaku Gate, reconstructed in its original red-and-white finery in 1998. As the palace’s main entranceway, it was a spot that only a privileged few ever got to stride through. Here, in grand ceremonies, young men and women of the moneyed classes would assemble to coyly exchange love poems under the benevolent gaze of the Emperor — which was how they did things in an age before online dating.
When the planners set about their work of building a spanking-new capital worthy of this country on the make, their remit was clearly “think big.” So in building the temple that was to become, in effect, a national cathedral, they didn’t skimp on magnificence. Construction of the Great Hall of Todaiji began in 747, and it was meant to impress in jaw-dropping fashion. It still does. Though the ravages of fire in the intervening centuries have reduced the building standing today to barely two-thirds the size of the original, it is still the largest wooden building in the world.
Hulking within the hall is a colossal, 15-meter-high bronze image of the Buddha Vairocana, whose casting was an astounding technological feat for Japan then. It led to such a drain on copper, tin, lead and gold resources that it almost bankrupted the nation. Unfortunately, though, with this particular holy one, size is everything. Japan’s second-biggest Buddha, that of Amida in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, pleasingly exerts a benign sense of balance and serenity. By contrast, Todaiji’s mightier specimen was not sculpted by the subtlest of hands: He looks more barfly than Buddha, and, in keeping with Vairocana as the embodiment of Emptiness, he doesn’t exactly come across as the brightest spark in the fuse box.
That said, one cultural import that Japan received from across the East China Sea had an even mightier effect than Buddhism. In the centuries before Nara had greatness thrust upon it, Japan was diligently learning about the Chinese way of doing, well, practically everything. So it was that the people of these islands acquired the Chinese writing system and gradually embarked on the long, heroic process of adapting it to their own language — to which it was massively ill suited.
Then, when Nara became the administrative center, it needed to keep a growing army of bureaucrats busily content in their work, and so industries developed for producing the requisite brushes, ink sticks and inkstones. That tradition has continued, and Nara today produces more than 90 percent of Japan’s India ink. Notable among its makers is Kobaien, widely regarded as the finest ink-stick maker in the country and certainly the one with the longest history. At Kobaien, India ink is made in time-honored fashion by collecting soot from oil-burning lamps and mixing this lampblack with glue before compressing it into molds, then drying and hand-painting the blocks.
Kobaien is located close by Naramachi — an old merchant district of lattice-fronted wooden houses that has effectively retained the atmospheric character of a bygone age. At one end of Naramachi is the delightful pond of Sarusawa, in whose olive-hued waters is reflected the elegant five-story pagoda of Kofukuji — one of the main city temples in ancient times. Impossible to miss around Kofukuji and other areas of this lovely green, eastern end of the city are the around 1,200 deer, which are not so much tame as brassily bold as they assiduously do their damndest to shake down passing tourists for a snack.
The deer have long been regarded as divine messengers from the gods of nearby Kasuga Shrine. So closely are the creatures associated with Nara that the mascot chosen to represent the 1,300th anniversary, Sento-kun, is a child monk who nonchalantly sports antlers from his head. In this gala year, Sento-kun really has his work cut out. But, really, all this attention couldn’t be showered on a pleasanter part of Japan.