To visit Kyoto is often to experience what Oscar Wilde thought of Wagner’s music — beautiful moments, but bad quarters of an hour. The time spent soaking up the splendors of its temples and gardens seems slight at the side of those long bus rides getting there across a cityscape that goes out of its way to be as dreary as possible. For a place that has managed to preserve its glorious past within an engaging present, you head for Nara.

Like its more famous neighbor to the north, Nara was once the capital of Japan, and during Nara’s time as the imperial seat, from 710 to 794, that later upstart Kyoto was but a minor spot on the map. The Nara Period was an interesting one. It was the time when Japan was sending a series of diplomatic embassies to Tang China, and the country fell under the strong cultural sway of the empire to the west.

Japan’s new capital was directly modeled, as Kyoto would be, on the grid pattern of the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xian). Along with the writing system, music and a taste for feng shui geomancy, one cultural import that Japan received (albeit at first indirectly) from China was Buddhism. Initially advanced by some factions mainly owing to its political usefulness rather than out of feelings of deep piety, Buddhism had by the Nara Period become a powerful force in the country. So it was that when the great temple of Todaiji was inaugurated in Nara in 752, the building wore all the aspect of a grand national cathedral. Constructing the temple, from 710 to 784, was no small undertaking.

“It took 50,000 carpenters, 370,000 metal workers and over 2 million laborers to build Todaiji,” explains one of the priests at the temple. “And casting the giant Buddha virtually drained Japan of its supplies of copper and gold. It almost made the country bankrupt.”

Today, as then, that giant Buddha is the main feature in Todaiji. And big the 400-ton sculpture certainly is — so large, the same priest assured me, that a full-grown man could, if he felt so inclined, crawl up into one of the nostrils of the Buddha. For those familiar with the dignified giant Buddha in Kamakura, it is hard to see its bigger cousin as anything but aesthetically challenged. Todaiji’s Buddha exerts an air of repose, though not so much a spiritual one as that of one who has just indulged in a hefty Sunday roast dinner — an impression enhanced by the fleshy face and incipient jowls.

Nor did the sculptor apparently consider it part of his brief to give any hint of intellect beneath the bronze brow. As a model of the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsu-den) in Todaiji Temple indicates, the building today is considerably smaller — and decidedly less elegant — than the original hall. Despite having shrunk, the Great Buddha Hall is still regarded as the world’s largest wooden building.

Though not such a big crowd pleaser as Todaiji, the Shinto shrine that goes by the name of Kasuga, on the other side of Nara Park, makes up for its lack of grandeur in terms of small-scale charm. Located above the rolling expanse of the park, Kasuga Shrine is best enjoyed in the early morning, long before the tour-group crowds arrive and when the mist is still rolling off the hills that serve as a backdrop to the shrine.

Among the souvenir shops that line Nara’s main street, the only serious rival that Todaiji and its Buddha have as icons of Nara are the well-known deer that hang around Nara Park. For the early-morning visitor to Nara Park, the deer are not a bad icon for this pint-size city — the screeching bark of the ruminants sounding mournfully out over the sparse green expanse of the park. Walk around here in the middle of the day, though, when the animals are at their friskiest and the experience becomes a rather different one of feeling the sudden furry brush against the back of one’s hand as some doe opts for the direct method in shaking a tourist down for a snack.

Aggrieved tourists who have let the deer get the better of them can, however, allow themselves the satisfaction of purchasing one of the trophy deer heads on sale at Nara’s souvenir shops. Deer heads apart, the stores are quite a cut above the usual bearers of tourist tat seen in Japan’s more popular destinations.

As you might expect for a city that has embedded itself so deeply into Japan’s cultural psyche, the stores along its main street lean heavily toward the finer side of traditional Japan. Here, the visitor will find such items as wagashi confectionery in a host of delightful shapes, all manner of pickled vegetables, fine reproductions of old masks and the gamut of Japanese doll-like figures from ancient haniwa (hollow clay figures) to modern Kitty-chan. For those with an interest in calligraphy, this is where you can drop a quarter of a million yen on an ink stone and 300,000 yen on a brush the size of broomstick.

Apart from the sickly reek emanating from some of those pickle shops, Nara is very much an aromatic place. In spring, there is the perfume of the large daphne bushes planted along its main street, and in the older part of town the fragrance of incense and the sweet smell of old timber buildings always seem to be hanging in the air.

This area is a place of alleys flanked by atmospheric inns and houses that are content to ignore modernization and remain just as they are. And it is from these narrow streets that you might emerge to see the calm stretch of Sarusawa pond with, behind it, the graceful pagoda of Kofukuji Temple. You hear the temple bell reverberating across the water as a large gray heron lazily sails into flight, and you hope that Nara never really gets around to the 21st Century.

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