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Nara Park Good for Body, Mind

By ROBERT RAGAINI

© St. Petersburg Times


The broad gravel path to Todaiji Temple is clogged with "sacred" deer. They bide their time until they spot someone who has bought the special crackers sold by local vendors. Then the deer attack, poking soft wet noses into pockets, handbags, growing in number until the victim surrenders the goodies and flees.

According to Shinto belief, deer are the messengers of the gods. So hundreds of them, as tame and mischievous as puppies, roam the vast park of Nara, the eighth-century capital of Japan. A broad-minded lot, they're as likely to raid visitors to Buddhist temples as Shinto shrines.

Nara is 26 miles south of Kyoto. But unlike that other imperial city whose treasures are often overwhelmed by skyscrapers and apartment buildings, Nara's are set in a park of rolling meadows, fir-tufted hills and rambling gardens. In age and beauty they are unsurpassed, and walking from one to another is itself a delight.

Each guidebook to Japan has its favorite Nara Park itinerary but it doesn't matter. I happened to start at the Todaiji Temple because it was near the entrance. It was there I met the deer and the deer met me.

How friendly, I thought, as they nuzzled my backside. But as soon as they discovered I had nothing to offer, they dropped me like a hot potato. Fickle Nara deer.

Todaiji Temple, I thought, was a single building, but that is a Western idea. In Japan a temple is a complex of structures. When Todaiji was built more than 1,200 years ago, it had pagodas, treasure chambers, halls and, midway down the path, the great Nandaimon Gate.

Most people walk through its soaring portals quickly, drawn by two immense wing-like roofs in the distance. They may not notice the 28-foot-high figures housed in shadowy niches on either side of the gate. The Nio, as these guardians are called, are young, only 800 years old.

Recently, for the first time since their creation, they were dismantled and treated with preservatives -- all 3,000 parts and seven tons each. Today they are back at their posts, bare-chested, garments flowing, ferocious works of art.

It is appropriate to be impressed by a 49-foot bronze Buddha. That, of course, is the idea. The Daibutsu, the Great Buddha of Nara, was cast in 746 A.D. and is housed in the Daibutsuden, claimed to be the largest wooden building in the world. From the Nandaimon Gate it almost obliterates the horizon.

Inside, the 500-ton Buddha sits on a lotus flower, his right hand raised in peace. (Five monks can stand on his left when he's being washed down.) His eyes are 3 feet wide, his ears 8 feet high. To accumulate the 437 tons of bronze and 288 pounds of gold, Shomu, the 45th emperor of Japan, almost impoverished the nation.

But like its colossal repository, the Buddha has had a checkered career. In 855 it lost its head in an earthquake and later it melted when the great hall burned. The present head dates from 1692 and has a rather resigned expression.

Also in the temple grounds is the lovely Isuien Strolling Garden. A bit farther, in the Kaidan-in Hall, ancient clay sculptures repose.

Up a hill lined with stone lanterns, Nigatsu-do Hall seems complete unto itself, but like the others is only part of the great temple complex. From its high perch it looks down on the gold-tipped roof protecting the Buddha to the city of Nara and beyond to the Yamato Plain.

From the hall it is possible to take several paths, none marked in English. One leads to the Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine, dedicated to the Shinto god of war. Though quite lovely, it is not one of the great monuments in the park.

But it is the first indication of the difference between the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Within its precinct, trees are hung and girdled with crisp folds of paper, prayers to the kami, gods that reside in every feature of nature. In buildings whose walls are open to the elements, it is difficult to determine where outside ends and inside begins.

Until the sixth century, Shinto and Japan were one. Even today, thousands of festivals honor local kami. Nevertheless, though Shinto mythology was potent and its symbolism pervasive, Buddhism was a more sophisticated theology and by the seventh century was declared Japan's national faith. In the process it incorporated rather than rejected Shinto beliefs. An early example of this is the great Kasuga Taisha Shrine.

Coming from the Tamukeyama Shrine, the Kasuga Taisha is entered through the back door, as it were, though the Looking Glass might be a better analogy. In a flash the somber immensity of Todaiji is replaced with fanciful buildings painted in vermillion and green. Under trees on the surrounding hills, thousands of temple-shaped stone lanterns sprout like magic mushrooms. On festival days in August and February each one is lit, fluttering in the groves like giant fireflies.

Within the compound, visitors are likely to encounter a ritual celebration: Over the beat of a huge Gagaku drum, a Japanese flute slips from note to note, a monk intones a chant and young women in white robes hover over a kneeling congregation. Or there may be a festival of ancient court music or drama or dance. The kami of the Fujiwara clan, for whom the shrine was founded in 707, apparently like to be entertained.

On the way out it's worth visiting the Manyo Botanical Gardens. Continuing straight ahead, the path leads to a Buddhist Temple. Tier after tier, the five curving roofs of Japan's second tallest pagoda reach for the sky as they have for 500 years.

However ancient is the park, contemporary visitors alternate reverence with gaiety. Behind the Great Buddha of Nara is a large wooden pillar with a smallish hole in its base. Tradition has it that those who squeeze through have been measured for paradise. So a few feet from the solemn and dignified statue, peals of laughter ring out and cameras flash as adults scramble on the floor like children.

This would be shocking in a great Western cathedral, but here attitudes are different. Tour groups of Japanese parade through their ancient temples as if they're visiting Disneyland. In the most sacred shrines, good-luck charms are sold that promise assistance with sickness, sex and safe driving.

When introduced to a couple from New York, a rotund monk, robed and with clean-shaven head, raised his hands and launched into "Start spreading the news ... "in a spirited and word-perfect rendition of New York, New York.

Nara Park is not an obligation, something you do because it contains monuments and art works that "must" be seen. It is spiritual, yes, intellectually stimulating and exciting, but also laugh-out-loud funny. Nara Park was and is the glory of Nara. It is good for both body and soul. If you go

Getting there: Japan Airlines offers more nonstop flights to Tokyo than any other airline, including flights from Atlanta, Chicago and New York. Other carriers to Japan are Northwest, United and American.

From Tokyo, Japan Airlines flies to Kansai International Airport in one hour. Then it is 50 minutes by train to Nara, which is 26 miles south of Kyoto.

Staying there: Nara has a range of accommodations from Western-style hotels to Japanese inns (ryokan). The Nara area code is 0742. Prices will vary according to the exchange rate, from about $210 per night for a twin-bed room at the Nara Hotel (in Nara Park, tel. 26-3300), to the far-cheaper ryokans: Ryokan Hakuhoh, 26-7891, is about $80; Ryokan Seikanso (popular with foreigners, call 22-2670) is about $40.

When to go: Spring and fall are best. Summers can be hot, humid and crowded. For those who don't mind temperatures in the 30s and 40s, winters are much less congested.

Recommended reading: Japan Inside Out, Jay, Sumi and Garet Gluck, Weatherhill Pub., a 1,315-page personalized guide crammed with useful information; Gateway to Japan, Kinoshita and Palevsky, Kodansha Pub., beautifully organized guide with useful star rating system; Fodor's Japan, complete guidebook with excellent itineraries; the Moon Publications' Japan Handbook has been awarded the Lowell Thomas Best Guidebook award.

The Japanese National Tourist Organization offices are located at 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, NY 10020, call (212) 757-5641. Request the "Nara" brochure and the "Walking Tour Courses in Nara" printout.

The Nara City Tourist Centers are located at 23-4, Kamisanjo-cho, (call 22-3900, information in English), Kintetsu Nara Station, (24-4858), and JR Nara Station, (22-9821). Request the excellent sightseeing map.

Japan Travel Phone is a toll-free service, in Japan, for English-language assistance and travel information. Dial 0088-22-2800 for information about eastern Japan or 0088-22-4800 for western Japan.

Free guides: YMCA Goodwill Guides (45-0221), and Nara Student Guides (26-4753) volunteer their services in order to practice English. It's a wonderful way to see the sights. Robert Ragaini is a freelance writer living in New York City.

Originally published September 28, 1997



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