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Nara, past-perfect imperial city

Emperors built the ancient site on a scale too grand to maintain. What's left is a tranquil place that echoes and honors its past.

March 21, 2004|Kristin Johannsen | Special to The Times

Nara, Japan — A thousand tame deer roam its streets. Virgin forests stretch two miles into the city's heart. Footpaths are lined with ancient stone lanterns. A willow-rimmed pond downtown mirrors a towering pagoda.

Nara is as singular today as it was when founded 13 centuries ago.

After Japan became a unified nation in 707, Emperor Mommu commanded the construction of a capital so perfect that it could never be improved. So Nara was designed on a grand scale, with broad boulevards and 50 huge pagodas. Just three-quarters of a century later, bankrupt emperors abandoned the city, letting it languish into tranquil obscurity.

Though Nara's just half an hour by train from Kyoto and Osaka, few foreigners make the journey. That fact alone was enough of a lure for me. On a two-day visit here last fall, my husband, Kevin, and I explored both facets of Nara: the brash imperial capital that fell from glory and the moody backwater of 350,000 that grew from its ruins.

It was September, typhoon season in Japan, and when we arrived in Nara an offshore storm was pelting the region with rain. It provided a splendid backdrop for visiting Todai-ji, the temple of the Great Buddha of Nara.

In 743, Emperor Shomu set out to cast the largest bronze Buddha statue to be enshrined in the largest wooden building in the world. The records stand more than a millennium later. It consumed 1.2 million pounds of copper, creating a shortage of the metal for years afterward. Five men can stand together on the Buddha's upturned palm. It sits on lotus petals 10 feet tall, engraved with inch-high Buddhas. The figure was once plated with 970 pounds of gold, and it was dedicated by 10,000 monks.

In the deep, chilly shadows of the hall, the 50-foot image of Buddha towered above us, so massive we could hardly grasp what we were seeing. And that's precisely what this statue of Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha, was intended to do -- not to comfort or teach but to awe with the might of the nation that built it.

Todai-ji has a lighter side. In a back corner, one pillar has a narrow passage tunneled through its base, and anyone who fits through is supposedly assured of a place in paradise. We watched a line of middle-school kids scramble through the wood smoothed by the scraping of centuries of bodies; even their teachers managed. (Hint: Hold your arms above your head.)

Free-roaming deer

From the temple, we wandered into Nara Park, an ancient forest unbroken from the city center to the surrounding mountains. Cypress, pine, oak and cherry crowd together in a green curtain that muffles city sounds. And deer wander everywhere. According to legend, the city's protective deities arrived on their backs, and today, Nara's deer make the most of their sacred status. In five minutes, I watched one doe scrounge donations of baby carrots, peanuts, grapes and "deer crackers" sold from deer-proof mesh boxes. Ignore them and they'll complain, a weird sound akin to a rusty door hinge. The pungent scent of deer droppings mingled with incense and damp leaves.

The animals belong to one of the oldest and holiest Shinto shrines in Japan. Kasuga Taisha's brilliant orange and white buildings glow against the dense green, and 2,000 mossy stone lanterns line the approaches through the park, some dating back to the 12th century. All are lighted during jampacked festivals in February and August, together with the thousand-plus brass lanterns under the buildings' eaves. But on the stormy day we visited, the shrine was dark and empty of worshippers.

Priestesses in white blouses and scarlet trousers sat at long counters, somber behind their trays of brocade amulets, silver ornaments tinkling around their foreheads, and a priest in billowing aqua trousers hurried off under an umbrella.

When we finally checked in at our inn, Ryokan Seikan-so, and slipped off our soggy shoes, we immediately forgot any plans to go out for the evening. The place looked just like what it is: a former geisha house fallen on hard times. The well-worn mansion, built around the turn of the 20th century, embraces a romantic old garden. When the last geishas left in the 1940s, it became an inn. So what if the sliding doors stuck and the tables wobbled? Our room looked out on a garden of stone paths, gnarled pine trees and elegant arched bridges.

Looking out on the corridor, rice-paper windows -- shaped like the moon, a cloud, a Japanese fan -- glowed gently, the prettiest nightlight I had ever seen, while we slept on luxuriously thick futons on tatami mats.

It was still pouring the next morning when we headed off on a different kind of tour.

English speakers in many Japanese cities have formed volunteer guide clubs, and Nara has several. The Nara YMCA English Goodwill Guide Club introduced us to Keiko Ichikawa, who would show us the other side of Nara.

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