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Friday, September 13, 2013, 08:52
Reminder of bygone Japan
By Andre Vltchek in Nara, Japan

Reminder of bygone Japan

Built in 752 AD, the Todaiji temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the largest wooden structures in the world. (Photos by Andre Vltchek / for China Daily Asia Weekly)

Reminder of bygone Japan

A worker in traditional dress sells local produce.

With historic temples and age-old festivals, Nara offers a glimpse into the country’s past

Nara is synonymous with ancient Japan — frozen on the storyboards of traditional paintings and described in old legends and tales.

Situated in the Kansai region in the south, near the better-known metropolis of Kyoto, Nara is a city of endless historic alleys and streets. Once away from the traffic, crowds and vending machines, time seems to stand still.

Deer walk all around, barrels of sake line the paths near the shrines and temples, and small stone lamps form clusters in the middle of the forest. The enormous trees have seen the history of Japan marked by strife, religious and philosophic movements, wars, and of course, inevitable changes.

Yet many things have remained the same. The design of traditional tea rooms has not changed for centuries; nor have the ceramic bowls in which the green tea, macha, is served accompanied by elegantly simple sweets.

Women dress in traditional silk kimonos and wooden sandals as men wheel their elaborate jinriki-sha pushcarts, first used hundreds of years ago.

Music drifts in and out from far away in the depth of the forest, often consisting of just a few chords, rather than distinctive, coherent pieces.

Nara is not for everyone. It has made little attempt to ‘open itself to the world’ in the way that Kyoto, its larger and younger sister, has done. So for people from overseas, the city can be overwhelming; appearing to be culturally too sealed and impenetrable for a visitor to appreciate. But those with the patience to explore the city will enjoy countless rewards in the form of Nara’s elegance, serenity and mystery.

Nara, then, is a Japanese city to the core, but the Japan it represents is not the land of neon lights and high-tech gadgets familiar from modern perceptions. Nara is a reminder of a bygone Japan; secluded and lost in thought.

The original capital of Japan, Nara was the country’s seat of power between the years 710 and 784, lending its name to the historic Nara Period.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): “During that period the framework of national government was consolidated and Nara enjoyed great prosperity, emerging as the fountainhead of Japanese culture.”

Naomi Segi, an English language teacher, explains that Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto.

“There are some big differences between Nara and Kyoto,” she says. “Nara’s culture is much older, and it has some spectacular sights, including tombs and other historical sites.”

Segi describes the people of Nara as more honest and welcoming than their Kyoto neighbors, in a city with fewer crowded streets and more open spaces set in pristine nature.

“Here we say: The older one gets, the more he or she understands and appreciates what the city of Nara has to offer,” she adds.

Historical attractions in Nara include the Todaiji temple, the Kofukuji pagoda, the Kasuga-taisha shrine, and Heijo Palace: These are four of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara which make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monuments are all unique, distinct and stunning.

The UNESCO description sums up the appeal of the city: “Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and the excavated remains of the great Imperial Palace provide a vivid picture of life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century, a period of profound political and cultural change.”

Nara is an immense living monument in itself to the Japan of old. But to maintain the ancient city, an endless upkeep of its monuments and structures is required.

Iconic Kasuga-taisha, the red-colored shrine established in 768 AD — considered the most celebrated and elaborate monument of its kind in all of Nara — is famous for its hundreds of bronze lanterns, bubbling water canals, and the stunning Kasuga primeval forest right behind its walls.

What is not common knowledge is that, for centuries, the shrine was rebuilt every two decades. The Kasuga-taisha that visitors see today dates from the late 19th century.

“The important role in rebuilding (historical monuments) is played by the masters and workers,” says Japanese architect Kumiko Homma. “We call them Miya-Daiku (specialized carpenters of shrines and temples). But the reason — why should rebuilding be done every 20 years? — is still a mystery. One reason might have been to pass the art of Miya-Daiku from one generation to another.”

The carpenters needed to acquire enough experience to master the skills to pass on to the younger generation, and this could only be gained through practice.

“It was believed that rebuilding invigorates God’s authority and power, while refreshing the skills and mind of Miya-Daiku.”

The pagoda of Kofukuji was once the temple of the mighty Fujiwara clan. The five-story monument is an iconic symbol of the city, originally built in the 7th century and most recently rebuilt in 1426.

The entire compound is now under intensive rebuilding. “This construction and reconstruction has been in the pipeline for 30 years,” explains Kyoko Suzuki, one of the people in charge of the work.

“And this is the first time any major work has been done on Kofukuji since the year 710. We know that we have to maintain standards of this national treasure which is also a world heritage site, therefore the work is very tedious and detail-oriented.”

Reminder of bygone Japan

Nara is surrounded by nature, including stunning primeval forests.

Reminder of bygone Japan
Elderly locals enjoy the city’s quiet surroundings.

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