Squeezing through Buddha’s nostrils

There is a pillar in the great hall at Todaiji in Nara with a small hole at its base. It is believed to be the size of the Daibutsu’s (Big Buddha’s) nostril.  Anyone who manages to squeeze through that is believed to be granted enlightenment in his next life. You know, similar in concept to the camel passing through the eye of the needle and all that.

Never one to pass up a challenge, and with the prize of enlightenment dangling like a juicy carrot before him, the man gamely took off his jacket and sucked in his rather sizeable jelly-belly in a brave (foolhardy) attempt to get through while I had horror visions of having to call the local fire department or worse, sawing through one of Japan’s national treasures to get the man and his belly out in one piece.

He got as far as this before common sense prevailed. “It was my belly,” he explained sheepishly as he crawled back out.

Yes, I could have told him that too. The guidebooks say children usually make it. Sometimes men behave like children, but pity they are not sized like them too.

Those who say temples and shrines are boring ought to re-consider. Architecture, religion and culture aside, there is all manner of interesting activity happening at these wonderful places of worship that even non-believers can try to “gain enlightenment” or be “one step closer to nirvana” etc. Whether it is rattling the prayer wheels, dousing a Jizo statue, ringing a bell, writing on an ema tablet, rattling an omikuji box for a fortune slip, getting an goshuin done, or purchasing an omamori for luck, there is plenty to do.

Squeezing through the Daibutsu’s nostrils is just one of the fun things we’ve done at temples and shrines. Probably ranks up there with negotiating the pitch-dark tunnel in Zenkoji in Nagano to find the key of enlightenment and turning the stone right in the heart of the Tainai Meguri in Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.

In Todaiji, we picked omikuji in English – which generally gave sensible advice: You must finish one thing before starting a fresh thing. And under Travel: Review many different plans in advance. With another 13 days to go in this trip, this is sound advice.

It was a lovely blue-sky day for us to wander the expansive grounds of Nara Park and the many temples, sub-temples and shrines. Getting to Nara from Osaka was a breeze. The Kintetsu Nara line from Namba got us to Nara in about 35minutes. The TI outside the Kintetsu Nara station is manned by English-speaking staff with good maps and good recommendations so I’d recommend stopping here first.

First stop for us was the Himuro shrine (above) whose star attraction for the day is the weeping cherry in full bloom. I also got my first goshuin of the day here.

It was early to stop for a break but the building here intrigued us with this sign:

 

Turned out the ‘Seismic Isolation System’ was something like a car seat with seat belts on a moveable platform. We didn’t try it but watched while others did. Still, admission is free and there’s also free hot tea and a water dispenser, clean loos, seats for a sightseeing break and tourist brochures to pick up. Plus a desk manned by volunteers for a cause I didn’t understand but gathered had to do with deer.

No one has tried to kill a deer since 1637 since the law on deer homicide made it clear that capital punishment awaited. As cows are to Hindus in India, these sacred deer have been left to roam unmolested for centuries in Nara Park. Hence these pesky heavenly messengers were everywhere. So were the poo. With deer biscuits (shika-senbei) being sold by vendors, you could pay about 150yen for a packet if you enjoy being the subject of great interest by packs of deer. One woman was seen shrieking and attempting to run after she ran out of food only to be outflanked by deer whose DNA already hold centuries-old strategies on How to Get Food From Silly Tourists.

Heed the warning signs:

We spent a delightful day just wandering around the serene sprawling grounds of the temples and shrines in Nara Park. The highlight of course was the world’s largest wooden building and the largest bronze Buddha.

First sight of Todaiji, set amid a pale ochre lawn:

Despite its impressive size, the cavernous hall you see today is only two-thirds of the original built more than 1000 years ago. The Daibutsu, made from bronze and some gold melted down, was completed in 752AD and almost bankrupted the nation in the making. At the time it was the largest statue of its kind in the world – and I guess it still is today – but over the years, the Daibutsu has seen seen its fair share of knocks from fire, earthquakes and the like – with the body reconstructed in 1185 and its head in 1692. The question on my mind was – just how many bronze mirrors did the ladies have to give up in order to cast this?

Todaiji aside, we wandered the many sub-temples around the temple complex, many of which are national treasures and have stood for hundreds of years.

It was quiet and the crowds were sparse. We wandered up hillsides, stairs, past a belfry to arrive at Nigatsu-do, 二月堂 which means the Hall of the Second Month. There was also the Hall of the Fourth Month, Hall of the Third Month. At all these, I got my goshuin.

view of Nara from the Nigatsu-do

Nara’s temples and shrines are pretty well spread out so there is quite a bit of walking to do. Down the eastern side of Nara park in a shaded woodland stands Kasuga Taisha, the shrine of the powerful Fujiwara family.

Famous for its lantern-lined approach, the shrine was quiet in the late afternoon that day with few visitors. Loved the big old mossy lanterns all donated by worshippers and the pale teal bronze ones in the shrine itself. They number in the thousands and must surely be a wondrous sight when all lit up during Setsubun or Obon.

We picked another omikuji each for 100yen. Mine read: The awaited one will be later than expected but will surely come. Hmm, can they mean a good helper for the house? So far, it’s been strike 1 already…

The grounds of Kasuga Taisha are scattered with several other sub-shrines. We found the Meoto Daikokusha most interesting since it was a shrine for marriage. So what better way to mark our 20th anniversary than to write an ema tablet:

 

From Kasuga Taisha, we wandered down the broad tree-lined avenue flanked by lanterns towards the main town. It was a long walk back to town and we had debated on whether to take the bus or not but somehow, it felt right to keep walking and keep talking. Right now, I can’t remember what we talked about – nothing particularly important – but I recall the comfortable feeling of just being on the same wavelength, a bit of teasing and laughter and just a great sense of well-being and contentment. I guess, after 20 years of marriage, this is what it is really all about. I’m glad that 20 years on, we can still walk arm in arm, just enjoying each other’s company and being in the moment.

We were disappointed to see the big hall of Kofukuji literally a shell under layers, ready to be reconstructed. But the five storey pagoda, a landmark of Nara first built in 730 still stood. As did the interesting Eastern Golden Hall which housed several interesting statues of the Juni Shinsho (12 generals) and the Shi Tenno (four Deva kings) – each of these wonderfully carved statues had different characteristics and different facial expressions.

Never one to pass up the chance of another ema tablet:

  

The greedy kiasu mother in me always wants everything she can get for her kids. Except that I have five kids and there is only just so much space. Hope I am not jinxing myself but have to say thus far that all we asked for has come to pass.

Saw this on the way to the train station and wished we had one of these!

KH surprised me today – in a good way. Surprise 1: he was the one nagging to go into the Golden Hall to view the Buddhist treasures and Buddhist art on display. I obliged because I needed a toilet break and I wanted the air-conditioning. Our roles changed in Nara. For once he was the guide who had done his homework and he explained all the significances of the buildings and the artifacts we’d seen today. It felt good for me to slack off and for him to do all the talking. I was proud of him – he actually read up and could give me a good narrative commentary!

Surprise number 2: We stopped for a tea-break in a dainty cafe with little cakes and tea and doilies. Not his usual style at all. I knew he liked buns and cakes but didn’t know he would be game for this sort of cafe and cake experience. Still some surprises after 20 years I guess.

Soft fluffy sponges with the lightest airiest puff of cream. An unexpected treat in a shopping arcade right next to the Kintetsu station. This is one of the perks of travelling as a couple sans kids – we would just freely and impulsively stop for a break even if it was just an hour before dinner and not have to worry about a sugar rush for the kids or if dinner would be a problem.

Back in Osaka, we ended the day wandering the alleys off Dotonbori spoilt for choice at dinner. What to eat? Found this unassuming super-tiny mom-and-pop diner. No queues and no English menu. We had marinated beef, chicken and pork, kimchi sides, rice and egg soup. Total bill: 4100yen. Came away smelling like a barbecue!

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