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Nara and Koyasan
- The Cultural and Historic Japan
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Journey to Japan -3
In 710, a city then called Heijo-kyo, which meant “citadel of peace,” became the first permanent capital of Japan. That city, which was renamed Nara, continued to serve as Japan’s capital for 74 years. Its location at the easternmost end of the Great Silk Route gave it extraordinary access to culture, and religious traditions, from China and India. Soon, Chinese art, architecture and religious beliefs had blended with the local citizens’ own Shinto tradition. Ultimately, Nara became the grand diocese of Buddhism, and this history-rich city, home to many ancient shrines, temples, and pagodas, has thus emerged as an intriguing gateway to the past.
Nara is the nerve center of the cultural heritage of Japan. It is the Mecca of Japan, the city harboring Japan’s gigantic Buddhist statues and unique parks. What’s important about those 74 years, however, is that they witnessed the birth of Japan’s arts, crafts, and literature, as Nara imported everything from religion to art and architecture from China. Even the city itself, laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, was modeled after Chinese concepts. It was during the Nara Period that Japan’s first historical account, first mythological chronicle, and first poetry anthology (with 4,173 poems) were written. Buddhism also flourished, and Nara grew as the political and cultural center of the land with numerous temples, shrines, pagodas, and palaces.
Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world's largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall's size. There is a huge wooden column with a small hole in it near the ground. According to popular belief, if you can manage to crawl through this opening, you’ll be sure to reach enlightenment (I could see many children and some lean girls crawling out of it with glee).
As we approach the Todaiji temple, one cannot miss the awe-inspiring Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce looking statues. Representing the Nio Guardian Kings, the statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself. I was surprised to see so many graceful deers from the adjacent Nara Park freely mingling with tourists and eating ‘deer cookies’ from them.
At the western end of the grounds is the two-story, 17m-high Kondo, or main hall, which is considered the oldest building at Horyuji Temple, erected sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries. It contains Buddhas commemorating Prince Shotoku’s parents, protected by Japan’s oldest set of four heavenly guardians (from the late 7th or early 8th century). Next to the main hall is Japan’s oldest five-story pagoda, dating from the foundation of the temple and considered the most important structure of Buddhist temples, as it is here that relics of the Buddha are enshrined; it contains four scenes from the life of Buddha.
The Gallery of Temple Treasures, constructed in 1998, a visual treat to art connoisseurs, contains statues, tabernacles, and other works of art from the 7th and 8th centuries, many of them National Treasures. No photography is allowed here. On the eastern precincts of Horyuji Temple is an octagonal building called Yumedono Hall, or the Hall of Visions, built in 739 as a sanctuary to pray for the repose of Prince Shotoku.
Its history dates back to late 7th century (A.D.680) when the erection of Yakushiji was planned by Emperor Temmu to pray for the recovery of his Empress from a serious illness. The construction of Yakushiji on the site of Asuka, the south part of Nara, in the Fujiwara Capital, was not completed before the Emperor’s death.
The splendid layout of buildings including Kondo (Main Hall), Kodo (Lecture Hall), the East and West Pagoda are a visual treat. The Kondo hall, rebuilt in 1976, contain several images, including the famous Yakushi Triad (Healing Buddha flanked by the Bodhisattvas of sun and moon). Behind Kondo is the Kodo (Lecture hall), which again house another fine Buddhist trinity. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed here.
However, Yakushiji was burnt down and destroyed by fires, wars, or natural disasters several times, and the largest damage was caused by the civil war in 1528. Today only the Yakushiji Triad in the Kondo, the Sho-Kannon in the Toindo, and the East Pagoda, known as “frozen music”, recall the grandeur of its original features.
The Kondo (Golden Hall), roughly in the middle, contains a stunning Senju (thousand-armed) Kannon image. Behind it, the Kodo (Lecture Hall), contains a beautiful image of Miroku Buddha.
Its buildings, in contrast to the bright colors of Yakushi-ji, have been allowed to age, but you can still see remnants of the colors on the back of the hall.
Kofukuji's National Treasure Museum exhibits part of the temple's great art collection and is an absolute must-see for lovers of Buddhist art. Among the many outstanding exhibits is the three-faced, six-armed Ashura Statue, one of the most celebrated Buddhist statues in all of Japan.
The Japanese medieval epic Heike Monogatari relates that when retired Emperor Shirakawa (1053–1129) expressed a desire to embark on the ultimate religious pilgrimage—that is, to travel to distant India, the land where the historical Buddha had preached—adviser and scholar Oe Masafusa suggested a less hazardous but equally exalted destination. “You may find an incarnation of the Great Sun Buddha on Mount Koya here in our own country,” Masafusa declared. “Shakyamuni in India and Kobo Daishi in Japan both attained Buddhahood while still alive. Kobo Daishi’s virtue gave light to the darkness that had long ruled the world. Even after his death he continues to sustain his flesh on Mount Koya in wait for the appearance of Maitreya Bodhisattva, the Buddha of the Future.
The Ichinohashi Bridge (first bridge) marks the traditional entrance to Okunoin, and visitors should bow to pay respect to Kobo Daishi before crossing it. Across the bridge starts Okunoin's cemetery, the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones all along the path leading to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. Wishing to be close to Kobo Daishi in death to receive salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries. Interestingly, many corporates have also built fascinating tombstones. The styles of the burial memorials vary too much for the eye to dwell on each of them, but the most spectacular cenotaphs attract attention, such as the one an insecticide company dedicated to its termite victims.
The whole pathway is swathed in a reverential darkness of huge cypress trees forming a canopy overhead and all along you see monument after monument, stone lantern after stone lantern, tomb after tomb, I must confess that I have never visited a place like this where I can draw comparison in terms of the sheer immensity of its experience. The unending array of tombs-small and big, children and elders, common people and Feudal Lords-and the tall cypresses and its gnarled branches, the shimmering moss in the pathway, shafts of sunlight slyly seeping through the trees are a spectacle that can overwhelm anyone.
At the culmination of the pathway, about a 30-minute walk away, is the Lantern Hall, or Torodo, which houses about 21,000 lanterns, donated by prime ministers, emperors, and others. Two sacred fires, which reportedly have been burning since the 11th century, are kept safely inside. The mausoleum itself is behind the Lantern Hall. In the hall's basement are 50,000 tiny statues that have been donated to Okunoin on the occasion of the 1150th anniversary of Kobo Daishi's entrance into eternal meditation in 1984.
Although Kongobuji was originally built in the 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commemorate his mother’s death, the present structure dates from the 19th century. The main hall's Ohiro-ma room has ornate screens painted by Kano Tanyu in the 16th century. Pictures by famous artists from long ago decorate the sliding doors of the inner rooms, including those depicting Kobo Daishi’s trip to China.
The most important thing to see, however, is the temple’s magnificent rock garden, reputedly the largest in Japan and said to represent a pair of dragons in a sea of clouds. The rock garden is interesting for the sheer number of rocks used in its composition, giving the effect of a throng of petrified worshippers eagerly listening to a monk's sermon.
The two most prominent buildings of the Garan are the Kondo Hall and the huge vermillion colored Konpon Daito Pagoda. The Kondo Hall is a large wooden temple hall where major ceremonies are held. The building has burned down multiple times over the centuries, and the current hall dates back to 1932. It enshrines an image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing.
Next to the Kondo Hall stands the vermilion Konpon Daito Pagoda, a 45 meter tall, two tiered, tahoto style pagoda, which many consider to be Koyasan’s most magnificent structure. A statue of the Dainichi Nyorai (Cosmic Buddha, also known as Variocana), the central Buddha in Shingon Buddhism, stands in the middle of the pagoda's interior and is surrounded by statues and paintings on pillars, which together make up a rare three dimensional mandala (a metaphysical map of the cosmos).
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