5th February: Nara to Hakone

Travel day today.  I headed off for a museum in the morning, then decided I didn’t have enough time so turned back.

on the street

I encountered this curious being in the centre of old Nara shopping zone.  Appears to be some kind of marsupial cat-like creature that gives birth to fish.

Shop in old Nara, selling flowers, clothes and food.

Street scene outside where I was staying.

Bullet train

I’ve taken the train from Nara to Kyoto.  This is the bullet train drawing up in Kyoto Station to take me to Odawara, a trip of about three hours.  Then to Hakone by considerably slower local trains.

View from train

I was surprised to find snow from just outside Nara.

View from train

And this is the view of a mountain (name unknown) not far before Odawara.

3rd February: Nara – Lantern Festival at Kasuga Taisha Shrine

I was able to time my visit to Nara to coincide with the Setsubun Mantoro Festival, where all 3,000 lanterns at the Kasuga Taisha Shrine are lit.  This happens twice a year only.

Lanterns in front of Sarake Jinja

I arrived at the Kasuga Taisha Shrine just as it was getting dark and first walked down the rear path where many lanterns were lit.  The red structure in the background is the Shinto gate to the small Sarake Jinja (Jinja means shrine).

Stone lanterns near Wakamiya Jinja

Heading back towards Kasuga Taisha, here are more stone lanterns near another small shrine.  We are on the edge of the Kasugayama Primeval Forest but it’s dark so I can’t show you anything of it.


This is the Nanmon, the main gate to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine.


Kasuga Taisha is a Shinto shrine, officially founded in 768 by the Fujiwara clan, though believed to date back to about 710.  In the late Heian Period (794-1185), the shrine united with Kofuku-ji in a fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism.  This lasted until Shinto and Buddhism were separated shortly after the Meiji Restoration (1868).

Up until 1863, the shrine was dismantled every twenty years and then reconstructed using original materials.  This represented the coexistence of impermanence and tradition.  The same applied to the Grand Shrine of Ise, one of the oldest in Japan,  in the Yamato clan’s ancestral homeland.


GPS location (Green arrow).

A lantern in, I think, the West Cloister


3rd February: Nara – Horyu-ji

I traveled first by train and then on foot to visit Horyu-ji, south-west of Nara, which contains some of the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world.  It is also a very early icon for Japanese Buddhism.

Old building in Nara - post-mod or in need of attention?

Still in Nara, on my way to the train station to get to Horyu-ji, I wandered past this old building.  Perhaps a warehouse, not sure.  I’m not an expert in renovations but it occurs to me that this building is possibly in some need of attention.

Nandaimon, the South Main Gate at Horyu-ji (restored in 1438)

After a train journey and a walk I have reached the main gate of Horyu-ji.

Just inside the gate ...

This I suspect is a much more recent building than much of Horyu-ji.  It is just inside the outer gate and is either a small temple or a residence or a combination of the two.  It has a traditional roof with its complex scroll structures and a simple yet elegant garden.  Note the paper windows or sliding doors.  The paper needs to be replaced I think several times a year.  It provides wonderful quality of interior light and ambiance but is rather lacking from an insulation standpoint in winter, as are many Japanese houses in general.  Heating in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and, I understand, Japanese houses tends to be on an individual room basis and often seems to be turned up curiously high.

Chu-mon or Middle Gate

Left Guardian of the Chu-mon or Middle Gate

This is the Chu-mon or middle gate, showing one of its guardians, and dating back as early as 607AD.

In the West at this time, the Western Roman Empire was overrun 130 years before and Justinian had been dead for 40 years.  Europe was in the middle of a period (550-650) where the bubonic plague would kill up to a third of the population.  The Byzantine Empire was between dynasties and sorely pressed by the Persians.  Heraclius became emperor a few years later and obliterated the Persians but exhausted Byzantium.  Then from a dozen or so years later, the Moslems rose and took over Persia, Egypt and North Africa.

In the Americas, for that matter, the Zapotec, Maya, Moche and Pueblo peoples were thriving in their respective civilisations while Teotihuacan was already gone and both the Aztecs and Incas were many centuries away.

China was in a period of order and renewal and the short-lived Sui Empire was giving way to the Tang.  This probably had much do to with the extent of Japanese cultural imports from China at this time.

Kairo or Cloister-Gallery

Past the Chu-mon gate we have the Kairo or Cloister-Gallery, which forms an expansive wall around the Kondo (or Main Hall), the Goju-no-To (five-story pagoda) and the Daikodo (or Great Lecture Hall).  We will see these below.

Kondo or Main Hall

Goju-no-To at left background, Kondo in the middle, Kairo at right and around


This is the Kondo, originally built in the 7th century.  It is claimed as perhaps the oldest wooden building in the world, though only 15% to 20% are original materials.  There are impressive statues and murals inside, but no photography is allowed there.

Daikodo or Great Lecture Hall

The Daikodo or Great Lecture Hall, burnt down in 990 and was rebuilt at that time.

Shoro or Bell House


And here is the Goju-no-To, dating back to 607, the oldest such pagoda in Japan.  The Kondo is in the background.  During the Second World War, this pagoda was disassembled, stored elsewhere, then reassembled using the original materials.

Attendant checking the garden

Courtyard of a minor Temple

Toin Shoro or Bell Tower

The images above are from the main group of buildings in the Western Precinct, apart from the last two.  This is the Toin Shoro or Bell Tower from the Eastern Precinct.  You can see there is something resembling a log, hanging supported by a rope and a hole in a large wooden plank.  That is the striker for the bell.


Originally built around 600, this temple was at first a monastery and much later, a nunnery. The last reconstruction completed in 1968.

Zen Temple Garden including Priest with Dog

Back in Nara, nearly back to the ryokan, I photographed the courtyard of a small Buddhist temple.  You may observe under the far gate, a man (probably a Buddhist Priest) taking his dog for a walk, who just appeared as I was taking the picture.

History of Religion in Japan

Religions is important in Japanese history, not just as an esoteric pursuit, but because the different forms of religion, even the very different forms of Buddhism, have been closely intertwined with the development of the Japanese state.

Up until about 600, the Japanese religion was Shinto, essentially a kind of animism involving the worship of spirits.  Buddhism then became increasingly important, imported from China either directly or through Korea, yet Shinto continued to co-exist with it.

The Yamato dynasty originally claimed a special role under Shinto due to a unique and exclusive relationship with Ameratsu, the Sub-Goddess.  With the rise of Buddhism, they claimed a similar role in that religion.

The Emperor Shugo, a fervent Buddhist, tried to engender a State-centred Buddhism but the priests became too powerful after some decades, causing the later Emperor Kammu to move the capital to Hiean-kyo (Kyoto).  Kammu commissioned the monk Saicho to go to China in 804 and bring back a new teaching that would eclipse the troublesome monks from Nara.  This became the Tendai school which set out clear structures while tolerating existing beliefs.  Another monk, Kukai, who also went to China, took this further and established a pyramid of faiths with his sect at the top.  This became the Shingon school.  In either case, to be an avid practitioner required extensive time to follow elaborate rituals, literacy to read scriptures and financial ease to make these conditions possible.  Thus it was a religion for the aristocracy and bolstered the position of the aristocracy in Classical Japan.

Several hundred years later, two monks Esai (1141-1215) and Dogen (1200-1253) established Zen as a major movement in Japan.  Both had studied for some years in China and they founded Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen respectively.  Zen was very different from Classical Buddhism.  Instead of ritual, good works and reading sacred texts, the emphasis was on dialogue with a master, self-discipline and meditation.  Also, Classical Buddhism incorporated much of the pantheon of Hinduism and other local religions on its way from India through China.  Zen is relatively free of this.

The coming of Zen coincided with the Kamakura period (1185-1333).  This was the triumph of regional warlords or bushi over the aristocracy and the Emperor.  A simpler religion was more in keeping with the times and more generally accessible.  With the return of power to Kyoto in the Ashikaga period, Rinzai Zen became favoured by those in power and Samurai generally.   Soto Zen was specified more to the common people and avoided political associations.  One of the main activities of Soto Zen today is the conducting of funerals.

The other main forms of Buddhism in the medieval period were Amidism and the Lotus sect.  Both of these were faith-based, in contrast to Zen with its emphasis on self-discipline.  Amida was an ancient or legendary monk said to have become a Buddha with a focus on benefiting all Mankind.  Honen (1133-1212) and Shinran (1173-1262) were the main proponents.  The Lotus Sect focused on the Lotus Sutra and its founder was Nichiren (1222-1282).  It was rather intolerant of other Buddhist schools.

Particularly in the Warring States period, temples could have small armies and could attack each other, particularly as between Amidism and the Lotus Sect.  Also, the defeat of the monk-armies of the Singon sect on Mt Hiei near Kyoto was a significant milestone in Oda Nobunaga taking control of much of the country at the end of that period.

After 1868, there were edicts to separate Shinto and Buddhism and Shinto became the official State religion (as a native Japanese religion).  For a while, some forms of Buddhism were suppressed and some temples destroyed.  This was partly due to the association of Tokugawa rule with some forms of Buddhism and partly because after the suppression of Christianity, it became compulsory for all Japanese to belong to a Buddhist temple.

Contemporary Japanese are notably free of religious affiliations.  Though most will subscribe to particular rituals of different religions at appropriate times, a 2000 survey by Yomiuri Shimbun showed that 77% of Japanese do not believe in a specific religion. (Yomiuri Shimbun is a Japanese newspaper reputed to have the largest circulation of any newspaper in theworld).

‘Marquis Hirobumi Ito, four time Prime Minister of Japan (the 1st, 5th, 7th and 10th), who made Japan a Great Power is reported to have said “I regard religion itself as quite unnecessary for a nation’s life; science is far above superstition, and what is religion – Buddhism or Christianity – but superstition, and therefore a possible source of weakness to a nation? I do not regret the tendency to free thought and atheism, which is almost universal in Japan because I do not regard it as a source of danger to the community.”‘ (Wikipedia)

2nd February: Nara – Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji


This was my first morning in Nara, staying at the very welcoming Sakuraya Guesthouse, in the old quarter of town.  Nara was the first capital of Japan, before Kyoto, for nearly 100 years.

I couldn’t resist photographing this vehicle near where I was staying which is actually a utility or ute (it has a tray at the back).   The spare wheel cover refers to a car called a Midget that was popular in the 1960s yet it is clearly not the MG Midget, one of which I drove for sixteen years, until relatively recently.  It does, though demonstrate the prominence of small vehicles in Japan, where parking space is very much at a premium in many urban areas.

Nara-machi Koshi-no-ie

This is Nara-machi Koshi-no-ie, a machiya or urban townhouse of old Nara’s local merchants or artisans, just round the corner from where I was staying.  The long, narrow shape is partly for privacy and partly because land taxes were assessed on the width of the house’s facade.  Perhaps part of the reason it looks so immaculate is that it is a relatively recent reconstruction.

Nanendo (South Octagonal Hall)

This is Nanendo, the South Octagonal Hall, originally built in 813 though the current building is a reconstruction from 1741.  It is primarily dedicated to Fukukensaku Kannon, the bosatsu of the “Unfailing Fishing Line”, who uses a metaphysical fishing line to catch and assist people who are suffering.  A bosatsu or bodhisattva is said to be an individual who attains a buddha-like state that they dedicate to the benefit of all humanity.

The person we see is ringing the gong using the red cord as part of a ritual.  This also involves bowing with the hands in prayer position and may involve a few hand claps (my memory is uncertain).

Goju-no-to (Five Storied Pagoda)

The Goju-no-to or Five Storied Pagoda was originally built in 725 by the Empress Komyoh (consort of the Emperor Shomu).  Destroyed by fire multiple times, the current version dates from 1426.  It is the second highest pagoda in Japan at just over 50 metres.

The Goju-no-to and the Nanendo above are both part of the Kofuku-ji temple complex which originally included over 175 buildings, though most were burned to the ground with the eclipsing of the Fujiwara family in the late twelfth century.


There are about 1200 sacred deer in the park at Nara, generally quite tame.  They are very keen on the “deer biscuits”.

Small temple near Todai-ji

If you are a deer, it's important that the person you approach has Deer Biscuits

Todai-ji Temple Gate

This is the main gate to the Todai-ji Temple.  Though impressive enough, I think it also had a practical military purpose.  After all, many of the temples in Nara were burned down in wars.  The three entrances include heavy wooden gates which could be closed in times of danger.  It has two stories so defenders could sleep above the entrances and fire arrows from the balcony if necessary.  The walls on each side of the gate look as though they include vertical slats suitable for firing arrows from.

The Diabutsuden in Todai-ji Temple

This is Diabutsuden, the Great Bhudda Hall, part of the Todai-ji Temple complex.  It burned down three times and though the original was nearly 50% larger, it is still the largest wooden building in the world.   There were also originally two 100-metre high pagodas accompanying it, later destroyed by earthquake.  Construction for Todai-ji commenced in 728 under Emperor Shomu and completed in 745.


I include the image above for scale.  There is a priest bending over the offering table in front of the buddha and on top of the orange platform.


Diabutsu, the giant Buddha, is over 16 metres tall and was completed in 751.  It is said to have used so much bronze that it exhausted the nation’s supply and nearly bankrupted the state.  What you see is not the original.  It was damaged many times by fire and earthquake and recast.

Nyorin Kannon

To the left of the Diabutsu and quite a bit smaller, this is a Nyorin Kannon, a boatsu or bodhisattva equivalent to a goddess of mercy.

Binzuru (Pindola Baradvaja)

This is a wooden statue from the eighteenth century on the porch of the DiabutsudenBinzuru was said to be a disciple of Bhudda with healing powers.  Touching the statue and then the affected part of your body is said to effect a cure.

I presume that these three Buddhist statuettes with offerings in front of them are boatsu or bodhisattva .  There were many of these behind the temples in the hills to the West of Nara.

Classical Japan – Nara and Heian-kyo (715-1185)

Japan as a political entity started from an area in the Ise Peninsula, about 50 kilometres east of Nara.  This was controlled by the Yamato clan who established themselves as both secular and spiritual leaders and became the Japanese royal dynasty.  From about 300AD, the Yamato started to exert influence over neighbouring clans and the period to 650 featured extensive borrowing of military and agricultural technology from Korea and China.

The capital of Japan moved to Nara in 715AD during the reign of the Empress Gemmei.  For some time before that, it moved at the beginning of each reign.  Buddhism became very important during this period and Gemmei’s son Emperor Shomu established many important temples, especially Todai-ji with the DiabutsuTodai-ji became the centre of Buddhism in Japan at this time and all priests had to take their ordination here.

In Empress Koken’s second period as empress (749 to 758 and 765 to 770), she formed a close association with the monk Dokyo, probably including a sexual liaison and it appears he sought to succeed her as Emperor.  As an aftermath of this and to free himself from the influence of the Buddhist hierarchy, Emperor Kammu moved the capital first to Nagaoka in 784 and then to Heian-kyo (later called Kyoto) in 794.

The political system of the Nara era continued in the Heian era with less influence from the monks, except that after some decades the Fujiwara family usurped power from the emperors.  Towards the end of this period, the Fujiwara were first eroded and then displaced by new military strongmen and the centre of administration shifted to Kamakura.

The social structure of the Classical period had some remarkable characteristics.  The Taika reforms of the late seventh century requisitioned land from regional landowners to be owned by the State.   This was then allocated to members of the aristocracy as shoens.  The State still owned the shoens but within the shoens, administrators and cultivators could acquire rights called shiki that could be bought and sold.

The aristocracy centred around the emperor and lived in the capital, first in Nara, later in Heian-kyo.  They owned large shoen estates but did not live in them, administer them directly, or perform military functions.  They were, say, 5,000 of a population of five million.  They had a monopoly on literacy, artistic accomplishments, political power and even religious understanding.  They were generally descended from members of the Yamato royal family.  With the coming of the Karakura era in 1185, they were displaced by regional military warlords or bushi, still related to the royal family but much more distantly.  The wonder is that the system lasted so long.

Itinerary of Journey to Japan

I traveled in Japan in January and February 2012.

Brief Itinerary

Special Topics

Completed posts