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The Flower Lantern Festival and Cycling in Nara

August 11, 2012

Dear Readers:

Yesterday I bought a day pass and took the train from Osaka to Nara. From August 4-14, the Tokae (燈花会), or “Flower Lantern Festival” is being held in Nara Park. I rented a bike, cycled around the ruins of the ancient capital, and spent the evening watching the lanterns light.

Cycling the Imperial Capitol Ruins

I wanted to go to Nara for two reasons. Nara was for 75 years the capital of the Yamato empire after the capital was moved from Fujiwara around the year 710, and is full of old temples. I got off the train at Yamato-Saidaiji and rented a bike. I cycled through the crowded roads across the river to the grassy plain that is the site of the former imperial residence. The site is roughly divided into an eastern and western half. During the first half of the Nara Period (as the era in which Nara was the capital is called), on the west side stood the imperial complex, where the courtiers would gather for ceremonies while the emperor sat on the throne. During the second half of the period, a second complex was build on the eastern side, and the old buildings were used for banquets. At the end of the period or sometime thereafter, all the buildings were demolished, and the metal roof ornaments probably melted down for reuse. All that remains today are some raised platforms, and marks in the soil where buildings once stood.

Today, two buildings stand at the north and south ends of the western complex: the Suzaku Gate (朱雀門) and Daigoku Hall (大極殿). Both were reconstructed after extensive archaeological studies. The original appearance of the buildings are unknown, so the designs of the reconstructions are based on drawings of period buildings and the designs of still-standing medieval structures, like the East Tower in Yakushiji temple. I entered the complex through the bright red Suzaku Gate. The Suzaku is a legendary Chinese bird that represents the south. In Chinese mythology, the cardinal directions are represented by animals. The Suzaku represents the south, and the north, east, and west are represented by the Genbu turtle, the Byakko white tiger, and the Seiryu green dragon, respectively. (I have given the Japanese pronunciations.) From the Suzaku Gate the Daigoku Hall stood tall in the field in the far distance. A commuter train cuts right across the site today. I imagined I was an emissary arriving from Tang China or some other faraway place as I stood in the Suzaku Gate. I biked across the train tracks to the courtyard before the Daigoku Hall. The sky was clear and blue and puffy clouds were scattered above. Certainly, the imperial courtiers 1,300 years ago must have stood stiff in the cold on New Year’s morning and looked up at the same sky.

I wandered around the station, mailed my disc of photos back to America, and bought a handmade bento lunch. In the bento shop, I expected stacks of made-yesterday boxes, but the only thing in the shop was a cooler of drinks and a counter. When I ordered a maku-no-uchi bento, I waited about ten minutes for the fried things to fry and whatnot. I ate my bento on the steps of the eastern compound. Behind me, workers cut the head-high summer grass. Clouds lazed in the blue sky, I chewed on a fish stick, and cicadas buzzed in the trees. In the main hall was a message left by the emperor on his visit to the opening ceremony. He wrote, “Research upon research, and restoration. Daigoku-den now stands before our eyes.” (御製=研究を重ねかさねて復元せし、大極殿いま目の前に立つ)

South of the capitol: the Nishi-no-kyo area and Yakushiji Temple

I rode along the river to the Nishi-no-kyo area, which means “the west [part of] the capital.” Indeed, it was the western part of the city south of the Suzaku Gate, and two famous temples still stand there. Yakushiji Temple, or the temple of the Buddha of Medicine, was commissioned by the emperor about 1,400 years ago to help his wife recover from illness. She did recover, and took the throne herself when the emperor died before the temple’s completion. The buildings have burned and been rebuilt several times, but many date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. I most wanted to see the East Tower, which is said to have stood for over 1,300 years, which I assume would make it one of the oldest wooden buildings on earth. It is the only building in Japan that survives from that period. Alas, the entire structure was covered in opaque scaffolding. It has been 100 years since the structure was last renovated, so it is being dismantled and reassembled.

On the back wall of the main hall were plaques with the story of the Buddha. When he died, the Buddha’s last words were something like, “Remember what I have taught you, and believe in yourself.” Inside the hall were three statues from the Nara period, of Yakushi flanked by Nikko and Gekko, the Bodhisattvas of sun and moonlight. Exposure to fire turned the 1,300 year old statues black.

Kasuka Shrine, Nara deer, and the Flower Lantern Festival

I rode four kilometers from Saidai Temple to Nara proper and returned the bike. I got it in my head to visit Horyuji Temple and took the train south, but it was too far away, so I didn’t make it. On the way back from Tsutsui to Nara, I met four middle school guys on the train. They had dyed hair and earrings and poked fun at each other while we talked, like “He’s from North Korea!” and “He pees all the time!” I said I wondered what it must be like to live in a legendary place like Nara, and they said, “We’re legendary children!”

I walked the omote-sando path into Kasuka Shrine inside Nara Park. When the Flower Lantern Festival ends, a Ten Thousand Lantern Festival will be held in Kasuka Shrine 春日大社. Along the path were hundreds or thousands of stone lanterns densely placed. I happened upon a meeting hall at the edge of the park where the mountains begin and walked through the garden behind. I emerged in a field of little lanterns, plastic cups of different colors arranged in different shapes, like stars and hearts and flowers. Groups of volunteers, from little kids to elderly people, were putting water in the cups, and then candles. In addition to lanterns and people, the field was full of deer. Little deer followed the big deer, and all the deer moved slowly in a big pack near the picnic tables beneath small trees. I helped a little boy shoo the deer away when they came to drink the water from the cups. A sign said, “One guest, one lantern,” and they were being sold were 500 yen (~$6). The western sky was gold in sunset, and as the sun disappeared behind Todaiji Temple’s main hall and the treetops below, the eastern clouds turned pink over the mountains.

The Flower Lanterns and temples at night

As the sun set, the volunteers lit the lanterns at about 7 PM. From then, the festival began in earnest. People began streaming into the park, buying lanterns to add to the designs and strolling down the shop walks in yukata and sandals. I walked among the flickering shapes, down a street of food stalls, and down the dark stone path to the vast gate at Todaiji Temple. Giant statues some twenty feet tall flanked the gate, which was a peeled-paint color of rusty brown, and looked very old. Todaiji was closed, but I peered through the gate at the massive wood hall, probably the biggest wooden building I have ever seen. I ate Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at a stall and walked down rows of candles out of the park. I happened upon Kofukuji Temple and the Five Story Pagoda. The old pagoda was dramatically lit, and a hall was open for night prayers. A group was gathered near the foot of the tower around lanterns shaped on the ground. The shape was the kanji “再”, pronounced “sai” in Japanese, as in saikai 再会 ‘reunion’, saiken 再建 ‘rebuilding’, and saisei 再生 ‘rebirth.’

The commercial streets and lesson of Nara

The main hall of Kofukuji was also covered in scaffolding for rebuilding. I made an offering at the octagonal hall and descended stone stairs into a brightly lit shopping street. I passed shops and crowds and ate a ball of green mochi filled with red bean and powdered with kinako soy powder. A trail of lanterns snaked up a stairway to a little Shinto shrine.

Walking among the crowds at Nara station, I felt silly for having rushed to Horyuji Temple. I think I had expected Nara to be a tourist trap, full of tourists hemming and hawing over big Buddhas and big halls like in Kamakura. In fact, Nara is a thriving provincial capital with a living religious tradition. The temples are far apart and far too many to see every one. Many things are unpretentiously old. To make a French analogy, Nara might be Lyon to Osaka’s Paris. I had heard the oldest such and such and the biggest such and such building were in Nara, and those extremes loomed too large in my mind. What of history I was able to feel in the ruins and what of local belief I was able to understand in the sacred places was good enough. It’s not to say I didn’t miss things I’d have enjoyed seeing, but that I didn’t make it to some place or other makes no difference at all.

Kieran

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