I have a good memory of the Todaiji Great Buddha in Nara because my grandfather painted it and I grew up seeing his painting since I was a child. My kids started to study Japanese history at school, so I wanted them to understand the size of the Great Buddha. It is one of the biggest statues and is a fine example of the gathered knowledge and technology of the Asuka period. I believe it’s difficult to understand the actual size unless you see it for real. So before you go to Nara, here’s everything you need to know to ensure you have an incredible trip.
The Great Buddha
The Great Buddha is 15m tall and the Daibutsuden, the Great Buddha Hall, is 57m wide and 50m in depth. The Great Buddha alone once occupied the space, but the Daibutsuden had enough space for other huge statues to fit inside. One of the greatest parts of the Daibutsuden is its largeness. Three other statues are also placed inside. Two of Four Heavenly Kings of 5m height produced in the Edo period (18th century) were standing calmly. I had to look up to see their faces. Inside of the Daibutsuden was full of tourists, but my kids could still run around.
Todaiji Temple was founded in the 8th century and the Daibutsuden was reconstructed in the Kamakura (12th century) and Edo (18th century) periods. It was reconstructed in 1203 by the Daibutsuyo method imported from China by Chogen, a monk who traveled over the Japan Sea to China by ship. He learned and mastered the technique to construct solemn temple buildings. The Daibutsuyo method embodied characteristics of continent with expansive atmosphere. There were no tall buildings around Nara Park, so we could experience the same impression of the huge wooden Daibutsuden. One of the features of the Daibutsuyo method is combining horizontal wooden beams with standing pillars. This reinforces the structure and creates an impressive view.
Sange: Flower Petals
At a souvenir shop in the Daibutsuden, I saw “Sange” for the first time and bought it. Sange is flower petals for praising and respecting the virtues of Buddha. People once used lotus flowers and fresh flowers, but these days colored paper is more popular for Sange. Some temples ask famous painters and artists to draw original pictures and these are printed as memorabilia. It was my first time to buy Sange, but I can understand why Sange collectors exist, because they are so beautiful. It could be used as cards or memos for friends and family.
Around the Daibutsuden in Nara Park, there are many great temples and museums. Nigatsudo is a sub-temple of Todaiji and along with Shosoin they are a good reference for Japanese architecture. Nara National Museum located near Kofukuji Temple in the Nara Park is also worth visiting.
At Nigatsudo, monks obtain a practice of Shuni-e ceremony in March which is said to originate from praying for an abundant harvest. The climax of the Shuni-e ceremony is monks holding huge torches and waving them at the outside corridor. The building of Nigatsudo was built for the Shuni-e ceremony and it has unique architecture with a spectacular wooden stage for the ceremony.
Shosoin is located in the northern part of Nara Park and is a wooden treasure storehouse built in the Azekura style. The floor is raised to 2.5m height to prevent humidity and to protect from thefts and harmful animals.
How to get there
Japanese temples tend to be tidy and compact, however Todaiji Temple is different as it has more grandeur. It takes 3-4 hours to walk around seeing old temples and visiting the National Museum in Nara Park. Additionally, you can play with free-roaming deer for one more hour if you wish. Nara is a 45-minute journey by train from either Osaka or Kyoto stations. From Nara Station it’s a 20-minute walk to Nara Park.
After visiting the Daibutsuden, I visited Kofukuji Temple in Nara Park to see the Ashura Statue with three faces and six arms. Ashura might be in the top 3 of the most popular Buddhist statues in all of Japan and it is also one of my favorite statues. It has three graceful and sophisticated faces that express his confession. It has youth and braveness in the face. The size is smaller than I expected, but it gives a sense of intimidation in the dark building. People in old times were smaller than us, so they received a very energetic impression from the statue inside of the dark building.
Kofukuji Temple was built in 710 and it has various statues there. The atmosphere is slightly different from the Kyoto and Kamakura period. It is a great chance to see the various statues at the same time. The distances between statues and people are short at Nara’s temples, so you can see them from different directions. They are never pompous and I felt secure to be protected by them. The building was rebuilt several times after big domestic wars, but even after reconstruction I could imagine how people prayed there.
My kids were tired of seeing old buildings and statues after feeding crackers to lots of deer at Nara Park. They didn’t have much energy to visit other old buildings in Nara Park, so we took a walk in the Naramachi area after visiting the Daibutsuden and Kofukuji.
Naramachi used to be part of the grounds of Gangoji Temple and now you can enjoy Machiya, a traditional merchant townhouse. Naramachi was expanding around the end of the Edo period (mid 19th century) and you can still catch a glimpse of the lifestyle of the old times. Some merchant houses have been renovated into small museums, cafes or restaurants for casual dining so Naramachi has a good balance of the old and new. It is an area of about 1 km square and it takes about 1-2 hours to see around.
Bon Appetit: French Restaurant
I wanted a change-up and a bit of a break from Japanese style suppers, so we had dinner at a French casual dining place, Bon Appetit. The owner-chef developed his own individual styles combining French technique with a Japanese sensibility. He has passion to feature the seasons with local finest vegetables and quality ingredients. He renovated a 90-year old Machiya house with stairs made from boxes, latticed windows and miniature gardens.
After finishing dinner, we stayed at Guesthouse Naramachi. It was the first time for my kids to stay in a dormitory. They were so excited about sharing bedrooms, bathrooms and a lounge with total strangers. We stayed in six-mat tatami rooms with 4 beds. One tatami is about 90 cm by 180 cm in size. We express the room size with how many tatamis can fit into the room. Every space was kept very clean and tidy. Owners of the guesthouse were so kind and gave practical travel tips about Nara. Finally, we exhaled relief at the Guesthouse.
How long to stay
My recommendation is a one night stay to enjoy the calm and traditional areas in Nara. There are not so many tourists in Nara and night time is much darker with less street lights. Enjoying the town darkness and silence is the best part of staying in regional towns.