Nara

Yesterday was Nara day!

We headed to Nara from Kyoto first thing in the morning, where we met with Liza's friend, Yoko, who kindly volunteered to show us around. We began in Nara Park, a pleasant, forested park with lots and lots of deer. The deer are smaller than those you might see in the West, and they are so used to people that they have literally no reaction to tourists walking around them, taking their picture or even petting them! They're hilariously cavalier about the whole thing.

The park has a beautiful lake, surrounded by cherry trees (so you can imagine what a sight it must be in sakura season) and a big gazebo right in the middle.

Afterwards it was already time for lunch, so we went somewhere nearby because Yoko "knows a restaurant". That turned out to be Edo-san, an amazing inn/restaurant that doesn't occupy one building, but a set of small houses, one of which had been accommodated to be our dining room. It was an extraordinary experience, sitting in a little house in the middle of a forest, seeing the deer walk by through the window, and being served course after course of exquisitely arranged food. If you know me at all you can probably guess that the ratio of things I eat vs. things I don't eat wasn't stacked in my favour, so to speak, but I had a grand old time. I could just about follow the Japanese conversation, and for the most arcane subjects I could rely on Liza's translation. Otherwise, I was busy enough trying to figure out what to eat how and when!

After that legendary lunch, we headed over to Todaiji, Nara's main temple. By sheer coincidence, the only day we could make this visit was Omizutori, Nara's biggest festival and its most crowded time of the year. The most popular event is at night, but in reality the most important ritual takes place at one o'clock in the afternoon. We entered one of the buildings in the temple to find just a handful of people sitting on the outer gallery, while the monks performed the water ritual cloistered in the inner chamber of the house, lit only by a couple of candles. We sat down and observed them through two or three sets of lattice.

This ritual is the culmination of eight days of fasting and other purifying practices to which the monks have submitted themselves. They chanted most of the time, and their chants were surprisingly melodic; at some points I could make out a melody, even, unlike the monotone droning of other sutra recitals I've heard elsewhere. Then at arbitrary intervals the monks would stand up and run around their little room, their wooden shoes making a thundering noise (perhaps it's meant to sound like a thunderstorm?). Then they sat down again, and kept on praying out loud. An attendant dressed in a white kimono would circle the inner chamber's perimeter, periodically stopping to pray.

After witnessing this unique ceremony, we took a walk around the temple grounds and eventually made our way to the Todaiji museum, to meet with its director, Seiko Morimoto, former chief abbot of the Todaiji temple and also, as it happens, an eminent scholar of Islam in Japan. Liza had already warned me, but I could see for myself that Yoko's networking apparently knows no bounds!

Morimoto-sensei welcomed us into his own office and had an assistant serve us tea. He was dressed in purple and yellow robes that made it easy to picture him running the temple. He had this kind of self-possessed, effortlessly authoritative character that you so often see in people who have studied and learned so much for their entire lives.

This is where there's a gap in my narrative, unfortunately, as the rich, fascinating, revealing, instructive one-hour conversation that followed took place entirely in Japanese. I can just about keep up with an informal conversation, talking about generalities, but for an in-depth talk on economical and historical matters, I could well be listening to Hopi. The best I could do was to recognise the general subjects being discussed: the ceremony we had attended (apparently the chanting can destroy your vocal cords), the temple, the gender of Kannon (this one stemmed from my uninformed question; if you're curious, apparently Kannon is recognisably male in India, but his traits became more feminine as the following expanded East), Syria, the geisha, nuclear power in Japan, social politics... Morimoto-sensei had calm, assertive answers for everything.

He very kindly invited us to visit the museum, but by then it was four-thirty and we didn't really have time anymore. So we made our way to finally see the Daibutsu, a giant, ancient bronze statue of Buddha, dating back to the 8th century, that is the single most important sight in Nara.

And it is an incredible sight. Massive constructions of this size are often colossal and imposing, but the Buddha is the complete opposite: this huge monument radiates calm and serenity, his hands arranged to dispel fears and beckon his followers. The huge building that houses it allows you to walk around it and inspect it from every angle.

After taking in the sight for a while, we parted ways with Yoko and we stayed to attend the big finale of the festival. Yoko had scored us tickets to be able to stand in a well-placed area in front of the temple.

Then, at about eight, when the place had flooded with people (although, again, only one or two gaijin in sight), the ceremony began. The monks had built these giant torches out of thick bamboo and pine branches at the end. I was told the monks insert their regrets, grudges, and other negative feelings inside the torches, so as to cleanse themselves of them when the torches catch fire. They lit the torches in a big bonfire, down the hill, and then carried them -I couldn't see whether a single person could carry one torch or whether several people joined in- up the stairs and into the temple.

Carrying a huge open fire into an entirely wooden, extremely ancient pinnacle of Buddhist architecture didn't seem very wise to me, but it's been one thousand I-don't-know-how-many-hundred years since the last time the whole temple burned down in this very same festival, so I guess they got the hang of it. There were firefighters standing by, just in case...

Once up in the temple, they keep rotating each torch as a new one come in, so each one visits each corner of the building. The whole audience was enraptured by the spectacle, emitting appropriate "Oooh"s and "Aaah"s whenever the torch-bearer would start running ("running with scissors", I thought). The expectant silence was only broken by the monotonous "Please watch your step, please watch your step" that the police kept chanting on and on like their own sutra. Perhaps in a hundred years from now the police will have their own, separate ritual.

We saw eight of these torch-passings or so, and then decided that it was in our best interest to flee the scene before the other bajillion people tried to get out at the same time, so we made an early exit and latched on to a very nice Japanese couple who guided us to the train station.

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