Meeting the Daibutsu

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Todaiji temple. Note how tiny the humans look!

Last Sunday we had quite a special trip to Nara, Japan’s first capital, established in 710 AD. In particular, this trip was for visiting the Todaiji temple, known in the west as the “Eastern Great Temple”, built around 728 AD. The temple has been burned down twice, but has been rebuilt, and today its Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the largest wooden building in the world, as well as housing the largest statue of the Buddha in the world.

 

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Nara combines both the old and the modern

So, you can imagine how excited I was to visit the temple, especially as our course supervisor managed to arrange a private tour with one of Todaiji’s monks! Despite having learned much about this temple back at Oxford, it was fascinating to hear the story of an actual inhabitant of Todaiji. The tour was in Japanese, but with the help of my classmates, I was able to understand that we were taught about some basic Buddhist concepts, about Todaiji’s history, and about the daily life of a modern monk. We also got to go slightly behind the scenes and avoid the crowds. A magical experience indeed.

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The Buddha’s legs survived the fire and are the original ones from the 8th century!

The Buddha is absolutely enormous, by the way. My head doesn’t even reach the top of its crossed legs. Also, as we looked around, we noticed a pillar that had a large hole in it supposedly the size of the statue’s nostril, enough for a child to fit through, which is supposed to bring good luck.

It was almost momiji (red leaf) season in Nara, and simply walking through the city was lovely. Just like in Miyajima, I ran around excitedly petting deer. The deer in Nara are a bit more scruffy and very cheeky, since they are spoiled by tourists. In fact, that’s something that made me a bit sad – Nara is an extremely touristic town, full of signs in comprehensible English (a rarity in Japan), and it all feels pretty staged compared to the authentic historical atmosphere of Kyoto. Nevertheless, we are going back to Nara next weekend for another university-organised trip, and I’m excited to see more of the town and its temples.

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