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Tuesday, March 14, 2006



On a bitter cold mid-March day, my daughter and I rode down on the train to Nara from Kyoto. The trip takes less than an hour, and once you leave the slums of south Kyoto and the suburbs in Uji you roll through typical rural Japanese countryside. We live in the slightly less ancient capital of Kyoto (794-1868), and I have only been to the previous capital of Japan one time--and many years ago at that.

Tame Deer in Nara ParkFounded in 710 A.D., the capital city Heijokyo (Nara) predates Kyoto's reign as the cultural and administrative capital of Japan. The city was modeled on Changan, the capital of China's Tang Dynasty, and still has essentially an un-Japanese grid pattern. In many ways, Nara is Kyoto in miniature.

From Nara Station, the main sightseeing area is about 15 minutes on foot up a narrow and typical Japanese shopping or high street, the shotengai, which is amazingly covered in graffiti. Nearly all of the shop grates and quite a few walls were done over in imitation of US-style tagging or, incongruously, as deer. Many of the products inside these shops are also deer-related. Indeed, much of Nara is deer-centric, and when you arrive at Nara Park you quickly learn why.

The Park is full of tame deer, which are considered the "messengers of the gods." There are many senbei--Japanese crackers--vendors conveniently on hand. All Japanese tourists feed the deer these crackers, and then take a picture ("Peace!") to commemorate the feeding.

Further in the Park, though, you come to the real attraction: Todaiji Temple. This is the largest wooden structure in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. Inside the temple is the Great Buddha, which is 15 m tall. Below right, people place incense sticks in offering within the Great Hall.

Incense in Todaiji TempleAnother world heritage site nearby is Kofukuji Temple, which is famous for its five-storey pagoda. Originally built in 730 A.D., the current structure dates only to the 15th century when it was rebuilt after being destroyed during a civil war.

At this point, my seven-year-old and I were fairly templed- and deered-out. A nearby sweet shop sold--what else--deer-shaped pastries filled with red bean paste. And with that in hand we made our way back home to the more recent former capital.

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