Nara – Shôsô-in Treasure and Todai-ji

Today we got up at 6 am. And that’s what we call being on vacation -.- But it was worth while.

Early in the morning we got on the train to Nara – we went by JR local train instead of the Kintetsu railway, because we have a Japan Rail Pass. If you don’t feel like stopping at every building that looks remotely like a station, you should really favour the Kintetsu express train.

After arriving in Nara, we went straight the Nara National Museum to visit the annual exhibition of selected items of the Shôsô-in treasure. When we arrived, the queue for entry was relatively short. We waited for maybe ten minutes top. Inside the exhibition was packed. As the exhibition lasts only ten days, a lot of people want to see it.

The exhibition was divided into three parts: first part were treasures which formerly belonged to Emperor Shômu, the second part showed sacrificial and other religious items and the third part centered around the century long effort to keep the treasure safe and complete.

In the first part of the exhibition, a beautiful mirror was displayed. Its backside was covered with pieces mother of pearl and different jewels such as lapislazuli, which were used to create a beautiful floral pattern. There were also parts of folding screens which Emperor Shômu liked very much. For each of the different screens on display, the manufacturing techniques were explained. The first part ended with some musical instruments and games played a the court in the days of Emperor Shômu.

The second part began with what is maybe the most interesting and beautiful item on display this year: an incense burner in the shape of an open lotus flower. Its diameter is around 60cm and it has four layers of petals, each skillfully painted and gold plated. This item was truly the star of the exhibition and you had to get into an extra line to view it close up. We skipped that. Being about one head taller than most of the Japanese visitors we could see it quite well from 1m away ;).

The second part held a variety of items used to present sacrifices to buddha. Among those was a lacquered plate. On its bottom side it is painted black with a floral pattern, its top side is white with a hardly visible sketch of a hut near a river. It was really fun to find parts of the drawing on the plate and then trying to explain to some old Japanese couple where I could see some of the elements. I really have to learn Japanese again!

The third part contained loads of scrolls dating back several centuries. It is pretty impressive that even back then, they kept an inventory and tried to keep all pieces of the treasure together. But as I can’t read Kanji good enough to understand anything in the scrolls, it was rather boring. I could basically only see: 1 <unknown item>, 1 <other unknown item>, …. But it was fun to see Japanese people actually reading the scrolls and pointing out interesting things to each other.

When we finished the exhibition, we went to see the permanent exhibition. The permanent exhibition features a lot of buddhist statues and other artifacts connected to the temples in Nara. Unfortunately, I really don’t know anything about buddhist iconography. Therefor the statues and paintings are nice to look at, but nothing more. Even if there are differences, that would be quite interesting, for me its basically just buddhas. But even without deeper knowledge, I found one item, that I really liked. The museum displays a larger than life statue of a wisdom king, which is colourfully painted and highly detailed. I really liked the wild and angry look on its face and its posture.

After strolling through the museum, we went to Todai-ji to visit the Daibutsuden. This large wooden hall is absolutely impressive. Towering over the temple grounds, it it trul manificent. And so is the Buddha statue kept inside. Inside the hall, there are also statues of temple guardians and scale models of older versions of the Daibutsuden, as it burned down twice in its history.

After enjoying the massive size of Todai-ji, we walked around the Nara park and hillside through other temples and visited the Kasuga-taisha-jinja. On the way to the shrine we passed through large amounts of stone lanterns. This is a part that I really enjoy. The lanterns come in different shapes and sizes, some have been put up very recently, others are mossy and a bit overgrown and quite old, and on some repairs have been made. I think it must be pretty impressive, when all the lanterns are lit for the shrines main festival in March. Inside the shrine there are many bronze lanterns hanging from chains. Those too are made in different styles.

Then we walked back to the station, stopping shortly at Kôfuku-ji to relax our feet and grabbed some Tonkatsu to ear in Nara’s shopping district.

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