Nara Park has too much to cover in one post!!! Located in Nara, Japan, the park holds three major religious structures – the Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji Buddhist temples, and the Kasuga Taisha Shinto Shrine – all of which are UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites. As an added bonus, visitors to the park can approach and feed the [adorable] ‘sacred deer’ – more on that later.
Todai ji, founded in 728 and completed in 749, is a complex of various structures. Among them is the Great South Gate, which houses the Nio (Kongo Rikishi) or Guardians of the Buddha, two huge wooden statues representing ‘birth’ or ‘the beginning’ and ‘death’ or ‘the end.’ However, Todai-ji is best known for the Great Buddha Hall, Daibutsuden, in which the Nara Daibutsu (Big Buddha of Nara) statue sits. Major events held in Todai-ji include Omizu tori, literally ‘Water-Drawing’ but also known as the Fire Festival, and O minugui, which is the spring cleaning of the Buddha.
Kofuku ji was established in Kyoto in 669 by Kagami no Okimi, for her husband Fujiwara no Katamari, but was dismantled twice before finally being moved to its present location in Nara. Of the original complex of about 175 structures, only 7 major buildings remain, including the Eastern and Central Golden Halls, the Northern and Southern Octagonal Halls, and the ‘Three-Story’ and ‘Five-Story’ Pagodas. The first four house various Buddhist statues such as the Healing Buddha, the Buddha of the Future, the Bosatsu of the Unfailing Fishing Line, and the 12 Heavenly Generals, while the latter two hold several historically significant images of the Buddha. Kofuku ji also features a children’s sanctuary of small headstones, where red bibs are placed in order to hasten the children’s liberation to Nirvana.
Kasuga Taisha is among the most important Shinto structures in Japan, dedicated to the prayer and worship of Kami, or natural deities and ancestral spirits. Established in 768 but dating back to 710 as a significant area of Shinto worship, the shrine is located between two mountains (Kasuga and Wakakusa) on the eastern side of Nara Park, which are considered the place from which the Kami first descended. The long path to the shrine is lined with countless stone and bronze lanterns, as well as the Temizuya, a water fountain where worshippers wash their hands before entering the shrine through the Minamimon, or South Gate. Near the entrance, people also like to buy Onikugi, small slips of paper containing their fortunes, to tie to branches of trees – both to promote good fortunes and negate inauspicious ones. During the Man toro festivals in February and August, the 3000 lanterns in and around the shrine are all lit to console the ancestors’ souls, while performances of Gagaku, a court dance, and Kagura, Shinto music, entertain the visitors.
Finally, the deer – which are fairly tame and allowed to roam freely in the park, were once thought to be sacred relatives of the white deer that carried a Shinto deity from Wakakusa Mountain in 768. Although they are no longer considered divine animals, the deer are now national treasures, still protected by authorities and revered by many.