And I Never Got that Photo: Nara’s subtle, wavering magic

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The day I went to Nara was probably the first day I’ve been glad that Japan is raining. The rain made everything feel close, intimate, with locals huddling together under market stalls, deer huddling under trees, at the very same time it was giving it a distant, picturesque feel. Lakes had shivering reflections, temples and pagodas rose from the mist, and the wet smell of incense and cedar ran through its wet fingers through everything. The relentless pitter-pater of the water hitting the grass and stone was like a whisper, impelling not disturb the solitude.

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And I realized, peering through the rain at the deer hiding under tree or the temples in the misty distance, that this was exactly how I imagined Japan a year ago. Imagine the Japan of temples hidden away in trees, stone lanterns leading the way; imagine great wooden vistas and grand Buddhist temples. If that vision of Japan has disappeared in most places, it’s still here in Nara, Japan’s most ancient Ancient Capital.

Perhaps so much of that has to do with silence. When talking to my Japanese coworkers, Nara is most often described as Kyoto’s quiet equivalent, tucked away, free from meddling tourists. I call shenanigans on that one: there were more screaming schoolchildren on that first day in Nara than all three days in Kyoto (and being around tourists that are more-or-less genuinely interested in what they’re seeing than teenager who are forced to be there is an infinitely less frustrating experience—take it from Liam Sensei). But then, there’s something about Nara’s silence that moves beyond the noise and shuffle of its crowds. A solitude surrounds the place, making you feel like you’re the first Westerner to see on these places.

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Take the Shinto forest leading past Kasuga-Taisha. The lamp-defined path leads farther and farther into an ancient forest, where all the trees over a hundred years old are given the white prayer bands that signify its status as a holy tree. Some are over a thousand years old. By the time you reach the inner sanctum, flanked on all sides by Tori gates that peer off into the distant, vine entangled forests beyond, you can almost feel yourself think, hearing the shuddering rhythm of the veins running along your neck or every crunch of branches your feet make.

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The bubble that hangs over Nara’s best places made me feel like I was stepping through time. Or outside of time (and maybe that’s more accurate: Kyoto definitely could bring you backwards in time, but never quite out of it). This is most noticeable at the Heijo Palace Site, site of Japan’s first empire.

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There’s nothing of the original palace besides some rock inlay and a raised stone platform. Now that stands around a grassy field with a single oak tree breaking through the stones. It speaks in the language of the graveyard, like Rome where you’re forced while wandering to reflect on how little any of this matters anyway. Of course, there’s a train line cutting through the south end, and so every fifteen minutes the clang and sudden rush break that spell. But like everything else at Nara, it goes away in the end, and that silence returns.

Just as with the purpose of Buddhist meditation in the first place, Nara encourages a personal connection with its surroundings, so that you’re given the sense that you were supposed to find these things—you, of all the people here. Moments like stepping through the curtain into the hall of mirrors lit by one hundred gilded lanterns, or passing under the main gate and finding the hulking Buddhist guardian hiding within—I catch my breath, and my preconceptions are shaken long enough to force me to really reconsider what’s actually happening here. What’s happening to me.

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It helps that I went alone. After a rather disappointing Halloween in Osaka—late connections, scamming clubs, friends taking the 9 PM train home—which finally rubbed away all illusions I had for the city, I went out to see Nara on my own, taking the time to reconsider whereabouts I am in Japan, mentally. And when I’m wandering through temples that have stood for a thousand years, it really forces me to question why I push everything I do to the point of breaking—never sleeping more than six hours, angry at myself every time I’m not doing everything all at once, looking for new adventures each weekend and condemning the weekends where that doesn’t happen.

And then I get the chance to enter a monastery on the mountain overlooking the Todaiji temple, where I’m served tea by its infinitely kind monks, and get to look at hundreds of different artist renditions of the Buddha. In my two days there, sometimes it was the giant statues or pagodas that shocked me into a re-comprehension, and other times it was the tinniest smile from the monk serving me tea. In Nara, those two extremes are far less different than they may seem.

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Even though Nara started off as a political capital, its role would later transform into a religious center of the country. And it really is the most spiritual place I’ve been to in Japan, probably among the more spiritual places I’ve been to around the world. The Japanese Census reports that over 73% of Japanese people declare themselves to be agnostic or atheist, among the highest in the world. In many ways Nara stands as a rebuttal to that, and highlights the nuanced and unique way the Japanese look at organized religion. There’s something much deeper going on here, and like most things in this country, I’m still so far from qualified to make even vague guesses as to its workings.

But that mystery only further enhances Nara’s appeal. And all of it centers around Todaiji Temple, the largest wooden structure in the world until 1997, home of the Daibutsu. The Daibutsu rises above in bronze which is intricately enough designed to be able to make out the patterns in its clothes, the fingerprints. It is crowned by a massive golden halo of smaller buddhas, and flanked on either side by different visions of the Buddha (one vengeful and one kind, the grand central one staying emotionally remote), about half its size. Its gaze is directed outward, but manages to look down at you at the same time. In the same illusory fashion, it’s impossible to believe the statue is twelve-hundred years old—really, it doesn’t feel like it should have any age at all.

When I stepped in, I was stunned. It was much bigger than what I was expecting, sure, but there was more to it as well—something about the incense swirling against the chatter, the creaking of wood against the floor, all against a faint under-rumble reminding me how many times it’s blown the minds of the viewers come to pay respects—made me feel dizzy. I wandered around the statue three times, soaking in the cracks on the floor, the creak of the wood, the smiles or frowns of all the different Buddhas.

And right as I pulled out my phone to take a picture… it died. At a miraculous 7 %. Thanks, Mr Dependable I-Phone.

This photo of Todaiji is the last picture the authorities were able to recover after the incident
This photo of Todaiji is the last picture the authorities were able to recover after the incident

I mean, it was so bizarrely specific, it dying right at the moment I desperately needed to take a picture. It’s almost right out of the scene from Raiders of the Lost Arc, when all the Nazi’s cameras are burned out right before the Arc of the Covenant melts off all their faces (okay fine, I’ll admit it’s a little different…). It swings back to what I had been saying during my Kyoto post about Geishas: in the end, maybe some things aren’t meant to be photographed, at least not by some white guy-transplant trying to understand a place that’s been doing this show for 1200 years. (Or you could, you know, look up “Nara Daibutsu” on Google images instead).

I never got that picture, and here’s what makes it worse: I’ll admit that, for now, the room of the Daibutsu is probably the first time in Japan where my powers of description have failed me. It floored me. All I can really say is that the room feels like a place of pure imagination, where creation and inspiration come instantly, calling on so many things I’ve ever read/watched/played up till now. Something form my childhood, something from my future. Sound weird, right? I’ll probably stop right here, and just say get here damnit, go go go!

Or I'll send an angry Buddhist guardian after you!
Or I’ll send an angry Buddhist guardian after you!

So while I left the temple with a cloud in my step and a smile that rose above all the screaming teenagers (the inense and mystery of the inner room following me like a translucent veil across my face), about the moment I left the temple grounds I realized “Oh yeah, my phone’s kinda dead, and I’m kinda screwed aren’t I?” So I spent the next hour and a half barreling across the greater Osaka area to get to Kobe, hopping train lines like I’m practicing acrobatics, with a fever and the 1-2% of juice in my battery I managed to grab from the 3rd floor of a Nara McDonalds (yay for cultural exchanges, amirite?)

And at the end of it all, I’d forgotten everything I was supposed to be learning while in Nara. I was back in the mess and the noise of sagging, post-bubble Kansai, battered by every missed train, bothered by every friend that didn’t end up showing up to the failed reunion. Every weekend adventure leaves me exhausted by its end, but this was probably the first one that made me feel mentally deflated as well. It’s an exhaustion I haven’t really escaped just quite yet, and it makes me wonder how much longer I can keep going like this (this hurlawhirl pace).

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These thoughts put me on train back to Nara the next morning, knowing I’d already seen almost the entirety of its cultural sections the day before. I probably went again thinking of my last day in Kyoto, when the city cast its magic wand and made every uncertain and twisting feeling disappear, thinking it could happen again with Nara. It didn’t. Nara just doesn’t have the same artistic saturation that Kyoto does—it’s got two incredibly important parks, cultural islands surrounded by the sea of a mid-size modern (by which I mean, trapped in the 70’s) provincial Japanese town. Nothing was exactly ‘stumbled upon’ this time round.

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And maybe that’s for the best. At the end of the day, Nara is never about the wand waving, and the Daibutsu is a blockbuster feature that is so different from Kyoto’s many ‘blockbuster moments’—there’s still a humility about it, a quiet smirk as it leans up to you from the shadows (not the flash of Kyotan red ribbons and gold). I went all the way back there just so I could stare up at the Daibutsu again (and, y’know, actually get a picture of the damn thing). I wanted to catch the sunset there, but of course the temple had early closing hours that day without prior notice, and the monks were closing the grand gates right as I was walking up to them. Ah well—some things really aren’t meant to be snapped up between lenses, and maybe then some things are also better left as an uncertain dizzy image in my mind’s eye, poor in detail and rich in wonder, before over-seeing washes the magic away.

So I didn’t get another Kyoto, didn’t even get another Daibutsu. And so I was left, wandering away, thinking about Nara’s austere Buddhism, trying to tell me that all of this, including its Daibutsu, is remarkably transient (Todaiji, after all, has now been rebuilt three times). Did Nara end up getting through to me what it wanted to all along? Quietly rocking my world, in my bubble of silence.

And that’s the uncertain, subtle magic of Nara.

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2 thoughts on “And I Never Got that Photo: Nara’s subtle, wavering magic

  1. Thank you for sharing Liam-your travels and insights are interesting and intelligent.
    There is still no snow in Kenora and it is mid November! Global warming…???

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