In the eighth century, Japan needed a capital. For a few years they futzed around with a couple of locations until they decided to build a capital in what is now the city of Nara. Less than 100 years later they moved the capital to Kyoto, where it remained until the mid-19th century.
Nara wasn’t the capital for all that long, but those 100 years were very important ones in Japan. Notably, they saw the widespread introduction of Buddhism, as well as a series of vicious plagues that decimated the population. These things taken together inspired the rulers of Japan to build great temples in an effort to elicit the favor of God (or the gods, depending on how you look at it—the intricacies of Japanese religious practice are impenetrable). These temples still exist in Nara, one of the few cities to escape annihilation by American bombers during the Second World War, thanks largely to the efforts of Dr. Langdon Warner, an American academic who convinced the U.S. government to spare both Nara and Kyoto for the sake of their cultural treasures.
The biggest of these temples is the Todai-Ji, which contains the Daibutsu—literally, the “big Buddha.” This is a big statue of Buddha. It’s really big. In fact, it’s the biggest bronze Buddha in the world, at 15 meters. And keep in mind that this Buddha is sitting down. I mean, his ears are 2.5 meters long. His hand could hold 20 people.
The Buddha is in an enormous wooden temple. Both the statue and the temple were built in the eighth century, but the building burned down twice, both times partially melting the Buddha. The current building dates from the 17th century, and is only two-thirds the size of the original, but it’s damn impressive for all that.
Just outside the temple grounds—and indeed throughout all of Nara’s extensive park area—are hundreds of sacred deer. These deer descend from animals first brought here centuries ago and they are so thoroughly tame as to walk up and nudge you for a handout. You can buy little crackers to feed them, which they enthusiastically endorse by showing up in droves and looking at you with those big deer eyes of theirs. One young buck even began nudging me with his antlers. He got a lot of crackers.
Upon entering the temple, I was approached by a pleasant woman who asked if I wanted a free English-speaking guide. I instinctively smiled and said no—hardened by the hordes of more-or-less official guides who assault tourists at so many spots around the globe to try to wheedle money out of you. I then remembered that I was in Japan and that this does not happen here: if someone says something is free, it really is free.
I therefore started speaking with one of the guides, and as I was taking notes (yes, I do actually take notes to write these things), a number of others came around and smiled and exercised their variable levels of English.
It turns out that all these guides participate in a program run by the University of Nara. They are volunteers: most are retired businesspeople, some are students, one or two are professors who just like hanging around the Daibutsu. Two of them were particularly endearing, in a grandfatherly sort of way. These were Tomiyasusan and Nakanosan, both retired and both tickled pink to be hanging out with someone writing about the Daibutsu. Tomiyasusan was especially pleased since he also had a very limited but charming knowledge of French, which he employed with gusto once he learned I live in Paris.
My two new friends gave me all kinds of interesting facts about the place, some of which I actually understood, and then they took me around to the side of the really big Buddha, where we came across a pillar with a hole in it.
The Todai Temple is made of wood, as are almost all traditional buildings in Japan. The structure is held up by great thick impressive wooden pillars, all painted red. One of these pillars had a hole cut in the middle of it, near the floor. The hole is just big enough for a small person to wriggle through, which any number of small people were trying to do as we approached.
“This is the nostril of Buddha,” said Nakanosan. “If you can go through it then you have a place in heaven.” I remarked that heaven seemed far more attainable for children and skinny people, to which Nakanosan nodded. He suggested I try, but I like to think that my shoulders would stop me before my midriff gave me away. Either way, I’ll just have to try being good to get into heaven.
I hung out for some time at Buddha’s nostril, behind the towering figure of the Daibutsu. It was quite a show. Most of the supplicants were children, who had no problem at all wriggling into heaven. That being said, there was one Japanese schoolgirl who tried to go through with her backpack still on. What do they teach them at these schools of theirs? Anyway, she ended up taking it off and making her way to paradise.
After a while, though, one little boy begged his father to give it a try. While slight, the man apparently wasn’t holy enough, because try as he might, and despite the encouragement of the crowd, he couldn’t wriggle through. He stood up, dusted himself off, then tried again, this time thrusting his upper body into the hole and managing to get both shoulders in, but that’s as far as he got.
After the doomed man came a young woman, who shimmied her way in despite her tight skirt. While it would seem that she is destined for heaven, her right shoe is not, as it dropped off with the final wiggle. Alas, she shall limp her way through eternity.
Finally, a young Belgian guy decided to give it a go. He certainly looked to be the right build for heaven—he probably weighed no more than 130 pounds. He took off his backpack, handed it to a Japanese bystander, and lay down on the floor, initiating a snakelike movement that none of the other contestants had yet tried. Unfortunately, about halfway through, he seemed to get stuck. “Pull!” yelled some of the Japanese as a substantial crowd formed. The Belgian finally gave a great shove and was born into the world on the other side of the pillar, to enthusiastic applause from the gathered spectators. I rushed up to interview him.
“Are you pleased about getting into heaven?” I asked.
“Very. It had been a concern of mine.”
“How’d you manage?”
“It was Buddha who pulled me through!”
Buddha was less anxious to help an old Japanese man. It’s a shame: if I were Buddha I’d have helped him if for no other reason than his chutzpah. The man must have been near 80 years old, but he kneeled down and stuck his head into Buddha’s nostril, gave a few valiant but feeble wiggles, then righted himself with surprising dignity, and smiled. I suppose he’ll get into heaven anyway.
After observing a number of people trying to take the short road to paradise, I took leave of my friends and left the temple, only to be chased down by Nakanosan, who probably hadn’t run so hard in years.
“You … should … come back,” he panted. “We … can visit … the lotus altar!”
He explained that in their capacity as tour guides they had the right to climb right up onto the dais upon which the Daibutsu sits. They had never done it before, but today was the day! A monk was going to come and explain things to them and the group had decided to invite me along.
“You are lucky!” he said, to which I heartily agreed.
I thanked him profusely for his consideration and his diligence in having run so hard to catch up to me, and we returned to the temple, where all the different volunteers were gathered. I introduced myself to those I had not yet met, asking them whether this was a kind of frog (see my dispatch on useful phrases for an explanation), and then we fell silent as a short monk in a blue robe came to us.
There followed a conversation that seemed to center on me, since my new friends (including the leader of the group, a professor of English literature) kept pointing to me and arguing. After a while, Nakanosan came, shook my hand, and regretfully explained that the monk did not want me to go on the lotus altar. “Don’t worry, it’s not something racial,” he said. “It’s not because you’re a gaijin, it’s because you’re new.” I assured him I was not insulted, but he told me he was shamed.
The professor of English literature then came to apologize, bowing and shaking my hand while Tomiyasusan tried to negotiate with the monk, despite my assurances that it was all right and that I appreciated their effort and I would be fine. This had become a matter of honor for the guides, though, and the negotiations continued. The monk was intransigent, and just about everyone from the group, even those who knew nothing more of me than that I had apparently lost my frog, came to apologize and express their shame.
Finally, the blue-robed monk left, replaced by a new monk in much nattier black robes. When asked about me he said, “Sure!” and then told me through a translator that he had a French car, a Peugeot 106, “the one with 16 valves. It really moves!” I made appreciative “vroom vroom” sounds and off we went to climb onto the lotus altar upon which sits the 500-ton bronze Buddha.
If the Daibutsu is impressive from the floor of the temple, it’s even more impressive from the dais upon which it sits. It is a beautiful statue and I’m sure the black-robed Buddhist monk said lots of interesting things during the half-hour or so that I was up there, but few of my newfound acquaintances really had the English skills to translate with anything approaching efficiency. They managed to point out vague ideas: “The perspective is maintained” or “The lotus carvings are like the sutra,” but that’s about it. These, though, sufficed—being close to this 1,200-year-old statue, being allowed to touch the bronze, and watching the long, delicate fingers of the monk were fulfilling in themselves.
After our jaunt up on the altar, I saw a small stand at which one can donate a roof tile for the preservation of the temple. You make a donation and then are allowed to use a calligraphy brush and ink to mark your name, the date, and your wish, and the tile is eventually incorporated into the roof of the temple. I thought this was a splendid idea, and I can now say that a wish for my sons’ happiness helps keep the rain off the Daibutsu.
The volunteer-guide company of the Daibutsu strongly encouraged my calligraphic efforts and even insisted I take a picture.
“I have no camera,” I said. “I don’t like taking pictures.”
“No, it’s for us,” they responded.
Somewhere in Nara is a picture of me, the lucky gaijin, holding my roof tile in front of the enormous Buddha, surrounded by a group of genuinely friendly guides.