Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Standing In Awe of Buddha

The smell of incense and the sound of chanting fill the air, as we step into the huge space of the image hall at Todai-ji temple in the ancient capital of Nara. Our eyes are immediately drawn upward to the face of the principal image of worship, the Great Buddha Dainichi, one of the largest bronze statues in the world. The original sculpture was cast in the 8th century by Emperor Shomu, who wished to proclaim both his devotion to Buddhism and his own imperial power. Standing before this Buddha, even hundreds of years later, we can understand the awe felt by the Nara period worshiper.

Like devotees of earlier eras, we reached the Great Buddha Hall by proceeding down a long, wide walkway that passes through two gates: the outer South Gate, an important architectural monument in itself, and a smaller gate that leads into the inner compound. We have been greeted along the way by the many tame Sika deer that roam the temple grounds and are considered sacred. While we have visited many temples on our journey, it is here at Todai-ji that one can truly feel the power that Buddhism wielded in Japan. And the grand scale of the site and the setting of the Great Buddha Hall within a series of enclosures give us an understanding of the experience of worship as no description, photograph, or museum display could.

A short bus ride brings us to another important monument in Nara, also located within Deer Park: Kasuga Shrine. While the Todai-ji compound was open and level, organized symmetrically in the Chinese fashion, and hot in the late morning sun, the approach to the Shinto shrine draws us into a very different world. Walking up a stone pathway that cuts through a forest of enormous cedar trees, the air is cool and damp. We pass by hundreds of large stone lanterns (there are more than 2,000 in all), some dating from early in the shrine’s history and covered with moss, and others from later years. Kasuga Shrine is, in fact, famous for its lanterns, both these and the many smaller bronze lanterns that hang in the shrine building itself. Kasuga was founded in the 8th century, but its continued importance to worshipers is everywhere apparent. Many of the stone lanterns bear paper squares with the names of recent donors, and among the popular auxiliary shrines are those dedicated to finding love.

After a delicious lunch of Japanese noodles, we return to Kyoto and visit one last temple. Kiyomizu-dera is perched high on a hill, and walking out onto the broad porch extending over the valley, it feels as if we are suspended in air. The road up to the temple is crowded with young women in bright kimono and alive with the sounds of shop keepers hawking their wares. There are many stores selling ceramics and local specialties, including yatsuhashi, a triangular treat made of pounded rice filled with a sweet paste. Perhaps best of all is the soft-serve ice cream flavored and then sprinkled with matcha, the powdered green tea introduced into Japan in the 12th century and used in the traditional tea ceremony—a particularly successful combination of East and West, past and present.


To learn more about our Eternal Japan tour, click here.