My sentimental journey to Nara
Yokoso means "Welcome." It's our way of inviting you to our home, our Japan. Discover the warmth and hospitality of a gentle, ancient culture. A place that can only be experienced up close and personal.
For me, Nara is not just the ancient capital of Japan, or an important place of "World Cultural Heritage." I was born there, in the shadow of Todaiji Temple, and grew up during the war and the postwar period.
Life at that time was not easy. Almost everything was rationed. Food was scarce; people had to find it on the black market or beg a farmer for some. Despite the miserable situation, the lingering trauma of war, the poverty, and the hunger, the people of Nara were filled with relief, thanking luck and the gods that their city had not been bombed. They learned later that a group of American scholars led by Dr. Langdon Warner (1881-1955), curator of Asian art at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, had prevailed on U.S. military leaders not to bomb Nara and Kyoto, which were full of important cultural assets. Dr. Warner, who later wrote "The Enduring Art of Japan" (1952), saved untold numbers of priceless artworks in both cities, and many of our lives as well.
Todaiji Temple was built twelve centuries ago by Emperor Shomu to be the head temple of all the provincial temples, and it boasts Japan's largest statue of the Buddha, housed inside the world's largest wooden building. My playmates and I, being children, had no knowledge of such things, of course, but the temple, surrounded by woods, was a wonderful playground for me and my brother, sisters and cousins, all for the most part spared the horrors of war. Its vast grounds provided places for baseball, sumo wrestling, bicycling, and hide-and-seek. In the woods we played Robin Hood and Tarzan. Hundreds of tame deer wandered the grounds without interference from us. In the mountains behind the temple we collected wood for our home cooking fires and went hiking and camping. Almost every day after school, unless it rained, we played in or around Todaiji. Even during school hours, the teachers often took their pupils to the temple parks for sketching and singing instead of teaching art and music cooped up inside the school.
In those days, the 1940s, few tourists visited Nara, so not only Todaiji, but also the rest of the city with its many temples and shrines had an abandoned look about it. During the Korean War in the 1950s, a large U.S. Army camp and R&R center were built in the suburbs, and Nara gradually became an international tourist destination. By the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964, Nara had become one of Japan's most popular destinations.
When I finished high school and entered university in Tokyo, Todaiji was no longer the playground of my boyhood. It was now a place where I went for long walks pondering my future and read books in the shade of trees or painted pictures of the Buddha statues. I sometimes prayed at the temple altars by the famous Big Buddha or in the pavilion of Nigatsudo, where, for more than 1,200 years, the monks have been performing rituals to herald the coming of spring, pray for the country's peace and happiness, and then march around the elevated balcony carrying furiously blazing torches at the end of the rite. I often walked up to the pavilion, arriving in time to watch the sun set over Mount Ikoma, on the other side of which is Osaka. The moment the sun sank into the west, where Buddhists believed Jyodo or Pure Land exists, was always a dramatic scene, one I will never forget.
Todaiji gave me a great opportunity in one of my solo extracurricular activities. My newly acquired English wasn't good enough to communicate with foreigners, I felt, but I built up my courage anyway to try and approach some of the tourists visiting the temple to practice it. I was a bit nervous and not very good at making friends with strangers, but I kept trying and eventually succeeded in touring the temple grounds with some of them. More than a few times, the visitors were kind enough to invite me to dinner at the Nara Hotel, then and now the best place to eat in town. Quite a few generously offered me a gratuity. To be honest, I always hesitated to accept it because I was learning a lot about not only the language, but also about the history, art and beauty of Nara. I could practice English and try to see my beloved hometown through a foreigner's eyes.
Many years have passed since I left Nara to live in other places in Japan and abroad. I still like to visit even for a short time, to mark the changes and see what remains from my boyhood. I know the essence of Nara will never change, it has endured for so many centuries, but I like to make sure by returning there from time to time, walking around Todaiji, and finally standing on the balcony of Nigatsudo to watch the sun set.