Nara, Japan - Encyclopedia

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NARA, a town of Japan, in the province of Yamato, 251 m. from Osaka by rail. Pop. 32,000. It lies on the slope of a range of picturesque hills, beautifully wooded with cryptomerias, evergreen oaks, &c. This was the first permanent capital of Japan. Up to the beginning of the 8th century the imperial court changed its location at the accession of each sovereign, and the court's place of residence naturally became the official metropolis. But Nara remained the metropolis during seven consecutive reigns (709 to 784), and its seventy-five years of favoured existence sufficed for the building and furnishing of several imposing shrines and temples, for the laying out of a noble park, for the casting of a colossal image of Buddha, and for the execution of many other beautiful specimens of applied art. Not much is known of the Nara palace in its original form, but many of the articles and ornaments used by its inmates survive in a celebrated collection which, during nearly twelve hundred years, had been preserved in a store-house (Shoso-in) near the temple of Todai-ji. This collection cannot be visited by strangers more than once a year, and even then only by special permission. The vigorous growth of the Buddhist creed throughout the Nara epoch was remarkable, and found outward expression in many striking architectural and artistic works. The best of these, namely, those dating from the first half of the 8th century, show Indo-Grecian affinities, which gradually grow fainter as the end of the epoch approaches. The temple called Todai-ji was completed about 750. At present the buildings enclose a quadrangle 520 ft. by 620, the south side being mainly occupied by the huge, ungainly and no longer perpendicular hall containing the Dai Butsu, or colossal statue of Buddha. The casting of this wonderful piece of work was accomplished after eight failures in 749 by Takusho, an artist from Korea. On two occasions the head was melted during the burning of the temple (I 180 and 1567) and from 1567 to 1697 the statue stood exposed to the weather. The height of the figure is 53 ft. On a hill to the east of the temple stands a bell-house with a huge bell, cast in 732, 131 ft. high, 9 ft. across the mouth and weighing 37 tons. The great Buddha is often spoken of as the most remarkable of the Nara relics; but restorations have so marred it that it can no longer be compared with many smaller examples of contemporaneous and subsequent sculpture. More worthy of close attention are two effigies of Brahma and Indra preserved among the relics of Kobuku-ji, which, with Kasuga-no-Miya, Ni-gwatsudo and Todai-ji, constitute the chief religious edifices. These figures, sculptured in wood, have suffered much from the ravages of time, but nothing could destroy the grandeur of their proportions or the majesty and dignity of their pose. Several other works of scarcely inferior excellence may be seen among the relics, and at the shrine of Kasuga is performed a religious dance called Kagura, in which the costumes and gestures of the dancers are doubtless the same as those of twelve centuries back. Kasugano-Miya was founded in 767, and its chapels with their rough redpainted log-work afford fine examples of primitive Japanese architecture. In the temple-park are herds of tame deer; and little images of deer and trinkets from deer's horn are the favourite charms purchased by the pilgrims. Within the enclosure stands a curious old trunk of seven plants entwined, including a camellia, cherry and wistaria. Of the great Buddhist temple Kobuku-ji, founded in 710, and burnt for the third time in 1717, there remains little save two lofty pagodas. A railway now gives access to the town, but every effort is made to preserve all the ancient features of Nara. A museum has been formed, where many antique objects of great interest are displayed, as well as works from the hands of comparatively modern artists. Nara in the days of its prosperity is said to have had a population of a quarter of a million.

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