Chasing the Sun in Nara

Asia, East, Japan

A Glimpse of Nandaimon, the Gate to Todai-ji Compound

Holidays are usually a time that people use to decouple themselves from the stress of work and reconnect with things they love; this often involves sleeping in and waking up whenever their bodies want. But when that thing you love is related to outdoor photography in which the weather plays an important factor in deciding when and where to go, your day can in fact start in a more challenging way than your usual weekday routines. This is exactly what happened to James and I on the day we took a day trip from Kyoto – Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years until it moved to Tokyo – to Nara, another ancient capital of the country some 40 kilometers south of Kyoto.

The problem was the weather in Nara throughout our stay in Japan was forecast to be mostly cloudy, except for one day when the sun was supposed to shine briefly over the city around 9:30 in the morning. Given the distance between Kyoto and Nara, the travel time, and the number of trains we had to take, we decided to leave our hotel when the sun had not even risen on that day. “I thought we were on holiday,” James protested while still half-asleep. However, being Japan we knew that the trains would depart on time, making the entire journey an efficient one.

We arrived in Nara about an hour later with thick grey clouds welcoming us to the city. Slowly making our way to Todai-ji, one of Nara’s most important ancient temples, we reached its outer gate just after 9am. In the parks around the historic center of Nara hundreds of spotted deer roam freely with curious human visitors occasionally approaching to feed them. The ubiquity of the animal in the city is in fact attributed to the legend of Takemikazuchi, Japan’s own god of thunder, who descended from heaven to Nara on a white deer to protect the newly-built capital. Nowadays, however, the spotted deer seem to be more interested in getting treats from humans.

We walked further toward the main building of Todai-ji, and as if a magical spell was cast upon the sky, at 9:25 the clouds in the east cleared up just enough for the sun to shine over the magnificent ancient structure. Apparently in Japan it’s not only the train timetable that is reliable, but also the weather forecast – alongside many other things.

The current early-18th century temple hall of Daibutsuden – Todai-ji’s most important building – is currently the world’s largest wooden structure that is not built in modern times, although it is actually 30% smaller than its predecessor which was destroyed by fire. Beneath its lofty ceiling sits the Great Buddha, a 16-meter statue which took years to complete and cost the country a great fortune for the enormous amount of bronze and gold needed to create it. Thanks to its importance as the central administrative temple for multiple Buddhist schools in eighth-century Japan, Todai-ji was chosen to be the home for such an important statue of the Buddha.

However, being an introduced belief system as opposed to the native religion of Shinto, it took great efforts to spread Buddhism across the Japanese archipelago. A monk by the name of Gyoki was accredited for reconciling Vairocana (an embodiment of one of the qualities of the Buddha) with the worship of Amaterasu (a Shinto deity known as the goddess of the sun) after he successfully convinced the oracle at an important Shinto shrine about his concept.

Did the fact that the sun come out just in time for us have anything to do with Amaterasu?

We entered Daibutsuden and marveled at the colossal Buddha sitting at the center of the building. On one corner, a model of Todai-ji’s previous structure was on display, allowing visitors to imagine its grandeur during the temple’s heyday. But for the Japanese school children who went around the same time with us, a hollowed-out wooden pillar was far more attractive than anything else within the structure. Apparently it is believed that those who can go through the hole will be blessed with enlightenment, although those kids seemed to be doing it just for fun.

Kids will be kids, in Japan or any other places around the globe. But as we walked back to the train station to return to Kyoto, a scene reminded us that Japan is truly unlike any other country in the world: a cat was patiently waiting for the pedestrian traffic signal to turn green before crossing the street. Mind you there was not much traffic to begin with – it just appeared that in this country, rules were indeed made to be respected.

Dwarfed by Centuries-Old Wooden Pillars

Getting Closer to the Main Structure

Daibutsuden (the Great Buddha Hall) at the Core of Todai-ji

It Is Among the Largest Wooden Structures in the World

The Colossal Vairocana Buddha Statue (left) and A Gilded Kannon (Avalokiteshvara)

How Todai-ji Once Looked Before Fire Destroyed Much of It

“Those Who Pass Will Be Blessed with Enlightenment”

Purifying Water

A Staff Member Checking On Todai-ji’s Outer Gate

One of Many Spotted Deer in Nara

“Feed Us!”

A Curious Look

Not the Cat that Knows How to Cross A Street

The South Octagonal Hall (Nan’endo) of Kofuku-ji, Another Important Buddhist Temple in Nara

The Five-Story Pagoda and the East Golden Hall (To-kondo) of Kofuku-ji

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

40 thoughts on “Chasing the Sun in Nara”

  1. Heide says:

    I love the story about the cat waiting to cross the road! That is how Japan has always struck me: a nation in which respect and social order reign supreme. And how fascinating too to learn a bit about the spiritual traditions that underscore this cultural need/preference for order. Wonderful writing and photos, Bama!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Social order and harmony does seem to dictate life in Japan. People are mindful of not imposing their own presence upon others’, which results in their culture of not answering phone calls in public transport, for example. The world can definitely learn many things from the Japanese, which is exactly why I always recommend my friends to travel there. Really appreciate your kind words, Heide.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am overwhelmed by this. As usual, I will return to read it again. Your posts are always like and adventure. Thank you.


  3. We really lucked out that morning with the brief period of sunshine – in hindsight I’m glad you had the determination to wake me up so early to catch the train! Todai-ji’s Daibutsuden was just as magnificent and awe-inspiring as I remember from my first trip there many years ago. There’s another UNESCO-listed temple complex in Nara called Horyu-ji that I would love to visit the next time we go. The central timber column used in its five-story pagoda has been dated to 594, which makes it one of the oldest existing wooden buildings anywhere in the world!


    • You can always count on me when it comes to waking up at wee hours in the morning. 🙂 I only learned about Horyu-ji after we came back to Jakarta, and it does seem that we need to return to Nara one day to see it and other places we didn’t get the chance to visit on our trip. I wonder if Japan’s climate helped preserve those old wooden structures because if you think of it no such structure from centuries ago in Java survived to this day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I so enjoyed this post Bama. You took me there even though I didn’t get to go myself, though I suspect I’d have been a bit more interested in the deer than the temple 🙂
    Wonderful photographs.


    • And probably the cats? The deer were very friendly — too friendly even if they spotted you with snacks in hand. Although it was mostly cloudy when we went, it was still a nice day trip from Kyoto. Thanks Alison!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am glad you woke up before the sun to catch that train. The majesty and grandeur of the shrine is breathtaking. Thanks for rekindling the flame in my heart to visit Japan. Now I know where to go if I have the time and resources.


  6. I must admit, my thoughts at the sight of all those deers, when I was there, were most unholy – specifically, I was thinking about deer stew and polenta, or mocetta (a sort of salami, like bresaola, made with chamois, which is just another kind of deer) with fontina cheese. After 3 weeks of Japanese food I was craving some Alpine cuisine! So I suppose I haven’t really been enlightened by my stay in Nara. D’oh!

    Great post Bama, and thanks for the information on what I’ve missed due to my gluttony.



    • Ha! It’s funny how seeing those deer made you think of food. There are cities in Indonesia where the locals eat venison, but I haven’t been to those places, hence the absence of the meat in my culinary experience. Your description of mocetta and fontina cheese, which I’ve never tried, makes me curious of how they taste together. Must be perfect for wintertime! I was in Japan only for a week and I enjoyed every single dish I had, so I don’t know whether staying there longer would make me miss Indonesian food so much or not. There’s only one way to find out. 🙂 Thanks Fabrizio!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I wish I spent more time there. It’s one of those places in Japan that I would consider going back in the future.


  7. Bama I totally believe even the cats would be rule followers and polite. We too were completely struck with the orderliness of Japan. I can also totally relate to chasing the sun.


    • If only I filmed the cat while it was waiting for the light to turn green! Of all examples of Japan’s culture of orderliness and politeness, I will never forget the one I experienced in Okayama. It was a national holiday and the city’s castle was full with local tourists. However, everyone remained polite, no one talked loudly, and they somehow managed to maintain order without the presence of any police officer. Very impressive!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sometimes it’s worth getting up early! Great post. The temple is lovely, but I must say, I’m taken by the animal photos. I’m a cat person and that black one is a beauty. Too funny about even cats following the rules!


    • As an Indonesian, I grew up being accustomed to getting up early. However, James learned how to do that only after he started traveling with me. It wasn’t easy at first, but our trip to Bali back in December 2013 showed him the advantage of visiting places when most tourists are still asleep; we were the first visitors to a former palace in northeastern Bali, and it was so peaceful and quiet there. Nice to know that you’re also a cat person, Caroline! 🙂


  9. I know what you mean about getting good light for photography. I find it so hard to get good pictures on vacation as we are always moving around and I may not be back at the right place at the right time for good light conditions. Your pictures looks great! The deer are so cute.


    • Prior to the moment I started enjoying photography and traveling, I always preferred cloudy skies because living in the tropics meant that the sun could be too harsh. But then as I slowly learned how to take decent architectural shots, or photos of landscape, I began to appreciate sunny days. Now every time the skies over Jakarta are nice and clear I always think of going out and take some photos. Thanks for your kind words, Nicole!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I recommend visiting Nara if you happen to be traveling around this part of Japan one day.


  10. Absolutely fantastic, Bama. The ancient energy of Asia is calling me! BTW did you pass through the wooden hole yourself? It seems rather small and more fit for kids from that picture. Also, I love how Japan is such a wonderful example of how when rules are respected that it reflects in the quality and beauty of a place. Unfortunately and from what I can tell, nobody gives a damn in LA – riddled with trash, feces, piss and homelessness. Ugh. Even the pigeons look like lepers from the filth. Anyway…. thanks for sharing!


    • Ha! My body is too big to fit into that small hole. However, I can imagine my younger self doing what those Japanese kids did had I visited this place many years ago. The world can surely learn one or two things from Japan about obeying the rules. As a start, we all need to learn how to not impose ourselves upon other people, to respect others’ presence. I had never heard about the trash problem in LA, although I did read about the homelessness. Do you think things will improve soon as the city is now gearing up to host the 2028 Olympics?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very well said, Bama. We should all respect one another and not impose ourselves. To answer your question – I think that LA will attempt to mask its many face forward issues but they will definitely not be resolved in time. Skid Row surged 75% in just the last six years! Every 1 in 8 Californian is food insecure here. The city isn’t employing the homeless to put money in their pockets and maybe put them to work cleaning up. I believe the city will make centralized investments to key stakeholders who will make decisions and use their establishments and resources to mask the city’s problems. Nothing will be resolved. For more context, the growing Skid Row issue is far bigger that what meets the eye. LA is experiencing a tremendous housing shortage. The city mandated laws that are for the lessor and their market – “rent control” is put in place which means that the lessor can raise the rent by 3% of its total amount for every tenant each year and just meet the living quality measures (which does not mean mandatory upgrading amenities). Meanwhile, income is not compensating to meet living costs. Furthermore, places not rent controlled are subject to rent increase only with a 30 day advance notice. SO It is a lessor’s market. I was shocked to see a family, well kempt with a rather new looking REI tent setting up came with bikes under an overpass. The kids were young – I would say maybe in middle school. The mother was arranging clothes on hangars on the fence behind them in a nice manner. It dawned on me, and I am speculating because I do not know for sure, that quite possibly this family was recently evicted and the mother was trying her damned hardest to make a home being poor but not “living poor” for the sake of her children. I have thought about that woman and her kids ever since and I have since been back and they are gone. Even if I am speculating/assuming, lets not be ignorant and forget that this is a real story for many! It is also city mandated that the homeless can only set up camp for 30 consecutive days before they are considered homesteading which is illegal and thus made to move at least one block away where they can setup camp for another 30 days. This is happening in what Americans proudly claim to be one of the wealthiest and most free nations in the world. Pathetic.


      • Homelessness really is a big problem in many cities, poor and rich, around the globe. I also read about a similar issue in Auckland, New Zealand. And in Hong Kong property prices are impossibly high a lot of people at my age still live with their parents, or those who do live by themselves can only afford a ‘mini apartment’, to put it nicely. Thanks for sharing with us about the situation in LA, Jess. It’s certainly worse than I thought.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks a lot, Jess! Hopefully the city will treat its homeless people in a better way leading up to the 2028 Summer Olympics.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Waaah mas Bamaaaaa… post ini mengingatkan ketika pergi ke Nara sendirian, kecapean jalan kaki dari stasion JR (engga mau rugi karena harus beli tiket kereta beda jika mau lebih dekat :D). Tetapi enaknya bisa mampir ke Pagoda & temples di tengah jalan… Tapi saya juga gak sempat Horyu-ji yang membuat suatu saat perlu balik lagi ke Nara (walaupun ‘maunya’ saya udah kebanyakan, susah prioritasnya hahaha).
    Saya lamaaaa banget merhatiin tua dan kuatnya gerbang kayu (persis orang bego deh dongak-dongak keatas sangking gedenya, kalo bisa manjat mungkin saya manjat deh hahaha) dan juga lamaaaa di depan Daibutsu-nya… gede banget yaa…
    BTW, dari foto keliatan cloudy terus ya mas… gerah yaaa…. mana jalannya jauh hehehe


    • Wah ternyata Horyu-ji sama-sama jadi lokasi yang kita gak kunjungi ya mbak. Harus ada kali kedua sih ini apalagi pas di sana mendung terus. Tapi masalahnya dengan segitu banyak tempat menarik di Jepang, agak mikir dua kali sih kalau next tripnya ke Nara lagi. Mungkin kalau punya banyak waktu ya.

      Iya bener mbak, Daibutsu gede banget. Tapi bahkan pas lewat gerbang pertama, patung dewa penjaga yang ada di kanan dan kiri gerbang itu aja udah bikin saya kagum karena saking gedenya dan keliatan banget usianya yang udah ratusan tahun.


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