By Patricia Belyea
NARA JP April 8 is an auspicious day in my life. Thirty years ago today I gave birth to my oldest daughter, Elizabeth Jane Stone. It’s also the day that temples around the world celebrate the birth of Buddha.
What better way to experience Hana-Matsuri, the Floral Festival, than to visit the largest gilded bronze Daibutsu statue in nearby Nara. Victoria and I took the express train to Kintetsu-Nara station for $12 each. Just a short walk away lay Nara Park, home of Todai-ji Temple complex and the 50-foot Buddha.
Walking through Nara Park, sita deer were everywhere. According to folklore, one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine appeared on nearby Mt. Mikasa riding a white deer. From then on, deer were considered divine and sacred. After World War II, the herd of deer (about 1200 today) were downgraded to national treasures. All the same, the deer have high expectations that you will give them a senbei, or deer cracker.
Once through Nandaimon Gate, the promenade to the Great Buddha Hall of Todai-ji dominated the vista. Constructed in 752, then destroyed by fire and rebuilt two times, today’s massive structure was completed in 1709. For centuries the largest wooden building in the world, the Hall houses a huge seated Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas.
The details fascinated me as much as the impressive statues. I love these animated bronze butterflies below a vase filled with giant lotus blossoms. And the models at the back of the Hall showing miniature versions of the building over the centuries.Walking back out into the sunshine, it was hard to miss the glittering gold monument in a glade to the east. On Asoka Pillar commemorates the Thousand Priests’ Service of Hana Matsuri at the Great Buddha’s Hall in 1988. (Hey, that’s the year Liz was born!) Over 1700 priests from different sects and tens of thousands of followers gathered for the celebration.
As Victoria and I headed back to the train station and Kyoto, we happened upon a nondescript food mart where we bought Buddha Puddings for a late afternoon treat. OMG, the little jars of pudding were nirvana! This edible transcendental bliss, we’ve since learned, is a nationally famous sweet and gift from Nara.
What a great day to go to Nara. The sun shone brightly in an azure blue sky. The spring air was filled with excitement as families cautiously fed the deer. Followers of Buddha sprinkled ama-cha (a special tea) on the tanjobustu (baby Buddha figure) sitting in a flower arbor at the entrance to the Great Buddha Hall. And Victoria and I celebrated Liz’s birthday from afar!