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Notes on the Geography of Japan: Nara: Todaiji

When Nara was a capital, it had an estimated population of 200,000. It's not much larger than that today, but the population is aging, with 80,000 people over 60 and only 36,000 under 15.

Forget those demographics, because we're going to join the crowd that's marching toward the great Great Eastern Temple, Todaiji. 

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Japan: Nara: Todaiji picture 1

Our destination is the Daibutsu or "Great Buddha," an immense bronze statue of Vairocana. This is the headquarters of the Kegon Sect, according to whose doctrine Vairocana is the spiritual body of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. That said, the statue itself is not very attractive, and its head in particular is not particularly old. So let's back up, because there are some very interesting things en route to it.

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Here's the Nandaimon, the temple's "South Great Gate," maybe a 10- or 15-minute walk from the Kintetsu railroad station. The gate has been here since the 8th century, though the original was blown down by a typhoon in 962. Rebuilding it took a while: the present structure was finished in 1199.

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Further on, the architectural entrance to the temple courtyard. It's more or less permanently closed; the actual entrance is off to the left.

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Here's what lies within: the Daibutsuden, or hall of the Great Buddha. It's reputedly the world's biggest wooden building under a single roof, measuring 188 feet on the front and rear, 166 feet on the sidewalls, and 157 feet top to bottom.

Still, it's smaller than it used to be, by four bays or ken. The earlier, bigger versions were dedicated in 722 and 1180; this one, in 1708. The structure, now as in the earlier versions, is based on a massive wooden latticework of pillars (hashira) and horizontal connectors of two types: beams, which join columns along the depth of the building (hari), and purlins, which join pillars across the bays or face of the building (keta). Struts and rafters are laid on the beams and purlins to support the roof, tile in this case. The golden rooftop "horns" are also tile; they're more properly called acroteria (Japanese = shibi) and are a highly stylized fishtail. (For much more on this subject, see Kakichi Suzuki's Early Buddhist Architecture in Japan, 1980, or Mary Parent's The Roof in Japanese Buddhist Architecture, 1983.)

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The avenue of approach passes a Chinese lantern from the 8th century.

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The images are of bodhisattvas making music.

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And another.

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The ponderous doors swing twice a day.

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Overhanging brackets at the entrance. The building is a reminder that without the arch or dome Japan relied on the post-and-lintel, strengthened by elaborate systems of bracket arms, or hijikis.

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These compounded brackets are extensions of the beams and purlins. They pass through the corner pillar and support the lower eave, which in this way is corbelled out about 30 feet from the wall.

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Inside: the world's biggest bronze statue, the Daibutsu or Great Buddha, weighing in at 452 tons and with a height exceeding 50 feet. It's been restored several times, most recently in 1914. The figure, once again, is the Buddha Vairocana, here making the right-hand gesture or mudra signifying "have no fear."

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Behind the Buddha is a huge halo carrying his 16 incarnations.

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The halo from the side.

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A week after achieving enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have preached a sermon that encapsulates the Kegon doctrine; that sermon is literally called the Kegon, meaning a bunch of flowers. Hence these bronze ones, which are perhaps more evocative than the massive statue behind them.

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A bronze pendant or keman.

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Pillars, beams, purlins.

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Some of the pillars have lotus footings.

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Some don't.

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Tamonten, one of four heavenly guardians; this one watches the dangerous North.

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Komokuten destroys obstacles in the path of Buddhism.

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Flanking the Daibutsu is a newer, smaller image of Avalokiteshwara, a very popular bodhisattva and the object of many requests.

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