One of the greatest tourist attractions in Japan is the Nara Daibutsu, a huge buddha statue housed in the famous temple of Todaiji in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. Apart from the big statue itself there are plenty of smaller statues scattered around the main hall of the temple. The atmosphere is fantastic, air thick with incense smoke, prayers bells and the sunlight filtering in through the high windows. Well, at least if you go off season and on a weekday. Weekends and high season tends to get quite crowded especially recently with the absolute boom in overseas tourism.
There is statuary of all kinds of materials, millennium old wood carvings, bronzes and clay to name a few materials. If you have the opportunity to visit, spare a few minutes for the “other” art treasures of the Todaiji!
One of the most heartwarming traditions in Japan that I know of is the official Nakizumo (泣き相撲) – the crying baby competition. It takes place both in temples and in shrines, and I visited the biggest ceremony in Tokyo at Asakusa’s Sensoji temple. The ceremony was overseen by buddhist monks and a real life sumo referee. 120 babies were divided into two teams, the East and the West and three sumo wrestlers took turns taking the babies into the ring. In Tokyo the competition is very simple: each match is 60 seconds long and the baby that cries that hardest is declared the winner (in other areas of Japan the rules vary quite a lot). The sumo wrestlers are supposed to be big and scary for the babies and the judge and referees do their best by crying “nake nake nake” (泣け 泣け 泣け cry cry cry!) to the kids as the match begins. More often than not, neither of the kids starts crying in the 60 seconds of them match though, and the referees would have to don masks and funny faces to scare the babies. This usually didn’t work either and many of the 60 matches ended in draws.
The day was fantastic with lots of sun meaning that many babies had promptly fallen asleep by the time the matches started. The first little boy taken out into the ring slept all through it. The audience are encouraged to take part in cheering the kids but for most of the time we were too busy laughing to the hilarious kids and the funny referees and their running commentary on the matches. Many kids were too busy laughing or much more interested in the opponent babies to cry but the ones who eventually really started bawling were greeted with applause and cheers.
The ceremony in this temple is meant celebrate both the children and their parents as well as wishing them strength and good health.
Funnily enough the scariest looking sumo wrestler was the most popular with the kids, very few of the babies handed to him started crying and he was eventually disqualified for being to popular (by a joking referee). There are always a few people who are amazed at a ceremony like this, and for them I recommend reading a few thousand entries on this rather funny blog: “Reasons My Son Is Crying”. Warning, don’t click this link at work – you are not likely to get any more work done today if you do!
One of the most tourist friendly cities in Japan is Nara, famous for its many deers, huge parks, massive temples and last but certainly not least, the Daibutsu, the big Buddha statue at the Todaiji temple. The main temple building was constructed in the 8th century A.D., but it has been rebuilt twice du to fires. The present structure is from 1709 and it was the largest wooden building in the world until 1998. Unfortunately none of these photos gives any hint of how large the statue really is, but at 15m he is similar in height to a normal four storey building. Next time I will make sure I have enough time there to get some decent photos!
The season for Bonodori, one of many Japanese dances, is upon us! One of the first big Bonodori festivals for me this year was yesterday at the huge Tsukiji Honaji temple, near Tokyo’s Ginza district. Bonodori generally takes place around a raised podium that is topped by one or two taiko drummers, while the second raised level is used by a group of very experienced bonodori dancers that show the moves to the general audience at street level. Anyone is welcome to join but I have never managed to get the hang of it. The music is slow and reminds most people of enka, the traditional Japanese “pops” so popular with most people over the age of 70 here in Japan. Every song in bonodori is associated with its own set of movements, hence the need to more experienced dancers to lead the dance from a visible spot in the middle!
It was also fun to walk around the temple grounds and check out all the people, not least the four temple members dressed up in big huggable suits that were almost knocked to the ground by swarms of kids running as fast as possible to get the biggest hug!
The Honganji is a very old temple, founded in the 13th century it was moved here after a fire in the early 17th century and detroyed once again in an earthquake in 1923. The temple was rebuilt by the legendary architect Ito Chuta (1867-1954) who was one of the leading architects in the movement to try and create a style that was uniquely Japanese while incorporating elements of all other forms of architecture, from Chinese and Indian all the way back to the ancient greek temples. It is easy to see the classical hellenistic influences on this huge buddhist temple!
The festival continues today and tomorrow, so if you are in Tokyo and want to see one of the best organized bonodori festivals in the city, just take the subway to Tsukiji station at 1900! After the festival I recommend a refreshing evening walk through the Ginza and Yurakucho areas!