Kyoto might be the cultural center of Japan, but the nearby town of Nara gives it a very close run for its money. As usual, I had too little time to cover too much ground, but luckily most of the main sights in Nara are concentrated in and around Nara-koen park, at the foot of the low mountains on the Eastern side of town. The word "koen", by the way, seems to be Japanese for "park", so Nara-koen just means "Nara Park". Around the South-East end of the park there are four large ponds with the usual tame carp and turtles, all eager for handouts. Inside the park are an estimated 1200 deer which you can feed biscuits to, bought from stands around the park. All of this feeding has inadvertently trained the deer to be aggressive, since the pushy deer tend to get fed more.
Going up a short flight of stairs from Sarusawa-no-ike pond you find yourself at a Buddhist temple called Kofuku-ji, which started life in 710AD. A three storey pagoda in the temple grounds dates from 1143, and a very large five storey pagoda dates from 1426.
A little East of Kofuku-ji is the Nara National Museum, which is supposed to have very good displays of Buddhist art and other ancient relics. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit this museum, or the nearby Neiraku Art Museum. Instead, I was on my way to Nara's biggest claim to fame, the Todai-ji temple.
The approach to Todai-ji temple takes you through the Nandaimon Gate, which must be four or five storeys tall. At either end of the gate are two giant wooden statues, each about 5 or 6 meters tall, of guardian dieties striking fearsome poses. These images were carved in the 13th century AD. Apart from chicken wire to keep birds away, they're surprisingly exposed to the open air. Past this gate there's a pond with more turtles, some attractive herons and a first view of the temple itself, albeit surrounded by a pavilion.
At 50 meters (160 feet) tall and 60 meters (190 feet) wide, the Hall of the Great Buddha at Todai-ji temple is the largest wooden building in the world. As you might suspect from its name, it houses a giant statue of Buddha which is one of the world's largest bronze images. Remarkably, both the temple and the Buddha statues are old scaled-down reconstructions of even earlier originals. The statue weighs 437 tonnes, and 130kg of gold was used to decorate it. Originally built in 746, he's lost his head a few times because of earthquakes and fires. The hall, too, has had the misfortune to burn down twice and the current building is only two-thirds the size of the original. It's hard to believe.
There's other stuff in the Hall of the Great Buddha, and in most places it would be impressive enough to be the main attraction. There are two other large gold-covered statues, and another two huge wooden statues, of people this time. As a final bonus, one of the pillars of the temple has a hole cut through it, and whoever can get through the hole is promised Enlightenment. It's easy enough for a child, but I suspect that the only enlightenment a Western adult would receive is that getting trapped in the foundation of an ancient and venerable temple is a very foolish thing.