Tōdai-ji Temple Complex in Nara, Japan

It strikes me as quite peculiar that the largest wooden building in the world* – Great Buddha Hall, at the centre of the Tōdai-ji Complex in Nara, Japan – has burnt down twice. Twice. Maybe you think that would be expected, given that on a list of flammable things, wood ranks just below a factory that makes lighter fluid and matches. I agree, but after it burnt down the first time, evidently nobody looked at a stone and thought “oh my goodness, look how well this rock doesn’t catch fire!” and rebuilt it using more wood. Then it burnt down again and still they rebuilt it with wood.

(* as of 1998, it’s actually no longer the largest, but still impressive.)

Now also consider this:

Japan is one of the countries most affected by natural disasters. Two out of the five most expensive natural disasters in recent history have occurred in Japan, costing $181 billion in the years 2011 and 1995 only. Japan has also been the site of some of the 10 worst natural disasters of the 21st century. The types of natural disasters in Japan include tsunamis, floods, typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. (Wikipedia)

Not only does Japan build things out of flammable materials, they do so in an environment where volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis regularly wreak havoc. Japan’s construction strategy is like trying to play Jenga on top of a moving train. At this point I’m amazed that the largest wooden building in the world has only burnt down twice.

Main Temple in Nara.jpg

Near Nara is Horyuji Temple, which contains the oldest wooden building in the world. Its main pagoda was built around 600AD, burnt down 100 years later, was rebuilt, and is still standing over 1300 years later. A building built in 700AD has survived 1300 years of typhoons, floods, volcanic eruptions, and presumably many a carelessly discarded cigarette butt. I think this bears repeating: the oldest wooden building in the world is in a country ravaged by natural disasters and has only been destroyed once, and that was 1300 years ago.

Now, in the 21st century, after centuries of engineering and scientific advances, we do stuff like this:

“But, Bob, it’s post-modern. It’s supposed to look like this.”

Clearly Japanese builders know tricks the rest of the world could learn. It seems they do, but we should save that discussion for another day. Read at your leisure here.

One thing I do know is that temples in Nara have something that other places don’t have: magical deer. Hear me out. Other places have deer, of course. But as animals they’re considered skittish, hence the phrase “like a deer in headlights”. But in Nara, that phrase would mean “looks super chilled out and relaxed and sits down and tokes up.”

Nara Deer Blob.jpg
Like this guy.

The sika deer are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, with one nobleman and statesman Kujo (Fujiwara) Kanezane writing in the 12th century:

On our way to the shrine, many deer appeared in the morning darkness. This is a sign from the gods and a good omen. People say that when one encounters deer, he or she should get out of the carriage and bow to them. [link]

Nowadays, the deer wander happily around with humans, making small talk and pulling pranks. Okay, that’s not true; they don’t pull pranks. But if they did, no one would be allowed to get their own back because, according to local folklore, deer from this area were considered sacred due to a visit from Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine (also in Nara). Mr. Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto was said to have arrived riding a white deer – ergo deer were sacred.

(I say “were” considered sacred, because after World War II the deer were stripped of their divine status, presumably by a stipulation in the Japanese Instrument of Surrender agreement put there by a US general who’d fallen foul of a particularly mean prank pulled by a deer. Now they’re considered “national treasures”.)

Instead, visitors are allowed, and indeed encouraged, to feed the deer crackers. When you do this, the deer will bow their heads to you. It’s very cute.

Whether it’s because of impressive construction techniques or magical deer, we should all be thankful because Nara is a very beautiful place and if you’re ever anywhere close to it, you should totally stop by for a visit.


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