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Cultural Exchange on the Silk Roads: Nara

Nara’s links to Buddhism date back to 500-700 CE, when the area served as the eastern end of the silk road, which brought continental Asian culture, including Buddhism, to Japan. Nara become the centre of Japan’s governance and saw the creation of some of the country’s most significant Buddhist temples and monuments, many of which remain today. Many of these make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara – a designated World Heritage Site.

Origins of Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was first championed by Prince Shōtoku Taishi (574-622 AD) at Hōryu-ji temple near Nara. During this reign, the nanto rokushu – six schools of Buddhism – were established in Japan.

By 752 CE the Emperor Shōmu had commissioned the large Buddha at Tōdai-ji temple, the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana in the world, still visited by millions each year.

It was the increasing power of the Buddhist schools and the influence on politics which eventually saw the relocation of the capital to Heian-kyō (Kyoto). From this period onwards Buddhist teachings spread more widely to the general public. Buddhism is still prevalent in Japan today, though perhaps for most can be seen in the habits of daily life, as opposed to dedicated worship. Funeral ceremonies, for example, involve Buddhist rituals, and some Japanese homes have small Buddhist altars for the worship of ancestors.

Shinto – Japan’s indigenous religion

Since ancient times the Japanese have believed in the idea that all natural things – from animals and plants through to mountains – are infused with the divine power of the gods, known as kami. This belief came to be known as Shinto. As a faith it has no doctrine or dogma but is instead defined by a great reverence for nature and Shinto permeates many aspects of Japanese daily life, for example at New Year people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to wish for good fortune in the coming year. Throughout the year most Japanese towns and villages hold lively Shinto festivals, where participants carry portable shrines or tow decorated floats through the streets as entertainment for the gods. Visitors to Japan are able to see Shinto rituals at play in many aspects of the culture, such as wedding ceremonies sumo, noh and kagura.

Japan's oldest music

Gagaku (lit. ‘elegant music’) is the oldest surviving music in Japan and is performed in important Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples. It is characterized by long, slow songs and dance-like movements. Gagaku continues to be passed on to apprentices by masters in the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency, many of whom are the descendants of families with deep roots in the art. 

Buddhist and Shinto calligraphy

Writing or tracing Buddhist sutras (shakyō) and Shinto texts (shosha) are meditative and spiritual practices offered at many temples and shrines in Japan. Sutras are texts containing Buddhist teachings. The practice dates back to the Nara period (710-794 C. E.) in Japan, when Emperor Shōmu had temples built throughout Japan and demand for copies of sutras suddenly increased. As there were no printers in those times, the copies had to be transcribed by hand.

Copying sutras is a form of 'writing meditation'. It is considered a meritorious practice and a calming way to clear the mind. Japanese language skills are not essential. 

Ittōbori wood carving

Ittōbori literally translates to ‘one blade carving’. As part of a season of events in collaboration with Nara Prefecture, sculptor Araki Yoshindo demonstrated Nara ittōbori in The Shop at Japan House. He masterfully carved wooden rats, the zodiac animal for 2020. Each Nara ittōbori doll is hand-carved by a sculptor, meaning no two are alike.

The figures originated in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) for use in festivals at Kasuga Grand Shrine (Kasuga Taisha). 


Contributors: Nara Tourism Federation, Japan National Tourism Organisation, Nara Visitor Bureau