July 5, 2014. I saw my breath mist up in front of me. I exhaled hard through my mouth and chased after my own breath. I heard my own heartbeat in my ear and for a few seconds it was the only sound I heard. The signal light blinked red. A few meters ahead was a delivery truck about to turn the corner to where I was heading. I ran faster. I’ve only covered a quarter of the street’s width when the light changed. Halfway through, I saw the truck slow down. By the time I was three full strides away from the sidewalk, I was confident I was given the right of way. There weren’t any shouts of anger nor any curses coming from the driver when I ran past. I looked back, saw the truck turn happily, and then I continued on my pace. It felt like I was becoming more local.
The day continued on to a visit to Nara’s Naramachi District. We walked through the narrow paths in between machiyas or the merchant houses, the prominent feature of the area. Most of the houses were already a reproduction or “koshi-no-ie” of the old machiyas of the mid-18th to the 19th centuries. Machiyas have narrow frontages and extremely long depths. A reason for such design was the taxation policy matching tax rates by a houses’ facade. The narrower the frontage, the lower the taxes.
Several key characteristics were distinguishable to the machiya; the “naka-niwa” or the inner garden, the “hako-kaidan” or the box-staircase, the “kemuri-nuki” or smoke duct, and the “akari-tori” or skylight. All these plus the sliding doors or “shoji” and the lattice work cover over the windows or the “koshi”, helped us breathe in and experience, though all but temporary, the lifestyle of residents of old Nara.
Later in the afternoon we headed for the Kofukuji Temple complex. Impressions shifted. Where the machiyas were all small and humble, the Tokondo (East Golden Hall) and the Five Story Pagoda Kofukuji Temple were grand, majestic and imposing. The Naramachi’s merchant houses were simple, warm, and quaint; the temples were dignified, airy, grand, gigantic, towering and impressive. They dwarfed us all with their strong wooden columns, beams and girders withstanding over centuries of weathering.
It took a while to get used to the sight of the immense structures I still believe were well ahead of their time. The original Eastern Golden Hall (Tokondo) was built in 726 B.C. but the current one standing at the site was completed in 1415 A.D. The original Five Storied Pagoda was completed in 725 B.C. The one that stood before us was already a restoration and was completed in 1426 A.D. It stood 50.1m from the ground and ranked second highest pagoda in Japan.
We walked further, sometimes alongside a wandering deer nipping at food from our hands. We reached Todaiji Temple also known as the Eastern Great Temple, the largest wooden building in the world before 1998 when it relinquished it to another. It housed Japan’s largest statue of Buddha and the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha. In 1998 it was inscribed by UNESCO as a world Heritage Site as part of the listing of "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara." The fact the temple was once considered the largest wooden structure in the world was staggering. The fact after being restored in 1709 when its size reduced by 30% sounded even more unbalancing. What no longer stood there, however, were the two 100m pagodas that flanked The Great Buddha Hall measuring approximately 57m long and 50m wide. Both pagodas were sadly destroyed by an earthquake.
The Naramachi District felt like a warm hug on a cold day. Narrow streets criss-crossed all about, giving access and freedom in all directions. In a sense it allowed you to go wherever you wanted. The quaint atmosphere was all it had assuring those living there they’d be safe. In contrast the gigantic temples felt cold but protective. There was a feeling of being kept in place by the huge structures. They gave me a sense of belonging when I stood under them and I wasn’t even Japanese. I was only visiting for a cursory amount of time. I could imagine the way it affected the populace that lived around the area during its initial completion. The way it could have held people together without doubt affected their lives in more ways than one.