Happy Belated 1300th Birthday, NaraPosted: September 18, 2011
I am a bit embarrassed to write this so late, but in 2010, the city of Nara, Japan celebrated its 1300th anniversary. Nara was once known by the name of Heijōkyō (平城京). The humble city was modeled after the magnificent capitol of Chang-An in Tang-Dynasty China, which had a profound influence on Japanese culture in terms of literature, poetry, Buddhism, fashion and so on.
For example, in both the writings of Sei Shonagon (the Pillow Book) and Lady Murasaki’s Diary centuries later, there are countless references to Tang-Dynasty poems which were very familiar to Japanese nobility at the time. References to Chinese fashion and hairstyles can be seen too even though Japan had already diverged by that point.
Likewise, the Buddhist establishment in Nara, Japan were the first major schools established, and some, like the venerable Hossō sect (Yogacara school) had ties all the way back to India.
The picture above shows a small gift I received from a very kind blog reader early this year. It shows the mascot for the 1,300th anniversary named Sento-kun. As the mascot for the 1,300th his profile states (in Japanese) that he is a kind, guardian spirit (lit. kami) who has horns like the famous Nara Deer. You can also see one of these deer in the photo above eating a senbei cracker frequently sold in Nara under signs that say “せんべい”.1 Sento-kun’s apperance reminds me of an early style Buddhist monk as well, but I might be mistaken. Either way, when we visited Nara in 2010 and saw Kofukuji and Todaiji, we saw Sento-kun everywhere. My daughter liked playing with the statue at the Nara Information office:
I heard that the idea for the mascot was a bit controversial because the deer horns seemed strange to some people, but I thought the mascot was great. We really enjoy the gift above (among others), and my daughter likes to play with this from time to time. However, the deer head got broken once, so we put it back together carefully and now keep it in a safe place away from children.
Anyway, although the anniversary has passed, and most news is focused on recovery from the Great Tohoku Earthquake, Nara’s 1300-year history gives the city a timeless quality that is worth visiting any year.
P.S. The text at the bottom of the statue says heijō sento 1300 nen matsuri (平城遷都１３００年祭) meaning “The festival of the 1300th year since the relocation to Heijo Palace”. Before Nara, Emperors moved their capitol frequently and without any particular pattern. The last capitol before Nara was Fujiwarakyō, but the Imperial Family decided to move the capitol to Nara for good in 708 (the actual move was in 710).
1 Senbei are sold everywhere in Japan, and are quite delicious, but the ones in Nara are intended for the deer in particular.