Pleasures.And Treasures; Frederick Forsyth Is Smitten by Japan's Trainee Geisha Girls and Ancient Temples

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Pleasures.And Treasures; Frederick Forsyth Is Smitten by Japan's Trainee Geisha Girls and Ancient Temples


Byline: FREDERICK FORSYTH

TOKYO is the capital, of

course; a great sprawl of a modern city, with little of antiquity left. That was mostly destroyed in the American fire-bombings of 1944 - wood and rice paper really does burn.

But it has only been the capital of Japan since 1868.

Before that it was Kyoto, for 1,000 years.

And there is another former capital, hardly ever visited, where the court established by Emperor Shomu sat for just 74 years, from 710 to 784.

But that was an amazing period, when Buddhism, imported from China, converted the Royal House and became established in Japan.

Today the small town of Nara sits in its little valley, shadowed by the Wakakusa hill, playing host to some of the most remarkable temples and shrines in the world while herds of tame deer amble through the grasslands between them.

One temple alone once comprised 175 different buildings, as emperor and courtiers vied to build greater and greater glories to the homage of Buddha.

The two outstanding examples which survive are the Five-Storied Pagoda, a riot

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of red and gold and still the world's oldest all-timber building, and the Todaiji Temple, the biggest all-timber edifice ever built.

My wife Sandy and I arrived on the slow branch line from Kyoto with an interpreter, engaged a taxi at the station and asked if he would quote a price for a four-hour tour of the rural park on the outskirts of Nara township which houses the temple complex. Considering the horrendous prices of Tokyo, it was remarkably modest. At the first port of call I offered him money as a guarantee that I would return. He declined.

Through my interpreter I pointed out that in the seething sea of tourists (all Japanese) I might disappear. He insisted he would trust our honesty. As we walked away, my interpreter told me he had said he would only do this for the British; all other nationalities would pay up-front.

We walked and inspected until Sandy said she was `templed-out' but then we came to the Todaiji. It is truly awesome, towering out of the plain, 1,250 years old, containing the world's biggest wooden Buddha. Contemplating the facade alone, I was dumb in admiration of the craftsmen who could construct this phenomenon at a time (about 750 AD) when our own ancestors were living in daub-and-wattle shacks.

For one thing, there were no giant trees nearby, either then or now. So they cut huge tree trunks on another island far to the north, towed them behind galleys to Honshu, then rolled them to the site. There the carpenters went to work.

They had no excavators, cranes or machine tools. Every chip and splinter was sawn, cut and tailored by simple axe and adze. When the 100ft columns were up, they built the Todaiji out of interlocking beams. As one who can run into major problems putting up a kitchen shelf, studying the roof, facade and inner dome is chastening.

With no nails, screws or bolts, every joint and cornice was fashioned to slot into its neighbour with such precision that it would never fall down.

And it never has.

Most of the inner hall is taken up by the gigantic carved wooden Buddha.

No single piece of timber could have begun to approach his size. So they cut and slotted together 18,000 blocks of wood to create the single megalith on which the sculptors could work.

Today he sits, as he has for 1,200 years, gazing down at his devotees, right hand down and palm-up to offer safety and asylum, left hand raised and open to grant peace and serenity. As I approached I realised that his big toe was the size of my car.

I spent an hour just staring at him, wondering how the hell those old carpenters did it. By then I was hungry, so I bought and lit a votive candle (nothing wrong with a bit of insurance) and left.

My trusting taxi driver told me the best restaurant in Nara was the Kikusui, part of a traditional country inn. …

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