The history of Nara is full of fascinating power struggle that started in the 8th century. Tōdai-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple which marks that period of Japan, and the temple was awarded one of the eight World Heritage historical sites in Nara. To make visiting this landmark even more interesting, the way to Tōdai-ji through Nara Park is packed with deer that will chill with you as long as you are being non-intrusive and respectful.
Egg Yolk Cheesy Toast at Marufuku Coffee 丸福咖啡自信的蛋黃起士烤吐司
Before hopping on a train to Nara, we dropped by a classy coffee shop right by the Nipponbashi station in Osaka for breakfast.
Marufuku Coffee (丸福咖啡) is a retro coffee shop founded in 1934. Marufuku operates twenty-some branches in Japan. The Sennichimae shop in Osaka is the original. Its antique furniture and coffee roaster create a nostalgic space.
Marufuku is famous for rich coffee with its deep roasting technique and this legendary cheesy toast on the breakfast menu. I am not a coffee drinker, so I cannot comment on the coffee. The grilled cheese though. Please, please try the grilled cheese. I call it grilled cheese for lack of a better term. This signature item of Marufuku is a mixure of cheese and egg yolk melted on thick and fluffy toast. The edge of the bread was toasted and crispy. The savory cheese and egg yolk mix was like nothing I’ve had before. The egg and ham sandwich was also good, crispy outside and soft inside.
Tōdai-ji: The Center of “Temple and State”
A 35-minute train ride later, we made it to Nara. Our first stop was Tōdai-ji (東大寺).
Originally built in 752 AD, Tōdai-ji is a Buddhist temple with political importance. This temple was burned down in 1180 and 1567. The current temple and Buddha you see now were rebuilt from the 17th to early 19th century. The 25-meter high main gate was rebuilt in 1203 AD. I was in awe of this wooden gate built 800 years ago.
跳上火車，三十五分鐘的車程，從大阪來到奈良，我們的第一站是東大寺。東大寺是西元752年建成的佛教寺廟，在 1180 年和 1567 年兩度被燒毀，現在看到的寺廟和大佛是十七到十九世紀之間修復的，二十五公尺高的南大門則是 八百年前建的超高木造建築。
Chinese Buddhism reached Japan through Baekje, Korea in the 6th century. Over the years Buddhism heavily influenced the culture, literature and art in Japan, but initially Buddhism was essentially a political machine.
Before the Taika Reforms (大化の改新) in 645 AD, rich families held political power and the emperor did not have much real political control. The most influential family at the time was the Soga clan (蘇我氏). Then a prince worked with Fujiwara no Kamatari (藤原鎌足) to orchestrate a coup. The coup ended the era of the Soga clan, and the Fujiwara guy who helped the prince overthrow the Soga clan became the founder of the Fujiwara clan. Emperor Kōtoku (孝德天皇) was inaugurated. He initiated the Taika Reforms, which was about creating a centralized political structure that mimics the system in China.
Emperor Kōtoku pushed for Buddhism to become a state religion. Back then Buddhism was not for everyday people; it was for the ruling class and the elites. There was no separation of church (temple!?) and state. The central government promoted Buddhism, appointed lead monks, and sanctioned properties for temples. These properties or estates are private, tax-free, and often autonomous. They are called shōen (莊園). Buddhist leaders of the temples manage their own properties and train their own military force.
In the early 8th century, Emperor Shōmu (聖武天皇) decided to rely on Buddhism to further centralize state control. He ordered every province to build a provincial temple. These temples are called Kokubun-ji (国分寺) for monks and kokubunni-ji (国分尼寺) for nuns. Under his order, Japan built more than 60 temples. Tōdai-ji was the lead temple of all of them.
Emperor Shōmu’s propaganda was that the country will thrive if temples thrive; the country is doomed if the temples are doomed. In 743 AD, he ordered the construction of a 49-feet / 15-meter tall buddha for Tōdai-ji. This gigantic buddha took seven years to build. The construction of all the buildings and statues of Tōdai-ji took some 40 years to complete.
八世紀初，聖武天皇用佛教來加深中央集權，告訴大家蓋超浮誇的廟就可以國泰民安，下令所有省份都要蓋一座廟，僧侶的廟叫國分寺，尼姑的廟叫國分尼寺，在聖武天皇令下，日本建了六十幾座國分寺，東大寺是位階最高的總寺院。西元 743 年，聖武天皇下令建造一座十五公尺高的大佛，蓋這大佛花了七年，東大寺總共花了四十年來蓋。
Did the people benefit from a thriving temple? Of course not.
It took a lot of political struggle and wars for Emperor Shōmu to solidify his power. By the time he wanted to build these temples to strengthen the Buddhist state, the government was broke. In order to pay for these superfluous temples, he revoked the land ownership policies under Taika Reforms and started privatizing land to encourage farming and raise his tax base. While ordinary people paid taxes, the elites and prominent temples demanded tax exemption. As a result, income inequality worsened. Rich families and temples got richer; everyday people were screwed over.
Like many other temples, Tōdai-ji gradually evolved into a powerful political, economic, and military entity. Politicized clergy runs Nara Buddhist establishments. A few decades later, in 794 AD, the monarchies and the clergy became so powerful and influential that Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇) had to permanently relocate Japan’s capitol from Nara to Kyoto to severe ties between temple and state, marginalize the clergy, and resist their intervention in governmental affairs.
Tōdai-ji is situated right in Nara Park. The temple is mostly free of admission except for the Great Buddha Hall and two other buildings. Due to time constraint and the fact that we did not feel like fighting the crowd and paying an admission, we skipped the main temple and the gigantic buddha and moved on to Kasuga-taisha.
Marufuku Coffee Sennichimae 丸福咖啡
1 Chome-9-1 Sennichimae, Chūō-ku, Ōsaka-shi, Ōsaka-fu 542-0074, Japan
Near Nipponbashi station (Osaka subway)
8:00 am – 11:00 pm (closed on January 1)
Website in Japanese only. English menu available in store.
Egg yolk cheese toast 680 yen. Coffee around 560 yen.
Free except for the Great Buddha Hall and two other buildings
Great Buddha Hall Admission: 600 yen
9:30 am – 5:30 pm from April to October
9:30 am – 5:00 pm from November to March