Landon Fry wriggles through the Buddha's nose in Nara
Excerpted from To Japan With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
The dense Nara heat beat down on the members of the Kansai Gaidai History Club as we trudged to the gates of Todai-ji. Around us, families paused on the pathway for snapshots, junior high boys sweltered in their uniforms and threw friendly insults at each other, and visitors crowded around a brazier of burning incense for the ritual fanning of the smoke toward their faces and the places on their bodies that needed special blessing.
Inside the massive temple gate sat the Nara Daibutsu, a fifteen-meter-high bronze Buddha. Throngs of tourists hopped, crouched, and weaved their way toward the imposing statue, all vying for the perfect photo spot. The Daibutsu's bronze skin glimmered in the flash of their cameras. Once I'd taken my photos, I headed around to the back side of the statue, leaving an empty space behind for the crowd to fill.
Around back, a line of about sixty people, all under the age of fourteen, weaved toward an old support pillar with a hole cut in the middle near the ground. One by one, the kids crawled through the small opening, greeted by their families taking pictures as they emerged on the other side.
"That is the Buddha's nose," explained Aki, a senior member of the history club. "If you go through, it brings good luck."
Playing on my ego, Aki dared me to get in line with him, and being too proud to refuse, I did. Knowing that navigating the narrow passageway of the Buddha's nose might end in the humiliation of getting stuck in the process, with the eyes of all the spectators upon them, our other friends took note of our bravery, but failed to conjure similar boldness within themselves. Instead, they waited by the pillar with their cameras at the ready.
Aki and I exchanged small talk as we shuffled forward at rhythmic intervals, and I noticed that no one had yet failed to slip through the Buddha's nose. Apprehensively, I compared my own size to the diminutive statures of the students in line ahead of me, while Aki tried to bolster me with words of encouragement. When my turn came to face the hole, the confidence-building effects of Aki's pep talk vanished before the crowd around the pillar. But my ego, which had gotten me into this predicament in the first place, wouldn't allow me to renege. I was determined to try.
I raised my arms above my head to taper the width of my shoulders, and launched my body, head first, at the hole. In my initial attempt, I resorted to flailing, and soon came to a halt halfway through the passage. Anxiety emanated audibly from the crowd, fueling my panic.
Trapped inside the Buddha's nose, arms and legs thrashing, eyes focused on the tiny exit now visible in front of me, I imagined the feeling of a hundred hands gripping my ankles, yanking me toward freedom and humiliation. Before my worst fears materialized, I somehow gained backward momentum and squirmed out the way I'd gone in.
Disappointment and confusion filled the silence outside the hole. The crowd seemed unsure sure how to react. In all the time we'd been standing in line, watching one intrepid challenger after another, no one had failed to make it through. As if to show me how it's done, Aki squared his shoulders and aligned himself with the opening. I wasn't about to allow my failure to give him the satisfaction of teasing me for perpetuity, so I gathered my courage, and tilting my body at an angle between Aki and the pillar, I lunged toward the hole again.
As with most noses, the Buddha's is widest when measured diagonally, so I was able to gain a little extra wiggle room this time. At this angle, however, I could only reach the ground with one foot for traction. But with a few strong pushes, I finally managed to squeeze through, and tumbled clumsily out the other side. Flashes lit up the scene, exposing the intricate woodwork of the ceiling, and the applause of the crowd filled the temple. (Aki got through with no problem.)
Having successfully wriggled through the Buddha's nose, I still haven't decided whether my luck has increased, but I certainly entertained the tourists at Todai-ji that day. And, really, how many people can say they crawled through the Buddha's nose and lived to tell?
Getting to Todai-ji
In Nara, from Nara Station or Kintetsu Nara Station, it is about a twenty-minute walk east on either Sanjo Dori or Hanna Road respectively toward Nara Park. When you get to Nara Park, look for signposts pointing the way toward Nandaimon (Nandai Gate) and Todai-ji. Among the things to see in Nara are hundreds of deer that will walk right up to you in the park.
To read more essays from To Japan With Love, click here.
Published on 12/21/09