Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Do Deer, Buddha, and a Wooden Temple have in Common?

All three are located in the historic city of Nara, Japan and all three are tourist destinations.  Yes, even the deer.  The deer are considered sacred messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion so are found nearly everywhere in this sacred city, many waiting for a handout from willing tourists. 

The Sika deer roam the huge park which contains temples and museums aplenty as well as the largest wooden structure in the world, the Todaiji Temple.  The Temple first built in the early 700s was actually more grand then the existing Temple of 1709.  (The current building was finished in 1709, and although immense—57 m long and 50 m wide—it is actually 30% smaller than its predecessor. Nevertheless, the Daibutsuden is considered the largest building in the world made primarily of wood.)

As if the deer and the largest wooden structure in the world aren't enough, there's more.  The Todaiji Temple houses the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana!  This 52 foot high statue was completed in 751 AD after three years of casting work.  Documentation states that over 2,6000,000 people worked on the immense temple and Buddha, and that the project nearly bankrupted Japan's economy, consuming most of the available bronze of the time.

And those sacred Sika deer of Nara?
"On our way to the shrine, many deer appeared in the morning darkness. This is a sign from the gods and a good omen. People say that when one encounters deer, he or she should get out of the carriage and bow to them."
— From Gyokuyo by Kujo Kanezane of the 12th century

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sled Dogs, Soup Bowls, and Ice Sculptures

On March 2, 2012, the main street of Anchorage, Alaska will be full of dogs, mushers, and wide-eyed tourists waiting for the "ceremonial start" of this year's Iditarod, The Last Great Race on Earth!

 To quote the Iditarod website, "You can’t compare it to any other competitive event in the world! A race over 1150 miles of the roughest, most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer. She throws jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast at the mushers and their dog teams. Add to that temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod. A race extraordinaire, a race only possible in Alaska.

From Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast, each team of 12 to 16 dogs and their musher cover over 1150 miles in 10 to 17 days."  An amazing super-human, super-animal feat to be sure!

Several years ago bundled from the tip of my nose to the tip of my toes, I took in the festivities of the ceremonial start of this last great race on the snow-covered streets of Anchorage.  It is an amazing party!
The main street (where snow had to be brought in from the surrounding mountains that year due to a low snow-cover--which I hear is not the case in this record-setting snow year) was full of dogs and people and more dogs and more people!  The dogs were feeling good in their thick furs while the people were sporting every sort of fur-lined coat, mittens, hats, boots, and mufflers to brave what were very very cold conditions that day! Dogs were sticking their curious noses through openings in dog wagons, were harnessed or were in the process of being harnessed to the sleek powerful sleds, or were simply eyeing the curious tourists eyeing them.

The dogs and sleds and mushers were only one part of the party, though.  A park near city center was turned into a veritable wonderland of carved ice sparkling almost-blindingly in the brilliant sun.  Ice carvers from around the world participate in this carving competition creating everything from mermaids to castles to things only Alice could have seen in her wonderland.  Amazing what talented individuals can do with a car-sized chunk of ice!

The wares of many other artists were also evident that crisp cold day in a Soup for the Cold event.  Potters had created bowls in every shape and size for this fundraising event.  All a person had to do to get a steaming bowl of reindeer stew was to choose a bowl from tables and tables and tables of gorgeous bowls, make a donation to the project, and line-up for the most delicious tasting stew one has ever enjoyed.  Choosing the bowl--which you got to wash out and take home with you as a treasured Iditarod souvenir--was the challengingly enjoyable part! 

Walking the streets of Anchorage on this Iditarod day was amazing!  Crisp, clean, cold air!  Artisans sharing their talents everywhere you looked!  Reindeer stew!  People in the most incredible outfits!  and those handsome, hearty dogs!  Ready for a run to Nome!  Simply amazing!