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and east-west avenues. Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese never constructed walled cities; and although the population of Nara probably
reached two hundred thousand in the eighth century, making it Japan’s
first truly urban center, contemporar y accounts describe it as a city of
open spaces with many fields interspersed among the buildings.
The orderliness of the original plan for Nara paralleled the balanced
arrangement of the governmental offices and boards elaborated in the
Taihò Code, and reflected the fundamental Chinese taste for symmetry
in such matters. Some have speculated that the Japanese, on the other
hand, inherently prefer asymmetry. In any case, just as they ultimately The Introduction of Buddhism 35 Fig. 15 Attendant bodhisattva: detail of fresco in the
Golden Hall of the Hòryûji Temple (Asuka-en) deviated from China’s form of a balanced bureaucracy, the Japanese also
failed to develop Nara as planned. The present city lies almost entirely in
the northeastern suburbs of the eighth-century plan, and only recently
placed markers enable us to see where the palace enclosure and other
important sites of the original Nara were located. Kyoto, which became
the seat of the court in 794 after its move from Nara, was also laid out
symmetrically like Ch’ang-an; and it too spread erratically, primarily into
the northeastern suburbs. But, whereas Kyoto was often devastated by
warfare and other disasters during the medieval period and has few
buildings within its city limits that predate the sixteenth century, Nara
has retained substantially intact a number of splendid edifices and their
contents dating from the eighth century.
Even today, the visitor to Nara can recapture much of the splendor of
the brilliant youth of Japanese civilization. Nevertheless, it is difficult, in
view of the later introversion of Japanese society, to envision how extraordinarily cosmopolitan Nara must have been in the eighth century. The
Japanese of the Nara period were the eager pupils of Chinese civiliza- 36 The Introduction of Buddhism tion, and T’ang C...
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- Spring '13