The mighty lived here once. Their multi-tiered pagodas still tower over the green valley and gaze up at the hills. Massive palaces and halls—one thought to be the largest wooden structure in the world—testify that emperors and empresses established their courts here, summoned their nobles, levied their tariffs, and built a city with wide, perpendicular streets. It was a metropolis fit to be Japan’s first great city.
Before the eighth century, there had been no permanent capital in Japan. Shinto tradition taught that a sovereign’s passing defiled his death place, so the capital moved from town to town. But by 710 A.D., Chinese influence and an increasingly complex administration convinced Empress Genmyo that a permanent seat of government must be built. It would be called Heijo-kyo.
She chose a beautiful site for the city. On the Yamato Plain, her engineers laid out great avenues running north to south and east to west. As Heijo-kyo grew, residences and palaces shared space on principal thoroughfares with Buddhist monasteries and temples.
Much of the national wealth found its way into the magnificent structures and works of art in the city. It soon became the most splendid showcase in Japan. It had its own “Pony Express” service. It had a mint that struck 12 issues of coins in gold and copper. Books of Japanese history, legend, and poetry were compiled. Armies marched off to war. Court intrigues abounded. For 74 years, Heijo-kyo was the heart and soul of Japan. Then in 784 the capital was moved, eventually to Kyoto and later ending up in Tokyo.
Today, Heijo-kyo is known by another name: Nara. It is no longer capital of the Land of the Rising Sun, but it remains one of its most beautiful and popular cities. Millions of tourists come here each year, lured by the ancient buildings and by a 1,300-acre park where a herd of about 1,000 deer roams free. Protected by law, the animals have become tame, have learned to coexist with humanity and to accept food from an outstretched hand. From the park, the deer wander in and out of the forests that climb the ridges of Mount Takamado, Mount Kasuga, and Mount Wakakusa.
Nara is still a center of culture and local government. The shiny, modern Prefectural Hall is a building any regional government would be eager to call home. The Cultural Hall, Prefectural Museum, and National Museum are all nearby. Festivals are held year-round, including a deer-horn-cutting ceremony, a ceremony during which the grass is burned off Mount Wakakusa, and other celebrations where participants parade in ancient costumes. Nara is still a city proud of its heritage, proud of its roll as a cradle of Japanese civilization. “Nara,” says a promotional brochure, “is home of Japanese spirit.”
Nara is also the home of another kind of spirit, a spirit typified by a young group of Latter-day Saints who met on the way home from school at Nara’s Kintetsu train station. Their bishop, Tatsuo Taura of the Nara Ward, Osaka Japan Stake, had invited them to meet him on their way home from school for a walk in the park.
“When I was small, I used to come to the park often with my parents,” said Akie Tanaka, 17. “But now I’m so busy with school I don’t get many chances. When the bishop asked us to come, I thought it sounded fun.”
It’s only a block or two from the train station to the park. As we walked up the hill, the bishop explained that he just wanted to spend a little bit of time with the youth, some time in a relaxed situation, time to become better friends.
“I talk to you all individually during interviews,” Bishop Taura said. “Today let’s just have some fun together.”
He stopped to buy some wafers to feed the deer, then passed the wafers out to the teenagers. As if on cue, the deer trotted over. So many swarmed around Akie that it seemed they were welcoming back an old friend. Overwhelmed, she started giggling and found it hard to stop.
“I wasn’t scared,” she said. “I like deer. But I was holding some food, and they mobbed me to get at it. It was funny to see them all sticking their tongues out at me!”
Akie wasn’t the only one pestered by a persistent deer. One doe kept staring at Seiji Nakanishi even when the food was gone. “Finally she licked my hand, then turned and walked away,” Seiji said. Quickly the herd moved on, although one or two of the animals turned and paused before bounding off into the woods. “It was almost as if they stopped to say good-bye,” said Masatoshi Hirata, 17.
Masatoshi and Seiji, 16, are making friends with Yuji Oki, 15, who was baptized a week ago.
“I’m a deacon,” Yuji said. “I’m proud to be a Latter-day Saint, excited to hold the priesthood. And I’m glad that the others in the ward are my friends. There is strength in associating with other priesthood bearers, a reassurance that God will help us meet our responsibilities.”
As we left the deer behind and headed for a shrine, all three young men were talking about missions—about preparing for them, earning and saving money for them, about seeking the Spirit even now so they would know how to follow it later.
Masatoshi, who is a priest, said, “Soon I will be in the mission field. But right now I have lots of missionary opportunities here. Just think, if everyone in Nara would become a Latter-day Saint, what blessings it would bring! They could strengthen their families, work toward everlasting life, prepare to live together as families forever. Can you see why going to church is my favorite thing?”
We walked far. We saw the reflection of the Kofukuji Pagoda in Sarusawa Pond. We looked at the tombstones, the bright red gates and columns, and the thousands of brass and carved stone lanterns of the Kasuga Shrine. We climbed steep wooden stairs to buildings where samurai warriors used to live. We marveled at the immensity of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which Japanese ancestors built with sincerity and faith. The young Japanese Saints talked again about their own faith, their own hope for the future.
“There’s a girl with us today who is not a member,” Akie explained. “It’s the first time I have met her. I’d love to tell her about my experiences with the gospel—good things, testimonies that people bear. I wish I could tell her all about these things. I wish I could tell everyone.” And a few minutes later, Akie was talking with Satomi Fujioka, 18, the new girl in the group. They were laughing, telling stories, and fast becoming friends. And becoming friends, as Akie will tell you, is the first step toward sharing anything.
Yuji stopped for a minute and sat on a bench to rest. Our loop through the park was complete, and it was time to head back to the train station. But first we all decided to drink a carton of mandarin orange juice to cool off after our hike.
“You know,” said Yuji, looking back at the enormous wooden gate that is merely the entrance to the more enormous Todaiji Temple, “perhaps someday there will be as many Mormon temples as there are shrines in Japan. It’s exciting to know I can play some small part in spreading the gospel in this land.”
Seiji nodded his head in agreement. “There are many monuments here,” he said, “many treasures. But the gospel is a bigger treasure. After all, it is the most important thing in my life.”
Mariko Tange, 18, a Laurel who joined the Church just four months ago, also nodded her head. “I get so busy I forget sometimes how important the Church really is,” she said. “I’m really glad we came here today.”
There was less conversation on the way back to the station than there had been on the way to the park. Maybe we were just tired. Maybe we were all talked out. But it seemed more like we were thinking, thinking about the spirit that unites us as members of the Church. That spirit will grow in the hearts of the Saints in Nara, the same way it grows in the hearts of Saints everywhere. It is a spirit that makes all men noble, a spirit that makes all men free. And as it is shared with friends, families, and neighbors, the Nara said to be “home of Japanese spirit” may also become known as a place where the Spirit of God is at home.