22 Days in Japan, Day 15: Nara
I wake up a little after 10 o’clock on Day 15. I’m still in Kyoto, still in a ryokan called IchiEnSou. Unfortunately, it looks like everyone else left already.
This seems to be a common theme on my travels in Japan. Most tourists have the “wake up early” mindset, which I’ve found didn’t really fly in Tokyo – major places there don’t even open until 9 or 10. I’m also a late-to-bed, late-to-rise sleeper.
Today my destination is Nara, home of several parks, temples, shrines, and deer.
I roll into Nara station at 11:40 AM, and coming out of the train, the first I notice is that it’s rustic. The station has this major wooden theme going, with a wood drop ceiling and large treelike pillars. It’s wholly different from the modern wonders of Kyoto station (more on that tomorrow), and a gentle reminder that Nara is more at home with nature than it is with 50 feet video screens.
And yet, the scene right outside of the station is typical of modern-day Japan: lots of apartment complexes/office buildings packed close together, power lines running and criss-crossing through side streets
It takes me about 50 feet to realize that there is only one road leading to Nara Park, and it’s a heavy uphill. No thank you, sir. I rent a bicycle from a shop behind the station instead.
The bike I get is blue, has a big grey basket in the front and a chain system that keeps applying fresh dirt to my pants. Still, I manage to forge ahead to my first real taste of the park, a large lake where it looks like you can have someone ferry you across (closed right now, for some reason). It’s a good place to rest for a bit and take a swig of lemon-flavored Vitamin Water, my new favorite bottled drink. It costs me 180 yen.
A couple of hills and side streets later, I’m inside the park, near the Nara National Museum. And I have my first encounter with a deer.
Deer in the United States are one and the same. They’re afraid of humans, probably because we run over most of their kin. I’m sure every deer has some sad story to tell about a cousin and a car. That leads to generally unfriendly relations between the deer and the humans.
Not so in Nara! The deer here are nonchalant, have really rounded antlers, and walk around with genuine smiles on their faces. Above all, they’re friendly, and it’s hard to walk by and not have a few of them sniff you to make sure that you aren’t carrying any stray deer biscuits on you. Ignore the warning signs and just focus on how cute they are.
But the most exciting part of Nara, at least from a certain person’s perspective, is Todai-ji temple.
This is the imposing structure to end all imposing structures. It’s gigantic to say the least, and from a distance it really looks like something pulled right out of feudal Japan. Inside sits the throne of a massive buddha – probably the biggest I’ve seen here – along with another buddha (his buddy? his servant? not sure) and what looks like a giant warrior holding a paintbrush and a scroll. And a really mean face.
Other notables in Todai-ji are a large scale model of the temple, a large pillar with a square hole cut into it where little kids can crawl through, and lots of shops selling small trinkets. Considering my crap fortune from Asakusa (back in Tokyo), I figure that it’s high time to buy another one. Here’s what the future holds for me:
This one’s definitely a keeper.
After my jaunt through the temple, and a short break trying to take pictures with some more deer, I walk down what I’d called the “main dirt road” and end up at another orange shrine. There’s a wedding going on, and the bride and groom are decked out in some serious garb for the occasion. The ceremony captures my attention for a bit, but I can’t help shake the feeling that I’m just another tourist gawking at someone else’s big day.
A little while later, I’m flying through the streets of Nara again (but downhill this time!), eventually stopping at one of the super-long indoor malls that I’ve seen day in and day out here in Japan. My late lunch consists of another chicken sandwich from McDonalds – a McDonalds that I should mention is the first I’ve ever seen with a grand piano.
And alas, I thought I was done with parking tickets after I left the States. Turns out my bicycle was tagged (with a warning, at least as far as I can decipher it) by some ninja officer while I was busy chowing down my chicken sando.
I spend some time bumming around Nara, then take the train back to Gion and spend more time bumming around the shopping district. Tonight promises to be quite interesting, with Yashi (the proprietor of IchiEnSou) scheduling a night walk around town.
Our group of IchiEnsou’ers makes our way in a wide circle around Gion as Yashi points out various sites of interest. For example, did you know that there’s a structure in Gion where visitors tack on little strips of paper with their hopes and dreams (and complaints)? It reminds me of a woolly mammoth, or something out of a Miyazaki movie.
Eventually, we reach the top of a hill (sort of) overlooking the city. There isn’t much of a view, mostly because there really isn’t much of a hill. The city of Gion is surprisingly flat.
We circle around, passing by a large pagoda, and a few interesting temple buildings. And I almost walk into a spider’s web.
Dinner is at a super small Korean restaurant nestled in an alleyway somewhere in downtown Gion. The owner also happens to be the hostess, waitress and only chef, but she makes a mean multi-course feast for our group. Total bill (per person): 1300 yen, roughly 16 bucks.
- 22 Days in Japan, A Series
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 1: A Rainy Start
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 2: It's 4:03 and I can't sleep
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 3: Shibuya, Shrines, Love and AIDS
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 4: Akihabara, and Eight Sentences About Roppongi
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 5: Maybe I Should've Gone in April
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 6: I Went to a Wild Wild West Ramen Museum
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 7: At Least I Did Some Laundry
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 8: Don't Go To Nagoya Castle at 5 PM
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 9: Sick Day
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 10: A Trip to the Zoo
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 11: McDonald's Has Never Tasted So Good
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 12: Osaka Science Museum, Umeda, and Spa World
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 13: Den-den Town
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 14: Kyoto, Kiyomizu, and Kesha
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 15: Nara
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 16: Zen and the Art of Staring at Rocks
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 17: Nagano, Rain, and a Scary Bridge
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 18: Exploring Togakushi