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Time to visit Todai-ji.

22 Days in Japan, Day 15: Nara

May 17, 2011 in Featured, Travel

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 entry is part of a series, 22 Days in Japan: A Series»

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.

The 6-person room at IchiEnSou. My new digs.

The 6-person room at IchiEnSou. My new digs.

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.

Sanjo-dori: the main road leading to Nara Park.

Sanjo-dori: the main road leading to Nara Park.

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.

Beware of deer! (not really)

Beware of deer! (not really)

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.

One of many friendly deer.

One of many friendly deer.

And another deer lazing around.

And another deer lazing around.

But the most exciting part of Nara, at least from a certain person’s perspective, is Todai-ji temple.

A pond on the outskirts of Todai-ji Temple.

A pond on the outskirts of 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.

The massive Todai-ji Temple.

The massive Todai-ji Temple.

Don't think I've seen a larger buddha before.

Don't think I've seen a larger buddha before.

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:

About time things started going my way.

About time things started going my way.

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.

The paper strip covered stone woolly mammoth...thing.

The paper strip covered stone woolly mammoth...thing.

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.

View of Shijo-dori from the gate leading to Yasaka shrine.

View of Shijo-dori from the gate leading to Yasaka shrine.

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.

…continued in 22 Days in Japan, Day 16.

***

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