Having exhausted all the temples and shrines I could possibly stomach in Kyoto, it was the right time for a day trip to the nearby city of Nara. Nara was a capital of Japan before Kyoto was, so it promised new baubles of historical interest. Also, deer.
Any time I asked anybody what to see in Nara, the answer always came back, “Deer. DeerdeerdeerDEER.” Bless the temples and shrines we visited, but Nara can be summed up with the word DEER. They are sacred to the area because, as the story goes, a god was invited to the city and he rode in on a deer. Wild deer have been roaming the area freely ever since.
On the trip with me came my couchsurfing friend, H, the tall Minnesotan who was wrapping up two years teaching in China. Considering how crappy our Internet situations were (and it was poor for a good majority of my time in Kyoto), it’s a miracle that we managed to meet at the JR Nara Station at 10 o’clock.
The JR Nara Station also had a Tourist Information Center who handily supplied us with a map and drew a triangular route through all the key attractions. The lady behind the counter even noted (in British-accented English) how much time each leg of the triangle would take and added that the whole route would take about half the day.
We were bushy-tailed and bright-eyed as we navigated the streets trying to find our first stop, Kofukuji Temple. Such innocence. And then we saw school children and deer together and as a former school teacher, this is a deathly combination almost guaranteed to lure me over every single time. We crossed the street and I was full blown in cooing-at-all-the-cuteness mode when a deer came close and ATE MY MAP.
I had just read the section on the map that explained why the wild deer roamed free and that you could buy them crackers to eat. We got to witness quite a few people, newly armed with crackers, be set upon by good natured but insistent deer. But clearly you don’t need crackers, just MAPS. Because the deer will eat your map unless you hold it over your head like you’re playing keep away from children.
I’m just glad I didn’t have a fancy handbag like one Chinese tourist we met. One of the excited deer decided the bag’s handles were much more appetizing than the crackers she had in her hands and was delightedly trying to chew them off.
Kofukuji had a nice pagoda and several artists sitting around, sketching. They also had a bathhouse on the grounds, but it wasn’t open for tourists to look at.
Yep, that’s what I’ve got.
We managed to get another map pretty quickly, though it didn’t have the route the lady from the JR Station had so carefully drawn out. The route was simple enough to remember so we kept walking through Nara Park to reach the Shinto Shrine, Kasuga Taisha.
There were more deer but fewer crackers along the way so the deer mostly stayed away, while staring at you intelligently. I kept my new map close.
(Here was a sign we saw at the park that details, in four languages, what wild deer could do to you.
Between the two of us, we had language skills in three of the four so we had a bit of fun reading it.
Also note that no men are shown getting attacked by deer.)
Yet another shrine that would look prettier when the flowers were in full bloom. I wish they had offseason tickets for places, like this, UNESCO World Heritage Site or not. We did enjoy the rows and rows of lanterns (both stone and bronze) though.
The shrine ladies at Kasuga Taisha wore headbands that other shrine ladies did not. I have yet to figure out why.
My friend is a hiker. She was also interested in the aptly named, “Primeval Forest” and that is how we ended up climbing Wakakusayama. While the distance was considerable (probably the longest of the climbs I did in Japan– please, everyone, remember my previously injured ankle. Or that I am an unathletic wuss), the path was easily sloped and doable.
Climbing Wakakusayama was like finding oneself in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke movie. Between the herd of deer and gnarly forests, I half-expected the little kodama (tree spirits that look like rattling bobbleheads) to show up. I was surprised to discover that Studio Ghibli had not done research in Nara after all.
(Here’s the view from the top. We fought our way through all those trees to get here.)
We finished up at Wakakusayama with enough time to head to Todaiji, the last tourist attraction marked by the Information Center. But first my friend bought crackers and fed the deer.
We came at Todaiji backwards and ended up taking in its lesser halls first. There was a small building that charged 500JPY (USD$5) to see these statues from the 8th century. I thought that was pricey for such a small building, but they are extremely old statues and I don’t mind contributing to their preservation. We weren’t allowed to take pictures and may as well: they were scary as fuck. The Buddha in the middle was cool as a cucumber but all of his attendants seemed to have issues with the people staring at him. They all had very unpleasant, terrifying faces. Stuff. Of. Nightmares.
We passed by several of the other halls. One of them had these bamboo stalks with writing all over them; we would later find out that they were for some kind of burning ceremony that night.
We reached Todaiji proper soon enough. When I say Todaiji proper, I mean the big wooden building that housed the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. (The wooden building itself was the world’s largest wooden structure for awhile. It’s smaller than the original Todaiji which, like many buildings in Japan, burned down.) I know they said that the Buddha was going to be huge, but it was bigger than I thought. It was surrounded by smaller Buddhas that were easily as big as I was.
There was a supporting post in Todaiji that had a hole at its base. Quite a few people were trying to worm through, so being tiny, I lined up for my cake walk of a turn. That thing was NOT a joke though, mainly because it was long and it felt like I was in a tight space for long enough to have my survival instincts protest.
(I look like I’ve been swallowed by a post, is what.)
Later research tells me that people who get through the hole in the post will supposedly be granted enlightenment in the next life– so I have that going for me.
We finished the Tourist Information Center’s proscribed route at about 4:30 and therefore had time to think of something new to do. After eating sweet potatoes, cheesecake Kit Kats and drinks from the local 711, we decided to go to Osaka.
(Funny story about those sweet potatoes: they were being sold at 200 yen per 100 grams. I thought that sounded reasonable, but perhaps because I am illiterate when it comes to the metric system, the sweet potato I got was 400 grams and cost 800JPY/USD$8.)
I had never been to Osaka so I was curious on what there was to see. It was about $6 and an hour via the train. It was the only evening I spent in the city, but I did get how it felt to be the antithesis of traditional, proper Kyoto. Osaka is loud, vibrant, and weird. The skirt-like pants all the women were wearing in Kyoto that I had been silently coveting were worn by the men in jeans form, with weird gangster patches.
My friend had not eaten okonomiyaki before and since Osaka is the birthplace of okonomiyaki, I was only too eager to share it with her and make sure she didn’t miss out on the experience.
All together a satisfying end to an amazing day.
[This post was originally published on March 15, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]