City lights and Alpine hot pools

Trip Start Jun 08, 2012
Trip End Aug 16, 2013

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Thursday, November 15, 2012

Having been banished from Kyoto by virtue of there being 0 hostels available on Saturday night, I took the train down to Nara for the weekend.  Nara was the first capital of Japan before Kyoto and before Tokyo, and home to a national park which houses temples and shrines and parks and forests, and also home to thousands of wild deer whom roam freely around the town.  The deer were believed to be holy messengers and are supposed to bow to you when asking for food which is achieved by holding the food in front of their noses and then lifting it out of their reach before taking it down so they move their head to follow it.... not really sure that counts as bowing but again very funny to watch people teasing these poor animals with the food in this way and then wondering why they were getting nudged from behind and bitten when they stopped feeding them or ran out of deer food!  Aside from the deer, Nara is a really charming town, much smaller and friendlier than the big city of Kyoto.  The park is 5km in perimeter and I literally spent a whole day walking around visiting the museums and shrines, and the giant Buddha, and dousing myself with incense outside every temple - a much cheaper alternative to fabreezing my clothes!  It`s also a great place for just sitting down in a park and people watching and very under rated in the guide books - it would be easy to spend a lot more time here.

I was lucky to have great weather for this as the following morning I woke up to heavy rain, so decided this was a great day for sitting on public transport and took the train back to Tokyo.  Luckily midway through the following morning it had subsided again so I was able to do another day of big city sightseeing.   This time I headed for the Tsukiji fish market first thing, which is one of the largest fish markets in the world and a crazily dangerous place to be with workers racing around in their fork lift trucks and palette lifters gaining points for every human they can hit!   The market starts with the tuna auction at 5am - needless to say that my interest in tuna and fish was not keen enough to drag me out of bed for this, so by the time I got there I had missed the excitement and was left to walk around one of the enormous 6 halls looking at the hundreds of strange varieties of marine life available for purchase.  After spending the rest of the day losing myself in the tranquility of another skyscraper surrounded park , taking a boat cruise up the river, stopping at one of Tokyo`s most famous temples, and searching for Elvis in Yoyogi park only to find school kids practising street dance routines, I then took in the night lights of Tokyo`s own times square and headed up to the top of the government building for views accross the city.  I never really appreciated just how huge or high the city was until this point (population of 40m!) so this definitely deserved a moment to sit down and take in the enormity of the city lights from 45 floors up with a well earned beer!

One more day in a big city was definitely enough for me, so the next morning was time to head north to the Japanese alps, starting in Nagano, home to the 1998 Olympic winter games, and pretty much nothing else!  I`m not really sure that anything has changed there at all since they hosted the games to be honest but it was a good way to spend a day acclimatising to the start of the winter chill.  It also gave me the opportunity to spend the night in a Buddhist temple lodging and visit the famous 7th century Zenko-ji temple early the next morning to gain enlightenment by stumbling around an inner chamber of the temple in pitch blackness with strangers to touch the key which unlocks the world to the Western paradise of the Amida Buddha.  I am now truly enlightened!!   Much more enchanting was then sitting in the temple listening to the morning chants of the monks, which at 6am on a freezing cold morning managed to put me in a trance like state and harmonise my thoughts and prepare me for the day ahead, a really special experience than everyone should try and do at least once in their lifetime!  The monks here belong to a rather strange sect that I still can`t fully get my head around - they are very wealthy (the head monk owns the latest model of rangerover and a ferrari) and are allowed to marry and have kids and altogether lead a rather celebrity status lifestyle - definitely not the kind of monks life I know about from back home!

This region in the alps of Japan is famous for it`s many Onsen, outdoor hot pools which are used for bathing in, and also for it`s population of snow monkeys.  Close to Nagano (about an hour on the bus) I visited a park where the two combine, and I walked around watching the snow monkeys de-fleaing and cleaning each other whilst warming their bones by bathing in the hot pools.  I`ve never seen anything like it and could really have stood there watching them carry on with their monkey business all day if it hadn`t have been so cold.   As tempting as it was to warm up by jumping in the hot pool with them I managed to hold back and retreat to the gas fire in the shop instead!


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