Great Buddhas and ancient capitals

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Saturday, August 14, 2004

From the famed cultural capital of Japan, we have now come to its oldest political capital, as well as our last stop on this trip. Nara doesn't get quite as many crowds as its northern neighbor, but it still punches well above its weight when you consider how small the place is. Many of its historical relics are now UNESCO-listed and almost the entirety of the central Nara-koen area is jam-packed with cultural treasures. Without a doubt, the city's biggest draw is the immense wooden hall of Todai-ji and its giant, bronze Buddha statue, but this is only the most famous of a whole list of excellent historical remnants.

I booked us into a ryokan in the center of a town a couple weeks ago, based on the information I was able to dig up online. While the place itself is quite nice, our proprietor is certainly more than a little weird and bumbling (even meddling at times). Her habit of hanging about and niggling about this and that in broken English was just about to drive Steve mad, so we made it a point not to spend too much time at the inn during the day. Unfortunately, the weather has gotten considerably stickier after two consecutive days of gorgeous conditions, so a little A/C now and then would have been welcome.

Since we really only have one full day in town, I confined our exploration to central Nara and Nara-koen. While I missed them on my previous (and first) visit to the town, the outerlying temples of Yakushi-ji and Horyu-ji will still have to wait until another time. Even still, I'm sure what Nara-koen had to offer was more than enough to satisfy my mom and brother.

After grabbing some lunch, we started up into the park from the edge of Sarusawa Pond. Walking past the small halls of Nanen-do and Hokuen-do, we looked around the construction-cluttered site of Kofuku-ji and then headed towards the prefectural office. In a short while, we encountered some of Nara-koen's infamous denizens: the tame and ever-hungry "messenger" deer. A few shika-sembei (deer cracker) vendors were set up around the grassy edge of the park, each fully staked out by a pack of the four-legged mammals. A group of girls that had bought some of the sembei were being assaulted by several deer when we arrived, trying desperately to avoid losing all of their crackers to a single, overzealous maw.

Entertained by the scene, the three of us each bought some and were immediately set upon by the deer lingering about us. My mom tried to get away from the few following her, only to soon after six deer on her tail. My set of crackers hardly lasted long either though, as one deer's mouth would appear out of nowhere as soon as the last one had snagged its own bite. Steve was a bit better at it, staving them off and slowly feeding them one by one. Once we had run out of sembei, the deer mellowed out and just stood around next to us. They'd still sniff any hand that came close to them, but would relax and allow us to scratch behind their ears after they discovered we had no more food.

Having had our fill of watching the deer, we moved on towards Todai-ji, sitting at the end of a long approach from the main road. Here the tourist crowds picked up a tad, but not so much as to make things especially busy. The deer were still quite numerous in this area as well, harassing visitors that stayed stationary too long and picking through the bags of inattentive young women. Arriving at the interior Daibutsu-den of Todai-ji, we went in to have a look at the gigantic Buddha image. Steve tried to talk me into crawling through the notorious "enlightenment" hole through a pillar in the hall's rear (said to be the same size of the Buddha statue's nostril), but I decided I'd rather not go through the embarrassment. Since the only other people around daring to do so were children, I didn't really want to be the centerpiece of an awkwardly comical scene.

For the rest of the afternoon, we walked around visiting the remaining, more minor temples of the park. After a stop at Sangetsu-do and Nigatsu-do where we gazed out over a wide view of the park and city, we continued on to the famous Shinto shrine of Kasuga Taisha. Once we had taken in the atmosphere there, we moved on back towards the hotel, slowly strolling through a long path back west across Nara-koen. Having seen most of what central Nara had to offer, Steve and I went to find some beers to relax over before dinner and then took it easy at the ryokan.

Although I meant originally for us to check out the lantern festival going on at Kasuga Taisha in the evening, we wound up taking a far more laidback dinner than planned. Deciding on an izakaya near the edge of Nara-koen in downtown, the three of us got so caught up in drinks and conversation that we didn't see the need to rush off elsewhere. Sufficiently boozed up afterwards (particularly my brother and I), the three of us then stumbled upon a mochi shop giving a thorough display of their rice-pounding expertise. The resulting show kept us thoroughly entertained and I made sure to preserve it on video by way of my digital camera.

Tomorrow marks the end of the trip with my mother and brother. Apart from perhaps a bit of wandering around the old neighborhood of Nara-machi, we're pretty much finished with sightseeing. Around noon tomorrow, we return to Kyoto from where Mom and Steve will catch the bullet train back to Tokyo, and I back to Nagoya. It's been a real pleasure having them over here; hopefully somewhere down the line we'll be able to do it again.
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