Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara

Such is the proximity of Nara to Kyoto by train (44 minutes over a distance of approx. 40km) that I was able to leave late morning, my notebook has an entry at 1125, I’m not sure if that was written on the train or just before.

The rest of the page reads as follows:

“I am hitting all the tourist hits since I am just as much the tourist. I am treading the well worn path and following directions and the path of others, I do not know if this makes me very conventional or just a diligent tourist.”

There are reasons that these places are tourist hits and while I might not be blazing new trails, it is still a new trail for me.

Once I arrived in Nara, the first thing to do was to get in the tourist office for a couple of maps and to ask a few questions about buses and the like. Although I wanted to have lunch first and despite the heat had a little wander across the way to a shopping street. Even though I’d had fish for dinner, I still felt like eating more fish and following the bright posters on the sandwich board outside one building headed up some stairs to a seafood restaurant.

Like most cities there are also restaurants in Japan which I’d guess you’d call theme restaurants probably part of a chain and this one had all sorts of paraphernalia you’d associate with fishing and the sea. It was also still one of the restaurants in Japan where you can smoke as I noted from the smell emanating from two tables away. I used to smoke but stopped more than 13 years ago now and have really come to dislike it.

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My choices out of the menu, great looking pictures but what about the reality?

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I’d say that’s pretty close to accurate in comparison with the menu, the donburi was 952 Yen which is £5.28, yes you read that correctly.

Fortified by my lunch I made my way to the bus stop to head for the main attraction of Nara which is the Tōdai-ji (eastern Great Temple) which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) and is a National Treasure.

As you walk towards the park that surrounds the temple grounds first thing you see are the Sika Deer, I’m not sure what the percentage of tourists that come for the deer or the temple complex is but nevertheless it is quite a sight to see both tourist and deep wandering freely around the complex. The deer were considered to be divine and sacred due to a visit from one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred/divine status and were instead designated as national treasures.

It is possible to feed the deer and deer crackers (Shika Senbei) can be purchased from vendors around the park.

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It seems I wasn’t the only one to be feeling the heat that day!

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The deer are generally pretty docile until you give them the possibility of something to eat then they become not exactly aggressive but they will butt you and nip at you. It is quite a sight to see how different people react to being swarmed by deer. There are quite often shrieks from teenagers and people in their twenties for whom this might be the closest they get to wild animals ever. Some people would throw the crackers away from them as soon the deer approached.

There are also some deer that will bow for their food or just bow if you bow to them.

I did feed the deer and I thought I’d found a quiet spot with only three deer, the next thing you know I was surrounded 360º by deer and getting prodded, butted and nipped at. Somewhere out there there is photographic proof of my deer feeding in Australia or Taiwan since that seemed to where the tourists taking pictures of me were from. There was no shrieking or throwing of crackers from me since I figured the deer wouldn’t actually eat me!

In my quest to take pictures different from everybody else I now realize that I missed out on telling the whole story in some respects. A wide shot showing the grounds and just how many deer are around would have good to have. I actually realized this sitting on the bus back to the station and was tempted to go back but didn’t maybe next time if there is a next time. Despite the large number of people visiting, it never really felt crowded as there is plenty to see in the ample park land.

Leading up to to the Daibutsu-den, one of the first structures is the Nandaimon Gate (Great South Gate) built in the 12th Century, which houses two temple guardian statues carved from wood that stand at 28 feet tall.

IMG_1680Nandaimon Gate.

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The Nio, the muscular guardians of the Buddha are according to Wikipedia a pair known as Ungyo who has a closed mouth and Angyo who is shown with an open mouthed expression. The pair were carved by Unkei and Kaikei and their workshop members. They are an impressive and imposing sight, arresting in their features as well as the technical achievement in carving them.

Once through the gate, the path leads towards the Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) which was once the largest wooden structure in the world.

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Its difficult to convey how big the building is but the people dotted around in the pictures should do something to illustrate this.

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The Buddha is 14.98 m (49.1 ft) in height and 28 m across and weighs in at 500 tonnes.

That is one big Buddha!

Also within the structure are other exhibits which show the skill involved in carving the wooden sculptures.

 

I’m not even sure which way I wandered off but for a while I enjoyed the shaded wooded areas of the park as headed towards the hillside.

It is only now after looking properly at a map that it seems I did meander a fair bit.

Breaking cover from the trees I found myself at the bottom of some stairs which led up to another hall called Nigatsu-do. I do remember mentally asking myself if I really wanted to try to walk up the east entrance stairs in the heat.

Details on the steps.

At the top the view was like this:

Nigatsu-do (The Hall of the Second Month) itself is  decorated with lanterns hanging outside.

From there I wandered off in the general direction of south east, with no real fixed itinerary for my day which is either great or mindless depending on your perspective, I found myself by a set of shops selling calligraphy items to souvenir food. By souvenir food, I mean carefully packaged boxes of local specialties which can range from rice crackers to sweets, think fudge from Cornwall but packaged much better. I did pop into the calligraphy shop if anything just to cool down from their air conditioner.

I’m not one for selfies and have largely kept pictures of myself away from here so far but I did take one by the closed shutter of the shop with somebody else resting.

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Oh deer, obligatory selfie with Nara resident with interesting head gear.

Even now looking at the map all these months later, I’m not even sure how I managed to go around the park in a seemingly strange route!

I took the path towards the Kasuga Taisha Shrine but with the  5 p.m closing time upon me was not able to think about going inside, still I caught a glimpse of some of the vermillion coloured buildings.

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The paths leading to the shrine are lined with approximately 2000 stone lanterns of various shapes and sizes.

As well as the occasional lion:

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 Tiring now, I found a bus stop that had hardly anybody waiting for a bus and checked and rechecked that I was at the right stop to get back to the station. Actually, it was a different bus than the one that I took to get there but it nevertheless got me to the station. For the most part I discovered that most buses will hit the city station at some point in most cities in Japan.

For those of you who might be wondering but I don’t speak or read Japanese, there is English signage in the places that you need it.

I present the side of the train carriage:

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You now also know how Kyoto is written in Japanese!

Later that evening in Kyoto, I met up with my mother who was in town on business and ate at the station that evening. Eating at the station is not the grim affair that you might imagine, in Japan, stations especially the larger ones are joined to department stores or have areas dedicated to restaurants. I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned that so apologize now if  I’ve started to repeat myself.

What did you eat? I hear you ask.

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It looks like I had a slightly strange combination but as I’ve mentioned before sometimes that’s what great about eating out is that you can a bit of everything. So on the left is Oshizushihako, pressed sushi which is as it sounds. First the rice is put in a box then the topping and the top part literally presses down. Above that is tempura and zaru soba.

Continue reading “Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara”

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Friday 10th July, Kyoto

I have been to Kyoto before and despite the seemingly small nature of it there is a surprising amount of things to see with many on must see/do lists for the visitor to Japan. There are still many attractions there that I always say to myself that I will go and see each time I visit but somehow don’t manage to.

Due to downloading all my pictures in one batch on the same day from the memory card, I discover pictures that I don’t recall taking or couldn’t find previously. So here’s a picture that I wanted to accompany the previous post of my rather cramped room with too much furniture.

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Nice and clean with new furniture just pretty tight on space!

As mentioned previously, my research into when to go and so on and so forth was somewhat erratic due to a sudden burst of work before leaving and being overwhelmed by the amount of information that my little brain was trying to process in terms of where to go in Japan. I had heard of the Gion Matsuri in passing from friends who lived there who more often than not would complain about there being too many people. I knew there were floats and traditional costumes but not much more, I was about to get a first hand look up close.

The webpage at Kyoto Visitor’s Guide does a great job of succinctly explaining the background of the festival and then outlining the activities that lead up to the final parade.

Outside on the street, the construction of the floats was already well under progress, no nails are used.

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The rain that I’d been experiencing the last few days had made way now to temperatures that were rapidly rising with a high of 34° predicted, the temperature is one thing then the humidity is often in the 90% region. It was bright and sunny at least I’d had the foresight to buy my hat the evening before!

One of the places that I had meant to see on previous visits to Kyoto was Kiyomizu-dera, which is an independent Buddhist temple in East Kyoto. The temple is the temple of the Goddess of Mercy, although in all honesty I am only learning this as I research things to write here. It was also registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.

When you first arrive at the site after making your way up the hill through a street lined with shops and restaurants offering food and souvenirs.

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At the top you reach the Deva (Gate) and Three Storied Pagoda and the bell that then lead into the temple complex.

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As you make your way round passing the different buildings, you do start to appreciate with some awe and wonder at the work that was undertaken to construct and then to maintain the buildings.

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At almost every large temple in Japan you will find a place where they sell Ema Votive plaques where people write their wishes and hang them up. Typically they might be for the zodiac animal of that year, the zodiac in Japan uses the Chinese animal types. Sometimes the designs might be something that the particular temple or shrine is known for, a good example is foxes at Fushimi Inari. The money for the plaques is used by the temple for upkeep and so on, you don’t have to write your wish and leave it there sometimes people buy then and keep them as a souvenir.

I took the picture from this angle because I found it somewhat amusing that the street artists had been diligent tourists as well and made the effort of visit the temple but still felt the need to slap their stickers. Before you start tutting though, there is actually a Japanese precedent for sticking things on buildings, called Senjafuda. Originally left by shrine worshipers, they became frowned upon by temples as less people would follow tradition and not pray nor buy a stamp from the shrine before applying their senjafuda. I’m sure there must be an article somewhere linking street art slapping/sticker art and sejafuda somewhere.

However, I digress, the main hall of the temple has a large veranda supported by pillars that gives an impressive view of the city and makes for the hall itself being an iconic image in its own right.

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I had a good wander around the site and must admit the heat was starting to get to me as well as the number of tourists, dotted around the temple are numerous smallish refreshment cafes although I use the word cafe with uncertainty since they don’t look anything like their European counterparts. In need of cooling down and some sort of refreshment, I chose a Japanese summer staple called  Kakigōri which is shaved ice flavoured with syrup.

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My lemon flavoured Kakigōri.

And yes, I did manage to eat all of it!

I still hadn’t had lunch…already feeling the heat and starting to hire I headed out and down the hill, I’d passed a promising looking restaurant earlier and had decided I’d go there. However, it seemed to have disappeared and I was starting to consider other options, sometimes the smaller streets in Japan have this way of looking the same adding to the confusion of not always being able to read the street signs. I also got sufficiently distracted and taken off course by some of the shops along the way.

It was 1337h by the time I found the restaurant, the reason that the time is so ptrecisely noted is that it says as much in my notebook. The restaurant’s name was Yoshimura Kiyomizuan, (the website is in Japanese).

There are also Tripadvisor reviews of the restaurant, I had picked it probably because I felt like eating soba and that the menu appealed to me.

I chose their Higashiyama Zen set which consisted of Zaru Soba, Sansai Soba, Mini Tempura and pickles.

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Zaru soba is buckwheat noodles served cold and dipped in sauce and eaten by slurping, one of my favourite summer foods.

The Sansai Soba, bottom left in the picture was served in hot soup and again used the same soba noodles except this time topped with mountain vegetables.

Above that is the small bowl of Tempura on rice, a larger portion can be a meal in itself and is called Tendon  which comes from combining the words Tempura and Donburi (bowl), it has nothing to do with the English meaning of the word!

I really enjoy the lunch sets in Japan since it allows the glutton in me and the indecisive part of me to try several of the foods that take my fancy on a menu at the same time.

I was particularly impressed with the Sansai Soba at the time from my three dishes.

I made my way down the hill after lunch, the walk down was easier and perhaps with some renewed vigour from eating

, I made my way to the bus stop.  The fact that I ended up walking from the bus stop to the top part of the main shopping street probably came about from just a natural curiosity of what was around me. As much as I might complain and moan about the temperature, there is still part of me that will wander off with eyes wide open.

I got as far as the street that turns into Gion, called Hanamikoji, I started to head down it but my energy level had waned again and I decided not to explore that time. However, that is not to say that you shouldn’t go and see for yourself in fact I would recommend that you do go. It has many preserved traditional buildings as well as being one of the most well known and exclusive geisha districts in Japan.

Which is where I spotted this Maiko, (the make up and the hairstyle is the give away) apprentice geisha or geiko,  she slid out so quickly that I’m not even sure which building she came out of. I got my picture before the other tourists suddenly cottoned on then it was a kind of mayhem with tourists behaving like paparrazo, chasing her down the street and taking her picture. I wonder if secretly they love the attention or just find it incredibly cringe worthy. She had to stop at the crossing for the lights to change and then she was off again, bear in mind that she’s wearing kimono and sandals so a full on run is out of the question but I have never seen anybody move so fast in that footwear.

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It’s not common to see them but it is possible and so there is an palpable sense of excitement when one does appear either on the street on sometimes at the station.

I think I must have wandered back towards to my hotel stopping in various shops along the way as a way to cool down in the air conditioned spaces as well as just to see the strange and wonderful things you can or could buy.

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