Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 8 in Nara (from Kyoto)

**New photos will be posted to our Picasa site in the morning, a Kyoto/Nara sights album as well as the food album, with (almost) everything we ate on the whole trip. A little intriguing, no? That's a lot of food!**

Though you could easily spend 3 days (weeks, years) in Kyoto, we decided that we wanted to make the trip out to Nara on our 3rd day in Kyoto. The biggest attraction there (literally) is the Daibutsu (big buddha) housed in the Todai-ji temple, but there are also other temples and gardens around (plus, lots of deer, if you like that sort of thing!)

Figuring we could make a half-day trip out of it, we took the train to Nara station and headed straight into Nara-goen, to the Kofuku-ji temple complex (some of the buildings date from 669 AD). There we saw a beautiful, tall pagoda and paid a few hundred yen to see a pretty large collection of buddhist statues in the Tokon-do hall.

5-storey pagoda at Kofuku-ji

Walking through the garden, we saw lots of deer wandering around and, more annoyingly, lots of deer crackers for sale. I had the same feeling as when I was in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, watching the other tourists feeding pigeons. Ew. Don't people worry about rabies, or fleas, or other gross things that wild animals carry?

Fine. Here you go. Deer in Nara-goen.

We made our way to Todai-ji, where a bunch of other gaijin (foreigners) were milling about and taking photos. On the approach to the big buddha is, you go through the Great Southern Gate and immediately catch sight of the big wooden building (Daibutsu-den), the largest wooden structure in the world. In and of itself, pretty impressive. Throughout our trip, we kept marvelling at how difficult it must have been to build these massive structures without modern technology. Of course, having thousands of forced labourers... probably helps.

The Great Southern Gate, with Daibutsu-den beyond.

Big buddha lives here!

Inside the cool hall, the daibutsu is really a sight to see. Apparently, when it's time to dust him off, you might see 4 or 5 monks standing in his upturned palm. He has been through plenty of fire and earthquake damage and rebuilding, which makes him all the more impressive. It's worth making the circle around the the Daibutsu-den to see the other statues and things around, including a small hole in one pillar that little kids try to squeeze through. Apparently this reserves them a place in eternal paradise. No, we didn't try it. Our North American-sized bodies just wouldn't allow it.

Daibutsu, the big buddha. This picture doesn't really show the scale...

This side view is a bit better, compare the size of the man's
head at the bottom to the buddha's head!

Leaving the giant buddha behind, we went uphill to Nigatsu-do, a sub-temple with pretty good views of Nara. From there we walked south to Kasuga Taisha, Nara's holiest shrine laden with lanterns made of stone and bronze. Must be beautiful when they're all lit up!

Lovely patina on bronze lanterns hanging in Kasuga Taisha shrine.

Coming back downhill from the shrine, we stopped at the Shin-en garden, known for its wisteria blooms. Though it was a bit early in the season, there were a lot of the beautiful hanging tendrils in the well-kept garden.

Wisteria blossoms in Kasuga Taisha's Shin-En garden.
No desperate housewives to speak of.

Hoping to still do a few things in Kyoto, we ate lunch and got on the next train back. When we arrived, we decided it was time to check out the train station. Most stations are pretty utilitarian, but stunning Kyoto station is known for being pretty controversial. Sleek, modern and dark, the locals were not pleased when it was first built in the 90s because it contrasted so much with its more traditional surroundings. But people have come to appreciate its angles and open-air design, you don't really realize that it's not an enclosed space until you're standing in it. I was excited to check out the Astro-boy statues, garden terrace views, and especially the 10th floor, which was seductively named the "Ramen restaurants floor." (We were a bit disappointed that it was not, in fact, a whole floor devoted to ramen and only ramen - what the heck is an ice cream stand doing there?! Nevertheless, there were about 7 stalls selling ramen... guess that's ok). Not actually hungry, we just had a snack of takoyaki (with cheese... silly Brian was pleasantly surprised at the tastiness of it, but I knew it would be good all along).

The surprisingly airy interior of Kyoto station

Astro boy!

Our next stop was Nishiki (the market this time, not the restaurant!) an arcade of food stalls. Mostly pickles (a local specialty), fish and candies. Some were shutting down for the evening, but it was still pretty cool.

Pretty little candies

Big barrels of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) in rice bran

Nishiki leads to a regular shopping arcade, which we spun through and then exited to head over to Pontocho Alley. This is one of the two areas in Kyoto famous for geishas and red lanterns. There were lots of people sliding down the narrow alley, and every few feet to the right or left was a mysterious walkway that just begged to be explored. We stood at a restaurant window watching a chef spend ages rolling out noodle dough, but got impatient and never actually saw him cut the noodles.

Pontocho alley, maybe better back before it went all neon-y

We spent too long watching this guy roll and re-roll out the noodle dough.

For dinner, we stumbled upon a sushi restaurant that promised sushi for Y100 (about $1US) each, which sounded pretty darn good. Of course there was a bit of a catch, a Y350 surcharge (which got you a seat and an appetizer, and, to their credit, was pointed out to us for our approval on our way into the restaurant), as well as a minimum of 2 pieces per order. Not too shabby (scallops in Japan are delicious!).

After dinner we crossed the Kamo-gawa river to the Gion district, the other geisha area. I think we only saw a few geisha that night, though we saw many over the course of the trip. The buildings in Gion are of interest because they are old and wooden, but otherwise it was pretty quiet.

Gion district

Red paper lanterns all over Gion

Back in the direction of our hotel, we walked through the shopping arcades and streets in search of some shaved ice for dessert (something we had been talking about all day in the hot sun), but came up emptyhanded. Other snacks took its place, and soon our sore feet dragged us back to the hotel. In the morning, we would be on the move again, this time to Hiroshima!

Here's a fuzzy self-portrait of us in the pajamas provided by
the hotel (all the hotels we stayed at had either nightgowns like
these or a top-and-pants set for our use)


riceandwheat said...

michelle, did u do something to your hair?? (in the last...half year...since i've seen you... ok maybe that's a dumb question now). anyway you look hawt!!

Miche said...

Aw shucks, Angi! No, nothing new, just a temporary 'do thanks to the wonders of putting my hair in a messy ponytail right out of the shower and leaving it in all day!

Amy said...

i agree, love the hair! and having pj's provided was pretty cool, wasn't it.