Finally! A second to sit down and write a few words about this beautiful, amazing country we’re in – mainly because I can barely move my legs from all the walking and climbing we’ve been doing.
I feel that I absolutely must take this opportunity to reflect on the “endeering” city of Nara. It is after all, the city of deer, but it is also so charming.
If going to Nara (which if you travel to the Kansai area of Japan, you must!), one important and valuable opportunity to take advantage of, is the free tour guides offered through the Nara Guide Club (http://web1.kcn.jp/nara-guide-club/T1_6E.html). These wonderful people are local, English-speaking certified guides who have full time jobs, but volunteer their free time to act as guides to tourists out of sheer love of their city and sense of duty to hospitality and knowledge. Our guide, Kinuyo, was a high school English teacher, so of course her English was perfect. She was so lovely and so knowledgeable about her city. By the time we left her after a full day of touring, we were sad to leave her, and hope she will come to New York so we can return the favor (although we could never match the proficiency she demonstrated of her home town with the knowledge we have of ours!). I would not be surprised if our experience with Kinuyo becomes one of our best in Japan.
So….in Nara, we saw a lot! Would you believe it if I told you we saw the largest wooden structure in the world? It’s true! Todai-ji Temple is, in fact, the largest wooden structure in the world. And believe it or not, over the years, it has been reduced in size twice, so it is now just two-thirds its original size. I was truly awestruck by its massive size, its majestic beauty…and then I went inside.
You just cannot imagine the overwhelming sense of peace and well-being that envelops you as you enter Todai-ji. The 15 meter tall bronze Buddha at the entrance, you might think would be overbearing, but instead, he is welcoming, his one hand raised saying ‘do not be afraid’, while his other hand is palm up, offering to grant your needs and wishes. He is flanked by two other large wooden figures covered in gold leaf on their way to enlightenment.
Now, at Todaiji Temple, there is a pillar with a hole cut out at the bottom. It is believed that if you squeeze yourself through this hole, you will come out the other side wiser. We watched a group of parents shuffling their children through this cut-out and at my guide’s urging, I rather unwisely, decided to give it a shot. Quite a crowd developed and I was anxious to say the least, but I went for it…and got stuck. So I pulled myself back out only to have a grinning Japanese man say “Go! Go!” He was even urging me on with hand gestures. Who was I to let him down? It would be rude not to give it a good try, right? So I put both hands above my head this time and started wriggling my way through, coming out the other side to a round of applause and cheers! It was definitely exciting, but do I feel wiser?…only time will tell.
We initially met our guide at Kasuga Shrine. This is a Shinto Shrine where thousands of stone lanterns have been donated by families to honor the deities. They line the long walk up to the shrine, covered in beautiful green moss, two or three rows back on both sides. They are only lit twice a year, but ages ago when resources were more readily available, they were lit every night. It must have been quite a sight.
There are also many (hundreds? thousands?) of donated hanging bronze lanterns at the temple which are ornate and beautiful. And something that blew me away – a wisteria purported to be 800 years old. Apparently when in bloom, the blooms are so long, they reach the ground (from the 7 foot arbor)!
Kasuga Shrine is where one lady took a shine to me. We were leaving the shrine, at the top of the steps, and this Asian woman approached me and told me to shut up. She kept pointing at my camera and pulling my coat sleeve trying to get me away from my husband and guide. My guide however could not communicate with her and when she swatted at my husband, he swiftly removed us all, and away we went. Our poor guide was mortified and made sure that we knew the woman was NOT Japanese. A Japanese person would never be so rude. So we carried on and 5 minutes later she was back, following us. So we lost her, and five minutes later….she was back! It’s times like these I’m glad I travel with the Incredible Hulk! My point is, wherever you are traveling, even if it’s the most polite and hospitable country in the world, be on your guard. You never know what or who you might run into. Our main concern initially, was that we had done something to offend the woman (there are a lot of guidelines to follow in Japan), and we certainly did not want to cross over any lines. But no worries – she was just, well….a character.
You’re probably wondering at this point about the deer. Nara Park, which is where the above mentioned places are located, contains over 1000 Sika deer. These deer are small, furry deer with little white bums. They do grow horns, which are removed, and they are very comfortable with people. One even ventured into Gregg’s coat pocket to see if he was hiding anything good! But don’t try to hug them! We saw one poor boy get a swift head-butt for that. They are everywhere amongst the forest on the way to Kasuga Shrine, all around Todaiji Temple – they’re everywhere.
There is so much more to say about Nara, but I’m afraid Gregg is ready to get back out there. I will have to write later about Isui-En Garden (beautiful even in winter), Kofuku-ji Temple, the sake, and the shopping, oh gosh the shopping!
Until then, may your journeys bring you happiness and enlightenment!