Thursday, December 04, 2008

Day 12: Wednesday, December 3

(Written on Wednesday, posted on Thursday)

Sadly, we left Kyoto this morning. If we had the trip to do over again, I think we’d spend the entire time there--it’s a place that is so much better than any picture or book or postcard can convey.

We took a very crowded train from the Shunko-in temple to Kyoto Station, where we caught another train for Nara, about thirty minutes south of Kyoto. When we arrived, we hauled our luggage to the Ryokan Seikanso, not a very far walk from the train station if you don’t have luggage to weigh you down. A note about the luggage: we packed very, very well for two weeks, just one wheeled carry-on and one purse (me) and messenger bag (Andrew) each. But we could have packed better--there are things that proved inessential; and as the trip has progressed we’ve accumulated quite a few souvenirs. So our neat n’ tidy suitcase plus shoulder bag has now expanded to two wheeled suitcases, a backpack, a messenger bag, a larger shoulder bag, and my purse. (If I could only stop shopping in 100-yen stores, we’d be in much better shape.)

Anyway, we hoofed it to the ryokan, dropped our bags, and set out for Nara Koen, a large park dotted with temples and famous for its herd of over a thousand tame, roaming deer. Indeed, it didn’t take long to spot a couple of deer lounging under some pine trees.

Before we got to the park, however, a man saw us gazing confusedly at our map and offered to show us to the tourist office then walk part of the way through the park with us. He gave us a little history, went with us into a beautiful garden called Isui-en, and pointed us in the right direction for the next temple. I felt rather bad because I felt so suspicious of this person--assumed he was trying to force his way into a ‘guide’ position. I’m not sure why this was my first reaction, especially in a place like Japan, where everyone has proven to be nothing but helpful, kind, and patient (with the exception of the leek restaurant guy, of course).

In any case, we soon parted ways with the man, and Andrew and I continued on for Todai-ji, the largest wooden structure in the world--which houses an enormous bronze Buddha. Enormous is an understatement--it’s over 16 meters tall, sitting lotus-style atop a giant lotus leaf. It’s flanked by two other enormous Buddhas and today was gazing serenely over a sea of schoolchildren--a few of whom, oddly, are those who interviewed us yesterday at the Golden Pavilion. They spotted us first and began waving and bowing. We’re apparently on the same temple-visiting path.

Near the giant Buddha is a large wooden pillar stretching from floor to ceiling, with an opening near the bottom that’s said to be the size of one of the Buddha’s nostrils. Legend has it that anyone who can squeeze through this opening will achieve enlightenment. Squeezing through this hole is generally done by kids, though adults occasionally attempt it. After studying the opening for a bit, Andrew declared that he, too, would attempt to squeeze through. Determinedly, he took off his shoulder bag and scarf and jacket and strode toward the pillar. “You cannot go through there,” I repeated loudly. “Do not do this. You cannot get through.” Around him, Japanese tourists began whispering and looking at Andrew in alarm--he was about double their size. I let out a small scream and Andrew bent down and immediately wedged himself into the opening. With some wriggling (and, he admitted later, a fleeting moment of panic about halfway through when he thought “Hmm, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”), he emerged from the other side without causing an international incident. I bought myself a Hello Kitty charm--a tiny bronze Buddha with an even tinier Hello Kitty sitting on his lap (cute!!!)--and we were on our way.

There are deer everywhere in the park, and since deer biscuits are sold at small kiosks, they expect everyone to feed them and are fearless about approaching people, posing for pictures, and mingling with the crowds. I petted a few deer--a new experience even for a Southwestern Pennsylvania native--while Andrew grimaced slightly and took pictures.

Next we walked a stone lantern-lined path to the Kasuga Taisha, a temple that has a lantern-lighting festival twice a year--this would be amazing, since there are over three thousand stone lanterns, many moss-covered. Bright yellow gingko leaves drifted among the lanterns; it was all very peaceful, especially with deer nosing around the lanterns here and there.

Nearly passing out from hunger, we had lunch at a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork). We both had a lacquer box full of rice, leeks, and pork, along with miso soup and some pickled cabbage--delicious.

A 100-yen store was conveniently situated near the restaurant, so after lunch we (I) did a little shopping.

Andrew was visibly crashing from fatigue after our shopping excursion, so he bought a can of coffee and we sat near Kofuku-ji, another temple, gazing at a five-story pagoda--the second-tallest in Japan. It was at this temple that I had our temple book signed for the third time today, filling the very last page of the first side of the accordianed pages. An exciting moment.

We did a little more shopping as we made our way back to the ryokan to check in. Andrew browsed in an antique store, then we went into a grocery store that had, among many other interesting things, absolutely giant bottles of liquor--the size of fire hydrants, though a bit narrower. At another shop nearby we also watched two men making mochi--pounded rice sweets. One kneaded the dough while the other pounded it, full force, with a wooden mallet. When they were done they molded the mochi into small balls filled with beans, and coated them with a kind of powder to keep them from being too sticky; we bought one, along with the other people in the crowd that had gathered.

We eventually reached the ryokan and were shown to our room. It’s adorable--all tatami mats and sliding, paper-paneled doors, with a small sitting area that looks out over a garden. Ryokan Seikanso is a former geisha house, and it retains the eerie sense of the other lives that were lived here. We hated to leave, but we left once again to get some dinner, at an Indian restaurant. We had tandoori chicken, some curry and rice, and the largest piece of naan I’ve ever seen. Finally we could settle back at the ryokan--a little while ago we availed ourselves of the ryokan’s amazing bathtub, with scalding hot water; we walked to the communal bathroom wearing the ryokan's yukata, a kind of kimono-like cotton robe.

Now we’re relaxing and preparing to journey once again tomorrow, this time back to Tokyo--the final piece of our trip. Real life is peeking around these papered sliding doors, though we can put it off just a little longer.

Some pictures from today:

Sake cartons in a Nara grocery store

Andrew--truly in Japan!!

Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha