On our second day in Japan, we visited Nara, the capital of Japan before Kyoto. We chose Nara based on a suggestion from a Japanese colleague (thanks, SK!), its proximity to Osaka (only 40 minutes by train), and its walkability, but really we had no idea what to expect.
So, armed with maps from an information kiosk in the train station, we set out on our way. The first stop was Kofuku-ji Temple, which seemed to be a campus of temples, including a 5-story pagoda, and several other buildings, all similar in style, and all beautiful. The pagoda (shown below) really is a fascinating structure to me, and one of our tour guides in Kyoto mentioned that no pagoda that she knew of had been damaged by earthquake or anything other than fire, in Japanese history. They are remarkably stable structures.
But the notable thing here was that this was the first time we had been approached by a stranger and asked if we wanted help. While normally we would shrink away, assuming he wanted money in return, our instincts about Japan told us this wasn’t the case. So we accepted this gentleman’s offer, and he proved to be a wonderful tour guide. He took us into the Eastern Hall, a temple filled with a large statue of Buddha and some of his attendants. He proudly explained to us what all the statues represented and patiently answered our questions. Though relatively similar in appearance, some of the statues were made of coated wood (as in Kyoto), and some of actual bronze, further assuring that I could never really know what I was looking at (material wise). So I gave up trying and just focused on the message. Buddha.
As we got to know each other, our stranger explained that he was a goodwill guide, retired and volunteering his time to show people his home city (no money accepted). I honestly think he would have given us a personal tour of the city, if we had let him. But since Jeff and I were day-toured out from Kyoto, we parted ways with this kind gentleman, and off we went. But we were again impressed by not only how helpful everyone has been to us, but also the sincerity with which the help is given, as if their sole purpose is to help us have the best time we can in their country. Remarkable!!
Ok, back to Nara. Nara is quite unique in that it has a large deer park in the center of town, where wild deer roam free. As our gentleman friend had explained to us, the deer were a divine symbol to ancient Narans, and as such, they were not to be killed then and are still protected now. So during 75% of our walking tour of Nara, we were surrounded by divine deer. [And occasionally, of course, the gods tussled.]
We loved being surrounded by nature, so when we stumbled onto a pedestrian entrance into the deer park, Jeff suggested we take it. Hands down, this was our best uninformed decision of the day. As we walked down the broad, tree-lined path, in the drizzly fog, surrounded by divine deer, it had a bit of an ethereal quality about it. So we walked, chatted, and just enjoyed. And as we went along, we started noticing 6 ft tall, moss-covered stone pillars at uneven intervals, with openings towards the top…some covered with paper, others not. It took me awhile to realize what they were…life-sized Japanese lanterns.
This is when the walk turned magical for me. The longer we walked, the more lanterns we saw. I was mesmerized. One of the glorious things about coming to Japan at this time of year is that it is uncrowded…given that it is winter, and a Japanese 3-day holiday, it felt like we had it all to ourselves. This was awesome for Jeff and I, since we hate crowds. But what it also meant was that we had to visualize what all of these lanterns would look like, lit up, as this only occurs during festivals in February and April. So I closed my eyes and visualized. Several times, actually. It was stunning.
I could go on and on about these lanterns, but will spare you. We finally reached the shrine associated with the lanterns (Kasuga Grand Shrine, right) and of course, it was beautiful. Nestled amid the lanterns (over 3000, we later learned), this area was gorgeous. We savored this time, took many pictures and finally made our way out…via a different route than we came in. That’s when we ran into the tour buses in a big parking lot, the souvenir-esque stands (they are a bit less tacky in Japan), and realized happily that we had entered the shrine’s grounds from the less-taken route. And our experience was all the richer for it.
Ok, so after the magic, it was off to feed our rumbling tummies at a restaurant near the tourist strip. Unfortunately, it was hard for us to eat at authentic Japanese restaurants, since that meant no English menus and no English speaking servers. So we had to settle for a restaurant with an English menu, which was trying to act like an authentic restaurant for the tourists who wanted that experience. It is what it is. And the food was quite good. I love a country that allows me to eat noodles at every meal!
After lunch, we walked to our final stop for the day…the Todai-ji temple. This temple contained the largest statue of Buddha that we have seen on the trip so far. Impressive! As Jeff pointed out, they must have had to build the temple around the statue, since it was so large. I’ll need to read up on that.
With the sightseeing done, we began our trek back to the train station, stopping only for green tea ice cream (yum) and to puzzle over the sight of divine deer being hand fed crackers by tourists. Much like the pigeons in St. Mark’s square in Venice, people pay to buy crackers and the deer flock to eat them. It was a bizarre sight, I must say. [Especially since Jeff and I have spent so much effort at home trying to get deer NOT to eat our stuff!]
So therein lies our tale of the unexpected magic of Nara. This is exactly what I love about traveling. On any given day, the ordinary can be transformed into extraordinary. Ah, bliss…