September 14th, 2007 – by: rsummo
Flags atop the prefecture building and a view of the city.
So today I lined up an English speaking tour guide for a tour of Nara. I came here a few nights ago, but I pretty much just walked around and gaped at shit, so I thought it would be a much better experience if I had someone around to give me some background on all the cool stuff I was gaping at. Plus, I have spent the last 2 days just sitting inside the house all day, studying Japanese and waiting for Matt to get home from work so we could do whatever, and I am getting a bit stir crazy inside his studio apartment. Getting to Nara is extremely easy, it is only 2 stops away on the JR rail, and it's a pretty good sized city with plenty of shops, places to eat, and of course things to see.
Matt helped me out by asking his lusty co-worker to call the tour company and make a reservation for me. I will start off by saying that the tour is completely excellent, and I highly highly recommend using the company if you plan to do any sightseeing in the Nara area. The tour is completely free, the only expense being the lunch that you should buy your guide. The guides are unpaid volunteers, so it is a dick move to have them incur any expenses while they are showing you around free of charge. The company I went with is Nara Student guides. (http://www.narastudentguide.org/) Their website is in English and pretty easy to use. The only reason I had to have lusty teacher call in my reservation is because I did not have a phone in Japan, and I was making the reservation pretty last minute.
The hills surrounding Nara, from the room of the prefecture municipal building.
A web reservation requires a 3 day heads up, and like a jerk-off I decided that I wanted to book a tour a day or two before, hence the need for the phone reservation. Anywho, when you make a reservation you pick the time you want to start the tour and the place you want to meet, which is usually right outside the train station. (A side note about the train station - there is a very useful information center within the station where you can get a free map of the area, if you decide you want to go it alone. The whole area is one of the most tourist-friendly areas I visited while in Japan.) My tour guide was an attractive university student from the nearby Women’s University. She spoke excellent English and was very friendly.
A view of Todaiji Temple from the roof of the prefecture building.
She was also very camera shy, so I respectfully did not take any pictures of her. The first thing we did is discuss what I wanted to see and how much time I had, which in my case was "everything" and "all day". The company is very good at being able to accommodate your itinerary, but since I didn't have one, we just took off and played it by ear. Our first stop was a place that I never would have found on my own; it was the roof of one of the local government buildings. The roof had a large outside area, and from it you could see a great part of the countryside. It was a cool place that only became accessible to me through the guide. She pointed out various things to which I almost always said "let' go there!” We hung out for a few minutes, I snapped some pictures and then we hit the road.
A view of Kofuku-ji, the second tallest temple in Japan.
We hit up some gardens, I'm a sucker for gardens, and she attempted to explain the purpose of the Japanese Tea ceremony to me, with mild success. From the garden we went directly to Daibutsu-den Hall, the largest wooden building in the world. This, in addition to the crazy deer that are constantly running around unchecked is one of the must-see things in Nara. The hall itself is a sight - large, intricate, ornate, etc., but inside the hall is a 50+ foot tall bronze Buddha statue which is absolutely amazing. It's so goddamn big that I expected it to stand up and start smashing everything until the Ghostbusters showed up to cross the streams. In the back of the hall there is a gigantic support pillar which has a hole in it. The rumor is that if you can crawl through the hole, then you can reach nirvana.
One of the many free-roaming deer in Nara Park.
I was compelled to join all the 6 year olds that were crawling through just to prove that I could one way reach a place of no wind, and sure enough I made it. I found it interesting that fat people are not allowed to reach nirvana, when most of the images of the Buddha are of a fat dude. Anyway, I'm in favor of the status quo, I think one should be a 6 year old or of a healthy weight to find inner peace. The tour continued onto Kasuga Taisha, a temple that is lined with hundreds of stone lanterns. Twice a year, all the lanterns are lit up for the creatively named "lantern festival", which I'm told is quite a spectacle. I think the placed looked cool with the lanterns unlit, so I can only imagine how cool it looks lit up. If you want to see the place in its full glory, you have to be there in early February or the middle of August.
The deer are conisdered messengers of the gods, so they have free reign of the place. For 150 yen you can feed them biscuits.
After that we hiked up a small hill to an area that held temples named for each month. I poked around the February temple, my birth month, and then we found a spot where we could catch some shade and enjoy free cold tea. It was hot as hell, and I was a sweaty mess from all the walking. We stopped to look at Kofuku-Ji, the second tallest temple in Japan, but the area is under some kind of restoration, so there isn't much to do but look at the building and then move on. We went onward to "old town", which was an area of Nara that used to be the downtown before the train station was put in. There isn't a whole lot there, but the few things we did see were worth the walk. There is a museum which is just a very traditional Japanese style home, complete with the cool tatami floors and sliding walls.
The pond inside of Yoshikien Gardens.
I ran into some other americans there, who were also on a Nara Student Guide tour. The other attraction in old town was a Sake brewery, where we went in for a sake tasting. I paid for myself and my guide, and she was quite happy because she loved her the sake. She explained that most of the people who utilized the tour service are older and not as excited about walking around, so the tours rarely make it into oldtown. I was happy that I could be more entertaining than the typical group. The name of the place was Sake Harushika. For 5 bucks you get a sampling of 5 of their offerings, and they teach you a little about how each kind is made and when it should be consumed. Of the five that I tried, I really liked 1, kinda liked another, and didn't like 3 at all.
Resting stop inside the gardens.
They were all quite different, I was surprised at how much the flavors varied. My favorite was their flagship Sake, a clear, filtered cold sake that was smooth and had an excellent taste. The one I kinda liked was a "summer" sake, which had a bit more sweetness to it. The ones I didn't like at all included an unfiltered sake, which just had a flavor that did not appeal to me, a "winter" sake which was too thick-tasting, and a carbonated champagne like sake, which had a texture that was flat out strange. I picked up a few bottles of the flagship sake to bring home and to give out as gifts. (The kind I liked is pictured below; it's the bottle on the left with the black label and red lettering. I was only able to find it in Nara) Now I was slightly tipsy and the tour was over.
Inside Yoshikien Gardens is a tea house that you can rent for the Tea Ceremony. When not in use you can explore the outside and take pictures.
I think I filled out a short "how was the tour" survey. I said goodbye to my attractive tour guide and went on my merry way. Great tour, a cool town. If only the place had some sort of nightlife, I would have likely spent a lot more time here.
Another view of the Tea Ceremony house.