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Oh Nara

Nara Travel Blog

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Nara was rife with headaches.  Mini headaches for the most part, but headaches (plural) add up fast.  Finding the guesthouse turned out to be another feat: the directions said to cross the street and walk straight, and that it was just before the end of the street.  By “end of the street” I was thinking “end of the block.”  They really did mean the END of the street.  You can see how this would lead to some confusion.  Luckily, I happened upon a nice man who set me straight after wandering up and down the same block for ten minutes, pulling out every map I had and reading and re-reading the directions, wondering how exactly I screwed up “walk straight to the end of the street.
”  

Headache number two was when the dude at the front desk took it upon himself to mark up my map to such an extent that he completely blacked out a tiny little alleyway, which while I'm sure is inconsequential 99% of the time, made the difference between sending me toward the sites versus sending me in the complete opposite direction.  Lovely.  And why couldn't I sort this out on my own you ask?  Maybe because Nara doesn't believe in printing street names on their maps.  This is one Japanese phenomenon that I'm not a fan of.  I have yet to get my hands on a map with ALL the street names listed.  (My suspicion is that the lesser streets and alleys are not deserving of being named, because usually even the locals are at a loss for what to call them.
)  Fortunately, most maps list the names of the major roads and intersections, so after some block-counting and (usually pretty short) backtracking, all is right with the world.  Nara, however, lists none.  Not one.  And I had THREE maps.  We'll just go ahead and count nameless streets as headache numero tres.

So after walking the wrong way for nearly ten minutes and knowing all the while something was wrong, as I was supposedly walking in the ONLY direction that ALL of their EIGHT World Heritage sites call home and nary a souvenir shop or fellow tourist to be seen, I said screw the useless map, I'm following my instinct.  So I backtracked a bit and made my way in the direction that I sensed was the correct way and came across a pedestrian mall.  Similar to the one in Asakusa in Tokyo, I figured even if I wasn't on the right track at least this was better than a road leading to nowhere.
  Found a grocery store which made me VERY happy (I'm a grocery store fiend) and little miss lost and famished had a severe case of big eyes and bought enough snacks to feed a pubescent boyscout troop.  I also snagged some noodles with sauteed onions and some kind of smoked fish (smoked fish is def not my fav, but I was starving and didn't know it was in the noodles til I dug in, and at that point it didn't matter) and some tea.  I inhaled the noodles and tea before you could say "chopsticks," and finally saw two other tourists and asked them to point to our location on the map.  Happily, we were only a half a block away from the entrance to Nara-koen, which was music to my ears.  (I also felt like a complete retard and tried to explain for myself but doubt I did myself justice.
)

I decided to take the guesthouse dude's suggestion and walk to the farthest corner of Nara-koen to see Kasuga Taisha first, and hit the rest of the sites on my way back.  Nara-koen was pretty neat in itself, it only has a medium incline as opposed to hiking up the side of a mountain, and so was a welcome change from the past two days.  Otherwise, it alternates between open grassy park and wooded trees, but it's definitely more "park" than "nature," if that makes any sense.  The above asserted neatness comes from the deer.  Yes, deer.  As in Bambi.  They're everywhere.  I had NO idea!  The first few I saw were just randomly grazing next to a shrine, and I snuck up as quietly as I could to take their picture.  I couldn't believe I got so close!  Here I am patting myself on the back for being one with nature.
  Yeah right.  The next deer I come to is a half a kilometer down the road or so, and startles me as he rubs his head against a fence to scratch an itch.  Again, I did the creep up and take a picture thing, except the constant scratching of the head means the photos are blurry and crap looking.  Two other German tourists noticed him too and seemed just as thrilled as I was at this unexpected delight.  Then I walk five more steps and look up and realize they're everywhere.  EVERYWHERE.  Hence, Nara-koen is pretty neat, because the entire time you're in it you're in the company of thousands of deer who couldn't care less that you're there and are so inured to your presence they don't heed you any attention.  Until you get near the sites and can buy crackers marked as "deer food.
Noodles with smoked fish and a rice ball topped with eel.
"  Then they're all over you.  Seriously.  Being a Smith I refused to spend money feeding wild animals like it was a petting zoo, but that didn't matter to them -- one deer bit down on my map and I had to fight with all my strength to wrench it back.  People were feeding and petting them left and right.  It was a riot.

So I huff it to the far end of Nara-koen to check out Kasuga Taisha, one of their many World Heritage sites, teeming with anticipation and expectation, and get there and go "this is it?"  Seriously.  It was a shrine.  Great.  Do you have any idea how many shrines I've seen in the past two weeks?  And do you realize that I trained here specifically to be wowed and got lost TWICE on my trek up here and this is just a shrine??  Could you repeat that please?  So I circle it, thinking I'm missing something.
Higashi-muki
  Then I widen my circle and walk all the way to the next shrine and back, making an enormous loop around them both.  Nope, not missing anything.  Yep, it's a shrine.  No bells and whistles.  You're looking at it.  And I'm going "I just walked nearly two miles out of my way for this??"  I mean, if I've learned anything in the past couple days it's that these World Heritage people aren't messing around.  A site gets stamped with that honor and you better believe they mean business.

So off I go to Todai-ji Daibutsu-den, opting to skip the scenic route.  I will say that this World Heritage site lives up to all it's acclaim.  Anticipation, expectation, bring it.  It'll spank whatever hopes you have for it and go "is that all? I was looking for a challenge.
"  It's really freaking cool.  And THIS, according to the guidebook and all the surrounding literature, is the world's largest wooden structure.  Absolutely no idea what that monk was getting at when he handed me a flyer the other day saying that temple in Kyoto was the largest in the world.  Neat?  Yes.  Big?  Very.  But next to this guy?  A tinker toy in comparison.  Todai-ji Daibutsu-den is so big you can only fit it all in your camera from football fields away (like four or five football fields -- it's MASSIVE), and of course at that distance you have no appreciation for just how big it is.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that that is the world's largest wooden structure.
  And it's just as awesome and wow-ing as it is big.  If there is any reason to make the trip to Nara, Todai-ji Daibutsu-den is it.

Inside sits a gigantic Buddha, flanked by two lesser (but still enormous) Buddhas.  The big Buddha was like the size of the one I visited in Kamakura (and I'm going to have to check the guidebook to be certain, but I believe this is the bigger of the two), whose own temple burned to the ground.  At the time I couldn't fathom a structure large enough to house that thing.  Now I can.  We're talking BIG.  Texas has nothing on this place.

From there I walked through Nara-koen a bit more, but it started to sprinkle and I didn't feel like finding another "meh" shrine as compensation for getting soaked.
Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do
  So I called it a day and walked back to the guesthouse.  Enter headache number four.

On my walk back I realized that I had circled the entire park, and that aside from revisiting the top five sites, I had seen it all.  And everyone's amazed "you're really going to stay in Nara rather than make it a day trip?  TWO nights??  What on earth are you going to do in Nara for two nights?" started to sink in.  It had always been yeah I'm gonna stay in Nara for two nights, so what of it.  I happen to like slower paced places and nice green scenery and I don't care if there's no nightlife.  Because to me, when someone says there's nothing to do somewhere, I automatically default to think nightlife because these people are my age and always after the best bars and clubs.
Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do
  But now, walking back, I realized I had found myself in another Matsumoto, with a few cool sites all right next to each other and literally nothing to do after you've accomplished that.  Nara is no Nikko.  So I figured I'd knock a night off my reservation and leave in the morning.  Then, as I'm being sprinkled on, I remember that we're about to be whacked by a typhoon, and do I really want to be on the road dragging my bags through a typhoon?

Long story short, I get to the guesthouse, break the news in an offhand and no big deal way (I mean, the place was empty and I hadn't been allowed to sign in or even see a room earlier, so who cares), a very long and increasingly heated conversation ensues, during which the two women call for backup and have a dude stand in the doorway, as if I was going to try to run out on them (which I found insulting and all the more infuriating).
Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do
  They made me fork over the full amount for the two nights I was supposed to stay, refused to meet me halfway or consider any sort of compromise, it was awful.  "We don't need your compromise."  I kept trying to say yes, you do.  We compromise, we're both happy.  We don't compromise, neither of us will be happy.  But of course language barriers and the such, she couldn't see what I was delicately trying to get at.  So she whips out an electronic translator and I finally convey that if they make me fork over this kind of money that the mutual unhappiness I am referring to will be from us both being poorer: me quite literally in that moment, and them after I get through writing the ugliest and most scathing review I can muster, posted on every single travel site known to man.
Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do
  Looks like I'll be writing that review.

I did, however, keep an eye on the clock all through the horrible 45 minutes or so spent arguing over cancellation policies and honorable business practices, and bolted down the street as fast as my legs would carry me and onto the train to Kyoto just in time.  From there I trained to Osaka, where I ventured it'd be ok to check-in two days early since the website advertised vacancy.  The sprinkles followed me to Osaka and turned heavier and heavier, finally coming down in an all-out rain just as I was making it to the guesthouse.  An extremely helpful waitstaff helped point me in the right direction and a wonderful busboy accompanied me the last two blocks (they were unmarked, I was doing the lost and wandering in circles in the rain thing again), and insisted I keep the umbrella they gave me.
Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do
  It's now an utter deluge outside.  But with all these extra nights and my happiness at being restored to a nice area in a big city, I'm thinking I'll probably stay here a bit longer and check out nearby excursions and day trips that I otherwise would have missed.  I'll be sure to return their umbrella in a few days when the typhoon finally passes.

And, as if jamming to Fleetwood Mac on the train wasn't enough (Stevie Nicks really has a way, doesn't she?) to soothe and mellow me, my host cooked me a fresh pot of homemade soup after I arrived.  It was loaded with bok choy and daikon and green onions, and was out of this world.  Then I was pampered further still with fresh sliced Asian pear.  Mmmmm, we know I adore Asian pear.  And all this after he insisted on bicycling to the train station (through the rain!) to fetch me a better local map.
Kofuku-ji Pagoda
  Good grief!

One last note about bullet trains: Tonight I got to ride a nozomi for the second time.  The rail pass isn't supposed to allow access to the nozomi trains, but I've somehow managed two separate rides on them (not really sure how that worked out).  For you shinkansen virgins, the nozomi is the fastest of the fast.  It is THE bullet train.  If you look at a map, the distance between Kyoto and Nara is smaller than that between Kyoto and Osaka.  In all fairness, only a local train runs between Kyoto and Nara.  And as I've said before, these local trains aren't exactly slugs either.  To give you an inkling of the speed we're talking, it took me an hour to train from Nara to Kyoto tonight.  It took me seventeen minutes to train from Kyoto to Osaka.
Kofuku-ji Nanen-do
  These puppies are FAST.
domnicella says:
Good one! I hadn't thought of that.
Posted on: Oct 06, 2009
Dr_Seuss says:
Can just see you wandering round singing U2's 'Where The Streets Have No Name' :-D
Posted on: Oct 06, 2009
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Noodles with smoked fish and a ric…
Noodles with smoked fish and a ri…
Higashi-muki
Higashi-muki
Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do
Kofuku-ji Hokuen-do
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I imagine this says don't molest …
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Woman feeding the deer
Woman feeding the deer
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Hanging out by the souvenir shop
Hanging out by the souvenir shop
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Eating my map. He put up a hell of…
Eating my map. He put up a hell o…
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Tamukeyama-hachimangu
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Nara Hostels review
Horrible Experience -- Will Recommend to No One
I had a horrible experience with Nara Ugaya Guest House and would wish this place on no one. For starters, they are not nearly as close to the train … read entire review
Nara
photo by: yasuyo