I was so pleased to find the next day that my body clock was finally adjusting to local time when I got up at 5:45AM instead of the usual 4:30AM. I wanted to do a victory lap around the hotel, but felt that this might be inappropriate behavior in Japan, so I heated my ramen and got ready to head out to Nara! Having done my research well, I had been informed that going to Kyoto without visiting Nara would be a big mistake. I have made enough mistakes in life, so onto Nara!
The ride to Nara from Kyoto is about an hour and a half if not less on a regular subway type train as the bullet trains don’t connect the two from what I understand.
That was not a problem, though I had to laugh at a beer can that kept rolling around the subway car through the whole trip; total shades of NYC though in Japan this was unusual as there is no litter anywhere.
When we arrived to Nara we saw that it was a bit overcast and was concerned that it might start raining. Neither of us had an umbrella though we both had hoods on our coats. Still we were hoping the weather gods would be with us and keep the rain away.
After stepping off the subway, we were relieved to see that the Nara station and Nara itself was a little calmer than Kyoto.
I like to get away from crowds when I travel as I live in NYC and deal with them daily; it gets tiring sometimes. The streets were pretty empty and though we were told the walk to the main attractions was a ways a way, it turned out to be a lot closer than we expected, though uphill.
A little history of Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, which is pretty impressive since I come from a country that is pretty much a baby on the world scene. It was also Nara’s 1300th Birthday this year and I have to say it looked pretty good for its age without the surgery. One thing to note about Nara. They have this thing for deer and they are completely protected as they are seen as a national treasure since they are a sacred gift.
I Had Two of Four Happen. Live Dangerously!
Basically, they run the joint in Nara and have since the 12th century. There are 1200 of these guys and they are always hungry. Once you hit Nara park, it won’t take you long to spot one, or rather them to spot you. If they think you have food, it is over. They will check you up and down. I got accosted by one the minute I walked onto the gravel road. There are signs everywhere warning you that they may attack you in various ways. I can attest to the biting as I got nailed on the side and stomach. It didn’t hurt as I was wearing jeans and a jacket, but I a can see how it could frighten a child or frail adult so be careful.
If driving through Nara, be wary of them as well as they are not afraid of busy streets and cars. We saw one fly straight into traffic at one point, luckily nobody got hurt, but man those guys are crazy! I can’t even imagine the insurance in this city!
I know 1200 deer is a lot, but for some reason I though that they would be harder to spot.
Not the case. They are everywhere! Laying in the park, walking in the streets chasing people. Everywhere! I dig animals, so I was in heaven! You are allowed to feed the deer by buying crackers from some of the locals for 150 yen. Once you buy them, you better hide them, because you can’t escape them much like the Thriller. The funniest part is that many of them will bow their heads to you to get more. I am not kidding, they freakin’ bow! These guys were nuts! I took one cracker and began to feed one and within 10 seconds five more appeared. I hid the rest and moved on as I wanted to make them last so others could enjoy.
We headed up a long graveled path surrounded by old lanterns on every side. Between the lanterns on the lawn the deer’s eyed my bag suspiciously. I played innocent so as not to get mobbed. The walk was peaceful and beautiful and the sun even made a surprise visit which made us happy. At the end of the path we came up to the walkway leading up to the Kasuga Grand Shrine. Many of the buildings and toriis were painted in bright oranges and greens. When we arrived there were very few people around which is always a plus. There are so many amazing photo opportunities here due to the beautiful architecture, the now shining sun and the fully bloomed cherry blossoms.
Kasuga Grand Shrine
One of the best parts was when an older gentlemen tried to show me where to take the best photos with my camera. I couldn’t speak Japanese he couldn’t speak English, but he still managed to hook me up. I bowed in appreciation as he smiled and moved on.
While at Kasuga Grand Shrine, I ended up buying a hand carved and painted deer with a fortune in its mouth written in English. I have to say I was pretty happy with my fortune because in the end, everything comes out for me; well except for my crops, I’m screwed there, but since I live in NYC for now, I was pretty relieved. I am not planning on moving to the Midwest anytime soon, though I am sure it is lovely.
After Kasuga Grand Shrine, we headed back down to find deer park and TodaijiTemple as it is the largest wooden structure in the world, or so I have been told.
A Marked Man!
Along the way, we came along more deer, and I decided to feed them as they were shyer and probably didn’t bug people as much so I felt they should be rewarded. One of the guys had a green collar around its neck which was odd. What made him a marked man? Was he a troublemaker? I have no idea, but it was odd. He seemed harmless enough. I felt bad for the guy so I fed him well before others came to swarm me.
At a little shop a deer attacked a small child buying crackers from the women. As she was turning around he grabbed the crackers and busted open the package by slamming them onto the ground. Noah yelled “hai” a few times before grabbing what was left (when in doubt use hai!). The poor child was petrified (of the deer, not Noah). The parents tried to cheer her up but she was freaked, yeah they are crazy!
In the park leading up to Todaiji, the deer were even crazier as they were grabbing maps from people’s hands and eating them like goats.
Feeding the Ever Hungry Nara, Deer
Things were getting crazy! Some of them were chewing on metal chains throughout the park, which was better than people, so I guess it was a good thing. The surrounding park by the way is quite nice, but it is very crowded with people and stalls selling souvenirs.
The gate before Todaiji is guarded by two giant wood guardians which were behind fencing so people could not disturb them. They are a little freaky but really cool. The gate itself was quite a site, too.
As far as TodaijiTemple, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I have heard it was huge, made of wood and houses one big Buddha ! Now I am a fan of Buddha and also have been known to study up on Buddhism here and there myself so I was pretty stoked. There is a small fee to enter the grounds, 300 Yen I think, and this area is deer free if you need a break.
The area leading up to Todaiji is well taken care of and scenic especially since the cherry blossoms were in full bloom here, as well.
Me and Todaiji
Really, they add to everything! I have to admit, Todaiji is rather impressive especially when you realize that it is all made out of wood and wood alone. But then, after you cleanse yourself with incense before entering, you realize that you are in the presence of something even bigger! The biggest Buddha I have ever laid my eyes on. Mind you, I have not run into many Buddhas in my lifetime, but a few here and there and they paled in comparison. Made of gold and copper, the Nara Buddha weighs 500 tons, so no one has to worry about thefts. If you look at the head, you will notice that it is slightly a different color than the rest of the body. The reason is the Nara Buddha has been through a few catastrophes including an earthquake and fire so the body is not the original. Still it is quite impressive if not a little intimidating. Surrounding Buddha are two huge guardians which are pretty impressive in their own right.
Towards the back of Todaiji there is a large tree with a square cut out of the bottom which people kept trying got pass through. Apparently, if you can get through it, you will find true enlightenment in life.
Todaiji - Largest Wooden Structure in the World
Most of the people who could fit through were children or small adults, which would include me. Noah encouraged me to do it, but the line was really long and I was good on the whole enlightenment thing. Remember, I walked the whole Philosopher’s Path the day before. Check!
Before leaving Todaiji be sure to visit Binzuru Sonja the Japanese god of curing and good vision; one of the original disciples of Buddha. It is said that if you touch him and then place your hand on your ailment it will disappear. I decided to try it out as I had traveled along way and I like to try new things.
After Todaiji, we headed back out into the main tourist area to try our luck with the deer again and to walk towards the Nara lookout point. Heading up to the view point for Nara is another trek uphill, but not too bad.
One Big Buddha
It is worth it though some may be disappointed by the view as it may not be breathtaking, but the adjoining shrines and water coming down the side were. Three days in Japan and I still couldn’t get enough of the shrines and temples!
After checking out the view we both were getting a little hungry it was starting to sprinkle. We decided before we ate that we would stop by to see the KofukujiTemple first in case the rain got worse. Nara is not the place you want to be when it starts to rain because unlike Kyoto and Tokyo where you can still find plenty of things that will keep you dry, Nara’s main attractions are mostly outside.
So if you find yourself near here, if it is raining switch days so you can fully enjoy it.
KofukujiTemple is a five storied pagoda that is very important for Buddhists due to its history. It is a beautiful structure, but one that is hard to get in a photo unless you are standing far away. We stayed in this area for about 30 minutes, but soon the sprinkles turned into rain so we knew it was time to find a place to eat and hope that the rain passed though we had seen quite a lot of Nara. Before I left, I fed a little deer family my last crackers as soggy crackers weren’t going to do me any good in Kyoto.
They were appreciative and bowed a few times in appreciation. Seriously, it never got old!
On the way back to the train station we found a little area that was sort of like a strip mall and within it we found a local joint that served a cheap lunch to fill us up. The entrée was mostly fried food which I am not a fan of, but I was so hungry, I ate everything on my plate. Even though Japan can be expensive at times, know that you will always find cheap good food.
After lunch we headed back to the Nara station because it appeared that the rain would not be subsiding anytime soon, in fact it was getting worse.
View of Nara
We lucked out as we had gotten a full day out of Nara and had seen almost everything we had wanted to, so though we had wanted to spend more time there as we loved Nara, we were happy.
By the time we got back to Kyoto it was about 5:30PM and rush hour was in full swing. We had decided that we wanted to force ourselves to stay up later and swung by a Starbucks to assure we stayed up past 8:00PM tonight, damn you time zones!
We had heard you can’t go to Kyoto without seeing the Gion District as you were missing the whole point of Kyoto.
The Gion District in parts is still very traditional and looks much like it did in the 17th century. It also is known as one of the most exclusive areas for Geisha or Geiko as they prefer to be called in Gion.
The rain was still falling but only lightly as we headed to the main scenic areas of Gion. This place was a madhouse at around 6:00PM as people were getting their last shots before dark of the scenic area covered with cherry blossoms. That and if you are there to see a Geiko, it would usually be around 5-6PM when they start going to teahouses to meet with clients.
Let it be known that finding real Geiko is not an easy task in Kyoto. There are many impostors as they have decoys and tourists who dress up as Geisha all over the place.
Spotting the fake ones are pretty easy if you know enough about Geiko, but most are fooled easily. There was a couple who did come out together from a teahouse and everyone, I mean everyone swarmed these poor girls. They took a deep breath and kept walking as quickly as they could on their wooden shoes. One crazed dude, got right in their face shouting at them while taking photos. Seriously, it was like watching the paparazzi! I felt badly for these women. Yes, I did get a photo myself, but I was way across the street and zoomed in before the crowds got mad. Because of the distance, my photo sucked. I am okay with that as I was not going to be some animal chasing them down.
There are other ways to spot the Geiko and to be honest with you, Noah and I saw quite a few as I know a thing or two about them because for a time I was obsessed with the history. In fact while taking some of the most beautiful photos in the area, I almost ran smack dab into one. One moment I was taking a photo, the next moment I turned around and almost stepped on the women. I could have gotten a great photo but instead bowed to her for almost tripping her. Noah asked why I didn’t take a picture, I decided I didn’t want to be that guy and I am sure she appreciated it in the long run.
Gion at Night
Seriously, if you come here, please have respect, they aren’t zoo animals, they are people carrying on an incredible tradition.
By the end of the night we had spotted at least two other Geiko, the best part was there were no other tourists. Our night in Gion was amazing as it is really gorgeous and gives you an idea how Japan used to be way back when. It is very special and very unique. The main area is insanely crowded, so make sure to stray away from the pack, that is where you will find the magic.
After a few hours of photo taking we found a place to eat and then headed to another shrine around 10PM. The shrines are open all night, so as you walked you would hear the clanging of prayer bells throughout the walk.
The best part is that at many of the shrines and temples you will find that there are lanterns lit which adds to the ambiance. I absolutely adored Kyoto.
I am also proud to say that as we headed back to the hotel we were please to see we had stayed up until 11:00PM. It had been a long day, but totally worth it as we would be heading back to Tokyo in the afternoon.