sika deers wandering nara
i woke up feeling refreshed. the comforter was heavy and dense, and underneath the crush i had formed a warm cocoon. it's good to not have to fight the cold, or roll over on top of books and papers and trash. checkout time was at 11:00 and i got out of bed at 10:00. i pulled off the sheets (to be returned at the reception desk), gathered up all my gear, and went to go use the bathroom. downstairs an elderly american couple was speaking with the attendant (who spoke some broken english, but at least seemed to understand the americans) as i returned my key to get back my 1000 yen deposit. 2 german girls were having breakfast in the dining area (chatting away in their husky native tongue) and an asian girl was sorting through the content of her purse on a nearby tatami mat. the smell of fresh paint was thick in the air, they're definitely renovating. i noticed the computer stations and put 100 yen into the machine for 15 minutes of internet access, before leaving.
i walked to kyoto station to take the JR train to nara. i had already decided that there wasn't enough time today for me to do both gion (former kyoto red light district, which looks prettier at nights than during the daytime) and nara (former japanese capital), so i picked nara instead. i caught the express train which took less than an hour to arrive at nara. i was afraid of the conductor who would occasionally walk the aisles, collecting tickets from some people, but not from others. i wasn't sure with just my JR pass that i was even allowed on an express train, but the conductor never did come by to ask for my ticket. the view outside was picturesque, traveling through some rural areas, peeking into people's backyards, where everyone seemed to have some kind of well pruned tree growing from their property.
i was expecting to see quaint japanese style houses when i got to nara, but instead it looked like any other japanese town, a sprawl of commercialism, buildings and lights and people and cars, nothing that said antiquity, everything that said modern. there's a tourist information center right at the station and an old woman there spoke english, gave me an english map, and drew out for me a suggested tour route. she even said if i wanted, they have college student volunteers who would take me around for free. i declined the offer, happier to just wander on my own. "where are you from?" she asked me. i told her boston, but then added, "originally from taiwan."
i have a hard time getting my bearing straight, and stood on a street corner for several minutes, trying to make sense of which direction was which, and where i was supposed to be go. streets aren't marked very clearly, or if they are, i just don't know where to look. i asked a young man hawking advertisement for a restaurant, "sanjodori, doko desu ka?" and pointed to where i think it was. "hai," he answered, and said a few other things which i didn't understand, but that was good enough for me and i started walking. it still didn't seem right, but i had time, and a map, and figured if i went off course i could correct my path eventually. the more pressing concern was where to eat. i had already passed the kentucky fried chicken and the macdonald's, and was hoping to see another familiar fast food joint that i could safely order from. instead, i found this place that served all sorts of udon noodles, and decided to eat there. from the line you pick up a tray and grab items from shelves. for some reason i got some more tempura (shrimp and octopus), even though i had enough tempura last night to last me for the rest of my japanese trip. when i got to the counter to order my noodles, i used my tried and true technique of pointing to a picture in a menu, a bowl of noodles with some shredded beef. the guy asked me if i wanted large or small with his hands, and i said large. i ordered and sat down with my food. it was pretty delicious, but the tempura appetizer left me feeling sort of gross (it wasn't fresh tempura either), and i ordered way too much noodles, but at least it filled me up.
the first place that i visited was jokyoji temple, still in the heart of the commercial district. it was a small place and i was the only one there besides an old woman who seemed to run the place. i went in, strolled around, and left. i kept on walking east of sanjodori street, waiting to see the three-storied pagoda, which would be the indicator that i was going in the right direction. eventually i came to an intersection with a pond on my right (behind an empty parked rickshaw) and a staircase flanked by red flags going upwards. i climbed the stairs and saw a cemetery of jizo statues, little red bibs tied to them. further along i saw a pagoda that must've been the three-storied pagoda. and nearby, i had my first encounter with the deers of nara. the number that gets thrown around is that 1500 deers live in nara park. they were considered divine animals at one point in history, and there was even a case of someone facing execution for accidently killing a deer. nowadays they're just considered natural treasures and a draw for tourists. these deers were grazing in the grass, seemingly unconcerned with my presence. these deers are stockier than the deers back home, and their fur seemed matted, like they were about to shed. some had horns that seemed to have been cut down to nubs, and in a few faint white spots could be seen. i had come to see these famous deers but i figured i had to go further into the woods.
at the top of the hill was a colorful shrine. the slight drizzle mixed with the thick smell of incense smoke and seeing the deers made the place have a mystical feel to it. the kofukuji temple was a little bit futher along, next to the five-storied pagoda, the tallest structure in nara according to the woman at the information window back at the station. i saw more deers, and a woman selling special deer biscuits to feed them. i heard shrieking and saw a group of timid japanese women being pursued by a herd of deers, their arms raised in the air as if surrendering, biscuits held high to prevent the deers from snatching them from their hands. i even saw a deer head butt one of the girls when he wasn't getting his way, a possible future highlight for another "when animals attack" special.
speaking of attacks, i seem to have the worst problems with japanese toilets. feeling the call of nature, i went into a public bathroom. the place was clean enough as far as public bathrooms are concerned, and even had toilet paper even though i had tucked a roll in my backpack. what i wasn't quite ready for was the fact that it was a squat toilet. now i've been through asia before, and have used squat toilets a few times in my life, but for some reason this one seemed particularly baffling to me, even though it was no different. it's like when you study for an exam and on the day of the test you just blank out. that was me. after meticulously placing my coat and my bag and my camera on the various hooks and shelves inside the stall, i carefully pushed everything down into my pockets and rolled down my pants, contorting my body into a precarious sitting position which i think should be some kind of yoga pose if it isn't already. squat toilets have a hood but i didn't know which end to face so i went with the hood to my back, which i later found out is the wrong direction (the equivalent of sitting on our western toilets facing the seat cover). i've never been more afraid to do my business, afraid that my legs were losing their strength and i'd tumble backwards into infamy, afraid that my bag would get too heavy and break off from the hook, afraid that the loose change in my back pocket would roll out into the toilet. i finished quickly as i wiped the beads of sweat from my brow, relieved at last.
i continued walking east, past the pink ichino-torri gate, behind the nara national museum, before taking a left turn north, to todaiji temple, the home of the bronze buddha. i was within the confines of nara park, beneath the canopy of well manicured trees thick with epiphytes (reminescent of cloud forests), moss covered floors, the occasionally man-made stream, and deers everywhere. the street leading up to the temple was a mix of rickshaw drivers, souvenir shops, tourists, and deers, who seem to be mingingly with the crowd, looking for a handout of special biscuits. it was at that point my love affair with the deers took a slight deviation. an overly friendly deer was nuzzling my coat pocket, looking for food. up to that point deers have basically left me alone (unlike some people), maybe because i give off a predatory vibe (ha ha). this deer poked its nose into my pocket and pulled out my nara map. i tried to get it back by tricking the deer with imaginary food in my hand, but it was having none of it, happier with the map. so i gave up, but from that point on i was slightly blind as to where to go.
hishaku (purifying station)
todai-ji temple & the bronze daibutsu
(created 746 AD, 49 feet tall)