11 August. Nara.
A relatively early start saw us at Kyoto station ready to catch the JR train to Nara. A can of black coffee from a vending machine was all I had, but it was enough to get the swonnicles revolving. The journey took about an hour and we disembarked with but one thought: breakfast! Leaving the station and passing under the vengeful megaphones of some political party or other, we spotted opposite Nara Station, a traditional Japanese ... Starbucks. Coffee or Orange Juice and cinnamon buns and a visit to the western-style toire - had us raring to go. We walked along Sanjo-dori, a street of shops and cafes and restaurants, to a large pond Sarisawa. We spent some time watching the terrapins (or were they turtles?) before walking into Nara Park. We saw an imposing five-storeyed pagoda in the grounds of Kofukuji temple, built in 1426 and still intact (a rarity in Japan). I went into the Nara National Museum while Val and Stephen (whod been there before) rested on a grassy knoll outside.
The museum was almost as hot inside as it was outside, but well worth the entrance fee. Among a number of world-class exhibits, the best for my money was the 8th Century cast bronze head of a Buddha. It had an absolute serenity about it. Another noteworthy sculpture is the 1000-armed Kannon (Buddhist deity of mercy). In fact, she only had 40 arms (according to the guidebook, although I could not count that many myself), the remainder being in the 24 invisible dimensions beyond our own. Allegedly.
We strolled across the park. There are deer everywhere. Far from the shy, retiring specimens that can be glimpsed in nervous herds in Britains stately parklands and moors, these are relatively assertive, not to say of criminal intent, demanding to be fed by visitors. This is the product of over 12 centuries of protection (since they are considered messengers of the gods), and in no little measure to the prevalence of deer-biscuit sellers who supply their nutritious and doubtless delectable commodity for 100 Yen a pack. Japanese parents seem to derive a great deal of malevolent amusement from seeing their small children reduced to tearful wrecks after being chased by deer demanding nourishment from their tiny hands.
We contented ourselves by buying some loaf-like (actually, expanded polystyrene-like) sticks of Koi food to feed the fish in the lake. They were equally voracious, almost climbing up the proffered comestible in their greed. A passing deer mugged us for the remnants and took them from us as of right.
From there we entered the Todaiji temple complex via Nandaimon, the Great South Gate. It stands about 20 metres high, and was built in 1199.
Either side of the gate, within the gate structure, are two statues of benevolent Kings, protecting the inner building.
This is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world (though only two-thirds the size of the original, destroyed by fire (of course) in the 17th Century. It houses the enormous 16.2-metre high bronze statue of the Buddha, the largest such statue in the world.
The Daibutsuden itself apparently weighs 750 tonnes, which is an awful lot of bronze. It still has remnants of the gold leaf originally applied in 752. Behind and to the side of the statue is a thick wooden pillar supporting the roof. It has a square hole cut through near its base. It is said that only the righteous can crawl through the hole. In fact, only righteous infants and midgets could make it.
We walked through the park to the Kasuga Grand Shrine, along a path lined with hundreds of stone lanterns set among the trees and bushes. These were being readied for the grand Bon ceremonies of August held in this cultural centre. Stephen had the misfortune to be bitten by an enormous fly, which was brushed off his shoulder before it could inject more than a litre or two of its venom or digestive juices or whatever gruesome substance it squirts into its victims. At least it wasnt a giant killer bee. It reminds me of the limerick attributed to WS Gilbert, who, one surmises, mistook the enormous potential of the form and attempted to kill it off in one sarcastic and thankfully fruitless - attempt at versicide:
There once was a man from St Bees
Who was stung on the knee by a wasp.
When asked, Does it hurt?
He replied, Yes it does,
Im so glad it wasnt a hornet.
However, I digress.
We walked further towards Sagiike lake, which has an elegant wooden summerhouse in the middle, connected to the bank by a walkway. We sat in the shade of the summerhouse for a while, and then Stephen and I hired a couple of rowing boats and paddled round the lake for a while, pausing to drink from bottles of fizzy pop (they still have bottles with marbles in the neck. Yippee!). Val called encouragingly to us from time to time while resting under the cover of the summerhouse. They were setting out little lanterns for the evenings Bon celebrations, and a gaggle of photographers had already taken their preferred places before we left. It would certainly be a spectacle worth photographing.
Invigorated, we pressed on and found a wonderful, friendly, old-fashioned coffee shop hidden in the bushes. It clearly dates from before 1939, and seems to be little changed since then. We ordered colas from the Japanese equivalent of Minnie Bannister, who seemed of the same vintage as the coffee shop itself. Stephen translated her conversation with Henry Crun in the back room. Colas? Are they the cold ones? The colas were indeed the cold ones and we were greatly refreshed. Minnies sister sat down by the till but was completely fazed when we wanted to pay our bill and leave. This necessitated another backroom conversation with Henry Well, how much are colas then? before we were able to settle up and leave.
Making our way back towards the town centre, we came across a friendly traffic warden who was clearly very bored, as there was no passing traffic for him to wave his baton at. He engaged us (or at least, Stephen) in somewhat philosophical conversation. He made some cryptic notes in my diary. Apart from diagrams of saltire crosses, a right angle separated from a circle by a river, and what appears to be a boxing ring, they include the following expressions. Nara=country. Yamato. 1 10 100 1000. Momo. Stephen translated the conversation as these items were written into my notebook. As I recall, there was some reference to Beijing translating as the Western Capital and Kyoto (and also later) Tokyo translating as Eastern Capital, of the once-great over-arching empire of the east in centuries past, or something. However, the undeniable and memorable essence of this event was the sheer friendliness and eagerness to please of this traffic warden.
Waving farewell to our new friend, we walked past Sarisawa and back down Sanjo-dori to the station. Stephen had heard of something interesting archaeologically that he wanted to see, so we took a taxi through the backstreets of Nara and thence to open country to the Kofun. These are ancient tombs, massive artificial islands in great (presumably artificial) lakes. The island-tombs are keyhole-shaped, and are covered in dense woodland. They are impressive because of their bulk (said to be of equal volume to the Great pyramid of Egypt), but like so much in Japan, they carry an air of tranquillity.
Calling up a taxi from the phone box outside the military school, we were delivered as close to Sarisawa as the taxi driver could get us. Large crowds had turned up, and the lake was ringed with small lanterns, bright in the darkness. Even the terrapins were splashing about as the crowds sauntered around. Back down Sanjo-dori for us, though, and thence back to Kyoto by good old reliable JR. By then it was about 9.15pm and we were hungry. Eventually, we decided to eat in the Hotel Granvia, part of the enormous Railway Station complex. The Hotel restaurant is fairly high-class with western cuisine as well as Japanese. At the end of the meal, Stephen and I ordered some sake: one serving of (expensive) cold sake, and one of (cheaper) warm sake. I preferred the warm, which seemed to have a greater depth of flavour. The waiter said that connoisseurs prefer the purer taste of the expensive sake, but to my palate it tasted rather like dry sherry without the aroma.
A stroll in the warmth of the evening took us back to the hotel for a well-earned rest. We had walked a great deal. It had been a most satisfying day.
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