Day 3 (15 June): Nara

Today we had a very busy and exciting adventure to Nara,  about an hour away by train.  Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 and 784 and has many Buddhist temples and buildings, including eight World Heritage Sites.

Nara Park is a vast green area located in the centre of the city with four of the World Heritage Sites, including a spectacular 5 storey pagoda. Another charm of the park is deer - approximately 1,200 deer roam freely and are extremely tame.  They have right of way on the road, so all traffic stops on a busy four lane street as one crosses over (deer crossing rather than a zebra crossing!).  Legend has it a dominant aristocrat of the 8th century invited a mighty god to bless the family shrine.  The god came to Nara riding on a white deer, so since then deer are respected and protected by the locals.

The deer can be fed by visitors, who can purchase Shika Senbei from street vendors. The food is colloquially known as deer crackers and they look like large communion wafers. The deer have even learned to nod their heads in response to a bow.  Of course, people tended to freak out as the deer approach. At this point all decorum disappears and the deer just greedily scoff the wafers (and the paper wrapping if they get the chance).

We then strolled to the Todaiji Temple which houses the world's largest bronze Buddha at nearly 15 meters high.  As we circled around the statue it felt like the eyes followed us.  We had to share the space with a number of school groups, many of whom were in school uniforms, or fluorescent coloured caps, or other similar hats or shirts so the supervisors could keep track of them all. At one location in the temple a hole is carved in one of the wooden columns and the kids delighted in crawling through (and sometimes getting stuck) with their photo taken by the school photographer to record the moment.

When we went outside we were approached by a number of small groups of schoolkids from the Gifu prefecture (near Nagoya). They had an assignment - find a Western tourist and practice their English. They had a script to follow with prepared questions, including introducing themselves and shaking our hands:

  • Excuse me, do have some time to answer questions?
  • We are on a school trip. Where do you come from?
  • Do you know any famous Japanese people?
  • What is your favourite Japanese sport?
  • Do you eat Japanese food?
  • Did you see the deer?

... and plenty more.  The children were wonderfully polite (although largely terrified about having to approach complete strangers). We spoke with one of their teachers and managed to take some photographs.  We stumbled a bit on the question of "do you know any famous people?" Our first answer was "Emperor Hirohito" which was met with blank looks. Thank goodness - we mentioned the war but managed to get away with it.  We had brought with us some koala key rings to give away and there were great squeals of delight when we presented them with their gifts.

After that we narrowly avoided a hungry, tired, angry moment by buying a strange tasting snack. It looked like a fried bread/cake sort of thing but when eaten was entirely crunchy, much like a biscuit.  We think perhaps it was made from rice flour because it tasted like a thick rice cracker.  

Hunger and thirst satisfied, we headed to Isuien Garden.  This is down the hill from the Temple and consists of two strolling-around-the-pond gardens designed in two different periods. It also contains two traditional Japanese tea houses where you can sit on tatami mats and take in the views whilst sipping tea (or beer - we were too late).  The gardenias, water iris', azaleas and water lilies were still in bloom and we spent ages meandering along the paths and over stepping stones and bridges. A large part of Japanese garden design is the tactile experience and sound created from the various surfaces underfoot. There was borrowed vistas created by a mound following the forms of three hills in the distance

Next door is another garden (Yoshikien Garden) which was not quite as spectacular but still worth a visit.  The moss garden has largely burnt off due to the summer heat and we skipped the serenity garden because apparently "people get lost up there".

We returned to the train station on the city loop.  After we had passed all the tourist stops the bus driver turned to us and asked us where we were going.  We thought it a strange question, until all the local schoolkids started getting on the bus to make their way home.

We returned to Kyoto rather footsore after over 16,500 steps.  Photos will follow as Nara proved to be extremely photogenic.