Saturday, 31 March 2007

Day 2: Nara and Uji

Thursday the 22nd was also sunny and warm. That was the day I had decided to go to Nara and Uji. Because I wanted to go to two cities, I tried to get up very early in the morning to get an early start, but I just couldn't do it. I was too exhausted after the previous hard day of sightseeing on top of having slept on a train. It was 7.50am by the time I managed to leave the hotel, and therefore pushing nine o'clock by the time I got to Kintetsu Nara station.

I hoped to find something quick to eat for breakfast, for example more rice balls, but as I exited the station I found a 'French cafe' right in front of me beckoning me with its deliciously cafe-ness and I found myself entering the shop without consciously deciding to do so. Which was a good thing, because the cafe also happened to double as a bakery and it had all sorts of yummy things for sale. Then I went to the counter and asked if they had tea (shops in Japan are more likely to have tea than those in America, but it is still safe to ask). The waitress proceeded to fetch out the tea menu for me. Tea menu?! You mean, I'm going to get to start my day on something better than Lipton Yellow Label? Oh, joy! The tea was a little expensive, 600 yen a pot (more expensive than the food I bought) but so worth it. They take their tea seriously there. I ordered Ahmad tea, and the tea that came was not in a teabag but loose leaf with a fancy little contraption to store the leaves in, and the milk was not 'cream that never goes off' in a plastic bubble, nor was it ordinary milk, it was heated, frothy milk in a little jug. Oh, the poshness. In summary, if you are ever in Nara and you feel like you would like to have a cup of tea, go to the French cafe (I've forgotten its name, unfortunately) that is outside Kintetsu Nara station.

After finishing my delightful breakfast I headed in the direction of Todaiji. The road to Todaiji is well signposted. Also, I had studied both maps and Google Earth before leaving to make sure I knew where I was going. When I was nearly at Todaiji, a man walking the other way stopped me and proceeded to talk at me in broken English in a really big voice:

"You go Todaiji? Daibutsu?"
"Uh . . ." said I, because I had been walking along minding my own business and hadn't been expecting anyone to talk to me.
"Todaiji? Todaiji?!"
"Yes . . ."
"Go there. Go left . . ."
At which point I tried to interrupt with "OK, yes," but he ignored me.
"Go left, go, big mon" (mon is the Japanese word for gate) "Go left. Todaiji . . ."

I tried to tell him several more times, in both English and Japanese, that I already knew the way, but he wouldn't listen. He just kept giving the directions to Todaiji (which was right around the corner, so why would I need directions anyway?) until finally he thought he had helped enough and he went on his way. I then walked around the corner and found the outer gate to Todaiji right in front of me, exactly where I already knew it would be, and I walked towards it wondering whether I had been gazing around looking lost, or whether I was looking especially stupid that morning, or if there was some other reason that man had deemed it neccessary to explain to me five times how to go around a corner when I hadn't even asked for directions.

I then proceeded to take pictures of deer. I had heard that the deer in Nara Park have learned to bow to tourists in order to charm food out of them. It is true. The first picture I will post in my 'Todaiji' post is of a deer that bowed to me. I had my camera pointed at it waiting for it to turn its head. While I was waiting it bowed at me. So I bowed at it. Then I took its picture. I know that what it wanted from me was food, but somehow the exchange seemed more like "Yes, you may take my picture." "Why, thank you." Yes, I have an active imagination.

I took some nice pictures as I headed to the main attraction, the Daibutsuden (big buddha hall). There were already quite a few tourists in the Daibutsuden and so it was difficult to take pictures. Then I went into see the Daibutsu (great Buddha). O. M. G. I knew it was big, but I had no idea it was that big! Of course there is no way to take a picture of the Daibutsu that would show just how big it is, because everything around it is huge as well. You can only know if you go there and see it for yourself. But trust me, it is ginormous, and, and, wow . . . it was made over a thousand years ago (apart from the head and hands which had to be replaced later, but even that was done hundreds of years ago). I learned on Wednesday that inside the Daibutsu there is some kind of high tech earthquake-proof system that lets the Daibutsu sway about harmlessly in an earthquake, which is probably one of the major reasons why it had lasted until the present day. Which of course, was also made centuries ago. What an achievement.

Next I went for a walk through the forest uphill to Kasuga Taisha. I took lots of photos along the way (of course). Kasuga Taisha, the ancestral shrine of the Fujiwara clan, is known for its thousands of lanterns. When I got there, the ticket lady told me there was a wedding going on inside. At first I thought she was telling me I couldn't go in, but it turns out I could, she just wanted me to be quiet. The walking path around the shrine goes right past where the weddings are held so I ended up tip toeing past, only a few metres behind the bride and groom. Weird.

After I had finished looking at Kasuga Taisha I went for a wander through Nara Park. On the way I came across another weirdo. He was a man, maybe in his sixties, dressed in a navy polyester suit who was standing with his hand on the back of a young deer. The deer's coat looked a lot healthier than those of the other deer in the park. The man was grinning in an over-the-top sort of way while patting the deer. Then he held his hand out to me and tried to beckon me over. But he wasn't beckoning me in the way one beckons a fellow human, he was beckoning me as if I were an animal with that 'come investigate my hand, maybe I have food in it' gesture. All the while he seemed like he was saying something but actually he wasn't. The sounds coming out of his mouth were not Japanese or English; what he was saying was "He. He. He. He. . . Hoi. Hoi. Hoi." I spent a few moments just looking from him to the deer, probably with a very perplexed expression on my face, trying to figure out what the man thought he was doing, before deciding that it was probably a good idea for me to walk away and not look back.

I eventually found myself in town. By that time it was already lunch time. After finding a quick bite to eat I went to JR Nara station and caught a train to Uji (there are no direct trains on the kintetsu company trains, unfortunately). There was an old guy on the train who had very good English and wanted to chat about school systems and foreign language learning.

When I got to Uji I had a little bit of trouble figuring out which direction to go in because the roads are not laid out in nice grids like in Kyoto and Nara. But eventually I found the Information Centre and got my hands on a map. Once I knew what direction the river was in, I was all set. My first stop was Ujigami shrine, which is one of the oldest shrines in all of Japan. It is a shrine to Emperors who ruled before even the Nara period of Japan had begun, Emperors who are so unknown that whether they ever actually lived is still debated. It felt very old there, all small and dim and with various things and monuments contained within that I have not seen the like of in any other shrines I have visited, although you hear about them in stories of 'the old days' from time to time.

After I saw Ujigami shrine I wandered down the road to the Tale of Genji museum. It was a funny museum. It had no real artifacts, just a few things that people had made using the Tale of Genji as inspiration, a scale model of Genji's palace which is described in the book, replicas of various things that nobles in Kyoto would have possessed a thousand years ago, a life-sized model of Kaoru Genji looking through the gate at the sisters playing music, and a lot of hanging gausy drapery that blew in fake breezes to the sound of ghostly music. A video was shown in a special movie theatre (that was complete with bridge and mist - the theatre I mean, not the movie, although there were bridges and mist in the movie as well). All in all, it seemed as if whoever had bankrolled the museum had a lot of money to throw at it, but the people who had actually made the museum had not been quite sure what to put in it. But it wasn't a total waste of time.

Then I headed back over the river to see Byodoin. The central hall, the Ho-o-do is on the 10 yen coin. On the temple grounds there was a rather nice museum. In fact, the museum is nicer than the temple, because it is filled with things that used to be in the temple but now are not.

Then I made my way back over the river again towards the Keihan Uji station. All the while I was looking for somewhere to eat dinner, but all the establishments near Byodoin sold tea exclusively, the shop near the station that I had seen earlier and thought was a restaurant turned out to be a Japanese-architectured icecream parlour, and the only establishment that was attached to Keihan Uji station was Mr. Donuts. Not willing to eat anywhere near my hotel, I decided to eat donuts for an early dinner and rice balls and fruit later in the evening. And that is what I did.

Oh, and one more thing. Uji was filled with mosquitoes. They were everywhere. I think I swallowed a few.

Pictures of Todaiji
Pictures of Kasuga Taisha
Pictures of Nara Park
Pictures of Ujigami Shrine
Pictures of Byodoin.
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