Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Japan Trip - Nara

Bobby and I had an incredible time during our trip to Japan. Bobby presented two papers at a workshop in Nara, so we turned the one day workshop into an 11 day trip! After taking a red-eye from Copenhagen on a Wednesday night, we arrived in Osaka Thursday evening. We took a train to Nara, checked into our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and went to sleep. The next day, Friday, Bobby attended the conference while I explored the beautiful town of Nara. Later in the trip, we returned to Nara for another day so that Bobby and I could see the sights together.
Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan, though it remained the capital for only 75 years (710-785 ACE). The area of Nara-koen, or Nara Park, houses many of Nara's main sights, including the pictured Nandaimon, the massive southern gate. This gate was rebuilt in 1199.
The park is also home to about 1200 deer, which in pre-Buddhist times were considered messengers of the gods. The deer roam freely all over the park, and you can buy biscuits specifically made for feeding the deer.
Don't be tricked by their cuteness: these deer can be agressive when it comes to getting those biscuits! This little girl is being followed by several deer, and we saw many young kids running away, screaming, from the deer. We even saw a few grown women being nipped by hungry deer! Needless to say, Bobby and I did not buy any deer biscuits.
Though the deer are no longer considered messengers to the gods, they are National Treasures and and protected by the Japanese government. If a deer is in the middle of a road, the cars patiently wait for it to move (without honking their horns). If the deer want to chew on your bike handle, you patiently wait for it to get its fill.
Most of the deer have their antlers removed in early November, but this guy seemed to escape the de-antlering.
This is the Todai-ji, or Eastern Great Temple. This huge structure is the largest wooden structure in the world, and yet it's merely 2/3 the size of the original building (the building you see now was rebuilt in 1709).
Inside the temple is the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha. The statue is 15 m/49 ft tall and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kg/286 lb of gold.
Even monks take holidays.
Inside of the temple, behind the Giant Buddha, is a large wooden column with a hole through its base. Legend has it that those who can squeeze through the hole, which is the same size as one of the Great Buddha's nostrils, will become enlightened. It's usually something only kids do.
And, as we all know, Bobby is just a big kid, so he had to give the nostril hole a try. Unbelievably, Bobby was able to squeeze through! (Just 10 years ago, Bobby tried to do the same thing: but was unable to do it! But today, he did it, ten years later.) How does it feel to be enlightened, Bobby?
I guess enlightenment is hard work and must be rewarded with green tea ice cream.
After enlightenment and ice cream, we headed to Nigatsu-do. It was a bit of a climb up to the temple, but well worth it.
Founded in 792, the original temple was destroyed in a fire in 1667. The current building was rebuilt in 1669.
All of the temples in Nara are still active Buddhist temples, so you can sometimes find monks performing prayers.
We next headed to Kasuga Taisha. Founded in the 8th century, this Shinto shrine was completely rebuilt every 20 years from the 8th century until the 19th century in accordance to Shito tradition. There are hundreds of lanterns around the beautiful red shrine.
We were lucky enough to be in Japan during Shichigosan. Every November parents take their 3 and 5 year-old boys and 3 and 7 year-old girls, dressed up in their best traditional Japanese kimono and fashionable costumes, to local shrines to receive divine blessings. When we write about our time in Nagano, you'll see more photos of children dressed in traditional clothing.
On the edge of the park is Kofuku-ji. Transferred from Kyoto to Nara in 710, when Nara became the capital of Japan, this specific pagoda dates from 1426 and is the second tallest in the country.
Also on the outskirts of the park is Isui-en, the most beautiful place in the world (in my humble opinion). Japanese gardens are a study in perfection and calm. They aim to create miniature idealized landscapes in an abstract and stylized fashion.
This park was one of the first places I visited at the start of our trip, and I instantly knew I was going to love Japan. The trees were just starting to turn bright red, especially the Japanese maple trees. It's impossible to put into words how absolutely beautiful and peaceful this park is. You'll just have to see it yourself!
Next to Isui-en is Yoshiki-en, another garden. This garden has a large tea house, which provides a nice example of Japanese homes. You can see the tatami floor. Tatami mats are traditionally made of rice straw. You can also see the fusuma walls. These walls are actually sliding doors made from wood and paper, and are portable and easily removed. In traditional Japanese homes, rooms do not have a designated purpose; any room can serve as a bedroom, dining room, or living room. All of the necessary furniture is portable.
After a full day of sightseeing, Bobby and I were ready for a sake tasting! Made from fermented rice, sake can be served warm or cold, and comes in many varieties.
We tried 7 different kinds and bought a bottle of our favorite. The Japanese tourists in the shop were pretty impressed with the quantity of sake we consumed. What can we say, we learned to drink in Europe!
After all of that walking and sake, we were ready for dinner. We ate at a restaurant that had a BBQ at each table. We ordered an assortment of dishes, including these mushrooms and delicious dumplings.
We also ate some tasty squid.
After our very full day of touring, sake drinking, and grilled-food eating, we were ready to hit the... futon! Our ryokan had traditional Japanese tatami mats, so we had to leave our shoes at the entrance of ryokan and use the provided slippers. We changed into our yukata (a lightweight Japanese robe), took a very relaxing bath in the common bath (it was more like a jacuzzi, minus the jets), and slept in a futon (not the Western version, which is a couch that converts into a bed; the Japanese futon is a thin mattress which rests on the floor at night and is folded and put away during the day). What a great start to our Japan trip!

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