Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Today we started a new chapter in our trip, we got on the train. First thing in the morning we strolled to the train station. While Yael and the kids went to buy breakfast, I went to the JR Ticket Office and got our JR Passport. This involved a complex procedure in which I filled forms and our passports were photocopied. But after some delay we got the passport, and now we could get in/out of most trains without a limit.

We tested the procedure going to the Nara line. While everyone had tickets and used them to go through turnstiles, we went to a side passage, waved our passport and got in. The Nara train is a local one, and does not have reserved sittings. In fact, it was more like a bus. We boarded and searched for a place where we can all sit. As the train was quite full this was non-trivial, and in the end we spread across an isle. It turned out that most of the people on the train used it to get to local stations, and so after few stops we reclaimed two opposing benches for ourselves.

Riding on the train we could see the scenery. It started with urban landscape of small houses and gardens. Slowly it opened up and we saw wider stretches of fields. The vast majority of the fields we saw were rice fields, with large dense rows of green plants. Here and there we saw workers in the fields. I found it amazing to see the amount of water this abundant here. The land we crossed (low lands) is tiled with rice fields, with water channels between them. Every few minutes we crossed a stream or a larger river.

The border between the plain, which is either populated or cultivated, and the hills is very sharp. All the hills are covered with a dense-looking forest, and very few human interventions in it. Here and there there is a power line riding the crest, but otherwise the hills look (from our observation point) wild.

We arrived at Nara train station. We expected a town full of old buildings, but instead arrived at a modern urban area. It was hot, humid, and very hot. We started strolling in the direction of the Nara Park, where all the attractions are located. The street we walked in was decorated with posters celebrating the 1300th anniversary of the city, but otherwise looked like a regular shopping mall. After a while we got to a covered shopping arcade that reminded us of Kyoto's downtown. As we were walking there we came across an unlikely establishment.

Going out of the shopping arcade we finally reached the park. The park encompasses the structures left from the time Nara was the capital of Japan, and includes shrines, temples, and other structures. I read that the period of Nara as a capital was actually surprisingly short given the large city that was erected here to be the capital.

Entering the park we saw a group of five high-school students marching while chanting and holding banners. It was unclear to us what is the purpose of the activity, but it was noticeable. We took their photo, and when they stopped chanting, the stopped and thanked the people around, as though it was a performance of some sort. We later encountered another similar group.

One of the famous aspects of the park is that it hosts wild deer that walk freely among the tourists. In fact, there are many stands where special deer-food is sold and the tourists can feed them. They apparently learned to avoid pestering the stands, but once someone buys a packet of their food, they all flock around him and demand food.

It was quite easy to approach the deer and they don't mind being petted (although once they realize you don't have food for them they are less interested in you).

The local signs warn the tourist that the deer are wild and can be dangerous.

At this stage we were very hot (we did say it was hot?)

So we sat a while on a bench and watched the deer, and then went on searching for ice. Luckily this was a tourist area, and so there were many stands selling various goods, including ice-cream and the Japanese hit of shaved ice with different flavors.

To get to the ice, we had to pass through tourists and deer.

As well as the old ladies that clean after the deer. In spite of their effort the area did smell a bit like the petting zoo we used to go to when the kids were small...

At a local food stand we saw another old lady.

The main attraction in Nara is the Todai-ji temple. Before reaching it, we first get to a gate, a Toru, of massive proportions.

The gate hosts two fearsome guardians.

Few hundred meters past the gate we reach the area of the temple. It is boasted as the largest wooden structure in the world, and it hosts the largest statue of Buddha in Japan. The building is definitely impressive from a far, with two horn-like structures at each end of the roof.

In a closer inspection we can see that it is build from massive wooden beams that are dark with age, and in some places, worn smooth by the countless people going through it.

The statue of the Buddha inside is dominating. The structure almost seem too small for it. The entrance ticket includes various interesting statistics, such as the size of its ear-lobe and width of its eyes.

Behind the Buddha there is another pair of fearsome guardians, that I found more impressive in terms of sculpture and dynamic pose.

We exited the temple and outside the doorway found a small buddha figure with a red cape that initially looked like a pirate. From the signs we learned that this was a good luck charm, you touch the figure for healing of the same area in your body.

We sat next to the compound gate, and Lior drew the temple while I went around photographing various angles.

We then proceeded to walk upward along a path toward a bell tower and temple that overlooks the area.

As expected going uphill was hard under the oppressive heat and humidity. Once we reached the top of stairs we found a magnificent views of the whole Nara plain.

All temples have a nice tradition of running water supply with special spoons to collect the water. We used the water here to wash some of the sweat and cool off.

We continued strolling in the park between different shrines and temples, and deer populated pastures.

On the way back toward the entrance to the park we reached a massive pagoda. I am not sure if the pagoda structure represent different form of temple, or just variation on theme.

The pagoda has two grounding lines running from its top to the ground. We saw that quite often, that such lightening-rod were added to protect wooden structures from chance ignition by lightening.

We reached back the shopping arcade, and went looking for a small restaurant recommended by the guidebook. After some search, and asking a local shop keeper, we realized that the restaurant was closed and replaced by the falafel place. We decided against falafel and instead searched for a restaurant. We took a chance on a sign on the street, and climbed upstairs to find a small charming establishment. We were all hungry, and the lunch sets were large and generous.

Refreshed, we continued along the street and saw a Tabi-shop. Tabi are the local shoes where the big toe is separated from the rest of toes. In Kyoto we saw quite a few people wearing them (mostly in the festival) but didn't find a shop that sells them. The one we saw here was more tourist oriented, but seemed nice. We all tried various Tabi on, and in the end Yael and I left the shop as the proud owners of Tabi shoes. The shoes are funny to wear initially, as they feel inside like flip-flops, but the sole is flexible. The top of the shoe is made of cotton and is closed by tabs that close on small loops of cord in the back.

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