Category: Japan


Bambi Town (aka Nara)

Zara rarely meets an animal or insect she doesn’t love, from rolly-pollys to pigeons to the more pet-friendly varieties.  (She does draw the line at road-kill, however, as I learned the other day after pointing out a squashed frog to her. “Mommy–I only like live frogs!”).  So when I heard about Nara and its famous deer, I knew it was a day-trip we had to take.

We took the train from Kyoto Station to Nara, about a 35 minute ride IF you avoid the local train (which we learned the hard way on the return journey).  Nara became Japan’s first permanent capital in 710 and the deer are Nara’s royalty.  The legend goes that a mythological god, Takemikazuchi, arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the new capital.  Thus, the deer were regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country, although post-WW II, their divine status was downgraded to “protected national treasure”.

As we walked the mile or so from the station towards Nara Deer Park, Zara was single-minded in her focus.  “When are we going to see the deer?  How much further until the deer?”  Jonathan kept reassuring her that she’d see plenty of deer, but she was still displeased by our first detour to see the  five story pagoda of Kofuku-ji.

We’re accustomed to seeing the occasional deer on a hike, the skittish type that take flight through the forest before you can get within 30 feet, so we were all taken aback by our first deer sighting in front of the pagoda.  “They’re not real,” Zara insisted, and even I had to do a triple-take at the two regal deer sitting calmly for photos with tourists until I saw an ear twitch.

First deer sighting in front of the five story pagoda.

First deer sighting in front of the five story pagoda.

We didn’t linger long at the first temple, as we thought that the best strategy was to head directly to the Deer Park now that Zara’s appetite had been whetted.  As we entered the large park, we immediately started seeing small groupings of deer crowding around tourists.  Vendors scattered throughout the park sell special deer crackers and so we bought our first pack and quickly learned that the deer were anything but shy, and signs scattered throughout the park warned especially of the danger of an overly agressive deer “butt” to the elderly and small children (although they targeted me first).  After an hour or so spent feeding the deer, we wended our way through the park onto the lower slopes of Mt. Mount Wakakusayama for some non-deer sightseeing.

Fortunately, Nara had a lot more to offer than just deer, as there are seven main temple complexes.  We stopped first at Katsuga Shrine and Nigatsu-dō and then headed to the famous Todai-ji, whose great Buddha Hall was initially constructed in 752 but has been rebuilt twice due to fire (a common hazard with Japan’s wooden structures).  The hall was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998 and houses a massive statue of the “Cosmic Buddha”.  It also has a wooden beam with a hole in it that is purportedly the same size as one of the Buddhas nostrils. There was a long line to crawl through the hole, as legend has it that those who pass through it will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life.  Zara made it through but Jonathan wisely declined after seeing a Japanese pre-pubescent teen almost get stuck.  (Jonathan reports having done it 20 years earlier so he’s already set for his next life.)

Enlightenment!

Enlightenment!

As we exited the last temple complex into a crowd of school-kids and tour groups, Zara begged for another deer cracker package.  By this time, most deer were recoiling at the sight of the deer crackers.  She had difficulty finding any willing takers, and most deer just lounged lazily or did their business on the busy path, their droppings immediately swept up by energetic elderly men.  I’d reached the point of major deer fatigue, where the sight and smell of them was just getting to be too much and was relieved when Zara got rid of her last cracker.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but even Bambi can lose his charm.

Touring Nara

Touring Nara

Washing hands at Nara

Washing hands at Nara

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Friends

Friends

Jonathan's mum getting up close and personal with the deer at Nara

Jonathan’s mum getting up close and personal with the deer at Nara

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View above Nara

View above Nara

Todai-ji

Todai-ji

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Kyoto – First Impressions

After just one week, Japan currently vies for top spot with New Zealand in Zara’s ranking of favorite countries, knocking Thailand down to #3.  It’s been easy to fall in love with Kyoto.  We’re staying in an old tea ceremony house of the traditional Kyo machiya style, where we sleep on futons placed on tatami mats and as we are based in Kyoto for four weeks, we have the luxury of slow exploration, rather than a mad rush to the top tourist destinations.

The house is located at the bottom of Funaoka-yama (Funaoka mountain) in the Northwest corner of Kyoto and steps away from a Buddhist temple (Daitoku-ji), yet away from the hustle and bustle of the more central tourist districts.  We can go days without seeing another Westerner in this part of the city, yet Jonathan’s Japanese skills allow us to navigate the traditional restaurants and cafes with ease.

We’ve been busy visiting shrines and temples galore, more on those later…but what has really captivated us aren’t the tourist sites, but in the quiet beauty found everywhere — the ready smiles and cheerful Japanese of the people, the attention to detail in everything, the narrow alleyways that wind through the neighborhoods, the personal shrines and the hidden gardens.  And I can’t help but be envious of an environment where it is normal for 5-year olds to walk or bike home from school alone.  And of a city that rivals Amsterdam in its cycling population, where moms bike with babies in slings and octogenerians cycle to the grocery store.  The one downside to this is that their practice of biking on sidewalks requires pedestrians to be on constant alert, however, so Zara is our unofficial bike alert monitor.

And I most not forget the FOOD, which is a highlight of each day and will deservedly have its own post.

What has been a completely unexpected (but happy) surprise is the cost.   Prices are significantly cheaper than the US, NZ or the UK, especially once outside the main tourist centers.  With the dollar at a 5-year high against the Yen, that is one factor, but Jonathan’s impression is that Japanese prices just haven’t risen in the 20 years since he lived here. The one exception is lodging, but consumer goods and food are seem significantly cheaper than what we’re used to at home.

So much more to write about so stay tuned!

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On grounds of Kinka-kuji

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In front of Kokinen, our rental home.

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Kinka-kuji

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Daitoku-ji

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Downstairs of Kokinen

Funaoka Onsen

This will be a photo-free post, for obvious reasons! The Tea Ceremony House we are renting happens to be located only one block away from Kyoto’s oldest public bath house–Funaoka Onsen.  Technically, Funaoka technically is a sento (or bath house), whereas an onsen is a natural hot spring, but for some reason that distinction has been overlooked at Funaoka.

Funaoka has opened its doors to bath-seeking patrons for over 100-years with hours from 3pm – 1am.  Our third evening here, we decided to check it out.  The entrance fee was Yen 410 (or about $4) for adults and Zara was half-price.  We rented towels as our house rental does not come equipped with them (hence, our eagerness to check out the sento), although I was bemused to be handed towels that would have been too small to swaddle a newborn.  And thus armed, Zara and I bravely entered the female side of the gender-segregated sento, while Jonathan happily got off scot-free on the challenges of introducing an inquisitive (and loud) 6-year old to bath house etiquette.

In retrospect, I’d highly recommend familiarizing yourself with such etiquette before entering a sento.

I did know that we were supposed to thoroughly wash before entering the baths.  Seems simple enough.  So after I convinced Zara that we really did have to strip down to our birthday suits (she had been thinking of this as more of a swimming than a bathing experience), we timidly passed through the locker room glass doors and stepped into the first thing we saw– a shower cascading into a hot thigh-high bath.  Only once we were under the shower-head did it dawn on me that this was one of the baths and we were committing our first faux paux.

Then I noted two women seated on preschool sized plastic chairs in front of various faucets vigorously scrubbing their skin with brushes.  Ah-ha. This was how it was done.  We quickly scooted over to a a couple of free seats and did the obligatory wash, sans brushes.  Once clean, we tested the waters.

The pools were pleasingly hot, although perhaps too much for Zara to handle for more than a few minutes, so we rotated around the various pools until we came to one with warning sign: Electric Bath: caution for those with heart problems. No joke. This was the infamous, Denkiburo, where a mild current circulates through the water. The theory is that this forces the muscles to contract and thus, relax.  Hmm.  Fearful that my family’s heart problem history could cause my heart muscle to permanently relax, we elected to dip only our hands into it so as to experience the noticeable tingle.  (Jonathan, not surprisingly for those who know him, went  for the full experience.)  I also found it mildly disturbing that the Denkiburo’s waters flowed freely into the other baths, as it was not a self-contained unit, but I can’t begin to even comprehend the science of why the Denkiburo is safe in the first place.

We next moved onto the hot/cold combination pool and just as I was attempting to submerge myself into the icy waters of the cold pool, a Japanese women forcefully said something to me a couple of times and motioned to my hair.  Oops. Faux paus #2.  It seems that putting one’s long hair up is also a requirement.  I used the locker key rubber band to tie mine up and then tried to fashion Zara’s into a bun knot (unsuccessfully).   Feeling quite conspicuous now, we  took one final dip in a whirlpool before heading back to the locker room.

On balance, being unfamiliar with the proper etiquette cramped my ability to relax and fully enjoy the sento experience, but I’m eager to give it another go.  And Zara thankfully reserved her commentary about the experience until we were back at home, as she’s still at that stage where the other patrons triggered her curiosity more than the baths.  Jonathan had a wonderfully relaxing time at least.

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