Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Trip: Nara

On Saturday 19th it was Nara!

Nara (奈良) is a small city south of Kyoto, and it's full of temples and shrines. It's a former capital of Japan and I think it's perfect to do as a daytrip from Kyoto.

It has a grand total of eight World Heritage Sites, and the largest concentration of these is in Nara Park (奈良公園), which is just 15 minutes walk from Kintetsu Nara station (近鉄奈良駅), but a bit further from JR Nara station (JR奈良駅).

The other sites are further away and more spread out. If you want to visit these too, it's probably better to stay overnight in Nara rather than just do a daytrip, otherwise you'll end up exhausting yourself.

But Nara Park was sufficient for me. It's a really nice place to wander around, finding old temples and getting harrassed by deer.

I got up quite early, which meant that I was a bit tired for the whole day, and it was hot too, around 35C, which didn't help my energy levels!

I walked to Kyoto station and took the Kintetsu Nara line (近鉄奈良線) . I bought a Limited Express (特急) train ticket for Y1,100. Those tickets are reserved automatically so you're guaranteed a seat if the train isn't already full.

I was in this double-decker car. I've seen lots of these around but never been inside one. I was on the top level so I like to think that I had a good view.

The train was very direct, making only one stop at Yamato-Saidaiji station, and arriving within 35 minutes. I got to Nara at 11.05, just in time for the heat of the day! I walked up the road from the station and it was obvious where the Park was. I found some shade and put some sun cream on (yes, it was that hot) and then made my way to the first sight on my list.

On the way, I passed this woman who made the mistake of feeding the deer being attacked by hordes of hungry animals. You can buy deer food at numerous stalls all over the place.

Heralded as the star attraction of Nara, my first stop was Todai-ji (東大寺). This ancient Buddhist temple boasts the largest wooden building in the world, and the largest Buddha statue in Japan.

The first thing you see as you approach is the impressive wooden Nandai-mon (南大門).

Inside the gate, on either side, are fearsome carvings of Nio guardians, protecting the temple from evil spirits.

Through the gate, you then see this great building. This is the largest wooden building in the world, but it's only two-thirds of its original size.

This is the home of Japan's largest Great Buddha (大仏, dai butsu). The Kamakura Buddha is the second biggest.

This Buddha's head is a slightly different colour to its body, as a result of many fires and earthquakes in the past decapitating it on numerous occassions.

The route round the hall takes you behind the Buddha. There is a hole in the bottom of a pillar here, which, if you can squeeze through, guarantees you enlightenment.

Looking at the size of the hole, I'm happy to stay in this world thanks.

After the cool interior of Todai-ji's main hall, the sun was a bit of a shock. I started walking up the hill, but midday was a little too intense so I stopped for lunch in a restaurant.

Having recovered a bit, I made my way to Nigatsu-do (二月堂) and Sangatsu-do (三月堂), which are both a walk up the hill from Todai-ji. From them, there's a nice view of Nara Park and the city behind.

There was an artist painting a lovely view of the temples and the Park. If I'd had time, I'd have loved to sit and watch him finish it.

I followed the recommended route in the Lonely Planet Japan guide down the hill, pass lots of deer, to Kasuga Taisha (春日大社).

Kasuga Taisha is famous for the hundreds of lanterns that line it's pathways and halls.

This tree was huge! You can see the sign that accompanied it below the photo.

As you leave the Shrine, you can see loads and loads of lanterns along the road that leads through the cool shady wood.

After that, I headed out to the slightly far-away temple of Shin-Yakushi-ji (新薬師寺). It took a while to find it, following the path through the forest and out of the main city area, but it gave me time to think about things and reflect on what I'd seen so far.

After the temple, I looked at a map and found the right road back to Todai-ji. Admittedly, I did get a little lost and had to ask for directions, but it's all part of it!

Back in the Todai-ji area, I searched for Isui-en Garden (依水園), which was recommended in the guidebook. But when I say 'searched', I mean searched. It took me absolutely ages to find it, and I asked about five different people. And maybe it was because of that, or the heat, or my tired legs, but when I finally got there, it wasn't as impressive as I thought it would be. It was a nice Japanese garden, but no different from others I'd visited.

That's the art museum, Neiraku Bijutsukan (寧楽美術館), which is within the garden grounds. I didn't go in though because I was getting too tired!

After Isui-en, I walked back towards Nara Station and made my last stop of the trip to Nara, Kofuku-ji (興福寺). It's meant to have two famous pagodas, but try as I might, I could only see one.

There was also an interesting building past the pagoda, which is worth a look if you have time. But, if you're on a tight schedule, don't bother with Kofuku-ji, go to the more impressive sights.

I caught the 16.30 train back to Kyoto, so it was one of the earliest finishes to a day I'd had on my trip. I arrived back at Kyoto station after listening to the Gwen Stefani album (I'd forgotten about all the Japan references that made a lot more sense after living there!)

I took a couple of photos and videos of Kyoto station and Kyoto Tower opposite the main entrance.

I went back to my hotel and then headed out again to find dinner at about 5.30. I found an okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) restaurant and decided to try Kansai-style savoury pancakes. After I ordered, they lit a fire under my table and brought the ingredients to the metal section in front of me. They cooked it all there, so I could watch it brown and sizzle away.

The finished pancake!

The meal was delicious, but the icing on the ... pancake, was the waitress' laugh. I'm not exaggerating at all, she actually laughed exactly like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons. It even ended with a throaty cough and spluttering.

On the way back to the hotel, I passed a restaurant called Iimura where my family and I ate dinner one night in April, and also a random giant teddy bear that was sitting on a chair outside a chair, that my brother couldn't help hugging.

Later on, after a bath in the ryokan, I took advantage of the free internet in the hotel's annex. I checked my emails and Facebook, and updated my friends and family of my movements.

As you can imagine, it was as hot and humid as ever outside, but with the help of air con, I slept very well.

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