Our next stop on our Japan Journey was the Old Imperial Capital City of Nara in the Kansai Region. The younger sister city to neighbouring metropoli / metropolises / metropoles* of Osaka and Kyoto.
The only challenge was that we were 400km away, and on another island.
3 Trains and a ferry later and we had arrived in Nara. During the Nara Period (710 to 794) the Capital City of Japan was in Nara before Emperor Kammu moved it to nearby Kyoto. As such it has a large number of ruins, shrines and temples, all located within a primeval forest (Kasugayama Primeval Forest). Collectively they form the UNESCO Heritage site – “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”
The city of Nara has a unique character in Japan being modeled after the Tang capital of Chang’an in China – a street grid structure dominated by 4 main roads. This made it very easy to navigate around.The JR Rail Station was around 2km from where we were staying so we set off at a leisurely pace and broke up the journey with a lunch of Chicken Katsu Curry along the way.
Japan Tip #5: Panko Chicken / Tonkatsu and Chicken Katsu Don are the same thing – breaded chicken with a brown veg sauce (the Tonkatsu) – whichever way its spelled on the menu it means just one thing – awesome comfort food. #TheMoreYouKnow
After dropping off our bags we began exploring the old Imperial Capital…
The Magnificent Seven
Just up the road from where we staying for the night was the Kōfuku-ji Buddhist Temple. The National Headquarters of the Hosso School and once one of the Seven Great Temples in Nara. Built in 669 by the wife of a Japanese courtier Fujiwara no Kamatari wishing for her husband’s recovery from an illness and became a tutelary temple under the family’s patronage. The Temple has been demolished by civil war and fires on numerous occasions and almost always rebuilt afterwards. The Central Golden Hall was under re-construction during our visit.
The South Octagonal Hall (Red) and the Five Storey Pagoda are deemed National Treasures / Cultural Properties.
Next Door was a small shrine…
N-Ice to see you!
The Himuro Shrine is a small shrine but it has an interesting side-business – Being the Imperial Ice House it has put its past purpose to good use – Ice Fortune Telling.
More accurately called O-mikuji, this is the art of randomly selecting a future omen and then tying it to a pine tree if it is a bad one. (In Kanto the verb ‘to wait’ sounds like a pine tree – matsu) the hope is that the bad luck will attach itself to the tree and not you. The twist is that the ink is invisible and that one has to rub it across a large slab of ice to read it.
The reason that John tied it to a tree was because although it was a moderate good fortune the ‘Love’ Section had “Rival in Love may appear!” – best to not take any chances there.
From there we made our way into the rest of the temples starting with the very impressive Nandaimon (Great South Gate) that guards the entry to the Todal-Ji Temple (another of the Great Seven Temples). Either side of the doorway are the dancing figures of the Nio – a pair of silent guardian statues standing 8.5m tall each.
Film buffs would remember these gates from the 1958 John Wayne movie The Barbarian and the Geisha (they double for the city gates)
As impressive as the Gate was it was nothing compared to the Great Buddha Hall itself. Re-constructed in 1709 it is 50 metres wide and 57 metres long and until 1998 was the world’s largest wooden building. The original building was even larger and when completed in 752 was opened with a ceremony that pushed the definition of excess – 10,000 Monks, 4,000 dancers and the entire project nearly bankrupted Japan’s economy due to the level of Bronze used. Also all the gold had to be imported.
There is a little easter egg in the north-western corner of the temple – a wooden replica model of the entire complex including the pair of Pagodas that flanked the building. They are no longer here as they were destroyed in an earthquake but one of the golden sorin towers that would stand atop it. (this is below surrounded by deer)
The Buddha statue inside (Daibutsu) is the largest bronze statue of its type in the world with a shoulder span of 28 meters and weighs 500 tons.
Nara is famous for two things – Temples and Deer. There are over 1,200 wild sika deers wandering around Nara Park and being fed biscuits from the tourists.These cookies are called shika senbei and there are vendors everywhere. The deer in Nara Park are sometimes called “bowing deer” as they bow their heads to eat these biscuits from the hands of said tourists.These deer are also interesting as they do not lose their spots upon adulthood.
As touched upon in our Miyajima post – the deer are revered as they are seen as messengers of the Shinto god.
Between the temples and deer we got a lot of great photos and with tons of Sakura trees it just added to the sense of surrealism – this is the Japan I grew up seeing in movies and books.
Wishing upon a sunset
The sun was starting to come down as we made our way further into the scenic grounds of Todal-Ji and towards the Temuyama Hachimangu Shinto Shrine. The first evidence of which was a large Torii gate. Unfortunately as it was later in the day, the temple had already shut its gates but we did find a pretty sweet consolation prize…
Nestled on the foot of Mount Wakakusa is a hall linked to the Todal-ji temple. Nigatsu-do (“Hall of the Second Month”) would have served as for the monks in times gone past and now it has some of the best views back across Nara that you can get. With the sun-setting directly in front of us it made for a great moment of serenity – just staring out across the vista.
Genius of the Lamp
At that point the story should end. The day trip to Nara complete. The epilogue would talk of the short train journey back to Kyoto or onto Osaka. A reflection of the marriage of ancient tradition and culture with modern day commercial twist. Maybe even some lamentations about unfortunate deer incidents.
We were staying the night in Nara. We had after all travelled all the way from Miyajima Island that morning. So the show would go on.
Still full from our lunch of chicken katsu curry we set out for a drink and a wander of the streets of Nara city. Using google maps Karen had a lead… some place called Lamp Bar.
When you walk into the bar you go wow! Elegantly panelled with dark wood and even darker leather chairs,its walls groan with bottles, photos and a taste of yesteryear. You could easily imagine the Great Gatsby pulling up a seat and the long bar. Being served a cocktail martini by one of the tenders in their neat waistcoat and bowtie combos. This place was pretty awesome with a vibe that screams actual speakeasy. You kind of wonder whether your next sip of your drink will be your last – would some Chicago city cops break in and “shut this joint down”.
It is a combination of that that bestowed the title of being One the World’s Best 50 Bars. It also thanks to the celebrity status of its owner Michito Kaneko (2015’s World Bartender of the Year). He was in that night and mixed us our drinks – a mojito and an amaretto sour as he chatted about Sydney and a friend of his that was working in Bulletin Place.
We realised that we should have taken a photo with him but we did keep his hand-drawn map of somewhere good to eat that he was really kind to draw us.
Unfortunately Okaru was full so we went in search of dinner and stumbled upon a one room izakaya (pub dinner) place called Kura. It really was a stumble as you could easily walk past its door, especially at night. The food was delicious, the size of your fist scallops a stand-out item. The clientele was a mixture of locals and fellow travellers and it was a great evening. As we paid our bill we were given a postcard as a souvenir.
Nara is so peaceful at night we enjoyed our stroll back, even stopping to take a picture of the 5-storey pagoda from earlier on that day.
It was only a 45 minute train ride to Fushimi Inari, the southern suburb of Kyoto that we would be staying in next, so we had some time to see more of Nara the next morning.
Situated in the Old Quarter of Nara, the Naramuchi region, is the temple of Jurin-in. Pink and red cherry blossom trees line the small courtyard edges, its white alabaster walls marking a contrast to those at nearby Todal-Ji.
So magical mystical Nara was well worth the stop. Lived up to expectations and had a few surprises sprinkled on top.
Our last surprise came as we made our way to the train we passed an Owl Cafe. We had heard of Cat Cafes back in Sydney but boy were we in for an education by the time we reached Tokyo. More on that later.
*Good old Greek Making things difficult. Reminds me of this classic Far Side Comic.