The real cultural capital of Japan08 March, 2011 by Chad
Nara, home to some of the countries’ most significant historical sites yet is often passed over by foreign tourists in favor of the more promoted Kyoto. Today we headed for this ancient capital city, where we would visit the greatest temple in all of Japan.
Woke up at a more acceptable time this morning. It’s a wonder what proper sleep could do for your mood. There were no Shinkansen headed to Nara, so we had to make our way to Tennoji to take a Limited Express train. The entire journey took just short of an hour.
I had a college from Nara but we weren’t sure which day we would be hitting the city, so I couldn’t organize a get together. We wouldn’t be spending much time in Nara anyways.
From the get go, I knew I was going to like Nara more than Kyoto. For one thing, it wasn’t as crowded here. There were a bunch of school kids having a field trip but not nearly as many foreign tourists.
There were a number of more interesting and significant shrines in Nara. But more people remember the city for its free roaming deer.
In Nara, you’ll find deer pretty much everywhere. Most of the deer hang around the vicinity of the temples and other places of interest as there are small carts there selling senbei (rice crackers) for people to feed them with. The deer themselves are considered sacred creatures.
Most of the city’s key sights could be accessed by foot from Nara station. Our first encounter with the deers would be at one of the many other temples on the way to Todaji. It was drizzling a little this morning and the deer were taking shelter at a gate here.
A woman was feeding the deer rice crackers at the gate. You could buy some from her for 150 yen, after which you’d be promptly swarmed by the deer.
The funny thing about Nara deer is that at some point of time they evolved the ability to bow at people. It’s not just a few either, most of them do it. They bow whenever they want food, or in response to any action. You could bow at them and they’d probably bow back. Japanese deer are polite.
Another secret action that only the locals knew is that if you were out of food and the deer were still bugging you, you just raise both your arms in the air and the deer would walk away disappointingly.
It was a distance to Todaji and we had to ignore some of the other temples along the way. There were just too many to cover.
Here we passed by a large building complex, that turned out to be a post office.
I was mainly interested in the giant Sentokun statue at the entrance. Sentokun is Nara’s mascot. They have mascots for everything in Japan. But no one likes Sentokun, not even the locals. More about it some other time.
The entrance to the shrine was just across the road from here, but there wasn’t any crossing. Instead you had to go through this long, dark underground passageway. I wonder if the deer use it too?
Later on our way back, we would see a bunch of Tokyoites (you could tell from their dressing) stuck outside wondering where it would take them. They sent one sacrificial member to brave the challenge. She soon popped out from the other side and beckoned them to follow. They all laughed about it after.
There was the usual tourist shops selling omiyage snacks along the route to the temple. All that food waiting to be eaten, yet the poor deer just stood outside patiently. The deer don’t go around begging or try to sell you overpriced tissues.
The rain had subsided but that also meant we wouldn’t quite know where puddles of rainwater ended and deer excrement started.
Todaji, the temple that we would be visiting today at Nara was perhaps the greatest single Buddhist temple in Japan. It was head temple of the region and the Japanese equivalent of the Vatican. People from all over Japan and even China came here to be ordained. The temple was so powerful at the time, that the government had to flee to Kyoto to avoid its influence.
A woman behind us saw this deer eating the leaves from the tree and said something like “silly deer, trees aren’t nice to eat” then gave it some crackers instead.
You could see the temple from outside the wooden fenced gate but entry to the main temple grounds costs 500 yen.
From just looking at it, we could tell that building was pretty old. It was covered in dust and not a fresh coat of paint like all the other places we had visited. The original Todaiji was established some time in the 8th century. So Shittenoji, which we visited at Osaka still held the title as the oldest but the current building was reconstructed in 1709, which still makes it older than most temples. This newer reconstruction is actually only about 2/3rd’s the size of the original but it was still crazy huge and the largest wooden building in the world.
Equally as impressive was this badass Buddha statue inside of the building. The metal statue was about 5-storeys high.
There were also a bunch of equally large stone guardians, models of the original temple and parts recovered from the original building inside. There was a hole in one of the pillars, which kids tried to fit through. It was completely ok to mess around here, encouraged even. Apparently those who manage to fit through get blessed in their next life.
Decided to skip the charms at this temple and get a deer plush instead, either way the money goes to a good course. Some Chinese tourists were put off by the fact that the toy deer were manufactured in China and decided to buy something else instead. Truth is though all the charms you see in all these shrines and temples are made in China anyways. Wait did I just reveal a trade secret.
There was a wooden statue of Binzuru outside of the temple. It is believe that rubbing part of a statue of Binzuru will cure any ailment on the affiliated part of your own body. I rubbed the donations box.
I considered the surprise and how fun it’d be, to herd some deer into the nearby toilet.
We stopped by a shop on the way to the nearby train station to grab some lunch. It had sort of affordable set lunches.
Meal there was decent. The main draw was definitely the fresh chunks of bean curd served with select sets. Enjoyable with just a tad of salt.
Then we took a train over to Yamato Saidaiji to visit the Heijo Palace.
The Heijo Palace was the site of the imperial throne back when Nara was the capital city some 1300 years ago. Unlike more contemporary Japanese castles, it retained many original Chinese influences such as the huge courtyard where imperial affairs were conducted.
The place was completely abandoned after the move to Kyoto until there wasn’t anything left of it at all. But sometime in 1952, the government decided that hey this place is important, and spent the next five decades rebuilding it based off a large archeological research expedition. All that effort and they didn’t charge a single cent to visit this historic site. Entry was free!
In fact, had this been a few months ago. There would had been a free shuttle bus service to ferry us over here too.
Lots of hard work went to the reconstruction of the Heijo Palace and that process was documented in the displays here. The entire building was constructed by hand, by master artisans from around the country.
Like at Kyoto, all these cultural areas tend to start closing at about 4 PM. So we headed back to Osaka after we were done being impressed by how much space Nara had to spare. But not before stopping to check to see if we had won any NMB48 Cancel tickets. This was our last available day to see a show. Nope nothing.
There was a large underground shopping area that ran all the way from Namba to the adjacent train station. There are a whole lot of underground complexes like this at Osaka that span over a kilometer long. We ended up at one of the cafes inside the complex that sold meals from 600 to 700 yen since we were already kind of hurting from the past days splurges. It was bad.
Then I finally dropped by an ABC Mart to get a new pair of walking boots. But by this 6th day my ankle was already pretty bad. But it did help a little.
Then we headed back to Nankaidori so that Yan could bask in the glory of the NMB48 theater one last time. I really wanted to like NMB48, don’t get me wrong. But having traveled all the way to Osaka and yet not win one of the 11 tickets I tried to ballot for felt pretty messed up.
There were a ton of people outside the theater. The thing is, there were always a crazy number of wota outside of the theater, despite the music group being only 2 months old. The fans here seemed more obsessed than even the AKB48 guys back in Tokyo. Even though NMB48 had just only released their first batch of BLT photos, some of them already had albums full of just that.
There weren’t live views of the performance like the Tokyo counterpart, so they mostly stood around waiting for the people to come out and tell them about the day’s MC. Today, there were disproportionally more people than normal.
Asked one of the NMB48 staff there though and it turned out that just a fraction of the crowd were here for that purpose. The rest were queuing up for a meet-the-fans session with some girl whom the staff described as being very popular recently for singing while dressed up in Evangelion cosplay. Didn’t quite catch her name but her posters were plastered at all the pachinko joints in the area.
Then back to the bookstore above the NMB48 theater where we left Wilson. They had some really great photography mooks (magazine styled books) that were actually insightful, as compared to the English published magazines and Wilson couldn’t resist grabbing a bunch.
We paid the NMB48 store a last visit. There’s an annoying security guard outside the store during the day but he was gone by now. You can’t even stop outside the store to put your purchases into your bag before he starts to shoo you off.
While we were there, the staff started taking out a stack of photos. Being the NMB noobs that we were, we weren’t quite sure what they were. Asked the girl there how it was any different from the normal theater photos (which you already could get a set of your favorite girl’s photos for 1000 yen). She said the photos in this stack were random and had comment cards (rare photos with printed on signatures and comments). Even though sales were limited to 5 per person, there wasn’t a crazy queue outside as you’d expect.
Yan bought a pack and got some random girls and his fated Ogasawara Mayu but no comment card. At first glance, it looked like just the regular theater pictures and it wasn’t till we returned to Tokyo that we learned that those were a completely different set. Moral of the story, if it’s limited just buy it.
We had to pass by Dotonbori anyways on our way back to the hotel but I kind of wish we didn’t. It was a Friday night and really rowdy over there. There were a ton of those sleazy host/kyabakura types here, more than you’d ever see even in Kabukicho. They were all over the place, in the streets, at the crossings. The entire damn bridge was just a mass of those punks.
We found more familiar territory at the Don Quijote building here. This one was particularly gaudy and it even had its own Ferris wheel. Grabbed a bunch of discounted snacks and drinks to last the next couple of days before heading back to our hotel.
Nara, awesome. Kyoto and Osaka, not really feeling you right now. Tomorrow, Hiroshima!Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.