May 22, 2013
Kyoto Hana Hostel
The agenda for today was more temples, as if we didn’t get enough yesterday! When you visit Kyoto, which has literally thousands of temples and shrines, you sort of know what you’re getting yourself into, but luckily there are other options for when you’re feeling Templed Out. We weren’t there yet so took a JR train (using our JR passes – handy!) to the nearby city of Nara to visit three distinct sites; Kofuku-ji, Todai-ji and Kasuga-taisha.
After arriving in Nara and walking up a long street you reach Nara Koen, a huge park that encompasses all the sites we planned to visit and is also home to some adorable deer who are considered National Treasures and given free reign over the entire place. According to local folklore, the deer in the area were considered sacred due to a visit from a god and killing one of the deer was punishable by death until 1637. Before we saw any deer we were greeted by a group of school children who explained they were from a local school and wanted to ask us some questions. The assignment seemed to give them a chance to practice their English on native speakers and we briefly chatted about where we were from and our visit to Nara. They thanked us with small origami gifts and I snapped a quick picture.
We continued our way to Kofuku-ji, a Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I especially wanted to see inside the Eastern Golden Hall, originally constructed by an Emperor Shomu to speed the recovery of his sick wife. In addition to building the hall he installed a large Buddha,thought to have healing properties, to make her feel better.
Pictures weren’t allowed inside the hall so you’ll just have to trust me when I saw that the Buddha was beautiful and I hope it made the Empress feel better. The rest of Kofuku-ji was a bit of a bummer; they are in the middle of a huge reconstruction project (finish date 2018) and it costs extra to get into the Treasure House so we decided to wrap it up and move on.
On our way to the next site we came across a few of the famous Nara deer…and the warning that goes with them.
Doesn’t this guy look vicious?
It was turning out to be another killer hot day so we were grateful for the shade that lead the way to Kasuga-taisha shrine.
In fact, we weren’t really interested in the shrine at all, we were more interested in checking out the 3,000 stone lanterns that lead up to the shrine. Each one was totally unique and I could imagine what the glow from all those lanterns would look like. I’d have to come back mid-August or February during the Mantoro festival to find out though and I’m not sure I can get that much time off work.
Of course there was deer at this site as well. And this lucky guy got some of the crackers that the park sells for 150 yen.
Our last stop in Nara was Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple that houses the largest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan. The Great South Gate welcomes visitors and is as impressive as it is imposing.
Once inside the gate there are menacing guardian statues on either side.
After some winding trails you finally get a glimpse of the Daibutsuden, or the Great Buddha Hall.
To my shock and surprise we were allowed to take pictures once inside. In every other place we’ve been to so far photos have been strictly forbidden inside any area of worship so I had to ask twice to make sure. Their only rule was that you couldn’t use a tripod. Not a problem! What was a problem was getting an accurate picture showing just what a big boy Buddha was!
I found this picture that does a pretty good job at showing the scale but there was nothing quite like standing in front of him and looking up his nostrils.
(now back to my pictures)
Speaking of nostrils, behind the Buddha was a wooden column with a hole through it’s base. Popular belief dictates that if you manage to crawl through the opening (which is the same size as one of Buddha’s nostrils) you will reach enlightenment. I’ll let everyone know if I see a change in Jeff…
Wanting to make sure we were experiencing all the perks that Japan has to offer we decided to try kaiten-zushi for dinner, or conveyor belt sushi which is exactly what it sounds like. Diners sit at a counter and plates of sushi go by on a conveyor belt. When you see something that looks good you grab it. A stack of plates forms beside each person and at the end the plates are counted and you pay your bill.
I thought it was a great way to eat some cheap sushi (each plate was only 137 yen – roughly $1.40), but there were a couple things to keep in mind. We weren’t quite sure how many laps some of those plates made. It seemed like some of the less popular dishes just kept going round and around. On the flip side, the most popular pieces are usually quick to go so a good eye and quick hands are a must. If you want you can always order off the menu and the chef will make your order fresh, but that’s just not as fun.
At the time I didn’t realize it was a competition, which Jeff clearly won.
For dessert we were looking for a little piece of home so we stopped by Mister Donuts, a large doughnut chain in Japan that has been around since 1956. Now, I would never bash a delicious pastry so I’ll just say that Mister Donut has nothing on Tim Horton. Japan might have superior public transit, but we clearly win the doughnut war.