Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/1 - Day 16 - Nara and Fried Things on Sticks

East and West Breakfast at the Nikko Nara
We overslept until about 8:00 today, due to a combination of walk exhaustion and highballs. It was raining in Nara, and continued to do so for the remains of the day. Breakfast this morning was of a buffet sort at the hotel - a combination of Japanese and western style. Again, buffets are usually kind of awful, but this one was well attended, which helped the quality, and they actually put on a pretty decent spread. We filled our plates with runny scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, grilled fish, rice porridge, shumai and dozens of other little things and ate two meals worth of food. Sean also had more repellant natto. I'm a little surprised we didn't get any looks from the quantities we consumed.
Nara is known for a few things. It was the capitol city on and off again, the longest stretch of which was about 70 years. According to wikipedia, during the shogunate, it was common practice to move the imperial residence every time a prominent member of the family died, for fear of  angering the dead relative's ghost by sticking around. That means there were a lot of imperial residences, though most of them were made of wood and very few have survived. Nara is most famous for Nara park, which houses a few very important Buddhist temples and a *lot* of deer.
The Nara Deer are everywhere in the park
The deer in Nara are pretty awesome. They act more like goats than deer, and they are everywhere in the park. They are completely unshy around people, probably because of how much they get fed by tourists, and they will come up to you, playfully eat out of your hand or allow you to pet them, and then equally playfully shit all over your shoes. Shitting aside, they are pretty adorable, and even though photography was difficult as it was pouring for most of the morning, seeing them wandering around the park was a pleasure.
The first temple we visited was just off the main road, and featured a famous five-story pagoda, second tallest in all of Japan next to Toji temple in Kyoto. We free English speaking tour guide came up to us and gave us a verbal tour of the elements that make up the pagoda and we learned a bit about how the temple is designed to withstand earthquakes by allow the different floors to shift around the main support beam in different directions.
After the pagoda we walked through the park and visited the largest wooden building in the world - the Daibutsuden (great Buddha hall) at the Todaiji temple complex.
The giant Buddha at Daibutsuden
The building itself is very impressive, but the most impressive piece is the enormous 50 foot tall statue of Buddha within the shrine, surrounded by more-than-life-size bronze Bodhisattva and flanked by two more huge Bodhisattva. The whole main statue is massive and weighs more than 500 tons. In 855 the head of the Buddha randomly fell off and had to be reseated, but despite a few fires and earthquakes, the temple and the statues are more or less original.
Todaiji is connected to several other shrines and temples in Nara park via a path through the forest, parts of which are lined with beautiful old lanterns. In some areas, these lanterns are covered in moss and ferns - the whole area looks like something out of a fantasy movie. Many of the lanterns are also covered in paper, and we wondered if they lit the whole thing up at night. It seems unlikely now, but one can imagine they used to do this with oil reservoirs and the path must have seemed very mystical indeed. From Todaiji we walked along the base of Wakasuka Hill where more deer were hanging out.
The Lantern lined path leading to Kasuga Taisha
The rain had stopped at this point but most of the tourists weren't quite out yet, making the walk a little more pleasant. Through the lantern strewn path we went to Kasuga Taisha, famous for its bronze lanterns and homage sites to gods that ward off evil and the spirit of the summit of the mountain. There is also a darkened corridor that is dimly lit by hundreds of bronze lanterns, made to simulate a lantern festival that used to take place there.
It was early afternoon, and there was still one specific site we wanted to see in Nara, on the other side of town. We hopped on a tourist bus, which was a slower trip but cost about half as much as the city bus. We were bound for the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was excavated in the 1970s and relatively neglected until the early 2000's when the Japanese government decided to reconstruct (based on paintings and, to be honest, a whole lot of guessing) how the main building of the palace would have appeared in its hey day. There was a festival going on at the site but we never actually figured out what it was. There was food carts however, and in the end, food carts are all that matters.
This time I decided to get a little crazy and try a Korean street food called Pa Jeun, which are scallion pancakes. This was served with a flaming hot kimchi, possibly the hottest I've ever experienced. It was a great combination with the mild, oniony pancake. We also had some pour-over coffee, because daddy needs his coffee. The hot coffee actually played surprisingly nicely with the kimchee.
The Daigokuden, the recreated central building of the
Imperial Palace at Nara
The recreation of the main building of the Imperial Palace, called the Daigokuden (Great Hall of State), was finished started in 2001 and finished in 2010. The place still looks and smells brand new, but give it two or three hundred years and people will probably start thinking its the original again, like with many of the other rebuilt structures in Japan. It has beautiful paintings on the inside and the whole thing is done in a similar fashion to other structures of the era, so they're hoping for a measure of authenticity. It was an interesting comparison to see a structure just newly reconstructed, compared to the reconstructions of the past. We left Heijo palace right when the festival decided to let out, so we were jammed into the tourist bus like circus clowns, with way too many people to be safe, and carted back to Nara station. This is the closest thing we've experienced to the "packing in" that is usually seen on the Tokyo subway, and it was pretty unpleasant. Everyone was nice enough about it, really, but when you get that many people into a single vehicle, you're bound to invade on someone else's personal space.
Around 5:30 we boarded another local line train to Osaka. We once again transitioned from city to country to city, and were left in Osaka itself, a much bigger city than Nara by far - the third largest in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama. We followed our hosts very specific instructions to our airBnB home for the next three nights. It's another nice apartment, very quiet, just outside the Dotonburi shopping/nightlife district, so it's pretty much perfect.
Fried things on sticks at Daruma
We left the apartment intent on finding a ramen shop that our hosts gushed about, but when we discovered it, we also discovered a line practically around the block to get into it. This was even with the rain coming down pretty heavily. We decided instead to find a kushikatsu place that Trip Advisor recommended, but before we got to it, we found another kushikatsu place with a crowd of locals around it, and decided this was the place we wanted. The restaurant was called Daruma (transliterated 'Dharma'), and it pretty much rocked. Kushikatsu is fried shiskabobs - its fair food. Stuff deep fried on sticks. Need I say more? Ok, I will. There was variety of meats, veggies and other things to choose from, and a perfectly reasonable English language menu to order from. We had chicken skin, chicken tenders with garlic, quail eggs (amazingly good, the yolk took on a sort of deviled egg consistency), mochi (awesome), sausage (not so awesome, more like jimmy dean red hots than actual meat-food), octopus, beef, eggplant, sweet potato, regular potato...good lord did we eat a lot of those sticks! If you go, it's worth the wait in line, really. The staff are very personable, and the whole place has a fun, if a bit loud, vibe.
Tomorrow we have little planned. It's supposed to rain all day, so we're going to try to do indoor things and have a sort of off-day so we can wind down a bit. I might combine tomorrow and the next day into one report. Anyway, off to do more things!

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