Nara was once the capital of Japan. In 710 AD it became the country’s first permanent capital city, losing the title to Kyoto 75 years later, due to the corruption of the Nara clergy … plus ça change, as we French speakers say.
As it’s a city that’s so steeped in history and culture, I felt it would be the best place to indulge in a night in a ryokan – something that’s been on my list since I arrived. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and very different from the usual hotel experience.
For a start, you’re given a summer kimono when you check in that you can wear around the hotel. Being Japan, it comes with instructions on how to wear it, and I was told that ladies must tie the sash in a bow and then move the bow to the side –
– phew … managed to do that quite successfully. I’m a bit pink here after my soak in the hotel’s rooftop public bath – lovely view of the pagoda in the park.
I got my first pair of tabi, which was very exciting. I’ll have to wear them with my flip flops when I get home – they were a bit wasted in my hotel slippers.
Then there’s a kind of silk jerkin that you wear over the top of the kimonoto go into the restaurant for dinner –
The problem was that with everyone wearing the same thing –
– it looked rather like we were all in prison.
Although, of course, the food was immeasurably better than it would have been in jail. We had seven courses comprising beautifully presented little morsels –
– all perfectly designed to complement each other, with a balance of flavours and textures.
The breakfast next morning was equally spectacular –
– so I rolled out of the ryokan afterwards, practically spherical, ready to see the sights of Nara.
The Great Buddha is the number one attraction, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. I fought my way through the crowds to get to the temple which, incidentally, is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world –
Wherever I go in Japan, no matter which day of the week, there are always hordes of school children trooping around – I don’t think the poor little sods ever get a day off … and in full school uniform too. The kids at my school in England would have mutinied if they’d been told to go on a school trip on a Sunday in uniform.
The Giant Buddha, which practically bankrupted Japan when it was first built in 746 AD, is over 16 metres high –
According to my guide book, it’s made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kilos of gold – and it’s a very impressive sight.
Interestingly, one of the pillars in the temple has a hole in it which is exactly the same size as one of the Giant Buddha’s nostrils, and it’s believed that if you can squeeze through the hole, you will attain enlightenment –
Presumably you attain enlightenment at a later date, because none of the successful squirmers looked remotely enlightened as they lay on the floor panting.
I hung around for a bit because I could see a plump boy in the queue, and I was hoping he’d get stuck –
– but disappointingly, he finally managed to squeeze through with a lot of puffing and grunting.
Giant Buddhas aside, what Nara is really known for these days is deer – the native sika deer, which look very Bambi-inspired.
In the central park area and surrounding streets there are thousands of deer wandering around, waiting hopefully for you to feed them with ‘dear cookies’ –
As soon as you buy a pack, they rush at you, all trying to get more than their fair share –
So, naturally, there are rules on how to feed the deer –
and repeated warnings of what might happen if you don’t follow the rules –
– so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.
And everything in the town is deer-themed; even the wooden votive tablets in the shinto shrine –
I rather like Exasperated Deer and Quizzical Deer –
The temple has deer lanterns –
Even the traffic barriers conform to the theme –
And I was forced to the sad conclusion that you can’t improve an ugly baby by giving him a pair of cute Bambi antlers –
In fact, the only thing missing in this deer-saturated town is a delicious venison casserole. And the Japanese reluctance to eat venison has led to an over-population of deer, which destroy trees by eating the bark and devour farmers crops, threatening their livelihood and leaving no food for other wildlife.
If you lived in Europe, my little friend, your days would be numbered.