Nara is a wonderful little Japanese town that lies only a short distance North East of Koyasan and is easily accessed by rail. This place is known for its collection of temples – one of which is the largest completely wooden structure on earth – and it’s wild deer – who roam freely throughout the town and are locally protected.
Unfortunately for us Nara was another all too brief overnight stop – which meant I didn’t get to explore every cranny of the town as I might otherwise have liked to.. But we did none the less manage to easily fit in the main temples and a fair amount of time with the deer as well as plenty of time beneath the beautiful autumn trees and a couple of wonderful, unplanned encounters with locals.. So we did pretty well with our time here.
Let’s start with the temples.
Todai-ji (Todai temple) is the main temple of attraction in Nara. And what with it being the largest all-wood structure in the world and what not, it has a pretty good reason for its fame. But the building is not merely structurally impressive – it also boasts beautifully kept lawns and a massive bronze Buddha – which are each amazing to view in their own right.
Unfortunately however, it is rather overrun with tourists – and during our visit, also with school children.. but ultimately I think that this has to be expected and it didn’t detract overall from the size, weight and general impressiveness of the place. And for an entrance fee of only ¥400 (about $6AUD) who can really complain? .. plus, as an added bonus, only a short 5 minute walk up the hill from the main structure of Todai-ji is Todai-ji Nigatsudo – a hall of worship with awnings full of decorative lanterns. And these aren’t just the standard, uniform, repetitive lines of identical lanterns that, although beautiful, are seen commonly throughout Japan. They are instead a higgeldy-piggeldy mis-matched collection of various sizes. Some large and simple, others smaller and more ornate, but all beautiful in their singularity.
And we had time to walk around a couple of lesser known temple grounds as well. Which we did in a slow, unhurried manner. In fact, although a day is never enough, our short time here was well matched to the small size of the town, and we easily got about a decent portion of Nara on foot without having to hurry between destinations. And I even believe that we were fortunate to spend our time here under a heavy grey sky. It suited the olden, ornate temple-scape in a special and deply moving kind of way that can be hard to describe, but that I think everyone feels. I guess it’s that sometimes the world seems to age beneath a grey sky.. and when the age of the earth is presented to us in this obvious way it’s as if everything must become still in order to understand. So a stillness decends on the earth that could never be achieved beaneath a busy blue sky… and everything, for a while, is grey and still and quiet and beautiful..
And throughout all of this exploration we interacted with the deer – which wasn’t just one or two deer – these critters were everywhere! Males (with and without antlers), females and their babies. None of which seemed to get larger than about hip-height – pretty small for deer I think – but, make no mistake, their small size did not detract from their confidence. And although the fawns were a little more standoffish than their parents, none of the deer would hesitate to eat out of an open hand. And every store in Nara sells deer crackers for a few hundred yen or a couple of bucks, so of course we immediately obliged. But did decide after buying only one set of crackers that it was better to just enjoy the deer naturally without giving in to feeding them. Because we were promptly chased down the street by a very butt-y male deer who persisted to ram us until all of our food stores were deteriorated. I guess I’d say it was pretty rude. But, despite this butting being quite intimidating and a little stressful for whom ever was the target, it was an absolutely hilarious sight as a spectator. I literally laughed myself to tears watching Sam attempt to passively avoid this deer’s attacks. I mean, it’s not like you can hit them back. And to run is not a sensible idea. All you can do is stand and accept the rudeness that is being dealt to you. And their butts don’t hurt in the least, and I’m sure they aren’t intended to. But there is just enough force behind them to, say, knock a cracker out of your hand and give you a little bit of a jolt. Sam claims that the main point that distressed him during the bombardment he received wasn’t the force so much as the ‘disrespect’ of the deer. It was just so totally unexpected. I mean, here we were peacefully strolling through the deer-filled Narnia of this little place and thinking we might treat these wonderful, dozey little creatures to a wee snack. Oh! here comes a male, strutting casually over, in no hurry at all, to say hello and then – RAM! (I have laughed throughout the writing of this whole paragraph just thinking about it – Sam was chased down a whole street while I collapsed in laughter and left him to his fate). But seriously, they really really were gentle, beautiful, docile creatures; they were actually lovely. And walking through the streets of Nara constantly surrounded by these furry companions was quite a delight.
And as for the human locals… Wow, Nara gave us a sense of friendly humanity that we found no where else.
First of all our hostel staff here were amazing. They must have been of a similar age to us, so speaking with them was easy and informal. They welcomed us warmly, showed us around with a casual and friendly air and asked us all about where we were from. And when we found out one of them was soon headed to Melbourne to work and travel we quickly exchanged details and encouraged her in her decision. So we now look forward to meeting her again in four months time when she arrives in Australia.
But it wasn’t just the staff – The other guests at our hostel were awesome too and added a lot to our excellent perception of the Nara locals (despite the fact that they might not necessarily have been from Nara).
In particular we had a rather wonderful experience with an older Japanese lady who was staying at our hostel, who spoke with us in broken English over breakfast. This woman had a very soft and gentle nature and seemed more than anything just to want to talk with anyone who would listen, about any old thing.. as all old ladies tend to.. And so as it came to be that as we were sitting around the hostels communal dining table together she told us about her life, her cat and general Japanese news and tradition. And seeing as we were eating, we sat and listened courteously, responding appropriately to her questions. And, as she continued we started taking some unexpected but genuine interest in a few of the things she had to say about the local area. For example, we were astounded to hear that some of the temples in the area had been put up for sale as firewood some time ago! And so we started warming to her, and ended up encouraging her to continue with her tales and random anecdotes throughout our breakfast period. And suddenly an old lady who I was at first reasonably wary of, was the centre of attention in the room, which, as more guests began to wake, was becoming fuller and fuller. It was like she had cast a calm spell on us. And by the time we had finished our breakfast she had not only our attention, but that of a few other guests too.. And then, as if the already quintessential image of herself was not quite complete she whipped out a tea set and quite casually.. before we could leave.. she prepared for us two cups of Matcha green tea – which she had bought with her from home! It was kind of ridiculously cute. And the tea was rather nice (and, we were told, it was also very pricey) so we felt quite spoilt in the end by our chance encounter with this lovely old lady, and we found it hard to eventually excuse ourselves from the table to get on with our day. But we know she didn’t put her tea set away on our account. There were plenty more hostel guests for her to entertain by the time we departed. And as a true testament to her kindness – when we returned to collect our bags over an hour later, she was still there, mixing tea for complete strangers and chatting away..
But, as adorable as the little old tea lady was and as relatable as our young hosts were the very best local encounter that we had in Nara did not take place within our hostel. It was actually at a random bar that I can’t even name..
You see, during our evening in Nara we met up with an old friend of Sam’s (who happened to have arrived in Japan only a week or so ago in order begin a university exchange in Nara) and decided spontaneously to make our way into central Nara to find drink and food. This friend had enjoyed eating somewhere here in the past that had decided he would take us to try it out. But alas, upon our arrival at this destination we found that his intended restaurant was already closing for the night. So somewhat reluctantly on his behalf, and absentmindedly on the behalf of me and Sam we decided that a neighbouring restaurant would do just as well. And fortunately the restaurant directly next door was still open and serving. So we entered.
It appeared just like any standard Japanese bar or restaurant – small, well lit and simply furnished with wooden surfaces and a bar set for guests to drink and dine at. And the bar, as is fairly typical in Japan, ran along the ‘kitchen’ space in a way that meant whoever’s preparing the food is kind of the centre of the room..
So we took a seat at this bar and we’re informed by the host that our meal choice was already made – 2 vegetarians and 1 meat eater was no problem, he would choose for us. Which made the experience fun from the start. And he chose well because the food was pretty damn good. But it was the host himself and his wife that were the real attraction – they were so gloriously casual and friendly and they seemed so happy in their roles. And we reflected later that this was something which you simply don’t see a lot of in Japan. This casual, happy-go-lucky kind of attitude – It’s rare in a country which is so obsessed with routine and formality and structure and the ‘right way’ or the ‘Japanese way’ of doing things. I mean even our Macha tea experience – which was completely unplanned – was about formality and the traditional way of doing things. But here, in this little restaurant, this couple was just living as they wanted. And it made the whole place feel so easy. Here they were running a small bar, probably in their own home, and they were enjoying it, and it showed! And maybe that was it, maybe it was because we were seeing this couple in a home setting and not in a public setting where there were norms and expectations to be upheld. But whatever the reason, it was gorgeous! And we loved every moment. I wish every human experience could be as open and friendly and easy-going as this one.
And the bartender could speak a little English and Sam has some understanding of Japanese so we were able to entertain basic conversation. And soon we found that one of the business men, seated at the bar beside us, also spoke a little english – so we got a small community going as he began asking us basic questions about ourselves and telling us a little about himself in return. And before long this business man was buying us sake and the bartender was throwing out recommendations too so that we almost had a tasting course going on! And in fact we thought we might even be starting to understand the difference between dry and sweet sake by the end of it all.. but I think really we had only come to understand that a variance exists in taste between brews.
So, in this way, we sat and enjoyed a shared sense of camaraderie in drink. And our Japanese business friend quickly grew drunk while we grew tipsy. And only after an hour or so like this did he get up to leave. So we waved him fervent farewell and thanked him for his company.
And little did we know… without our even realising.. he had paid our entire bill for us before he left.. And even if we had paid that bill it would have been a perfect night. But with this final act of random kindness we left elated and on high.
To have ended up at this place so coincidentally and have found such good company.. It was my favourite night in Japan.
But we couldn’t stay in Nara forever. Our next stop was Kyoto.