when herbivores attack! (day trip to Nara)

We take a day trip to Nara and are mobbed by voracious deer! We see big things, then even bigger things! No seriously, you have to see how big these things are. There are pretty views, a few key facts about restaurants, a hall with a MILLION ARMS. Then I go on about expensive department stores and we meet the Japanese DuffMan. It’s all pretty awesome, and to read it you just click here.

Wednesday: the plan was to wake up at the crack of dawn and jump on a train over to Nara, to wander through its park and meet its famous deer herd. We didn’t quite make the whole ‘crack of dawn’ part of the plan. Firstly because I’d been using my laptop as an alarm clock, and iCal’s ability to handle alarms set in non-primary time zones is pathetic, and secondly because the previous day’s thunderstorm had actually dropped the temperature to the point where I could sleep, and my body was making the most of it: I rolled out of bed at the relatively luxurious hour of 8:30am, and Miranda followed shortly after.

Figuring that 9-9:30 wasn’t really that late to be getting out of the house, we kept with the plan and after showers and breakfast found ourselves on a JR train to Nara, a roughly 50 minute ride away on a “rapid” train, which is basically JR’s equivalent to a New York, Boston or Philadelphia commuter train.

(JR also runs local trains that run on the same lines as the rapids, but stop at every little hamlet along the way, and look in their interiors much more like standard subway cars., and of course on the opposite side of the spectrum there’s the Shinkansen which runs on dedicated tracks and is the most awesome thing ever. But we’ve covered that already.)

Nara is a small town by Japanese standards: at around 370,000 people, it’s larger than Ann Arbor, Michigan, but smaller than, say, Cleveland. But once upon a time, Nara was the imperial capital of Japan. It was only the capital for about a century, but in that time it managed to accumulate rather a lot of temples, shrines and other buildings of historical importance: there are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nara. (There are a total of 20 in the entire United States of America, just for comparison, and only about a third of those are man-made.) Happily for day-trippers like ourselves, most of those are located in a single, easily walkable park just a few minutes away from the JR train station.

Of course, I couldn’t manage to get from the train station to the park without finding at least one thing amusing enough to take a photo of:

In addition to its temples and shrines (which we’ll get to in a minute), the Nara Park is famous for some of its living inhabitants as well: a herd of over a thousand sika deer which have inhabited the park since at least the 1500s. The deer used to be considered divinities, and killing them was punishable by death: nowadays they are themselves registered National Treasures of Japan, and presumably killing them is still discouraged — although we saw one shop offering deer antlers and hides for sale! (I presume that these were either from deer who died of natural or accidental causes or from deer not living in the park, but we didn’t think to verify it.)

The deer of Nara Park aren’t tame, but it’s a stretch to call them wild. They are very used to having inquisitive humans wandering up to them, and we saw several of them consenting to be petted for a while. (However, stern signs all around the park warn you against trying to pet any of the fawns, no matter how cute: the signs were all in Japanese, but the drawings of enraged deer parents made the self-correcting nature of that error perfectly clear.) Much if not all of their comfort with humans stems from the fact that for ¥150 you can buy a pack of deer biscuits and feed them by hand, and man oh man have the deer figured out that free food is awesome.

I bought my pack of biscuits from a vendor who warned me “keep moving.” I think she might have more accurately said “run for your life, son.” The moment I cracked the paper seal on the stack of 8 biscuits, I was immediately beset by a fast-moving herd of extremely hungry deer, none of whom were at all inclined to wait for me to carefully get each cracker into my hand and positioned for safe deer-mouth insertion. Instead, impatient deer heads butted at me from all sides, and when my hands (and their biscuity contents) were not accessible they began snorfling at my shirt and my pockets: by the time the process was over I had a good deal of deer drool on my t-shirt. The vendor’s advice to keep moving turned out to be very very wise: I made the mistake of slowing down for a second, and quickly found all of my paths of exit blocked.

I had to throw a few biscuits ahead of me to distract the damn things from my shorts and open up an escape route. My supply of deer cookies quickly exhausted, I opened my hands and raised them above my head, and damned if the little bastards didn’t know exactly what that meant, and quickly meandered off in search of the next gullible tourist to assault.

Miranda had had the camera in hand and was taking photos when not doubling over laughing. Since it had been so hilarious to watch me nearly get trampled by a herd of sacred deer (and just in case it’s not coming through: yes, this actually was hilarious, and I was giggling madly the entire time, even when I was nearly losing fingers), it was obviously only fair for her to try it next.

Unfortunately for Miranda, the deer did not seem so willing to believe that she was out of biscuits when the time came (perhaps they smelled the human-snacks in her backpack), and a small herd of them stalked her down the path for a good distance.

We eventually managed to outpace our pursuers (well, actually they just got distracted and wandered off), and made it to our first non-animal destination in the park, the Tōdai-ji temple.

To get to the main hall of the Todai-ji, first you have to walk through the enormous entry gate:

…with its stunning and not coincidentally also enormous guardian deities:

…but once you get past the gate and into the main complex, you find yourself having to revisit your assessment of the entry gate as “enormous.” Because beyond the gate is the Great Buddha Hall (Daibatsu-Den), and it dwarfs the gate. It dwarfs your house. It might well dwarf your city:

The Daibatsu-den is the largest wooden structure in the entire world. Let’s put a few tourists into that photo for scale:

The brain-melting thing is that this is the second daibatsu-den: the first one was built sometime in the year 740-ish, was destroyed in a fire, and had to be completely rebuilt in 1709… and the 1709 version is a third smaller than the original. (The original was also flanked by a pair of 5-story-tall wooden pagodas, which were never reconstructed.) This is really the scale model daibatsu-den, and it’s still nearly 300 years old and the largest wooden building anywhere.

Walking up the path to its entrance, you get the disturbing sensation that it’s looking down on you and is completely unimpressed:

So why would you build the largest wooden building ever, in the eighth century? Well that’s obvious, right? You build a Great Buddha Hall to house a Great Buddha:

The Great Buddha (daibatsu) of Todai-ji is a cast bronze statue that is just shy of 53 feet (16 meters) tall, and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 440 tons. I’m not sure if it’s still the biggest Buddha in the world, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and bet that in the year 746 when the statue was originally cast (it’s been recast a few times since then due to earthquake and fire damage), it was the Greatest Buddha by a good long yard.

Once again, let’s put in a full-size Miranda for a sense of scale:

There’s not much in the Daibatsu-den other than the Daibatsu itself (and two smaller gilt Buddhas — both Kannons if I recall correctly), but you’re allowed to take photos (really, what’s an in-camera flash going to do to a 50-foot-tall bronze statue?), and you can circle around the entire statue to see how it’s mounted into the building superstructure. Behind it, there’s a small attraction: one of the support pillars for the roof has a roughly 20-inch-wide hole drilled through it: it’s said to be the size of the Great Buddha’s nostril, and tradition holds that if you can squeeze your way through it, you’ve got a decent shot at enlightenment. Needless to say, enlightenment is best pursued by madly giggling six-year-olds:

Our circle of the Great Buddha complete, we checked our watches and our map: it was a little after noon, which was a bit later than we’d originally planned, but the park was small and it didn’t seem unthinkable that we could see one or two more of the notable sites there before taking off back to Kyoto. We’d been snacking from our horde of wasabi peas and crackers, so lunch wasn’t a high priority anyway. So we set off down a likely-seeming trail toward the nigatsu-do temple, which turned out to be a cute little hall and series of outbuildings a bit uphill and up a flight of steps from Todai-ji, with a tea shop just outside it that afforded a great view of the top of the Daibatsu-den and an expanse of the park looking back down.

Almost as importantly, when we reached the tea-shop we spotted another set of visitors having the single largest plate of shave-ice we’d ever seen in our lives, topped with green tea syrup. The temperature had been rising a bit (especially since the hall, on the hill, was free of tree cover) for the last few minutes, so this looked like about the best idea ever. As it turned out, it was the best idea ever:

Sharing a big bowl of green tea shave ice, sitting on a nicely padded bench, looking out over the park and an ancient Buddhist prayer hall? Simply awesome.

On our way away from the Sangatsu-den, we followed signs to the W.C. and found next to it one of the most thoughtful things we’d seen in Japan, a country not normally noted for slouching in the thoughtfulness department. It wasn’t clear whether it was run by the monks at Sangatsu-den or by the civil park authorities, but in any case, right next to Sangatsu-den was a huge “rest area”: a building nearly as large as the prayer hall itself, with chairs, tatami-mat tables and sinks. The ceiling was high and big fans kept the air circulating, and best of all it had free hot water and tea. Having just bought a huge shave-ice, we weren’t really needing any of the amenities there, but several families were seated around tables eating picnic lunches they’d packed, and were obviously grateful for the chance to take a break.

Our way back to the main path led through the rest hall and back around, past some unmarked buildings that appeared to be part of the Sangatsu-den complex. On a high beam near our heads on one of the buildings we were passing, we noticed a slightly frazzled looking bird, chest puffed out, holding its ground firmly and staring at us. At first we though it might be injured, but then we heard a small cheeping sound from the ceiling nearby:

Aha, mama bird was guarding her nest! All tourist pedestrian traffic suddenly ground to a halt as everyone pointed their cameras upwards to take pictures of the babies, no doubt frazzling the mom’s nerves even more.

The next interesting-looking site along the path was the Kasuga Shrine, about 1.5km away. The walk was mostly shaded under trees, and was quite pleasant by Kansai summer standards. Along the way there, though, we passed a stark reminder of why while you can still smoke in restaurants and bars in Japan, and non-Japanese signage is in general only spottily attended to, in all of Japan’s major historical sites, there are dozens of “no smoking” signs printed in every major world language, and repeated so that you can never fail to see them:

This wasn’t anything of historical importance: by the look of it, it was just a souvenir shop. But it had been made of wood to match the historical style of the park’s monuments, and when it had gone up it had taken everything that wasn’t made of stone adjacent with it.

The Kasuga Shrine is a shinto shrine dating from the middle 8th century, and is famous for lanterns: stone ones lining all of the paths approaching it from all directions, and brass ones on the inside. Obviously approaching the shrine near dusk when some of the lanterns are lit might have been preferable from an ooh-and-ahh perspective, but it was still utterly gorgeous.

I have to say: from a purely aesthetic perspective, visiting a Shinto shrine after what seemed like 8 or 9 Buddhist facilities in a row was actually a bit of a relief. Shinto houses of worship tend to be… not “spare” precisely, but there are few enormous looming buddhas with thousands of arms flanked by dozens of warrior demons. Kasuga in particular was very much focussed on a few key visual elements: the central stone gardens, the enormous and ancient trees that in some cases grew through the temple buildings themselves, the hundreds of lanterns inside and out, and the lovingly cared-for orange walls and internal passages:

…not that this reminded me of anything. We never made it to the Inari Shrine in Kyoto, so this felt a bit like that experience in miniature.

The inside of Kasuga lies behind wide orange walls, and has a path for visitors to walk that takes about half an hour to 45 minutes to get through, and lets you see just about everything other than the main temple itself, which is off-limits (although you can spot it through the internal gate). One particularly cute bit was a nearly windowless building used to store… what else, more lanterns.

Once we’d finished strolling through Kasuga, it was a little after 2pm, which presented us with a small dilemma: spend the rest of the afternoon walking through Nara park and its various sites, or hustle back to Kyoto in hopes of making it to one of the, oh god, more than a dozen sites still on our prospective itinerary, most of which would be closing by about 4 or 5pm? I’d been specifically interested in seeing Nijo Castle in Kyoto, and we’d passed on it for now two days running because we kept being on the wrong side of town. Its gates closed at 4, but the complex itself was open until 5, so maybe we could just make it…

We set off at a good clip down the central path in the park that headed straight back out toward the JR station. And we might have made it, if it hadn’t been for our meddling stomachs: by the time we reached the outskirts of the park, it was getting on 2:30, and a few handfuls of wasabi peas and some shave-ice were no longer cutting it as nutrition. Luckily, the park dumped us out onto a retail district, which itself was adjacent to one of Japan’s omnipresent covered shopping arcades, and we figured it would be a simple matter to find a take-away meal.

Here commenced a quick and thorough education in a small but important cultural difference between American and Japanese food service: in general, it appears, sit-down restaurants in Japan don’t do take-away. Or at least none of the ones in Nara do. Or perhaps we were using the wrong word for take-away. Point being, three restaurants in a row turned out not to do it, and while almost immediately after giving up on the restaurant approach we found a supermarket which did have premade and build-your-own bento boxes to go, the time spent asking for it added up, and we ended up on a 3ish train back to Kyoto…a local train. Midway through the ride, it became obvious that we were going to need a Plan B. Most historic sites in Kyoto close up at around 4pm, so our options were thin, but after some frantic page-turnig in Lonely Planet, we found one that managed to fulfill the tripartite criteria of being something one of us had previously flagged as interesting, was open until 5pm, and was close enough to Kyoto station to get there no later than 4.

The lucky winner was the Sanjusangen-do temple. Sanjusangen-do is a temple to Kannon (AKA Guan Yin), the goddess (or sometimes god) of mercy and compassion in the Buddhist canon. Sanjusangden-do is a nearly 400-foot-long hall, populated with a central statue (about 15 feet high and 8 feet wide) of the Thousand-Armed Kannon, flanked on each side by a thousand smaller (merely roughly human-sized) smaller Kannons, making for a thousand and one Kannons total, and one million and one thousand arms if you do the math (and accept a certain amount of fudging in the actual arm count: in objective terms, each statue only has a few dozen arms). The smaller Kannons are arranged in ranks ten deep, and you still have to walk past hundreds of them before you can even see the larger Kannon in the center of the hall.

I will probably be reincarnated as something scaly for having had Land of a Thousand Dances going through my head while walking down the aisle, but regardless, the row upon row of gold Kannons were monumentally beautiful.

Sadly, there is no photography of the interior of the Sanjusangen-do allowed, so you’ll have to either take my word for all of this, or look at the wikipedia page or this site, which somehow have a few shots of the inside.

The path through the temple is pretty much a closed loop: you enter on one side, walk past 1001 Kannons, then come back the same distance through a smaller hallway in back, which had a pair of unusual features: scale models of both the hall itself and one of the attending Kannons, in brass. The models were actually provided for visually impaired visitors so that they could “see” the hall and the statues by feeling them, which I thought was an especially nice touch.

As we were coming through the return hallway, the P.A. system informed us that the temple would be closing to visitors soon, so we hustled back to reclaim our shoes, walked outside and found a bus going back into downtown pulling up just at that instant, which we jumped on. We had vague plans of getting something to eat or maybe finding something non-religious to look at, but at least of getting closer to the subway. We found ourselves on Shijo avenue, distressingly close to that evening’s pre-Gion Matsuri street fair, which we didn’t feel much of a need to repeat. Casting around a bit, I noticed that we were across the street from Kyoto’s outpost of the Takashimaya department store, which we’d originally planned to visit in Ginza back in Tokyo, but had somehow managed to completely fail to find. Well, we didn’t have any other pressing engagements, so no time like the present, right?

My particular fascination with Takashimaya comes from the fact that alone among the major Japanese department store chains (high-end or otherwise), they have an outlet in the states, on 5th Avenue in New York City. Miranda and I had gone there for tea one sunday morning in 2003-ish and had then taken a quick peek through the rest of the store, where we’d managed to have what we’d thought were reasonably jaded New York sensibilities shocked by the prices: the single most reasonable thing I saw at their 5th Av store was a gorgeous grey men’s wool bathrobe that I had fallen instantly in love with until I’d turned over the pricetag and found out that true bathrobe love was going to set me back $750. Then we saw the furniture, and the zeros kept getting tagged on: I’d never personally beheld a six-figure price tag until then, and have not since.

Anyway, point being: in the states, Takashimaya is the most insanely overpriced department store I’ve ever gone into, and I was curious to see if it held true in Japan or if the US prices were a combination of shipment costs and marketing. The answer was: a little bit. In NYC, their store was relatively small compared to a Macys or a Barneys, and really stocked almost entirely Japanese brands. In Japan, they’re much more of a full-service high-end department store, and their clothing departments had little sub-stores devoted to all of the usual high-end American and European houses in addition to the Japanese ones: as Miranda pointed out, there wouldn’t be much point in stocking Burberry at the NYC store, since Burberry themselves have a store just a few blocks down the avenue. So in general, the prices were merely “breathtakingly expensive” rather than “grand mal seizure expensive”. Impressively, most of the attendants in the menswear section didn’t attempt to ignore my sweaty, grubby, be-sandaled self, and one self-sacrificing soul in the Issey Miyake section even offered to let me try on a jacket that I’d obviously been eyeing a little lustfully: after a moment’s hesitation (during which I contemplated both the state of my armpits and the store-wide hilarity that had accompanied my one attempt to try on a long-sleeved anything in Singapore), I regretfully declined.

After realizing that even the wallets and man-purses were in the “too overpriced to even consider as an excessive gift to someone cute” category, we headed down to the basement, because it is apparently the law that all Japanese department stores must have enormous food courts in their lower levels, and this store was no exception…

Oh god, have I just gone on at more length and detail about a damn department store than several centuries-old temples? Yes, I have. I am very, very sorry. I’ll try to wrap this up soon.

…and surprisingly, the food courts at Takashimaya seemed to only be a little more expensive than the food courts at any other department store we’d found in Japan. It did, however, have a few things we hadn’t seen before. Like… a bagel stand! Which, when we got to it, was selling… um… um… these:

Bagels, filled with ice cream. They also sold non-iced bagels, in varieties ranging from “arguably normal” (an “everything” bagel that seemed to have sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and cracked black pepper) to “outright insane”, such as the Green Tea And White Chocolate bagel. We bought one of the everythings and one of the green tea white chocolate ones, and I’m a little surprised to say that… they weren’t bad. They wouldn’t have passed muster at H&H, nevermind the mighty Brooklyn Bagel Hole, but they were better than a lot I’ve had elsewhere: chewy enough to suggest that actual boiling was involved, and a reasonable heft to them.

Having bought the bagels, a plan formed: since tomorrow seemed like it was going to require waking up really really early, for real, in order to stake out a viewing spot for the Gion Matsuri parade, why not just self-cater a meal from the food court, eat it at home and make an early night of it? Thus, we ended up with break from a French(-style) bakery, salami from a german(-style) deli, Japanese-made kimchi from a pickle vendor, some fresh fruit and handful of sweets involving red bean paste. Clutching our bags, we made our way to the bus stop, trying to skirt the edge of the ongoing street fair— a goal we mostly succeeded in, but we did have to stop and take a shot of this guy:

…and at the bus stop itself, as we were waiting, we noticed that in front of the illuminated bus sign, a very industrious spider was in the last stages of spinning a gorgeous web, and the next ten minutes of the warm night passed quickly as we watched her weave the center of her spiral. Just as the bus pulled up, she connected the last thread to the last spoke, and settled into the center to wait for what the night would bring.

And that would be a perfect end to this post, but I’m going to drag it out for one more small observation. I may not have made it entirely clear just how much into vending machines the Japanese are. The entire time we’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve ever managed to walk more than half a mile without encountering at least a soft drink machine, and often beer/sake and cigarette machines as well. And it’s not just in commercial neighborhoods: the rest stops on the paths in the Japanese alps often had them! So as we got off the bus and walked to the house, it seemed appropriate to stop and take note of this lone vending machine, light up brilliantly against the dark, in the middle of a completely residential neighborhood, with no other creatures stirring for blocks:

And that is actually the end of this day.

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