Two days in Nara-Japan
We arrived on the notoriously reliable and punctual bullet train at Nara station and hailed a cab. Neither his GPS nor directions from his fellow taxi drivers enabled our cab driver to locate the exact address of our Ryokan nestled in the tangled web of tiny lanes of Old Town Nara.
He dropped us off at the top of a lane too narrow for his cab to navigate. Lost in this warren, we wandered fascinated by our surroundings, looking for a sign or a marker that announced the name of our little inn, until we came upon two elderly women chatting to an aproned lady who was on the lookout for the arrival of two strangers to her street. She called out our names and welcomed us to Hotobil-her Ryokan.
In our upstairs room flooded with light, we gathered around a low table – surrounded by puffy scatter floor pillows. The table was set with teacups and two generous slices of freshly baked Green Tea cake – a precursor to her renowned five star breakfasts to come. Maps, bus schedules, and train schedules were laid out before us, and we set about planning our sightseeing route with our hostess.
Once out the front door, however, we realized that while the maps were great for highlighting the major places of interest, to find our way home at night through the maze of Old Town, we’d need to employ the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ method. Having no access to breadcrumbs, we took photos at every turn.
Our walk took us past storybook neighborhood wooden houses, and we stopped several times in beautiful little stores to ask for directions. The store owners and their customers would come out to the street to chat, take photos, share a laugh, and point us in the right direction.
We passed a little temple bathed in the golden afternoon sunshine, where a bride and groom in traditional Japanese bridal gowns were having their photos taken before the wedding ceremony.
When we emerged through a narrow lane to the wide open space where the Ara-Ike pond lies, we were greeted by the sight of trees ablaze in gold and red, green weeping willows, and the five story pagoda, that all cast their reflections into the pond creating a perfect double, autumn painting.
We visited the Kofukuji five story Pagoda, and the Nanendo (Southern Octagonal Hall). Sanjo-dori Street – the lively main shopping and restaurant street – is one block from the pond. While the more upscale, high quality, and small atmospheric restaurants are tucked into the nooks and crannies of the Old Town.
Nara Park, which covers 1,600 acres (660 hectares), is perhaps the biggest attraction in Nara, as are the sometimes aggressive doe eyed deer that wander the park being fed and photographed by a never-ending stream of visitors.
Early morning, before the crowds arrive and the earth and air are still fragrant and moist, is a lovely time to begin one’s exploration of Nara Park.
A walk through avenues lined by moss covered Shinto Shrines brings one to the red, Kasuga Taisha Shrine: a gem on the North-East side of the park.
As luck would have it, we visited on a Saturday when several masters of martial arts were performing the moves of an ancient duel. We stood riveted watching their artful and graceful moves.
That day also happened to be the day of an important festival for children. As we were about to take our leave, families were arriving dressed in their most elegant clothing. The children, in their outfits made from stunning combinations of patterned fabrics, looked like a collection of exotic Japanese dolls.
A short distance from Kasuga Taisha Shrine, we caught one of the small busses – that constantly run through Nara Park – to the Todaiji Temple.
While we had read about the Todaiji Temple, we were unprepared for its sheer grandeur. This Buddhist temple was commissioned by Emperor Shomu in the early 8th century to house the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha: Fifty feet in height, using over 400 tons of bronze, 286 pounds of gold, 165 pounds of mercury, and 7 tons of vegetable wax. Over the centuries it was damaged by earthquakes and fire. The present Buddha dates back to the late 12th Century, and is housed in an all wooden building 157 feet in height, said to be the largest wooden building in the world.
Not far from the temple is the Todaji Museum, which features rotating exhibitions of a vast collection of religious art and ancient treasures.