Just Me in Japan – Nara

Saturday 24 November 2012

After another sleepless night last night (with a baby down the hall that seemed to cry ALL NIGHT!), I’m keen for a slow start today.  Pulling myself together, I pop down the road to visit Nijo Castle. I’m a bit castled/templed out now, but Nijo is special…it’s known for its nightingale floors. And I’ve just got to walk on them!

“In his black-walled fortress at Inuyama, the warlord Iida Sadamu surveys his famous nightingale floor. Constructed with exquisite skill, it sings at the tread of each human foot. No assassin can cross it unheard.”

Across the Nightingale Floor, Liann Hearn.

Nightingale floors (uguisubari), were floors designed to make a chirping sound when walked upon. These floors were used in the hallways of some temples and palaces, the most famous example being Nijo Castle. Dry boards naturally creak under pressure, but these floors were designed so that the flooring nails rubbed against a jacket or clamp, causing chirping noises. The squeaking floors were used as a security device, assuring that none could sneak through the corridors undetected. Very cool.

Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle’s palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep. After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994. The entire castle grounds are surrounded by stone walls and moats.

Moving on from Nijo, I really want to try and get to Kiyomizu shopping street today, but for some reason it is illuding me. I wanted to try and get there the other night when I mistakenly followed the Philosophers Path (wrong phillosophy). Again today, I just can’t seem to get it together to find it! So, as my time is limited because of this afternoon’s trip to Nara, I head to Shijo-dori, which could be called the main street of Kyoto. With a history dating back to the Heian Period, this street is mentioned in ancient records as Shijo Oji. The largest business district in Kyoto extends north and south along this street.

In addition to the great department stores and the enormous number of small shops and specialty stores, there are major arcades. The arcades are covered roads from which cars and vehicles are banned – making it easy to walk and window shop regardless of the weather. You can buy just about everything (from a wide range of budgets).

Shijo Street, like everything over the last couple of days is packed. I mentioned that yesterday was a public holiday, but because the public holiday preceeded a weekend, everything is just so much busier. It’s kind of a pain, because the Japanese just shuffle along, and not on one side of the path or the other either – and they seem to have an inate sense for when you are trying to overtake them, because they suddenly move over to close the gap.

I have just enough time to stop at a tonkatsu (bread crumbed dishes) restaurant for some lunch. Though the place seats no more than about 20, and there is no English staff, I bite the bullet, having looked at the plastic food models out the front, and walk in to order my meal and a beer. Success! I have just enough time to pop back to the hotel before I head to Kyoto Station for the tour.

“In 743, Shomu, the 45th Emperor of Japan, ordered an urgent meeting of his foremost trusted advisors. ‘Look,’ he told them, ‘things can’t go on like this. Recently we’ve had a smallpox epidemic, widespread crop failure, and – stone the crows – even an attempted coup. I’m beginning to get the feeling that someone up there doesn’t really like me, you know what I mean?’ One of Shomu’s advisors awkwardly cleared his throat. ‘If by “someone” you mean Buddha, master, then I have a plan…’ he declared cautiously. ‘Oh aye?’ yawned Shomu. ‘Let’s hear it then.’ As he spoke, the advisor warmed more and more to his idea. ‘Why don’t we build an absolutely flippin’ humungous statue of the Buddha, say around 16m tall, with its fingures alone each the size of a human being? It will use up almost the country’s entire stock of copper, but you wait and see if any more droughts or whatever occur after we’ve erected that little effort at Todaiji temple in Nara…master’. ‘You mean like a dedication, right?’ said Shomu. ‘Sounds great – get cracking, lad’.”

“A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan” by Ben Stevens

And that’s exactly what did happen. Nine years later, the statue was completed. And that’s what I’m off to see this afternoon.

Nara Park (Nara Koen) is a large park in central Nara. Established in 1880, it is the location of many of Nara’s main attractions including Todaiji, Kasga Shrin and the Nara National Museum. The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Nara’s deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be rather aggressive if they think you will feed them. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors asking to be fed.

 

 

 

 

 

Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples. Todaiji was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple’s influence on government affairs.

Todaiji temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and many Sika deer, which are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, roam the grounds freely, terrorising young children trailing bags of food behind them.

 

 

 

Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size. The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. 

 

 

 

Kasuga Shrine is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. It was established in the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. Kasuga shrine was periodically torn down and rebuilt every 20 years for many centrures. However, that custom was discontinued at the end of the Edo period.  Kasuga is famous for its lanterns, donated by worshippers.  Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches.
By the time we finished at Kasuga, it was turning dark again. The ride back to Kyoto only takes about 1hr, but it seemed eternal. I can’t believe my time in Kyoto has come to an end. I’ve fit so much in, but feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface again. There’ll always be next time…


 

 

 

 

 

 

Shinkansen, Geisha & Me

Flights? Check! Accommodation in Narita for my first night? Check! Accommodation in Kyoto?  Check!  Accommodation in Tokyo? Check (red light district seems suitable for a single female traveller – right???).

It’s all coming together. I know what I want to do and where I want to stay.  But I’ve never travelled by myself and I am freaking out!

I will arrive in Japan on the late afternoon of 21 November, so I’m not even going to chance getting on the trains. Instead I’ve opted to spend the night in Narita near the airport at the Holiday Inn Tobu Narita. Next morning I’ll go back to the airport, sort out my trains and head to Kyoto.

In Kyoto I’ll stay as near to Gion as possible (or rather as I can afford!).  I’ll be there for three nights and was thinking about doing a day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, but there seems to be so much in town I didn’t see on my last trip that I might just hang around Kyoto and explore it properly. I’d like to do an afternoon trip to Nara though, and would love to head back to Arashiyama to see what flavour ice cream is on the menu for Autumn (in Spring it was Sakura which was DIVINE!).

Then I’ll get back on the train and spend three nights in Tokyo. I’m booked in at the Best Western Astina Shinjuku, which is where I stayed with Mum on my last visit in April 2010.  Even though it’s in Kabukicho, it’s not too far from Shinjuku Station, there was lots of shopping and dining, and the hotel itself was wonderful. So it’ll be familiar to say the least…I’ll just have to keep away from the hustlers!

I didn’t get to visit Golden Gai either on my last trip, so I’ve found a tour company that does a night time tour of Tokyo, taking in Shibuya and Shinjuku, and of course Golden Gai.  I also want to do a day trip out to Nikko, which I believe is gorgeous in Autumn.  I’ve also booked a “Dynamic Tokyo Tour” that visits quite a few sights (some which I did see last time, but most that I didn’t get around to) and includes a barbecue lunch and a boat ride along the Sumida River. Apart from that, I want to do more shopping, hopefully pick up some of those divine, individually packaged strawberries from Isetan again and hopefully get to Yoyogi Park to do some people watching.

Then back on the train to stay another night in Narita. I’ll have about half a day to explore Narita, which a lot of people probably bypass.  There’s a lovely temple and park there, which will be interesting to check out.  Then I’ll be hopping on a plane home!  Easy!  Surely!

So 8 months to go, and I am so excited…