Day 9 – Nara, not entirely as planned

One thing that amuses me about the trains here is the anti-smoking (and related) advertisements all over the place. In Australia, you’d have big signs saying “big fines!” and disgusting images of assorted cancers on the packets, not to mention huge taxes. Here in Japan, what generally stops people smoking is the culture that the public is of greater importance than the individual. So cigarette vending machines are practically everywhere – almost as ubiquitous as the drink vending machines, which typically average about two or three per block – and a packet costs just 300 yen (maybe $4 at current exchange rates), but people just don’t light up near others unless they’ve somehow given consent (usually by sitting in the smokers’ area). A far cry from the way smokers in Australia light up whenever they get the chance – and usually upwind. But on to these ads. James took a photo of a few, but they all have comments like “the only person not inconvenienced by your smoke is you” and “I carry around a seven-hundred-degree flame with other people passing by”. Public shaming. Such a harsh penalty. There’s a few on other topics in a similar vein. “When trying to read a newspaper, please read between the lines. In more ways than one.” “Make up applied on a train is an image down.” Et cetera.

Today we went to Nara – once again using our JR pass. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 AD, which means that this year it’s celebrating the 1300th anniversary of being made the capital. We hadn’t actually realised this until we got there – “1300 years” was literally plastered up everywhere. The place had quite a large number of foreigners too – possibly the greatest concentration since I came here. I was wanting to strike up (or attempt to) a conversation with one over the day, but I never could bring myself to do it.

In any case, Nara has a huge collection of ancient temples and shrines, a lot of them in the Nara-Koen deer park area to the east, and my guidebook had a suggested half-day walk to see most of them which we planned to do. We headed up the road from the station to the park, and it’s pretty clear it had been done up quite recently. It was quite nicely paved, a broad sort of promenade – the downside is that under the sun, the paved surface was baking hot. Heat was pouring off everything, and there was almost no breeze. Looked nice, though. One building even had a waterfall pouring down the side – closer inspection revealed it to be a public toilet. Hah.

Our original plan got thrown completely out of the window when about halfway down the road, we encountered a large group of women and children in matching costumes. James headed back to the information centre a block back to find out what that was all about. You know how I mentioned I wanted to visit a natsu matsuri yesterday? Turns out the Basara Matsuri was happening in Nara. Today. Well, yesterday as well, but more importantly, today.

Mind you, we didn’t discover the matsuri part of it until later – James was just told it was a parade, so we headed right back to where we started, as the parade was starting from the JR Nara station. While sitting and waiting for the parade to start, and old Japanese man next to us started up a conversation with us.It started with the weather, but quickly turned to politics. (As in, him: “It’s very hot here”. Us: “Yes. We’re from Australia, and it’s winter there.” Him: “I’ve heard it’s over forty degrees in Moscow. All the locals have to wear masks. We don’t like Russia very much.” And then it was politics from there.) He had some very strong feelings on assorted international relations. Eventually, we parted ways as the parade started.

The parade was impressive in and of itself. Basically each group in the parade would dance to a song being played from a structure on the back of a ute that would precede that group. Some of the groups had live singing or mixing, but others just had recorded music. The music was invariably quite catchy – a lot of it was Japanese pop style music, but some of it was Western and some was traditional Japanese set to a beat. The dances ranged from cheerleader-style to breakdancing to belly-dancing, to fan dances and flag dances and other traditional Japanese styles. One group was even a taiko drum group – I think I liked them the best, though it was difficult to say.

Most of the groups were impressively synchronised, though some of the younger kids in the earlier groups looked a little lost, and there was one group comprised largely of Westerners who looked a bit like they were trying to make it up as they were going along. After watching for about two hours, we decided to pop into a place along the road for lunch. We had a cheese ome-rice (chicken fried rice wrapped in an omelette) and a beef doria (some sort of cheesy-beefy-saucy layer baked on top of rice), half-and-half each, and juice to drink. Well I call mine a juice, but it was banana “juice”, which is more of a puree. And it was a banana juice float. All the while the parade was still going on outside.

Looking at the schedule, we realised the parade would go on for a few hours more, and it was getting on four by this point, so we thought we should at least try to take in some of the sights. We particularly wanted to see Todaiji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world (as I mentioned yesterday) and that closed at 5:30, so we decided to head there. On the way, though, we discovered the matsuri itself at the top of the road we’d been heading up. We took a stroll through the area. It had a stage where all the groups from the parade would dance again, and it had all the usual matsuri stands arranged around the edges – shaved ice stands, takoyaki stands, places selling fried chicken, dough balls, and even one place doing hand-cut sweet potato chips, frying them one at a time. There was even a goldfish-scooping stall. According to the schedule, this was going to run until about twenty to nine, so we steeled ourself and continued on our way.

The whole area, incidentally, was inhabited by deer. Sitting, walking, sleeping in the gutters and by the rivers, chasing people for food – especially those foolish enough to actually give them some. Smelled of deer, too. And deer droppings everywhere. Apparently in Shintoism, they’re the messengers of the gods.

Walking down some traditional Japanese residential streets, we encountered one place with a garden open for viewing, with free entry for foreigners. We headed in to have a look, but while it was really pretty and serene, large sections of the moss was brown and dry, which was a bit of a disappointment. James said later he’d intended to visit the one next door, and mistook which gate was which – what we could see of that one looked quite nice too. We headed out again and went straight to Todaiji.

The building was seriously impressive. We could see it looming over the trees from quite some distance away. Entry to the building was five hundred yen, but I think it was well worth that. Apparently it’s only two-thirds the size of the original, which was burnt down in a fire about two centuries ago, but the one that’s there now is still humongous. It contains apparently the largest indoor bronze statue in the world. It’s called the Daibutsu (which just means “big Buddha” and is not at all specific to this one) and that was quite impressive to look at too, though difficult to photograph, being indoors and all. One side also had a place where people could pay for a new roof tile, and sign it for posterity, and one of the recent signatures was by a woman who lives in Sydney. I thought of asking the three or so Western women in the room at the time if it was them, but I decided not to.

The back of the hall also had a pillar with a hole through it the size of the Buddha statue’s nostril – apparently being able to crawl through it will grant you enlightenment or something. One of the Western women managed it, to a general round of applause. (On a similar note, one thing I forgot to mention yesterday is than Oku-no-In at Koyasan had a booth where you reach inside and attempt to lift a rock onto a shelf. The rock is supposed to get heavier depending on your weight of sin. I managed to lift the rock to the shelf with no trouble – unlike those in the line ahead of us – so I’m idly curious as to what that implies…) Another area on the far side had people selling charms, fortunes, and prayers. And, according to the sign, “authentic Japanese souvenirs” – umbrellas. Do people want umbrellas for souvenirs?

We headed back out after photographing heaps (there was even a sign up saying “it’s ok to take photographs”) and headed back to the festival. We stood there for a while watching more dances. They were even more impressive than the ones on the parade, firstly because they had more width to work with, and secondly because they didn’t have to think about edging forward as they danced. Granted the parade wasn’t moving too fast, and each group moved mostly in bursts – they’d start at one point, dance and move up slowly for a while, then move up in one go to the next starting point. The taiko drum group played again, and I tried to take a video, but the sound of the drums is completely inaudible – the camera’s microphone is just too small to even hear it. Looks quite impressive, though, with them dancing in sync.

James had some sweet potato chips and takoyaki, and I stole one of each, and also had some shaved ice with mango flavouring and another one that was blue which I didn’t put too much effort in translating the name of. It’s blue – you can’t go too far wrong with blue. Unless it’s that blue pepsi they tried to make once which tasted exactly the same as the original stuff. After a hot day wandering around, shaved ice really hit the spot. As I said before, it was going to run until twenty to nine, so at seven we pulled ourselves away and headed back to the hotel. We would have liked to visit more of the temples and shrines in Nara, but the parade and festival were fun enough.

We’re checking out of Osaka tomorrow. We’re off to Hiroshima, via Himeji Castle. From here on we’re only staying at most two nights in each location – one night each in two hotels (one a ryokan) in Hiroshima, two nights in a ryokan in Kyoto, and two nights back in Tokyo, though in a hotel closer to the city center.

Today’s photo count: three hundred and eighty-six. Most of them of the parade and festival. Hah.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply