Japan Tour – Nara

Tuesday, October 19th:

Miki and Ichiro Feed the Deer
Miki and Ichiro Feed the Deer
This is the day that we all pack our things to go to Nara by train. The modern history of Japan starts about 710 A.D. with its first capital, which was at Nara. Verbeck along with Lil and I had arranged to have our main baggage shipped ahead to Kyoto. By only taking an overnight bag to Nara, we saved ourselves the bother of dragging around the extra baggage. It is raining today, an aftermath of the first of two typhoons that hit Japan while we are there. The main brunt of this one has passed north and west of us and now the rain is the main thing we have to deal with.

We check into our hotel which is the Washington. It is a nice place and our room is similar to what we had in Osaka. We then assemble and head out for Todaiji Temple by bus. The original temple burned several hundred years ago. The present one is scaled to only 2/3 the size of the original. But get this, even at only 2/3 the size of the original, this building is the largest free standing wood structure in the world! We no sooner get on the temple grounds than we start seeing deer. These deer are similar to what we in Indiana called white tailed deer. However, in Japan they are simply called white deer or shika – and they are revered – they literally have the run of any place where they are found.

We also notice that almost without exception, we see lots of school children at the temple sites we tour – they seem to be on field trips. Sometimes it’s small children – like up through the 6th grade or so. Other times, it is high school kids. But, no matter the age range, they are always dressed in very smart and well kempt uniforms. And they also like to practice their English. Quite often, as we pass a school group, we hear the familiar, “Hello!” And these kids have obviously learned the “el” sound very well. Of course, I can’t resist the temptation to practice some of my nearly learned Japanese, also. I say things like, “Ohayo” or “Konnichi wa,” (hello) and sometimes, “Hajimemashite,” (nice to meet you). I sometimes don’t know whose grin in bigger – mine or theirs!

Outside one temple building on this site, I see Lil engaged in a spirited chat with what looks like a young high school boy. He knows something about the state of Michigan and wants to know where we live in relation to that. When Lil tells him that we are from the neighboring state to the south, his eyes light up and he gets real excited. Then his teacher gets interested and wants to take the boy’s picture alongside Lil. The next thing I know, I’m dragged into the picture and the rest of the kids are all excitedly carrying on like we’re some kind of celebrities. I’ll always wonder what kind of conversation results when that picture is shown around in Japan.

We have lunch that day in a small restaurant near the temple. Lil and I have a nice light rice pilaf which we have come to learn is a good thing to order. It usually consists of a generous helping of rice with bits of cooked shrimp or chicken and a few vegetables added. Not totally unlike what we would call “stir fry” back home. By now, I have finally gotten so that I can use chopsticks pretty handily – although I notice that our hosts often are “checking us out” in that regard. And by now, I’ve started to grow fairly comfortable with the Japanese monetary system. In real round numbers, a U.S. dollar is roughly equal to 100 Yen. So, when a meal costs say, 850 Yen, I know that means roughly $8.50. Imagine my shock back at the Umeshin in Osaka where we had the hotel do some of our laundry. We had the equivalent of one washing machine load of clothes and it cost about 6,000 Yen. (Yep – $60! Needless to say, we found coin operated laundromats after that.)

On the way back to our hotel, I spied a KFC sign. So, once we get settled in our rooms, I made a quick trip to the KFC store and got several pieces of Kentucky fried chicken along with some coleslaw and potatoes. Curiously, I noted that mashed potatoes were NOT an option on the menu (I am guessing that marketing surveys have indicated that mashed potatoes are not suited to the typical Japanese palate). Back at our hotel room, we ate our fried chicken and watched the Japanese equivalent of our World Series. The first game is between the Dragons and the Lions. And, get this – Tom Cruise is there to throw out the first pitch! There was lots of follow up coverage about Mr. Cruise who obviously is a much sought after commodity in Japan – no doubt due in part to his recent hit movie, “The Last Samurai.” He obviously relished being at center stage in the Japanese limelight and constantly beamed his big effervescent smile while gushing, “Thank you, thank you.” Frankly, however, we were a bit disappointed that he didn’t once make any attempt at saying anything in Japanese. Gosh, Tom, a simple “Konnichi wa” would have probably gotten you lots of extra mileage! But then, what do I know about being a celebrity?!?! Oh, well…..

Wednesday, Oct 20th:

Horyuji Temple
Horyuji Temple
Just like in Osaka at the Umeshin, the Washington hotel in Nara featured a nice Western style breakfast with scrambled eggs and bacon or sliced ham as the center piece. After breakfast, Lil and I followed a map that the hotel staff had given us to an Internet Cafe‚ about three blocks away. Internet Cafes seemed to vary a lot in Japan. They ranged from nice clean well lit places to some that were downright seedy. One was even located in the back room of an adult video shop and getting to a usable terminal was downright distracting! Most of the time, I had to initially show my passport and even pay a modest fee to join and get a plastic membership card. But the rates were always reasonable (one place was even free) and more often than not, a complimentary cup of coffee or tea was included. I have a Hotmail account and was usually able to log on and get a message off to someone in fairly short order. And I usually had time to bring up a CNN web page to see the major world headlines.

It rained all day today in Nara. We all went to the train station and took a train to Horyuji Temple. At this point, I should differentiate between a temple and a shrine. First of all, though, it is necessary to comment on the religions of Japan. There are supposedly about 83 million people who practice some form of the Shinto religion. There are about 80 million who practice Buddhism. Considering that there are about 120 million people in the country, it doesn’t require rocket science to quickly see that a lot of Japanese practice some of both of these two major religions. I won’t attempt to define each of these faiths. However, when it comes to shrines and temples, shrines seem to go with the Shinto and temples with Buddhism.

A true shrine is a sacred place and only Shinto priests are allowed to go inside the main building of a shrine. A torii (two uprights supporting a concave crosspiece with projecting ends and a straight crosspiece beneath it) usually stands at the entrance to a shrine as do two lion-dogs, one with its mouth open and the other with its mouth shut. Buddhist temples also have lots of rules associated with them. When you approach a threshold in a temple, you must step over first with your right foot. And I think you have to walk out backwards – so as to never turn your back on the Buddha. Flash pictures of the Buddha are a no-no, also.

The rain really got to us on this day. Our clothes were soaked by the time we got back to the hotel. We had borrowed umbrellas from the hotel and, as we came back in soaked to the skin like wet chickens, there were people from the hotel staff to greet us and give us a nice warm towel. Now THAT was a welcomed touch of class! But, dampened as our spirits were – guess what really cheered us back up. You guessed it – back to the KFC! Nothing like some Kentucky fried chicken to raise the spirits of the wounded. We ate our chicken that night and watched an old Robert De Niro movie “Midnight Run” which played with the actual English voices and Japanese subtitles. I truly hope that our Japanese hosts are not offended or feel slighted by the fact that Lil and I sometimes had some “non-traditional” meals. The fact of the matter is that we do not consider ourselves great food connoisseurs and often simply like to eat something familiar. When we visited U.K. back in 1996, we also sometimes frequented McDonald’s and KFC.