Day Trip to Nara

2 January 2017

After a quiet New Year’s Day, I really wanted to get out and see things on my last day in Osaka. My new Australian friend Gill, who I’d met at my hostel, was in the same frame of mind. Together we walked to Osaka-Jo, Osaka’s famous castle. While the grounds were nice to stroll, it seemed that everyone in Osaka had had the same idea, and it was packed with people, with a crazy long line to tour the castle. We opted out.

We sat on a low wall to have a think and figure out what to do. It was only 13:00. I regretted leaving my guidebook in the hostel.

“Hey, let’s go to Nara!” Gill exclaimed.

“Yes!!! Let’s do it!”

I’d heard about Nara from friends who have visited Japan, and it was high on my list. Nara has a long and rich history, was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794, and has 8 surviving temples and shines that make up a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also located a convenient distance from Osaka. By chance we happened to be outside the subway line bound for Nara; clearly this plan was meant to be.

While changing from the subway to the Kintetsu train line, we ran into Chris, an American  stationed in Okinawa who was also staying at our hostel. He was going to Nara as well, so the three of us boarded the train together. I’m really glad we ran into him. I wasn’t sure what to think of Chris initially, he’s an army guy from small town Oregon, not typically my type of person, but he turned out to be a really good person and fun to hang out with.

About half an hour later, we got off the train and followed the stream of humanity up the hill to Nara Park. Nara was nice, small and open, with lots of trees and a pleasant atmosphere. Chris said it reminded him of Oregon, and I see what he meant by that. The air was fresh, the scenery tranquil.

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General prettiness of Nara

Nara is famous for two attractions: deer and Buddha. A local legend of a god arriving in Nara on a deer has given the deer in Nara a special status as heavenly creatures, and a large herd of them roam through the town freely, congregating in Nara Park.

We purchased some deer biscuits from a peddler and went in search and there they were! Deer!!! So many deer. I’d heard stories about the Nara deer getting aggressive and chasing people to get food, but I think they’d had a big holiday weekend filled with handouts because most of them seemed kind of lazy and unimpressed with our offered biscuits. But there was this one old man with a plastic bag full of acorns that the deer were going crazy for, and he gave us a few handfuls each.

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Deer!!!
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Eat my biscuits!!!
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Warning: Nara deer have been known to get rowdy
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I’m petting a deer!

When we had pet, photographed, seen and fed plenty of deer, we got back on the path with the throngs of people to see Daibutsu, one of the largest bronze sculptures of the Buddha in the world. This was one of those experiences that on paper sounds just alright, but in person is quite incredible.

Before reaching the temple of the Buddha, you must first step over and through a massive wooden gate, flanked by huge wooden Niō guardians, who stand sentinel to guard the Buddha. We paid the ¥500 entrance price (just over $4) and paused outside the temple. I showed Gill and Chris how to purify themselves at the well, pouring water over first the left hand, then the right, and swishing some in the mouth. At the entrance to the temple, we lit some incense, waving the smoke over our heads like we saw others doing. 

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The gate to the temple

We entered the hall, blinking in the dimness, looked up, and collectively gaped in astonishment at the massive bronze Buddha before us. It is huge and majestic, circled in a golden halo surrounded by 16 other manifestations of the Buddha. As we circled the hall, somehow the Buddha just appeared larger and more impressive from each new angle. There were also other “attractions” filling the giant, crowded hall. One of the more popular attractions for children is a hole in a pillar that is the exact dimensions of the Big Buddha’s nostril. Those who crawl through it successfully are said to reach enlightenment. Outside the hall we all indulged in a few souvenirs. I purchased a phone charm of a deer with a small jingly bell on it that is so Japanese.

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The Daibutsu-den Hall
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Daibutsu in Nara, one of the biggest bronze Buddha sculptures in the world

By now, it was around 16:00, and we were all in desperate need of a meal. Off of a busy shopping arcade next to the train station, we managed to find an unassuming udon shop. It was quiet inside the shop, and I felt like we were transported to small town Japan, with an army of old, aproned women tending to us. I had hot sake and tempura udon, my first udon in Japan. It’s one of my favorite Japanese foods, and I can’t believe I’d been in Japan for over a month without having had it! It was perfect; warm, comforting, and fresh. We lingered over our udon and drinks, and it was dark by the time we left. We bought some hot, small pastries that were like little puffy doughnuts, which we ate on the train ride back.

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Tempura Udon
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Nara gang: Chris, Gill and me. Photo courtesy: Gill Collison
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Vintage beer poster in the restaurant

Back at the hostel in Osaka, we had a rest and then rallied the rest of our convivial dorm-mates to come out with us for one final night in Osaka. The seven of us, me, Chris, Gil, an Australian couple, an Italian guy, and two Japanese men, ended up having a riotous night out which included street food, Turkish ice cream, and our party taking over a weird underground bar. Around 1:00, our merry band spilled out into the street and hit up a 7/11 for beer and late-night snacks, which we drank and ate in the tiny hostel kitchen. We told each our life stories and bonded deeply, staying up until 4:00 when we all went up to our dorm together, like the sleepy, tipsy, loving family that we’d become.

This was perhaps one of the best travel days of my life. A day of beautiful scenery, moving attractions, delicious food, and amazing people in a fabulous city. Because what is travel for, if not to make connections? Connections with new places, new cultures, and new people. If all of Japan is like this, then I can’t wait for the adventures yet to come!

Happy Travels,

Mo

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