Saturday, August 28, 2010

from Kyoto and Nara: the big, the beautiful, the loud, the comforting

[Warning: the longest of all Japan posts to follow; forty photos is an Ocean record for one day. It had to be: it’s not the splendidness of it all, it’s the variety that caused me to be a little shutter happy. Posts will be much, much shorter henceforth.]

The mountain, with arms stretched out protectively over my neighborhood (at least that is my image), never looked clearer, more in focus.


One o’clock. Breakfast time, if you go by the hour of my first coffee. Today it’s at Pau Pau, the little coffee shop in the house just up the next block. The place that was the site of my first coffee in Kyoto. The one that closed for two weeks for a vacation the very next day.

Ayami, the delightful woman who runs it, is out washing windows. I linger for a while before letting her know I am here.


It’s such a lovely place – she has ceramics for sale and art books to glance through and there is always good jazz playing.


She sees me and waves. She comes in, brings me the carefully ground, then brewed coffee and the slice of cheesecake...


She tells me she has been working on her English and she shows me her exercise notebook. I look at the phrases that she has translated: the sooner the better; don’t be overconfident; her face burned with shame... Japanese humility on the pages of foreign language instruction.

I ask her if the shop is open tomorrow – Sunday.

No, not Sunday, not Monday.
Ah, so I wont be here again.
I’m leaving early Tuesday.
But you will be back? When will you be back?
Next year maybe. I say this not because it’s true, but because it seems gentler than “probably not for a long long time if ever.” And still she looks unnerved. As if whatever story she had in her mind about me (after only two visits) now has to be rewritten.
I miss you, she tells me. I look at the shelves with ceramics. I reach for a cup with a bird painted on it.
I will take this with me. She shows me the tag with the price. Yes, I know. It’s the price of a good dinner. But yesterday I had no dinner and so now I have a cup. She wraps it carefully. Too carefully. I think about the rosé wines that I will throw in my suitcase carelessly in Paris. They will not disturb this cup with a bird on it.

She gives a little smile for the camera and then looks on as I leave.


At the subway station, I see that every half hour, the subway continues beyond Kyoto. Indeed, it picks up the railtracks and makes its way to Nara (40 kilometers south of Kyoto). It’s a 65 minute ride from my stop (Kokusaikaikan) to Nara. But, there’s people watching. Always that.


And soon we are out from the underground, passing through the region south of Kyoto.

Nara was the first capital of Japan a mere 1300 years ago, and though it held that honor for only 74 years (compared to, say, Kyoto’s nearly 700) it has the pride of a place of historical significance.

It’s a small city. The size of Madison actually. And there is one more thing that must be noted: it is one of three historically important urban centers in Japan that escaped bombing during World War II. The other two are Kyoto and Kanazawa. Ah yes. Within a train ride of each other.

[There is much speculation still as to why these three were spared. Some say it was at the persuasive voice of an American scholar who convinced the United States that art and historical treasures need to survive war, or we all will be the worse for it. That’s one version. Another: it was a strategic choice made by the U.S. government to start reshaping the strong feelings of dislike and distrust toward Americans then. And so on.]

For whatever reason, Nara gets to keep her history and her art in tact.

But what I notice first when I get off the train is the presence of deer.


Nara is home to some 1200 deer and they, as messengers of the gods, are quite the pampered lot. Mostly, they keep to the hills and parks. But sometimes they make their way downtown.



And it is so unnerving at first to see them. In the “what does not belong” game I played with my girls when they were little, surely in this city you’d have to say – the wild animals.

Are they wild? The signs, posted for once in a language I can read, say yes.


But, the deer know who butters their bread. People purchase deer crackers (thank goodness for that, because otherwise they’d feed them what we eat and surely that wont do) and the deer are not shy about nudging you to take out your pocketbook. They say that if you bow to them when you feed them, they will bow back. Appreciatively.




But the very first place I go to in Nara is, in fact deerless. The Insuien Gardens close early in the afternoon and so I am determined to get to them first thing. Perhaps you’re worn down by my garden descriptions. I’ll be as quiet as the spaces within the walls of this one were.




Not too far from the Gardens is Nara’s big draw – the Todaji Temple – built in the years when Nara was the capital. And here I must use words that commonly are thrown about with the mention of Todaji: large. Huge. Enormous.

The Hall of the Great Buddha is the largest wooden building in the world.


Oh, one more: crowded.



The Great Buddha himself is one of the largest bronze figures ever, anywhere. So, it’s all quite overwhelming (I'm posting an image with a monk passing in front, for perspective). And of course, the lesser figures within the temple are hardly insignificant.




The only “small” thing here is a hole in one of the wooden beams. It is said to be the size of Buddha’s nostril. If you can wiggle through it, you can have great enlightenment.


I can’t imagine a less exciting way to spend a hot afternoon than being wedged tightly, indeed stuck, in that beam. I’ll stay on the side of the unenlightened.

I exit through the massive wooden gate...


...and now I am in the woodsy park again. Following the visit to the temple, everything else seems quieter, gentler, less prepossessing to some, but delightfully more subtle in my view.

Even the deer are more subtle.


I walk toward the hills that sweep down to Nara. The park is shaded and not too warm. A water fountain encourages you to splash water on your hands.


Here, you’ll find the Kasuga Taisha shrine. A place of many lanterns. Both leading up to it and throughout the shrine itself.



Oh, that pre-evening light! How many ways can it dazzle the surroundings? Who said that the waning hours are the saddest in a day? A life? 


There aren’t too many people here now (I’ll tell you why in a minute). Only the occasional determined tourist. Or this woman – matching, in her black and moss green clothes, the colors of the lanterns.


And now I am out of the park, heading toward the Nara pagoda (no, not Japan’s biggest... the second biggest!)... here -- just have this side view, in the evening sun.


...but I am distracted by the loud music coming from the Naramachi district (where much of the café restaurant life takes place).

Dance. I am in the thick of Nara’s two day Basara Dance Festival – picking up on the 900 year old Basara tradition of dancing on the streets.


There are a lot of dancing groups. The common elements are that they’re original, energetic, with some tie in to Japanese dance forms.

A sample:




The snaking troupes are refreshed by roaming festival staff people who spray the dancers with cooling mists. You can't have too much water on a day like this.


Refreshment. I realize that I have been walking without pause for too many hours. I have been refilling my water bottle, but at some point, water is not enough. An iced coffee. Fantastic. To take with me on the train home.

The platform for Kyoto is empty. Of course. Everyone is at the dance festival. The direct subway connection runs no more, but there are plenty of trains going to downtown Kyoto. I board an empty car and settle in for the comfortable ride back.

I have no expectation of great scenery along the way. Riding down to Nara, I saw how long it took to leave the urban corridor. And still, Japan has her secrets, thrust upon you suddenly, so that you recoil.

Looking out, I see that we’re nearly losing all daylight. But beyond the cherry trees, there’s a temple, no? The train moves so fast, the window has too many reflections of the light inside the car, but still, I’m sure of it – a temple.


I glance to my left, across the aisle, and there is another, this time shockingly close to the speeding train.


And then, as suddenly, they’re gone and rice paddies recede into darkness and slowly the lights are those of a city as we enter Kyoto.

The books say that if Kyoto didn’t exist, Nara would be the most visited city in Japan. Maybe. But Kyoto has more than a mere concentration of Japan’s best art and historic temples and shrines. Kyoto has a mystique: a long past and a high pitched present. Nara, for all her large temples, feels like a small burg by comparison.

I eat dinner in Kyoto. It’s late, but the restaurants on the ground floor of the downtown Museum of Kyoto remain open – including the lovely Azami, where I sit on a tatmi mat and eat boiled radish and raw octopus in wasabi...


...followed by chicken soba. A glorious big bowl of comforting chicken noodle soup.