In my pre-trip reading – Nara sounded really cool. It was the capital of Japan for about 70 years – starting in 710 – and a backwater of the country every since. But my reading made it seem lovely – several interesting museums, traditional homes to visit (for free – we love that price point), a very intriguing guest host we could stay in at our price level, and it was the birth place of Japanese Buddhism in 703 or so.
What I didn’t know was that despite the fact that it’s a small town, it’s a small town with an agenda. It wants to compete with it’s bigger, more famous, and much more important neighbors – Osaka and Kyoto – and the city fathers are doing the best they can to make it so!
Some things are being doing very well too. Since it’s the original home of Buddhism in Japan – it’s famous among the tour group set – particularly the student tour groups. We’ve seen more student groups on tour than we’ve seen anywhere in Japan. And interestingly enough – some of them still do the ‘Hello’ thing to us as they walk by.
In case you don’t know what the ‘Hello’ thing is – every kid in a long group of students walks by and says – ‘Hello’. One after the other. Some of the kids branch out and say ‘How are you’ or ‘Where do you come from’ or other catch phases. They are clearly very proud that they finally have a chance to practice their English on real live tourists. It’s adorable.
When we were in Japan 20 years ago – all school groups did this. Today it’s one in 10 or so – and we’ve been told that those are the groups from well outside the major cities. Which figures – city kids see tourists constantly – the country kids don’t. So for them – we a treat.
Nara also has one of the best (and basically cheapest) bus systems we’ve run into. For 500 Yen you can get an unlimited day pass that is a small cedar plank. You wear this around your neck and just flash the drivers! Basically all the buses a tourist would care to ride are now free. Even if you aren’t prepared to cough up that much – a single ride is 210 Yen provided you stick to the city limits. But in addition to that – on the weekends Nara runs 3 ‘low cost’ bus lines on the heavily touristed routes. These smaller buses only cost 100 Yen – and they will do the trick if your desire is to arrive by train, visit the critical sites (The Big Buddha and the Deer Park) and then high tail it back to where you came from!
There is one obvious tourist confusing aspect of the bus system here in Nara – some of the bus lines require you to enter from the rear and pay as you exit, other lines work the other way – enter and pay immediately, exit when you want. Locals know which is which, and of course the bus drivers do – but us tourists? Forget about it! We are constantly trying to get on while everyone is getting off! It’s a mess. But I’m nit-picking – it’s still a really great way to get around the city.
Another thing that Nara has definitely gotten right is the Deer Park. This is a total hoot and a half. I didn’t want to enjoy it – but honestly – it’s beyond funny to watch tourists interact with Deer that know perfectly well that a) Tourists have Deer Crackers to feed them and b) Those Deer Crackers leaving the park! So while the deer are willing to bow to get a cracker – and they are even willing to pose for pictures, basically they know they have an easy life of it – and they put up with the constant petting, touching, and teasing with amazing grace.
Some deer have figured out that camping by the ladies selling the deer crackers is a winning strategy. Other deer have staked out their spots, and hang tough in that location. During one of our rest breaks, we watched a deer stand in one spot for at least 30 minutes – bowing repeatedly if needed to get a cracker. We also spotted deer that are just bored by the proceedings or have eaten their full for the day. They gather in the off-limits sections so the tourists can’t get to them.
And there are deer that clearly get off by playing with the tourists. They hang in the center of the pathways, shamelessly begging for crackers – and willing to what ever is needed to get them.
We are not talking deer in the hundreds by the way, we’re talking thousands of deer. And probably about an equal number of tourists. Not surprisingly – one of the big festivals here in Nara is the Spring Fawning.
Given the popularity of the deer park, and the historical significance of the city, and the marketing efforts that the city fathers have made to put Nara on the lists of all tourists – there are a lot of tourists!
Fortunately, they are clustered in the area near the Deer Park – making the Temple of the Big Buddha a tad crowded, and the buses heading to and from the Deer Park area packed. But outside of that space – and a couple of roads leading in and out of the area – the rest of Nara goes on with it’s business without interference.
And it gets worse – a lot worse – on the weekends. I’ve literally never seen this many tourists in one small space in my life.
On the good news side – Nara can handle crowds. In addition to the doubled up bus system on the weekends, the main attraction – The Big Buddha – is in a huge Temple. Plenty of room for everyone. And we arrived in the middle of a ‘classical’ concert! There was a wonderful Soprano with a glorious voice, accompanied by about 4 dozen kindergarten students who gave it all they had. Recognizable pieces included an hair raising version of Ave Maria – and an adorable ‘Take me out to the Ball Game’ – sung with tons of energy by the kids. For the music there was a piano, a violin and a cello. The acoustics were amazing.
Tourist bottle necks included the ‘crawl thru the nose of Buddha’ exhibit – which folks were lining up to do with great enthusiasm, and of course the bus stops. There was plenty of deer to go around however.
Once off the tourist track – the museums were lovely. Quiet, beautiful and generally free. We lucked into a tour of the section of the original Imperial Palace (703- 789 or so) that is being rebuilt in the traditional manner. But first they built a giant outer shell of steel beams, harnessed against earthquakes and Typhoons. Inside the outer shell is the area being used to hand carve using traditional equipment all the wood pieces needed to make the Main Gate of the Palace. Normally this area is closed to tourists – but when we were there it was open for visitors to go in and climb all the way to the top to gaze down from what will be the final height of the gate.
It was wonderful. There were craftsmen there showing us how to carve out the huge cedar columns and beams that will be used to make the Gate. We were told that all the Cedar comes from the Nara area. I was amazed. They are using only trees over 250 years old (the columns are huge), so there has to be a giant forest not too far away.
My other favourite site was the renown Gangoji Temple. While the Temple is beautiful, the highlight for me was the museum space where they had displaced some of the columns and beams they had found during the excavations. These wood pieces have been dated back to 700 AD! That makes them 1400 years old. Incredible.
For a garden walk, we opted for the free Yoshikien Garden rather than paying 900 Yen to visit it’s neighbor, the much better advertised Isuien Garden. We loved our tour of the Yoshikien Garden – we were alone on the paths, able to sit quietly on the deck of the tea house to admire the pond, and generally cool down from the heat and the hordes.
Speaking of heat – it’s been really really hot here in Japan. Over 30 degrees C (that’s over 90 degrees F) every single day. That kind of heat has taken a toll on our ability to get around – so that bus pass was a god-send.
One time we got on the AC bus, and it felt so good, we just rode around twice. The driver got really worried that we didn’t know we had to get off! He even found someone to explain that to us. But we re-assured him we were fine, and got off on the right stop the 2nd time around!
One final note – because of the heat – we’ve been visiting the local convenience stores in search of ice cream. And trying all the different options! I had a fabulous watermelon looking ice thing that actually had bits of chocolate placed into the red part looking like seeds. And the Intrepid Travellers favourite was a mint ice cream version covered in chocolate with crunchy pieces.
We are living the highlife here in Nara.
Signing off to check out a difference Convenience store (maybe their selection of Ice Cream is different) – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.
Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.