“Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and Tokyo.”
In my mind, I was aggressively shaking this friend of mine, who posted this on Facebook as her Japan itinerary, and asking her incessantly: “What? You’re not going to Nara?! Why are you not going to Nara? You have to go to Nara!” But in reality, I was pounding my keyboard with the hope of trying to put some sense into her. Then I decided against posting the comment.
I realized that what may be charming to me may not be appealing to others. The deer and Unesco’s World Heritage Sites may not be of interest to them so I kept my thoughts to myself.
Still, I cannot let it pass and I felt compelled to let the universe know how Nara charmed me in less than 24 hours.
Last year, I took my second (now annual) autumn solo trip to Japan and my itinerary included Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. Obviously, my main focus of interest were Osaka and Kyoto because these are the most popular tourist spots that I often read on travel blogs.
However, Nara was a beautiful surprise.
The first thing I love about Japan’s first permanent capital, which was established in 710, is while it is a major tourist destination, the visitors are significantly fewer compared to Kyoto and Tokyo. (I love Tokyo, by the way.) Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing tourists when traveling solo because it’s comforting to me. But the chaos in Nara seems more orderly than other tourist spots. I don’t really have an explanation to this but that’s just how I felt during my trip.
Armed with a map I obtained from the Osaka Tourism Office that I visited the day before, I decided to follow the yellow bus loop which would bring me to as many places as I could go to in one day. I want to believe that it was one of the reasons I am so in love with Nara. I didn’t have a difficult time navigating the city.
My first stop in the early morning autumn in December 2016 was Kofukuji Temple (The Temple that Generates Blessings). I’m such a sucker for centuries-old structures and impressive architecture so it’s no surprise that I have such profound interest in temples and castles in Japan. I was expecting a sea of people as I had experienced in previous days in Kyoto but was pleasantly surprised to see a manageable amount of visitors. It was not too crowded to take a photo.
Kofukuji “is a Buddhist temple that was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples” of the Heian Period (794-1180). But what captured my attention was the five-storey pagoda that towers above all the other structures within the location. It is considered the second tallest wooden pagoda in Japan today standing at 50.1 meters (164 feet). It may not be Taipei 101 but the fact that it was built in 730 fascinated me the most. I wasn’t even an egg or an atom in the universe then. Imagine.
It is said that during the Heian Period, Kofukuji became a dominant political power in Yamato Province. It was also affected by political turmoil during the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). A fire in 1717 hit Kofukuji and contributed to the decline of its power.
I found my way to the famous The Great Buddha of Todaiji, a symbol of the ancient capital of Japan. So, this was where the tourists had been hiding. Everyone was jockeying for position to get a photo with the gates in the background. Instead of whining, as I did in my past travels, because of the amount of visitors, I found that the people would help me illustrate the enormity of the gates. From afar, the people looked like a colony of ants.
I later learned that Todaiji Temple was built to protect the country, which might explain the extreme scale of its design and size. Inside is the 14.7-meter (48 feet) Great Buddha holding up the palm of the right hand as if giving his blessing to visitors who come in the temple.
The grounds leading to Todaiji Temple were littered with deer and food stalls. I thought the biscuits were for humans and I was puzzled why it wasn’t properly wrapped. I almost bought one package for my mid-morning snacks. I realized only when I had walked a good 10-15 minutes that the biscuits were for the deer.
The deer seemed to have gotten used to interacting with humans but I did not attempt to pet them or give them biscuits because to my heart they are still wild animals and I wanted to treat them as wild animals. I took a selfie with one, though, but from afar.
With no particular destination in mind, I decided to just stalk the people. I found out that most of them were on their way to Kasuga Taisha Shrine, another Unesco World Heritage Site.
The striking bright vermillion color of the shrine’s halls is a clear contrast from my first two temple visits (black and grey, anyone?). According to ancient myths, structures in this area, including the shrine, were built 1,300 years ago. The reason it looks newly painted is because of the “Shikinen Zotai” ceremony that happens every 20 years. The “ceremony” includes, among others, repairs of the walls and halls.
Unesco declared Kasuga Taisha, along with Kasugayama Primeval Forest, as World Heritage Sites under the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara in December 1998.
While waiting for my yellow bus, a deer, who looked harmless, approached me. I tried striking a conversation but he grabbed my map and ate it. I tried the tug-of-war trick and lost. Fortunately, and I know everything happens for a reason, I brought two maps: big and small maps. The deer got the big map.
It was almost sunset so I told myself that Gangoji Temple would be my last stop. As I treaded the streets leading me to Gangoji, I found myself time-traveling. I was distracted by the houses along the narrow streets and alleys of Naramachi that I completely forgot all about Gangoji. I was in a museum of houses during the Edo Period. Instead of quickening my pace because it was already getting dark, I found myself taking a quiet stroll absorbing everything I could from this impromptu history field trip.
Naramachi (Nara Town) is once the merchant district of Nara. Until today, the streets are lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, and ateliers.
As if saving the best for last, Nara presented the most breathtaking sight I have ever laid my eyes on: the Sarusawa Pond. In my subconscious, I felt like I was hearing a voice-over with the words, “A little parting gift from Nara.” I stood there with my jaw on the ground. I think time stood still for a longer period because I was trying to digest the beauty that was in front of me. It took my breath away.
The sunset added the dramatic effect on the trees and the temple. I sat on the bench and quietly immortalized the moment through my photos. Then, I fell silent and waited for the sun to set.
The Sarusawa Pond was created in 749. Legends have it that a maid of the court drowned herself in the lake following an affair with Emperor Heizei.
But the surprise did not end there. I didn’t realize that I followed the loop faithfully. It was only when I saw the Kofukuji Temple, with the Sarusawa Pond in the foreground, that I realized, I took a 360 degree trip of Nara.
The view of the sunset from the grounds of Kofukuji was a sight to behold. I could have easily filmed a romantic music video there.
As I descended the stairs leading to the streets that would bring me to the station, I knew that I had been wearing a smile that no one could really describe. It’s not just happiness but joy. I treaded the streets lined with souvenir and food stalls.
And Nara was not done with surprises. Do you know that famous mochi (Japanese rice cake) stall that features the fastest and most dramatic mochi-pounding process? I found it without really even looking.
Evening had arrived. I bought a mochi and happily ate it on my way to the bus station.