Kansai Field Trip: Day 2 in Kyoto (and Nara)

You’d think we’d get to sleep in on a Saturday, but no…

Right before the start of our trip, I had begun using a wonderful app called Headspace to help me schedule a bit of mental quiet time every morning. And I was in the midst of one such interlude around 8:00 a.m. when I was jolted out of my happy place by a chorus of taiko drums and flutes coming from the street below our apartment.

Now, Chris and I knew full well that we would be in Kyoto for the Jidai Matsuri, an annual festival parade celebrating the history of Kyoto during the time it served as Japan’s capital, but what we hadn’t known is that some of the participants do a lap around Nijo-jo castle before gathering at the Imperial Palace grounds with the rest of the people in the parade. But an early start to our day was just fine. We hopped on the subway (grabbing some pastries first, of course) and headed to the grounds to see everyone preparing for the  12 p.m. march to Heian-Jingu shrine.

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Something about this station map just spoke to me.

Based on my research, we had decided to wander the staging areas to see nearly 2,000 people gathering together in historical costumes instead of watching the parade itself. This would afford us the chance to spend the rest of the day exploring Nara, something I’d always wanted to do. It turned out to be a wise move, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone else with the Jidai Matsuri on their bucket list. It’s kind of awesome to wander among old Japanese men drinking beer and socializing (both in person and on their phones) at an otherwise questionable hour.

Their outfits did not disappoint, either. The day before, we had seen sets of them being laid out in rows at the shrine. Today, we saw them unfurled in all their glory. Not to be outdone, the various animals in the parade were also dressed to the nines. Even though everyone was still in “keeping it casual” mode, it was quite an impressive sight to take in.

After we had our fill of the festival scene, we stopped to pick up some omiyage for my coworkers and hopped the train to Nara. We stopped by the information desk to pick up bus passes, which make for a cool souvenir, given that they’re made of wood and look a little like the bath house tokens in Spirited Away. We also caught sight of a flyer promoting the blooming cosmos at Hanna-ji Temple. Thousands of purple and pink flowers in bloom on an overcast day? Oh, twist my arm. We made it our first destination.

It was ridiculously easy to spend over an hour in such a small place, and I could see that several others had fallen into the same beautiful trap. I made a couple laps of the grounds while Chris worked on getting his perfect shots, enjoying the light drizzle of rain and pleasant quiet that all of the temple’s visitors were allowing to exist. Even though the place was fairly active, nobody was ruining the moment by being loud or obnoxious. It was absolutely blissful.

We took a bus back into the city center to walk through Nara park and see the massive Buddha inside the equally massive Todai-ji Temple. Nara, by the way, has pretty much the coolest day pass of any local transit system.

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The park itself has existed since the 1300s, though the origins of the 1200 sika deer who call it home are a bit cloudy. The Shinto religion reveres deer as the messengers of the gods, and for a long time these deer were treated as sacred animals. These days, they’re a fairly mellow bunch who’ve learned to depend on the kindness of tourists. Comparing them to large, cracker-loving pigeons wouldn’t be unreasonable (though probably a bit sacrilegious). Still, it’s an amazing sight to walk amongst these incredibly tame and social animals. They’ll even bow to you when you bow to them, a trait they would appear to have developed on their own without any formal etiquette training. Take that, Henry Higgins.

After feeding them several crackers, it was time to check out the main attraction: Todai-Ji’s Daibutsuden (great buddha hall). The Todai-Ji complex was once the epicenter of Buddhist teaching in the region, housing six different schools of thought. The Diabutsuden, if you can beleive it, is actually a shell of its former self. The previous building, destroyed by a fire, was 30% larger than the  building you see there today. Even still, at over 180 feet long and 160 feet wide, it continues to be one of the largest all-wooden buildings in the world and is impressive from every angle. The giant bronze Buddha inside remains the largest of its kind.

We had less than an hour to take in this impressive sight before we and the remaining tourists were politely ushered back into the park by the staff. Dusk was descending quickly all around us. We hustled back to the train station to catch a ride back to Kyoto, and popped into Tennkaippin, a ramen shop near the apartment for dinner. Though a chain, it was profoundly tasty and the staff spoke decent English. I still tried to use my meager Japanese skills on them, which they humored. On the counter was an amazing spicy and salty paste that I couldn’t stop putting in my bowl. It was packed full of umami! We immediately crossed the street to look for it in the adjacent supermarket, but to no avail. However, we did come across some interestingly named candy.

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I should have taken the time to say “sore wa nani desu ka?” before we left. But perhaps it was best I didn’t come home with a jar of the stuff, as it had its revenge on me the following morning!

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