Sunday, 7 June 2009

Day 745 - Nara

Kyoto was a former capital or Japan, it looked it too. On the surface it looks pretty much like any Japanese city, a bit of a sprawl around the edges with a modern central area, but with Kyoto you don’t have to dig too far below the surface to find that it is very different from the other cities. There are temples here, hundreds and hundreds of temples and shrines, enough to keep any fanatic happy for a long, long time. But everything is pretty spread out, so our first day in town was spent on foot, after 10 days on the road we were only too happy to leave the bikes behind for the day. We visited the castle and the Imperial Palace. The latter was free entry and run with typical Japanese organisation. First you had to book yourself on a tour which took a little form filling and having your passport checked, then you were allowed as far as the information kiosk, then to the waiting room where you were shown a 10 minute film of he route you would be taken on an the things that you would be seeing. The tour started, the group followed by a security guy at the back. This was the format we became familiar with at other sites over the next few days. The following days were spent on the bikes as everything else was spread out at all corners of the city, but but by the end we had a good feeling for the place, we liked it and were a little sorry to be leaving, we could have easily stayed longer but there are only so many temples that you can take in before becoming ‘templed out’. We ate well too, especially on the last day, rounding our stay off with an ‘all you can eat buffet’. This was just great for us. Being as we do most the cooking ourselves, the buffet enabled us to sample lots of different Japanese dishes, all very delicious and very good quality too, though every dessert apart from the yogurt contained good old soya beans. Almost anything sweet has either soya beans on the outside, or disguised and put inside instead. Here they had what I classed as ‘Soya Bean Surprise’, this had soya beans on the outside and on the inside!

Our time in Kyoto had been blessed with good weather, sometimes too good, too hot. Now we were ready to depart we opened the curtains to grey weather which by the time we were actually ready to leave had turned into rain, the type of rain that looked set in for the day, and that is exactly right, it rained all day. So we set off down the busy highway one in the wet, a horrible road, unsurprisingly busy, narrow, with a climb and descent through the hills. We were struggling to find anything positive in the day. By midday the only good thing was the trains that passed us, we were seeing the super fast bullet type things, and boy, did they shift, but they were also so quiet. We obviously don’t have anything as nearly as fast as that in the UK and why would we need them anyway? What’s the point of really fast trains if you are still going to be an hour or two late anyway? We stopped at a supermarket, Christine was cold and wet, very wet. Christine prides herself in being an ’ultra-lighter’, so everything of hers fit into just 3 bags, I carry 7! She also carries 2 jackets, so do I, but both of hers are crap and let in water at about the same rate that my t-shirt does. I have offered her a decent jacket before but she has always refused, but on this occasion to my surprise she accepted. It immediately raised her spirits, she felt much warmer and drier despite still wearing the soaking wet shirt underneath. She soon told me she was making plans of how she could get hold of a decent jacket. The rain continued, but at least we could get off the main road. We were heading for a museum, the Miho Museum, billed as ’The Museum on the Mountain’. We eventually saw a signpost stating we had another 15km to go, “That’s easy” called out Christine, “we will be there soon”. But the description of the museum was a bit of an indication of what might lie ahead, so for most of the 15km we were heading up hill and by the time we got there Christine exclaimed “I thought we were never going to get here!” But make it we did, and when we arrived we were treated like royalty, we were shown where to leave the bikes and immediately given umbrellas, though to be honest it was a bit late for that. Oh, that reminds me of the best cycle gadget here in Japan, the umbrella holder that fits on the handlebars so that you can ride along with your umbrella up, good for both sun and rain. We changed and dried ourselves off in the posh loos, then we were shown into a buggy to be driven the 500m from the museum reception to the museum itself. It was an interesting place, owned and run by a religious sect, designed by world renowned architect I.M. Pei, and built at a cost of $250m. The whole thing was packaged as a unity of landscape, architecture and exhibits. The exhibits were more for their beauty than anything else, displayed beautifully with impressive lighting, but in reality there was a huge building with not much in there to see, the architecture stole the show. We were driven back to the reception, doors were opened for us, then we were once again slung out into the rain. Thankfully Christine had cycled up with her eyes open and had spotted a good camp site just 2km back, so we returned down the hill to a wonderful grassed area beside the river, even with a little shelter nearby that we were able to cook under.

The following day looked far more promising as we started to climb back up the hill. Right from the start we were seeing other day cyclists on their racing bikes, it was a Saturday. We stopped for a long chat with one, Kazushi, he spoke very good English, that’s quite unusual here. Before long we were over a short pass, onto and off another main road and on a delightful road through the hills, made even more delightful as it was slightly downhill for a very long way, passing through small villages and tea plantations (photo), one of the nicest roads we have been on in my opinion. We stayed on the back roads all the way to Nara and got there much sooner than I expected, I had rather thought that it would take us a couple of days. Once booked into a nice little guest house with a tatami room and futons, we set about looking around the city and a temple complex complete with 3 and 5 storey pagodas (photo). Nara is another of Japan’s ancient capitals, but with all its main attractions in park land very close to the city centre, it has a very different feel to any other city. Along with its extensive park land there are hundreds of semi-wild deer, very tame and laid back, feeding off a bit of grass or loitering around the deer food sellers. But this is Japan where good manners are all important. I saw one man feed the deer, be bowed twice to the deer and the deer bowed its head back twice, only then was it given the food. Not all the deer had the same impeccable manners, others followed those with food and just tugged at their shirts if they didn’t get what they wanted.

We eventually had a reasonable night’s sleep, despite our host and his friends having a little too much to drink and making rather a lot of noise. After our free breakfast we returned to our room and had a proper breakfast. First stop for the day was the Todajii temple, probably the top sight here in Nara. Rebuilt around the 12th Century at about 2/3 of the size of the original building, the temple house a jolly big Buddha image and is the largest wooden building in the world, very impressive. Outside sits another image, a right ugly thing that looked like death warmed up. Legend has it that if you have an ailment and touch the corresponding part of the Buddha’s body, then the same part of your body, you will be cured. Jolly useful really, the only problem being about the only point that you could reach was its foot, you might as well go to a chiropodist! Next stop as the Kasuga Grand Shrine (photo), home to about 4,000 lanterns, about 2,000 of which were made of stone. We timed it well as the best thing about the place was the wedding that was taking place with the last bit of the ceremony and the photo session taking place right in front of us, complete with the women wearing the traditional kimono dresses. There weren’t many happy faces. Did nobody like each other or was the clothing just too uncomfortable? We broke the day with another buffet lunch, before exploring the old part of the city with lovely latticed wooden houses, one of which was a museum that could be walked around.

So tomorrow we move on again. As yet we have no plans as to where we will next make a stop, that means I have no idea how long it will be before the next update, so that’s good news isn‘t it?


dad said...

Always pleased to read about your experiences, but must admit I prefer the shorter ones. That's why I prefer Steinbeck to Dickens! Lovely photos as always.

Mally said...

Love the idea of an umbrella holder for the bike as I never go anywhere without my brolly and it's the one thing I miss when I'm on my bike.

Maria said...

Hey John - be thankful you are not in the UK tomorrow - a 48 hr tube strike begins at 7 am. And here we are in London at the moment - talk about timing!
Hmm might need to add Japan to our itinerary!

Caff said...

Blimey, another posting so soon after the last. Two in quick succession I'd better hurry up and catch up! :-)
Maria - if you are in the Oxford area (although I may have left it a bit late) let me know through this blog site it would be nice to meet you, a friend of John's.