Saturday, January 12, 2013

The last day was spent in Nara.
Nara was, briefly, the capital of Japan. That was a thousand years or so ago. The intervening years have been kind to the city. It was home to some great warrior monks, as well as to both some great warriors (in the true military tradition) and some great monks (as in the make love not war variety). It is a Buddhist town; there are excellent Shinto shrines, but you go to Nara for the temples.
We were in Nara because the airplane ticket was cheaper if we included a night in a hotel. Not many nights, just one. It doesn't make much sense to me, but it must make sense for Expedia. And when I say cheaper, I don't mean by ten bucks or so; more like a hundred. And the flight routing was different.
Had I the choice to do it all over again, I would have picked to stay in a different city. Nara was convenient enough when we were planning to fly out of the Kansai International Airport, a flight that left later in the day. Along the way when booking all of the flights, I changed to fly out of Osaka International in Itami which, despite being technically an international airport, is primarily for domestic flights; we would go from Itami to Tokyo, then to the US.
We still probably would have gone to Nara, though.
Saying goodbye is always tough. My mother in law was on her way to work, so we said our goodbyes to her first. Then we woke up. Packed. Checked everything. Repacked because we had picked up a few things over the previous couple of weeks. Said goodbye to my father in law, then lugged our stuff to the station where we bought the train tickets for Nara, a two hour ride.
I wanted to sleep on the train, but couldn't because it was my last train ride. It was the last time I'd see the landscape I love so much, for indefinable reasons. Really, it's not that pretty. Between Himeji and the next stop for the express train (Kakogawa) there is a rural-ish landscape, with a mid-size (by US standards) rock quarry where they've been working for as long as I can remember, a weird bastardization of Sisyphus, except instead of rolling the rock up a hill, they're tearing the hill down, rock by rock, into its component parts until. Except it never seems to change the hill. It has always looked the same.
Kakogawa to Nishi Akashi and Akashi stations begins the transition from rural/agricultural to urban. I've called the region “suburban” but really there isn't much of a distinction in Japan; there isn't what we typically think of as urban sprawl. Even in the middle of nowhere, you go along and suddenly encounter a collection of houses, stores, banks, and a post office. This village – and they are all superficially very similar, for all that they have some wonderful distinctions when you get to know the place – sits on the verge of rice fields, or huddled tightly against a hillside. Space is maximized. Old houses are single level, sometimes two levels, depending on the era when built. Newer houses are more tightly compacted, three levels nowadays, which I think is not good for a society that is growing older.
From Akashi to Kobe the shift becomes less pronounced, at least for the first half, because the train line goes along the coast and the deep penetration of urban development is not as easily seen. Then, as the train approaches Kobe, tall buildings leap from the earth, and more apartments than exist in all of Nashville populate the visible space.
Urban Japan is all you have, then, through to Osaka. We commented on the development of certain areas that once were factories and very blue collar. Like Amagasaki. Once that station was a local stop, because there was no reason for an express train to go there. Now it is beautiful, with hotels and stores, restaurants and bars, and always apartments, more apartments.
Osaka is a great city. Like Tokyo, it is very busy, very active, but the feel is different. You can always hear laughter in Osaka. Actually that's true of all of Kansai, the name for that general region. Anywhere you go you will hear somebody laughing. Osaka has a background in commerce, and maybe it is that salesman background that has cultivated a love of talk, communion, friendship, and laughter.
We changed trains in Osaka. For reasons that I suppose make sense to whatever engineer worked out the train routes, we go West along the Osaka Loop Line, rather than East; Nara is to the East. Our train goes all the way around the city before heading towards Nara. Seems to me it would be much more efficient to go east; at least a half hour could be saved in doing that. Not that I particularly care. I enjoy the scenery. It has been at least seventeen years since I went through West and South Osaka. Much has changed. There is now a massive skyscraper south of town in an area that I honestly thought was economically depressed.
I went to Nara once when I worked in Japan, and then only on a business trip. I didn't get the chance to do much of anything, so I was looking forward to going back.
Our hotel was the Guest House Nara Komachi. I mention it because I want the place to get as much name recognition as possible, even in such a small audience as I can generate. The hotel is small and quaint. Less than five minutes from the JR station, it is ideally located to explore the city's many cultural attractions. Check in is at three; it was around eleven. They held our bags for us until we could return and complete the paperwork.
From the hotel we angled towards Nara Park before deciding we should eat something. I wanted Kentucky Fried Chicken. That might sound like an odd choice, but KFC in Japan really tastes good; I think it tastes good in the US, too, but the flavor is slightly different in Japan. So we had that for lunch. From there we headed up the main street towards Nara Park.
A quick note on bicycles in Japan. I'll give fair warning that I'm going to sound a bit like a crotchety old man for a moment. When I lived in Japan, all bicycles had a bell on the handle bars, so that when you had to pass a pedestrian you could give a ring-ring so they'd know you were coming. Evidently that has changed. Bicycles still have the bells, but nobody uses them. For two weeks I held back the urge to get upset at someone about this. I never did, mind you; but I wanted to, because countless times people almost ran us down because they couldn't be bothered to ring the bell. I have theories on this that delve into the social/psychological reasons for this, but I'll save that for another time.
Nara Park has a lot of very tame deer. There is a small industry in creating and selling crackers that, for a couple of bucks, you can buy to feed to the animals. Feeding the deer is not only allowed, but is encouraged. It is one of the attractions of the park.
We don't buy any crackers until our friends arrive; the deer, wise to this, don't bother us once they figure out we're not going to feed them. That is probably a great metaphor for at least two traits of human activity. My son and I pet the deer, which is odd, and we walk among the old temples.
Our plan was to go to Todai-ji to see the great Buddha statue there. We waited at the gate for everyone. When people started showing up I bought some food for the deer, and immediately became the most popular person in the park. Deer came from all over to bully me into giving them some food. They bit my pockets, and the kids had a fabulous time running away from the animals, tossing the crackers over their heads. I decided to treat the deer like I would my dog, and while I never got one to sit, using a firm voice helped with all but the most stubborn.
Todai-ji's gate is a sight to see. Like most Buddhist temples in Japan, there were guardians inside the gate, massive wooden figures. I joked with my son that they had terrible corns on their feet, a joke he got because there happened to be a couple of large knots in the wood used for the feet; my wife didn't think it was at all amusing, so I chalked it up to a humor translation issue.
We ambled towards the main hall. That's not a word you get to use much in life, but it perfectly described the slow, somewhat haphazard way we went, always going in the general direction we needed to go, but doing absolutely nothing to get there fast. And, more importantly, not caring. These were old friends, including a few people from our very first days in Nashville. Everybody mingles in the slowly moving group, catching up with old friends, getting to know new ones.
You haven't lived until you've seen an old, large statue up close and personal. It gives you perspective. Once upon a time, in an era when even pen and paper were commodities, someone figured out the best way to make a massive figure. In the case of Todai-ji, the figure is made out of bronze, adding a couple of layers of complexity, and parts of it have been re-cast over the centuries. I have no understanding of the “bronzing” process, mind you, but it seems very complicated to do the first time; having to redo a particular part for some reason, and to make it match the rest of it – especially something as obvious as the head – is really beyond me.
Walking in a large temple is different than the small temple up on Mt. Masui in Himeji,which rivals Todai-ji in age, if not grandeur. Having a large bronze statue of Buddha can make all of the difference in the way you see a place. Large, famous temples are tourist attractions. Much like Notre Dame in Paris, Todai-ji sees more visitors because of the place itself than from any religious reason. Zuiganji, in contrast, is more like your local church; it is beautiful, and has beauty and wholesomeness that in many ways equals its more famous cousin. But it isn't the same. Isn't in the same historic town blocks from the station and other almost as famous temples. It isn't quite as grand. Which is why people will visit Todai-ji, but worship at Zuiganji.
Two-thirds of the way around the Buddha is a “tunnel” cut into one of the large pillars. It is the same diameter as the nose of the statue, and kids crawl through it. The purpose is to give a sense of proportion. A giant Buddha statue looks great when you're down below staring up, but it isn't easy to really understand just how big it is. The giant Buddha in Kamakura lets you go up inside of it; that's a great way to get your sense of proportion. In Nara, there's a tunnel cut into a pillar. It might seem sad in comparison to going up inside the bronze, but it isn't at all. Because the kids laugh as they crawl through the hole the size of the statue's nostril, and they giggle and line up again and again, at some depth completely unaware that they're doing anything other than crawling through a hole in a giant column of wood. And isn't one of religion's greatest attributes is that it makes the children smile? For thousands of years, even while some faiths resorted to fear and anger, most realized the need to be there for children, to teach them (some would say indoctrinate, but it was better than no education), to give them joy and hope in a life that wasn't usually so pleasant. Some of my favorite memories are of Sunday School and the friendships that I have to this day that started in church, even though some of those people long ago gave up the faith. When a religion ignores youth, when it throws it away for some cause or other, that's when you should run away.
There is a small gift shop in the temple. My son bought a souvenir for a young lady friend of his. I wanted to buy a roof tile. For just over $10 you could buy a roof tile, put your own message on it, and then forever be a part of the temple. I didn't. Not sure why, because I really wanted to.
We leave the temple and go to a couple of others in the area. Unwilling to break apart the group, one of the kids breaks out jump ropes, ties them together, and the kids run through the spinning rope in turns. Some have never done this before, including my own son. And me. Other adults join in. It is a laughing, joyous time.
That word again.
Laugh.
There is always laughing in Japan, as I noted in a previous post. In Nara, we laugh. That's all life needs. Laughter.
It grows dark and we head, reluctantly, back toward the main gate to the temple.
There is another great word for walking: sauntering. In Appalachian pronunciation, it is “sainter” and that is what we did. An old friend and I walked, slowly, while the rest of the group packed up. He and I are old friends. Because of him I play soccer at least once a month. He is the one who first organized the Japanese community at Vanderbilt into a group that gathers to play one of the world's greatest sports, a group that, generally, is inclusive of anyone who wants to play, regardless of skill. I talk to him about recent developments in the group, the increasingly competitive nature of things, and my dissatisfaction with that because it detracts from what I see as our charter. But things change. Maybe I'm just getting too old. I miss Takeshi, I realize.
Afternoon waning, we slowly separate. My wife, son, and I head to the large Shinto shrine in the park: Kasuga Taisha.
It is crowded with New Years visitors, a reminder that, in Japan (and other parts of Asia, I assume), New Years isn't a single-day holiday. It is a very pretty shrine, a great way to end what has been a great trip. But there isn't much to say about it other than that. Kasuga Taisha isn't all that large, and it was growing dark so we needed to get back.
Walking back to the hotel, I talk. It's the stress, frustration, and anxiety that makes me chatter. I don't want to leave Japan, but cannot stay, and there are no jobs doing what I do in Japan with my level of Japanese reading/writing.
Ramen for dinner, an appropriate choice for our last meal. It was very good, a unique flavor with hints of citrus peel. At the station we bought the bus tickets for the next day, then went shopping for some last-minute souvenirs: my son always buys candy for his friends.
The hotel check in was smooth. The owner had already moved our bags to the room, which I thought was a great touch. On TripAdvisor.com, the hotel had a couple of bad reviews that I didn't understand. It isn't a large room, but it is Japan: hotel rooms aren't large in Japan, especially at a place that is considered a budget hotel. But it is very nice. Bunk beds so we all had a place to sleep. A good shower. Flat screen television. WiFi in our room, free. Lights in the beds to read by so we wouldn't disturb anyone else, with curtains you could pull around each bed.
I couldn't sleep. I watched television, read, surfed the internet. Anything to prolong the last night. In the end, though, I couldn't resist it. Sleep won.



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