Journey in Japan Part 20: From Deer To Eternity

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Today I have a rough plan. A day trip to Nara, with a stop on the way at Uji. Last night I arranged to meet my friend Slavek at noon. He was planning on going to Nara anyway, so we decide to travel together.  Slavek and I walk to Kyoto Station. I am pleased to find that he is a fellow fast walker. His pace matches mine perfectly. It takes us ten minutes at a brisk stride. On the way I stop off at Seven Eleven to withdraw a ¥10,000 note. We pay ¥240 and head to Uji by train. In Uji we are off to see the temple that is depicted on every ‘ten-yen’ coin.

We get talking about Japanese coins. The 100% aluminium ¥1 coin floats on water and you can stick it to any part of your face, and it will not fall. The copper ¥10 coin is why we are here in Uji, to see the temple. The ¥500 is the most valuable everyday coin in the world, and the most interesting. If you tilt it at a certain angle, you can see the Kanji for five-hundred-yen hidden in the grooved lines, “500 円.” Also hidden on the ¥500 coin in 0.2mm is the word ‘Japan’, spread across the face of the coin.

With me blathering on about coinage, we miss the stop to Uji. We get off the train, then cross the platform, before getting on a train bound for Kyoto Station. An easy mistake to make, and a mistake forgiven by the Japanese train ticketing system. We arrive at Uji Station and head to the ten-yen Byodoin Temple.

Byodoin is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another one off my list. It is one of the few examples of Heian temple architecture left in Japan. It was originally built in 998 AD. It doesn’t seem to attract too many tourists though, in fact, most of the people I see here are Japanese. The temple boasts the most beautiful of Japan’s few remaining Pure Land Gardens, and a small museum. Both are included in the entry fee.

The museum has won four architecture awards. Inside it houses 52 wooden Bodhisattvas, the temple bell, the south end Phoenix, and other historically noteworthy items. The temple bell here is also a national treasure. I discover that the golden phoenix here is the one depicted on the rear side of the ¥10000 note. More money musings. After we finish up in the museum, we hop on a packed train full of tourists bound for Nara.

We arrive At Nara just after 3pm. It is a warm afternoon, but thankfully quite cloudy. We head to Todaji Temple; on the way we pass a lovely pond with turtles swimming around. We also go via a few of the smaller temples, and a five-story pagoda. Kohfukuji Temple is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, but is sadly closed for reconstruction. It actually closed in October 2010 and won’t be ready until 2018. Eight years to reconstruct a temple. Just nuts.

And then there are the deer. Sika Deer roam freely through the town. There are an estimated 1200 Sika Deer in Nara. You can purchase deer snacks and feed them to the deer if you like. Someone told me that the deer bow when you feed them. We witness a herd waiting patiently at a red crossing light; only crossing when the light turns to green. Very tame, I thought.

Todaji Temple is the second largest wooden structure on the planet. It was built in the Nara period at the instruction of Emperor Shomu. We pay our ¥600 entry fee and walk through the gardens toward the temple. There used to stand two 100 meter tall pagodas on the temple grounds, but they were destroyed during an earthquake. In 751 AD, these pagodas would have been the second tallest structures in the world, after the Egyptian Pyramids.

Some interesting facts about the temple. Emperor Shomu issued a law in Japan which stated that the people should become directly involved with the creation of new Buddhist temples throughout the country. Thanks to the law, 2,600,000 people were involved in the building of the Great Buddha Hall, and the statue inside.

Another crazy fact, the Great Buddha Hall is 1/3 smaller than the original, having burnt down in 1180 AD, and then again in 1567 AD. That’s what you get when you build it entirely out of wood. I think that every temple I have been to so far in Kyoto has been burnt down and rebuilt. Inside the hall is the statue of the Vairocana Buddha. It is also known as the, “Buddha that shines throughout the world like a sun.”

This is the world’s largest bronze image of the Buddha. Towering up at 14.98 meters. The construction of this Buddha became close to bankrupting the Japanese economy at the time; consuming all of the available bronze in the country. Sadly, behind the statues are many small gift shops. They are so out of place and frankly spoil the ambiance of the scene.

It gets to being just after 5pm, so Slavek and I decide to grab some food in Nara. We eat far too much sushi. We manage to spend a total of  ¥6436 at the restaurant. After that we hop on the express train back to Kyoto, using our tickets intended for the local train. On the train the conductor asks us to pay an additional ¥510 surplus charge. The express train takes about twenty minutes, half the time of the local train. We walk from Kyoto Station back to the hostel.

In the hostel bar, I drink ¥500 glasses of Highball. It isn’t until my third drink that I decide to enquire about the price of a ‘double’. The standard Highball a little bit weak for my taste. “It is ¥500,” Daiki the barman explains. So after being here for five nights, I discover that a double whisky and soda costs the same price as a single whisky and soda. I also order some bar snacks, ¥100 for mixed nuts. Daiki places a small bowl on a tiny set of scales, pouring nuts into the bowl until they reach the specified weight. Just nuts.

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I explore the streets of Gion, the womb of a temple, the Star Festival, and the End of the World by clicking here.

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