Nara, the 1st capital of Japan, and Kyoto, the 2nd

From Osaka, we went up to Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for several hundred years. The trip up there is amazingly simple, as there are several competing rail lines in Japan. So we had the choice of JR (the national line) or Hankyu, the regional private operator. We went up by the JR express, which was nice enough, and only took about 40 minutes to go the 35 miles north. This may seem slow, but when you consider the population density in Japan, the mountains, and the traffic invovled, it’s really quick.

Once in Kyoto we hopped on the subway and got up to the

Enjoying the hotel's common space.

region with our hotel. Once we came up from underground, Kyoto impressed us with its small-town feel. There were lots of wood-frame buildings, kind of like a ski village feel. Our hostel was located on the same street as a traditional, covered market, with fresh fish on display next to tofu and radishes, and kindly old merchants watching us warily as we dragged our suitcase down the narrow streets.

Finally, we got checked in to the Hostel Haruya, which was a charming, traditional old Japanese house with sliding screens, tatami floors, and a narrow, steep staircase that was best gone down backwards, like a ladder, to avoid falls and injury. Our host, like everyone else we met, was friendly and generous, always telling us the local sights, and how to get there.

We started out with a nice walk up

Rubbing Buddha's Belly

into the hills surrounding the Eastern edge of Kyoto. This random walking, like all walking in Kyoto, took us up into a temple grounds. This one happened to be under renovation, though the grounds were still beautifully landscaped. We passed through an old traditional village just below Murayama park, an area filled with narrow cobblestone streets, kind of a touristy area, with signs pointing out several sculptures whose bellies you could rub for luck. We tracked down several, and took our fill.

From there we wandered back into the city, stumbling onto one of the most famous districts in the city: Gion. This is where the greatest concentration of the traditional Geishas live and work.

Sushi chefs at work.

The Gion district has elegant lanes of reed screens, cobble streets,  and a bamboo lined creek.  There were a few  adult-looking storefronts, but there’s also a lot of good food in the area.

It was here that one night we found a place serving Paella from a chef who had trained in Spain. The next night we ate at a sushi place with a highly affluent-looking crowd, served by stern, older master sushi-cutters. On the third night, still hungry for more sushi, we found a Kaiten Sushi restaurant, where the sushi is put on a conveyor belt and led around a counter much like a toy train on a track, and you grab plates till either the conveyor belt is empty or you can’t stuff in any more. Each plate was 130 Yen ($1.60), which sounds like a good deal until we looked up and found the plates were stacked up to our chin. The sushi kept coming, but we were no match for it, and left stuffed and happy.

The next day we went to the Toji flea market. It was amazing.  It is in the Toji temple.  Beautiful.  We were walking along the aisles for two hours and we barely saw anything.  As the day progressed and  the crowds got thicker it started to rain.

rice drink at the flea market

Annoying, but we were amazed and stuck with it.  There were nick-knacks and tchotchkes, fabrics, yarn, snacks, paintings, clothes, plants, tools, anything and everything you could ever want.  I was on a mission.  There is very little fabric down in Mokpo.  And most of it is yucky rayon and polyester.  I was shopping for fabric.  I got some amazing silk pieces intended for making kimonos.  I wllll be making a skirt. I also bought two thin scarves that I will use as a belt.  They were made with hand dyed, hand spun silk.  Awesome!  Afterwords a traffic cop directed us to this fabulous noodle shop that looked like Sister Fun exploded all over it.  I had soba noodles with broth, green onions, and raw quail egg.  Mike had an enormous bowl of Udon.  I think we sat there for an hour people watching and decompressing from the crowds before we went to see more temples.

In Korea we are accustomed to people seeing us and shouting “waygookin” (foreigner!)

Koreans we found in Japan

So we were only a little surprised when we were walking through a quiet Japanese temple and we heard “Waygooken!”  I (Akasha) turned and saw five boys pointing at us.  I really wanted to point out that they were gaijin (Japanese for foreigner.) Turns out they attend the university in the biggest city near us.  They asked to take our picture, also common, and we took theirs.  The pose was “rock, scissors, paper!     

In between meals in Kyoto, we went to Nara, which was Japan’s very first capital, back in the day the feuding warlords gave way to an Emperor (710- 784 b.c). Legend has it that when the capital was established they prayed for God to come to Nara.  When they looked up they saw  a white deer bowing to them. They took that as a sign that God was present.  In respect for that deer, all deer are considered sacred, and are allowed to wander about the park freely. They sell little wafer cakes you can feed to the deer, the deer bow to you in exchange for a deer cake. They get very aggressive. Akasha bought some deer cakes, and for her trouble was butted (literally, on her butt) several times by pushy deer looking for handouts. (They kept lifting my dress up!  Freaks.)

A deer, asking for a snack. With his head.

There is a deer sanctuary in the park where deer are assisted with illness, delivery, and have their horns filed down.

Big Buddha at Nara

We were also lucky in finding a guide in Nara. At the train station’s information booth, we were told of a free guide service provided by the local YMCA. We snapped up the offer and for the next four hours were guided around Nara by a lovely woman named Yasuko, who teaches English at an immersion kindergarten.

We saw the two main Buddhist temples, one of which is the largest wooden building in the world, and houses a bronze Buddha which is several stories tall. Here, one of the support posts has a small tunnel carved into the base. It’s locally know as ‘Buddha’s nostril’ and, according to legend, anyone who crawls through it receives enlightenment in their next life. Mike decided to take the challenge, and after a few moments of panicked scrambling (the opening is about the same width as his shoulders), he made it through! So now he has enlightenment coming in his next life, which is, you know, better than never.

Shinto lanterns

With all that luck, we moved on to the third major site in the Nara park, the large Shinto shrine. Shinto and Buddhism are separate religions, but many Japanese overlap.  Our guide said that many  practice both, so shrines and temples are often kept together. The Shinto shrine we visited is a sharp contrast to the Budhist temple, which are set in fields. The Shinto shrine is set on the mountain side in the middle of an primeval forest. Also, they have collected over 2,000 stone and wooden lanterns over the years, and they stand alongside the wooded paths, often two or three deep. They are also mossy, and it gives the scene a peaceful, surreal feeling.

After our tour our brains were full.  There are so many things that we see all the time in Korea and have never understood that she explained.  She took us to a lovely restaurant where we prcessed everything we learned as we enjoyed a typical Nara meal of kakinohazushi, or salmon/ mackerel sushi wrapped in a cured persimmon leaf and a bowl of somen, or thin noodle soup

From there we returned to Osaka, which we covered in our previous post.

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2 thoughts on “Nara, the 1st capital of Japan, and Kyoto, the 2nd

  1. Sandra says:

    Hi, I have been reading your blog and have enjoyed reading about your adventures in Korea. I am hopefully going to be moving to Korea soon as an English teacher, so I have found your blog encouraging, uplifting, and informative.
    I don’t know if you are still in Korea, but if you are and are still interested in visiting Japan, you should check out Otaru. It is a city in Hokkaido about 30 minutes from Sapporo (the only big city in Hokkaido). It is a really beautiful city where they specialize in glass making and music boxes. When I was there it was so cool because there were open shops where you could watch people blow glass. There is also a really pretty canal running through the city.
    When I was reading this post, it reminded me of the great time I had in Otaru and Hokkaido and thought you guys might enjoy it!

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