Nara-Nara-Nara-Nara Red gates!!!
It felt kinda meh to wake up and realize that you’re in a hotel room not much bigger than a standard hallway back home. Up to this point I’ve enjoyed 2-person hotel rooms, due to the person who I was gonna share the space with, was unable to join us on the trip. It was quite the mind-blow when we discovered the reason why he couldn’t make it; because he was at the airport without his passport. Still to this day I can’t figured out if either I should feel sad for him or just think that that is the most retarded thing ever. Anyhoo, after an early breakfast we gathered at the hotel entrance to catch a train to Nara.
We were earlier than expected at the station, so we had the time to grab a coffee or a snack. For the hell of it, I bought a ‘liege’ waffle at a Japanese ‘Belgian’ waffle shop. The taste didn’t even came close to what it’s like back home. Oh Japan, just stick to your own goods. Speaking of which, there was a tempting ‘Bento box’ shop nearby. Bento boxes are Japanese meals…in a box! It’s madness I tell ya! I discovered the concept of Bento boxes during one of our shinkansen rides, where I saw a Japanese couple treat themselves each to their own meal box. Though I couldn’t clearly see what they were eating, they were having a delightful relaxing time picking away in the Bento boxes with their chop sticks. I was like “I want what they’re having…”. Alas, the Bento shop was a bit overwhelming to choose anything, plus I wasn’t all ‘that’ hungry and above all, I was running out of time before our train arrived (and the trains in Japan arrive on a level beyond accurate). Well…it’s ‘ben-to’ be for another time…I’m terrible at puns.
Nara is another gem of Japanese history and just when I thought to be accustom to the marvelous temples of Japan, Nara throws another mastodon at me for me stare at in awe. I’m talking about the Todaiji Temple. After seeing loads of deer-like mascots at the train station in Nara, we made our way to the temple. Nara really likes to remind you of anything related to deer, because those fuckers are all over the place. The amount of deer in Nara makes the deer back at Miyajima seem like just a handful. And their level of dick-behavior has been increased tenfold, because in Nara there are everywhere small stands where you can buy cookies for the ruminant mammals. So they’re so spoiled that they chase after you, expecting to get showered in deer cookies. I almost panicked when I tried to take a picture of a Japanese child who was feeding some treats to a fawn, just before a whole horde of deer, three times her size, completely surrounded her. She managed to break free in time by throwing the full cookie package into the distance. Them deer did look like they were ready to devour more than just cookies…
Now I’m making it sound like I hate deers, and I hate Nara, and Nara sucks, and everything sucks…and…so on. While it’s the total opposite! Nara is wonderful. Yes the greedy, hungry deer stand out but there are also loads of deer just chillax’ing under trees, minding their own business and plenty are totally cool with you petting them. The creatures are so common in Nara that you shouldn’t be surprised when you wander in a big crowd to suddenly have a few deer walking right beside you. It creates an unusual yet lovely atmosphere. The deer are also so tame that it’s a common practice in Nara to make them bow their heads. Our guide made an attempt by waving a cookie in the air whiles bobbing his head constantly, resulting in a deer headbanging as if it was at a Slayer concert. Later I was witness to a more ‘proper’ presentation, when an old Japanese lady just clapped her hands together and with a simple gesture the animal in front of her bowed it’s head ever so politely. This dame was a real deer whisperer!
Past the Nandaimon Gate (aka a big ass gate!) lies the Todaiji Temple, and what a juggernaut it is. Apparently one of the largest, if not the largest, wooden buildings in the world. Living in a world where it becomes more and more difficult to be impressed by something (because anything you want to see is basically just a click of a button away. Thanks a lot interwebs!) the temple does an good job of making an impact, by presenting a massive Buddha statue at the main entrance. It’s like the temple is saying “yeah…ya see dis shit? This statue is merely a small part of me!”. It’s hard to put into words of how huge everything in the temple truly is (aside from using words like ‘big’, ‘huge’, ‘massive’, ‘colossal’ etc…) and it’s something you just have to experience for yourself. For example, I was unable to take a proper picture of the Buddha statue (to show it’s size) because the material is so dark, while it’s placed in front of the temple’s main source of light, causing my amateur phone camera to not know what to focus on. A quick google search may give you the idea of scale and such, but it’s not the same as standing in front of it. I mean c’mon, I could almost fit in that Buddha’s hand! I’m digging this temple though, it’s built in such a way that upon entering, you know you’re nothing more than the temple’s little bitch.
So lit up an incense stick in front of the temple for good fortune (I’m starting to think that ‘anything’ in Japan represents good fortune) and venture inside the Todaiji Temple. Aside from the massive Buddha statue, there are several awesome ‘smaller’ statues to be had, though ‘small’ is still pretty damn big within this place. You can learn more about the history of the Todaiji Temple thanks to all sorts of signs and maquettes, and if you want even more blessings bestowed upon, you can crawl through a hole inside of the major pillars of the temple. The pillars was surrounded by loads of children who could pretty much ‘walk’ through the hole so I didn’t bother. The incense stick at the entrance was enough blessing for me. The temple is even big enough to hold several souvenir shops, as silly as that sounds. there I bought some postcards and a tiny little fawn-thingy for my mom. She better be happy with it, goddammit. Me buying souvenirs and shit…
Around the Todaiji Temple is the Nara Park (what’s in a name) where the wonderful Japanese fall started to bloom. Despite the crowds it was relaxing to walk around, gasping at the beautiful trees and flowers. And it was pretty cool to see many elderly painting the scenery. You can go slowly uphill and walk through the local village and once you’re high enough (you can tell because the small houses have been replaced by shrines) you are rewarded with a nice view of Nara’s nature with the city sleeping in the background. The crowds also begin to fade once you go more and more off-path. I’d soon realize how easy it would be to find some peace and quiet in the more occupied regions of Japan. All it takes is to literally walk away from the popular locations and before you know it, you’re in a street where there’s only silence and a bench waiting for you to take a breather on. So fear not if you had doubt of visiting Japan because of the many crowds. They’re not everywhere, far from it.
As if the Belgian Waffle shop in the morning was a hint for what was to comes, we ended up having lunch in a little place where you could have ‘Brussels’ waffles. In all honestly, it tasted more like plain old bread. Bread shaped like a Brussels waffle. Oh well, the food was still good. Kinda funny though how I got encountered with Belgian specialties in a single day in Japan. Made me appreciate the waffles back home just a little bit more. And I wouldn’t even call that a specialty, that’s what our beers are for.
After lunch we regrouped to catch a train that would take us to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. If you’ve done any research what so ever about Kyoto, this place would have pop up without question. Famous across the world for it’s thousands and thousands of vermilion Torii gates. From what I understand, a Torii gate is seen as an entrance/gateway to a scared place, and here they’re build next to each other like an hallway into infinity.
At the start the place was packed. Walking through the first series of gates felt a bit more like being in line for a roller coaster ride. After about 20-40 gates, the gates stop for a bit by blocking trees or stone staircases that take you more uphill. Most of our group quickly took a pass to continue up the mountain. I remember one person specifically saying that he saw no point in continuing, for it would just be being stuffed in a crowd looking at red gates that all look the same. Ha…how wrong he would be. Not about the gates though, if you seen one you’ve seen them all but to walk through them in the massive amount that they’re presented, is a remarkable feeling. No, we soon all laughed about his remark because less than 10 minutes in, we were barely the only people walking through the gates. Apparently many had the same idea as he did so many people turned the other way. What is left are some dedicated folk, like photographers, elderly and some lovely looking Japanese ladies dressed in traditional clothing.
Going up through the gates is like swimming through an ocean of vermilion, but if you look back at the gates you’ve passed there’s even more magic. Every single gate has on the backside black Japanese characters from top to bottom. It’s nice to think they hold all kinds of wisdom, but in reality the characters are the names of the companies that donated the gates. Every single gate is from a company though, so start counting how many companies all donated to a common cause. Naturally, it’s impressive and there is just something about the Japanese writing style that gives it such mystic, even if it’s just company names.
The trails continue throughout a lovely sacred forest (on Mount Inari, in case you were wondering), so you’re not only treated to thousands of gateways but also beautiful trees with the sun shining brightly through. There were loads of beams of sunlight, giving a vibe as if we were walking through an elvish landscape. But instead of elves, the inhabits of this forest are cats and spiders. The cats would just sit around, not giving a damn. Or something they would look at you, giving you the stink eye. The spiders in Japan are something else though. Between the gates you would sometimes see giant cobwebs, and in a middle a little but very bright eight-legged freak. The spiders look like they’ve mated with wasps, due to their black & yellow colors. Some also have very bright red spots, adding more to the ‘Nope!’ factor. It felt scary at times, but ignoring them spiders is the best way to deal with them. Just don’t look too much at the edges of every gate. Them cobwebs are more common than you’d think.
The gates would take a break from time to time, to make room for a series of little statues, small waterfalls, shrines and tiny shops. In the shops you could get miniature Torii gates as a souvenir. I wonder who would want to buy that after seeing 10.000 giant versions of these things. About halfway through there’s the Yotsutsuji intersection, where there’s a clear spot with some benches to look down on the massive view that is Kyoto. The majority of the hikers end their journey here. It’s another typical spot to see plenty of hipsters with fancy equipment, going for that perfect yet totally unoriginal photograph. Oh well, here’s my attempt with my phone. (photo)
We didn’t stop our hike here. One of our 4-man band was starting to struggle but I gave him a pep talk to keep going. Our dutch gibberish caught the attention of a young lady who apparently was from the Netherlands, who cheerfully reassured us that the summit is nearby. After another 15 minute walk through more gates, shrines and even goddamn vending machines (they’re literally everywhere in Japan!), we’ve reached the epic, almighty, phenomenal…small summit shrine of Fushimi Inari. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to visit this place on the same day as Nara. After the massive temple we saw in the morning, this kinda felt…ridiculous. We didn’t feel disappointed though, because we were more overwhelmed with pride to doing the entire hike. Our reward was looking at a silly sign that said ‘top of the mountain’. There’s no ropeway or anything to easily go back down, so the only option you have is to walk all the way back. You won’t be seeing the same gates you saw on the way up though. The trails are set in such an order that it’s a circle. You go up to the summit, and continue forward back down to another fresh batch of vermilion torii gates. Good times.
On our way down, we saw several construction works being done to some ‘outdated’ gates. Gotta respect them workers for dragging all their tools and ladders throughout the forest. We were blessed with a nice sunset, and our path through the gates was lit by stone lanterns similar to what I saw in Koya-San. The lights did provide a more clear view of the many cobwebs around the gates, with a nice silhouette of the vicious creators of them webs in the middle of it. Eerie…
Needless to say, we were beat by the time we were all the way back down. The day has turned dark, our legs were hurting and above all, we were starving (we were unaware that some of the shops during our hike also sold food). We took a train back to Kyoto Central, where we got caught in the evening rush hour. The amount of people at Kyoto Station was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, but it was totally awesome. You’d think there be lots of nudging, shoving and bumping going on but there was nothing of that sort. It might be just the discipline of the Japanese folk, but nobody stood in anyone’s way. Everyone walks smoothly from A to B, and should somebody need to stand still for whatever reason, they quickly go to the sides. Nobody is stupid enough to stand still in the middle of such chaos. Hell, the amount of people on a good shopping day in my home city of Hasselt is only like 1/50 of this, and there people manage to bump more into each other.
Our prays for a well deserved dinner were quickly answered, as we spotted a sushi restaurant not far from the station. It came with a Japanese recommendation sticker of TripAdvisor, so we took our chances. The restaurant was actually on a basement level, with each table being it’s own private section thanks to tiny curtain doors. Neat! The waiter squatted down (again, they want to see you dead in the eyes) to take our order and soon within no-time we feasted on delectable sushi with beer to wash it all down.
So yeah, a lot more happened today compare to the day before it. The hike of Fushimi Inari Shrine did take a toll on us so after we were well fed, our night already came to a close (I think we did have another drink at the hotel, but that’s about it). Nothing else to say about this day, so here’s another picture from Nara of two deer making out! Enjoy!
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