- Travel Topics
With comments in bold parenthesis by Vicky
“Just because you are reading this does not mean we are not already dead” – Us
When we arrived in Nara from Osaka it was already pitch dark and we were still faced with the daunting task of connecting with our couchsurfer. We decided a good first course of action would be to ask the clerk at the metro station if she knew the address, figuring it was nearby.
As I held up the ruffled paper with the scribbled address, instant confusion ensued. I knew we were in for a trip when she immediately grabbed her partner and pulled out a rather large map. Where ever this place was, it was certainly not near the station. 5 minutes of Japanese, a magnetic compass, and a dice later and they had reached a conclusion.
It was in the far north and we were going to have to catch a local bus.
I consider buses a whole new level of travel. The metro I can do, tourists take the metro, but buses are for locals. Even in Washington DC I didn’t take the bus once in two years (and I only took it twice – to and from the Chinese embassy to pick up the visas). In Japan, where English is pretty poor, getting on a bus could leave you in some random part of town without any course of action if things go awry.
We decided to give our host a call to confirm. In spotty English, he indicated that we would need to take a bus and that he would meet us at the stop.
We had come this far, so why not a little further?
We boarded ghost bus #23 as instructed and made our way, doing the only thing we knew how, which was to show the address to the driver and hope he would indicate where to get off. The passengers all had the same look on their face – you don’t belong here.
5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes later and we had reached the end of the line. Everyone else had left…but us.
With his skeletal arm, the bus driver pointed to the exit, indicating that it was our turn to get off – but was it because this was the right stop, or simply because it was the end of the line and we were the last people on the bus?
The sound of closing doors behind us, the driver let out a ghastly bellow. I turned around to catch one last glimpse of the bus before it drifted off into the fog. Yes, there was a thick fog that night, too (mostly a figment of Dave’s dramatic imagination to be exact).
I suppose one successful day in Osaka had made us feel undeservedly brave, so we waited for our host to arrive.
Where was this Hellish place?
Did something just move?
False bravado quickly turned to anxiety. Our options were limited – there wasn’t any sort of accommodation for literally miles. No phone either. Our water bottle nearly empty. No one to hear your cries for help. Vultures circled above.
We were left for dead.
OK, I’m embellishing a tad. The surrounding area actually looked quite like Japanese Pleasantville, but that doesn’t change the fact that we were somewhat hung out to dry with no guarantee that the bus would be running back to the station if we needed to turn around.
Cool, calm, collective – assuaging Vicky’s panic by drowning her out with my earplugs, (completely untrue – my panic has not yet set in) I held firm in my belief that our host would arrive. We had every reason to believe that this foreign stranger who we found on a random social networking, who had just made his profile a week ago, who had one positive reference from a Japanese friend was dependable (why did I put Dave in charge of connecting with the couchsurfers?).
But would he arrive soon enough?
Yes, he would.
All of the sudden, the sweet sound of a rogue, rickety bicycle chain and someone calling my name “Dave!” filled the air.
We were saved.
Masahiko had biked all the way from Nara (20 minutes) to meet us at the stop. Some might say he was a bit late, but to us, he was just in time and consequently, out of breath.
He led us to his house where there was another Couchsurfing couple. A French duo who were cycling/camping around Asia and Europe for two years – kinda like the badass version of us. With food and shelter secure, we would be ready to head to Nara in the morning (and happily retreated to our private room laid out with mats for beds and a cool fan blowing on us – an upgrade from the previous night’s couchsurfing adventure. For breakfask Masahiko served us cold noodles with a tempura like sauce – our first Japanese themed breakfast. He also took the liberty to escort us to the bus stop with umbrellas in hand, which he insisted we keep – so sweet of him).
The story is a lot lighter from here on out. Let me break the ice with this picture:
Nara is very small compared to the bustling, mercantile Osaka. You can walk the whole way around in probably a few hours. On your way you’re likely to encounter herds of deer, as shown above. Despite our lack of rabies vaccinations, Vicky and I got a kick out of petting them (correction – Dave did, I for one did not pet them). If you want you can go so far as to feed them for 150 yen ($1.75) (Dave wouldn’t let us buy the deer crackers – reminding me that we are in fact trying to economize).
At the information center they highlighted three main sites, the first of which was Kofukuji Temple.
Established in 669 by Kagami-no-Ōkimi, Kofukuji Temple is one of Nara’s eight Unesco Heritage sights. Damaged by civil wars and fires, the temple has been rebuilt several times over the years(this seems to be the case for the majority of the historical sights in Japan). All the same, it is an impressive sight.
To the right, one of Japan’s largest pagodas. A 5 story tall beast, this pagoda stands as a testament to Japan’s unique architecture.
Lastly, visit the national treasure hall, which houses a wide array of ancient, Japanese statues.
After about an hour at the temple we walked about 20 minutes to the next site, Kasuga Shrine:
Over a thousand stone lanterns line the path to Kasuga Shrine. Had we come in August, they all would have been lit. All the same, they are quite the sight.
Dating back to 768AD, the shrine is modest in size (by Japanese standards), and you can walk around the grounds easily in 20 minutes. The vibrant colors, particular orange columns, truly illuminate the surroundings.
We made our way back through the woods to the last stop, Todaiji Temple.
Todaiji Temple is the largest wooden structure in the world and, quite fittingly, houses one of the largest Buddhas in the world. It is actually only a fraction of its former size, having been rebuilt after, you guessed it, a fire.
[Aside from the rain (which first went from a light drizzle to a consistent downpour at times) we spent a great day in Nara. We kept our expenses low by starving ourselves through the day (not purposely – we just were too cheap to splurge on tourist trap overpriced restaurants by the temples and chose to wait it out until our walk back to the train station). At one point we were ready to eat the deer crackers themselves – since a whole stack of them was only $1.75, but grumpily we carried on. After walking back and forth through an alley way near the station we settled on a small restaurant which seemed to charge reasonable prices. With the help of a English menu we ordered soup with barbecued pork, yaki gyoza (fried dumplings) and a rice dish with mayonnaise and barbecued pork. We meal was delicious and exactly what we needed after walking around all day in the rain. Full of good food we were ready for our next stop – Kyoto.]
If you’re planning a trip to Nara consider these logistics:
Food: It’s really best to eat in the station, food tended to be overpriced near the temples (surprise, surprise). Moreover, once you are out by the temples, options for food and drink are very limited so plan accordingly.
Transportation: You can get to everywhere you want on foot.
Kofukuji Temple – 500 Yen + 300 Yen National Treasure Hall (~$10.50)
Kasuga Shrine – 500 Yen (~$6)
Todaiji Temple – 500 Yen (~$6)