Autumn in Nara

Today we were also treated to a gloriously sunny morning, so we decided to go on a day trip to Nara to make the most of the nice weather.

There are JR trains going to Nara that you can board with your JR pass, but that line goes to the JR Nara station, which is rather far away from Nara Park, and it also takes longer; it’s better to pay the 700 yen (€6) and take a Kintetsu line to the Kintetsu Nara station, and from there to just walk to the park. The train ride takes about 40 min.
Rather than making a bee-line for Nara’s main attraction, the Great Buddha, we started with Yoshiki Garden, which is free for foreign visitors! It’s a gorgeous 20th century Japanese garden (not that I could tell; to me it looked like it had lain there for centuries, it was so well designed). 

The garden occuies a rather modest plot, but as with many Japanese gardens it has been masterfully designed to offer lots of distinct spaces. There’s a tea ceremony garden, a moss garden, and a more Western-looking flower garden. This last one had no flowers at this time of the year, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in the spring. Narrow, winding roads connected the different sections and elevations, offering a new perspective with every turn.

It’s a beautiful garden in its own right, but its beauty was heightened by bright red maple trees dotting the landscape and catching the sunlight. It was a great and peaceful experience to walk around, as there weren’t many people yet. 
After Yoshiki-en, we went literally next door to Isui-en, another stunning garden. Unlike Yoshiki-en, this one has an ancient half, dating back to the 1670s, and a 20th century second half. They also have a tiny museum with a handful of relics of no interest to me, but it gives them the excuse to charge 900 yen (€7.8) which is 900 yen more than their neighbours! The nerve! 

I have to admit, though, that the view this time of the year is worth the price of admission. Isui-en is larger than Yoshiki-en, and boasts a large pond that reflected the burning-red maple trees around the shore. It also has lots of different nooks and crannies: little streams flowing down the hills, stepping stones across a section of the pond, a tiny waterfall, tea pavilions… These are places that reward exploration; every time I looked around I saw a new arrangement of autumn colours.

We left when it began to feel crowded; perhaps it was the hour, but more and more people had been coming in after us. We made the world’s fastest run around the two paltry rooms of the so-called museum and then walked over to Todaiji, in Nara Park. This is the massive wooden Buddhist temple that houses Nara’s greatest wonder, the Daibutsu.
Your first sight of Todaiji will be from the front and from the distance. It looks gigantic already, but as you make your way towards the entrance it looms larger and larger before you, the double rooftops looking higher and higher above your head.

I think Todaiji is always busy, regardless of time of day or time of the year; it certainly was today, but it’s such an enormous place that people can just keep going inside and there’s still room to take pictures. Speaking of which, we weren’t allowed to take pictures last time I was here, but I suppose they gave up the fight and now everybody had their phones out.
The Great Buddha is still as big and tranquil as I remembered it, unfazed by the millions of selfies being taken around him (I mean, I get wanting to preserve the moment, but most people just get a picture of their faces and the floor or a wall). 

After checking the biggest box in our itinerary, we walked up a hill to Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do, two smaller temples on the hills east of Todaiji. We had lunch at an affordable restaurant right there, because once you’re inside the park there aren’t a lot of places to eat or have a rest, and then we walked up some more steps to visit the temples, because their verandah looks over the hilly Nara park. I’m pretty sure this is the exact spot where I was so fortunate as to attend the fire ceremony last time I was here (you can read about it in this very blog). And now I’m fortunate to visit at such a scenic time of year!

From there, we walked downhill to Kasuga Taisha, a sprawling shinto shrine on the south end of the park. We crossed smaller temples, streets and stores to get to it. You’ll know you’re getting closer when you see the mossy stone lanterns that line the path to and from Kasuga. As a shinto shrine, Kasuga Taisha has the obligatory red torii gate and stone lions guarding the entrance, plus all the structures are painted bright red, almost orange (by contrast, most Buddhist temples here leave their wood unpainted or painted dark). 

When we got to the shrine itself, though, we encountered a veritable human tide inside. It was packed literally wall to wall with Japanese people, and we could tell from the equipment and staff that some kind of event or gathering had just taken place. It must have been a shinto holiday today; there were signs at the entrance that said something about shichi-go-sen, but there were no kids… The picture above is the only one I could take that wouldn’t be 75% Japanese parishioners!
We were way too tired by now to wade into the crowd or queue with them, so we contented ourselves with a cursory walk around the outside of the main hall and left for the station. The way from Kasuga Taisha to Kintetsu Nara station is very straightforward and for the most part you just have to follow the crowds along the one main road, but it is quite a trek (2km!). All along the way the famous Nara deer were right at home with the the tourists; they are so used to people that they don’t even flinch when dozens of people walk past and around them. They are cool as a cucumber and will simply never move out of your way, but they’re also not very pushy asking for treats from tourists. Mostly they go about their business like they own the entire park, and graciously eat deer crackers when offered to them.

Once finally back in the city, we made a pit stop at St Marc’s cafe, a chain we knew from our time in Tokyo. Not without reservations, I bought their signature product, the ChocoCro (ugh, I feel dirty just by typing it; now I have to wash my hands), which as the name may not necessarily imply is a chocolate croissant. I feel like the chocolate croissant is an invention that the pain au chocolat renders unnecessary, but I have to say that it was delicious! Buttery and crispy, like any good croissant. Colour me convinced!
After we had a good rest, it was still early, so we took a peek at the covered arcade next to the station; not as cool as Teramachi in Kyoto, although we found a proper supermarket for the first time in our trip, which we used to stock up. We’ve been having trouble finding breakfast food, like muffins or madeleines or pound cake or something like that; shops either only have break, or if they have things like madeleines, they sell them by the unit, for a snack. I should have remembered to pack some from France! We also found cheese, although it’s also processed into small pre-slices, individually wrapped portions. For a country so focused on recycling, Japan still seems to have progress pending on the reducing front.
Once restocked, not feeling our legs, we took the train back to Kyoto, again in an Elegant Saloon 8000. A very nice couple helped us make sense of the ticket-buying machine. We are still to meet anybody who is less than eager to help when asked; it’s just such a pleasure to travel around Japan, guys. Everything’s just so easy and pleasant.
Looking forward to resting my feet! Must come up with a less punishing itinerary for tomorrow…

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