I was lucky enough to return to Japan for a second time this spring. Last year we’d be so lucky to arrive right at the perfect time for the cherry blossoms in both Kyoto and Tokyo, this year, we were a little bit later, nevertheless, there were some other wonders in store, big ones, golden ones… furry ones…?
Something I’d noted on my first visit to Japan was the amazing calmness, even in the bright lights, big city of Tokyo. There’s little honking or other obnoxious noises (well, except at karaoke, arcades and maid cafés), there just doesn’t seem to be the chaos that’s found in many big cities. Everyone is so polite and orderly… it’s when you break the latter behavior that you might break the serenity, as we did once, erroneously attempting to cross the street in the middle of a long stretch of road and were almost rundown by a cabbie who’d purposely speed up to “teach us a lesson” about street-crossing (alright! we’ll walk up a mile to the lights the next time!). Back to Serenity.
One the day after I’d arrived my colleague and I trekked out to a small city to do some research for a new excursion to Kamakura we were developing. Less than an hour subway ride from the center of Tokyo, it’s surprising to find such a quaint tranquil town. Our bright sunny path led us to the town’s main attraction, the Big Buddha. We could hardly contain our excitement upon rounding the corner into its garden. Not only were we gazing up at one of Japan’s largest and oldest bronze Buddhas, we were peering at it through some exceptional cherry blossoms. What a wonderful welcome to Japan! I’d once again fallen under the country’s charm.
Big Buddha, Little Buddha
Our magical amble around town took us to another main site, the Hase-dera Temple complex. Here we gradually made our way up the winding paths, past little clusters of playful buddha statues hidden in the grass or others lined up like heavenly warriors, faithfully guarding the spirits of the temple. Somewhat breathless reaching the top we were rewarded with the breathtaking view of the bay.
One hiccup to our day was our city slicker approach to lunch. We’d lost track of time, but also hadn’t thought we’d have trouble finding a bite to eat at anytime, well, only if we were ok with an rice triangle from Seven Eleven! Understandably for a small town, the restaurants close up for a few hours after regular lunch time, so we were stuck eating… crepes. Yes, an odd find, but at least it was better than the convenience store options. Dinner would more than make up for it.
Authentic Japanese Cuisine
That night we were in for a real treat. My beautiful, sweet perfectly Japanese friend Michiko had picked out a very authentic restaurant for dinner. We met up outside a JR train station and off she ushered us through the back streets of a lovely old neighborhood. Lighting was low as was the hum of a few passing cars. We stopped to admire a night temple before she led us through a maze of even tinier and quieter streets to the restaurant. There’s no way we’d have found this place otherwise, and what a gem!
“They didn’t have a table available, but there was room at the bar.” forewarned Michiko. This was another strike of good fortune as this was the equivalent of the chef’s table, the white hatted culinary artists preparing their intricate creations before our eyes. Vegetarian options? No problem, they invented some on the spot. I was in Japanese gastronomic heaven, deliciously escorted by samples of various sake and just because we loved the handcrafted sake cups so much, the restaurant gave them to us at the end of the evening. Now this is what we call a perfect welcome to Japan.
On this serene cloud, we breezed through our meetings and appointments throughout the city… okay, maybe not an entire breeze … with the usual getting lost and having an impossible time exiting train stations at the right place, but never mind. We got to have lunch with a Kimono expert who came in a Kimono… at a department store tempura restaurant, it’s these kinds of juxtapositions which make Japan so cool.
Kyoto, Still Beautiful in the Rain
The mellow vibe traveled with us on the bullet train through the southern Japanese countryside to Kyoto. I love this city. It’s the epitome of serene with its low wooden houses along narrow laneways, awe-inspiring temples and — at this time of year — unbelieveable cherry blossoms. We knew we’d be on the late end, so they weren’t as fantastic as last year (and supposedly this year wasn’t a top year), however, it was still magical to see some, even in the rain on our one free afternoon between visiting a potter to having dinner with a zen buddhist master. We did get to see the golden temple (less serene with all the tourists) and some other kimono wearers (most likely dressed up tourists, yet it’s still exciting).
On we traveled to Osaka, mainly in refuge from the overbooked hotels in Kyoto during blossom season. We had a fortuitous chance encounter on the subway over there. A nice young man asked us for directions (not like we were the best to ask) but we became friends with the sweet Samson from Hong Kong, I’d have a friend while I would be there in a few weeks’ time.
This was what I was most looking forward to. Not spending time in Osaka per say, instead, having time to go to nearby Nara. I was quite eager to see its own majestic big buddha and the other wonderful sites around the park. I woke up to a grey dreary sky. I’m not a huge fan of traipsing around in the rain, nonetheless, I wouldn’t let a few drops deter me from trekking over to Nara. I had an umbrella and a sunny attitude.
Beautiful Nara and the Messengers of the Gods
Arriving in Nara, I was provided with a free map and friendly advice from the tourist office and off I went. I passed by the tall pagoda and groups of cheerful students on school excursions on to my first stop was a zen garden which was also free, adding to the zenitude of the visit. There weren’t many people, therefore adding to its peaceful. Entering the vast Nara park I made my way to the prized Todaiji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world and Japan’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha, referred to as Daibutsu. It was certainly impressive as was the whole hall which also houses several other giant sculptures. I couldn’t resist stopping to get a fortune on the way out. I got No. 35: Good Luck (whew!) “Do not try to do things in haste… and ending in you will win.” Accepted. I’ll try to be better about the haste.
Leaving the rather crowded great hall complex I was happy to wander, without haste, through the rest of the park, coming upcome other temples, shrines… and deer: the messenger of the gods who graze the park. They are really lovely, until you try to feed them, or maybe the teenage-sized one whom I fed really like to Japanese rice snacks I’d dug out of my bag, soon he was in hot pursuit for more! What had I done? I’d unleashed a demon god! Maybe because of the rain there were fewer tourists feeding them that day. He eventually, sadly, stopped tailing me.
By then my feet were officially drenched and I thought it was time to drag my poor pieds back to the station. On the way I did have one last fun deer sighting (the blue and red ones) and a kimono wearer under the shopping arcades, returning my drifting smile to my face.
We shall see what serenity or surprises will await me if/when I return to Japan for a third time. In the meantime Sayonara!
If you’d prefer not to trudge around Nara in the rain by yourself or learn more about the awe-inspiring Big Buddha of Kamakura, check out Context’s small group and private excursions from Tokyo and Kyoto.