Nara is always fun because of the chance to feed the “spirit deer”, or Sika deer, at Nara Park ‘奈良公園’. The deer were considered sacred and divine because one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine visited them. The god, Takenomikazuchi-no-mikoto, appeared on Mt. Mikasa-yama riding a white deer. Just how precious were they? Killing one was punishable by death until 1637; the deer have been stripped of their divine status since World War II and are now protected as National Treasures. 🙂 To feed them, you can buy ‘deer crackers’, or Shika-senbei 鹿煎餅, from vendors around the park. Before you feed the deer a cracker, you first bow to them to show respect, and they in turn bow back. Actually! It’s adorable.
I do preach caution near lunch time since the deer are less polite and a ton feistier. Mayhem ensues the moment you unwrap the crackers from their packaging. An entire herd swarms like locusts, each deer wanting a piece. It’s terrifying enough knowing that they bite, but when you see several bucks with giant antlers gunning for you…run. I literally screamed the shrillest and wobbliest scream before dropping my entire package of crackers and making a run for it. Crackers were gone within in seconds. The European tourists watching near by were filming and giggling–definitely a lot funnier from an outsider’s perspective compared to mine. My mom was actually bitten on the butt by a deer and was left bruised for a good week! Haha.
The rest of our time was spent touring the 東大寺, Tōdaiji, or Eastern Great Temple. It houses the world’s largest bronze Daibutsu 大佛, or Buddha and is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. The story behind the square hole in the picture is that if your child manages to crawl through the entire tunnel, they are ensured academic success for the rest of their life. It’s a pretty small hole–parents definitely can’t squeeze through it.
After getting our morning exercise from playing dodgeball with the deer, it was time for lunch! So we drove all the way to Kyoto, which was where we would be spending the night. The carved kabocha–Japanese pumpkin–leaf? Lotus flowers? The balance of colors? Just gorgeous plating. And there was a small slice of one of my favorite Japanese food items: eggplant braised with a sweet, sticky miso sauce. A must have if you ever see it on a menu. But naturally, it needs to be done well. I never really liked eggplant until I had this dish, if that’s a testament to anything.
Then it was back on the road! Chion-in temple, the headquarters of Jodo Buddhism, which is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan. Although the original temple was built in 1234 (what are the chances of that being the year?) much of it was burnt down in 1633. Tokugawa Sogun Iemitsu rebuilt it but several years later, so the structure has been standing since the mid 1600’s. Impressive. All the roof beams have the Tokugawa family’s crest engraved in them: 3 hollyhock leaves. Memories of this place are engraved as deeply as those hollyhock leaves are because I cried there. Not out of sadness, but out of fear. It’s really hard to understand how afraid of heights I am until you travel with me. Stairs are a part of them–and there were so many to get to the top of Chion-In. No railings either, so my safety net was completely through out. My mom was so insistent on dragging me up there despite my pleading. This resulted me in crying; I did make it to the top, albeit in the least happy state. Good times.
The next stop was a lot less emotionally-taxing: Nijo Castle ‘二条城’. The castle encloses two concentric rings of fortifications with moats and was built as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. We learned about nightingale floors, uguisubari ‘鴬張り’. They are designed to make chirping sounds when walked upon so that thieves and assassins couldn’t sneak through the corridors undetected. Also interesting was that the castle received visitors differently, depending on their social ranking. Low-ranking visitors were received outside of Ninomaru Palace, while high-ranking visitors were taken to the inner chambers. Yet the shoguns decorated the palace with enormous quantities of gold leaf and elaborate carvings to intimidate all visitors with their wealth and power.
It was late afternoon when we were done touring Nijo Castle, so we headed to our hot springs resort for the night: Ryotei Koyo ‘旅亭紅葉’. Superb resort by Lake Biwa 琵琶湖, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It’s a source of drinking water for 15 million people in Kansai and a breeding ground for trout and pearl culture. The lake dates back to 4 million years ago, so it hosts an incredibly diverse ecosystem–1100 species. So relaxing to sit in a tatami room, sipping fresh matcha and nomming on red bean mochi, while looking out over Lake Biwa.
Dinner was a smattering of delights: from soba noodles to chawanmushi, to aloe drinks, umeboshi, lemon cheesecake. Tempura. All mouthwatering, per usual. Great way to end the day.