Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Day 1: Nostalgic Nara

Three trips to Japan in 18 months - we were obsessed with Japan.  We had spent time in pastoral Hokkaido and uber-urban hyper-modern Tokyo, so this would be a first for us, traditional Japan in all its full glory.

Our agenda was simple.  We weren't looking for any epiphanies, no Pico Iyer moments, just the good life and the finest in Japanese aesthetics.  We had in mind a multi-course meal, with Kyoto as the main dish.  Kyoto - the mere name evokes images of ryokan, geishas and temples.  And if Kyoto was the main dish, Nara, Kyoto's predecessor and by all accounts, more Kyoto than Kyoto, was the appetiser and rollicking hard livin' Osaka was the sake.  Shuzen-ji, the onsen town, was the palate cleanser, and Tokyo, dessert, the icing on the cake, to to speak.  Sweet.

We flew out of Singapore in the wee hours of 1 Dec.  Our Japanese experience actually started at Changi Airport.  We encountered hordes of Japanese students, on school trips to Singapore.

waiting to go home

On the plane, we enjoyed our SQ Japanese breakfasts.

grilled salmon set - always good

The flight to Osaka was uneventful.


We arrived at Kansai International Airport six hours later and headed straight to the takyubbin counters.

woohoo, there they were

On the previous two trips (and on Japan Hour!), we had observed how the local tourists seemed to be travelling sans luggage.  How did they manage it?  The secret lay in that wonderful service called takyubbin.  This was a door to door delivery service that could be used to send luggage from the airport to the hotel and back, or from one hotel to another, so one need never struggle with heavy bags on the train, up the stairs and so on.  Voila!  Whoever first came up with the idea was a genius.  So, for a small fee and a little help from the counter staff, our luggage was safely on its way to our hotel in Kyoto, while we boarded a train to Nara with just a day bag each.  Now that was the way to travel.

from Kansai International Airport

Nara was the capital of Japan in ancient times.  We were looking forward to plenty of old buildings and oodles of atmosphere.  But first a quick lunch.

a noodle shop

Across the road from the bus stop, we found a good place to have some noodles.

tempura udon set (with flavoured rice)

gyu (beef) udon

And then it was time to hop on the sightseeing bus.

suitably outfitted

The sights of Nara were clustered in Nara Park.  Formerly a wasteland, the area had been carefully landscaped to bring all the sights together.  The park itself eventually became an attraction, the highlight of which included the many sika deer wandering around.  The deer, considered sacred for hundreds of years, are nowadays classified as "National Treasures".

"Er, Miss, do deer eat children?"

none too shy - shaking down innocent passers-by for shika-senbei (deer crackers)

Other than deer, the park was famous for its display of autumn colours.  We (and, it seemed, a million local tourists) were just in time to catch the last of it...

certainly induces contemplation

One of Nara Park's greatest highlights is the World Heritage site, the Buddhist temple, Todaiji.

entrance to Todaiji Temple

guardians of the temple

Nandaimon, the main entrance

built in the 13th century

door god - a Benevolent King

ancient lamp

the final gateway

door god?!

the main hall - the world's biggest wooden building (and only 2/3 its original size!)

the Daibutsu (the Great Buddha) - 15 metres tall

the Daibutsu (the Great Buddha)

the Daibutsu (the Great Buddha)

Nyoirin Kannon (Goddess of Mercy)

inside the main hall

Guardian Statue 1

Guardian Statue 2

head count

One of the most popular features of the temple was the "healing pillars".  Legend had it that anyone who could squeeze through the holes at the bottom of the pillars - reputedly the size of the Great Buddha's nostrils - would attain enlightenment.

passing through Buddha's nostrils

one of the arhats or luohans (no, not the fish, but the Buddha's enlightened disciples)

rubbed smooth by adherents seeking a cure for ailing body parts

We spent the rest of the afternoon without an agenda per se.  There were several other sights - the Kasuga Taisha Shrine for one - but we preferred just pottering around the park, immersed in the reds, yellows and oranges.  After all, this was our first fall experience and the park was decked out in its finest.

do I look better from this angle?

a chaya or traditional teahouse

not cherries


good idea

good idea?


As we meandered our way out of Nara Park, we passed by...

... the Nara National Museum

It was too nice a day to be indoors - we were enjoying the gentle sunlight and bracing air far too much to want to tour the museum.

The last stop on our Nara Park tour was another World Heritage site, the Buddhist temple, Kofukuji.

Tokondo (East Golden Hall)

Tokondo (East Golden Hall)

Gojū-no-tō (Five-Storied Pagoda)

Nan-en-do (South Octagonal Hall)

Nan-en-do (South Octagonal Hall)

Nan-en-do (South Octagonal Hall)

In the soft sunlight, the temple buildings were resplendent.  We hung around the temple grounds, munching on some...

... dried persimmon, bought from a shop at the temple

Persimmon, or kaki, the lady running the shop told us, was Nara's signature fruit.  In the meantime, there was lots to observe...

priestly duties

trendy worshippers

Eventually, we were done in by our sore feet and tired legs.  It was time to head to our accommodation for the night, the Nara Park Hotel.  We had every intention of experiencing a traditional ryokan on this trip but the rates for traditional ryokan in the vicinity of Nara Park were exorbitant.  The more reasonably priced Nara Park Hotel sounded like good value for money, so for the first ryokan of our trip, it would have to do.

From Nara Park, we hailed a passing cab and found ourselves at the doorstep of a hotel situated next to a highway.  The staff at reception were professional, though not exactly fluent in English.  Check-in was quick and easy.  After that, our room attendant, Kumiko-san, showed us to our room.

our room

in-room tea set

Much like a Ritz Carlton butler, Kumiko's job was to explain to us what to do and where to go which she did promptly and cheerfully.  We were thrilled to find out that dinner would be in our room.  Finally, a Japan Hour kaiseki dinner in our room!  Then she left us to enjoy our room and the baths.

sunset already?!

This was our first experience of winter.  By 5, it was all dark outside.  We had luxuriated in the baths and were all ready for our first in-room dinner.

At 6, Kumiko appeared with this:

the whole spread

We sat on the floor, in our yukatas, sitting carefully so as not to not flash anyone inadvertently.  We didn't know where to start at first - it was all so beautifully presented - but start we did, with Kumiko popping by every now and then to explain various things.

appetisers - regional flavours for the season

The appetisers included a kind of Japanese "cheese" (something made from milk as far as we could tell) and various aspic-like concoctions with Japanese flavours such as shiso.  Interesting!

for the paper nabe or hot pot

The fish for the hot pot was anko fish or angler fish, a traditional winter delicacy.

sashimi moriawase

The sashimi was delicious.  My favourite was the ika roll, oh so sweet squid rolled with seaweed.

clear soup

There were two kinds of soup - first, a dashi-based clear soup.

guess what this is

We found this exceptionally delicious but could not quite figure out what it was.  It was some kind of vegetable that had been stewed with miso.  Kumiko came to the rescue.  It was kaki, she said, fumbling to find the English word for it.  Persimmon, Nara's signature fruit!  She was most pleased to find out that we knew exactly what kaki was.  (Incidentally, kaki is also the Japanese word for oyster, another winter delicacy.  How confusing...)


The tempura was served, not with a dipping sauce, but with flavoured salt.  Nice!

Kansai beef

Kansai, most notably Kobe, is famous for its beef.  Kobe beef this was not, but it was good.

pickles, to be eaten with rice

According to Kumiko, Nara and Kyoto are famous throughout Japan for their pickles.  HM loves pickles in any form but I am sometimes wary of the tarter ones.  These were great - more mellow, not so tart.

miso soup with yuba

Even the miso soup was typically Kyoto.  It was made with red miso, not white, and yuba, the soft beancurd skin that is ubiquitous in Kyoto cuisine, was added.

kusa mochi, served with kinako or soy bean powder

Dessert came in two parts.  First, we had kusa mochi, flavoured with the Japanese ingredient, mugwort.  Then we had some fruit:

Japanese pear and orange

That was a big meal.  We sat back, stuffed.  It was impossible to sleep so soon after a meal like that.  Instead, we sat by our window, playing with a set of tangrams (badly, I must add) that the hotel had kindly provided and sipping tea.


In the meantime, Kumiko and colleagues cleared our room and prepared our futons.

all ready for bed

It had been a long day with many new experiences.  Traditional Japan was exotic, a far cry from our usual reality.  We really felt like we had travelled in time and space.  We went to sleep looking forward to Day 2.