We got unlucky? Or lucky. In our 15-day travel, the gods smiled on us. Even when we got on the right train but the wrong car. As it turned out, our car got “uncoupled” from the first 6 cars of the semi-rapid train which proceeded to our intended destination. You can guess what happened next. Another time, we got on a rapid train which didn’t stop at our desired station. And so we decided then and there to go the whole route and get off an hour’s train ride away from Kyoto to Nara. Oh dear. Time to see some deer in Nara Park.
I’ve heard about this first permanent capital of Japan but frankly thought it was more laid-back than cosmopolitan. With 8 UNESCO Heritage Sites, it’s one destination that truly deserves a visit. Formerly called Heijo, Nara packs many culture trips in one go. Plus the tame deer you meet is a bonus. Yet we even managed to be more efficient with a guided tour. Motoko-San was waiting at the Nara Train Station for a Kyoto guide who wanted to learn more about Nara. When we spotted her with the ubiquitous tour “banner”, I asked her if we could join her 3-hour escorted guide of some heritage sites around the Park. As it turned out, she studied in the University of the Philippines and welcomed us like long-lost friends. She was very knowledgeable, soft-spoken and spoke very clear, understandable English. Won’t you call this good luck?
Motoko taught us how to pray in a shrine. She also told us tons of trivia like: no trash cans in the Nara Park (because the deer eat the garbage), deer politely bowing before getting fed, 0ne-month old babies to 3-year-old toddlers brought to the shrine for blessing much like the Christian baptism, the Todai-ji Temple being more rectangular than the present squarish size after reconstruction, Japanese fixation over orange (vermillion) and blue (actually green). When we visited, a wedding was scheduled and Motoko taught us how to say “Omedetōgozaimasu” (meaning Congratulations) as we waited to meet the bride and groom.
Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is one impressive attraction. Not the oldest, but the world’s largest bronze statue of the Great Buddha. There were many local tourists and schoolchildren presumably on field trips. Many were fascinated by the over 1,000 deer in the park and bought tea biscuits to feed them. Deer are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. They are quite tame and roam the grounds freely. Motoko warned us that it’s deer mating season and they could be more aggressive, but we found them very gentle.
Lining most walkways were stone lanterns. Motoko said they were donated out of gratitude or as offerings for petitions to the deities. She pointed to us one very high-ranking Shinto priest in one of the temples we visited. Many trees all around the park are centuries-old. Pines, Plums and Bamboo trees. Pines because they are evergreen, plum because they’re the first to bear fruit, and bamboos because they are resilient.
By this time, we were growing temple-fatigued and torii-gate-abused but Motoko was serious about completing her 3-hour walking tour. There were more shrines, temples and pagodas we can hardly remember. Temples for those praying for a baby, or to travel, columns with pass-through holes for good fortune, etc. We bid adieu to Motoko just before lunch, and thanked her for guiding us. It was time and money well spent. Missing your train station can bring good luck 😘