Friday, 2 November 2012


I was faced with a choice today: Stay around campus, meet people, and help set up for the school festival, or take a field trip to Nara for a class I'm not even taking? The former would never happen again, while the latter was something I could do at any time for myself. But, I thought, let's be honest, without a good reason, you know I never will.

We rendezvoused at Kyouto Station, where Cologne, Australzealand, Double Expat, and the two Finns were ready to go, with myself and Anarchy in the UK as the only hangers-on. Their five Japanese classmates accompanied us as well, naturally. Two were of the arrogant and annoying linguistic imperialists who tend to be quite unavoidable in J...well in every country, I would guess, actually. One was a girl of the “you're doing it wrong, stop trying,” school of assault, the other a guy opting for “don't worry, there is no need for your feckless foreign ass to stumble through the incomprehensible complexities of Japanese, for I speak extremely shitty English.” The other three were just kind of normal, and so although I liked them better they are much less interesting for our purposes right now. Although one was cute.

The teacher was a Japanese woman several centuries in age, a former tour guide who took up teaching as a form of semi-retirement and who thus, I am told, has very little in the way of classroom skills. But what she does have is a deep well of knowledge on the subjects we are visiting, so while the pacing is a little off it's an informative trip indeed. Unfortunately, her final mental possession is the belief that we are all American Christians, although not a single one of us is either, and furthermore the belief that we are actually either children or imbeciles, unfit to stray from the sight of our Japanese chaperones or judge for ourselves whether or not we needed to use the bathroom.

First stop was Horyuuji. It's quite an architecturally dynamic little complex.

The centrpiece is a five-storey pagoda:

Ah no, wait:

It may or may not, but almost certainly does not, have a Buddha bone-fragment at the bottom.

We didn't stray far from the station so I can't attest to the rest of the town, but the places we visited were infested with its famous deer. You can buy little snacks from stalls to feed them, or really you can feed them whatever you have on you, because they will eat almost anything, including plastic. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe they are similar to cows in India, allowed to roam freely because of their holiness. They gained this status because the god Takemikazuchi rode to protect the newly established capital on a white deer. The more touristy the spot, the more aggressively they will pursue your lunch. In front of Toudaiji, Nara's most important sight in my personal opinion, at the age of 11, I was very nearly knocked down and trampled by an enthusiastic throng. Anyway, they're omnipresent here, so be sure to picture them milling all around us as you continue to read this post.

We then proceeded to Miwayama, formerly the locus of Japanese Buddhism, until the souhei of Hieisan stole the spotlight. After all, though I currently live in the Old Capital, Nara is the Really Old Capital (and given the pride Kyouto takes in that status, I have to wonder, does Nara's people and government treat their heritage the same way? Do ryuugakusei living there experience the same sort of stuff we do here? Must investigate further.) We ritually purified ourselves before proceeding upwards, lest we sully the mountain.

Anarchy in the UK decided to get a little divination done, only to learn that he would soon be struck with “MISFORTUNE.” Every single aspect of his life indicated some form of negative consequences, and even the ones with a speck of light in them were laden with caveats. Worse, his attempts to ritually ward off his bad luck failed, and he spent the rest of the day losing things, having his konbini bag torn apart by deer, and just generally living up to the miko-san's predictions...

We then proceeded to Toudaiji, where I was hit with constant Phaedrus Moments the entire time we were there (which was certainly different, because they usually come from four years ago, not ten years ago). Those yellow hats belong to a sea of shougakusei, all travelling with their teachers in groups of about six. Are there always this many tour groups?

Anarchy in the UK was, by this point, laden down with all manner of garbage.
“Is that a bin?” he asked, pointing.
“No,” the teacher replied, “that's a museum.”

It's difficult to convey the awesome size of this titanic metal Buddha. Even if I had been able to get something in the frame to show the scale, I think it's something you really have to have in front of you to really appreciate. At the time it was built, this was the largest Buddha statue ever made, and apparently, if somebody somewhere decided to start making a similar one tomorrow they would utilise the exact same techniques, in spite of the substantial technological advances that have come since the year 789. The gold stuff beside him is the sun, on which we can see his transformation from an ordinary man into the Buddha.

Strangely, it's this smaller, far less impressive Buddha that represent Infinity.

These fearsome fighters are here to protect the temple. There's supposed to be one for each of the cardinal directions. Unfortunately, the Tokugawa bakufu didn't have enough money to make four, so they only put them up at the north and west corners.

Now for the good part, and the real reason I came to Nara today at all. Toudaiji is supported by a ton of pillars, one of which has a hole carved through it. For some insane reason, its builders made this cavity to the exact dimensions of the giant Buddha statue's nostril. How the hell anyone came up with this idea I cannot even fathom. However, if you make a wish and then manage to fit through, Buddha will grant it. The first time I was here, I was the only child in a group mainly composed of overweight middle-aged city officials, so I was the only one who could make it through, and that is why I was so excited to do it again. I'm not even gonna lie, I wished for greater Japanese proficiency and a harem of hot girls.

It's tough to see, but there was just enough room. But considering that I stood in line behind a row of small children who uniformly complained of its cramped confines, it was actually a disconcertingly easy fit...

We wrapped up with a visit to the Nara National Museum (FYI: ryuugakusei get in free if you show your gakuseishou. I actually felt pretty bad ducking around the crowd of people waiting for an hour to pay 2000 yen...) Inside, the girl behind the audio-tour desk totally checked me out.

The story behind the current exhibit is pretty interesting: When Emperor Shoumu, the biggest and baddest Nara Jidai Emperor, kicked the bucket, his widow, the former Empress Koumyou, dedicated over 600 items to him (which are included amongst the Shousouin, the Treasures of Nara). This, to my eye, is a terribly romantic story that belies how stultifying most of the items in question are, mostly being everyday household items or 99 zillion of the same type of playing piece, each with a slightly different metallic composition. That said, his favourite biwa (a type of stringed instrument) is there as well, and it's quite beautiful, though mostly not original anymore. A couple of small “pen-knives” (小刀) were there as well, though they were accompanied by a tantalizing absence of explanation.

The item that most caught my eye was the “Tax Registry from Yamatou Prefecture,” so use that information as you will to judge me and my interests. Why a woman would choose a tax registry as a sign of love for her dead husband, I have no idea.

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