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Kyoto Part 5 of 6: Monday

I was awake before 8am. I snuck down the creaky bunk bed ladder and, after a shower, I decided I would devote my morning to visiting Nara, a small city thirty miles southeast of Kyoto.

While Kyoto is the basin of Japanese history, Nara is its quiet religious counterpart. After Kyoto was built in 794, in importance, Nara always lagged behind its northern big brother but remained a steadfast home to Japanese Buddhism.

While it isn’t nearly as large and hasn’t nearly as many tourist sights as Kyoto, Nara’s age is astonishing alone. Most consider the Nara region to have held the original Japanese civilization. Kofun burial grounds existing from well before the mid-sixth century are still on view within the city limits. Nara also holds two particular sights that I wanted to see. So, I bought a 1,200 yen ($10 USD) round trip ticket and returned once more to Kyoto Station.

Despite its small size, Nara is an active tourist center, particularly because of its propinquity to Kyoto, less than an hour by express train. I walked out of the station en masse and flowed towards the city’s northeastern corner, home to the 1,235 acre Nara-koen Park. Passed a small pond overpopulated by muddy water and sunbathing turtles, I came to the first of Nara’s most famous residents: its deer.

Yes, Nara-koen, Japan’s largest city park, is home to more than 1,500 tame deer (See Photos in Kyoto Album). Having crossed land bridges during the Ice Age, deer have been in Japan before even the Japanese and are divine messengers according to Shinto.

The pack of deer that inhabit northeastern Nara walk calmly, surrounded by thousands of camera clicking tourists and Frisbee-tossing locals, feeding on shika sembei, deer crackers, that are sold at stalls throughout the park and then handfed to the deer by children and curious adults. I know. Ecologists and environmentalists everywhere are shocked, appalled even. Feeding the animals? Giving teenage boys the opportunity to torment animals and teaching toddlers how to tease deer?

That is just why it is such a remarkable sight. Eco-disasters can be fascinating, and I can’t pretend that I didn’t use the opportunity to pet as many deer as I could. I avoided the males and didn’t tease anyone. What would a rural upbringing offer if not that?

I pressed on through the park, finding more and more groups of these deer being chased or chasing someone with deer crackers or even something extra from lunch. I was off to the more traditional sight and Nara’s pride and joy, Todaji-Temple’s Daibutsen, Great Buddha, the largest bronze statue in the world (See Photos in Kyoto Album). If you remember, a few weeks ago I was in Kamakura south of Tokyo and got to see the second largest Buddha in Japan. Well, Nara’s is number one, in Japan, in the world.

This Daibutsen is five stories tall, weighs 550 tons and was cast 1,200 years ago. You want some perspective? When Daibutsen was cast, the world’s population was hovering under 250 million. Today, there are well over 6.5 billion people on this planet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As I am prone to doing, I stood staring for a time, looking at Daibutsen’s squinted eyes. This image of the Vairocana Buddha, the Buddha of which all others are aspects, is certainly overwhelming. Sitting inside the world’s largest wooden structure, which was rebuilt in 1708, Daibutsen incorporates some 290 pounds of gold and is surrounded by other statues and Buddhist images from the sixteenth century and earlier.

It was nearly 4pm, so I ate a small lunch and took a lazy local train back to Kyoto, fighting sleep with my head on the window watching small towns and rural villages pass by my glare. Back in Kyoto, I walked to a few temples of lesser importance based in the city’s center corridor. In time, night had set in, and I found myself back in the Geisha district of Gion.

I ate a few seaweed-draped rice cakes and began walking towards the brightly-lit Minamiza Theater, Japan’s oldest Kabuki theater. I leaned on the fence across the street, munching on miso dondo and let the moment sink in. How odd that I was there, on Shijo dori, this aged avenue, staring at this historic building, eating flavored, pounded rice balls on a stick.

It was after 8pm and I was struck with an idea. I walked back to the hostel to grab a towel and some soap. I was determined to finish my night with another Japanese experience that too many tourists will never know, a sento, or public bath.

I asked the hostel’s clerk for directions to the neighborhood sento and marched to its door. Public baths have history in Japan, particularly in consolidated communities where traditionally many homes might not have places for bathing. Today, these baths are dying, like so many traditions, as any new or remodeled homes have showers. Still, many Japanese consider them important, particularly for their social value and community bonding.

I took off my shoes, walked past a curtain and paid 300 yen ($2.50 USD). I was ushered to the left, as sentos are most often split in half, one side for men, the other for women and young children. I entered what appeared to be a locker room, with a naked man or two.

An elderly man must have sensed my unsure steps, as he took me by the hand and all but undressed me and put my clothes into a locker. Now naked and standing as close to an old man as I had ever been naked, I opened the glass door into a large tiled room, lined with faucets surrounding six square bath tubs.

I lathered up and cleaned myself at one of the faucets. I had another moment of introspective thought, staring at my reflection, a shapely Japanese buttocks framed in the mirror behind me. I laughed, washed my hair, wiped myself down and moved to the lone unoccupied bath.

I slid into the steamy, frothing water and closed my eyes, my mind the only part of my body busy in motion. I walked out of those humid confines more than an hour later and after drying, I stood with a handful of men in various stage of dress watching the national news cover the latest on the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The language was lost on me, but the images made the message clear. No matter, I had drifted into the crowd, if only just for a moment, and it felt right. Fully satisfied with my final night in Kyoto, I walked to my hostel after a quick dinner at another bar and fell into another deep and uninterrupted sleep.

Jaa ne,

Click here to read Kyoto Part 1.
Click here to read Kyoto Part 2.
Click here to read Kyoto Part 3.
Click here to read Kyoto Part 4.
Click here to read the Final Entry: Kyoto Part 6

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