Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nara, You Feed Deer (Part 1 of 2)

Last weekend we went to Nara and Osaka, just a weekend getaway for the two of us.

We left early in the morning and took the four-hour shinkansen (bullet train) trip to Oji to check in to the guest house where we spent the night, then spent the rest of the afternoon in Nara.

The trains seats on the regular trains are different in Nara/Osaka, facing forward/backward instead of lining the sides of the train. Weird.

It was a little surreal when we found ourselves pacing the cars on the expressway.

This was the first thing I saw when we arrived at the station in Oji. I haven't the foggiest idea of what this sign could possibly be advertising unless it's some sort of industrial-strength cork, but I felt that you, the Internet, needed to know about it.

The two metro card systems in Tokyo are Suica (penguin mascot) and Pasmo (robot mascot). Evidently here, it's Icoca with it's admittedly more interesting platypus mascot. Sadly, platypuses don't play with robots, so we had to buy paper tickets for every leg of our trip.

We managed to leave the train station on the wrong side, which meant we needed to walk around. That was too bad, but on the plus side we found this awesome troll tunnel to cross under the tracks.

The place where we stayed is called Guesthouse Yougendo, and it couldn't possibly be more picturesque. It's run by an international couple (he is Australian, she is Japanese), and everyone on staff speaks Japanese and English.

Just inside the gate, to the left is the bar/restaurant, straight ahead is this:

Some brief video showing the check-in area, the breakfast rooms, the variety of sake available for a tasting course, and the view out the glass door to the garden. The building is about a hundred years old and was originally a multi-family home. It is enormous and beautiful and every window looks out on beautifully kept gardens.

Our room was a tatami room with windows, a dresser, and a small desk. This picture really doesn't do the space justice. Directly behind me as I was taking this picture was a sliding paper door and a sliding glass door to the hallway. Across the hallway is floor-to-ceiling (or close enough) windows that show a small courtyard full of healthy plants in another traditional Japanese garden.
The guesthouse also had lounge rooms, internet access, a kitchen accessible to guests and a designated spot in the refrigerator for each room, and an entire wardrobe-sized cabinet devoted to guide books and maps.

On our way to the park in Nara, we discovered a number of delightful statues placed along the main road and in the open-air plaza where the shopping center and the train station were located.

Random picture of a building called Joy Palace. I love the architecture in this country. It has so much personality.

Ah, the countryside. Fewer tall buildings, slightly wider streets (to be fair, that's the park at the end of the street, which explains a lot of the open space). That building on the left looks a little out of place with its columns. I didn't catch what it is.

Covered street of shops.

Getting closer to the park...

Why, hello, Blimp! I didn't expect to you see you here. Or anywhere, really, but I think I've seen it once or twice in the last year.

I was just half a second from getting a photo of the woman getting a picture of the blimp passing overhead while a deer looked at her all forlorn-like and being ignored.

Deer can be dangerous; they're still technically wild animals.
People can be dangerous...don't hit the deer with your car, hunt them with your (tiny) dogs (wearing clothes), or chase them with sticks.

I had wondered if the ditches were to keep the deer on the grassy parts, but I think they're more for drainage of rainwater.

The guy with the antlers is Sento-kun, a mascot created for the city of Nara's1300th anniversary. I'd seen it when we went to Kyoto last year, but I didn't realize he was a 2010 creation.
This is definitely the funniest part of the vending machine:

Aw, deer looks so sad and hungry!

Of course we bought some deer cookies.

I love that all the deer cookie vendors had their own little fan club hanging around, patiently waiting for someone to approach. It's as if the deer are saying, "Hey, I left my wallet in my other pants. Can someone spot me some yen?"

The park itself is home to several World Heritage sites, gardens, and temples.

We visited the botanical garden. Deer are not allowed inside.

This tree had some interesting bark colors.

Not necessarily the most colorful botanical garden I've been in, but it was nice and well-kept.

A variety of grasses to read about, if you can read Japanese.

We also found one particular area that appeared to be the Wisteria Enclosure. It smelled wonderful as we followed the path around all the trees with different colors of hanging flowers. (I don't actually know if it's Wisteria, just an educated guess based on an image search.)

Grandparents showing their young granddaughter the fish in the pond. It was adorable.

This looks like an iris, but I'd never seen one that looked like it had been through a kaleidoscope. These were relatively small and growing together in large numbers.

There were also a couple of rose trees.
Sadly, we missed peak rose season. Most were wilting and/or turning brown, this one just happened to be doing it more gracefully than most blossoms.

A rare photo taken outside the botanical garden, yet without any deer:

A row of ice cream stands and souvenir shops.

It's the beginning of the season, so the deer are shedding the long winter coats in favor of the summer coats, so they look a little mangy. I can't really explain the single antler, though.

Evidently Husband sat in something delicious, because the deer were nipping at his butt all day.

He still fed them cookies. He was a good sport.

We also visited the Todai-Ji temple, one of the many within the park.

By the area where you wash your hands before entering, a rare sign for a building containing a giant and famous statue of Buddha. Photos are allowed!

Only in Japan can you leave your stroller and bag unattended with full confidence that they will still be there when you return. I still find it astonishing.

Just inside the entrance I tried to take a sweeping video to capture just how gigantic the statue is, but it simply does not do it justice. It's very old and very famous, and has been rebuilt/recast several times over the last several centuries. This current incarnation is two thirds of the original size. You can read a little more about it by clicking this link.

The slightly smaller statues on either side are also immense. Again, photos simply don't do it justice.

Stroll around the back of the Buddha, and find more huge statues!

And a scale miniature of the temple grounds.

Different giant (wooden, I presume) statue on the opposite corner behind the big Buddha to balance it out.

Along the side, the gift shop. Tee shirts, key chains, postcards, and good luck charms.

Detail of the large metal flower sculptures on either front corner of the Buddha's seat.

The view from the top of the steps as we were leaving the giant statues.

As we were leaving, there was this sign:

It's a plea to donate money to a children's charity, which isn't funny by itself. But this image, at the bottom of the sign? Well, that's not funny either.

Until you see how it got cartoon-ified in the Japanese style. Suddenly it looks like the deer are holding all those poor handicapped children hostage and saying very cruel things to them. That's pretty funny.

They were waiting. They're always waiting. Again, patiently by the cookie vendor.

Not being in any particular hurry, I got some images of the statues on either side of the tori gate, then one of the deer was nice enough to pose for some portrait photos.

I paid him in cookies.

Heading to the main gate.

Check out all the roots! It's like they grew inside a cookie cutter.

We wandered the clean, narrow streets between the park and the train station, looking for some small museums that were on the map but somehow didn't exist in real life. This several-block region was an interesting mix of houses and small shops and cafes. I have no idea how any of the businesses could stay open, because if you were around the corner you couldn't hear, see, or smell them.

Random interesting vending machine with drinks we'd never seen before.

I expected this one to be juice. By Jove it tasted like juice, and I was sincerely surprised to see it was just flavored water, which I discovered only after I'd consumed half of it.

We got one of each of these because we couldn't really guess what they were. Jungleman is an energy drink, the bottle with the mountain is sort of like a lemon-lime soda, and there is a detail photo of Skal in a bit.

We'd gotten enough drinks by this point, but they sure are colorful.

I'd never heard of ramune cream soda before. (Apparently it's a Japan thing.) For lack of a better description, it tastes like the color sea foam green.

We saw these all over the place. I forgot to ask someone what it is or represents.

Back into more of a high-traffic area along the main road that leads to the park, more formal stores and fewer home-run boutiques.

Even the sewer covers are decorative.

We felt that we had to stop for a drink here, at the Sweet Soul Cafe, just to see what the inside was like.
It was run by an older Japanese couple, smelled a little bit musty, and had several items of memorabilia including a James Brown figurine and some very old caricature items of questionable political correctness. I'm not entirely clear on how a Rod Stewart album was an appropriate soundtrack. But they did serve plum wine with a plum on the side and some excellent fried Camembert cheese.

Cats are also a big theme here, I'm not entirely certain if there's a historical reason. We went into one boutique devoted exclusively to cat-themed items. Handbags, hair accessories, postcards, stuff like that. Oddly enough, this slightly scary statue was directly across the alley in front of an artist's gallery that contained very few cat-themed items.

This vending machine caught my eye. At first we thought they were cigarettes, but then we looked more closely at the designs on the boxes.

When we got one, we thought they might be a deck of cards (a couple designs featured the suit symbols), but it ended up being a half-size tenugui (essentially a souvenir cloth).

As shops were closing down for the evening, the crowd started to thin.

In front of a Catholic church.

In case you forget what you're doing on this street.

Lost? Get directions from these friendly cartoon vegetables!

I'm not quite sure what this business does, but to me it looks like the mascot is either shrieking with glee or trying to escape by smooshing her face and hands against the glass window.

Have I mentioned that I love this country? We didn't get any alcohol from this vending machine, I'm just glad it exists.

In the US, this might be a photo of a random city. Compared to Tokyo, it's very suburban. Very open, fewer lights up the sides of tall buildings, nobody yelling in the street about today's deals.

Neat time countdown on the Don't Walk sign.

Floor to ceiling windows for probably half of each of these apartments? Must be a great view, but expensive to heat and cool.

Last photo taken on the way back to the guesthouse. I've seen a few of the KFC Colonels dressed up, but no two have been costumed alike.

Next time: Osaka!

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