Last week’s post was about ikebana (いけばな/ 生け花), so this week I need to start with な (na). I had a couple of suggestions for topics this week, including ナルト (Naruto) – the manga – from ラマタ and なると (Naruto) – the fish cakes – from Alyse. Kiki suggested natto (納豆 / fermented soya beans), Nara (奈良 / a city in Kansai), natsu (夏 / summer), Nakameguro (中目黒 / an area of Tokyo) or natsukashii (なつかしい / a nostalgic feeling), and Abi agreed that Nara was a good idea. So, in the end, I decided to write about…
Nara (なら/ 奈良)
Nara City (Nara-shi / 奈良市) is the capital city of Nara Prefecture, which is in the Kansai region of Japan. Nara is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, and makes a perfect day-trip or overnight stay from Kyoto. I’ve been there a number of times and have never failed to enjoy it. I could easily write a post today about all the famous places you simply have to visit in Nara, like Todai-ji, where you can see one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, which houses an iconic daibutsu (big Buddha statue):
I could also write about the tacky souvenirs which line the streets leading up to Todai-ji, and the deer which will surround any tourist who hasn’t got their wits about them.
But you can read about all those things on so many other websites, and you can probably find most of the Nara tourist information you need just on the JNTO website. So today, I’d like to share something a little different about Nara. I’m cheating a little bit, because this is something I actually wrote in 2006. However, I’ve never published it anywhere. This is the story of my first trip to Nara, during my first ever trip to Japan…
Taking the road less travelled – Cool Dude Nakamura
I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew where I wanted to be. It was not a road I would have chosen, and certainly not one I intended to take, but sometimes you find yourself in those situations, and there is nothing to do but keep walking. So that’s what I did.
It was a warm and sunny day, and I was half way through a two-week mission to ‘do Japan’. An impossible feat, but I was determined nevertheless to cram in as much as possible. On this particular day, I was day-tripping in Nara, just a short train ride from Kyoto.
Still unsure of quite why I was alone on the other side of the world, I did know why I was in Nara. There was a very big statue of a Buddha there, housed in one of the world’s biggest wooden structures, and for some reason I felt compelled to go and pay my respects. So, clutching my coffee-stained tourist map, I faithfully set out on the route a friend had marked for me in biro.
The feeling of freedom was quite overwhelming, and it reminded me of the first time I went to town on my own as a child. I could do anything I pleased – there was not a soul here to tell me otherwise. All of Japan was mine – and today it was Nara that had my full attention. I wandered along my route, stopping to browse in the tourist shops. They all sold a variation on a theme of cuddly deer (Nara is famous for its wild deer), wooden carved dolls (kokeshi) and the usual array of Japanese souvenirs (fans, green tea, Hello Kitty…). Eventually I turned onto the path that would lead to Todai-ji, Nara’s star tourist attraction, the temple that housed the really big Buddha!
The road leading to Todai-ji was lined with market-type stalls selling tacky souvenirs and gifts; tourists, both Japanese and foreign, meandering along; and free-roaming deer who would eat your map/your food/your hand as quick as they would look at you. Sadly, upon arriving at my destination, I realised that I was not alone in my pilgrimage – everyone likes a really big Buddha. Todai-ji was swarming with tourists snapping their cameras, buying postcards, and paying their respects. It was hard to feel anything but awe for the sheer size of the statue – it was massive – and very impressive, but not overwhelmingly spiritual, as I had hoped.
I did my bit as a tourist – looking around and taking snapshots, and then wandered off to continue on my route and see more temples and shrines. There were perfect moments of peace in between each tourist attraction – almost as though everyone was magically being transported to each one rather than following the same path as me.
So it did not seem strange when I realised I had been walking for a while and not seen anyone else for some time. It did not seem strange, until I came out of the wooded area I had been walking through – onto a residential road in the middle of nowhere.
At this point I could have easily panicked, and I did nearly turn back and retrace my steps, but that didn’t feel right. What felt right was to keep walking – to just let my feet take me back to the station. There were a couple of maps along the way – old, worn, wooden boards – entirely in Japanese. My, now quite tatty, tourist map was no use as I had no idea where I was and there were no road names. So I kept walking, until I stumbled upon a curious sight.
Cool Dude Nakamura – now declared the patron saint of my travels – was a funny little shop I spotted on the other side of the street. The road I was walking down was so residential that there wasn’t even a Lawson’s corner store – not even a vending machine! I didn’t go in Cool Dude Nakamura, I just stopped, marvelled, and took its picture. That was enough.
And so it was that I found my moment of clarity down a random road somewhere in residential Nara, rather than in the great temples. I realised that whatever road you are walking along, keep walking and follow your instincts. You might not know if you are going the right way, or even be sure of your destination, but so long as you keep going, pausing only to take in the beauty and strangeness of this world, you are sure to get there in the end. So, next time you find yourself a little lost, just keep walking and see where the road takes you…
I’ll never forget that first trip to Nara, and will always think of Cool Dude Nakamura fondly. As I was putting this post together I decided to Google “Cool Dude Nakamura” and, lo and behold, they have a website and a blog! The blog has a wonderful message at the top of the page: “Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us“. This message seems so appropriate, given the way I found the shop.
I hope you’ll forgive me for my little self-indulgence and reminiscence this week. It seems I ended up writing about “natsukashii” as well as Nara. 😉
(This image is from the Cool Dude Nakamura website)
Nara (なら) ends with ら (ra), so next week I will be looking for a noun beginning with “ra”. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below! And, don’t forget, no words ending in ん! (^_^)v