Saturday, January 9, 2010

Japan - Day 5

Chris is trying to kill himself. Last night he again stayed up until 3 am, shooting the breeze, so it was a bit with zombie eyes that he woke up at 7 am for our outing to the nearby city of Nara. We decided it was time to have a day without bikes, hopped on a slow train, and an hour later we were in the city of Nara, which has the distinction of
having been the first capital of the Japanese empire, from 730 to 800 AD. We got there around 9 am, made a bee line for the tourist information center, and found out that the local YMCA has a program that hooks volunteer guides with visitors. The volunteers are taking classes, but basically offer their services because they figure it is a fun way to meet people from all over the world, and to practice their knowledge of city history and foreign languages. Would we like a guide, then, as a free service? Of course!

Ten minutes later we met Noriko, a very petite smiling woman in her mid 50s, who with lots of bows and smiles introduce herself and steered us through the enormous municipal garden of Nara. This garden is home to the 5-storey temple (very cute and scenic), the temple of the giant Buddha, the Shinto shrine of the 2,000 lanterns, and about 10,000 deer. The deer are supposed to be the messengers of Buddha, so they are protected, revered, and a bloody nuisance. Chris made the mistake of buying deer food once, and from there on they followed us everywhere!

The temple of the giant Buddha is, as the name implies, a very large temple with a sitting statue of Buddha that must be a good 30 m (100 ft) high. It is a very holy place in Japan, and Noriko did a fabulous job at explaining every detail about the building, the spirits that protect it, the way the Buddha was cast, and other little trivia that made our visit very enjoyable. One anecdote will amuse you: One of the pillars has a hole, maybe 30 cm in diameter, and legend has it that if you can squirm yourself through the hole you will pass all your examinations. I immediately tried to encourage Chris to give it a go, to make sure that he won't stumble in Hydro or Applied. He was tempted, and looked at the hole with greedy eyes, but at the end his fear of getting stuck prevailed, so he will have to pass my classes the old-fashioned way.

After walking all over the place, taking the great views of the city, gawking at a traditional Japanese wedding, and drinking a cup of tea courtesy of the Shinto shrine we were getting tired and hungry. We invited Noriko to lunch at a ramen house, where we had a chance to talk at length about ourselves. Her story seems to be very common among Japanese women: She is happily married, but her husband--who is an engineer--is a workaholic who leaves home at 8 am and doesn't come back until 11 pm. As long as her two children were small she had plenty to do, but now that they are grown up she feels alone, and has joined the volunteer guides program, and an afternoon program mentoring high school students, to have something to do during the long empty day.

We finished our visit to Nara with a walk around the old town, which included a visit to a traditional Japanese house of say 75 years ago, and a relaxing walk around a private Japanese garden. Interesting that in this garden instead of grass they have moss, which does not require mowing and gives the aspect of a fuzzy carpet. An army of gardeners keeps the place spotless!

We finally said our goodbyes to our new friend and took the train back to Kyoto. We had a little over an hour to pick up our bags and bikes and board the train to our next destination, Nagasaki.

The train ride was uneventful, but we were getting to Nagasaki at midnight, so we came with the idea of just riding the trains all night. No good. As soon as we got to Nagasaki they turned off the lights and closed the station. The place was deserted. OK, so midnight is not so bad, so let's bike to the youth hostel and get some sleep. We did, only to find the hostel closed and dark. I made my best to break the combination, rouse the neighborhood, or force a side door, but to no avail. What to do? Well, says I, better get back to those benches we saw outside the station and crash there. Chris stared at me with horror (at this point please remember that he had had but four hours of sleep the night before), and couldn't believe his eyes when we got to the station and I pulled my very thin sleeping bag from my pack. In less than 5 minutes I was in the land of nod, while for poor Chris started a long night of horrors. Pobrecito!

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