Without a doubt, the cities I am referring to are Nara (奈良市) and Osaka (大阪) respectively. Nara, formerly known as Heijo (平城), was Japan’s first permanent capital, established in 710. Due to its historic status, Nara is replete with historic treasures and cultural significance. It is also home to some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples. Unfortunately, given its close proximity to two more popular tourist cities (approximately one hour by train from Kyoto and Osaka), little attention has been paid to Nara as a result. More often than not, it is just a by-the-way side trip people make before/after Kyoto or Osaka. Nara does have a lot offer, especially shrines and temples. Just need to give it the due attention it deserves, I reckon.
Here’s the whole lot of us taking a group photograph in front of the Nandaimon Gate (南大門) leading to Todaiji Temple (東大寺), one of the most historically significant temples in Japan. The gate, reconstructed in 1199 after a burndown in 1180, is in itself a rather impressive monument, not to mention humongous. There are apparently two statues by the side of the gate, guarding the temple (and since the gate is the gateway to the temple, it kind of makes sense) but since nobody explained that to us and we didn’t do any prior read-up, we didn’t really notice the statues. Oh well… part of the problem with guided tours is this reliance leading to false impressions that one will learn everything from the tour leader/guide.
And then the Eastern Great Temple (Todaiji Temple) came into sight as we crossed the Nandaimon Gate. On a rather non-related note… may I just comment on how much I just love all the entrance tickets we’d received on the trip? Interesting, and very pretty. Shows that the Japanese take pride even in the smallest details.
One of the reasons why Todaiji Temple is as famous as it is lies in the the word’s largest bronze statue of the Virocana Buddha (大仏) in the main hall, measuring almost 15 metres in height. It was rumoured that this project nearly crippled Japan’s economy at that time due to the massive demand of so much bronze for the statue. While I do have some pictures of the statue, I find them non-impressive in general (and thus does no justice to the real thing) so there is no intention to post any of it up here.
Sika deer from the nearby Nara Park wandered freely around the park compoud. They are mostly tame but love congregating around new visitors to the park in hope of getting fed shika senbei (鹿煎餅). We didn’t purchase the deer crackers because although I found the deer adorable, they also frightened me senseless. I cannot explain why, because some of them are so small they are comparable in size to the golden retrievers we have at home. Perhaps that’s the reason why – my furkids go absolutely bonkers when I feed them, and they are domesticated. The behaviour of the deer would understandably be even more unpredictable. This was why, adorable as they are, I refused to feed them those special crackers.
Not that they were going hungry from my lack of participation in the random feeding. Most other visitors to the park were brave enough to partake in this touristy activity, and the deer population couldn’t be happier. I wanted to stay as far away as possible, just putting enough distance for me to take some pretty shots of them.
Next on, to Osaka the well-known City of Vitality. And we had a lot of ground to cover in the little time we had there it was crazy.
There’s just this thing about guided tours and chinatowns. I have no idea why they always assume that Chinese tourists like to see the Chinatown. Same question as to why they like to serve us Chinese cuisine whenever they could. To please the older generation of travellers I guess, because the mum wanted Chinese cuisine almost every other meal. I know I mentioned that I do like visiting overseas chinatowns in general, however they are hardly the first or only thing I want to see of a new city I go to. Especially not when Osaka has so many places to see and do, quite unlike Yokohama. But oh well, we needed to settle our own lunch and the tour agency must have figured that we would love to have some Chinese food in the Chinatown. Thing is, never expect food in overseas chinatowns to ever taste authentic, or the way you expect it to taste like. Why? This is not because they are incapable of replicating the food but rather that they would have had to tweak little changes to the taste to appeal to the palate of the locals i.e. the Japanese in this case. Same reason why I found the Chinese food in Everett, Washington so incredibly sweet. But I digressed.
And then we dropped by Universal Studios Japan. Entrance tickets weren’t covered in the costs of the tour so some people opted to pay out of their own pockets to spend like, 1-2 hours in the park. The mum, little sis and I discussed over this and decided we didn’t want spend our time in yet another amusement park. Instead we opted to go shopping at a large shopping mall nearby. Can’t tell if we made the right choice or not but we were jolly happy doing some shopping whilst our tour mates complained of long queues in the park and how they ended up just browsing the merchandise stores. Don’t think we missed much eh? I would much prefer having a full day to explore the park properly instead.
And our visit to Osaka would not be complete without a cursory visit to Osaka Castle (大阪城). Because the group made a consensual decision to spend more time at Universal Studios, we had less time at Osaka Castle as a consequence. It was near closing hour when we arrived, resulting in a mad rush to introduce us to this gorgeous castle. Quite a bit of drama behind this symbol of Osaka today but this is no place to discuss it. Interesting history nevertheless. And may I repeat again… gorgeous castle. Wished we had time to explore the interior including a visit to the museum.
Good thing the castle park doesn’t close, or if it does, not so early anyway. So we had a chance to walk around, enjoy the scenery and take more pictures of the castle. And then we had a simple dinner at an eatery in the park itself. Simple, yet delectable udon.
Finally it was time to head home. Kansai International Airport has an interesting control tower. Which I must take picture of, considering how a Singapore Airlines aircraft was also parked nearby. Picture perfect opportunity. And a great way to sum up a great trip. We didn’t learn very much of all the places we visited, but we sure saw a lot. It was also a good 7-day of bonding with the mum and the little sis. Truth is, I haven’t had much time for them ever since moving out after marriage so I cherish what little time I get to spend with them.