2006-04-11, Day 11

Alarm went off at 7, we were both too sleepy and tired to get up immediately, but we eventually managed to lever ourselves out of bed and into the shower. When we arrived in the kitchen for pre-breakfast, it was occupied by a Thai family. Jer wished that he wasn't so hopeless with languages, so that he could've learned a little Thai from Sucheela. Jess had a new flavor of waffle for breakfast — strawberry. She thought it was pretty good, but not as good as the plain ones. Fortunately, she also had a plain one. Jer's soup bowl was some kind of beef thing, and was not very good at all.

We headed out to the subway and went down to Kyoto Station to get cash and the Photo we took Kintetsu train to Nara. The central post office was quite imposing. Not anything like the one in New York, but still pretty massive compared to the other ones we've seen in Japan. Out front was a tiny little "Mini Post," which was quite adorable with the main building looming above. We got cash and headed off in search of the train. Our path led over hill and dale, or at least through a couple buildings and up and down numerous sets of stairs. We stopped briefly for breakfast items to eat on the train. Next, we bought tickets for the train to Nara, only to discover that we had gotten unreserved tickets and we wanted to take a reserved train. No problem, Jer found an English-speaking ticket counter guy and rectified the situation.

It's a 34-minute journey from Kyoto to Nara on the Kintetsu Limited Express, which gave Jer just enough time to eat his eki-ben of Nara-style sushi (mackerel and rice wrapped in leaves, which are said to flavor the sushi). The businessman across the aisle helpfully explained that you're not meant to eat the leaf, when Jer inquired (well, said "sumimasen" and mimed eating the leaf-wrapped piece). Jess had no such problems with her brown sugar and almond muffin or her mochi and sesame paste ball.

After arriving in Nara, we headed into Nara Park, which is a deer refuge. The deer Photo we took are totally tame and Photo we took came right up to us; some even let us pet them. This is because the deer know that people will buy deer crackers from various stands and feed them to the deer. Jer could barely wait to find a deer cracker vendor. Jess was insistent, though, that we go directly to Todaiji, so off we went. We followed the signs through a bewildering maze of signs and tunnels to emerge at the path to the Big Buddha, himself. Jess dragged Jer past numerous deer cracker vendors to the temple entrance. We paid our ¥500 apiece and headed in. The thing about the Daibutsuden (hall of the Buddha) is that you can't really see anything Photo we took from the outside, so we weren't really prepared. The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is big. Photo we took Really big. Not quite "he's got the whole world in his hand" big, but certainly big enough to have a subcompact car in his hand. He's big in Japan. In fact, he's the biggest bronze Buddha in Japan. We spent over 45 minutes walking around him (though there were lots of Photo we took other statues, and we did spend a decent amount of time Photo we took squeezing Photo we took ourselves and Photo we took others through the hole in a pillar, which is meant to guarantee that we'll reach enlightenment). We wanted to go up the shrine bit, but it was closed by the time we circled around. Instead, we bought a postcard from an old monk. (Todaiji is one of the few touristy temples in Japan that's still a working monastery. Some monks make beer, these ones sell souvenirs.) On the way out, Jess tried to get Photo we took the statue of an arhat to cure her gimpy ankle. (Hey, wafting the incense seemed to work on her cold, why not?)

As awesome as the Daibutsu was, Jer was really excited to buy deer crackers and feed the deer. He got us two packs, but we agreed that the deer right there were getting overfed, so we moved on before busting them out. On the way to the next attraction, Jer saw a deer rip a strip out of some poor guy's map and eat it. Apparently they're not too picky. We walked further into Nara Park, toward Kasuga Grand Shrine, stopping to feed a few deer along the way. Jess loved feeding the deer Photo we took one or two at a time (especially Photo we took the cute fawns), but she was a Photo we took bit intimidated by the small herds that surrounded us, Photo we took nipping at our butts, jacket hems, backpack straps etc. in hopes of getting our attention (and more crackers). Jer just laughed as the deer nibbled, pawed and drooled on him.

Finally, we reached Kasuga Grand Shrine, the shrine of the Fujiwaras (an important family, from which most empresses hailed), so over the years it was endowed with a number of important treasures and Photo we took thousands of lanterns. We chose not to visit the inner grounds or the Treasure House (whose exhibit labels appeared to be in Japanese). Instead, we wandered around the outer grounds, admiring the variety of stone lanterns, many of which we cloaked in thick moss. Photo we took Jer loves moss.

Eventually, we decided to make our way back toward Nara to find some lunch. We passed a group of Japanese schoolchildren feeding the deer, and stopped to watch their antics. The girls held crackers out, then shrieked, giggled Photo we took and ran when the deer came close enough to eat them, dropping many crackers on the ground. The boys were a bit braver, getting some of the deer to run and jump to get their treats. There was much laughter all around. (Of course, a bit later, when we were swarmed by deer, Jess got so freaked out and interposed her umbrella between her and the deer, Japanese schoolgirl-style, so she can't say too much.)

Back in Nara, we headed into a shopping arcade to find some (late) lunch. After checking out the options, we ducked into a little restaurant, where Jer got a combo of tempura and cold soba with dipping sauce, and Jess got unagi-don (eel over rice). Both were delicious. Unfortunately, nobody at the restaurant spoke much English, although the sushi chef spoke a little English and a little French. Sadly, everything was in kanji, so we couldn't find out the name of the place. We took a picture of the front, instead.

We were hoping to visit Kofukuji (another temple, also built by the Fujiwaras) and see the national treasure gallery. The guide book said it closed at 5, but some other attractions were open later than the guidebook claimed, so we decided to ask at the tourist information booth. The ladies told us that the treasure house would be closed, but strongly recommended that we go anyway to see the architecture, since the grounds were still open. We had deer crackers left to use up, so we took them up on their suggestion and walked to the temple compound (which was only a few minutes away). The tourist information ladies were right, Kofukuji was definitely worth a visit. It had Photo we took a lovely pagoda made from dark wood (as most we saw have been), Photo we took a unique octagonal shrine (in the usual vermillion, white and green), and a few other buildings whose functions were not readily ascertainable. We also met a number of deer that were willing to take the remaining deer crackers off our hands (albeit with varying degrees of skittishness — some fawns had not yet come to view people as cracker vending machines).

We walked back to Kintetsu Nara Station and caught the local train to Kyoto. We were brave and took a route that required us to change trains, which turned out to be easy-peasy. Once back in Kyoto, we took the bus to our favorite shopping arcade, Teramachi-dori, to pick up a few last-minute gifts and souvenirs. We like those particular shopping streets for their mix of stores (classy gifts, kitschy souvenirs, trendy clothes and shoes, yen shops, etc.). We saw everyone from ladies in kimono to tourists to Japanese teens with spiked hair and Engrish t-shirts. It's very good for people-watching, as well as shopping. We also stopped into a pachinko parlor, because Jer wanted to see why the Japanese are so into it. After trying it, we're still not sure! The parlor was very loud, bright and smoky, and the game doesn't seem to involve much (if any) skill. After a few minutes, Jess needed to leave, because the smoke bothered her. Still, it was good to have gone in, just to have seen it.

Our purchases made, we headed back to Musashi, the conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, for dinner. This time, we were seated at the downstairs counter, rather than a booth upstairs. It wasn't quite as comfortable, but the sushi was still delicious (especially the salmon). We couldn't bring ourselves to try the duck or the surf 'n turf (which appeared to be a piece of cured beef sushi and a piece of whitefish sushi), though. We also didn't try the American-style rolls (like the inside-out roll with salmon, cucumbers and what looked like a hunk of cream cheese "since mayonnaise doesn't stand up like that", as Jess put it).

After dinner, we headed home to get organized and pack. As was to be expected, packing took forever, and we didn't get to bed until 1 am.