I’m not really motivated to write much nowadays. Stringing together words is tiresome. It takes me forever to even make blog comments. Still, I figure some record of something no matter how ineptly worded is better than nothing at all, after all, oddly my blog statistics say that people are still reading this place (an oddly high number for the dearth of comments, really).
So, Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, in the province it’s said the Yamato culture was born. It’s about the same distance from Mie as Kyoto, but I’ve been more curious about it than Kyoto, which is more popular with tourists and of a newer vintage. Since my last excursion outside Suzuka was in January, and I might not be staying long, when a client offered me a day-trip with him to Nara, I readily accepted. It was my first real trip by car since arriving in Japan. The highways of Japan are interesting, much more high tech, with sensors, road heaters and flashing median lights at night. They are also quite scenic, and one quickly realizes how much of the country is covered with steep forested mountains. Those of you on my facebook page saw a couple of pics of a lookout point above Nara. Quite a bit of the roadway is elevated and there was one tunnel that was over a mile long.
Arriving in Nara itself was quite charming. It has a very rural vibe and it’s quite clear that the town itself survives on the tourism generated by its complex of temples and shrines. We arrived early to the first and largest site, Todaiji, home of the world’s largest wooden building. Despite it still being morning, already the grounds were well-packed with people. Nara is not as well known outside Japan as Kyoto is, so I was rather struck by how many foreign tourists there were. Most of the Japanese tourists were old ladies and couples on bus tours and Junior High students in their uniform, taking in the mandatory historical field trip that all Japanese undergo at 13-14. The entire historical quarter of the town is also swarming with Sika deer, who were regarded as sacred to the gods of the land. They’re quite tame and aggressively go after tourists who buy the deer cookies that are sold everywhere. I saw many a Japanese toddler’s phobia of deer being cemented as they wept openly and cried for their mother as deer chased them around the parks in search of handouts. Japanese parents think such trauma is cute and often egg the deer on to take pictures. They’re just about everywhere, from the temple grounds to the city streets. While eating lunch in a small charming restaurant we saw a large van that was driving behind a deer slowly walking along, paying no heed to the several tons of metal revving impatiently behind it. Also too, I saw an elderly shop keeper chasing a wandering deer out of her store by yelling at it and swatting it’s behind with a large broom. By the time I had my camera out, it had sauntered away, it’s nose held high with an air of “Well, I never.”
I digress. So the first stop was Todaiji. It’s incredibly impressive especially when you consider that the current building is actually smaller than the original one, which burned down hundreds of years ago. While a tourist site, it’s also still a functioning temple, as headquarters for the Kegon sect of Buddhism. As such there are places where people were burning incense and lighting candles and praying before statues. So here’s where I cue my rant about tourists.
First off, I’m going to state my biases. I’m a gaijin who doesn’t like to be around other gaijin. Since at my core I value orderliness, appearance and a high level of public decorum, I’ve avoided socializing with other foreigners living in country for the most part. I find them ill dressed, crass and worst of all, loud and distracting. My only other American co-worker calls me gay (jokingly referring to my style of dress and overall fussiness) and some clients joke that I’m more Japanese than most Japanese men my age due to my tastes (I highly disagree with that assessment, but that’s another post altogether). In any case, I may not be a completely impartial commentator on this.
So. Tourists. I’m not really a good one, I don’t understand the whole traveling thing, whether it be of the conventional boring group tour package or the equally conventional and slightly more obnoxious if a bit more interesting Lonely Planet/Rick Steves trekker sort of deal. I’m a live abroad in one place for awhile sort of person. I think you can’t claim shit about knowing a place until you’ve worked there and went through the whole stage where you’re just sick of being there yet stayed anyways out of a sense of obligation to seeing things through. Lots of people my age and younger use travel as an excuse to avoid reality, get bragging points for future status displays (granted it’s more fun than grad school which pretty much serves the same damn purpose), and most of all to hide for the fact that they are so dull that they couldn’t be bothered to do anything of interest and so substituted by doing their tiresome routines in someplace colorful.
The bulk of the foreign tourists were at Todaiji, as it’s the only place with a lot close by and no humping up hills or stone staircases involved. It was a pretty random lot, with folks from all the damn continents except Antarctica there. As I am something of an observer of people, how they acted were as of much interest to me as the historical sites around me. Americans often get a bad rap, but truth be told, outside of being ill dressed in ratty shorts and t-shirts, and talking loudly, they seemed to grasp the entire concept of what a religious site was and acted accordingly, taking care not to disturb people who were praying and regarding the sites themselves with respect. The Germans oddly were the largest group there. They moved in large herds, with a guide often the only one speaking. It seemed so oddly joyless, as if they were touring a bolt factory instead of a colorful historic site. Some of the younger couples were not part of the tour groups. They seem to let their children wander everywhere, but oddly the kids never actually did anything bratty like climb on statues or bother the deer. They just seemed to like to go to odd spots. Oddly the Eastern Europeans seemed much like the Germans, though better dressed, I hear they’re often the worst. The SWPL trekkers were actually pretty bearable in their behavior, though one wonders what it is they have against bathing, deodorant and washing their clothes. Some of those t-shirts looked to have a Pollock painting of food droppings and pit stains that no chemical detergent would ever be able to remove. What struck me was the worst of the lot. The Brits. Loud, inappropriately dressed, acting as if it were a theme park instead of a temple. Women in tank tops and short-shorts. Shouting to each other across the building. Taking flash pictures inside. Taking pictures of people praying. Making crass sexual jokes. At Kofukuji, I saw one woman even put a Starbucks cup down on a votive candle stand in order to take a photograph. The priest on duty said nothing, but I almost gave her an earful myself. At some of the temples there were signs in English by the stands selling religious items that said “These charms and tablets are religious items, please treat them with respect.” Like that should even need to be said! Okay, rant over.
So anyway, Todaiji. There’s this place in the temple where there’s a small hole in one of the wooden pillars that’s the same size as the Great Buddha statue’s nostril. It’s said that anyone who passes through the hole will achieve Nirvana in the next life. The hole was made in a time when Japanese people were much much smaller than they are now. Today, it’s mostly a thing to do for small children and the occasional small-framed tourist. Of course I wanted to give it a try. I’m six feet tall, but I only weigh about 165 pounds and have a size 32 waist. I figured I could make it if I went in with my shoulders at an angle. My traveling companion was a bit amazed I wanted to try and I asked him to hold my hat and jacket while I made the attempt. The beginning was the most harrowing. It’s so tight you can’t even turn your head. My arms went through and my shoulders did, though the right one was slightly sore after. My torso made it through, it fit snugly, but the wood is worn smooth and black from the hundreds of thousands of people who have passed through it already and I popped out. It felt great. There’s a picture of me going through it, but unfortunately it’s a photo and not digitized. Well, one can see the hole at least on my facebook photo page. After seeing the Great Buddha, and passing through his metaphoric nose, We passed the wall of ema, wooden votive tablets on which people write their prayers and messages. There must have been about a dozen languages besides Japanese on there, including some ones in an Indian script I didn’t recognize. It was all loopy and round, but it wasn’t Sinhala. We then hit the in-temple shop then (Buddhism unlike the Abrahamic religions doesn’t have a problem with selling both religious and secular goods. One could buy a Buddhist Rosary or charm as well as a plushie form of the Great Buddha and Todaiji themed backscratchers and cell phone accessories. I urge you to contemplate the image of a small shop in Saint Peter’s Basilica or by the Kabaa hocking mousepads with the Virgin Mary on it or backscratchers with Quranic verses on them. Granted, the areas for religious goods and secular goods are divided a bit. Before leaving, we bought omikuji, which are traditional Japanese fortunes. Mine said “Now is a good time to start something new.” Pretty good. My travel partner’s said “Beware of a wicked person near you.” We both laughed, but myself a bit more nervously. I’ve been a bit in myself by some of my recent things lately, though I’m sure as hell not going to go into it now. My atheism like always is just a thin rationalist gloss over a deeply superstitious core, though more on that later.
I’ve just realized that it’s almost one in the morning and my word count is nearing 2,000 and I haven’t even gotten through half of it yet. More to come later, most likely. I’ll try not to forget about it. I need sleep… and tobacco.