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.

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Okay, so today I went to Nara. If you don’t know about Nara and the surrounding areas, I advise you look at the wikipedia pages to get a good glimpse of what it entails, suffice to say, most of it has well over a thousand years of history behind it.

I got a lot to say about it, from Buddhism, to tourism, to culture and all that stuff. Maybe even photos, though if you’re not already on my facebook list, you’ll probably have to ask. I found most people who care about that stuff who read here are already on my friends list, but I digress. Why I’m here now, I’m here today, writing is due to the influence of something far greater than any religious or historical site to me, namely sake. (I’m being tongue in cheek here, as in reality alcohol cannot be unraveled from the fabric of both, except for perhaps in the case of Islam, but then again, Selim the Sot anyone?)

Nara is one of the more important sake producing areas of Japan, not so much for the volume of modern production or the fame of it’s breweries (though some are famous), but due to the fact that it is consider the place where sake was invented, and the oldest shrine of it’s tutelary deity still stands. As such, when I planned my tour here, obtaining some samples of the local product was second on my list after taking in the sight of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. I was not to be disappointed.

In a small shopping area next to the Todai-ji parking lot there was a small store that sold sake exclusively, mostly from Nara. The owner was young and incredibly friendly. All the bottles he had in stock, he would allow customers to taste a sample of, and he kept his merchandise fresh and regularly rotated (I must tell you *why* it is paramount that your sake be fresh, but that is another story altogether). Me and my friend sampled a few bottles, and while his tastes tend to the large and well known world of Junmai Ginjos and Daiginjos, mine goes into the .001% world of all sakes made, namely koshu (old sake) and kijoshu (think a sort of Port or Madeira equivalent in sake terms). It’s incredibly hard to come by even in specialty liquor stores, so when I saw he some in stock, well, my interest was piqued.

I ended up trying a getting the oldest bottle he had on his shelf, one that was originally brewed back in 1992 and tank aged for 17 years. When my partner sniffed it, he said it “Strong, isn’t it?”, and being an older Japanese man, it more or less translates to “Jesus H. Christ, that stuff reeks to high heaven, you have some odd tastes, my friend.” (Japanese men beyond a certain age express things in an economy of words, and finding out the nuances of expression takes experience).

I got him a bottle of Junmai Namazake (of which I’ve forgotten the name), fresh from the toji (brewmaster) and got myself the bottle of koshu.

The bottle is from the Hyaku-raku-mon line, which roughly translates to “The Gate of a Hundred Pleasures” (given correct poetic license). The website is here:

http://www.hyakurakumon.com/

It’s kinda a lame site, but if you hunt around, you’ll find they have no reason to add bells and whistles, their product speaks for itself.

In any case, this bottle ain’t listed on their site, only the 5 year aged one is. I figure since the store owner is tight with all the local brewers, he gets the limited edition deals, because goodness knows, this was one of the more expensive bottles there outside the high grade Daiginjos. The five year old was next to the seventeen year old and the difference was palpable, from the the deeper and richer yellow of the color, and the sharper and stronger taste of the older.

The color is a wonder to behold, a deep deep yellow, with amber and green tones depending on the light, like liquid gold. The smell, well, one doesn’t need to bring their nose to the glass after pouring. You can smell it’s pungent aroma from arm’s length when airated thusly, like a dusty library with the windows thrown open to the spring breeze for the first time in years. The taste is also a hammer. Strong and musty, but in a sublimely pleasant way, like if Moroccan leather could be a tasting note. It’s on the drier side, for sure, but a subtle sweetness lingers on the tongue afterwards. As it warms in the glass, the sweeter notes become more and more apparent. I couldn’t place it exactly until now. There was this purple flower in Hawaii during my youth, and the bottom of the stamen contained a small amount of sweet nectar that we would dab on our tongues in boredom and lust for sweetness. The sweetness most resembles that small flower’s nectar.

Now that my third glass is almost room temperature, I can say this, the odor is like that of a sweetly smelling flower that was used as a bookmark in an old leather bound book. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

Dear God, I’m going barmy (if the constant use of parentheticals didn’t tip you off). The rest of the bottle goes with enka tomorrow night. It’s time for a shochu palette cleanser.