Nara and Kyoto, Wednesday April 10

I decided to go to Nara today, LP's most-recommended day trip from Kyoto (also recommended by Marni and Clara). Because I'm near the Takeda subway station and rail hub in Kyoto I decided it would be easier to catch the local train to Nara rather than take the subway into town and catch the express from Kyoto station. In hindsight, not one of my best decisions. On the wall map it looked simple: catch the train to Yamato-Saidaiji, then change to the Nara train for the remaining two stops. But Yamato-Saidaiji didn't materialize in the expected number of stops, so I gave it a couple more, got off, and asked for help from an employee (whose English was every bit as good as my Japanese). He wrote me very careful instructions, complete with exact departure times (which were adhered to). Happily I hadn't overshot my first exchange - which was not Yamato-Saidaiji, but rather another change that took me to Yamato-Saidaiji - and I arrived only about 15 minutes later than I might have done if I'd known what I was doing.

One of the first things you notice as you enter Nara Park (where most of the sites of interest to tourists in Nara are) is the deer. Literally hundreds of them, many begging for food as there are vendors selling "deer cookies" at many intersections along the way. I didn't feed them and they left me alone, but those who did feed them found themselves surrounded - and occasionally having things nipped out of their pockets. The funniest sight of the day was a woman wrestling a deer for something it had decided was tasty: when she finally won the fight, she was giggling and holding a very wet ¥1000 note at arm's length (about $11CAN).

photo: admiring the cherry blossoms in Nara Park

A man in a business suit and hat and a woman in a kimono stand arm-in-arm under cherry blossoms

Nara's main attraction is Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple with an enormous Buddha. The front gate includes two really spectacular wood carvings, each about ten meters tall and incredibly mean looking. Sadly they're behind chicken wire to protect them from pigeons, so the photos won't be good. I really loved those guys, I'm sorry about that.

I was very surprised to hear Thai being spoken in the temple. It seemed to be a Thai tour group - and I guess that makes sense, as Thais tend to be deeply Buddhist, and this is one of the premier Buddhist sites in Japan. It's been a while since I've heard that language.

I headed somewhat uphill to visit Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do, a couple more sub-temples to Todai-ji. I also took a stroll around the park, and got what I hope are some good photos of two newlywed couples being photographed under the still-blooming cherry trees with the occasional deer.

Next stop was Yoshiki-en garden, which I heard about at the Nara tourist information centre. It's free to foreigners and right next to the other garden I was already planning on attending. I guess they're trying to get on the tourist map, but to do that they're going to need to do some work. What makes the best Japanese gardens - aside from the design of course - is maintenance. Lots and lots of it. Sweeping the leaves off the moss, every day. Weeding. Watering almost daily. Yoshiki-en had potential, but needed work.

Next door (literally, the entrances are perhaps 15 metres apart) is Isui-en. It's a really lovely garden with two separate pond-lakes and a lot of flowing water. Very nice.

In a pedestrian shopping mall on the way to lunch, I saw some bakery employees making green dough. I'd seen this done on YouTube, but it was entertaining to see in person. Take a large stump and cut a bowl into the top. Now drop in roughly three pounds of green dough, and get two guys pounding it ferociously with large wood hammers while yelling out the rhythm. Then alternate with one guy pounding and another sticking his hand in under the hammer in a fast rhythm to fold the dough over. It's ironic to see such a traditional method (and performance art: they were half way out on the sidewalk doing it, attracting a crowd and inviting sales) used to make a dough that's promptly dropped into a very modern machine that shapes it into small balls filled with red bean paste. The dough has a mild flavour and a lovely chewy texture. I still have no idea what they're called, or what they're made of, after eating two of them.

I took the "Limited Express" back (the "Express" is how I got to Nara). It's only ¥500 more, requires no changes and no heartburn, and as it was mid-afternoon I wanted to be in downtown Kyoto anyway.

From Kyoto Station I hopped on the JR Nara line (go figure - I'm sure it wasn't the one I was on either going to or coming from Nara!) a couple stops to go see Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, a shrine known for its huge number of vivid orange torii. At most shrines and temples, the Torii (singular) acts as an entry gate a good distance in front of the temple. But here there are thousands (and I do mean thousands) of them lining four kilometres of path up and down hill. It's quite awe-inspiring ... until you head back down and notice the writing on the back sides of the torii appears to be advertising. The vast majority of it is in Japanese characters, but "Varvarka Travel" is fairly clear English, as was "<something> Tattoo Studio." I guess it's the Shinto equivalent of the Buddhist practice of "making merit." In any case, it certainly creates a wonderful spectacle. There was also the stench of creosote, something I was very familiar with from our cottage: the torii are made out of wood, and have a tendency to rot out. I remember that smell. I was there until well into dusk. This kind of impeded my ability to take photos, as my camera isn't particularly good in low light and I didn't have a tripod or monopod. But eventually I got inventive when I saw stuff I wanted to photograph, finding places to prop the camera. There are lights around the torii, casting interesting shadows. And the front gate is lit - and spectacular - at night.