On Saturday we took another JR line (has there been a day that hasn't started with trains since we arrived here?) to a city that every Japanese person is required to visit at least once: Nara. Nara is ripe with cultural heritage sites and opportunities to display one of the creepiest mascots I've ever seen.
I'm sure the Buddha child with the antlers looks adorable to some, but those eyes....
At the station I requested an English map from the tourism office. Sweetie pointed out that by this point in the trip, I have started truncating my English. Instead of "About how long would it take to walk to the park?" as I would ask fluently in the States, I asked the nice lady "How far to walk?" with pointing. I don't do it to patronize--I've just found that a barrage of complete sentences result in nervous, shifty eyes and mumbled answers. It makes communication easier to use the words they'll process and skip the fluff like pronouns and articles.
The answer to my question, in any case, was fifteen minutes. So after about fifteen minutes of walking through city territory, with lots of restaurants and shops selling electronic dogs that dance to the tune of Shania's "I'm Gonna Getcha Good," we caught our first glimpse of the famous park.
This pond had dozens of turtles swimming around near the edges, waiting for scraps. This delighted the children to no end, given the chorus of "Kame! Kame! Kame!" coming from all sides.
We walked a bit southwards to Naramachi, the old town. It wasn't much to look at, and had mostly been modernized into sweet shops and CVS-like pharmacies.
We decided to spend our time elsewhere and followed the sight of the big pagoda sticking out of the trees.
When we arrived, Sweetie was so focused on the landmark that he didn't notice as I was swarmed by Nara's most distinguishing feature: wild deer.
These guys were everywhere! Thanks to decades of hand-feeding by tourists, the deer weren't afraid of humans at all. They weave among the crowds, nuzzling strangers' bags, or lounging in the shade just waiting to be presented with goodies.
I was a bit afraid of them, because the deer I've encountered before can be very aggressive, very powerful, and very stupid. These did their best to pretend they were just adorable little Bambis.
But the warning signs around the park agreed with me.
After visualizing the grizzly fate of that old lady in the bottom right corner, and after one big hulking animal blithely stepped on my sandaled foot, I respectfully kept my distance.
Too cheer me up after that toe-squashing incident, Sweetie let me pick the next destination. I of course headed towards the Yoshikien gardens.
We had some difficulty getting in, because I was the one to approach the ticket booth and the woman manning it just stared at me expectantly for half a minute before she noticed Sweetie behind me and stuttered, "Oh, where are you from?" She said she was confused because I look so Japanese (note: I don't have a drop of Japanese in me. Apparently just being short and having dark hair is enough to blend). But after we cleared that up, she informed us that visiting the Yoshikien gardens is free to foreigners! So note to anyone who's planning a trip to the Kyoto area--check out these gardens in Nara. And have one of your 100% Caucasian companions do the talking.
We had the Isuien gardens on the list as well, but they asked for 600 yen per person to enter. We had seen enough gorgeousness at Yoshikien, so we saved that money for lunch. First, though, we paid homage to Todaiji.
Obviously, it wasn't a very popular spot =/
We didn't pay the 500 yen to see the big Buddha statue inside, but Sweetie did poke his camera up over the fence to take some great shots of the temple.
We pushed through the sea of bodies to find a restaurant near Todaiji, because our bodies had begun eating themselves from the inside outwards. We knew the restaurants on that street would take advantage of the starving hordes, but we didn't know how badly we'd be ripped off. We paid 1600 yen for a soggy, oily bowl of tempura shrimp for Sweetie:
And a "family bowl" for me with the worst quality chicken I have ever tasted...unappetizing discards in supermarket meals included.
At least the meal let me check another item off my must-eat-in-Japan list: raw egg in rice. Now I never have to do that again.
As we walked up to one of the destinations the lady in the tourist office circled on our map, a temple on a hill that would afford good views of Nara, I was pained to see culinary marvels that could have cleansed my palate of that lunch, were my lactase enzymes in working order.
From left to right, the soft serve flavors at this shop were Chinese milk, melon, chocolate, strawberry, pineapple, anko (sweet bean), sesame, green tea, grape, sweet potato, something in kanji I can't read, carrot, blueberry yogurt, vanilla, and "a purple sweet potato." I wanted to try them all--especially the sesame and sweet potato! Alas, though this country has a reputation for abundance of soy foods, they're not big on dairy substitutes. I did my best to enjoy the views at Nigatsu-do without a cone in my hand like everyone else.
Our final destination of the day was Kasuga, which is famous for the hundreds of stone lanterns lining the path up to the shrine.
Sweetie insisted on purchasing at least one fortune from a shrine while we were here. He drew a good one:
Note that under "Quarrels" it states: "you can win, but you would be wiser to yield," and under "Love and marriage" it reads: "will go as you wish, unless you act too proud." For the record, the gods say I'm always right :D I don't have concrete evidence of this, though, because Sweetie tied his fortune to the strings hung up for the purpose.
He isn't used to tying knots with paper.
By the end of the day, our feet and energy levels were shot. The weather was very clear and hot--so much so that I held an umbrella over my head for half of it to shield myself from the sun. According to Sweetie's pedometer, we walked some seven miles! It didn't seem that far. By the time we reached Kyoto we didn't feel like going out to eat, partly becuase we were tired and partly because that disaster at lunch made us wary of trying new things. Back at the hotel room I assembled ham sandwiches for dinner.
Yes, I realize the irony of using the Gourmet Guide to Kyoto as a plate for my ham-with-mayo-on-white-bread. But while we ate we watched a very Japanese sport on the television:
And for dessert I broke into something sort-of-exotic:
Mmmm matcha chocolates. The green centers taste like green tea ice cream.
I ate three of these little guys. By the next day the bag was half empty--I think I'll have to buy some more to take back to Indiana!