Today we are leaving Kyoto after our brief stay and heading to Nara. After our practice run yesterday, it was easy work to get to the JR Nara Express and settle in for the journey. We had heard that you can get there faster and cheaper and on nicer trains if you use a different railway line but since we had JR passes we decided to stick with what we knew. We arrived early in Nara and were glad that it was significantly warmer than it had been in Kyoto. We left our bags in lockers at Nara station and set off to explore.
The main road from JR Nara station leads straight towards the park for which the town is famous. It starts out as a large road and gradually dwindles to a narrow street with more pedestrians than cars as it nears the park. The road is lined with a mixture of tourist shops, cafes, restaurants and all the normal shops you’d find in a town. I think I was expecting a bit more of a countryside atmosphere like Miyajima and was surprised to find all the shops, taxis and buses outside the station. We browsed in some of the shops as we made our way down the road to the park and made mental notes to return to some for souvenirs on the way back to the station tomorrow.
At the end of the road, we came to one of the entrances to the park. Inside the park we encountered the famous deer for the first time. They didn’t bother us at all, even when we sat down for a snack unlike the deer on Miyajima! It was fun watching the other tourists feeding them and then getting mobbed by gangs of deer who don’t understand that the food is all gone. The park feels a bit more like Richmond Park than, for example, the Peak District which is more what I was hoping for. We looked around at the scenery for a while and then went in search of lunch. Unfortunately everything seems to be closed on Thursdays and we ended up walking most of the way back to the station to find a Starbucks like cafe serving sandwiches.
After lunch we headed back to the park to look at Kofuku-ji, a Buddhist temple with several pagodas and other interesting buildings, and Todai-ji another Buddhist temple complex housing the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha. The building housing the Buddha has been rebuilt 3 times in the last 1000 years and there is an interesting display with models of the different designs employed in the different rebuilds. There is no information though about whether the statues within are the originals. It is very gloomy inside the building and difficult to take pictures of the statues but there are still hundreds of people (me included) lined up to try. There are also a couple of other statues which are dwarfed by the Buddha but still very impressive themselves.
After enjoying the statues, we headed back to the station to collect our bags and went to check in to our hotel. We are actually staying at a Ryokan or traditional Japanese inn. However the place itself is more of a Ryokan themed hotel. From the outside the building is a 4ish storey square building. The lobby is plushly decorated like any decent hotel and staffed by the most welcoming of staff we encountered in this very welcoming country. Once you check in and take the lift to your floor though, the décor changes. The corridors are decorated to look like you are passing the outside of traditional Japanese buildings complete with fake thatched eaves projecting over the doorways. The effect is somewhat spoiled by the intrusion of modern details like carpet and lifts.
Our “room” is actually a suite with 3 separate areas: an entrance for removing and storing shoes with access to bathroom and toilet (in separate rooms no less); a dining and sleeping area with Japanese style table and chairs; and a sitting area with Japanese and western style furniture and doors onto a small balcony. The place is huge compared to anywhere else we stayed on this trip but is also much more expensive. Apparently this room can be used to sleep up to 8 and there is plenty of extra bedding in the cupboards.
The room is decorated in an imitation of traditional buildings with sliding doors and tatami flooring but is obviously constructed from much more modern materials with brick/concrete walls and double glazed windows. The decoration is a little worn but the overall effect is very charming once you start forgetting that you are in a modern building.
The bathroom is also worth a mention here. Not only is it the only place we stayed where the bathroom does not open directly from the bedroom, the room itself is larger than some of the hotel rooms we stayed in and has a separate room within it with a full sized bath and wet-room type shower as well as his and hers sinks.
This is the only place we stayed in Japan where staff escorted us from reception to our room and showed us around. This was not done in the stereotypical fashion of staff in a high priced hotel obsequiously looking for a tip but rather in a friendly and polite “all part of the service” way. Also part of the service was a pot of tea and Japanese jellied sweets and English copy of the Tokyo Times which were brought to us once we had settled in. Small things but much more than we got in any other place we stayed.
In the evening we had a traditional Japanese kaiseki meal and I’ll write about that in my next post.