On our second day we traveled to Nara. Nara was the original capitol of Japan until the year 710, when many of the government buildings were dismantled and moved to Kyoto, which became the new capitol until it was superseded by Tokyo.
We took a shuttle bus to Kyoto station, where we caught the express train to Nara. The trains (of course) are clean, and run (of course) on schedule. Kyoto is the end of the line for this train, and while we waited for the doors to open we were amused to see the seats swivel automatically so that they all faced the new forward direction. Passengers are courteous here: they await the train several steps back from the doors so that those who are disembarking are not blocked. The train rides smoothly and quietly, and offers glimpses of small back yards, small gardens, small farm lots, small grade crossings where only bicycle riders wait for the gates to rise.
Nara station is the site of the Nara Museum, where we rendezvoused with one of 150 volunteers who act as docents and tour guides throughout the many UNESCO sites in the vast park. The park is hilly and wooded, and on the overcast day that we visited, the light was understated and softly filtered through the trees. The roadways between the shrines are quiet. The way to Kasuga-taisha is lined with 1000 stone lanterns, each a unique shape and height, all their edges rounded by erosion and topped by a delicate icing of moss. The shrine itself has more thousands of metal lanterns hanging from its wide eves. Its pillars and doors are the sacred orange of Shinto, and the color glows in the mystical light.
What isn’t so mystical is the mass of school children. Every school, apparently, makes a visit to study the shrines at some point during their high school years, which means that every shrine and temple is overrun by school groups on class outings, all dressed in their black, grey or navy school uniforms. Some schools have dress codes so strict that even the backpacks are the same color; others sport splashes of individuality in gaudily colored sneakers and socks. Everyone wears blazers with the school insignia on the breast pocket. The boys wear trousers, the girls wear skirts. Most skirts were just above the knee, but we did see one group of girls wearing their hems just barely to the tops of their thighs, and we wondered if their parents knew they’d hiked them up.
We saw orange tori (gates). We saw the towering pagoda at Yakushi-ji. We purified ourself with water before entering the Shinto shrines, and purified ourselves with incense smoke before entering the Buddhist temples. We saw a Buddha as big as a building at Todai-Ji, others leafed in gold, and still others with enigmatic smiles. We saw thin Buddhas and round Buddhas. Is it blasphemous to be reminded of Young Elvis/Old Elvis? Or would Buddha himself laugh at the comparison? We saw prayers written on wooden plaques (some in traditional rectangles, others in the shape of pink hearts); we saw prayers written on paper and tied on cross bars.
We saw deer. The deer of Nara are protected, and have free run of the park. They are the sacred cows of Nara. They lounge at the side of the roads, occasionally block traffic, gather under the trees, and shake down visitors for food. They approach school picnics, get chased by giggling city children new to nature, and return for another try.