The morning Kintetsu train brought us to Nara.
Nara is a small city that is known for two things: the beautiful 東大寺（Toudaiji) that is home to the famous 奈良の大仏 (The Great Buddha of Nara), and deer.
In fact, for some people, the deer might be a stronger attraction to them than the buddha, who is far less cute and feedable.
That's right, feeding deer is an option here. In fact, I think some of the deer have gotten so used to free biscuits that they feel quite entitled to it. Walk along Nara Park or within the confines of Toudaiji, and you'll see deer perking up their ears and eyeing you for treats.
I've been here when I was young and with a tour group. I remember feeding the deer. As a kid that must have excited me. Now I just feel concerned. They're still considered wildlife, yet all these booths with signs that say "Nara Deer Care Group" and sell a stack of deer biscuits for 150 Yen hardly convince me they are looking out for the wellbeing of the deer. But well, I'm not one to judge what's good for them or not, and I realize they have become part of the tourism.
For sure, their presence adds to the historical atmosphere.
Ah, but first, lunch! To revenge my utter failure at lunch the day before --- I did not even want to blog about it, let's just say I had the world's WORST ramen at a chain store in Nipponbashi, I should know that otaku-ness and gourmet don't mix! --- I purposefully looked for what's good in Nara and went in search of this soba-ya called 玄 (gen).
Now, I've been in Japan for 9 days, and I still don't get how Japanese people find their way. There are no roads or streets or avenues, just [name of the ward] - [section] - [number] - [number]. Sure, the sections ("chou") are in numerical order, but how the hell can I visualize that in my head when I'm walking down the street on a hot day and see Chou #2 next to me to know which direction Chou #3 - 5 - 13 is??
Nara was even more impossible. Yes, there are address --- on websites, but not in real life! Seriously, I walked for 30 min and saw not a single address plate. Not even ward signs. I guess Nara is a small city where the mailman knows where every household is.
To find the soba-ya, I walked towards its general direction using my Google map snapshot I'd taken earlier in the day. Then I asked locals for directions. Luckily, everyone knows this soba-ya. It's uber famous (or it could be the only soba-ya in town). It's at the dead end of an alley. No way I would've been able to find this on my own
The restaurant is 100% traditional style. Tatami room with three large sitting tables and a view to the backyard.
How was the soba?
100% worth the walk! It was super chewy (as buckwheat noodles should be) and refreshingly cold! We also ordered soba tofu (I guess that's buckwheat tofu) which had a similar creamy texture to the sesame tofu of Koyasan.
After a satisfactory lunch, it was time to head towards Toudaiji. But wait...there's a sweets store nearby!
The store, called とらや (toraya), is also 100% traditional Japanese sweets shop looking.
One should realize the Japanese are very cunning when it comes to selling their sweets. They make it into...irresistible form.
I know not how one can resist a mochi that looks like this! So I ate one!
Finally, I can be on my way to Toudaiji.
Like many of Japan's ancient architecture, the current Toudaiji was rebuit in the Edo period and restored in the Meiji era. The original one was built in ... 8AD! No surprise that this temple has been burned down several times.
The buddha himself has also went through several reincarnations (pun intended).
It is a massive buddha, with a height of 14.7m (48 feet) and a base circumference of 70m (230 feet).
In the West, it's churches that get to justify splurging on constructions of heavenly proportions. In the Orient, it is buddhas and their temples.
Toudaiji was filled with tourists, yet once one stepped outside of the temple and walked towards the lesser famous surrounding sites, things quickly quieted down.
We swung by 二月堂 (February Hall), so named because some buddhist ritual used to take place every February here. It overlooks the city of Nara and is a nice place to sit down and relax for a bit.
From February Hall, we turned south towards 春日大社 (Kasuga Daisha) and came to a completely neglected shrine called 八幡神社 (Hachiman jinja). What caught my interest was this old painting on the wall:
It's the story of 源頼光（Minamoto no Yorimitsu) subduing 土蜘蛛 (Tsuchigumo). I always like a little ancient folklore for distraction. Yorimitsu is a famous warrior in the medieval times (平安時代, Heian period). Several versions of Tsuchigumo exists:
According to 土蜘蛛草紙 (Tsuschigumo soushi), tsuchigumo (direct translation is "Earth Spider") is a giant spider that lives in the mountains; it eats humans (no surprise) and is considered a formidable monster. While travelling in the mountains outside Kyoto, Yorimitsu came upon flying skulls, which he pursued and followed into a deserted shelter, upon which various monsters showed up and tormented him all night. Towards dawn, a beautiful woman appeared to mesmerize him, but Yorimitsu saw through the disguise and was about to swing his sword at it. The beauty dissppeared, leaving a trail of white blood that led Yorimitsu into a mountain cave. There he killed the giant earth spider and within its belly found 1990 human skulls.
Another version of the story comes from 平家物語 (Tale of the Heike). When Yorimitsu in bed was suffering from malaria, a 7-foot-tall monk appeared and bound him with rope. Yorimitsu cut off the rope with his sword. The next day, he followed the trail of blood to the spider's hideout behind a shrine and killed it.
But I digress. Before entering Kasuga Daisha, we stopped by a traditional tea shop. The way the shop is set up, where there are tatami-padded benches with sun umbrellas outside the shop so that people could enjoy the view, is a scene I strongly associate with the Edo era Kyoto, probably because I watch too much Japanese drama and anime :)
We were further away from the major tourist crowd, so the deer here were a lot less nosey, and mostly kept to themselves. Still, they could care less if I sat beside them and shoot away.
Today is all about the small things. Here's something I noticed as we entered the confines of the Kusuga Daisha.
巴紋 (Tomoe mon), often seen in shrines, temples, and coat of arms. There's many variations to the pattern, but this one seems to be the classical one. This is something manga/anime fans also know a lot about, as it shows up in just about any title involving ninjas, monsters, and myths.
There is nothing significant to Kasuga Daisha besides being another historical shrine. However, the path leading up to and out of the site is very pleasant. Cicadas were very loud on this hot summer day.
We still had a bit more time before dinner, so we took the long way out.
This detour turned into zero sightseeing, being a little lost --- at one point we emerged on the side of a hilltop overlooking Nara city and if it weren't for a passerby who told me that I could go through a fenced graveyard area to get down, I would've been hiking much further than I had planned --- walking a lot, and passing by shops that lured us in for souvenirs :P
I found a 懐石 (kaiseki) style restaurant that boasts lots of local fresh vegetables. The place is called Hiyori.
We were the first to arrive. The interior is pretty fashionable. Chairs and tables, no tatami.
Our set starts with three cold appetizers: spinach, okra, and tofu salad. The okra was too soy sauce heavy, but the other two were delicious.
Next course is deep fried soft crab. These are tiny crab that you can eat with the shell. It's a bit like fried chicken, but crunchier and with a crabby taste.
Japanese eggplant is omnipresent here. Here it is lightly roasted with soy sauce then topped with cold slices of onion and green onions. The onions here are a lot less sweet and spicy. Rather, they have a mild, juicy taste.
Next is an interesting twist on potatoe crocket. It is soaked in a light tofu/chicken broth.
Now the heavy artillary. Slices of onion, cabbage, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and potato steamed over a pored porcelain steamer. For dipping sauce, there is miso paste and sesame. The veggies themselves have zero seasoning and you can taste their true flavors. Hmmmmm, so good~
For main course, I ordered grilled iwaka fish (岩魚). The owner was very accomodating when I asked him to take the salt out of everything. This is one thing I learned in Japan...tell them to use no salt, because they tend to use a LOT and it's too much for me. They always have a can of salt by the table anyway if it isn't enough.
I was super full by this time, yet there's one last side dish. Tempura peppers! Not sure what species they are (the owner showed them to me, but it won't matter whether he said it in English, Japanese, or Chinese, I still would not have known the difference). Again, taking the salt out of this made it wonderfully tasty.
Then to rinse down all that goodness with some hot oolong tea:
And there is always dessert in a Japanese set course. This time it's a very befitting rice mochi with sprinkled brown sugar and peanut powder.
I was in pure bliss after the meal. The whole day at Nara had been a feast of the eyes and gut.
No one was at 興福寺 (Kofukiji) by the time we left for the train station. It's interesting how tourists pour in during the day and completely disappear by nightfall. Without the distraction (or attraction) of visitors, a herd of deer quietly rested in front of the temple.
With that, we bid farewell to Nara and returned to Osaka.