Nara is a city with a remarkable affinity for impressive wood. No, I’m not harking back to last week’s Herman Melville. It contains both the world’s oldest and largest wooden buildings. The oldest is a 7th century hall at the temple complex of Horyu-ji, reached via a train and a pleasant walk through the suburbs (parrots in cages by a school was the highlight) which is inexplicably slated by the guidebooks. A corner shop had horribly mould persimmons, but the rest was pleasantly Japanese, wooden walls and curving roof tiles. The temple smelt of history, and briefly beef tacos, as we snacked on one of Japan’s many unusual Dorito flavours. I started to wonder how many days in a row people had worshipped there. My mental maths started to produce difficult (large) numbers, so I gave up and ran my hands over the human polished beams instead. A friendly monk with good English pointed out a famous Kannon statue with 1000 arms, which looked like feathers as they were so fine and so thick.
Todai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world, although it is only two thirds of its original width. It is guarded by man-eating Sika deer, which are sacred as they are the messengers of Shinto gods. Numerous stalls sell ‘deer crackers’, and the result of this practice is packs of deer which mercilessly hunt down people with any food item. Lune enjoyed tempting them closer by rustling an empty chocolate wrapper.
My dad befriended one and they stood side by side, atop steps, looking down at the chaos their respective species were wreaking. Needless to say, Todai-ji itself is huge, with a bulk hard to appreciate even in person. The scale of the place only really becomes apparent upon seeing what’s stored inside: the largest bronze Buddha on earth. It is 16m tall, weighs 500 tonnes, and bankrupt the Japanese economy when it was first cast in 750 AD (not to mention using all the bronze). The hall comfortably fits this giant, as well as a few smaller golden statues of a paltry 7m or so. One pillar has a small hole through which crawling books your place in paradise. Me, Lune and my little brother got through (just before the prop of a Japanese rugby team got stuck), and I happily abandoned religion from that point onwards. Later we found out the hole is the size of the buddha’s nostril.
One night and a couple of shinkansen rides later, we were driving around a dreary town as the rain poured down, wondering where the hell Fuji-san was. The car trip through the mountains was evocative, with fog rolling above and the huge concrete pillars of highways lancing past us into the valley floors. Eventually, during a late lunch of tea and large slices of cake we found the man who’s house we were renting, in the café he owns. Yoshi is a memorable man, for his personification of the mid-life crisis, his bizarre sexism, and his sumptuous red puffer jacket. Yoshi lived in Tokyo for the boom years, working as an engineer, and moved away to Yamanaka-ko. He then ‘taught himself’ architecture and built the house we were staying in (we were reassured to hear). He has a mane of sandy grey hair and collects classic cars. The Garden Shed was the name of our new home, but it was beautiful and palatial by Japanese standards; I now think of a flat the size of my two front rooms in the UK as enormous. There was a great sound system, which reminded me of how good music sounds when not coming from tinny laptop speakers, as well as shelves filled with Yoshi’s car regalia, including trophies he had won racing at classic car races. He was very talkative to everyone except Lune, who he never spoke to and never asked the name of, despite asking everyone else in turn…
Advancing to Fuji-san under cloud cover had the advantage of waking up and seeing it swaggering above the horizon. Everyone was gasping with awe (including me) and I felt a strange sense of pride. We were by the shore of Yamanaka-ko, one of the five lakes which ring Fuji’s Northern slope. Climbing a ridge, after eventually finding the footpath thanks to an Australian expat with a golden retriever, gave us a brilliant few of the full mountain, although the dynamic range was a bit high for cameras. In the afternoon we finally found a good viewpoint, and even our first Tanuki (Japanese racoon). Tanuki can mean racoon or badger, depending on where you are in Japan, but the guidebooks plump for badger. There are Tanuki statues outside a large number of shops, which look like paedophilic bears (wide grins and wide balls), and bear no resemblance to badgers. They do however, (sort of) look like these Japanese racoons. Mystery solved.
New year (oshogatsu) is celebrated in Japan by visiting a buddhist temple at midnight, and listening to a bell ringing out 108 times. Each ring signifies one of the human sins in Buddhism. We visited an impressive temple, Fujiyoshida Sengen, in the evening, locked deep in tall conifers, but it was too chilly to wait for the new year (we arrived at 7 or so). A five-hundred year old Sugi tree has hunched, bubbled bark and a thin coat of woven grass. We usher in the new year with a glass of whiskey and Sydney’s fireworks on youtube, It is a far cry from the party I usually go to in Edinburgh (which starts with too much rum and ends, bleary eyed, in the dim light of the morning, wandering around with the rest of the shambling dead), but I go to sleep content nonetheless.
All too soon we are wishing my family goodbye, and I feel a shadow of the wrenching I felt on leaving the UK. It hurts less now that I have friends, things to do, and a life here. Hatsumode is the first visit to a Shinto shrine of the new year, so me and Lune headed to Meinji-Jingu on the 2nd, not really sure what to expect. I expected it to be busy, but didn’t know at the time that 3.5 million people visit this shrine in the first 3 days of the year. We queued for a very long time. I expected some kind of service, but in the shrine everyone slowly shuffled forward, bowed their heads, said a quiet prayer, dropped a coin, and walked out. We bought fortunes (omikuji), which you tie to trees or wires around the temple if they predict bad luck. The kanji was as indecipherable as ever, so we planned on getting my boss to translate it later that week. Soon we would be headed into the mountains….