Kyoto again; Nara and its evil deer; In which we attain enlightenment

We left Kumamoto in mid-morning. Sayaka stayed behind to visit with Eri. Not having a rail-pass like us, she was waiting until the evening and catching a cheaper overnight bus to meet us in Kyoto the next day. Eri packed us a gigantic lunch to take with us on the trains, including a bunch of her homemade buns, for which she wins the prize of Best Human Being Ever.

It was a long day of unexciting trains - it’s amazing how quickly the novelty of even bullet trains wears off. We arrived at Kyoto in the early afternoon. We weren’t able to stay in the Gion neighbourhood, my favourite part of the city, so instead it was a subway ride and a long walk to Kyoto Cheapest Inn, which is just as nice as it sounds. It’s in a nice neighbourhood too, though - I don’t think there are any other kind in Kyoto. Nice old wooden houses and little alleys, a park with children playing and killer mosquitoes. Have I mentioned Japan’s Death Mosquitoes? They’re the size of hummingbirds, striped black and white like zebras and their bites swell up into hives the size of quarters, no kidding.

With our rail pass now expired and the pressure to be constantly moving gone, we collapsed and did nothing for the evening. We did think about visiting nearby Nijō Castle but decided it would be impossible to penetrate the ceaselessly circling ring of joggers tirelessly patrolling the perimeter.

Sayaka arrived the next morning. We were supposed to meet her at the place we’d be staying that night, but stupidity at the hostel and bad subway connections made us late and I couldn’t reach her on the phone. At least she had time to take a shower and have a cup of tea. We dropped the bags and took an hour-long commuter train to Nara, the former imperial capital. Sayaka hadn’t slept on the bus and was exhausted. She was falling asleep on the train and had a splitting headache by the time we reached Nara. It took a neck massage, lots of painkillers and a couple of hours lying on a park bench before it calmed down. It was a bright, sunny day and she really needed to be in the dark, but all we had for a makeshift blindfold was my stinky sweat-soaked hat. I doubt it added much to the experience, for her.

Nara is infested with hordes of very badly-behaved deer. They’re cute, and they have no fear of humans. It’s fun and entertaining for half an hour. You can pet them - they especially like it when you scratch around the base of their antlers, which are impressively huge, branched and sharply pointed. There are vendors selling deer biscuits everywhere and the deer hover around them with huge hopefully dewy eyes in a circle, the radius of which is defined by the swinging distance of the vendor’s broom. It’s adorable until someone actually buys a biscuit, and ten the deer go insane and mug the poor fool with their antlers. They swarm, butting, biting and waving their long sharp antlers around wildly. When I bought one they were biting me all over, yanking on my clothes and rearing. I nearly got an antler in the eye and got covered with deer spit. Sheryl claims I deserved it for teasing them and holding out too long, but I hardly think that holding the biscuits up above my head is teasing. Oh, and the three of us tried the deer biscuits. Well, wouldn’t you? I had to know. For the record, they taste sort of like bran cereal (that is to say, like cardboard).

We spent the afternoon wandering around the old mossy temples and buildings. The Todai temple has gigantic wooden guardian-figure sculptures on either side of its immense gateway. The sculptor caught them in threatening motion with weapons in hand. They looked as if they’d been carved from single pieces of wood, so cunningly had they been fitted. I couldn’t see a join anywhere in the beautiful flowing lines of their costumes, but there isn’t a tree in the world big enough. Their fierce grimaces were no less intimidating for the decades of dust that covered them.

The scale of Todai-ji was maintained inside the gateway. The Daibutsu-den hall is the largest wooden building in the world. Inside, the ceiling is held up by a fascinating structure of huge cantilevered beams fitting into the supporting pillars, each the girth of a large tree. There’s a 16-meter tall seated bronze Buddha in the middle of the hall, and one of the pillars has a square hle at the bottom. The hole is said to be the same size as the Buddha statue’s nostril, and squeezing through it (the hole, not the nostril) is meant to ensure enlightenment. We all made it through, Sheryl with no trouble at all and Sayaka and yours truly with a certain amount of wriggling and grunting. The way to enlightenment is a claustrophobic one.

Sayaka was due to leave at the end of the next day. We had a lazy walking day around Kyoto. It was very hot and the sun was strong. We had to leave Sayaka for a couple of hour to move our bags to the next hostel, and when we got back we found her hanging around under a bridge with an Ethiopian junkie. The things that girl gets up to when she’s not supervised. We sent her off regretfully back to Tokyo on yet another overnight bus at the end of an entertaining day.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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