Finding Harmony in Japan’s First Capital

Sometimes living and working in another country can get a little exhausting– mentally, physically, emotionally… spiritually. Regardless of the ways in which I’ve come to love Japan–the quality of life, safety, amazing design, kind people, great food, etc.- there comes a moment (or several) when it becomes very frustrating to live day to day in a place where I don’t have a complete grasp of what’s happening around me. I think that is something that is inevitable about living abroad for a long time.

When I go someplace new, especially for a long stretch of time, I have an energy that’s very unique to traveling. It’s fueled from the excitement of being away from home and immersed in a place that’s filled with new rules and sights. That energy is used to investigate, explore, interact, taking in as much possible. During this time, it’s really exciting to talk to people, collect notes and pictures, draw, write, play.

At some point however, the energy slows down, especially when the old routines of daily life begin to settle. Work, money, food, health–all the negative thoughts I thought I’d left at home have suddenly caught up to me in the new place, with the added stresses of being away from friends and family. Whereas before, the relationships were fascinating, the interactions spell-binding, keeping my spirit positive and the anthropologist in me engaged. After a time, the cultural differences become frustrating, confusing, even annoying. Suddenly the demands of living in an unfamiliar society become draining–fast.

So what do I suggest? Take a break and go someplace beautiful. If you’re in the Kansai area of Japan, I think you should re-establish peace in Nara. Here you’ll find temples, shrines, forests, gardens and historic neighborhoods, not to mention good food and friendly bambis. Home to no less than 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Nara is an amazing place to refresh that travel energy.

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The skies were only slightly overcast during our visit to the ancient town of Nara. The temperature, thankfully, was a little cooler after a few days of rainy weather. Within minutes of walking on the sidewalk towards the main temples, my eyes met with a group of golden deer surrounding some tourist kids carrying Shikesembei, or deer crackers. An old woman was selling these crackers from a cart for 150 yen. As we approached, we could see her crack into laughter as the the children were chased over the curb and into the park by the hungry deer.

We had taken the train in just for the day. When we arrived and walked around the corner from the town center, I breathed with calm relief upon entering a open, serene park area. The large, manicured grass lawns we safe from the free-roaming deer who only had a taste for the special rice crackers. I walked up to the deer, expecting them to at least move out of the way or startle, but they didn’t even flinch. In fact, they walked toward me leading with their big, brown and curious noses, in the hopes for a snack. These lovely creatures live carefree among some of the oldest treasures in Japan.

We stopped first at the Eastern Golden Hall and the five-story Pagoda, where we had our first prayer. Maho was kind enough to guide me through the whole thing. After slipping off our shoes, we kneeled on the wooden floor and I watched as she tapped the prayer bowl two times and read the propped up prayer boards. She then quietly instructed me step by step to do the same, muttering the Japanese to me and I repeated. I’m not especially religious, but I always feel a weight being lifted while I pray. In that brief moment of meditation, my mind felt clear and light.

On our way to Todaiji, we stopped for a miso-ice cream, which I had never seen before and tasted like caramel. Unfortunately, something in the ice cream made it melt extremely quickly. To my great sadness, our beautiful tall treats became sweet miso soup in a cone after a mere 2 minutes.

Todaiji was nothing short of magnificent. I felt so tiny in that massive temple before the big bronze Buddha. If it weren’t for the old monks working at the base of the statue, I would have had no reference for its size. At the end of the temple, Maho got herself a fortune, which turned out to be unlucky. We tied it up on the metal rack outside to send the bad luck away.

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When we left the temple, I decided to try to feed the deer, knowing it probably wasn’t going to go well. The moment the woman handed me the small packet of crackers, the deer turned towards me in unison like a school of fish. I was flanked on all sides. I felt like my hands couldn’t pass out the food fast enough. One deer had the nerve to bite my side and force its nose into my purse. The moment my hands became empty, the frenzy ended and the deer went about as though nothing happened. After that somewhat traumatic experience, we stopped at an eclectic French cafe on the side of the road, which had a back room with a wall of glass looking into a garden. A coffee in the sun was just what we needed to refuel for the rest of the journey.

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After our coffee break, we made our way to Isuen Garden, a stunning complex of Japanese horticulture and landscape design. The meticulously planned garden is a great place to see how plants, stone and water are used together in harmony. There was thick-straw-roofed, tatami floored tea houses, where visitors can enjoy the view over a tea ceremony. Walking around this lovely garden, without any kind of distracting buildings in the horizon, felt like being in the mossy forests of a Miyazaki film, with it’s tiny hidden rock shrines and modest stepping stones.

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We felt very hungry after our walk through the garden and a pottery museum. We decided to head to Naramachi, which is a neighborhood of narrow alleyways and old Machiya, or traditional wooden townhouses. The atmosphere of old Japan whetted our appetite for something classically Japanese: tempura. With the help of the keeper of an organic, locally-grown vegetable shop, we found a subtly marked restaurant down one of the old streets.

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The proud tempura shop owner came out to explain how he designed the set, with the dipping sauce separate so that it does not inundate the flavor of the tempura before it meets the palate. Japanese dining relies on many elements of the eating experience, not just favor, but also texture, aroma, temperature, and consistency.  Presentation and ritual are almost as important as the ingredients and preparation of the food itself. Since it was early and we were the only ones in the restaurant at that time, he came out to talk to us about every part of the meal. The rice was specially grown, and the vegetables in the tempura were local. The way the pickles are prepared is specific to Nara. Even the water and the ice which cooled it came from the Yoshinogawa river, considered to be sacred throughout Nara prefecture.

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As much as I enjoy living in the city, I felt an immediate calm in Nara’s quiet and peaceful atmosphere. This was a much needed trip for me. I felt like I could actually reset myself after what’s felt like several weeks of being under a cloud. I took some video footage as well, so hopefully I can cut that together and share it with you. Until then, じゃまた!

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4 thoughts on “Finding Harmony in Japan’s First Capital

  1. I wish I could tried the miso ice cream at Nara! I remember getting buying an ice cream at the park but I think it was something really ordinary like chocolate or vanilla. Some of the deer there were a little scary, they would go crazy when they saw the deer crackers in my hand!

    1. You should try it of you see it again because it was definitely tasty. But it melted into a liquid really fast so you’ll have to eat it quickly! I liked the deer a lot but I think the crackers are kind of unnecessary. They come up to you anyway because they’re so over fed!

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