Japan day 10: Kyoto Aoi Festival and Nara

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May 15th 2019
Published: May 22nd 2019
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We went down to breakfast and were approached by a man who recognised us from Pesach in Ramot. We all introduced ourselves and after some chit-chat sat down and had our breakfast.

We then made our way to the underground to go to the Imperial Palace where we had tickets for the Aoi Festival parade. The Aoi Matsuri is the most prominent of Kyoto’s three famous festivals. The parade involves over 500 people dressed in the aristocratic style of the Heian period who walk from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo shrines. Aoi means hollyhock which was the symbol of the Towagana shogun; all the parade participants wore sprigs of hollyhock, as did the animals and floats.

The procession starts with the imperial messenger and his retinue. They are followed by men on horseback, giant bouquets of flowers, highly decorated ox drawn carts and a large retinue of women accompanying the Saio-Dai. Traditionally the Saio-Dai was a young female member of the imperial family who served as high priestess at the Kamo shrines. In recent times, each year an unmarried woman in Kyoto is selected to serve as the Saio-Dai. Before the procession she must go through purification ceremonies. Then at the procession she is carried on a palanquin - which nowadays has wheels. The imperial messenger has a spare horse which is led through the procession. Some of the girls carry pooper scoopers to clear up after the horses and oxen.

Our seats were in an excellent position, two aisle seats in the second row of block B. Nobody obstructed our view by jumping into the gap to take their pictures during the entire parade. We also received an official festival guide containing enough English to recognise most of the parade participants by their roles, sequence and outfits.

After the procession which lasted for about 45 minutes, we decided to go to Nara. We followed the massive crowds out of the palace grounds and walked to the local train station. On the train the attendants were walking up and down the carriages and when they came to the partition door they turned to face the passengers and bowed.

When we got to Nara we looked for a vegan restaurant which was featured on Happy Cow. The restaurant name is Kuppila. This is a Finnish word meaning an establishment selling food and drink. The owner had lived in Finland for ten years before returning to Japan to open her restaurant. The establishment was tiny. She is a one (wo)man band and every plate is produced individually and is beautifully presented. It was very tasty and filling at a reasonable price.

We walked from there through authentic Nara without touching the modern city centre. We found our way to the Todai-ji temple (the Great Eastern Temple). This Buddhist temple is one of the seven great temples in Nara. Its main hall was completed in 752 and served as the head temple of a nationwide network of provincial Buddhist temples. It grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to diminish the temple’s influence on governmental affairs. The main hall is called Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) and despite the fact that the hall is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size, it is still the world’s largest wooden building. It contains one of Japan’s largest bronze statues. The statue is 15 meters high and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. Several smaller statues and models of the current building and previous buildings are on display. Along the approach to the temple is the Nandaimon gate which is guarded by two fierce looking statues. These represent the Nio Guardian Kings.

The huge temple building is on one side of an enormous square made of ancillary buildings on either side and what is now a large museum building opposite. Don attempted to take a panoramic photo around the square but could not complete the 360 degrees before the iPhone camera gimmick ran out. After a couple of tries, he decided to assemble partial shots into a video. His challenge now is to do that in time for insertion into this blog entry before we publish it. Luckily the option also exists to add the video later and not delay our blog progress.

We then wandered into the museum where we saw a short film about the area. Japanese history is very bloody and there were constant wars with each side setting fire to the other’s towns and temples. The buildings being made of wood soon caught fire. Then there were the many earthquakes which were another source of death and destruction. The museum contained amongst other things some beautiful original hand written teachings of the Buddha. These were written in gold ink on navy parchment. One sutra had exquisite illustrations.

We decided it was time for ice cream and while we were sitting on a bench enjoying the sight of exceptionally well-behaved school kids out on school outings a group of about six boys and girls asked us if they could ask us some questions in English. We were delighted and stumped them with my name, unpronounceable for them, and with the fact that we live in Israel whereas they were probably expecting European countries or America. The last question they asked was what souvenirs have we bought. To date we have only bought one - a thimble (we haven’t had too much time for shopping). Trying explaining that Item! Fortunately Mr Google knows the answer to almost everything and because Don had loaded the Japanese translation app we were able to show their teacher the word in Japanese. She then explained to her class since they had little familiarity of sewing with a thimble in any language.

Next we thought that we would visit the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The paths leading to the shrine are lined by 2000 stone lanterns. After we had seen about 200 and were still a long way from the shrine we decided to call it a day and walk back through the park to the underground. The park is swarming with deer who are quite unafraid of the throng of crowds. You can buy special food to feed the deer and if you speak to them in Japanese they will bow their heads to you. They walk about the town and they cross the roads at the pedestrian crossings.

We decided to eat in the shopping mall under our hotel as there was a vegan restaurant we wanted to try and we did not want to go far. Having walked about 8 km during the day we must have walked another 8 km looking for the place. Don left me at a meeting point and returned about 15 minutes later having found the place. It was a hole-in-the-wall cafe with Japanese style food which was tasty. Especially tasty was the mango alcohol drink that I downed. I certainly slept that night.

How did we ever manage without Google maps? We have been able to follow the train journeys, plan our train changes and find restaurants etc easily - except when the restaurant was underground and when there were two floors to the food court. We were very close - just on the wrong floor. Sometimes Google map even gives vertical directions, but not this time.

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