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Nara

Why you no post Adam Halls?

Long story, combination of golden week, my parent’s recent visit, my need to clean the house on a semi-regular basis, joining the gym and something to do with the letters w i i.

But post today guys regarding pretty much my only real adventure during Golden Week. A trip to a little out of the way village near Nara known as Kasagi.

I hadn’t intended to go to Kasagi that day, I had thought I was going to go to Nara for some kind of a scavengers hunt. Apparently I thought wrong.

The plan, as it was explained to me, was to go to Nara, meet up with some of my girlfriend’s friends and wander around the town solving riddles taking photos of things we thought were the answers to the riddles.

This was wrong in pretty much every respect.

For starters, before my girlfriend and I had even reached Nara we discovered that we weren’t in fact going to Nara but instead going to a town just beyond Nara, and slightly beyond the best named town in the whole of Hyogo prefecture. Kamo, or duck.

This was fine with me albeit a little surprising. I quite like the small towns in the area just beyond Nara and Kyoto. They are full of cool surprises such as the Ninja Museum.

In fact this scavenger hunt was going to be ninja themed slightly. I had no idea in what way it would be ninja themed but I brought my ninja mask and my kunai in preparation for the possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man with my half remembered tae-kwon-do and rubber knife.

It seems that Kasagi is actually quite close to the ninja museum and the area was previously a ninja village, however it hasn’t turned this into a tourist industry like nearby Iga Ueno.

Fran and I arrived by cab having already taken three trains to get there and met up with Charlie and Sarah, the two people organising the event. They hooked us up with two free maps (neither of which had any scale and had the landmarks only in a rudimentary positional relationship to each other), a free cup of coffee and our final team member in the form of Sarah’s visiting brother, a freelance web page designer.

They also explained that the actual aim of the hunt wasn’t so much to find everything on the clue sheet as to go to all the areas on the clue sheet and take a ninja pose there. Fair enough, but apparently we weren’t just looking for places in Kasagi but in a neighbouring village that we needed to cross a mountain to get to.

Hang on a moment. Climbing a mountain? Nobody mentioned that before and neither me nor Fran were in particularly good shoes for such an endeavour.

However as we set off to go collect our photos thoughts of difficult mountain climbs were far from our minds.

They’d return.

Things started out really cool. Kasagi, like many small Japanese towns, has lots of small scale attractions. The kind of curios that it wouldn’t be worth the effort for a tourist to seek out but that are nonetheless cool little treats for we long term residents. Take for example this diorama of samurai in combat with some kind of super human rock throwing man.

Also note how the stealthy ninja dispatches the arrogant samurai. Foolish samurai!

I should probably explain why on earth Fran is posing the way she is. Well everybody had to come up with a name for their ninja team. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles having already been taken we opted for Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and Fran took it upon herself to pose like a hamster in every photo.

Hence photos such as this.

We were also commanded to do a “Ninja Disco Dance of Death.”

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY MOVES!

At one of the targets, a local onsen, we met up with one of the competing teams…

… and mercilessly slaughtered them.

There are ninja hiding here, can you spot them?

Having found all the spots in Kasagi, at about 11:30 in the morning, we set off up the mountain to get the spots on top of the mountain and head over to the next town.

This is where it all started to go wrong.

After about 40 minutes of waling we had no idea where we were and we were seriously scared that we had wandered onto the wrong mountain or done worse. The maps we had didn’t detail most of the roads we had passed and there was no sight of the peak, the turning to the next town or anybody else on the mountain.

To make matters worse it started to rain, I lost my kunai and Fran began to get serious pains in her foot. Fran had come directly from Tokyo the day before without getting any proper sleep in between and a mountain hike did not seem like the smartest plan in the world.

We gave serious consideration to retracing our steps and calling off the whole thing but at last we were emboldened by meeting up with another team on the same road. This meant we hadn’t been mistaken or lost just underestimating quite how high the climb was.

With courage restored we pressed on and finally reached the sight we had come to see, an 80 foot Buddha carved into the side of a rock.

I love Japan. I love that interesting sights like this are so common that they are hardly ever mentioned. I love turning mountain bends and been confronted by something completely unexpected and perfectly Japanese. I love that art and aesthetics find their way into seemingly everything. It’s a great country.

There was an even more interesting carving of a Buddha that had seemingly faded away over the years. Seen here with a ninja “scaling” it. It was certainly less well done than the other Buddha but I consider it more interesting because it prompts so many questions. How old is it? What did it used to look like? Why was it allowed to wear away? Just what purpose did it serve?

Having done our best ninja poses at these two spots we set off down the mountain again to get to the next town and complete all the spots there.

We would never make it.

Oh we made it to the town but the combination of heavy rain, terrible maps and a member of our combined team that was unfortunately wearing heels meant that the travelling was painfully slow going.

It was a lovely walk though. The views from the mountain top were typically grand but furthermore this may be the greenest place in the whole of Japan. It almost reminds me of dear sweet England, except for all the mountains.

It was completely deserted too. No tourists, hardly any buildings and maybe 2 or 3 cars. It is staggeringly rare in Japan to get that level of privacy and I cherished the absence of people. Particularly once we descended the mountain and the valley opened up into these really wide rice fields. It was so..spacious. Not usually an adjective one associates with Japan.

Mostly what impacted on me was the noise. In the absence of human sounds the noises of nature were noticeably louder. There were frogs EVERYWHERE. We never once saw one but the sound of their croaking was omnipresent. The rain too was thundering down and the noises it made as it rushed over roads, gurgled down drains and splashed against rivers made a kind of natural trance. For a long time we just walked and listened as nature filled all that human need for noise for us.

By the time we finally got to the other town (which is so small it isn’t listed on wikipedia and I cannot remember the name sadly) it was nearly 3 o’clock. What was supposed to be an easy hike had taken us nearly 4 hours, and worse we were supposed to survey the town and somehow make it back to Kasagi for 5 o’clock.

Simply not happening.

Instead we sussed out a bus heading back to Nara and all poured into the only restaurant in the entire town that was open. I had curry udon, a dish that consisted literally of udon noodles in curry sauce and as such not something I recommend to anyone. It wasn’t bad as such but it was deeply unsatisfying in comparison to ordinary udon or ordinary curry.

So that was Kasagi. A bit of an adventure but ultimately a frustrating one. Whilst there are many parts of it I enjoyed I can’t help but regret that we didn’t get the chance to explore further.

As for the scavenger hunt? Well we never really got to hand in our photos did we. For all I know Charlie is still waiting for us to show up.

No post tonight, my brain is tired. 

Instead you get this.

A deer attempting to eat metal.

A totem pole of robots.

A misogynist bar.

An actual record found in an actual shop in Shibuya.
(Obviously German beer drinking music was popular enough to warrant a sequel)

The most unappealing Italian restaurant ever.

RanDOM ENglisH CapitALIsAtioN

Something highly disturbing from Shinjuku.

And the most excited shoe shop you have ever seen.

and frankly you should be thankful you even get that.

I’m back!

As promised Mummyboon is back onto its former regular schedule. To start you off I have some exciting news about deer.

Yes, deer.

I have blogged about the sacred deer of Nara before when I visited the city the first time. For anyone interested in my opinions of the deer and the famous enormous Daibutsu-den (great Buddha) at Todai-ji please check out this post from last year.

Since then my opinion of Nara is much the same. It’s a lovely city, very leafy and the main historical attractions are gorgeous and well worth the visit.

This time around I had gone to Nara with my partner in crime (or girlfriend if you will) to see a famous festival exclusive to Nara, the Shika no Tsunokiri or Antler Cutting Festival.

It seems that around the mating season the male deer start to get a bit crazy. They frequently clash with other bucks, rub their horns up against the trees (damaging the ancient primeval forest) and pose a danger to themselves and to the many tourists that flock through the city. So the priests at the shrine, along with local volunteers, participate in a festival to cut the antlers from the bucks. The festival has ancient roots so I’m not entirely sure how much of it is merely a tradition and a game and how much stems from a cause of genuine safety. Considering that the parks are full of both bucks butting each other furiously and very small children it is safe to say that there definitely is some safety purpose behind the event.

The event is held in Kasuga Taisha, the main shrine in Nara and the one from which the tradition of keeping tame deer stems. Kasuga Taisha is a pretty lively and colourful shrine with many different festivals associated with it. Okay, every shrine in Japan that consists of more than a covered statue has lots of festivals associated with it, but Kasuga Taisha has exotic, unusual and interesting festivals that attract a lot of attention. Besides the Shika no Tsunokiri it is also famous for the lantern festival in February and August, where all of the enormous stone lanterns that surround the shrine are lit and visitors are invited to admire the combination of lamplight, ancient woods and deer.

We approached Kasuga Taisha at about 2:40, a good 2 hours and 40 minutes after the festival began and loooooong after I intended to be in Nara. This was in part because I badly misjudged the amount of time it takes to get to Nara (I always forget just quite how far away it is) but primarily because many of the trains we intended to catch were delayed due to “human accident damage” i.e. a suicide on the rails.

Not to make light of what is obviously a tragic event and a damming indictment of the alienation in modern society and modern Japanese society in particular but I have never understood the impulse for people to kill themselves on public holidays. Why do you want to make your last action on the planet one that will annoy hundreds, if not thousands, of people?

Anyway, late arrival or not we didn’t actually miss much. Apparently the festival functions largely like a short show that lasts about 15 minutes and is repeated for three hours every Sunday and holiday in October. Visitors join a short queue and then are led into an amphitheatre. The theatre is roughly oblong with curved ends and long straight sides like an ice hockey rink. Visitors sit or stand all around the edge and peer down onto a field. Surrounding the field are very high walls which the seats join onto so that spectators are about 8 or 10 feet above the field. At either end of the field is a stake or post stuck into the ground. In the field are about 10 men known as Seko along with a Shinto priest and three bucks. The deer are gathered and corralled into a “deer house” (basically a very large pen, along with some does, food, water, etc) beforehand and three bucks are used in the ceremony at any one time.

Some of the Seko are armed with Danpi, basically a long bamboo pole with a red flag on the end. One of the Seko has a blue flag. Apparently the bucks will avoid the red but will move towards the blue. About 4 men are holding Juji basically a lasso but with the circular part stretched across a bamboo frame shaped like a cross.

The bucks are mostly just standing around, eating grass and occasionally butting heads with one another. They are clustered at one end and the Seko are gathered at the other. Eventually once the crowd is full the game begins.

Some of the Seko armed with flags begin to chase the deer, making noises and calling out. The deer spring about trying to escape but the men begin to herd them towards the other end of the field. As the bucks reach the far end the remaining Seko use their Danpi to make a wall forcing the buck to run around the edge of the field and speed up. Finally the Seko with the blue flag stakes it down and the buck leaps towards it. As he passes it the Seko’s with Janji strike the bucks horns. The bamboo cross is knocked away by the force of the buck and the noose immediately tightens around the antlers.

Well, this is what happens in theory. In practice the bucks have to be goaded to dash past the Janji several times before a successful contact is made. Whilst this is happening the audience is tantalized by the various missed throws, the times when the rope catches but the buck dislodges it or moments when the buck decides not to play the game by the rules and make a mad leap or a dash towards one of the Seko, threatening him with those antlers.

Eventually a rope is tied around both antlers and the buck is dragged towards one of the posts. He struggles, pulling his head this way and that and attempting to get free. Sometimes he does so but the rope is immediately snatched up again. Eventually with all 10 of the Seko pulling at him he stands no chance and is brought to hell and left to bang his head fruitlessly against the post.

Now all of the participants begin to restrain the buck, using primarily their own strength they hold him still and carry him onto a tatami mat. They rest his head on a pillow, hold him down and bind his legs.

Now the priest comes over. He offers the buck a drink of water and pets him until he begins to calm down. The priest then takes out a saw and goes to work swiftly removing the antlers.

Finally he raises the antlers up, turning to let the audience see and offering the antlers to the kami of the shrine.

Whilst the priest is sawing at the antlers several of the remaining Seko are holding up a bright red wall which stretches across the field. This prevents the remaining bucks from attacking the prone one or interfering in the sawing.

The antlers raised, the buck is untied and he immediately leaps up and moves, almost nonchalantly, out of a gate and back into the “deer house”. His demeanor doesn’t seem to suggest loss, anger or annoyance but rather a graceful defeat. His movements say “well, I put up a good game but you won in the end lads.”

Rinse and repeat with the remaining two bucks and you have an interesting afternoon.

Despite all the difficulties involved getting there I greatly enjoyed the Shika no Tsunokiri. It genuinely is a thrilling spectacle. I’m not usually one for spectating at sports but there is something very different when the deer are involved. The way they move, the grace and power in their assured, confident leaps is hypnotic. They are simply amazing and beautiful to watch. In a way the loss of their antlers is a big anti-climax. Whilst you do root for the Seko and the capture of the deer feels like a victory seeing these proud stags divested of their antlers is a little bit sad. However the momentary sadness is more than made up for by the thrill of simply watching these animals move.

The rest of the day was nothing particularly blog-worthy. Fran and I visited the Daibutsu (it is still amazing) and the enormous bell (which is also still amazing) and we fed deer in the park. I didn’t do this the last time I came to Nara because I had nobody to feed deer with. This time around I gamely had a go and it was, well, rubbish really. I think you need to be a kid to get any sense of wonder from it. Still I am glad I did it because I got to see the spectacle of Fran being mobbed by 3 deer at once. As she frantically tried to feed them all she had they butted up against her and frantically scrambled for food. She got very annoyed that I was taking pictures instead of coming to her rescue but the memory of the sight of her was more than worth it.

We finished the day in a café called “Shizuka’s” which I can highly recommend. Shizuka’s specializes in a Nara-specialty known as Kammameishi. Basically an iron pot in which rice is cooked together with fish and vegetables. We ordered the Nara special consiting of crab, prawns, eel, burdock, onion, egg, peas and rice all cooked together. It came served in the pot together with miso soup, pickles and some vegetables cooked in broth; as most Japanese meals are. It wasn’t exactly a culinary revelation but it was tasty, cheap and very filling. Like most Japanese cooking the idea is to let the quality ingredients speak for themselves rather than heavily season the dish and in this respect it was superb.

We had yet another delayed train on the way home but not even that could dampen a unique and thrilling experience.

Nara represents a huge milestone for me as it’s the first significant travelling I’ve done in Japan without anyone to help me. To most normal people this isn’t that impressive but I’m facing the handicaps of a) not speaking or reading the language b) not really understanding how the train timetables work c) having the worst sense of direction of any human being ever and d) being generally without feck.

Only one of these setbacks significantly affected my journey and that was my inability to understand how train time tables work, a problem that caused my trip to Nara to take about 3 hours.

When I got there though, more than worth it.

Nara famously has wild sort’ve tamed deer roaming the streets. These animals are held sacred in the Shinto religion as messengers from the gods. It is said that the city was founded when a god riding a white deer landed on the spot of the shrine and pledged his protection to the people if they would build him a shrine there. Consequently deer have always been kept in Nara rather than hunted as they are in the rest of Japan.

I knew all of this from the guidebook but it doesn’t really explain quite how many deer there are. I assumed they would be confined to forest areas and park land but they wander about the open parks and the city proper fairly freely. And there’s thousands of them! You can barely go 10 ft without crossing a deer, they’re literally everywhere you look. It’s a totally disconcerting experience but very, very cool.

You can buy deer biscuits for the almost nothing price of 150Yen but as I didn’t have anyone with me feeding deer seemed a little bit of a waste. I spent plenty of time watching the various tourists feeding deer though, including 2 memorable girls. One of whom was really, really freaked out that deer were coming so near her and started running, but as she still had food in her hand the deer gave chase and so she ran faster leading to the deer running even faster. God only knows what would have happened if her boyfriend hadn’t calmed her down.

The 2nd happened later in the day where I saw a Japanese girl being swamped by at least 15 deer and probably more. They were inches from her butting up against her body trying to get at the food in her hand. She was squealing like a cartoon character faced with a mouse, needless to see both me and her friends thought this was piss funny and howled in laughter. Problem was the girl was stood in front of a shop which was being overrun by deer and the shopkeeper was significantly less pleased. He was screeching at her to go away and she was both terrified of the deer and him.

There’s not many places you can see a 3 way battle between deer, scared girls and shopkeepers.

Also some of the deer have learned to bow over the years too and that’s phenomenally creepy. Really they bow when you give them a biscuit. This isn’t training as such, it’s a learned response which is the same principle you train animals with but nobody set out to teach the deer to bow, they just… do. It’s really weird but more than a little bit cool.

Anyway having taken 3 hours to get there I briefly refreshed myself with lunch of Tempura (basically anything deep fried in a really light batter) and Miso-shiro (soy and fish stock soup) before I set out to explore Nara proper.

My first stop was the Todai-ji temple complex , home to Daibutsu-den, literally “the big Buddha hall”, the largest wooden building in the world.

Daibutsu-den is impressive enough on its own. It’s a truly gorgeous building and rises with a sort of stately grace from the surrounding countryside. Nara is a lot more park-like than other Japanese cities with lots of open grass areas, something you almost never see in Japan and all this wide open space really suits Daibutsu-den. It makes it look huger and even more impressive.

But the real draw would be the big Buddha the building is named for. The big Buddha in this case daibutsu (which means great Buddha) is actually Dainichi, the Japanese name for the Buddha that represents dharmakaya. Dainichi is not a Buddha proper but rather an unmanifested aspect of Buddha. He belongs to a section of Buddhism that functions a bit like agnostic christianity. Basically Dainichi is the sum total of everything in the entire universe but is simultaneously empty (because in most Buddhist thinking the universe doesn’t exist). He is for all intents and purposes god and when all things in the universe die or decay they become Dainichi.

Inside Daibutsuden is a statue of Dainichi and it is the largest image of Buddha in the entire world. To give some sense of scale one of his fingers there is the size of a grown man. He is enormous! He is also incredible to look at and simple breathtaking. Daibutsu is easily one of the most stunning, awe inspiring purely amazing sights I have ever seen in my life. He doesn’t quite top the Basilica De San Marco in Venice but he’s certainly right up there.

Dainichi is seated on a lotus leaf with 7 petals, 7 in Buddhist numerology being a symbol for infinity and symbolising that all if infinity is contained within dainichi. Behind him is a golden wheel featuring numerous Bodhisattva’s (basically trainee Buddhas or saints to Buddha’s god). This symbolises the sun and also that all the aspects of Buddha stem from Dainichi.

Size aside he isn’t much of a looker. There’s not a lot of detail and his face is frankly pretty badly done but this detracts not one bit from the experience of looking up at him. Truly one of the wonders of the world.

Alas because he is so big and high up and because the temple is so under lit my camera’s flash couldn’t penetrate the darkness and get a photo of him. I could see the statue perfectly well but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get a photo, so I’m resorting to nicking one off the internet.


This was the best I managed.

And while the lighting was not conducive to photography it certainly helped the impact. Todai-ji uses the temple trick of putting wooden bars across all the windows. This means even in bright light the light in the temple is slanted slightly and everything is a little indistinct. This helps give a really holy mystical air to the space and really enhances the impact of this enormous statue.

Seriously, It’s big!

One thing I noticed again was the horrible capitalist money grabbing of the temple. There stalls inside the temple gates outside Daibutsu-den selling tat which I didn’t mind but there were tat stops right inside Daibutsu-den practically next to the statue in the same general space that Buddhist services were held. I don’t look it when catholic churches do it and I like it even less with something so magnificent within spitting distance.

I did buy a few postcards though…..I mean I had no pictures did I.

there are also 2 enormous Nioo guardians protecting the Buddha inside the hall. But frankly while they are really impressive they suffer a little by comparison.

After Daibutsu the rest of Nara is a little bit unimpressive. It’s a really nice place for a walk full of gorgeous autumn leaves, deer and glorious views but it’s all a bit second rate after the big Buddha. Still I was there and it is a really lovely city, or at least the parks in the centre are.

The main attractions after the big Buddha are an enormous bell affiliated with the temple and the Kasuga Taisha shrine.

The bell is in all fairness properly enormous and apparently takes 17 monks to ring it but again suffering by comparison next to the enormous statue.


Kasuga Taisha is the shrine. Typically in Japan shrines are affiliated with Shinto (which was the dominant religion in Japan for centuries) the pagan religion which ancestor and pagan god (kami) worship ideas in Japan stem from. Temples are associated with Buddhism which was imported from China. At some point the two separate religions got smooshed together into the pseudo religion which is the most common religion in Japan. Kasuga Tasiha is a Shinto shrine and the origin of all the deer roaming about. Sadly despite it’s historic import (of which I know little) it’s a pretty poor shrine in my view. The approach to it is lovely though. A path winding through the forest surrounded by deer and lined on every side with stone lanterns. In certain festival every single one of these lamps is lit and the effect must be quite dazzling. I’ll try to check it out.

A bit tired of temples and shrines by this point I decided to do some museum hopping and managed to see a collection of ancient Japanese statues in various materials (interesting…but not for very long) and lots and lots of swords and armour (extraordinarily cool).

During my museum hopping i managed in the course of taking off and putting on my shoes (a little tip to anyone who visits Japan. Buy shoes without laces.) to tear a big gash down one side and having done a full day of walking about my feet were in agony so I headed off home.

On the way I stopped to pick up some Doriyaki from a street vendor.

Doriyaki is a Japanese dessert that is the favourite food of flying blue robot cat and Japanese cartoon character Doraemon. He’s onto something because Doriyaki are amazing.

They consist of 2 little discs a bit like pancakes but tiny and much thicker. The 2 discs form a sandwich with a filling of “an”. An is a sweet red bean paste that gets used in a lot of Japanese desserts. Basically imagine really sweet kidney beans. I go back and forth on an. In some places I really like it but other times its just waaaay too sweet. The an soup that Japanese kids eat sometimes is just waaay too sicky sweet but Doriyaki are amazing. Just the right sweetness, cakey but always moist, warm and filling but small too. I love Doriyaki.

Anyway I finally got to the train station and headed home.

Of course this time I knew what my time table mistake was and cut an hour off my return journey.

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