In the Traditional Japanese Style (Day 198)
Naro: Meals, gardens and temples all in the traditional Japanese style.
Back in February (Day 109 to be precise) I met a Japanese couple on a walk in Mount Cook and they invited us to Japan. This morning, Hiro and Hiroko came and picked us up for a trip to Nara. Hiro drove whilst Hiroko and I chatted in the back. As she used to be an English Teacher her English is brilliant, thank goodness, and our conversation flowed.
Nara was the first permanent capital in Japan in 710; we saw many old wooden houses, not from that period I imagine though, and deer wandering around the street. We parked the car which seemed to be in front of someone’s house. It turned out it was a mini carpark for the restaurant that Hiroko wanted to take us to, Tengyokudo, which specialises in Yoshino Hon Kudzu, a Japanese traditional food.
The main basis they use to cook is Kudzu, a large long root which is harvested up in the mountain. The root is vigorously beaten and then squeezed to extract the starch (Toru) which is soaked in water and then dried to a white powder. Only 100g of starch is made from 1kg of root and a great amount of time is taken to make this powder.
My meal consisted of Kudzu noodles, with ginger, wasabi, soy and spring onions and Gomadofu which was a square blancmange consistency made from black sesame, Kudzu and Tofu with a rich Miso sauce. For dessert, Kudzumochi, a translucent soft jelly, with a dusting of some kind. It was all very tasty.
Onto the main focus of the trip, to see the Todai-Ji Temple (included in the Lonely Planet’s Top 500). The weather was so different from yesterday with blue skies and 28 degrees. As we arrived we could see loads of brightly colour caps – hordes of school children had also visited. First, we saw the Nandaimon Gate, a huge impressive gate with a rustic charm. Two towering guards were facing one another, made from wood which was incredible due to the size and also the flowing movement that the design conveyed of the statues. One is called “A” and the other “um” which represents the beginning of the Universe and the end. This is used a lot in Japan traditionally, for example “A-um” is used when people have a good chemistry together.
We retraced our steps and went the other way amongst the deer roaming around to the Daibutsuden – the Big Buddha Hall. It is the world's largest wooden building and more surprising is that this is only two-thirds of the original temple’s hall size from 752, this being rebuilt in 1692. Inside is one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha – seated at 15m tall. It is a beautiful unpretentious design despite its size. Later a school party had one of the students standing in front of them, a boy aged about 10, whose size represented the dimension of the Buddha’s little finger. And inside the hall, one of the wooden pillars had a hole carved out that children were crawling through, this represented the size of Buddha’s nostril!
On to Isuien Garden, in a traditional Japanese style which was designated as a “scenic site” by the government in 1975. It is very relaxing and beautiful with stepping stones over ponds with lily pads, exquisitely manicured trees. The front garden was built by Kiyosumi Dosei, a wealthy merchant, in the 1670s, from his Tea-House and Villa he had views of hills in the distance. Hiroko explained to me that the backdrop of a garden is very important, giving the place depth. We had such lovely conversations walking around, sharing about different cultures, about our families. A very relaxing time. Later while walking around a garden, an elderly local gentleman chatted with us and informed us about various aspects of the garden. Hiroko was thrilled to learn this and, of course, Tim and I piped up – “Every day is a school day”.
Next was a fleeting visit to the small museum founded in 1969 by the Nakamura family who was in the sea- transportation business. A few delicate bowls were on display, some dating back to 2000 BC. The main display was Kakemono hanging scrolls, mainly extracts of Chinese poems. I particularly liked one and Hiroko explained to me that it said “Happiness”.
Our last historical visit for the day was through the deer park to one of the many Shrines. Over 3000 stone lamps that many families have donated lead up to Kasuga Taisha which is placed at the foot of a sacred forested Kasugayama mountain and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along the way, Hiroko was surprised how many tourists there were. She reckoned that 1:10 were Japanese and was trying to distinguish who was Chinese and Korean. We did have much fun guessing.
We stopped off for an ice cream. Hiro’s favourite, with weird and wonderful flavours: as well as mango and plum, there was green tea, black sesame, and soybean. (We have since found out that the Soybean one that Hiroko had is called Kinako and is roasted soybeans, with the skin taken off and ground, giving a yellow colour Kiiro – Hiroko then realised why the ice cream had that name)
Time to head back to Osaka for a meal together. The highway was chock-a-blocked, however for me, it didn’t matter as I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with Hiroko whilst Tim dozed off and hopefully, Hiro was keeping awake. We ended up in Nambo, the neighbouring area to where we were staying and had another delicious Japanese traditional meal, prawns with avocado wrapped in rice paper and rice; so flavoursome.
We said our farewells until tomorrow, walked back and I was so tired that I fell asleep as soon as we got back. My energy seems to have left me in Australia…come back – I need you!