Nara (Day 3) – Shunie (Fire & Water Festival) & temples

It’s always hard to wake up in the morning for me. Even though I spent months planning for this trip, setting myself 8am starts, doing a different activity every hour and even planning where to eat, nothing really turned out the way I wanted them to. Oh, I know what went wrong. I didn’t plan for the awesome TV programs late at night! Staying up with Yuye nearly every night to watch the hilarious celebrity talk shows and mouth-watering travel/food shows really kept us from eating breakfast. That is why on the most part you won’t be able to read about our breakfast adventures (apart from the ones in ryokans where we HAD to wake up since we paid for them already). One good thing came out of this though, Yuye can finally identify some members of SMAP since they were on TV every second night and even during ad breaks (they were ambassadors for the Japan earthquake appeals). I reckon the cleaning ladies really hated us because on a few occasions we had calls from reception telling us to basically either call off cleaning for the day or get out of the room.

Brunch and snacks

On day 3 of our trip (14 March) we woke up just in time for brunch in Namba Walk before paying Nara a second visit. Namba Walk links the three different Namba train stations into one long walkway (JR Namba Station, Kintetsu Namba Station and Nankai Namba Station all owned by different companies). This walkway houses many fashion and food stores which makes the long walk a bit more interesting. It didn’t help much when JR Namba Station was the furthest away from our hotel though.
 

 
The place we chose to have brunch was called Sarashina Hirotaya (さらしな廣田屋) close to the entrance of Kintetsu Namba Station. Really we could have eaten anywhere. The food moulds that lined each and every restaurant window is enough to make a hungry me want to taste every one of those stores. Seriously. The moulds looked exactly the same as the real thing! I was so tempted to bring some back with me just to fool my friends. In the end the mould with a set of eel rice and soba won me over. These sets were reasonably good value. For less than $10 AUD, I got a smallish rice with eel on top and a huge bowl of soba with a tempura prawn. I wasn’t able to finish mine so Yuye cleaned my bowls for me.

 

 
Yuye got a set of zaru soba (cold soba dipped in soy sauce) with tempura, also for less than $10. I personally liked his more but that’s just because I didn’t get to eat very much of it (Yuye was stingy!). I can eat that soba all day. :)

 

 
After brunch, we travelled straight to Nara. On the way to Nara Park, we passed a dango store called Douya (堂屋)and decided to snack on some freshly made dango. I must admit, dango’s not my favourite snack since often it lacks flavour and it’s really sticky (made of sticky rice) but a lot of people like it, guess it’s personal preference.

 

 
Just before we got to the festival location, we got hungry again (not surprising right?) and got a leaf wrapped sushi along the path up to the temple. It was actually quite delicious, although the salmon didn’t taste fresh. It was most likely preserved of some sort as it wasn’t kept in a refrigerated area.

 

 
Nara’s Deer

Most of our time in Nara was spent at Nara Park visiting the various shrines and temples, patting and feeding deer (and having our clothes chewed by them) and of course, attending the fire and water festival. The deer is literally everywhere! Be very careful if you plan on feeding them with deer senbei (rice crackers) because they will chase and headbutt you down and then chew every bit of your clothes until they get all the cracker crumbs off you. Each lot of senbei costs 150Yen and (yes we tasted it…) it really tasted like nothing, well, except plain rice crackers I suppose. Yuye and I were both overwhelmed by our popularity that running away was our only option of survival. Remember if you buy one, try not to open the package in front of the deer, the crackers will disappear in seconds.

 
I also took some photos of blossoming flowers – I think they’re plum blossoms. Aren’t they beautiful? :D

 

 
Nara’s Temples

Firstly, people often get confused and think that temples and shrines are the same thing, they’re really not. Temples are Buddhist structures which originated from China, much like most temples around China and other parts of Asia. You light incense when you go inside to purify your surroundings. Shinto shrines on the other hand are spiritual structures that worship or enshrine Japanese ‘gods’ or deities and each one can be quite different in what they house. The main difference that is visible are the Torii gates that are present at shrines which are absent from temples and temples having many statues (including of course, the Buddha) whereas shrines do not usually have any. On Japanese maps, shrines will usually be symbolised by a picture of a torii gate and a temple by a Swastika symbol.

At a shrine, it’s customary to wash your hands and your mouth in the area provided to purify yourself of impurities. Take care to not put your mouth directly on ladle provided, instead, pour onto your hand first. The custom is to wash left hand first then right hand and then rinse your mouth from the left hand. I believe it’s fine to drink the water too, although not part of customs to do so, the water is refreshing and clean and there are signs that say ‘ok for drinking’. For more information on how to visit a Japanese shrine, visit http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/shrine-guide-2.shtml.
 

 
Kohfukuji Temple

The first temple we visited was Kohfukuji Temple (the first temple you pass when you walk from JR Nara Station) which is a buddhist temple formerly owned by the Fujiwara family, the most powerful clan during the Nara and Heian periods. It was originally constructed in 669AD in a prefecture of Kyoto and later moved to Nara in 710AD when Nara became the capital of Japan. The very unfortunate thing was the construction work currently going on at Chukondo (Central Golden Hall) which is the main hall in the temple. As you can see from below, the whole building is being reconstructed. Since its creation in 710, this hall has been burnt down and rebuilt 7 times due to civil wars and the most current building dates back to 1811. Heavy rainfall has rendered the building unusable which led to the decision to have it completely reconstructed. According to www.japan-guide.com, construction is scheduled to complete in October 2018 with works in the surrounding area to complete in 2023. That’s a long time! :(

 
Luckily the other buildings were fine.

 

 
As there are no gates around Kohfukuji, entrance into the area is free and there are no closing times. However, entrance into the Treasure House and Eastern Golden Hall runs from 9am – 5pm and costs 500Yen and 300Yen respectively.

Todaiji Temple

 
The Todaiji Temple was built in 752AD and had significant power and influence over Japanese government affairs when Nara was the capital of Japan. The Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), the main building in Todaiji, is apparently the world’s largest wooden building and also holds Japan’s largest bronze buddha statue (Daibutsu). The statue has a height of 14.98 metres and weighs 500 tonnes.

On the way in, we passed the first gate – Nandaimon – which is a national treasure of Japan. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gate had to undergo reconstruction as the wood looked very aged. But my was it grand. Even though the gate is small, I couldn’t help but look with open jaws as I took in the magnificent architecture above me.

 
Todaiji’s second gate looked a lot newer and more colourful. This gate surrounds the entire main building and requires 500Yen per person to enter.

 

 
As this is a buddhist temple, the first thing you do when you enter temple grounds is to light incense to ‘purify’ the surroundings.

 

 
Isn’t the main building grand? The photo doesn’t do it justice really. The season was also perfect as the early buds of Spring brought about a refreshing feel and somehow made it a bit more spiritual.

 
I got somewhat fascinated by the incense cleaner at the door of the daibutsuden who was totally oblivious to the tourists around him. I wonder how many times he’d have to do this every day.

 

 
The buddha is situated right in the centre of the building near the front entrance. It was hard to take a clean photo of it as the place was dark, the buddha was really big and there was a swarm of tourists standing right in front of it.

 

 
There were also miniature models of all the buildings in Todaiji which actually lit up inside. The models were so intricately made and looked like exact replicas of the originals.

 

 
Finally to end our tour of the place, we purchased omikujis at the shop by the exit to have our fortunes told. Omikujis are basically fortunes written on strips of paper similar to that of fortune cookies, and is obtained by shaking a wooden box until one single stick falls out. The stick will have a number which corresponds to the number on the fortune paper. Most omikujis at Japanese temples and shrines will have English translations so there is no excuse to not purchase one when you visit! We tied the omikujis to the metal pole outside, along with many others who have done so before us.

 

 
Nigatsudo and the Fire & Water Festival (Shunie)

Nigatsudo is located inside the grounds of Todaiji Temple and is the host of the annual Fire and Water Festival (Shunie 修二会 in Japanese), also known as the Omizutori (water drawing). The festival runs every March 1 – 14 and has taken place for over 1250 years. On March 12, we had unfortunately missed the Otaimatsu (fire ceremony) which is said to be the most crowded and longest night out of the whole festival. However, March 14 (being the last day) is the most spectacular. While only 10 torches were lit instead of 11 on March 12, all 10 torches were lit at once, giving huge sparks and a grand and stunning view. I had never experienced anything like it until that night. There is also a water ceremony starting at 1:30am on the night of March 13 (which we also planned to go to but were too sleepy and cold to get out). For more details about the festival and detailed times, visit www.japan-guide.com.

To be cautious, Yuye and I arrived almost 2 hours early. We proceeded to tour Nigatsudo before making our way to the front where quite a few people had already gathered. It’s not a large building by any means, but it certainly offered one of the best views as it was constructed on a big slope. The slope eventually gave me neck pains as where we were standing to watch the festival, I had to constantly look up.

 
We waited and waited…we weren’t allowed to sit down because there were too many people squashed together and could potentially cause dangers for people walking around. So, we waited with very sore feet.

 

 
Just when Yuye was about to complain about the long wait, the show began to unfold. The first ball of flames glided passed us on the left and slowly made its way to the balcony of the hall. A second then a third came and when it got to the 10th, the air was smelling like a forest on fire. The sparks flew everywhere and sometimes a woman’s scream could be heard as I assumed was when the sparks flew too near. Mind you, it is believed to be good luck if these sparks land on any part of your body so there are people who consciously stand very close in an attempt to catch them. Foolish and dangerous, but understandable. I must apologise to Yuye for all his efforts in taking these photos. I had the easier job of filming as I could still look up, but he had to stare into the viewfinder the whole time so he didn’t get to enjoy the festival as much as he should have. Kudos to the great photos though. :)

 

 
Below is the whole footage of the festival which I filmed. The actual event only went for a bit over 5 minutes so make sure you watch the whole thing, the great bit is at the end when everything goes ‘boom’.
 

Note: If you’re planning to attend the festival some time, make sure you arrive early to ensure you get a good spot. Also, go to the bathroom beforehand as it might be difficult to go during or after the event. There are extra buses that run between Nara Park and the two train stations (JR Nara Station and Kintetsu Nara Station) at a small cost during the festival days. I highly recommend taking one of these rather than walking as we learnt the hard way (the first night we walked for 30 minutes back to the hotel…).

Dinner & more snacks

On the way back to Osaka, we bought our final snack from Nara, a local specialty called kaki no ha sushi (柿の葉ずし) which is sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves usually made with mackerel or salmon. It really originated in nearby Yoshino but over time, Nara made it a specialty of their own. We ate this on the train back to Osaka as we were both very hungry after standing for literally over 2 hours at the festival. The sushi had a distinct leafy taste to it and the sushi rice is more sour than usual, but it wasn’t a bad taste. This sushi is a bit different to the one we had before the festival (above) as for this one you had to peel back the inedible leaf whereas the one earlier was to be eaten with the leaf together.

 
Back in Osaka, we decided to try something different to the usual sushi and so walked along the famous Dotonbori for inspiration. Dotonbori is a street in the Namba area that houses famous restaurants such as Kani Doraku (the big crab restaurant) and Kinryu Ramen (restaurant with the giant dragon). I felt out of place whenever I walk down that street because practically ALL the women were dressed up like dolls and walked straight out of a magazine. Even the men dressed very well and did their hair like Jpop stars. If you just ignored that fact, the street is full of neon lights and beckoning restaurants. Amongst those is a famous and popular restaurant called Ganso Kushikatsu Daruma Janjanten which serves deep fried things on skewers. I think I may have gotten hypnotised by the video playing outside the shop and the big funny looking face above it. Anyway, we decided to just eat there.

 

 
The food was in no way bad, in fact, I liked the flavours although everything kind of tasted similar after you dip the skewers in the communal tonkatsu sauce. Yuye didn’t like it however. They were a bit too deep fried for his liking. If you like deep fried things and would like to give this type of food a try, remember to never double dip your skewers. Although the sauce bowl does say in Japanese in big bold letters “do not double dip”, it is a common occurrence for foreigners to do the contrary. Prices ranged from 120Yen per skewer to 240Yen for us.

 

 
We didn’t order that many skewers and Yuye left unsatisfied. Next stop was of course more takoyaki! This time, it was at a place called Kureooru (くれおーる) also on Dotonbori. These ones cost a little bit more than the first batch we had, however were absolutely beautiful! It remained the best we had on the trip. The runny egg and huge layer of spring onions gave the takoyaki a fresh, less oily taste, not the mention the rice bubbles in it! Yes you read right, they put rice bubbles in their batter. They were 500Yen for 6 pieces and were reasonably big. This store also sells okonomiyaki and has seating inside if you want to enjoy your food while seated.

 

 
Great takoyaki is always a good way to end a night.

If you read until now, you’ve done a great job. This was the longest post I’ve ever written. Phew. I’d love to hear about your Japanese festival experiences so comment below!

My next post will be on more food and site-seeing around Osaka as I take on okonomiyaki (Osakan style), Osaka Castle, plum flower viewing and more sushi trains. Stay tuned my dear readers!

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