Japanese Gardens & Nara Park

24 Aug 2016

Nara is the original capital of Japan and still retains some of the most beautiful and impactful shrines, temples and ruins of the country. We spent a day in this wonderful city, feeding deer in Nara Park, wandering in Yoshiki-en and Isui-en gardens, and discovering the tastiest sushi restaurant.

It's day 3 of our 2-week discovery tour of Japan. We've spent day 1 in Osaka acclimatising and day 2 in the sacred Mount Koya, getting lost in primeval forest cemeteries (you can read about it here).

Religious Ceremony in the Shukubo

The third morning we wake up to the tune of two very different alarms. One is my iPhone alarm, programmed to wake us up at exactly 6AM. The second one is a ceremonial gong reverberating deeply and loudly against the stillness of the Buddhist temple we're stayed in overnight in Koyasan.

Fifteen minutes later we're downstairs cleansing our hands with incense outside a dark room. We leave our hotel slippers by the door and enter the dimly-lit room.

The room is on the ground floor. It's covered in tatami, so our footsteps are soft against the floor. The walls are wooden and the ceiling is covered in hundreds of lamps. It's a mini-temple with a huge golden buddha figure in the centre, surrounded by intricate vases, candles and a wooden structure that creates a separate area between this, and the room around it.

We're given chanting sheets and taught the art of chanting. There's a long ceremony but we're told what's going to happen beforehand, so it feels like we're completely part of it. At one point we're meant to participate but the two French tourists besides me and Chris fail to notice when it's their turn to get up and make their wishes. It doesn't matter. In the end we spend a good 15 minutes speaking to the trainee monk, who carefully ponders after each question and comes back with thoughtful answers inviting further thought. We leave the temple and Koya San in a state of elation and spiritual cleanliness completely indescribable.

Yoshiki-en and Isui-en Gardens in Nara

We catch a train to Nara and arrive around noon at our hostel: Nara Backpackers, where a super charismatic host greets us and shows us to our amazing upstairs Japanese-style room (complete with a garden-facing balcony).

On our way to the famous deer-packed Nara park, we make a pit-stop in two gardens, one of which is free, and the other costs a small fee to enter.

Yoshiki-en garden is a free (for foreigners) garden in the centre of Nara. It consists of a pond garden, a moss garden with a teahouse and a camellia garden. It's a simple enough place but its beauty lieas in its tranquility and simplicity.

We move on next-door to Isui-en garden. There's a small fee to enter this one, but we're curious so we go for it. Isui-en is a small garden, the key feature being a bald hill with the Nandaimon gate in the backdrop and a pond in the forefront. Today it's overcast and the Sakura (cherry blossoms) haven't quite blossomed yet, but I imagine it's much prettier on a sunny day, with foliage.

We take advantage of a free talk and it's super interesting, with the guide pointing out different features of the buildings and gardens and why they are so. My attention is diverted and entirely taken by her badge.

Feeding deer in Nara Park

We head over to all the big temples following a very well-laid out map on our LonelyPlanet guide (why reinvent the wheel). We manage to see all the impressive ones and still make it to Nara park, where we promptly buy deer biscuits and learn the correct way to give it to them by holding it high above our heads until the deer have bowed deeply 2 or 3 times before giving them the food. When done, we show them our empty hands and then move away.

Maguro Koya and the best damn O-toro (fatty) tuna sushi I've ever had

My feet hurt so much towards the end (Nara park is HUGE) so we grab a taxi and go to a little place that is number 1 on tripadvisor (top trick: judge by number of 5 star reviews in Japanese not the ones in English). Maguro koya is a run-down spot with a husband and wife team that make incredible food, specialising in Tuna. I know Tuna doesn't sound like the most exciting thing but we all have the most boring examples (canned tuna, Tuna Niçoise and other tasteless things).

I once saw a documentary on youtube (I think it was the Japanology series with Peter Barakan) about Japanese restaurants and fish markets. They talked about and showed how some restaurant buyers are experts in picking the best fish looking for the belly and how it moves when poked or handled. I imagine the old man at Maguro Koya spent decades just looking at Tuna at the market.

Otoro Tuna Sushi and Other Tuna Dishes at Maguro Koya, Nara Restaurant

We have the best sushi ever there (Otoro tuna). We ordered lots of small dishes, all Tuna-related, but the sushi is out-of-this world and melts in our mouths. It's only day 3 but we've already had the best tofu and the best sushi of our lives in Japan. This is going well!

We say our goodbyes to Mr and Mrs Tunahead and walk back to Nara Backpackers, conveniently a 2 minute stroll away. We relax and hang out in the reception with our feet under the deliciously warm kotatsu (table with heated underneath) which to me has healing properties!

Chris leaves me there to find a Mister Donut (a treat he used to have when he lived in Japan 10 years ago, before donuts were even a thing!) to get sweets, and we eat them as we look at a booklet with great food in Nara. We take hot showers and then go upstairs to our room. The futons on the tatamis with the clever pillows (hard on one side with little beads and soft on the other side but super firm, to cater for all needs) are amazing and so are the big fluffy duvets. We got a full nights' sleep.

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