At Hikone Port, stray cats wait in anticipation for the undesirable catch of the night fishermen. It’s almost ten o’clock and I know I should be back in Kyoto but I felt compelled to see Lake Biwa. Even in the darkness I find myself in awe looking over the vast waters. It was scary at first because what’s normally a vibrant tourist attraction during the day was now completely deserted. I wandered along the dock until I spotted a fishing party. I kept my distance, like a zoologist not wanting to disturb the local fauna, and sat down a few feet away from them. I made sure to turn down my music and tried to be as still as possible, petrified at the thought of interfering with their work. After a while, I chilled out and watched them go to work. It was slow going, but by the end it seemed as if everyone got their fill, even the strays.
It would be understandable if my brother was frustrated by my disdain for schedules. Every day he’d ask me what I wanted to do and when I couldn’t come up with an answer he’d throw out some suggestions and I’d nod my head and do what he said. Or I wouldn’t. We were checking out some prospective locations and one place that stuck out to me was Nara Park. We hastily arranged for me to spend a few days in Kyoto and its surrounding areas.
One could spend days exploring Kyoto itself, I imagine. The train station alone is an absolute marvel of design. I don’t know the first thing about architecture, but I feel like the amount of times I blasphemed whilst shaking my head in disbelief should provide some gauge of how impressive it is. That combination of expressions occurred no less than a dozen times.
That stairway captures so much of what I enjoy about Japan. There’s great expression and beauty in everything they do, but never at the cost of convenience. My mind would race as I pictured myself walking up towards some mythical kingdom but at the same time if I felt like going to the washroom or picking up a pair of loafers all I had to do was take a left on the 7th floor. There was an entire floor dedicated to eateries, one of which required me to use a mortar and pestle. I have no idea how to use a mortar and pestle.
This is why my meals usually consist of a foot-long ham Subway sandwich. I did my best to ground up the ingredients, but I wasn’t sure if I should go fast or slow, hard or fast, circular or jackhammer (get your mind out of the gutter). I kept peaking over self-consciously at the guy next to me, like Mr. Bean doing a calculus exam.
At the top of the stairs was “Happy Terrace”, an ideal place for tourists to meditate on their journeys, for locals to enjoy their coffee breaks and for young lovers to suck face with each other at night.
In what you’ll notice is a recurring trend, I took the time to sit down and do absolutely nothing. I didn’t think about anything. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t listen to music or read anything. I just closed my eyes and waited. I waited and waited and waited. Then it was time to go.
I equipped myself with a guidebook that contained no less than 20 different routes for exploring the old city. Naturally, I ignored them. The nearest temple wasn’t too far from where I was staying anyway. Which temple was that, you might ask? I have absolutely no idea. Call me ignorant, but the names of the landmarks I visited didn’t seem all that important to me for some reason. I walked around and took pictures and after some time they all started to blend together.
You had to take your shoes off before walking around, which I was fine with. I even removed my socks so I could feel the ancient wood on my feet. It was a rich, fulfilling experience to walk around those magnificent temples. I envy the people who live in that area who can come and visit whenever they want; though I’m sure I would take them for granted as I would a church in Ontario. I stopped to watch a man prepare the shrine, performing all sorts of subtle, seemingly inconsequential procedures though I’m certain every action is rife with meaning. My spirituality is, at best, “confused”, but I knelt down there for a while and connected with my personal gods.
It was hot as hell the day I visited Nara. Neither side of the street was offering any shade. It was like the sun was peaking at the end of the main street, scorching and laughing at anyone foolish enough to traverse that path. I tried to flip my arms periodically to even out the tan, a trick I learned in my country club days, but it didn’t help much. There were a couple of nice looking fountains along the way and were I a more impulsive creature, I surely would have stripped naked and jumped in.
Eventually I ended up at a marketplace that, like so much of Japan, was crowded but clean. I knew I was close to Nara Park, but I was shocked when I turned a corner and went from this…
I’ve never even been to a petting zoo before so to be close to an animal that’s not a dog or cat or duck was surreal. I expected someone to come and wrangle (is that what you do with deer?) the poor thing and bring it back to its cage but there it was, left to its own devices. It never crossed onto the pavement. I don’t see why it would want to, but it was neat to see that there was this inherent understanding of the boundary between our world and its own. As it turns out, my furry friend here was just the tip of the iceberg.
The heart of Nara Park was occupied by tourists, school students and, of course, more deer. I couldn’t see any sort of officials or security; in fact, from what I could discern the only employees were the old women who sold the cookies for feeding the deer. Even they weren’t that helpful, sticking to their duties of selling cookies, cleaning up poop and occasionally herding the deer away from them. They definitely didn’t give a crap when a deer started to nibble on my shirt forcing me to frantically scatter the cookies I’d just purchased.
My favourite thing during the whole trip was the sign that warned visitors of the deer’s aggressive behaviour. It looked more like instructions for the deer on how to attack and how much each maneuver was worth. A knockdown has got to be worth at least five deer cookies.
Nara suited my style of travel to a tee. You didn’t need to know where you were going because anywhere you went there were new wonders to be discovered: Holy shrines, authentic tea houses, shimmering ponds…endless avenues of escape. I was overwhelmed and needed to rest, finding a quaint shelter with a stream running through it.
Revitalized I continued my trek before coming across an open field that just…
…froze me where I stood. I felt so small and insignificant. Unlike the deer by the marketplace, I didn’t want to respect the boundary between nature and man. I could have run into the woods and never come back.
Hikone Castle would definitely be closed by the time I got there and I would be wandering around in the middle of the night in a town I knew nothing about. I didn’t care. I wanted to see the lake. I stared out the window, thinking about Nara and paths taken and not taken. There is an infinite amount of space that the average person will never see. That’s not something to be sad about, it’s to be celebrated. To know that no matter how long you live or how far you go, there is always something new and wondrous off in the horizon. For anyone to experience even a fraction of this magnificently imperfect world is truly a miracle.