Sunday 15 September 2013

Day 22- Day in Nara in the typhoon.

After checking in to our hotel in Nara, we bumped into a lovely young couple pushing a buggy. Phillip, from near Birmingham, and his Japanese wife Junko had moved back to Nara a few years ago, and Phillip had cycled a lot in the area.

He had joined a cycle club originally but found they spent all their time on busy A-roads and tunnels. So they DO cycle these routes!! He pointed out that as soon as you turn off the A-roads it's great cycling but very, very hilly.

"You do realise there's another typhoon on its way, don't you?"

We hadn't fully absorbed the implications. Phillip sent me a link to the Japanese weather report that evening. All the provinces in yellow are on alert. When they go red, the schools close. But, Phillip had added, you could do a lot worse than Nara in the rain. Plenty to see here.

We decided to make a couple of local circuits to visit some of the temples in outlying villages, the following morning, including to one of the world's oldest timber buildings at Horyuji Temple in Ikarruga, (dating from around 700AD, and housing Buddhist sculpture from 623), but the rain crept up on us in a pincer movement. We were following the big cloud ahead of us as it descended to cover the hills and missed the one coming in from behind. We turned back into Nara before the typhoon swept in.

A cycle around the temples and pagoda was cut short by worsening rain, and we sat under the eaves of the Nara museum opposite the 5-storied pagoda at Kofukuji Temple, sketching as bus loads of school children were brought in, walked around and then bussed out. A group of schoolgirls recreated the multi-armed demi-god whose statue was housed within, and we decided to investigate further.

Inside, there were almost as many warning signs as there were exhibits. No photos; no food; no making noise; no touching the artefacts; no sketching; no re-entry, and others not translated, on every available space in each room. A team of wardens in full dress uniform, white gloves and peaked cap, prowled every corner, and if they considered you were loitering too long next to an exhibit, would start to clean the floor next to you with a long handled roller brush.
You could imagine them thinking- "this would be such a wonderful museum if it weren't for the visitors..."

This aside, the exhibition was well worth visiting, with life-sized wooden carvings of the original Japanese monks who spread Buddhist teachings through the country, made around 720AD. These had such character and emotion in their faces it was incredible to think they were nearly 1,300 years old and a shame we couldn't capture this on film. The many-armed xxx stood over us threateningly, a Swiss-army knife of life accessories from swords to scrolls.

By the evening, wind was howling down the streets and driving rain had flooded the roads. My borrowed umbrella from the hotel was whipped inside out as we dashed to the convenience store opposite the hotel, and then 'borrowed' by somebody else before we reached the checkout, so we got soaked on the way back.

The following morning we prepared to leave Nara for the coast, our goal to see Ise's great shrines, possibly the most important and venerated in Japan, and rebuilt every twenty years for more than 1000 years. This year another cycle ends and the deities are transferred to their new shrine buildings which sit alongside the current site.

Packed up and with bikes back in their bags, we made a shocking discovery in the train station:

No trains were running to Ise.

The station manager explained again slowly. Nothing: no local trains, no rapid, no express: everything stops at Nabari. Arms crossed in an 'X'. Closed: "Typhoo!"

We decided to head for Osaka and consider our options from there. Our carefully planned schedule had slipped so much, we needed to regroup. Maybe a bullet train to Hiroshima? A shuttle to Okinawa and the tropical islands? Realistically, we only had 3 days before we were due in Tokyo, with a hotel already booked.

Osaka then. After carefully explaining the changes we would need to make at a string of stations, the man in the ticket office looked decidedly exasperated when I asked if there wasn't a more direct way. well yes, of course there's a direct way, but then you'll have to take the express...

The discussion had turned to where we could get to and this exposed another complexity in Japan  which we hadn't prepared for. It has a number of train lines, like the UK, but some are national and some private. When asking to go somewhere by train in Kansai, you need to take into account who are you asking - the ticket seller at a Kintetsu station may decide to only advise you on these trains, but the JR station across the road might offer alternatives. He may also decide to only give you the local stopping services.

Moreover, the guard on the platform might have a different opinion on how to get there. No don't take the express at 11.15 and change at Tsuruhachi, take the limited express (the limited refers to limited stops, we discover) at 11.24 and change at Nabari...  It may involve buying separate tickets for different parts of your journey, buying supplementary tickets to ride the express, or going from another platform.

This, I think, is one of the reasons tourists are encouraged to buy Japan Rail Passes before they arrive. Does it go to...? Yes, just get on. Let the guard on the train push you out at the right stop or change.

Platform guards see their job as keeping the trains running, so a traveller with a map is often an annoying hindrance. After a few minutes they tend to walk off, peeved at your inability to read the Japanese display board clearly stating this train's destination and stopping points.

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