You think Bambi is cute? You’ve seen a shy deer somewhere in a forest hopping away at the slightest noise? Nara then, will give you a different experience. There are about 1200 deer that live in the parks of Japan’s former capital city (8th century). It is thus absolutely normal to have some deers hanging around while walking on the street. As manners do not only apply to humans in Japan, Nara’s deers will bow to you, asking for some of the crackers that a few old grandmas sell on the street, but beware: if you feed one, dozens will come, hoping to profit from your generosity. If you’re empty-handed, they might start searching in your purse or backpack directly; worst case they will hit you in the butt so better stay away from the ones with long horns.
Nara does not only offer hungry jumping deer but also very impressive temples, the most famous of which being the Todai-Ji, japan’s biggest wooden structure up to this day. There is a huge Buddha inside and in one of the pillars supporting the roof, there is a hole the size its nostrils. If you manage to go through, you shall be lucky. If you don’t… Well you will be stuck in a piece of wood until someone pulls you out. The queue for trying it was too long, which was also a good excuse to avoid possibly getting stuck (the other excuse was the quantity of ramen we ate lately).
In the temple, you can make an offering and write down your deepest wish on a big clay tile that is then used to renovate the roof. Quentin was super happy to hear that the tile he offered 10 years ago was most likely still up there, with his “all-round-can-eat fried pork” wish hanging over Buddha’s head…
From Nara we headed to a little temple village on top of Mt. Koya (Koyasan). Between local trains, cable-car and buses, we had to change 6 times to get there (that’s the way if you want to pay less) with just a few minutes in between. It nevertheless worked out thanks to Japanese punctuality.
Koyasan is one of those places that feels timeless, cut from the rest of the world. It is a little town composed mainly of Buddhist temples of the Shingon sect (one of the biggest Buddhist movements in Japan) founded by Kobo-Daishi in the 9th century.
Koyasan also hosts one of the most impressive cemeteries, with thousands of centuries-old tombs lined up below sometimes even older cedar trees. We walked in silence through the long paved alleys that serpent between the tombstones with a mixture of reverence and deference for the serenity and mysticity of the place. At the end of the cemetery we reached the temple where Kobo-Daishi entered eternal meditation more than a thousand years ago (pictures not allowed). Two meals are still brought to him every day.
Several temples in Koyasan open their gates to visitors, which is one of the reasons many make the trip to the sacred mountain. It is basically the same experience as sleeping in a Ryokan except that for dinner and breakfast you are served the Shojin vegetarian, sometimes vegan, food cooked and eaten by monks. Unsurprisingly, it also includes some unidentifiable sometimes-chewy-sometimes-sticky elements.
Another particularity of a temple stay is that you are invited to join the morning ceremony. Ours started at 6am sharp, and we got to witness a few of the monastery’s monks humming-singing sacred texts for approximately half an hour. The early wake-up combined to the incense smell and the repetitive humming contributed to half the audience falling asleep, but it was hilarious to see everyone jumping 10cm high when a monk slammed a metal gong that sounded like a shattering bowl. It might have been on purpose…
Lastly, a fun activity that we did was practicing our calligraphy skills by doing Shakyo: a type of meditation done through the copying of buddhist sutras.