Japan Part 11: Strength of the Dragon

Our first night in the hostel was much more pleasant than I’d expected – the 6 girls (Sensei included) shared one room, but it was quiet. After my hellacious noise experiences in hostels in Hungary with my peers, I was quite nervous about staying in a hostel. However, considering that I didn’t feel quite ready to summon up the huge amounts of energy necessary for my next, solo homestay (which would be in Hikone, our next stop), I was content to be in a hostel anyway.

The hostel itself was beautiful, all things considered, though the bathroom was quite a distance away. When I had to go at 2 in the morning, it took quite a game of wits to challenge the seeming labyrinth of the place. Leave my room, around the corner, down the stairs, to the left, through the kitchen, out the sliding door to the outside of the building, across the wooden bridge, through the other sliding door back inside, to the left, down the hall, and to the left. But I made it, and I felt like the most successful navigator in the history of earth.

Once everyone was awake, it was another trip to the conbini to grab a quick and easy breakfast. I got some sort of sandwich things that seemed like a conglomeration of spinach, cheese, and some bland kind of not-quite-bread. I also bought some peach yogurt, but I just had to take a picture of the front of it.

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Japanese-English translations are priceless.

The temples we were planning to visit during the day were only a short walk away, but the searing heat made it seem much longer. On our way, we saw a huge turtle relaxing in a drain.

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Once at the temple, Kofukuji, we had a tour guide (for once). Normally I’m not too much of a fan of tour guides because they tend to be quite verbose more often than not (Suzuki especially…), but this one, a volunteer tour guide, was fantastic. He led us around, explaining the roles of each building in the temple. Some of them, like the dormitories for the monks, I had no idea about, so his information was welcome.

Because of my abiding interest in all things dragon (and because I had recently come into possession of a Buddhist dragon amulet), I asked our guide about the significance of the dragons in and around Buddhist temples. He explained that, because dragons are primarily water deities, they serve as protectors against fire. When they are placed on buildings (such as at this temple), it grants luck against damage by fire. In this temple in particular, because all of the structures are built without any nails, the dragons are also used to support the building architecturally. In this way, the Buddhist shrines are relying on a dragon’s strength, watchfulness, and control over nature.

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Ironically, though, the temple also had phoenix statues. The dragon and the phoenix are mortal enemies (phoenix being the fire bird and the dragon being the water or river spirit). However, since the dragons at the temple were intended as wards against fire, I suppose that this phoenix, who is breathing water and not fire, symbolizes the subjugation of the power of fire within the temple boundaries.

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As we approached the main doors of the temple, our tour guide gave what I believe to be one of the key learning points for me on this trip. At each temple so far (and even at some homes and businesses), I had noticed that the entryway was guarded by two large statues, usually of what appear to be very angry deities. Our guide explained that the one on the right (when facing the statues) will always have its mouth open, and the one on the left’s mouth will be closed. This is because the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet is “a,” said with the mouth open, and the last letter is “um,” said with the mouth closed. This implies that, from the beginning to the end, these guardians will protect the shrine. The ones that look like people are usually called Nio, but often people have the Japanese guardian dogs, Komainu, in front of their houses. These statues also follow the same pattern.

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While we were sitting down to take a break in the temple, a huge crowd of students on field trips passed through. Once one of them noticed us and shouted an enthusiastic “herro!” the effect snowballed. In only a few minutes we had greeted and high-fived easily more than 1,000 students. One of them, as he was walking by, said, “Hi!” He then pointed to himself and said, “Cool guy.”

I tried to wait until he was out of view to chuckle, but it didn’t work.

After we’d bid farewell to our helpful and friendly tour guide (who showed us more really cool architecture, including shimmering beetles built into the temple), we decided it would be best to stop for lunch and rejuvenate ourselves because of the sweltering, muggy heat. We found a nice, small ramen restaurant, but it was unlike any place I’d been yet in Japan – it was a ticket restaurant.

What on earth is a ticket restaurant? That’s a good question, because I had no idea what I was doing either. At the entrance is a machine that, at first, I mistook for a normal vending machine. But actually, you get to choose what you want from the menu in the front, then you just insert coins into the machine, press the button for the order number that you want, and then grab the ticket as it comes out of the machine. Once you have your ticket, you can just go sit down and place it on the table, where your waiter will come to get it and then make your order.

Pretty simple. Nice, convenient, and pre-paid.

The ramen was good, and I was SO CLOSE to being able to finish it all. The chopsticks were ribbed, which made noodle-eating that much easier.

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Thank you, ramen gods, for your divine blessing of chopsticks with ridges.

After the ramen shop, it was about a three minutes’ walk to Nara deer sanctuary. There were many beautiful deer, and they were everywhere. Not in cages or enclosures, just free-roaming. I smiled.

Deer-whispering mode engaged.

I walked for a while beside one as we trekked deeper into the forested area, but it wasn’t until we were about halfway up the slope to the temple that I met a stag that caught my attention. Approaching him quietly but firmly, I ran a finger over his forehead before taking hold of his soft, velvet-covered antlers. He butted his horns into the palms of my hands, then settled and allowed me to stay there with him like that.

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Unfortunately, I had to keep moving, so I left him near the fountain guarded by one of his giant stone brethren.

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At Nara’s most celebrated shrine, Kasuga-Taisha , we stopped for another rest and I took a more careful look around the hallway of lanterns near the back and the stone forest behind it.

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When everyone (that is, everyone but Sarah, who was grumpy that we were not shopping) decided that resting time was over, we retraced our steps out of the forest. I passed by my deer friend, who was still waiting at the fountain, and gave him a friendly pat. He began to follow me, but once he realized that I was leaving, he turned away and joined his small herd of doe. Right as we passed through the final gate out of the temple compound, I noticed this unfortunate fellow who seems to have sacrificed an antler for the sake of proving his honor to some fine doe lady.

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After we left, it was just a short walk to our final shrine of the day, Toudaiji. This absolutely gigantic temple houses the world’s largest golden Buddha.

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Unfortunately, my pictures just don’t show the true scale of this enormous daibutsu.

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We were free to walk around, so explored and then took a few moments to drink from the shrine’s fountain of purification. The taste was as one might expect – not necessarily bottled water quality.

But when one is not aiming for the highest quality, one is not disappointed.

I’m not going to lie, despite the fantastic things that we did, I was entirely ready to head back to the hostel. My feet were aching, though I wouldn’t have sacrificed what I saw for a shorter day. And so, we got on the train, Taylor still wearing her fuzzy deer antlers that she bought near the shrine.

Once we were back, we had about an hour and a half to rest before Sensei suggested that we go out to dinner. Not everyone wanted to go, so I went with only a few others to, ironically enough, a pizza place. The food was good, and the relaxation was better.

A tangent for a moment, if I may – in our Japanese textbook, there are dialogues at the beginning of every chapter that introduce us to what we will learn in the chapter. The characters in the dialogue are fictitious, but the book’s dialogues do have a coherent and progressive story. In one of the chapters, Mary (the American student studying in Japan) has finally agreed to go on a date with Takeshi. She says that she will meet him at Mos Burger on Sunday. In the next chapter’s dialogue, Mary sees Takeshi and pretty much says, “Hey, punk, where were you? I waited for an hour!” Takeshi replies that he waited at McDonalds for 45 minutes, but Mary sighs and says, “I said Mos Burger, not McDonalds.” In the next dialogue, Takeshi’s friend asks  how the date went. Takeshi’s reply is a simple “….”

So, after we got pizza and were returning to our hostel, we just so happened upon a Mos Burger. As soon as Sensei saw it, she said that we should all go to one once before we leave. At first, it didn’t register, but then I gasped. “Oh, Sensei! That’s the place that Mary said she would meet Takeshi and he went to the wrong place!”

Sensei paused. Then, quite literally, she facepalmed. And then laughed her face off.

Yes indeed, that was prime cultural engagement right there.

All of us still chuckling from my sudden revelation, we passed in front of the back door of a mall on our way back to the hostel. My face was sunburnt just a bit, so I guess it looked like I was blushing. Regardless, as soon as I made eye contact (on accident) with a security guard who happened to be standing inside the mall, things got strange.

I SWEAR this happened.

He looked at me and then, quite suddenly, got into this pose:

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Uh…what? Did I just imagine that? I have only one thing to say – LOL.

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