Being a tourist in my own town

After three days of sitting under my kotatsu (heated table), eating Christmas chocolate and watching films it was high time I got some exercise. I also wanted to explore Echizen on foot, something I hadn’t done since I arrived in August when the heat was unbearable. Now snow has fallen in abundance and has settled on rice paddies, parks and roofs. I put on my wellies and a coat, grabbed my camera and set off for an afternoon of exploration.

Twenty minutes later I was sat in a Kyudo dojo (Japanese archery training hall) watching a sixty-something year old man practise this ancient samurai tradition. I’d seen this man practising before but never dared to stop, in case my presence put him off. Yet this time I watched, trying to keep perfectly still, as the archer drew his bow high, held the position for an eternity and then let go. ”Thwack!” the arrow had hit the target. I was about to walk away when the man caught my eye and gestured me towards him. I diligently came, hoping he spoke some English. He didn’t.

Once seated and with my camera at the ready, I watched him commence the ritualised pattern of movement that involves absolute concentration of mind and body. It looked more like an art than a sport and it was obvious he was a master of it. Once he’d finished the routine that accompanies the shooting of the arrows, I tried to make conversation. Truly, it was embarrassing for me to ask him questions in my broken Japanese. However I did understand that he was indeed a sensei of the sport and he had twenty students from chu-gakko age (12-15) to adults. He let me hold the two metre long bamboo bows, with the beautiful leather handle and the maker’s seal at the bottom. I also admired the feathered arrows, two of which were wooden, one of which was aluminium. He told me much more about himself and the martial art but it was lost on my poor Japanese skills. I said domo arigatou gozaimashita (polite thank you) and slid the wooden door of the dojo shut. At that moment I vowed to take up Japanese study fervently so I can communicate more fluently with people like this.

I wandered through the back streets of Echizen and entered temple gates to nosy around. On New Year’s day, I had had the wonderful experience of going to a temple, clapping my hands twice, ringing the bell and praying for the new year. I had also bought three charms, without knowing what type of good luck they’d bring, and was given a paper bow and arrow from the generous temple priest. I later found that the bow and arrow should be hung up inside a house to keep away bad omens. The kindness of the temple priest made me think that they can’t mind too much having foreigners look around (not that Echizen has many foreigners), so I freely explored some more of the temples. In these weather conditions, they are slightly ominous places to be, not because of bad spirits but because large boulders of snow can easily slip off the sloping temple roofs. After I nearly got hit by an avalanche of snow and decided it was time to move on. Maybe I had angered the spirits!

My next stop was Godou Book Cafe, a hidden away establishment that I’d been recommended by a friend. I was greeted with Irashaimase” by the cool looking man behind the bar, then a male customer said, ”Meccha kawai” and then in English, ”So pretty”. With only men drinking beer and smoking in the ‘cafe’, I wondered what type of place I’d come to; it certainly wasn’t like the other cute, women-run cafes I’d been to before. ”Thank you” I replied to the English-speaker, ”Nice to meet you”. Waiting for my coffee to arrive I took in the leather seats, country music and old pictures on the wall and decided it felt more like an English pub than a book cafe! When the coffee finally arrived the barista/barman spoke to me in very quick Japanese and I had absolutely no clue what he was saying, but I did the easiest thing I could in that situation, nod my head and smile with agreement. The man who spoke English asked me if I understood and when I replied ”Wakanai” (I don’t understand) everyone laughed! This eased us in to conversation and I soon found out that the barman had once been a student at my school. We joked about his old soccer coach who, eleven years later, was still a science teacher. I never did find out what the barman had said to me, but I left knowing I’d found a place to feel at home in.

After walking back through the dimly-lit and snowy streets, I ate my fill of hot noodles in my local Hachi-ban Ramen restaurant. Hachi-ban Ramen is the healthy Japanese equivalent of McDonald’s. I am not a huge ramen fan but I like to watch the chefs in the kitchen toss noodles in giant vats, fry oil so there is a metre high flame and generally work together as a ramen machine to get orders to customers in less than five minutes. There are also friendly women who greet you, show you to your seat and take your order. They too rush about serving customers but never look flustered. Each worker has their own job whether it’d be filling the water, frying the gyoza (dumplings) or taking the money and the whole system works efficiently. Having worked in food establishments before, I know that there stress-levels fly high behind the closed doors of kitchens. Here however, the men looked more uncomfortable when there was a lull in customers and had nothing to do!

I walked home with a tummy full of noodles and happy to have met some of Echizen’s townfolk. I know that I could never be classed as a ‘local’ here but I’ll will try my best to make friends with them. So, where’s my Japanese study book?

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Nara: a city of temples, deer and bicycles

I like cities where the main form of transport is the humble push bike and Nara falls into that category. It feels more like a large town than a city and has more in common with my favourite places in England, Cambridge, Richmond and the New Forest, than I’d imagined.

Filmed in 1975 and 2012

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Nara is most famous for the Daibustu, the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world that is housed in a large wooden building dating back to the 8th century.  I stood in exactly the same spot that my grandparents did when they came here nearly forty years ago. My grandfather filmed the temples here and the rest of their travels on a lightweight film camera. Until last winter, the reels of film had been stored in an iron chest in my grandparents home, waiting like a time capsule for an occasion to be dug up. My interest in Japan facilitated this occasion and with a projector, another antique-looking contraption, we were able to relive my grandparents holiday to Japan in 1975! The park hadn’t changed in character, it was full of tourists taking photos and deer trying to sniff out food from the tourist’s bags. The main difference was the fashion, especially flares that were so popular back in the seventies!

The deer

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The giant Buddha left no lasting impression on me, so I went for a walk in the park for inspiration. This World Heritage Site may be impressive but it is the 1,500 deer in the surrounding woodland that are the main spectacle of Nara. I could’ve easily tricked myself into thinking I was back in the New Forest or Richmond Park if it wasn’t for all the Chinese tourists tormenting the deer. The ‘thing-to-do’ in Nara is to buy crackers and wave them up and down so the deer bow to you before eating the cracker, but I saw none of this amicable behaviour between the two species. Instead tourists tease the deer, and the deer push, shove and kick until they get the cracker. To me it just looked like the deer were extremely hungry and needed a good meal, not to have to fight for every cracker! So I left the crowds behind and wandered round the outskirts of the large, forested park. The only sound were trees singing in the trees and the cracking leaves under my feet; it was wonderful. I surreptitiously ate the last of my Christmas cake and a fire-baked yam, without attracting any attention from the deer, and savoured the moment.

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New Year preparations

The highlight of my day in Nara was was nosing around the streets of the old town, Naramachi. It was two days before the New Year holiday started and people were rushing around, unlike Christmas Eve in England; buying presents, stocking up on food and cleaning their houses. Here, the latter activity is much more important than in the West, as all houses should have a thorough clean so bad omens are swept out before the start of a new year. I saw men sweeping the temples, women hoovering the houses and futons being aired on balconies. Old women were haggling for the cheapest price on mikan (satsumas) and buying decorations to hang above their doors. My wanderings and photo-taking went unnoticed as everyone else was so busy.

I treated myself to a pot of organic ginger tea in a beautiful cafe in the centre of town. There are many independent and unique cafes here, which is one reason I’ll be coming back. Check out www.naraexplorer.jp/dining/cafe for inspiration.

Another reason is to stay at Yazun Guest House again. It is a 80 year old two-storey house set between tall modern and ugly hotels. A young Japanese couple have taken good care of transforming the traditional building into a warm and friendly guest house, without losing it’s authenticity. The dormitory I stayed in had tatami flooring, sliding doors and minimal style decoration. I would recommend this place for its friendly owners and Japanese-style layout, and it’s just a few minutes walk from the train station.

One night is enough to explore this place in full, but if you only want to feed the deer, an afternoon will do. I’ll be coming back here to see the forest in another season, or perhaps in February, so see the herding of the deer. Maybe I’ll hire a bicycle too and pretend I’m back in Cambridge.

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An old man enjoying free-wheeling down the hill

Now, onto the bright lights of Kobe.