Day 7. November 5. Nara and Horyuji. In fresh 10 am light, the road across our apartment has shed all of last night’s sinister nuances, mostly imagined I’m sure. Business is about to bustle, shops and cafes are in various stages of wake-up-baby preparation. We spot a large hardware store, which has just upped its shutters. Knives, hammers, scissors, travel bags, phone cases, ropes tend to knock us out. The prices look remarkably low. A tiny section is reserved for Japanese goods that cost 10 times more and look discernibly swisher. The store owner, like his counterparts everywhere, offers a sheepish head shake when grilled on this. He understands us alright, even though his English is vestigial. Made in China is universal language. He gives us a dull smile. Nods wryly, let’s put it.
We make our way to Namba station, the Nipponbashi neighbourhood looks golden. The stale tempura smells are yet to waft. It’s the turn of freshly baked down in Namba’s aromatic underground. The mood curve rises sharply. Apple pies, hot dogs, pork patties are dizzily eyed. An implicit need for a break from rice balls and miso manifests itself. We are positively merry as we make our way to our start-off point, the Japan Rail (JR) Namba station (a little way off from the Namba station proper). Neat brown paper packages in hand, we are well-behaved somewhat overgrown Enid Blyton children. It will take half an hour or so to reach Nara, enough time to chew and stare at the miles that rush past.
Like Jude Law or Vivienne Leigh, the weather is achingly beautiful. Even the longish walk from the station to the Nara Park complex (advertised for its pagodas and fearless deer) is a thing of joy. There is a broad boulevard with street art and autumn foliage, which leads to a narrower road smelling of Top 5 touristy. The bi-colour plastic autumn leaves that I had seen at the Sensoji entrance are here too, bravely waving us in. The same steady and purposeful stream of tourists, the same food and souvenir stalls. A craftsman on the pavement is patiently stirring some creamy kaolin, steadily smiling. There’s a small black wooden shrine with a zen garden on our right. I jump right in to walk on the wooden floors that creak.
Soon we are in the main Nara compound with a multi-tiered black shrine handsomely looming on the right. A broad pebbled pathway on the right leads to another more petite beauty. The symmetry of the woodwork, the blackened, weathered feel are worth looking out for. The wide spaces are as striking as the ethnic architecture punctuating them. Burning incense, stencil-printing, selfie-sticks, children rushing free as the wind, parents and grandparents silently broadcasting their wishes to the gods. We part company to do some solo exploring. Me time. I keep walking down the path beyond the temple on the right. It is densely leafy and backlit by the sun. There are smaller wooden structures, maybe the Nara staff quarters and offices. An elderly couple is sitting with swinging legs.
The path winds and opens to a large square field. It’s a dusty fairground currently being stopped by a zillion feet. There are clusters of people in holiday mood, a stage with sound boxes being readied and food stalls selling homemade items. Artisanal jellies. A Japanese farmer’s market. Turns out today’s a Saturday. I buy a tiny hexagonal jar of pickle. On an adjoining area, there are a few listless deer, some indeed being fed and photographed. They are dun brown and small-boned. I’m more drawn to the fairground vibe. There are queues snaking in front of particularly popular counters. Marinated meats and roiling oil. The Japanese have their fair share of steamed and cured but it’s not like they shy away from the deep-fried. I seat myself on the dirt floor for some ringside viewing of a street performer with a crystal ball. He effects mock-melodrama to mild sniggers/giggles from his thin audience. It’s turned stiflingly hot, I realise, as sweat glistens on the young artiste’s face.
I see Chandra heading towards me, fresh from witnessing (and photographing) that sight of multiple deer crossing the road with humans on zebra roads. Rini and Jhini too appear out of nowhere. We decide we are done with Nara. We walk back to the station to the accompaniment of Japanese fighter pilots spraying patterns of white smoke on the electric blue sky. Just a routine airforce drill.
We decide to head for Horyuji temple. It is supposedly the most ancient intact wooden structure in the world clocking at 1300 years old. Like Lake Okama (and a thousand other places), Horyuji remains strangely undersold by Japanese travel brains, at least to the overseas traveller. I had chanced upon a tiny piece while wading through megabytes on Nara and Himeji. I have a nebulous, fragile structure in mind. The JR pass lets us hop on and off JR trains with abandon without counting our yen. It’s a short ride from Nara to Horyuji. The place is also called Ikaruga, as evidenced by picturesque manhole covers.
It’s a half-hour hike from the station to the temple area. We walk by the car-cramped main carriageway, frequently stopping to shoot local life, a shop window displaying a large cement Pikachu, shimmery elephant grass, old men in conversation, improvised shrines on footpaths (as in India). Out of the blue, a laughing red head comes out of her front door and gifts Chandra a bunch of colourful origami. He was shooting some roadside vegetation (her garden). Lady is thrilled, as are we.
We finally saunter towards the portals of Horyuji standing stout at the end of another tree-lined avenue awash with chiaroscuro. The gate is not that imposing but has the unequivocal presence of a survivor. Not at all fragile. The main temple area and the inner exhibits are barred. We’ve arrived just after closing hours. Some school kids and local tourists are sprinkled around the grounds. Roaming the sprawling outer sanctum, the gardens, observing the many gates and reading the signage with period (eg Edo) details keep our minds off the treasures inside that naggingly elude us. There’s that long length of rope again, with which one has to strike a high-placed bell, no doubt ringing away one’s sins. A young girl is playfully at it, though her sins are surely yet to attain critical mass. The soft departing light is unreal. It broad-brushes illusion into the deeply prosaic, makes the red leaves drip bloody shadows on our faces, crowns the pine trees with matte gold. A Japanese pair is walking past. They turn out to be a mother-son speaking twangy English. They’re from LA, they say, though they still have a house somewhere in Tokyo. Her husband was an Indian, a Bangalorean. And they take our group photograph.
On our way back to the station, we choose the back alleys of Ikaruga, where all the middle-class suburban houses are lined up, with their telltale signs of global village daily life. Clothes drying out, parked cars, potted plants, gas cylinders, suddenly offset by an abandoned shipwreck of a wooden house, its exposed drawing room. I spot a two-storied ‘cram school’, the Japanese version of a coaching centre, the sneakers of the cram victims lined up in extreme neatness.
Lesson: Horyuji deserved a full day