Sakura Hunting in Kansai (Part 2)

No trip to the Kansai region is complete without seeing Nara. So, after 24 hours sakura hunting in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, I hopped on the train and moved an hour south to another of the former capital cities.

From 710 to 784, Nara was the centre of Japan. Remarkably, some of the world’s oldest surviving buildings are found in Nara Prefecture, like the pagoda at Horyuji Temple. Up until the 700s, Shintoism had been the main belief system in Japan. But the Emperor, a devout Buddhist, changed that. Buddhism spread across the country from China, and with it came the earliest known works of written literature produced in Japan. Also under the order of the Emperor, Todaiji Temple was built and inside it, the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.

Surrounding Todaiji is Nara Koen, a park full of free-roaming, wild deer! They came from the sacred hills behind Nara and were once considered messengers from God. They were protected by the government so much so that harming a deer would have resulted in heavy punishment. Today, the laws are a bit more relaxed though they are still recognised as a national treasure of Japan. People can buy special deer crackers to feed them and I think after so many years of being hand-fed, they have become one of the bossiest animals I’ve ever come across! They will grab anything out of your hand – so hold onto your food, maps, brochures and handbag tightly if you don’t want to lose them!

I was up early on day two of my trip and headed to Nara Park before the bus loads of tourists arrived. It was so peaceful and I got to witness the deer coming down through the forest and into the township. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a migration! They didn’t take any notice of me or the other people around, nor of the traffic that was starting to get busy. The funniest thing was seeing them cross the road. There was a special deer warning sign and somehow they all stopped right in front of it, then proceeded like children at a pedestrian crossing.

Starting from the edge of the town, a long, wide path serves as the entrance to Kasuga Taisha, a shrine tucked away in the woods. The shrine grounds were completed in 768 and some original structures exist to this day. Kasuga Taisha is registered as a World Heritage Site and is known for its 3,000 lanterns which have been donated by worshippers over the past 1,200-odd years. My favourite part was a pitch black chamber full of glowing lanterns. It was eerie but mesmerising.

I didn’t go to Nara just to see Todaiji and the deer, though. I wanted to get out of the city and explore the countryside. My original plan was to visit a place called Yoshino-yama, which is considered by many as the best sakura spot in the country. For 1 or 2 weeks a year, the entire mountain is covered in pink trees. But I was about 4 or 5 days too early and if I’d gone, I would have only seen a few flowers here and there. Not worth the 2-hour, multiple transfer train trip. Bad timing! Anyway, there’s always next year. So instead, I turned to some locals’ advice and continued my sakura hunt to Koriyama Castle, known for its cherry blossoms; Yakushi-ji Temple, one of the Japan’s oldest temples; and Toshodai-ji Temple which along with Yakushiji is a World Heritage Site.

Can you imagine what life would have been like back in the 700s? It was surreal to be walking around all of these ancient places in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It didn’t really feel like Japan, to be honest. I was in another world.

The day was drawing to a close and I was pretty exhausted after what felt like an entire day of walking. I got back on the train and headed towards my third and final destination, the home of the White Heron Castle. Part 3 to come.

A Trip to the Edge of Hell

Deep in the mountains, through the spiderwebs and tangled vines, is an unexpected place… hell. Yep, Hell does really exist, and it turns out it’s not too far from Tokyo! At Mount Nokogiri in Chiba, stone cliff faces on the sides of the mountain soar up into the sky. For hundreds of years, these cliffs were cut into, carved and chiseled, serving as a stone quarry. The quarry was closed in the 1970s, and what remains is pretty remarkable. Standing at the base, you can’t help but look up in awe at the towering stone walls. Some parts are at least 30 metres straight up and down (perfect for abseiling!), others are cut into giant squares like a massive jenga puzzle. It baffles me how they were actually able to get up there and cut the stone, considering modern machinery didn’t exist back then. Another thing that raised my eyebrows was learning that apparently while the men worked at cutting the stone, the women carried the stone down to the nearby port to be shipped up into Tokyo Bay. Not sure how literally to take the word ‘carry’, but regardless, the history of this place reveals some extremely hard workers. At the top of the mountain, there is a unique piece of stone that juts out from the cliff face. This spot is called ‘jigoku nozoki‘ – peeping into hell – and is a huge tourist drawcard. You can walk out onto the extremely narrow stone ledge and look straight down at the tree tops below. It was pretty cool – not as scary as standing on a bungy jumping ledge – but my friends who were scared of heights were literally weak at the knees! It was kind of liberating standing there with the wind washing over my face, looking out to the ocean in the distance. It was a bit like the Titanic scene, standing at the bow of the ship feeling like you’re a carefree bird. Actually, the mountain was quite well known before it even became a quarry. It’s home to Nihon-ji, a Buddhist temple, which has a 1300 year history. A 100-foot-high Daibutsu was created in 1783. It’s the biggest stone-carved Buddha statue in Japan. More recently, a relief image of Kannon was etched into one of the stone walls. There is plenty to see! Although it’s a looong 2.5 hour train ride from Tokyo and is in the middle of rural Chiba, the hiking trails and spectacular views make it all worth it, especially if the weather is nice!

Up up up!
Up up up!

Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri

Mt Nokogiri
That’s where we’re headed!
Mt Nokogiri
Mountain Jenga!
Spot the human
Spot the human
Machinery from another time
Machinery from another time
Mt Nokogiri
100-foot-tall Goddess
Looking up to the 'tooth'
Looking up to the ‘tooth’
Mt Nokogiri
Jigoku-nozomi “Peeping into hell”
Mt Nokogiri
Not for the faint of heart!
Mt Nokogiri
“Nihonji” 31m tall, the largest stone-carved Buddha in Japan

Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri