Oh deer!

Today we woke up bright and early for the “fire ceremony” at the temple. After a difficult night’s sleep, dragging ourselves (read Jessica) out of bed seemed extra-extra hard. But, what did we come to stay in Buddhist temple for if not to see a glimpse of their life? Nonetheless, 5 am Jessica couldn’t see past how tired she was, and so very begrudgingly, she joined Tim in the freezing little alcove of the temple.

It turns out the ceremony wasn’t something the other monks get out of bed for. There was Tim, myself, another tourist who was so tired he couldn’t seem to keep his mouth from hanging open, and the monk performing the ceremony.

For the next hour, the monk sat in front of an alter where he seemed to speed-read in Japanese through a book. His chanted reading was punctuated by various intricate hand and finger gestures that we later learned are sacred in Buddhism and each gesture has a different meaning. For a good 30 minutes, we struggled to observe and stay engaged without succumbing to the distractions of the cold, our own fatigue, or our legs falling asleep.

Then, about half-way through, the monk actually built the fire. At the monk’s alter was a fenced-off pit in the center where he would build his fire, kindling neatly stacked on one side, a series of small silver dishes that held some sort of liquid, water or special oil, I couldn’t be sure, at the head of the alter were about 30 unopened half-gallon sized bottles of sake, and above us hung various gold-trimmed lamps and lanterns. As he went through the rest of book of chants or prayers he built the fire to varying strength from smoking to roaring, put it out, and build it up again.

At the end of the hour, the monk sang while banging on a drum. That part certainly helped to wake up the American couple who straggled in late and took a seat right next to the drum. We concluded by standing near the smoke of the fire (this is supposed to be a blessing of sorts), or in the case of a little Japanese girl who came at the end with her parents, hopped from foot to foot taking turns holding her cold feet by the fire. I guess her feet will be quite blessed today.

After the ceremony, we returned to our rooms. I immediately went back to sleep (it was still another 2 hours until breakfast), and Tim studies some Korean.

After breakfast, we returned to our room and got our things together for our afternoon outing to Nara. I’d never heard of Nara before planning this trip, but fortunately a friend tipped us off, and I’m glad he did. I would have been sad if I’d missed an opportunity to go see the wild deer which roam around the temples of Nara Park.

Once  we arrived in town, we strolled from the train station to the park, taking note of a couple of kimono shops along the way (I guess I know what we’re doing later!). Nara Park is a huge complex with multiple temples and pagodas. So, our first stop was to hit up a couple of temples to add some stamps to my collection.

The further we made our way into the park, the more tourists we saw and the more deer we saw circling them like sharks who smell blood in the water. The Japanese deer, although wild, are completely used to humans and love nothing more than to hang around waiting for you to buy them some “deer crackers” which you can buy from any number of vendors spread out through the park.

Tim said he had no desire to feed the deer. “They’re just goats, J!” As if that was an argument to not feed them? I bought my deer crackers, and sure enough, a deer made a beeline for me. Tim had walked up ahead to look around. As I was putting away my money and trying to get the wrapping off the deer crackers, the little deer hanging around me grew impatient and proceeded to eat my informational paper/map one of the temples gave me. I laughed, and threw my hands up, making eye contact with Tim. He was not amused and glared as he gestured at me to get the paper from it before it ate the whole thing and croaked. I tried. I only succeeded in tearing off one little corner before the greedy little thing chomped the rest of it down, and a passersby chuckled. They really are like goats!

After that, I was sure always to have a piece of cracker at the ready to placate the hungry beasts. Once I used up all my crackers, we made our way out of the park when, suddenly, we heard a small child scream. We turned just in time to see a little Japanese boy, who was probably 4 or 5 run in terror. He made it all of about 2 feet when a tiny deer, evidently enraged by the boy’s screaming or running, went into deer-predator mode and made a full on-charge at the boy, squared up, and used both front hooves to hit the boy on the back, sending his legs in the air and knocking straight down to the ground. The boy wasn’t hurt (the deer was tiny), but he was certainly terrified. I am sure he will need therapy for his deer phobia. The whole thing makes you feel sorry for the kid. We did, but it was also kind of hilarious. What wonderful parents we would make.

After we left the park, we made our way back into the main part of town where we popped into a local noodle joint for lunch. This time it was udon rather than ramen. Udon, it turns out, is much more of a dumpling consistency in noodle form. I think I actually prefer it over ramen, but Tim wasn’t convinced.

The restaurant was laid out family style, so we shared a large table with other people. Across from us was a Japanese man escorting his mother and aunt around. They were very kind, and even though we spoke no Japanese, the women tried to communicate with us. The man, meanwhile, was very happy to share with us his recommendations for a sake tasting. He even provided us copies of his hand-drawn maps he carried around to hand out. We weren’t sure why he was volunteering this information and his handmade maps. Maybe it was his business? Although why dress as a tourist and bring your mom and aunt? We thanked him, took pictures of his maps (just to be nice), and then headed on. Since we aren’t huge sake fans, a tasting didn’t really interest us too much. Instead, I drug Tim around to look for kimonos. I’ll cut to the chase: I didn’t find one.

That evening we had pizza and Japanese beer in our room, relaxed in the onsen, and read before calling it a night- perfectly content in the fact that I would not have to get up for another fire ceremony at 5 am.



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