Friday, 26 August 2011
Hiking for the Dutch and a short history of the Nara Period
I was born 5 miles away from the Dutch border, and grew up about 10 miles from it. I was severely shocked when I moved to London and started exploring the outsides of the city that there were... mountains... ok, actually, they are tiny hills, but I hadn't lived anywhere that wasn't totally flat before.
So Japan seems to be made of about 80% mountains, real ones, and surprisingly, I enjoy them... passing them on the train, haha! I love walking and in theory would make a great hiker, but anything with more than a 5% elevation freaks me out. So I was delighted to find a trail in Nara prefecture calles Yamanobe no Michi that follows the foot of a mountain, but only really has 2 hills - the rest is countryside: orchards, rice paddies, sweet little Japanese villages and old temples and shrines.Apparently this is one of the oldest roads in Japan. I was a little disappointed by the temples and shrines: they were touted as well-preserved and beautiful, but especially the shrines were in a sad state, which somehow is often the case in Nara Prefecture, maybe because it was supposed to be Buddhist capital?
[Steffi's short history of the Nara period: Japanese emperor discovers this great new thing called Buddhism someone brought over from Korea via China (yeah... and India, I know). Emperor thinks 'Heheee, I shall build my capital as a kind of Buddhism Theme Park and all should admire me. I also fancy the Chinese capital, so I can copy that as well.' He (and his hot empress daughters) went and built lots of temples so convert the local peasants from their folk religion. When the boys took over and moved the capital eventually to Kyoto, Nara was forgotten.
Fast forward 1200 years: Nara prefecture's government thinks 'Damn, no one is visiting our boring little city and we have all these old temples standing around, but everybody is visiting those in Kyoto or eating their body weight in takoyaki in Osaka, only a couple of miles away. I know what! Let's make a Buddhist theme park out of those temples and put lots of crazy deer in there so kids, religious people and American tourists who will eat the deer crackers will visit us!' So in the end, the emperors of the Nara period got their Buddhist Wonderland!]
I went there during O-bon, which can be likened to the Japanese Christmas: it's when everybody goes home to visit their family as the ancestors' spirits are said to return home during those days. It sure made for an eerily quiet Osaka, and also made me one of maybe a handful people who decided to walk the trail that day. There was nothing going on at all - luckily, the signage was quite good (if you read a little Japanese, the English signs can be misleading!), otherwise there might not have been anyone to ask for the way. The few hikers I met were very friendly and I actually ended speaking a lot of Japanese that day ("Where are you from, what are you doing in Japan, why are you standing in the middle of a plum orchard?").
The funniest thing that happened was when at about halfway on the trail, a car pulled over and a middle-aged couple asked me where the baseball stadium was. We were surrounded by rice paddies in a radius of a mile! It sure meant they couldn't find anybody else to ask, as most Japanese are really hesitant speaking to a foreigner. They must have gotten really lost, because I still haven't found a baseball stadium anywhere near there (baseball is really popular in Japan).
I can recommend this path to anyone, even if you are not a walking/hiking person. It's about 1 hr on the train from downtown Osaka to Tenri, from where you can start walking south to Sakurai station. There is a train station you get on every 2 miles near the trail, so even if you don't feel like going the whole 8 miles, it's still worth visiting. It gets my mountain hater stamp of approval!