Nara was the capitol of Japan before Kyoto, which was the capitol before Tokyo.
Over a tasty Japanese breakfast at Shijo Station, we discussed whether to make a detour to the iconic shrine, Fushimi Inari-taisha. It’s in all the guides. It really is iconic.
But it would not be empty. “I hate to say it, but I’m inclined to save it for next time,” I said. “I’m kind of shrined out.”
“Shrined out” was a term I’d seen frequently in reference to Japan. Now I was living it.
There comes a point where you just cannot appreciate one more dragon fountain or anything that is the Largest, Oldest, or contains The Most gates, bodhisattvas, or peony carvings.
“But I’ve been here a week longer than you, and I’ve been to Nikko, where I saw I-don’t-know-how-many shrines.”
Lynn was fine with skipping it. She’s spent a lot of time working in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. She’s been to Bhutan and India, many times. She knows from shrines.
“I don’t remember things anyway,” she reminded me. I think she does, but I know what she means. The brain can only store so many memories.
Nara is ninety minutes from Kyoto by local train. The seats faced in, for maximum people watching. A tough-looking young woman sat across from me. I guessed she was American, and when we made eye contact I asked where she was from. “Pittsburgh,” she grunted, then stared at her screen for the rest of the journey.
A Japanese man with boils the size of ping-pong balls covering his arms boarded and sat diagonally from me. Despite the sweltering heat he was wearing a scarf to cover his neck and half his face. More boils, I thought. What a terrible condition, whatever it was. He fell asleep.
A Japanese girl of around 17 boarded, sat next to the man with the boils, and recoiled almost imperceptibly when she glanced down at his arm next to hers. Would she get up and move somewhere else? No. She sat ramrod stiff and stared straight ahead. She was wearing a sailor outfit with a skirt so short I had to avert my eyes.
“Did you see that guy with the giant boils?” I asked Lynn when we got off in Nara. “And the girl with the cutesy sailor’s outfit, and that tough broad across from us? She was from Pittsburgh.”
“No,” Lynn replied. Did she think I was making up these characters? “I must have dozed off.” I envy her ability to sleep anywhere.
A friendly man at Nara Station Information Desk told us we could catch a free shuttle to Nara Hotel. I had booked the room and they hadn’t sent any information about this. We stood where he pointed although there was no sign. After 20 minutes we gave up and hailed a cab.
At the hotel we were handed a shuttle schedule; it ran every half hour. I suggested that they send this information to guests ahead of time. It could have saved us ten bucks. The desk clerk smiled and nodded but clearly nothing was going to change.
The Nara Hotel is a grand old dame celebrating her 100th anniversary this year.
After two weeks in cramped, basic rooms, I had thought it would be nice to splash out. The photo montage on their webpage was extraordinary. They’d hosted many famous guests—there was even a photo of Albert Einstein playing the piano in their lounge.
“The old part of hotel is closed for earthquake proofing,” the clerk said. “We put you in modern wing.”
Rats. I hoped it wasn’t too sterile or modern. We couldn’t get into the room for a couple hours so we had a nose around the lobby. There was a timeline of famous visitors. Charlie Chaplan! Helen Keller. Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, Marlon Brando, Joe DiMaggio (his wife Marilyn Monroe cancelled; things must not have been going well). Multple visits by Japanese, British, and European royals.
Then there was this.
“1941: The Pacific War Broke Out.”
I really, really wanted to peel off that strip of paper and see if it said, “Japanese starts Pacific War by attacking Pearl Harbor” underneath.