Saturday, November 10, 2007

Oh Deer

Makoto, my mom and I took the train to Nara - once Japan's capital ages and ages ago (before Tokyo, obviously, and before Kyoto) and now a major tourist destinations for culture fiends, history nuts, and maybe even religious fanatics. Nara is, after all, all about the temples.

But this trip, I've been thinking with my stomach. And one of the first things I smelled after we got into Nara koen (park) was the distinct smell of freshly made senbei (rice crackers). It's a specialty here, and having your rice crackers just out of the fryer - or however they do it - is orders of magnitude better than the packaged ones you get at the store. And these come in even more flavors.

If you do wind up in Nara (and many people do), just keep in mind that not all rice crackers are equal. You might see a stand or two or fifty with a nice old lady selling bundles of flat rice crackers. These are called shika senbei as in "deer crackers," and they're specially made to feed the deer that pretty much have run of this place. They are everywhere, and other than the musky smell of wet deer - or worse yet, deer piss - it's pretty awesome. They're used to people so they'll eat out of your hands, let you pet them, and - don't tell anyone - let you spank their bottoms and ask 'em whose their buck.

The only group with a population greater than the deer's in Nara is the tourist. They are everywhere. Gigantic school groups. Hordes of stereotypical Japanese with zillions of cameras. And maybe only a few Westerners. They do flock here for good reason, though. Nara is home to Todai-Ji, the largest wooden building in the world. It also happens to be a ginormous Buddhist temple, and inside it contains a Buddha as tall as the building itself... reputed to be the largest bronze statue in the world.

They're impressive and huge beyond words. There's a pillar behind the Buddha that has a hole in it large enough for a person to squeeze through. It's supposedly the size of one of the Buddha's nostrils. That's how big the damn thing is. Oh, and as for the hole, it's good fun watching kids go through, but it's even more fun watching adults do it... because I have to admit - I was awaiting someone getting stuck and having to see the Jaws of Life used on an 800 year-old monument.

What? It's not like they don't have enough temples to go around Nara. And I fully acknowledge that it wouldn't be my dumb ass getting rescued. I know I'm a big boy. In fact, I was a bit bummed that I couldn't go through the hole, so I consoled myself with the local specialty kaki-no-ha sushi. Basically, it's sushi that's been wrapped in a persimmon leaf, imparting a more vegetal, herby flavor overall. Quite good for a little snack.

Refueled, we hiked around a bit and hit up Kasuga Taisha shrine. It was a bit underwhelming, to be honest, but the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of stone lanterns surrounding the place made it worth the trek.

Notice I used the words "hike" and "trek." It's not like it's that arduous a journey through Nara, but we found ourselves - you guessed it - hungry again. So we headed back toward the train station and had a late afternoon lunch at Tonkatsu Ganko, whose specialty is... wait for it... wait for it.. Tonkatsu! That's breaded and fried pork cutlets for the uninitiated - and they make 'em delicious here. Everything else was a bit on the weak side. For instance, their curry is nowhere near as good as mine. Trust me. But their namesake food is tender, juicy, crispy perfection. It's shocking that they're part of the hokey Ganko chain (their bespectacled logo can be seen all around downtown Osaka), but hey, sometimes even chains do it right.

Over lunch, my mom looked over our little photo together trying to find the similarities between two pretty dissimilar cousins. We figured we have similar eyebrows, and maybe the same nose. Besides that conversation, we pretty much just had our noses down in the trough and ate. Another distinct quality we share.

Anyway, I'm home now, but I'm already being pressed to get ready for dinner. What's for dinner? Well, my mom and I had a little discussion...

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