Day 8: Beautiful Nara and First Ryokan Experience
Sanj and I carried on to Nara which is only about 40 minutes south of Kyoto. Definitely getting the feel of a country becoming more and more relaxed and suburban though by no means rural as we move further away from Tokyo. Once we had disposed of our bags we headed for the Nara parklands which contain about as many temples as you could handle in a day, many more deer than you would imagine, countless numbers of stone lanterns and finally one very very large buddha.
The temples were their usual beautiful selves but the buddha definitely stole the show. Really amazing how something so large can at once be so tranquil and peaceful. Funny to watch the kids crawling through a hole in one of the wooden beams which is apparently the size of the Buddha's nostril and safe passage through which apparently ensures access to heaven. From here we went up into the hills to a beautiful temple absolutely overrun with lamps of all descriptions most of them held in stone lanterns covered in moss. Sadly the festival for lighting all these lamps appears to be next happening in September which is probably just a bit too long for us to wait.
Travelled back into town and enjoyed my first Japanese burger at Mos Burger. Definitely a different take on the American classic but no less enjoyable for it. Having booked tonights ryokan on the basis of the cheapest I could find I was a bit apprehensive but I really should not have worried.
Upon arrival three lovely elderly staff greeted us by name and explained all our bathing options. We let them know that Sanj was vegetarian which seemed to cause the poor cook's heart to stop momentarily. We had an enjoyable few minutes trying to think of words for food that Sanj could and couldn't eat while the cook pulled increasingly pained faces. By the end of the discussion I think Sanj and I were expecting nothing more than a boiled egg and some tofu to await her at dinner.
As soon as this discussion had been completed we were shown to the most fantastic room overlooking the five tiered pagoda. Our guide - a sprightly lady of advanced years in full kimono poured us some tea and let us know that she would be back in a couple of hours with dinner. At 8pm on the dot we were summoned from our room a neighbouring room for dinner.
Any food doubts we might have had melted away as we were shown through to a spread of food that was as much a work of art as a meal. An incredible selection of foods beautifully laid out for us both with a stunning array of colours and aromas. Our worried chef had clearly far more vegetarian tricks up her sleeve than she had let on as Sanj was as spoilt for choice as I was. Whilst we began to make our way through the array of cold dishes, our hostess light small tea lights under earthen pots and we were invited to cook a small selection of meat and vegtables there on the table. To say that the whole thing was a sumptious experience of true Japanese hospitality would be only doing it half justice.
After such an excellent meal, there was only one way to finish off the evening - exactly as the Japanese would do - with a trip to the baths. We got fully kitted up in our Japanese robes (an XL had to be found for me at much amusement to our hostess). We read up a bit on our bathing etiquette (make sure you wash before you get into the bath, under no circumstances wear any clothes, try not to splash) before heading to our respective bathing rooms. Our first true ryokan experience - I'm not sure if I'll ever want to stay in a Western hotel again.