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Kannon-sama, Katana and Sake – A Trip to the Countryside of Nara

October 2, 2011

Wow, it’s already October and I still have so much to write about what happened in September! Remember I made a trip to Uji at the end of August? It was a trip organised by a tourist agency to promote Japanese tourism. At the beginning of September I participated in another trip. This time we went to the countryside of Nara.

Our small group met at Kintetsu Nara station early in the morning and hat a short meeting at a hotel near-by. The sky was clear and it was going to be a bloody hot day, but we didn’t know how exhausting this day was going to be at that time… After our meeting we turned back to the station because we weren’t visiting Nara city but going far into the countryside of the prefecture.

Our first stop was Hasedera. This temple is dedicated to Kannon-sama, the goddess of mercy.It is surrounded by green mountains and designed to please Kannon-sama. Different kinds of flowers are planted all over the temple for this reason. Exept for September some kind of flowers are in bloom throughout the year, so unfortunately we happened to see the temple during the least fortunate time. But still it is a truly beautiful and impressive temple complex. The path to the main hall which contains a huge statue of Kannon-sama is completely roofed. Round lamps hang in line above the steps that seem to continue endlessly. Half the way up we made a stop at a small temple building where we wrote a prayer to Kannon-sama – with brush and ink of course. Being the only Western foreigner of the group it took me the most time to finish, but it didn’t turn out too bad. Then we continued to climb the steps to the main hall.

If you reach the main hall and go to the veranda in front of it you can view over the temple buildings that hide among the trees, just like Kannon-sama who faces in the same direction. Usually, you can only see her face this way but we were allowed to enter the main hall to pray just in front of her. We also got a five-coloured wrist band which symbolizes our new bond with Kannon-sama and where blessed with water from the vase she holds. Both the five colours of the wrist band as well as the blessing mean to give us wisdom. What more could students wish for? 😉

When we descended we had lunch before returning to the station. As it was really hot there was barely something better than cold noodles (hiyashi somen) and that’s what we had. They came together with lots of other delights of Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to relax because we had to catch the next train which leaves only once an hour. Walking really fast uphill we made it just a minute before the train arrived.

We didn’t drive far so again there was no time to relax and the next stop was even going to be more exhausting. This time we had to find our way uphill through a tiny village and rice paddies. Our goal was the house of a sword smith who showed us some of his katana and explained the different sizes and how to look at them. If you stretch out your arm you can look at the whole katana. Then you should move it slightly to see the pattern of it’s blade. The sword smith could tell during which period a katana was made by this method. Then we were allowed to hold the swords by ourselves. They weren’t as heavy as I expected.

Then the sword smith also showed us his factory. The long hammer you see on the picture had to be handled by three men before a machine took their part. It takes about eight days to create the blade of the katana. It’s handle and other parts are the work of other craftsmen. Today katana are only used for decoration. Engraved with sutras they serve as a good-luck charm for the house.

The last stop of our tour was a sake brewery. Again we went a few stations by train and also by bus. At the bus station I saw a sign saying they were taking measures against terrorism and I wondered what terrorist would attack the deep countryside of Japan? People are really hysterical about terrorism these days…

Anyways, we arrived at the brewery and were fetched by its owner. He was very friendly and offered us different kinds of sake including some rare varieties. There was for example a five years old sake which turned into a yellowish colour and tasted amost like wine. It’s amazing how the crystal clear sake made of rice can change that much over time. We also tried a sweet sake that tasted similar to umeshu which is made of plums. Unfortunately, there was no sake in process at that time and although the owner showed us his factory we couldn’t see much more than empty buckets and containers. On the other hand his 300 year old house was amazingly beautiful and well worth to see.

Nara is full of houses like this wich are usually well preserved. It’s like you’re doing a time travel and should not be missing on your places to visit if you come to Kansai.

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