Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ja Matte, Japan

Yesterday was our last day in Japan. It was a dismal rainy day with no sun whatsoever. Our plans were mixed but our general direction was toward the Nara National Museum and the deer park where it was situated.

The museum wasn't open yet, so we decided to feed the deer. There are about 1200 deer in Nara Park and they are sacred. Hundreds of years ago, the people believed the deer to be forest spirits and were therefore never hunted. In fact, the deer were actively fed and cared for by the locals. Because they are sacred animals, the Japanese bow to them before giving them a cracker (sold by fender in the park for an inflated price, of course). The deer learned this behavior and have started bowing back, knowing they will get treats if they do. Because of this it has become quite the tourist destination

I have wanted to see the deer for a long time, ever since I found videos online of them bowing and following people. I expected them to be cute and persistent like goats on farms or something. When we got to the park, there were several deer sitting around and we fed them carrots. Down the path a bit was a vendor, and a bunch of kids going to school. They were messing with a group of younger deer, feeding them crackers and petting them. The deer seemed a little more aggressive than I was expecting. I bowed to them and handed them crackers, which they ripped from my hand. We started moving away from the group but one of the deer bit me in the butt! Luckily I was wearing jeans so it didn't hurt me as much, but Bobbie got bit in the side of the stomach. No blood, but a definite bruise. The kids didn't seem fazed (I actually think they were laughing at us) so we threw the rest of the crackers at the deer and left quickly. All in all, not a very positive experience, re-enforcing my belief that Nara is a tourist trap.

The museum was nice, but nothing special. It was small and we couldn't take many pictures. However, while in the Buddah section, Bobbie discovered the statue she wanted to get for her grandmother's grave.

I'd suggested the idea a day ago, that a statue from Japan for Gram's grave would be a nice touch for the end of the trip. At the museum, we encountered the Amida Buddah, or the St. Peter of the Buddist pantheon. Bobbie thought it would be perfect for the gravesite.

It became a quest. We scoured parts of Nara, but no one seemed to understand what we wanted. We needed a statue of the Amida Buddah and we needed it to be stone or bronze so that it wouldn't disintegrate in the rain and weather. Everyone seemed at a loss, and the moment we mention “ohaka” (grave) we were shut out. The Japanese do not like talking about death or graves or anything like that. Heck, finding a cemetery to take a picture of was a near impossible task as they are completely hidden from public view.

Finally we looked at one another and said, “Kyoto.” Kyoto where the people understood us, or at least seemed to have some empathy and not treat us like stupid foreigners. On the train we went, 45 minutes back to the part of Japan that actually felt like Japan to me.

It took several shops, but everyone made a serious attempt to help us and then recommend another shop down the street that may be able to help us. Finally we stopped in a little shrine shop in front of a temple where a young woman welcomed us in. We explained our plight as best we could, as most of the Buddah statues were gold plated and meant for inside use. After much hand wringing and dictionary lookups, the woman explained that there were probably no stone/bronze Amida Buddahs that Bobbie could take home. But, you could get a small nice looking plastic shrine that would protect the Buddah statue inside (we are talking about something that is only about 6 inches tall). After thinking about it, we decided this was the best and most viable option. But it was still a question if they would even sell it us since the Japanese are very particular about their religious objects and it seemed sacrilegious to them to put it outside.

I explained to them as best I could that this was not for us, it was for Bobbie's “obaasan” (grandmother) for her grave. And it was as if I had said “open sesame.” The woman suddenly started nodding her head in understanding, writing down the price and then saying “but we will give you discount.” And it wasn't just some off the cuff way of making a sale, it was a connection. Quickly, her and another man who we think owned the store, packed the Buddah an the shrine with utmost care, including special wrapping for each item and wrapping the bag in plastic wrap because it was raining outside, then including specific bag holders that were more sturdy than the ones on the bag already. This wrapping process took about 15 minutes and when we finally gave them their money, the manager said, “special discount” and gave back all the coins we had also put down, basically knocking off another five bucks.

By this time Bobbie and I were unbelievably moved by what was happening. We bowed extra for our appreciation, and Bobbie hugged the lady who made the whole thing happen. I left the store with a renewed sense that Kyoto had been the correct city for us to choose to visit, as the heart of Japan was truly beating here.

Back in the hotel we sadly packed our things for the next day's trip. It would be a long stressful ride, as the typhoon heading into the country would shut down the trains and delay all flights the next day, though we didn't realize this until we left. Today we return to a country of English, but we both already miss the culture of convenience and efficiency, of service that goes the extra mile, of beer in the vending machines. And even though it wasn't exactly what I'd imagined it to be all these years, that was because I was thinking too small. There is so much more to this country than I realized, and there is more yet to be discovered. I shall return.

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