We jumped into the onsen immediately on arising because it closed at 9 a.m. for cleaning. Felt just as good in the a.m. as it did in the evening. After a breakfast of fish, rice, miso, and pickles we waited for the 11 a.m. shuttle to the bus that would take us back to Kyoto.
We had to clutch our bags between our knees because there was no room to store anything. The bus grew crowded in the middle of the trip, but was otherwise uneventful. Most of the passengers were elderly but there were two women in what looked like coarse-woven linen (flax?), one a gorgeous dark blue print, the other wheat colored, short jackets with full gaucho pants, which are replacing skinny pants throughout the land among the fashionable.
At the Ogawa coffee shop in the train station we sat next to a delightful couple. She was born in Japan but had lived many years in the States. He was pure California. They live in Paso Robles and had been traveling in Japan for three weeks. They recommended Nara above all other locales.
Two polite gentlemen gave us seats on the train to Nara. We munched on little delicacies – seaweed wrapper that I wrapped around a bean paste filling. Excellent combination of taste, texture, etc.
The Nara train station proved smaller and thus easier to navigate than others. As we looked for the rendezvous spot to meet our host, we passed a woman sporting a long brown skirt, scarlet jacket, and two-tone patent leather shoes with gold buckles She seemed over dressed, even for the fashion conscious grande dames of Japan. Then we saw her table of literature – Jehovah’s Witness! I guess from our expressions she figured she couldn’t make a sale. She convened with another woman and two men, all bandbox neat. I’m wondering how successful they are in this world where Buddhism and Shinto are baked into the culture even with people who are not necessarily overtly devout.
Our host, Hiro Minato, who is an architect, designer, and calligrapher, showed up a few minutes later and took us to his studio, down a narrow side street just steps from the famous deer park.
Design Works Studio has exhibit and office space downstairs and an apartment with one bedroom, living and dining areas, full bath, and kitchen upstairs. The building it occupies is one hundred years old, and Hiro renovated it himself.
He served us slices of persimmons, which were much drier and less sweet than the varieties in the States. Our beverage was hojicha, which is among my favorite varieties, because it is roasted and has more body than traditional green tea.
By this time it was dark, but we were still able to appreciate the magnificence of Nara. I cried again when we stood at the Ukimido pavilion with its four sides that frame a view for each season. The moon approaching full cast its shimmering reflection across the water. A few maple branches waved gently on one side. I truly felt I’d come home. The scene reached something deep inside me that I didn’t know was there. The ability to stand in contemplation of nature, in silence – ineffable.
We climbed on a long drive with tighter and tighter switchbacks. It rivaled the dizzying heights along the Gorges du Verdon except with guardrails. We parked and walked up a slope. Nara lay draped at our feet, an enormous jeweled blanket, sparkling in the night with the shadow of mountains behind it.
We met a great many people coming and going and hanging out. Hiro said the South Koreans go up to film ads. We did see what looked like a bridal party descending and a rather military looking group ascending.
Upon our return, Hiro fixed us a meal of rice noodles with fresh shiitake and ginger in delicious broth. He served it with mackerel and salmon wrapped in persimmon leaves, a specialty of Nara, which has spoiled me for any sushi the U.S. has to offer.
Fascinating observation: Hiro said that of all westerners, the French understand Japanese culture the best. They get the concept of “wha” (spelling?) of beauty that just is. He couldn’t explain why. Perhaps the two places share a delicacy of sensibility? Or maybe it’s suffering of a particular sort?