Anyway, we read in the Lonely Planet that there was this place that offered rental bicycles for a really cheap price, and since we wanted to give our feet a rest, we decided to go for that. Unfortunately, we didn't find the place mentioned in the guide -- but after walking around for half an hour in the neighbourhood of the JR train station, we found out that there was a bicycle rental place right next to the train station! Sure, it was more expensive, but I still think EUR 7.50 for two bicycles (to be returned by 18:00) is a very reasonable price. They had those wire baskets on the steering wheel, so we had a convenient place to put our bags too. A long trek towards Nara park began, and let me tell you that we were very happy we didn't have to walk all that distance!
Nara park is (in)famous for its deer. From pre-shintoist times, when deer were considered the messengers of the gods, the deer have been allowed to roam freely throughout Nara. Every single one of them is a National Treasure, even! They are very tame -- they will allow you to touch them, but it takes an ice cream cone or one of the special deer biscuits on sale from one of the many small stalls to really get them excited. And sometimes that's a little too excited for the person holding it... Still, the Lonely Planet speaks of deer "mugging" the tourists, and we have seen no evidence of that -- the tourists themselves are scared, but the deer are pretty calm (apart from insisting you give them than biscuit). They immediately smell it if you don't have anything they consider food, and they're pretty docile. I petted a few deer, and they were totally OK with that. It's unfortunate they don't fit in the suitcase -- there was a young one that was really cute.
We checked out one of the many Buddhist temples, declined getting in line for the yearly exhibition of the temple treasures, and moved on. But along the street were lots of people standing and seemingly waiting for something. Most of them had paper flags with the flag of Japan on it -- I had assumed they were part of some tour group. And the number of policemen was staggering. There were also many people in plain clothes with a yellow armband. When we stopped to get our bearings on a map, we asked one of them what was going on. He produced a card saying: "I am a policeman. The Emperor and his ministers will come by today. Please wait a few minutes."
Hmmmm.... I don't think I've ever seen a head of state before. So we decided to wait -- we had to cross the street and get behind a group of excited housewives. They were joking around with a young uniformed policeman, trying to get their way into the best spots, but while he was smiling, he was having none of that. They kept every corner clear of people, so that should a calamity arise (which was very unlikely, we saw teams of special police even check the drainage covers!), there was an easy way to get to the motorcade and to wisk them away.
Fortunately, the aging housewives were all shorter than us, and we were near a corner that was free of people, so we had a reasonably clear view on the street. We had gotted the paper flags too, and everyone was waiting. Then the tone of policemen talking into the megaphones changed: things got tenser, people got pushed back in line and behind the little fences, and the policecars that preceded the car came by. And then there he was: a man with grey hair, smiling and waving. He was past us in a few seconds -- but we have the photos! Mr. Yuhara considers us very lucky for having seen the Emperor. And indeed, what are the odds?
After that, the crowds quickly dispersed again, going on their way to continue the sightseeing. We went on as well, cycling to the Kasuga Taisha shrine. We stopped at a teahouse and went around the botanical garden, which is based on a series of poems describing plants and trees -- a sort of early-history field-determination guide. Pretty neat, but the place seemed a bit run-down. We encountered a gardener who said "Hello", and we said "Konnichi-wa!" which surprised him. He said (in Japanese): "You speak Japanese!" to which I replied that I only spoke it a little. But that was enough for him, apparently. Funny, people here seem amused or sometimes a bit taken aback if you answer them in Japanese -- it's not hard to learn the few phrases that you hear everywhere and the correct answers, but it seems few foreigners actually bother to do so. It makes my life easier, because I get lots of positive reactions that I otherwise would not have gotten.
The path to the shrine is set with the stone lanterns that were gifted by many different people to show their devotion -- must be quite a sight during the festivals when they light every lantern. The shrine itself was mostly closed off, because the Emperor had visited -- but on the other hand all personnel was wearing their most festive clothing and ornaments, which we otherwise wouldn't have seen.
We walked around there, and we were twice accosted by kids from primary schools in the Gifu prefercture. They had been let loose on the shrine with the mission to converse with as many tourists as possible, to practice their English. It didn't go very far, it was mostly in the form of "I am...", "What is your anem?" and "where are you from?" But they had also made a little paperwork thing (which they had spent much time on) that could be opened in two ways through an ingenious folding technique, which they gifted to us. And then of course we had to do the obligatory photo. The first one to talk to us, Nana, also asked us to sign her notebook -- which we did, and of course we put a stamp in it as well, which she seemed to like. The two of the other school didn't require a signature, though.
Funny thing, but after that we steered clear of the yellow hats of the elementary schoolers...
We cycled into the Nara park proper, enjoyed the views, wondered at the weird sounds that the deer could produce, and ended up at the Todai-Ji temple. This temple features a very large bronze cast Buddha, along with some attendant statues. We were playing leapfrog with a group of middle schoolers, so sometimes it was hard to get a good look at a certain detail. At the back of the temple, there's a pillar with a hole through the base. Apparently, if you can fit through, you will receive salvation -- and a long line of elementary schoolers had formed to receive proof of their salvation that day, complete with a photographer at the other end of the hole... After the inevitable "exit through shop", we were outside again, just as the temple was closing for the day. The schoolkids were packing up as well, feeding their last deer biscuits to the assembled deer (with the accompanying shrieks of the girls who are afraid to get a bite from the docile beasts).
We made our way back to the station through the busy foot traffic, dropped off the bikes and took the 17:40 express train back to Kyoto. There we had dinner in a ramen shop above the station (with a curious way of payment: you had to get a ticket for your food from a vending machine and hand the tickets to the waitress) and then went back to the ryokan.
Tomorrow we'll check out the Golden Pavillion!