Napalm, Nara, Night-Walking, Nippombashi, Nampa?

Ok so maybe ‘napalm’ is exaggerating a bit, but I needed something firey begining with an N. Yesterday’s trip to a fire festival in Nara was by far the greatest of the class trips I’ve taken since arriving at Konan University. As part of the Popular Religion class, we, along with some of the professors aquaintances, headed to Nara’s Nigatsudou temple, a sub-temple of Todaiji, for the お水取り (omizutori, taking water) festival.

To quote professor West’s lecture notes (to give you a very brief intro):

The Shunie-houyou 修に会法要 or Second Month Memorial Rite is an act of repentance keka 悔過 before the temple’s deity – Juuichimen Kannon 十一面観音. The priests, acting on the people’s behalf, carry out rituals of repentance for their sinse.

It takes place in Nara at the Nigatsudou which is a sub-temple of Todaiji. The Nigatsudou was established in the early 8th century by a priest named Jitchuu. There are many legends associated with the Nigatsudou and the Omizutori ritual and three of them are directly connected with Jitchuu.

The first great thing about this trip was that it was taken into account that people would find it inconvenient to travel all the way to Kobe, just to head back in the direction they came from. From the meeting time, I could easily have had breakfast and met up at Okamoto (on some previous trips I’ve had to skip the meal to make the meeting time, regardless of the fact we had to wait for late pillocks), but since we were going through Umeda station, I met the group there after having a nice extra bit of sleep and a casual walk.

This trip was joined by a few guests, which considering the small class size, didn’t make too much of a crowd. Joining us were another Konan exchange student, a fellow Leeds student who’d made a trip of her own down from Tokyo, and three students (British, Singaporean and Japanese) from Kwansei Gakuin University. Heading from here to the 御堂筋線 (midousuji sen, Midousuji line), we soon found ourselves on our train journey to the former capital of Japan.

The views alone from the trains were outstanding, and seeing a wide range of great 景色 (keshiki, scenery) from city-scapes and wide countryside to old building foundations, gave me a welcome change to my usual view from my usually poor view from my dorm window.

On arriving at Nara we all split up for an hour to grab some lunch. I say split up, but what I mean is everyone headed into the huge shopping centre adjacent to the station and I buggered off in the opposite direction. The side streets I initially walked down were full of a variety of shops, houses and happy faces, and since the weather was on our side (though a tad breezy) the walk felt even more enjoyable.

Walking past a local NHK TV station, I soon found myself at some parkland near the “Governer’s Official Residence” so took some nice photos (of the parkland, not the residence). How did I know it was that? The sign on the front in English kind of gave it away. I found the exterior walls to the ground to be quite interesting. They were white and had a ‘dark substance’ growing from the damp water residue falling from above, but from a distance these marks resembled a forest in Winter. To be honest when I first saw it on my approach, I was unsure if this was an actual painted mural on the walls, and it was not until I was close up I saw it for what it was. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t cleaned off.

Walking back towards our meeting point I came across some wild animals that were roaming free in the park, with people going up to pet them and feed them specially sold biscuits. Very cute and friendly these hornless 鹿 (shika, deer) were, that parents were allowing young babies to approach them, though most often the babies and young children ran away terrified. Not wanting to be late to meet the group, I only stopped to take a few pictures before being on my way again.

Here’s a video clip from Lucky Star of Tsukasa Hiiragi getting the 鹿 treatment!

Arriving at the meeting point twenty minutes earlier than the scheduled time, I headed into the shopping centre and picked up some batteries and snacks from a 100 yen shop for later on. I also popped into McDonalds for lunch, had a nice walk around and still made it back five minutes before anyone else.

Walking back in the same direction as the cute little furry animals, we stopped off for a few moments of petting and feeding (the deer, not us), along with more photographs. To say that these deer are everywhere would be like saying that I can speak English. As we walked along the road during the day to get to where we needed to, you could almost put a guarantee on having at least one deer somewhere within your view. And yet at the same time I found it impossible to get sick of them. They seemed to bring a nice feeling inside, the kind you can only feel after really having your fill at your favourite restaurant in an all you can eat style and someone you don’t like footing the bill. It’s really something to see a deer bow towards you (I often found myself bowing back without realising). The deer here are reveered as sacred messengers from the Gods, and this is shown in their obviously unique personalities if by nothing else. I’m tempted to make a return visit to Nara just so I can have a day relaxing and watching the 鹿. Oh and because I know someone’s going to ask, probably Simon, yes I did see one having a poo.

Before arriving at Nigatsudou we made a couple of stops. First was the 奈良国立博物館 (Nara kokuritsu hakubutsukan – Nara National Museum) to look at the exhibit about Todaiji, Nigatsudou and the Omizutori. After the late people had caught up, we then moved on for a visit to the Todaiji itself, an amazing temple that again I could have spent ours at just admiring it. Also visiting Todaiji was a very large group of school girls,the manner of which again seemed very familiar to that particular Lucky Star episode. Ironically one of the stereotypes of a group of school girls here is the ability to sound shocked in unison. Well this was something that I used to consider pure cock and bull, until it was confirmed by my own ears “heeeee”. Watch this clip to see the kind of thing I mean, it happens at about 7 seconds.

As we approached Nigatsudou it became clear that it was going to be a busy festival as more and more people started to appear. We were getting there two hours before the festivals scheduled start time of 7pm in order to get a good spot, which we were very successful at. After which some of the group had gone off for some food, but as more people came it became harder and harder to keep ‘their spots’. It seemed as if a text I sent to them got through and after much carefully executed ‘shoving’, the group managed to make it back, though were soon scolded by one man for being too loud (to be fair, I think they could easilly have been heard from the back of the group of thousands of attendees).

As the festivities began and the lights went off, everyone was asked by one official not to use flash photography, to which the poor guy was ironically blinded by flashes. Throughout the night flashes were seen to go off, whether accidentally or not is something I don’t know, though my cameras flash setting did pop on once or twice before my battery supply diminished.

The festival itself involved the carrying of huge fire-lit torches up a staircase on one side of the temple (by one priest) and holding it at a great distance from a platform over the viewing crowd, of which we were almost at the front. The torch is then either shook or spun so that ash and embers fall towards the crowd. It is considered very lucky to have this ash fall on you, meaning my fire-scented backpack is now incredibly fortunate. This is repeated another 9 times, by which time I was thankful that I was wearing a hat.

Leaving the temple was where the real adventure began. Finishing at 7.30 (only half an hour after it started) we slowly and carefully made our way down the steep hill we were standing on, a hill that’s awkwardness could be compared (though not very well) to the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake location. After reaching the bottom and checking to make sure if everyone was there, we checked the time. There was a train coming at about 8 o’clock, it was 7:35.

The race was on.

Everyone knew the drill; keep up or get left behind. Marching on like a team on a mission (finally, a group walking at ‘my speed’) we overtook groups, families, 鹿, small children, taxis, anyone that was an obstacle. We were also going a different way back so it was crucial to keep up with our proffessor, though the calls that could be heard in the distance shouting “sensei!” soon caught up. For a stretch we joined the road, the path being clogged with walkers, and even made an adrenaline swimming road-crossing which some students described as a “24 moment”. As we got nearer the station, another burst of adrenaline shot through some of our veins as we turned our ultra-powerwalk into a run, arriving at the station 5 minutes or so before the train was due to leave.

Ironically, I didn’t want to get this train but was too caught up in the moment to think about it. I knew we’d be getting back too late for dinner at the dorm, so my plan was to munch at McDonalds. Some people had to get on this train to meet families for dinner and so on (insert saracstic smily here), so a few of us, professor included, stuck around to make sure the straglers caught up.

On the way back I remembered something about the train pass that we were travelling on; it wasn’t my normal pass. It was a one-day travel pass that allowed travel between Kobe and Nara, meaning I could get off and on and change routes if I wanted. In other words, I could use this for some pointless free travel, well, for that day anyway. As we pulled into Nippombashi I said adios to the group and went off to see what stores were still open in Den Den Town (hoping to pick up the next couple of books from Yotsuba& cheaply).

I’m not sure if I was shocked, surprised or dissapointed to see that most shops were closed (this being at about 10pm), but when you think of a place nicknamed the Akihabara of Osaka, you generally have certain expectations. This being the case there were some shops (besides your usual 24 hour convenience stores) that were still open and appeared to go on through the night, though none had what I wanted. Walking past the maids and hosts I made my way back to the station.

I remembered a new bookshop (not really new, but one we’d only been in once about a week ago) in Umeda and since I had my little ticket for (almost) unlimited travel, headed north. I wasn’t really shocked that it would be closed, but I was shocked by the number of ‘pretty boys’ I’d passed on the way to get there. Obviously some of these guys were working for host bars, trying to get people in, but others were there for their hobby; nampa.

Nampa, to put it very simply, is where a guy hangs out on the street and tries to meet a girl with the intention of ending up in a love hotel. Apparently people have dedicated themselves to it with the same degree that someone would take up a sport, though it’s quite funny to think of girl-hunting as the new football.

I’d heard a few things about it from friends who’d been on the receiving of a few ‘invitations’ so thought I’d obverse for a few minutes outside the Hep 5 building, apparently a Nampa hotspot. Groups of well (and not so well) manicured men stand in line to the side of the path facing in. When one of them spots a potential (pardon my wording) ‘catch’ from a distance they make their way towards them. With all the power and lines they can muster, they have but a few moments to try and convince the girl to spend some time with them. Actually this reminded me a lot of the charity collectors (and so on) who dot themselves down high streets in the UK (I wonder if they’d collect more money if the night involved a trip to a love hotel). Of the few attempts I observed before heading off, not only was no one successful, but it appeared that one girl insulted the manhood-size of one nampa practioner – BURN!

With this I headed home back to good old 天神橋筋六丁目 (tenjimbashi suji roku choume, where I live). Before going to bed I checked my email. Since it had been my birthday recently (when exactly I seldom tell anyone) PKR, an online poker company I sometimes play free games on, invited me for a free-roll tournament involving 112 people. A few hours later I finished in 9th place and was awarded a $10 prize for my efforts.

Truly a wonderful day.

Oh, and I found 1 yen on the floor!

This has been by far one of (if not the) longest journal entries I’ve done, and if you’ve got this far thanks for staying awake. Please leave a comment to let me know you’re still alive! I’ll congratulate you with a little tune – Congratulations by Cliff Richard (gotta love the Austin Powers outfit).

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