Nara, the final destination on our short bullet train trip around the south of Japan.
To be honest this was the place we were all least excited about and at one stage we were even talking about cutting our time here in half! But with some good luck and a chance meeting it turned out to be one of the best days!
We decided that we would split the day into two, first heading out to Koriyama Castle then spending the afternoon roaming the other temples and gardens Nara had to offer.
After Arriving at Koriyama Station we asked directions to the castle from a lady visiting from Osaka. She told us to “go straight, all the way straight and then turn right” she then added “The castle isn’t there its only the ???”
Unfortunately the Tobi dictionary didn’t work here and we had no idea what she was referring to with the “???”. Anyways we figured that we were already there so we would crack on and see what we could find.
After about 15 minutes we finally arrived at our destination, the Koriyama Castle… or at least what was left of it! Putting the pieces of broken Japanese together we realised what the lady had meant about the castle – it was only the ruins of the castle foundations that remained. Yep, we had just travelled about an hour to get to a glorified rock and rubble platform.
Whilst there wasn’t a castle, coincidentally there was a bonsai plum blossom exhibition on the castle grounds which ended up being an amazing detour, boasting a collection of 50 or so small plum blossom trees with many being between 100-500 years old!
After the bonsai expedition we headed back to Nara to visit the Isuien Gardens – the only walking garden in Nara. After paying our admission a volunteer, Yoneko, offered to take us around the gardens. We later found out Yoneko was actually a university lecturer specialising in the history of Nara and would escort us through each of the 3 types of Japanese gardens featured on the grounds: Strolling, Tea Ceremony and Broad View.
The first garden was the Strolling garden which had a completely different view depending on where you were standing around the small lake. As we walked along the path, we then encountered the Tea Ceremony garden, used for special events hosted for friends and honoured guests.
The Broad View garden incorporated the natural environment surrounding the location to create a bigger impression of the garden. In this case, the background featured rolling hills and some mountains in the distance – and the person who designed the garden imitated nature by adopting the colours of the background such as the yellow grass to represent the hill behind it.
Once we had made our way around the garden, with Yoneko expertly commenting on the cultural, historical and aesthetical importance of each part, it was time to bid farewell before leaving for our next destination. Or so we thought! Instead Yoneko offered to go along with us to the Great Buddha and continue what was now turning into our own private tour of Nara. It was the best!
The Daibutsu-kan (Great Buddha) is pretty aligned to what the name suggests – a huge statue of Buddha with an equally huge housing. Yoneko (or Kitty as her friends call her) added that in order to build it they first made it out of clay before casting it in bronze and then build the housing around it. Among other things we also learned that the gates guarding the entrance to the temple grounds were some of the oldest of their kind.
Favourite part of the day? It would have to be our stroll through Isuien Gardens with Yoneko. It was so lovely to meet her and her eloquent English language skills (as a second language) really impressed us, especially ahead of our Spanish lessons in Mexico. We learnt so much and felt as though we were in a storybook unfolding in person as we walked through each garden learning about the history of the design, the owner and what used to take place in each garden. Thank you Yoneko!
Most interesting thing you learned? The philosophy behind the design of the Broad View garden (using the landscape as inspiration for the garden features) and also how the Daibutsu-kan (Great Buddha) was built. It is huge!!
Favourite part of the day? The Isuien Gardens were great but were made incredible by our guide Kitty. It was so interesting to learn about the way the garden was shaped and the history of the gardens behind it. I’m starting to realise guides really do make you appreciate what you are looking at and the experience that bit more memorable.
Most interesting thing you learned? The yellow hill in the back ground is required by law to be burnt at the same time each year. Not only because it looks pretty for the garden but legend has it that if they don’t a ghost will arise and haunt the area.