Nara is basically a greener, more compact version of Kyoto and it was one of the main places we wanted to see in Japan, however we didn't have much luck finding anywhere affordable to stay and so were forced to return to the hostel in Osaka. We thought that seeing as we had to go there anyway we'd give Osaka another chance and actually attempt to see some of the city properly. We didn't get far. Our book recommended a park area next to the river, so we thought we'd start there and walk in whichever direction looked most interesting. As it turned out, the place was mostly fenced off due to ongoing construction work and the so called "haven for pedestrians" was as heaving with traffic as anywhere else. We left with haste, and eventually found ourselves walking along what must be Osaka's equivalent to Bond Street, as all the shops were of the Versace variety. It was interesting to see the wealthier young Japanese going about their business, simply because the sort of stuff they class as high fashion could easily be mistaken for cross-dressing at home. I saw men in their thirties wearing more make up than Jodie Marsh. Jacqui assures me this includes 'mascara', 'foundation' and something called 'concealer', but I definitely noticed far too many thinly plucked eyebrows... or maybe they were drawn on. These are things a foreigner like me can never hope to understand. None if this redeemed Osaka though, so we gave up and ate an average meal at an American restaurant where the staff were quite good at juggling cocktail shakers.
Still, going back to Osaka was a means to an end and the next day we got on a local train to Nara. Most of the main sights are in and around the park area so we decided to stick to that, spending the better part of the day wandering from pagoda to temple to shrine after shrine. We must have walked a ridiculous distance that day, which at least provided an opportunity to work off all the junk food we've been eating (Japanese food is great and all but seriously, breakfast lunch AND dinner? Nah.). Jacqui was provided with additional opportunities to do this each time we encountered deer, of which there were many, as they had a tendency to pursue her at speed over great distances. Then again, what do you expect when you buy them biscuits and hold them teasingly above their eager mouths? Anyway, there were many highlights of Nara park, far too many to list but we have photos of everything we saw. One of the main highlights was a huge hall, apparently one of the largest wooden buildings in the world but amazingly a reconstruction 2/3 the size of the original, which contained a similarly huge buddha. Another was a completely serene, beautiful Japanese garden which we somehow stumbled across. It was slightly out of the way but worth the few yen we paid to get in. We have many, many photos of this too, as it was immaculately kept exactly as it had been for hundreds of years. One slight black mark on it's record was that as I sat amongst the lush shrubbery I was ravaged by angry ants who had claimed the garden as their own, but otherwise it was probably worth the trip to Nara to see that alone.
We returned to our original hotel in Tokyo, with it's free Chinese tea and comically small rooms for our last two days in Japan. It outdid itself this time, as we thought the "en suite" bathroom didn't have a toilet until we discovered that the sink was on a hinge and could be swung so it was either covering the toilet or sitting under the shower, depending on the needs of the individual bathroom user. Ingenious space management and sink physics aside, we arrived there in the morning to drop off our stuff and then head back out to visit the Ghibli museum. I remember telling Elliott on MSN that we were going there and he posed the question "what's a Ghibli", a question which I now feel that I am ready to answer. It's a strange place that basically serves as a homage to the imagination of Mizayaki Hayao, or the "Japanese Walt Disney", who created many of the animated films for Studio Ghibli. The museum isn't anything as over the top or grand as Disney World and it was surprisingly difficult to get tickets, but our guidebook made it out to be quite exclusive and definitely worth going to. It was a strangely laid out place and was quite obviously aimed at children, but had some great exhibitions about animation techniques as well as a replica of an artists studio. There were also photocopies of the original storyboards for some of the films directed by Mizayaki in the eighties, a miniature movie theatre showing a short animation film by the man himself that can only be seen there and a huge replica robot from another film on the roof, which was a nice touch. Even the tickets are unique, as each one is an animation cell from one of the studio's films.
We had planned to spend our last day in Japan in the Fuji Five-Lakes area to see Mt. Fuji. It took a while to get there on the train and we didn't rate our chances of getting to see the mountain as it was a grey, overcast and generally English day. We found our way to a cable car which took us to a park on top of a hill (couldn't really call it a mountain considering the behemoth it shares it's airspace with), and once we reached the top it was a short walk to a viewing platform overlooking the town and the huge area where the mountain should have been. Sure enough it was covered by cloud, we couldn't even see anything resembling a cone shape. We only knew the mountain was even there because of the millions of postcards around showing us what we should have been seeing. There wasn't any reason to stay there after that, but the train ride back was a bit of an adventure as it took us through the mountainous area and over rivers etc. It was on the train that we experienced a moment of immense good fortune, as a large gap in the clouds had appeared and we could see the peak of Mt. Fuji through it, towering over everything. I lost sight of it a few times and couldn't find it again, then realised the reason I couldn't find it was because I was focusing my eyes too low down in the sky... the thing is that massive. Eventually is disappeared behind cloud again and that was that, I think we only managed to get one decent photo from the rickety old train but that's better than nothing.
So that concludes the Japan leg of our adventures. What an amazing country, it's exceeded the few expectations I allowed myself to have in every way. Everywhere else had a tough act to follow!