I arrived in Osaka ready to tumble into yet another mad rush of Japanese urban living. Unfortunately, being alone and in yet another ‘youth hostel’ jam packed with tired-looking Japanese men over thirty in one of the rough(er) areas of the city I felt rather more inclined to leave and spend my days either sheltering from the heat in a dimmed, highly air-conditioned room or out in some of the more pleasant surrounding areas. In Arashiyama (just outside Kyoto) and Nara, there was something of a recurring theme.
First up were the charming Japanese macaques (snow monkeys), who are native around much of Japan but especially well known in the north. I had spotted some whilst in Tohoku (and surprised my host by telling her that England did not have monkeys natively), but they were rather more timid than their southern counterparts. An interesting inversion is that the visitors stand in a cage (or sorts) and feed the monkeys on the outside, who are completely wild and native to the mountain, and are attracted by the prospect of easy food. This attraction was more of a simian sideshow, however, compared to the main event.
The real reason I had come to Arashiyama was to witness the age old tradition of ukai. This involves a boat about ten metres in length, with two people propelling it punt-fashion and a large cage of burning wood. A third man stands at the front holding a number of strings, which are tied around the necks of about five cormorants swimming in the water. At dusk they set off, followed by eight long boats of tourists, and glide up and down the river, led by the birds. Occasionally one dives and comes up with a fish, which is left half-swallowed due to the rope. It is then yanked out of the water, stripped of its loot and dropped back in to try again. It really is a dramatic spectacle by firelight.
Finally, I journeyed to Nara. It turns out the deer are just as mercenary as I have been warned. Although there are many signs warning that they are still wild animals, it can get somewhat unnerving when surrounded on all sides by antlers butting steadily more urgently at one’s sides as soon as deer cookies are smelled. They are polite at first, even bowing upon introduction and in return if one cares to try. These deer may be wild, but they are certainly still Japanese.