Deer Japan: 9 – 10.10.2013

Saying goodbye to beautiful Kyoto and our new friends, we were sad but excited – we were Nara bound with just two nights and just one full day to explore the city. Again we were couch surfing; our fourth hosts in Japan and our first family with children. Megumi, Koji and their two young children Nazuna and Tsubasa are very experienced hosts, and knew how to look after us. Both the children speak very fluent English and are extremely outgoing and energetic; they really seem enjoy spending time with other people.

The two nights we spent with this family were a great experience for us; we spent a lot of time with the kids playing various games, we had some great conversation and shared some absolutely incredible home-cooked Japanese food.

Our one day in Nara went by way too fast and was thoroughly enjoyable. Awake early after another late night (Japanese people seem to sleep a lot later and get up a lot earlier than we are used to!), we were tired as we boarded the train to Nara City station, but as we stepped off the train we were ready to explore for the day.

It was incredibly hot today – 31 degrees – which is very strange for October, we’re told.  Actually, we’ve been really lucky; it’s been beautiful weather and often very hot every day since arriving in Japan (besides the morning on the day we left Kyoto, where it rained heavily for a few hours due to a typhoon some distance away), so the jumper I bought in India to wear in Japan has not yet been of any use….

We began our day by simply walking around Nara city; it was reasonably familiar to me and I could remember quite a lot of the places and directions from my stay there last year which was good. Last time my mum and I were here in Nara we visited a community centre that housed an earthquake simulator and a lot of insightful and fascinating information about earthquake-proof building foundations, which I really wanted Jake to see. Close by I knew of a really beautiful restaurant that served Nara specialties – a type of sushi wrapped in leaves, and a delicate soup with thin noodles. I wanted to find these places at some point today.

We walked around the town which was beautiful in the sunshine and stopped to pet the many sweet deer that were strutting about, occasionally head butting tourists who refused to hand over their deer crackers. Very funny animals that make a very cute sound.

We visited a pond filled with turtles and surrounded by a stunning view, explored several temples, took a stroll through the streets and stood awe struck by the massive 5 story pagoda – built without using any nails!

Walking around the town was just so beautiful, seeing the deer and the people and everyone so happy. The sunshine bought out ice cream carts and little food vendors, and lots of tourists. I loved watching the deer congregating around the little ‘deer cracker’ vendor’s stalls, as if so hopeful they might just get lucky by looking oh so cute and get given a snack.

We eventually found our way to the community centre, and I was so glad we’d found it. We had a look around the centre and both took a seat in the earthquake simulator, which was quite terrifying when imagining how this would’ve been in reality. From there, we sat for a bit enjoying the air conditioning, free green tea and wifi before heading back out into the heat of the day.
Nearby, I recognized the restaurant I’d been looking for and we ended up eating a delicious lunch there, where we met an older Australian couple who were rather funny.

After lunch, we spent some time wandering through the little shops before heading towards  a famous temple, past thousands of beautiful ancient stone lanterns covered with moss. It was shady in the forested area, deers were bleating and it was so serene. In the temple, we came across a wedding taking place and stood for a while watching the brides elaborate hair, make up and outfit being adjusted, as well as everyone else in the wedding party. The photographers smoothed every crease and fold in the material, and combed every hair into place; this precision took a long time but the wedding party looked amazing. I felt a bit guilty standing there photographing them, but a million other tourists were too – I guess they chose to have their wedding in a touristic city, in a touristic area, in a famous temple…

We wandered back into town eventually, and before we knew it it was late afternoon and time to head back to our host’s home to spend and enjoy the time with their family and share another delicious home-cooked Japanese feast.

Our time in Nara was quick, but wonderful.

Osaka to Kobe and back again: 3 – 4.10.2013

This morning – our third day in Japan – we were up too early and madly shoving our belongings into our bags and heading out the door before 8am. We were exhausted after late nights, jet lag and little sleep.
We said goodbye to Keiichi – our first couch surfing host – and headed back to Umeda station where we once again dumped our heavy packs in a coin locker.

We took the train to Shinsabashi where we thought we’d try and find some clothing that…
a) didn’t look like we’d just rolled around in 2 months of Indian dust and dirt
b) didn’t spell “tourist”
c) wasn’t some form of travel/adventure/trekking gear brand!
Of course, before we could go shopping we had to get breakfast at none other than Yoshinoya. We’ve got this “cheap eating in Japan” thing down-pat already, although… maybe we should start being a little more adventurous with where and what we eat…? Then again, copious cups of free green tea and all that delicious pickled ginger is quite difficult to resist.

Shinsabashi is well known for its big shopping area; we looked through the streets and bought a couple of items of clothing that didn’t scream “filthy backpacker.” We went to UNIQLO – a chain shop that has some cool fashion at really cheap prices.

In the early afternoon we headed back to Umeda, collected our backpacks and took the train to Noda station where we met Saki, our second couch surfing host.
Saki greeted us at the station and walked us back to her lovely home where we felt instantly welcomed. We soon learned she is moving to Melbourne – our home city – at the end of this month and it was a lot of fun and a pleasure for us to spend our afternoon making lists of “must do/see/visit/watch/eat in Melbourne town” and drawing out maps with hidden lane ways and cool cafes. It was interesting to try and think of our home as a place to visit rather than live; a different perspective which filled us with pride and love for our beautiful Melbourne.

Seeing as we are in Osaka, and Osakan people love takoyaki, it was fitting that we cooked takoyaki for dinner. Together Saki, Jacob and I prepared the takoyaki mix and cut up the ingredients (including one mean looking octopus tentacle!) before Tomoki, Saki’s husband, arrived home from work.

Together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket and bought a few different Japanese beers to have with dinner, and then the rest of our evening was spent cooking and eating takoyaki, sharing good food and conversation. The boys had a wonderful time drinking sake and sharing their love of Manga – even though Tomoki’s English was very limited Jacob and him got along so well. We’re learning language is absolutely not a barrier – just an obstacle that can absolutely be overcome…

The next morning Saki greeted us with instructions for taking the train to Kobe, and a hand-drawn map of Kobe complete with the best coffee shops, cafes and restaurants to visit, places to see and landmarks to look out for. Amazing. Seeing as we don’t have a guide book, I love that she was so generous to help us like this. This sort of map can never be bought…

It took around 35 minutes to get to Kobe from Osaka, and cost us just 290Y each! See, see! We’re doing Japan on a budget! Yay!
We arrived into Sunnomiya Station and were instantly drawn into Loft Department store – the shiny lime green bento box in the window display lured me in like a moth to a flame. We spent the next hour wanting to buy everything in sight – from the exquisite range of beautifully coloured and decorated bento boxes to the enormous range of high-quality coffee equipment to the cute kitchen sponges, it was so hard to resist. In fact, it was impossible, and I walked out with my shiny green bento box and matching choppu stikkus. “Japan on a tight budget” failed to win this round; instead I told myself that “this is my belated birthday present to myself.”
From Loft we passed through SOGO Department Store where we spent way too long oooohing and ahhhhing over the exquisite foods being prepared and sold: we were drooling at everything that looked too good to eat. In the end, everything just looked too good and we couldn’t actually decide what we wanted… I ended up getting a sushi roll and Jake’s stomach stayed empty for the time being… that was until he saw a Yoshinoya. Japan on a budget wins this round.

We spent some time wandering around exploring before walking half-an-hour or so down the road to the Disaster Prevention and Human Renovation Museum to learn about the 1995 earth quake that devastated Kobe and still, to this day, is effecting people. In my opinion this is a must-visit museum if in Kobe; it offers a wealth of information, facts and insight into this natural disaster and its devastating effects, as well as illustrates how strong people are and how they can re-build and learn to adapt to the conditions.
We learned about the earth quake through several high-tech. sources including movies, a type of earth quake simulator, computers and touch screens with so much information, videos, survivor stories, dioramas, items uncovered from the quake and tour guides who spoke English and walked us through the exhibits. There was also an entire level dedicated to educating children through various interactive games and videos.

From the museum we took a train to Motomatchi St. where we walked through the lengthy shopping strip and found more beautiful Japanese things that we did not buy. We ended up in Kobe’s tiny “China town” (a small street) where we discovered supposedly “Kobe beef” buns (doubtful) and tacky souvenirs. Kobe China Town was not so memorable.

From Chinatown it was a small walk to Merikan Park – the Kobe Port area that is famous. Saki told us we should stay there until dark to see the lights and everything looking beautiful, reflected on the ocean. I’m so glad we got to experience this. We walked through the port area and saw the amazing buildings surrounding the ports, the boats on the water and a lot of outdoor art and sculpture. By one section of the port there is the Kobe Earthquake Memorial which is pretty moving; close by is an area of port destroyed by the quake that still remains as it was when destroyed in 1995. It was quite shocking to see this and hard to imagine what this entire city must’ve looked like after such a massive quake.

Our evening was spent walking through the park and port area watching near by boats move about, cyclists and skaters doing their thing, couples sitting with legs dangling out towards the ocean below, the bright lights of the ferris wheel reflect onto the water and the massive port tower standing tall. Near by a large art biennale was being set up; large outdoor sculptures and installations were dotted around us and it was a lot of fun to enjoy the more interactive ones. It all felt a bit magical and it was so quiet with perfect weather; it was a really wonderful way and the perfect time of day to explore the area. We took lots of photographs and simply enjoyed being there.

Oh, and of course, we had dinner at Yoshinoya before heading back ‘home’ to Saki and Tomoki’s house. What else would you expect?

We did a load of washing this evening in an actual washing machine – an absolute luxury – and then spent our evening talking and chatting with Saki, teaching her about Australian culture, some Australian slang and a few choice words. She had so generously spent her afternoon making us a series of detailed hand-written maps for Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya, complete with all her recommendations of where to go, what to eat, what is famous in certain areas, transportation information and more… She was so generous and so helpful; she was amazing to do this for us and it will no doubt be a big help for us.

Couch surfing at Saki and Tomoki’s has been so lovely and we so look forward to meeting her and Tomoki in Melbourne next year. We are thoroughly enjoying staying with locals through couch surfing; it offers us a completely different traveling experience and gives us an opportunity to learn so much more about the culture, the people and the lifestyle in this country – as well as form wonderful new friendships! We’re only into our fourth night in this incredible country but we’ve spent each one of them making new friends, sharing stories and cultures, laughter and learning. We’re sleeping on futons on tatami mats and falling asleep so happy and comfortable where we are. There is no where else I’d rather be right now, than where I am.

Tomorrow we are Kyoto bound and I can’t wait – a new place with new adventures to be found.