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.

Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan

Last year in September/October, I spent two glorious weeks in Japan, travelling with my amazing mother.
We arrived into Tokyo with eyes wide open, so excited to embark on the next two weeks of travelling together in this inviting country.

There were a couple of things we noticed instantly about Japan: the friendliness of the people, and the amazing public transportation… these two wonderful characteristics of Japan were constants throughout our short-lived travels there.

Stepping out into the fresh air of Tokyo, it felt spectacular to finally be there. Japan is a country I’ve been dreaming about for many years, and to set foot in it felt similar to coming ‘home.’ This trip had, within a matter of minutes, confirmed that Japan is my ‘spiritual homeland,’ and I was instantly, madly, head over heels in love.

The next two weeks were spent filling every possible minute with new experiences and different places, and my mum and I had such an amazing time travelling together – we can not wait to go back to Japan.

Months on since returning, Japan has never really left my mind. It’s one of those ‘dream countries’ for me, and I know it’s somewhere I’ll return to over and over again
I’m always re-living memories and looking back over photographs of the trip time and time again, and so decided I should do a ‘Top 10 Picks’ about my Japan trip… So, here it goes: Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan!

1. Food! – What more can I say; it’ absolutely takes the number one spot. Everywhere we went, from street vendors and market stalls, to sushi trains, tempura bars and ramen shops, train station bento boxes and stand-and-eat curry shops, food courts and supermarkets… The food was always incredible; served like it was a piece of art. The tempura was melt-in-your-mouth, the Hida Beef steam buns were to-die-for, and salmon and tuna sashimi skewers with soy, lemon and sesame seeds has left me dreaming for more… Food was one of our biggest experiences in Japan – we tried the local specialties wherever we went, and always without ever breaking the budget!

2. The People! – The people in Japan are unforgettable. From locals in the street, commuters on the trains, shop assistants, information assistants, train station assistants… everyone was so helpful. People went out of their way to make sure you were okay. I once asked a lady on the train if this train was going to a certain destination. She got off the train, found a train station attendant, asked him, and then got back on and told us where to go instead, meanwhile, her own train was just about to depart!… I remember another time I dropped my train ticket on the ground, and another commuter way down the carriage saw. He walked all the way down the carriage, picked it up and gave it back to me. I recall thinking “I don’t think this would happen back home.” The politeness of people, and the absolute respect they showed not just to us but to everyone else was astounding. People respected one another – Tokyo station at peak hour, with millions of commuters trying to get home, was a peaceful flow of people, unlike back home with people racing and pushing and darting and cutting-off one another. People watching was a great activity to undertake whilst in Japan; they are inspiring.

3. The Culture! – Japan’s culture is rich, ancient, traditional, modern, new, old, exquisite, an art form, precise, a little bit odd at times but always interesting, and absolutely inspiring. The food, the music, the clothing, the sports, the festivals, the traditions, the way-of-life, the oh-so-mystical geishas, tea ceremonies, sugar cakes, gift giving, comics and characters, neon signs, shopping…and then everything else and more. Impossible to experience it all in just two weeks, but we scratched the surface.

4. Takayama! – Words can not express my love for Takayama. It is simple; you MUST visit this incredible small city, and fall in love with it just as I have. The people, the markets, the river, the preserved lane ways, the food, the shops, the scenery, the guest houses, the strange ice-cream flavours, the Hida beef steam buns, the sarubobo dolls (go there, and you’ll know what I am talking about), the art and crafts, sake brewers, the exquisite chop sticks and hand-made items… I could continue, but it’s making me homesick.

5. Tokyo! – Tokyo is so much fun; it really is a paradise for children and adults alike (and for people like me who are children in adult bodies). The noise, the colour, the hustle and bustle of a busy but gentle city. The trains that take you wherever you want to go, and send you to new and interesting places. You could spend weeks just finding new neighbourhoods and exploring… meeting and watching the locals, the sub-cultures, the groups of girls in strange costumes, and the dogs paraded around in prams, dressed in the latest upmarket fashions…
Go early for the markets, explore local supermarkets, if shopping is your thing visit the many mega malls, or go at night to see a skyline of neon flashing and moving signs…Get lost, explore, eat, listen, see, smile, share… wherever you go, you’ll find history and modern life merging, and it is never ever boring.

6. Kyoto! – Kyoto is famous, of course, and we along with probably every other tourist fell in love. But the highlight for us was found in wandering about with no time-table, no schedule, watching people; tourists and locals. It seemed, for us, you didn’t have to really do much in Kyoto to be surrounded by culture and life, and to be able to enjoy yourself. There is a beauty and magic that can be found wherever you look…
Oh! and those sashimi skewers at Nishiki Market are still making me drool!…

7. Nara! – Who doesn’t love incredible scenery, delicious food, friendly people, and petting deer after deer after deer! I do! I do! Nara is a whole lot of fun, combined with ancient tradition, temples, stone lanterns, culture, religion, beliefs, practices…, yummy food, great guest houses, and a whole lot of cracker-loving deer!!! Nara was a highlight all round, but the walking tour we took gave us insight into temples and religion in Japan that we would’ve otherwise been blind to.
Tip: Get some deer crackers and get snap-happy with your camera!

8. Mt. Koya San! – High up on the mountains, you can instantly feel the spirit of the place deep within. Steeped in ancient tradition and spiritual practice and beliefs, this is a place I highly recommend to anyone. You can stay in temple lodging like most tourists will, and experience amazing vegetarian food, tatami mats, onsens and a 5am wake up call to watch traditional ceremonies taking place. Walk amongst Mt. Koya Sans incredible cemetary, and feel the energy around you. In that sort of incredible environment, it’s hard not to…
Tip: There is a cafe on the main street; a hippie looking Japanese guy makes the best Chai Latte I’ve ever had… we had 4 or 5 – indulgence at its finest, I know, but oh so worth it.

9. Osaka, Dotombori! – Get ready for a feast of Okonomiyaki served to you on a grill, and Takoyaki balls like you’ve never eaten before. A foodies paradise, we did not have enough time here. The people are trendy, the cars are flashy, the hair-styles are high, and the fashion is the latest. The starbucks was never empty, and as the sun set on Dotombori Street, the neon lights and mechanical crabs came alive. People are everywhere, and you can hear the pachinco machines loud and clear as they ring out whenever the doors open. There are dog clothing shops, and you’ll find the weird and whacky. Grab yourself some pumpkin flavoured ice cream, and enjoy your time there into the night…
Tip: If you’re interested, or even if you’re not…head to Osaka Aquarium. Children and Adults (and me, the child-adult) will love the amazing displays. Who can say no to a smiling puffer fish?

10. Public Transport! – It’s pretty much a guarantee that if I’m using public transport at home, I’ll experience delays or cancellations. People graffiti the walls of the train, people are loud, rude, put their feet up, curse and carry on, and are just generally not so considerate of anyone other than themselves. Come to Japan, take a train, and for me, it was like entering a whole new world. Pristine trains that arrive to the second, conductors who bow and take their hat off as they leave each carriage, polite and respectful commuters, and travel that is incredibly fast! Japan trains are like a dream.

What did you love about Japan?