You’ve probably seen the pictures or heard about Nara’s famous deer like I had, so this was one of the day trips I was looking forward to the most. Nara did not disappoint, especially since we were basically going for the deer, and there were plenty to pet and feed. But during our stay, we found a few other beautiful and unexpected sights as well as the beautiful and historical Todai-ji Temple. The speed of our trip, with my husband now joining us picked up a bit, and therefore, my daily writing more difficult, but I’m excited to pick back up on the rest of our 17 day trip to Japan.
We were scheduled to be in Kyoto for day 6 & 7 of our trip (the Saturday and Sunday right after my husband’s conference ended) and I had been saving most of the Kyoto stuff for him. However, with the poor weather on the day I planned for Nara, we didn’t get to go and it was something I was really looking forward to. Since our next destination after Kyoto was Nagoya, and it was only 45 minutes by train from Kyoto, I knew it would be easier to come back to Kyoto from there than it would be to go to Nara from Nagoya. With that in mind, decided to go to Nara while we were still staying in Kyoto. This would be my husband’s first day to join us in exploring Japan. While I was excited to have him along, but it’s always a bit different traveling with another adult than it is alone.
By this point, we were all on a new schedule of going to bed around 10:00 p.m. and not waking up till 9:00 a.m. This, we began to discover, was not an ideal schedule for Japan where most attractions close by 5:00 p.m. We were rushing to get to breakfast and eat before the buffet closed at 10:00 a.m., then quickly gathered up our stuff to head off to Nara. The hotel shuttle took us right to the main train station where we had to exchange my husband’s JR voucher for his Japan Rail Pass. I found it comical that the line in the JR ticket line was so long for all the locals, and the separate line for foreigners (any foreigner) was a deserted. My husband was the lone customer the entire time we were in there.
On the train, a small regional one this time, we found the cars a little crowded with school children, around middle school age. There was one open bench with two seats facing another bench the had two young school boys sitting down. I ushered my sons over to have a spot while my husband and I stayed with the stroller in the open way of the carriage. Immediately the school children took notice of the two little English speakers sitting across from them. The term “giggling like a school girl” could very appropriately be applied to them. It was a sweet moment to watch over the next 20 minutes while they were on the train with us. They watched my boys talk and play with their stickers from the train workers and tried out their English by asking my sons a few questions. I even tried a few of my own and got an understandable answer. Those type of things are what you live for one trips like this, for a few moments our kids had the chance to try to communicate with someone from a culture so different from theirs and it gave them a chance to be a hospitable sight and a goodwill representative of their own country.
Once we arrived in Nara, we went to the information booth and found out about the bus that would take us around Nara park and through the areas where you could get off to walk to their 3 different temples, all listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The kids were also immediately given little origami gifts to take with them too, spinning tops!
In all, about 15 minutes from the time we boarded the bus, we got to a part of the park where we could see the deer and got off. Instantly the kids were drawn to the deer, that really, truly were just walking around with the people. They were on the grass, they were on the sidewalks, they even crossed the streets, obeying the traffic signals even! The kids carefully and excitedly approached them and delighted in the fact that they could pet the deer while the deer didn’t seem to notice. A few, sniffed around for food and one more aggressive deer even went after my shirt! But, that wasn’t the norm. A very nice gentleman came over and gave us some of his crackers so that the kids could feed the deer. You can buy special deer “cookies” from the vendors that are all approved by the city. He also showed us how the deer will actually bow for their food! If you hold the cracker up high over your head, then the deer will bow their head/neck down low, some even a few times, to get the cookie from you. Not sure who started that habit or how long it took to for them to figure it out, my guess is, not very long!
We bought some more cookies of our own and started the walk over to Todai-ji Temple. Because of our time restraints (us not getting there till around 1:00 p.m., we knew we’d probably make it to just one temple. I picked Todai-ji based on it’s description and the proximity of some other highly reviewed traditional Japanese gardens near it. As we walked, we encountered more deer and of course, the row of tourist souvenir stands. The temple had a fee to get in, 600 Yen for us adults and the kids being free. The gate, statues and the main hall (the world’s largest wooden building) were very impressive, as was the 15 meter tall seated Buddha.
As we walked around, we encountered one of the pillars that had a small hole cut through the middle of it’s base. The saying is that it is the same size as the Buddha’s nostril and that if you can fit through it, the you will gain enlightenment for your next life. Of course the kids wanted to climb through the hole. My husband and I declined the inevitable embarrassment.
We didn’t explore much more of the temple grounds themselves, but instead headed over to the Japanese garden I had read about. It was a little confusing getting there by exiting the side of the temple, but eventually we found it. We arrived with about 35 minutes left before it’s 5:00 p.m. closing, something we were getting used to in Japan. While we only had a mere half hour to explore it, and had to pay a small fee, it was well worth it to take in the beauty of Isuien Garden. It is everything you ever pictured a true Japanese garden to be. We used the comfortable facilities for the kids and a diaper change as we left and then they literally closed and locked the gates behind us on the way out.
From here we figured it was time to start thinking about some food. On the bus ride in, we saw a miniature Oktoberfest event set up in the park! That was definitely not the sight I expected to see when coming to the city boasted as “traveling back to Ancient Japan.” I thought it would be fun to check it out and see what Japan’s take on the Bavarian tradition was. We walked over to that section of the park again and did a quick pass through. After not being able to figure out quickly whether you just paid cash at the booth or if you had to buy some special tickets for admissions and food, we decided that just a walk through was enough and continued on foot by the next section of the park. I had wanted to walk by a particular pagoda that seemed to be on the way to some other shopping and food. We could see the towers, but of course, being part of a temple, and it being after 5:00 p.m., much of it was gated off so you couldn’t get too close.
We walked the loop of the park and came upon a row of shops and eateries, I ducked into a visitor’s welcome center that gave us a map and guided me to a shopping arcade where they had 2 restaurants serving classical Japanese dishes. With the map in hand, we headed up the promenade until we reached the restaurant. Menus are still hard as they are not always in English. But these had some good pictures to go by and we were able to ask some basic questions. I ended up with my own little grill on a plate in which to cook some raw vegetables and a few slices of Kobe beef, my husband got the most beautiful (yet a bit scary) plate of 30+ brightly colored vegetables, tofu and meat that he had to cook in a broth, oldest son got a plate of rice with grilled eel (and he ate the whole thing!), my younger son ended up with a noodle soup that he couldn’t get enough of and my 2 year old, well, she was asleep. The food was really good, but the bill was fairly high (ended up being about $110 for all 4 of us) and my stomach was still pretty empty. On the way back to the train station, I stopped in a couple little markets to grab some food for myself and my 2 year old, who had slept through dinner.
By time we got back to the train, it was approaching 7:30 p.m. and we had just the right amount of fun without too much overdoing it on walking. Getting back to the hotel a little after 9:00 p.m. was probably the earliest we had gotten back in the last three excursions! But now it was time to pack up. It was our last night in Kyoto and we had just a few more things on our list to prepare for the next day. Including leave our really nice suite for a much much smaller single room in the next city. However, more adventure were about to come our way!