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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 45: japan - nara, osaka

nara


bill: feeling overwhelmed with the crowds in kyoto, the next morning we caught the train down to nara, a smaller city nearby. nara is famous for its sacred deer, essentially thousands of deer that wander around a park on the edge of town. centuries of conditioning have taught these deer to not only be completely unafraid of people but to also bow (in respectful japanese tradition) for crackers.


i thought this was going to be a tourist disaster, but it turns out that the park that the deer live in is so large it takes hours to walk across and there are thousands of deer, so this has been one of the calmest and most relaxing places we have been in japan. and the deer are very cute.



Amy: We were immediately enchanted by the hundreds of deer roaming around the park - until we watched some folks get bit and head butted by some of the more aggressive deer on the main path. We bought some crackers then beelined to a quieter section of the park with only a handful of deer (including two babies!). For an hour, we bowed at every deer we passed, offering crackers when they bowed back. Even the babies have been conditioned to bow at tourists. I felt like Snow White until I got head-butted in the bum by a big male! In that moment, I was grateful they trim their antlers.





bow


bill: the dark side of this is that the deer have become so reliant on the crackers that they don’t really eat grass anymore, and the crackers aren’t really a balanced diet so the deer are all malnourished, but on the flipside they do have medical care and protection so they do live much longer than deer in the wild, just smaller. they also hurt like 400 tourists every year which is very funny.



Amy: We wandered around the park and down a path lined with stone lanterns to the Kasuga Taisha Shinto shrine, which was also filled with deer.



kasuga taisha




Amy: Next, we wandered to Todai-ji Buddhist temple which is the largest wooden structure in the world and houses the largest Buddha statue in Japan. To show the size of the statue, they bored a hole of equivalent size of one of its nostril into one of the wooden pillars of the building, which you can try to wriggle through. I managed to squeeze through, earning good luck and good fortune.


todai-ji

giant buddha







Amy: Afterwards, we stumbled upon a quaint garden, with a little pond, moss garden and tea house. A nice space to take a deep breath and feel the sunshine on our faces.




On our way out of Nara, we stopped for some handmade mochi: a glutinous rice dessert, with a chewy gummy texture. It’s filled with gooey red bean paste and then rolled in soybean flour. Yum! We got to watch in the window as they made it by smashing it over and over with giant mallets. While watching the sun set on the pagoda, we also tried the local Nara sushi specialty: smoked fish nigiri wrapped in persimmon leaves to give it an aromatic fruity flavour.



mochi


persimmon wrapped nigiri


bill: afterwards, we went to get some okomiyaki, (possibly one of my favourite foods) - a savoury pancake filled with cabbage and various meats, grilled on a skillet in front of you, then topped with ample bbq sauce and kewpie mayo, bonito flakes, and shredded seaweed. there are some that call this “japanese pizza”. the first version we got was at a small mom and pop shop where they served a couple variations, betayaki and teppanyaki, both of which involve noodles being folded into the pancake, and also contained some mystery ingredient called “fried hormone”, which I haven’t figured out how to translate but I assume it is some type of offal. the second place we went was a more traditional okonomiyake chain. honestly just the best food.


betayaki


okonomiyaki


with all the toppings


bill: japan is actually much cheaper than i expected it to be. we limited our time here because we assumed that pricewise it would be akin to travelling in canada, and compared to the rest of asia would be quite pricey, but it is actually very reasonable. our hotels were our biggest expense, but $100cad per night gets a reasonable clean, comfortable western style hotel, sometimes a really nice one like in kyoto. we mostly paid around $30cad for dinner for two with drinks, ramen or okonomiyaki being around $12 a plate, beers around $3. transportation is extremely affordable, with the subway often costing around $2 to get from door to door. that and the cheap 7/11 snacks made it actually quite affordable. if i had known that we would have booked more time here.


Amy: Before taking the train to Osaka, we explored our neighbourhood Japanese garden. We had walked around it many times going to and from our hotel - it was the size of several city blocks, and surrounded by a giant wall.  Curiosity  got the better of us, so we paid the $6 to get in and enjoyed the serene ponds and pathways.



goodbye beard


kyoto tower


Amy: On our way to the train station we visited Higashi Hongen ji temple - the second largest wooden structure in the world (next to the temple in Nara). To rebuild the temple in the early 1900s, huge trees had to be brought down from the mountains by sled in the winter. Human hair from Japanese donors across the country was woven in to strengthen the thick hemp ropes, and bring the logs down from the mountain. Worth the stop. 



osaka


bill: osaka is the third largest city in japan, and is much more what you would expect of a big city. there is the odd litter on the street, the parks are not all perfectly manicured, people are a lot more casual, there are actually areas to sit down, people smoke on the streets, the odd alleyway smells like pee, aka all things that would not fly in tokyo. it is much more like a north american city. and a pretty cool one at that.


dotonburi river


we stayed just north of dotonburi, an insanely busy shopping/food district full of outdoor malls, every brand name store you can imagine, and of course thousands of restaurants (even a shake shack). the streets here are dense. so tightly packed that you walk like sardines in every direction for kilometres.


Amy: We also stumbled upon a big parade that was happening to celebrate Culture Day - a national holiday. We listened to a boy band sing a Japanese rendition of YMCA, and watched a theatrical dragon/samurai duel.




Amy: We wandered around for the next few hours, exploring Shinsaibashi-suji shopping street and Dotonbori. We eventually made it to the Namba Yasaka jinga shrine, which had an altar in the shape of a giant dragon head. The streets of Namba are quaint and packed with bars and restaurants. We found a spot with local Osaka craft beer, and parked ourselves on the patio for a few pints. On our way home, we walked through the loud, flashy, packed Dontonbori again - this time admiring the neon lights reflected over the canal. 



namba yasaka jinga shrine



v scary


gyoza (dumplings) by the river



bill: efforts to eat in japan have at times proven frustrating. there is a fairly lackadaisical approach to food service here that is unreliable by north american standards; every time we choose a place to eat, it is almost inevitable that the first place will not work for any number of reasons. we have been to restaurants that ran out of food at 6pm, restaurants that are supposed to be open but are just not interested in serving any more customers today, restaurants that are open but they haven't cleaned any of the tables from the lunch rush yet and they don’t really want to, and many places that are just closed when they are supposed to be open. but usually by the third try and an hour of walking around we manage to get some very good food. it is also impossible to be a vegetarian here. the japanese diet seems to be first and foremost: meat. then maybe a small bowl of rice. i have not seen any fibre since we got here, and barely seen a vegetable that wasn’t fried into my okonomiyaki. even the tofu dishes have meat in them.



a trash can in japan - wow!



Amy: The next day, we spent the morning walking around the grounds and gardens of Osaka castle, a former samurai leader’s mansion. The five story white castle is perched high above the city, gilded with gold leaf tigers and carp. Flashy but beautiful. The fall colours are just starting to change, which provided a colourful backdrop to our morning.







the lady taking the picture insisted that we do this pose


Amy: We grabbed an amazing lunch at a tofu restaurant - 6 different dishes all served on one platter - so cute and tasty!


even the dishes at the tofu restaurant also heavily feature meat


Amy: We then joined a walking tour in the afternoon to get a better understanding of Osaka culture and history. We knew Osaka was different as soon as we got here - it felt more like a lived-in city compared to Tokyo. Our tour guide confirmed our observations, noting that Osaka people are louder, less rigid and more willing to crack jokes. Here, you can actually sit down and eat in public (this was frowned upon/seen as disrespectful in other places), there’s loud music playing from American style thrift shops, and even some litter and graffiti in the streets (Tokyo was spotless - we saw street cleaners sweeping up pieces of gravel and fallen leaves). By the end of our tour, we had befriended a few folks, and we all went out for some beers and okonomiyaki then chatted by the river until about 11pm! On to Hanoi, Vietnam tomorrow!


the glico running man is some sort of idol here for some reason, it was a candy company trying to advertise high calorie food as good for health and exercise in like the 1920s


one last okonomiyaki for the road


bill: we waited out by the dotonburi river late into the night to see if the hanshin tigers, an osaka baseball team, was going to the win the championship. baseball is huge here. in an otherwise very reserved and polite culture, the hanshin tigers fans are known to be crazy and rowdy. they havent won a championship since 1985, but when they do win, they tear up downtown osaka and have a habit of jumping off the dotonburi bridge, one time even tearing up a kcf mascot statue and throwing it into the river (leading to the curse of the colonel, which is why they haven't won a championship since). they lost, but they did go on to win the next game, the night after we left, and they did jump off the bridge but we missed it. oh well, at least the curse of the colonel is over.


the aformentioned bridge



bill: overall, we are extremely happy we decided to stop through japan on our way to vietnam. we really wish we had more time here, but that just means that we will have to come back to climb mount fuji, see the cherry blossoms, soak in the hot springs, and check out the north. japan is a very cool country - extremely reasonable, modern, liveable. the food is insanely good, the people so polite and respectful. sure there are some negatives about japan, like the flawed "one-and-a-half party" democratic system, the consumerism, the aging population, and the work culture, but these are just a drop in the bucket of how amazing this country is, and hey, nowhere is perfect, but japan is pretty close.


here is this week's video:



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