Friday, 11 January 2013

Japan: Nara and Kyoto

It only took about 40 minutes on the train to get to Nara from Osaka. We went on the JR line, which is still set out like a subway carriage so it was strange being sat directly opposite a stranger all the way there, especially when Nick was busily slurping his noodles that he'd bought for breakfast.

We got to Nara station and there was a really friendly old man at the information desk who gave us a map and advised us on a route that we should take to explore Nara and everything it had to offer.

When we stepped out side the sun was shining and it was a perfect day to go and discover all the hidden temples and shrines that were tucked away in Nara's small streets and parks. The main attraction for me were the wild deer that roamed around the park.

Nara Park

Nara Park

Away from the station we were surrounded by big trees and lots of grass. Completely different from the grey and neon of Osaka. We didn't have to walk for long before we saw a few deer, clustered around an old formidable looking woman, who turned out to be a deer food vendor. As soon as we bought some biscuits for them they swarmed around us, and very tamely took the food- not quite as wild as I'd expected.

Biscuit Lovers

Biscuit Devouring Deer

Dangerous Deer

Deer eating the biscuit

I loved their amazingly long eyelashes and white tails, but as soon as the biscuits were put away, my love for them was unrequited as they trotted off to the next person with a handful of biscuits.

We had arrived at about 10 and it was serenefully quiet as we strolled over the park to the first temple on our trail. This was Kofukuji temple, a five story pagoda Buddhist temple that's listed as a National treasure. At the base of it there were a few people going about their religious business, some quiet tourists taking pictures and a clever deer sniffing around for any biscuits that might be going spare.

Kofuquji Temple

Kofuquji Temple

Next, we walked through a few desserted streets, the only person we saw was a tuk tuk man, daintily dashing past. The white stone walls of the buildings on either side of the road were high so you couldn't see in, and the doors were all tightly shut, but there was an amazing tree hanging by the side of the road, drooping with the weight of all the fruit on it. We eventually got to another temple, that was shying away from the main roads. Just outside of the temple grounds there was another big herd of deer lazing around in the sun, so we sat by a tiny stream and Nick had a nap while I planned what to do once we finished in the park.

Tuk Tuk Man


Religious statue

Small temple

House Envy

Nap Time

After the nap we headed to the show piece of the walk the old man guide had taken us on, which was Todaiji Temple. A huge temple with a lake at its feet. We sat by the lake and watched as people milled around, coming in and out of the temple, the deer scrounging around for biscuits and old men watching the world go by.

Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple Path




Deer Snacks

After walking for so long we were starving, and having done my research with my trusty maps (that although Nick took the mick out of me for, I think he secretly valued them as much as I did) we went on the hunt for a traditional Japanese tea house and restaurant called Kana Kana. Not before stopping for some green tea ice cream. We walked through the covered market streets, calling into Muji on the way, and eventually turned onto a street with old traditional Japanese houses that are made of lots of dark wood, the windows have lots of slats across them and every now and then the odd bonsai tree seems to sprout from nowhere.

Green Tea Ice Cream

It wasn't very clearly signed but we eventually found it be noticing a crowd of people waiting outside the small wooden door. After 20 minutes we got in, there was a collection of tables with mismatched chairs and sofas and chintzy things on the tables, then an area with a bamboo mat with low tables where you sat on the floor. It was pretty dark apart from a floor to ceiling window at the front, which we were luckily sat close to.

Kana Kana traditional Japanese tea room and restaurant

We both ordered tea and the most amazing Japanese curries that I had tasted. I'd presumed that Japanese food would be alot like Korean food, but it's nowhere near as spicy. We followed the curries with desserts, mine was a delicious banana bread, with a crispy caramel glaze and ice cream and Nick had the best waffle that I had ever tasted.

Following that, it was starting to get dark and we were ready to head across the road to the Sake Brewery. I'd never tried Sake, but being Japan's equivalent of Korea's soju, I thought that it would be rude not to give it a go. We went to the brewery, which again was an old dark wooden building. It had a big deer head mounted on the wall as you walked in. We bought a shot glass, which had a deer imprinted into the bottom of it, then was lead to the room where there were lots of long benches with tables set up in a circle. The man served us 6 different types of Sake, by which time I was feeling slightly sloshed. Most of them were almost as unbearable as Soju to drink neat, and the best one was definitely a sparkling one, but once we checked out the price, we decided not to treat ourselves to any and skipped away.

Sake tasting

Sake menu

Sake Brewery

By that time we were rosy and warm because of the sake even if it was starting to get dark and frosty in the little town filled with deer addicted to biscuits and so many temples you could lose count, so we decided to head to Kyoto.

Kyoto Tower

Before we got there, the only thing that I knew about Kyoto was that Memoirs of a Geisha was set there, so as soon as we had landed and checked into the hostel (which was really nice called K's House) I got Nick to come geisha spotting with me in Gion. Unfortunately our search was in vain, although we did spot a couple of girls wearing kimonos, noone had the full make up and hair done.

The streets of Gion were exactly as I imagined Japan to be, I could picture Hatsumomo shuffling around in her kimono and geta, and the bath house where Chihiro worked to be just around the corner. The streets were cobbled and narrow, there were tiny bridges that led to shrines lit by glowing paper lanterns and all the doors and windows were locked tightly shut, but when you looked up you could see the glow through the paper blinds and every now and then hear laughter, as if there were lots of secret moments going on behind closed doors.

Gion at night

Gion Geisha district

Gion Geisha district

Shrine in Geisha District

We crossed the river in search of dinner, and settled on a hilarious Donkatsu restaurant where you pre ordered your meal through a vending machine. You could then take your seat and the server would bring it to you when it was ready. The restaurant even had its own TV channel. By that time it was getting late, so we reverted back to our Korean way of life by buying a few drinks at the Family Mart and drinking them by the river.

Curry out of a vending machine!

Drinks by the river

The next day the rain was tipping down so we lounged about in the hostel and tried to think of what we could do, we'd discovered that not only was my aforementioned pink suitcase unpractical, but so is my leopard print fur coat. It acts as a sponge and absorbs every bit of rain, and on the trip one of the buttons gave up the ghost and dropped off.

So at lunch time we headed to the food market which was under cover. It was bright, colourful and smelly as we walked through. There were weird and wonderful things on sale that I'd never even seen before, never mind considered putting in my mouth. It was packed from side to side with throngs of people trying to buy fresh produce for the up and coming New Year celebrations. Apparently New Year is a massive deal in Japan and food plays a major part in the celebrations.

Eventually we managed to break free and find a cafe called Cafe Independants, recommended on my lovely map. It was a basement cafe that had stone walls, mosaic floors and bright colourful art hung from the ceiling. It had a really European, industrial feel for it, playing records and people there were eating, drinking coffee or an early cocktail and just wasting away the wet afternoon there, exactly what we needed.

Cafe Independent

Once we'd dried off, it was late afternoon and we had an appointment at En, a place that performs  and explains the traditional tea ceremony, so we rushed back to Gion. If anyone knows me well, they know how clumsy I am, and unsurprisingly, making my way through the rain, I managed to slip over, my umbrella going one way and bag going the other. Poor Nick managed to not laugh until my tears subsided into laughs. We limped the rest of the way to the tea ceremony.

En was in a tiny little traditional Japanese house, we were led into the warm and tranquil room that was bare apart from a bamboo mat that covered the floor. The hostess was dressed in a kimono and asked us to sit on the floor. Unfortunately, after my meeting with the floor there was no way that I could kneel, so I felt very impolite sat in front of her as she looked so sophisticated. She talked us through the ritual of tea making and serving and preparing all of the utensils, then let us try making the tea for ourselves. It was really interesting to see how in depth it all was, and the fact that i make myself a cup of tea several times a day without thinking twice.

The most surprising thing that I found about the whole ceremony was the fact that you have to undergo ten years of training to become a master of the tea ceremony. Apparently you have to be knowledgable of Japan to become a hostess, so it's not all about how strong you make it!

Although I had a lovely time in Kyoto, the rain managed to put a stop to us enjoying it as much as we would have liked, it seemed pretty and quaint and I would love to go and look around a little more, but decided it was time that we took ourselves and my bloody knee back to Osaka.

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