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Nara, Japan

Dec 4 – 5

Nara is a good place to wander around alone. It’s small and manageable, there’s lots to see, and you can see most everything in one very full day. You can also walk wherever you want to go, which is a nice change from the bigger cities.

It was kinda fun to be back on my own again. And I kept stopping so often to take pictures, I don’t think anyone would have wanted to be with me anyway.

Nara Park has tons and tons of famous Sika deer, which according to the Shinto religion, are regarded as sacred messengers of the gods. These “sacred deer of Nara” are strictly protected by law.

They are also very very tame.

And you can feed the deer some shika sembei (deer cookies), which you can buy from little stands scattered all over town.

These deer love their deer cookies. And this makes them quite aggressive. They will head butt you as you pass and nudge your legs to demand some food. I have heard that in the summer they still have their antlers and will chase you (a quite scary and sometimes painful ordeal).

This guy is eagerly waiting for someone to buy him some cookies.

While these deer are feared by some tourists, they are loved by the city…and the tourist industry. And images of deer are displayed all over the place (from temple lanterns..to street signs..to photos of little kids in wheelchairs playing with deer).

Some people take the deer thing a bit too far though, making this the most bizarre case of deer exploitation that I have ever seen! Go to any souvenir shop in Nara and you can buy any deer related item that you could ever possibly imagine – from sexy deer woman pendants to large bean bags shaped like deer.

Here are some good ones:

Deer cell phone tassels

Deer chocolates

Little deer cakes with various fillings

Deer hats

Plastic blow up deer toys

Little deer children

You can even buy deer body parts (hopefully these aren’t the sacred ones).

And this guy seems to be the mascot for the whole thing. He’s on all the buses and tourist literature.

Deer related items are the biggest craze in Nara, but some stores also sell ninja outfits.

Nara is the home of eight temples and shrines. These famous sites, along with the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, make up the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara,” which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Tōdai-ji is a Buddhist temple that houses a large bronze Buddha statue and some other statues and guardians protecting the entrance.

There is also the Kōfuku-ji.

And the Kasuga Shrine.

Other famous monuments in Nara are the Saidai-ji, Gangō-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji and Heijō Palace.

And Buddha statues can be found all over the park.

After visiting all the monuments, I walked around some more.

I didn’t really leave time to sit down and have a proper lunch, so I just ate street food while I walked.

I stopped by the Photography Museum and met one of the photographers – a nice Japanese man who spoke a tiny bit of English and wanted to talk to me about my trip in Japan.

And then I kept walking and getting distracted by all the cute little neighborhoods.

Even though Nara is a small city, I ended up getting kinda turned around. If you stay on the tourist trail, you don’t even really need a map (as there are clear signs in English on almost every corner to tell you which direction you are heading). But once you venture even 2 or 3 streets away from this popular route, all the street signs are gone. It was getting dark and I ended up passing by the University and finding a student who could point me in the right direction. It’s a good thing too – because I was headed in the complete opposite direction of where I wanted to be.

My hostel, Ugaya Guesthouse, was very cute. And the people working there were friendly and spoke some English.

I sat down and joined the group of guys on their laptops. Except for an Italian guy (the only other guest at the hostel), everyone else hanging out there was Japanese. Some seemed to be friends of the owners and others were just using the place as an Internet cafe. I taught them a few things in English (for some reason, one of them wanted to learn how to say “Now allow me to boast a little”). They taught me how to say “I like it!” in Osaka language. In the morning, some of them were still asleep on the couches downstairs.

The next day, it was terribly rainy…so a great day for sitting on a train. My rail pass was officially activated that day too, so I hopped on the train to Hiroshima. The person at the ticket office wrote out my route for me (note how specific the times are). The trains are always exactly on time.

Notes:

  • Japan is famous for its autumn leaves. Here is a guide showing the best places and times to view them.

  • The trains in Japan are so punctual that you can set your watch to them. If you make seat reservations (which you can do at a ticket office right before you board the train), you will get a ticket displaying the exact time the train will depart and the exact time it will arrive at your destination. And if the arrival time says 15:52, the train will arrive precisely at 15:52. If you’re sleepy – no worries. Just set your alarm for a few minutes before the arrival time and by the time you wake up and have all your stuff organized, the train will be pulling into the station exactly on time. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t know how they do that. Most train lines run very frequently too. So if you miss one, you generally only have to wait about 12 minutes until the next one. Because trains are so exact, Japanese people seem to have a better grasp on time management than many people do. It’s not uncommon for someone to say they’ll meet you at the train station at 10:18 or 10:21 rather than just rounding up to the nearest quarter of an hour. And if they say they’ll be there, they’ll be there.

  • Here is some info about the shinkansen, Japan’s high speed trains operated by Japan Railways (JR). These trains are so fast, they are often referred to as bullet trains. They link most of Japan’s major cities.

Some trains are even double decker.

  • Some train cars are reserved for women during certain times of the day.

  • Another thing Japan does to make train travel easy is that they have fare adjustment machines at every ticket station. I think it’s such a great idea and it saves the guys at the ticket stations from having to spend all their time helping confused people figure out how much money they owe. So even if you don’t understand the Japanese subway map showing you how much to pay for your destination, you can just put any small amount of money into the ticket machine to get a train ticket. Then once you actually get to your destination, you can feed the ticket into one of the fare adjustment machines. The machine detects where you came from and where you are now and tells you exactly how much more money you owe. Very simple. Very awesome.

  • If you have a JR pass (available for tourists only), life is very easy. You don’t have to calculate the price of the ticket, pay the machine, or deal with the lines of people waiting to go through the ticket gate. You just show the person at the station your pass and they let you through. If feels kinda like a VIP pass or something. Sometimes though, traveling by JR lines isn’t the most efficient route to take to your destination. In these cases, you’ll either have to pay for a subway, or travel a longer distance if you want to use your pass. Another thing about JR passes is that they cannot be purchased once you get to Japan. You have to go to a licensed travel agent outside of Japan and buy an exchange order. Then once you’re in Japan, you go to a ticket office and turn in your exchange order to get your pass. It’s very bureaucratic…and unnecessarily so, in my opinion. Here is some info on the JR pass and how to obtain one.

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1 Comment

  1. Grandma

     /  December 30, 2008

    Sweetie, This Nara looks like a great place – like something you would enjoy. Loved seeing all the pictures and the deer do look very tame. I’m glad you are finding internet access to make these postings. What an experience you are having!
    Love you,
    Grandma

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