Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara

Such is the proximity of Nara to Kyoto by train (44 minutes over a distance of approx. 40km) that I was able to leave late morning, my notebook has an entry at 1125, I’m not sure if that was written on the train or just before.

The rest of the page reads as follows:

“I am hitting all the tourist hits since I am just as much the tourist. I am treading the well worn path and following directions and the path of others, I do not know if this makes me very conventional or just a diligent tourist.”

There are reasons that these places are tourist hits and while I might not be blazing new trails, it is still a new trail for me.

Once I arrived in Nara, the first thing to do was to get in the tourist office for a couple of maps and to ask a few questions about buses and the like. Although I wanted to have lunch first and despite the heat had a little wander across the way to a shopping street. Even though I’d had fish for dinner, I still felt like eating more fish and following the bright posters on the sandwich board outside one building headed up some stairs to a seafood restaurant.

Like most cities there are also restaurants in Japan which I’d guess you’d call theme restaurants probably part of a chain and this one had all sorts of paraphernalia you’d associate with fishing and the sea. It was also still one of the restaurants in Japan where you can smoke as I noted from the smell emanating from two tables away. I used to smoke but stopped more than 13 years ago now and have really come to dislike it.


My choices out of the menu, great looking pictures but what about the reality?


I’d say that’s pretty close to accurate in comparison with the menu, the donburi was 952 Yen which is £5.28, yes you read that correctly.

Fortified by my lunch I made my way to the bus stop to head for the main attraction of Nara which is the Tōdai-ji (eastern Great Temple) which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) and is a National Treasure.

As you walk towards the park that surrounds the temple grounds first thing you see are the Sika Deer, I’m not sure what the percentage of tourists that come for the deer or the temple complex is but nevertheless it is quite a sight to see both tourist and deep wandering freely around the complex. The deer were considered to be divine and sacred due to a visit from one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred/divine status and were instead designated as national treasures.

It is possible to feed the deer and deer crackers (Shika Senbei) can be purchased from vendors around the park.


It seems I wasn’t the only one to be feeling the heat that day!




The deer are generally pretty docile until you give them the possibility of something to eat then they become not exactly aggressive but they will butt you and nip at you. It is quite a sight to see how different people react to being swarmed by deer. There are quite often shrieks from teenagers and people in their twenties for whom this might be the closest they get to wild animals ever. Some people would throw the crackers away from them as soon the deer approached.

There are also some deer that will bow for their food or just bow if you bow to them.

I did feed the deer and I thought I’d found a quiet spot with only three deer, the next thing you know I was surrounded 360º by deer and getting prodded, butted and nipped at. Somewhere out there there is photographic proof of my deer feeding in Australia or Taiwan since that seemed to where the tourists taking pictures of me were from. There was no shrieking or throwing of crackers from me since I figured the deer wouldn’t actually eat me!

In my quest to take pictures different from everybody else I now realize that I missed out on telling the whole story in some respects. A wide shot showing the grounds and just how many deer are around would have good to have. I actually realized this sitting on the bus back to the station and was tempted to go back but didn’t maybe next time if there is a next time. Despite the large number of people visiting, it never really felt crowded as there is plenty to see in the ample park land.

Leading up to to the Daibutsu-den, one of the first structures is the Nandaimon Gate (Great South Gate) built in the 12th Century, which houses two temple guardian statues carved from wood that stand at 28 feet tall.

IMG_1680Nandaimon Gate.




The Nio, the muscular guardians of the Buddha are according to Wikipedia a pair known as Ungyo who has a closed mouth and Angyo who is shown with an open mouthed expression. The pair were carved by Unkei and Kaikei and their workshop members. They are an impressive and imposing sight, arresting in their features as well as the technical achievement in carving them.

Once through the gate, the path leads towards the Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) which was once the largest wooden structure in the world.



Its difficult to convey how big the building is but the people dotted around in the pictures should do something to illustrate this.



The Buddha is 14.98 m (49.1 ft) in height and 28 m across and weighs in at 500 tonnes.

That is one big Buddha!

Also within the structure are other exhibits which show the skill involved in carving the wooden sculptures.


I’m not even sure which way I wandered off but for a while I enjoyed the shaded wooded areas of the park as headed towards the hillside.

It is only now after looking properly at a map that it seems I did meander a fair bit.

Breaking cover from the trees I found myself at the bottom of some stairs which led up to another hall called Nigatsu-do. I do remember mentally asking myself if I really wanted to try to walk up the east entrance stairs in the heat.

Details on the steps.

At the top the view was like this:

Nigatsu-do (The Hall of the Second Month) itself is  decorated with lanterns hanging outside.

From there I wandered off in the general direction of south east, with no real fixed itinerary for my day which is either great or mindless depending on your perspective, I found myself by a set of shops selling calligraphy items to souvenir food. By souvenir food, I mean carefully packaged boxes of local specialties which can range from rice crackers to sweets, think fudge from Cornwall but packaged much better. I did pop into the calligraphy shop if anything just to cool down from their air conditioner.

I’m not one for selfies and have largely kept pictures of myself away from here so far but I did take one by the closed shutter of the shop with somebody else resting.


Oh deer, obligatory selfie with Nara resident with interesting head gear.

Even now looking at the map all these months later, I’m not even sure how I managed to go around the park in a seemingly strange route!

I took the path towards the Kasuga Taisha Shrine but with the  5 p.m closing time upon me was not able to think about going inside, still I caught a glimpse of some of the vermillion coloured buildings.


The paths leading to the shrine are lined with approximately 2000 stone lanterns of various shapes and sizes.

As well as the occasional lion:


 Tiring now, I found a bus stop that had hardly anybody waiting for a bus and checked and rechecked that I was at the right stop to get back to the station. Actually, it was a different bus than the one that I took to get there but it nevertheless got me to the station. For the most part I discovered that most buses will hit the city station at some point in most cities in Japan.

For those of you who might be wondering but I don’t speak or read Japanese, there is English signage in the places that you need it.

I present the side of the train carriage:


You now also know how Kyoto is written in Japanese!

Later that evening in Kyoto, I met up with my mother who was in town on business and ate at the station that evening. Eating at the station is not the grim affair that you might imagine, in Japan, stations especially the larger ones are joined to department stores or have areas dedicated to restaurants. I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned that so apologize now if  I’ve started to repeat myself.

What did you eat? I hear you ask.


It looks like I had a slightly strange combination but as I’ve mentioned before sometimes that’s what great about eating out is that you can a bit of everything. So on the left is Oshizushihako, pressed sushi which is as it sounds. First the rice is put in a box then the topping and the top part literally presses down. Above that is tempura and zaru soba.

Continue reading “Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara”

Thursday 9th July, Kanazawa to Kyoto

I awoke to a day with no rain and since for whatever reason I hadn’t selected a breakfast option and didn’t fancy the hotel buffet so headed out. My breakfast in the end was a couple of bread rolls from a chain of bakeries called Donq, it seems they’ve been around in Japan for quite a while since my Japanese friends all knew it whenever I mentioned it. I found it amusing that in Japan that I should end up with a plastic carrier bag adorned with a map of Paris on it. I suppose I take it for granted but the Japanese do do very good artisan bread.

My plan was to take the 1519h train from Kanazawa to Kyoto. This would give me time to explore Kanazawa a little more. After asking for opinions on where to go with a limited time to the tourist office, the consensus seemed to be to head for the Higashi Chaya District.

The buildings there are an opportunity to see authentic buildings from the Edo period and something which many people expect to be found  all over Japan having seen those style buildings in films but in fact are not so frequent anymore. Kanazawa has three, well preserved chaya (lit. teahouse) districts, Higashi Chayagai (Eastern Chaya District), Nishi Chayagai (Western Chaya District) and Kazuemachi. A chaya was where guests were entertained by geisha, I will not be going into detail about geisha, since I cannot afford to be entertained by or have never been invited to any function where one or more have been present. For what a geisha is and does, please click on the blue link for the wikipedia page, thank you.

IMG_1583 IMG_1584

One of the tea houses there has been preserved and is now a museum, another is open to the public, for the most part the other buildings now house shops and cafes. There are also many shops selling the crafts of which Kanazawa is famous for and some have what are either called “traditional” or “cultural” experiences that let you get a very quick and easy feel for a craft or art. For the most part the difficult parts are done by the master craftsmen but nonetheless it can be a worthwhile experience and you get the satisfaction of having made something. One of which as well as selling gold leafed items has a tearoom entirely covered with gold leaf interior and exterior.



It seemed I was a little enthusiastic with my sightseeing as I arrived in the district with many places still closed, on the plus side that meant it hadn’t been swarmed upon yet and so I could wander back and forth a couple of times. There was plenty to see and it was strange stepping off a busy road and ending up on a street lined with wooden buildings.

Under the eaves of the buildings was also quite a treat…


Packed into the nests sometimes up to six chicks at a time were swallow chicks, their parents flitting back and forth but never dangerously close enough to the abundant people walking by. The adult swallows make their presence known enough to let you know that they are there. I didn’t see anybody behaving irresponsibly towards the birds and I think much like myself for the most part, people were just astonished to be able to see the chicks up close.

In retrospect it seems I haven’t actually taken a picture looking down the street with the preserved tea houses for which I apologize and find very strange that I didn’t take a picture of!


These girls are wearing yukata, lightweight summer kimonos.


Not the main street but one of the smaller streets off from the main one but gives a good feel of the architecture there.

I decided to try one of the traditional experiences and chose the Sakuda Gold Leaf Shop, from the street it’s dominated by their showroom/shop which has plenty of examples of gold leafed objects for sale. The experience is advertised as a do-it-yourself gold leaf application and takes around an hour to an hour and a half.

You are shown various items that can have gold leaf applied to them from boxes to plates, the price is different according to the size. I chose a small lidded box, then you’re taken into a small space with tables to work on, since I was an early bird I was able to walk in and have a go without a reservation but it might be better to reserve ahead depending on when you go and if you want to do it.

The first thing to do was to choose a design, in the top right of the picture you can see the corners of various metal stencil sheets, I chose this rabbit and moon design which you then draw onto a masking tape square. Then you cut the design out, so far easy enough. Then you need to apply the tape to the lid of the box, all of this is done under the watchful eye of an old gentleman who is leafing items to sold in the shop. Once you’ve completed the stencil cutting, he takes your item from you and applies the gold leaf, I had wondered how that would actually work since it needs some dexterity and I could imagine the delicate sheets going all over the place in the hands of clumsy tourists like myself. With leaf applied, you’re then asked to wait half an hour, I wonder if this is a ploy to make you go back in the shop. 😉


Here’s the finished box with the rabbit and moon design I selected, they pack it up for you and instruct you to leave it for 2 weeks before applying nail varnish topcoat. (It took me a bit of time finding top coat in the supermarket, I now have a small bottle of topcoat that I don’t use!) Not bad and a nice memento to have of my brief visit…


That said I did actually buy a couple of items while waiting though fully aware that due to trying to very limited luggage space for the next 3 weeks that I would have to limit my purchases to small items only. This was actually a good thing in the end because it meant I had to be very selective in what I did buy.

This small Daruma that I bought, came in various sizes, this being the smallest. While I waited for my daruma to be boxed and up and until my box was ready, I was served some cold summer tea which also contained tiny bits of gold leaf!



This is the small daruma that I bought.

(The following text is from Wikipedia: The Daruma doll (達磨 daruma?), also known as a Dharma doll, is a hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. These dolls, though typically red and depicting a bearded man (Dharma), vary greatly in color and design depending on region and artist. Though considered an omocha, meaning toy, Daruma has a design that is rich in symbolism and is regarded more as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese. Daruma dolls are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement) came in various sizes, this being the smallest.

I made my way from Higashi Chaya with the intention of having a leisurely lunch but for some reason due to impatience on my part for a bus that wouldn’t arrive, I decided to try to get one more attraction in even if it was briefly. Rolling up my shirt sleeves I walked on, hen the sights are new, I find myself able to walk relatively grumble free because natural curiosity will distract me from the heat or the strain.

A few people and not just those at the tourist office in Kanazawa had recommended or at least told me to try to see Kenrokuen Garden. The garden originated more than 300 years ago and is one of the most famous gardens in Japan, originally the garden of the secondary residence of the feudal lord, it attracts visitors year round. I have a feeling that my speedy tour of the most photographed section did not do it justice. The rain also started to fall again calling time on my visit as well as my stomach starting to grumble at not having had any lunch.


Detail of the moss found in the grounds of the garden, the star like pattern is something I found to be pleasing when seen in multiplied repetition.



The Kotoji Toro, a two-legged stone lantern than is emblematic of not only the garden but of the city itself. (You can see the rain was back if you look at the surface of the water!)

I made my way back to the station and the hotel and had a late lunch in the shopping centre next door to the station. I chose a restaurant called Keisuke Ramen which was located in the Forus Shopping mall. My choice was a Shio (Salt Broth) Ramen set which came with fried rice and 3 gyoza,  which cost 1180 Yen which is just under $10 or £6.50! Puts the eating ramen in London for £11 a bowl into perspective!



Satisfied with my lunch and since I was next door to the station, I collected my luggage and set about finding my train, platform and carriage with time to spare. I would be taking the:

Kanazawa to Kyoto Limited Express Thunderbird 32 (Yes, really, Thunderbird!)

Departure: 1519h

Duration: 140 minutes

Distance: 224.8 km


image257 (2)Please click on the map to see it in detail, Kyoto is central section of the map below the bold type that reads Kansai.

No need for a bullet train this time but even this time the train the still huge compared to what I was used to in England, again I wish I could tell you about the scenery but it happened again and I slept for almost an hour and a half!


I have a feeling that is Lake Biwa which is some 30 minutes outside of Kyoto and somewhere perhaps I might explore and visit sometime in the future.


I arrived at Kyoto Station and despite a little recognition at being there before still felt somewhat surprised at the level of activity there. Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and today retains a strong identity for its temples, shrines, wooden houses and gardens as well as other traditional arts and crafts.

There are so many things to see and do in Kyoto that despite several visits there remain many places that I intended to to see but was not able to on this visit or on previous visits. Some of the more iconic images of Kyoto that you might know or might have seen will not be seen here since I had been to them previously in 2012. These would include places like Fushimi Inari, with their seemingly endless red torii gates which I would recommend going to and did consider going to again but didn’t this time round.

I booked into the Hotel Unizo Kyoto Shijo Karasuma which was a short subway ride from Kyoto Station, thankfully Kyoto’s subway system is nothing like Tokyo’s spaghetti consisting of only two lines! The hotel is from what I gather a new build so everything was very clean, I didn’t specify where I would like my room though and the frosted window opened partially to reveal an apartment block next door, the room was quite cramped and if anything had too much furniture in it. There was no wardrobe to speak of just some hangers extending out from a couple of poles, I used a small round table for my suitcase and headed out. The location of the hotel is minutes away from the main shopping streets where there plenty of restaurants and branching off more streets with restaurants and shops, it was all somewhat familiar and I even found the branch of Loft that I had mistaken to be in Tokyo, in anticipation of the hot weather to come and with the added bonus of a sale I bought myself a cap.


What I hadn’t realized when making my itinerary was that the Gion Matsuri was coming up in Kyoto, of which I will go into in further detail in upcoming posts. It was both strange and familiar being back in Kyoto, the air was humid, the voices a mixture of American English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and Spanish in and around the streets.

I chose to eat Okonomiyaki that evening, which is a savoury type of pancake which is made with various ingredients and cooked on a hot plate, in some places it’s cooked for you, in others you cook it yourself. The batter is made mainly from water, flour, eggs and cabbage. To this then different ingredients like pork, squid, spring onions can be added in any combination, yakisoba (fried noodles) can also be incorporated.

I went to a restaurant called Hana Tanuki.

I ordered the Special Tanuki Okonomiyaki although first things first I did have this… 😉 🙂


I can’t remember which mix I had with my okonomiyaki and I suspect I might have eaten something else as well…


With my belly full and buoyed with a nice cold beer or was it two, I ambled back to my hotel and picked up a couple of bread rolls from the nearby convenience store for breakfast and slept well.

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