Dispatches from the back of the sock drawer of life

Category: Japan 2017 Page 1 of 5

Posts on my 2017 trips to Japan

Nara and Osaka

Saturday 28th

Last full day in Nara, weather not great so decided to take breakfast at the hotel and spend a few hours catching up on the blog. On my arrival I had discovered that a once a year exhibition was occurring at the Nara National Museum, the The 69th Annual Exhibition of Shōsō-in Treasures. Ticket acquired, that was my destination for the afternoon.

In Nara, it seems it’s impossible to throw a rock without hitting a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine – and then they get annoyed about it. I’d seen some of the further flung sites on my ramblings, but now it was time to tour the biggest of them all – Tōdai-ji, the largest wooden building in the world, even though it’s a third smaller than when it was last rebuilt in 1709 after being consumed by fire.

Damp – oh deer

My route took me past tourists, trinket shops, and many damp – but still picturesque – deer, some of whom were clearly annoyed at the drop in visitors due to the weather, and were bullying the more timid visitors for more shika-senbei. Passing through the nandaimon (Great South Gate) I viewed the 8.4metre tall guardians, dating from 1203, commonly known as the “Ni-ō (Two Kings) of Tōdai-ji”.

Onwards to the Great Buddha Hall, or Daibutsu-den. It’s an amazing sight, looming over you as you get closer. Once inside, the 500 tonne, 15m high Vairocana Buddha is just astounding. With his attendants either side, and two more guardians at the rear of the hall, it’s awe-inspiring.


Then onwards to the museum for the exhibition – information here. The Shōsō-in (正倉院) is the treasure house that belongs to Tōdai-ji in Nara, Nara, Japan. The building lies to the northwest of the Daibutsuden, and houses artefacts connected to Emperor Shōmu (701–756) and Empress Kōmyō (701–760), as well as arts and crafts of the Tempyō period of Japanese history. Once a year around 60 of the 9,000 items are selected to be exhibited – the collection is not open to the public, and since it is a revered resource of imperial treasures the items have been kept in amazingly good condition. It’s quite stunning to see a carefully restored gigaku mask used in plays – made of papier mache and leather, it’s around 1300 years old.

Rounded off the day at LBK Craft – round 2 of the wagyu beef!

Sunday 29th

Morning train to Osaka Namba station. By this time, the second typhoon of my trip was passing through earlier than expected, but further south offshore. Lots of rain and wind, but no disruptions to travel.

On the train, I spotted an advertisement for an art exhibition – a display of the works of ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” and “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” have become iconic images. I was so pleased – I had missed an exhibition of his works at the British Museum over the summer, so imagine my surprise when I found that this was the second showing of that same exhibition. After checking into my hotel and finding lunch, I headed for the Abeno Harukas building – tallest building in Japan and home to the Abeno Harukas Art Museum.

It was incredibly busy – a couple of hours spent queueing past many of Hokusai’s later works, once more I was one of the only Western faces in the massive crowd. Again, no photos allowed, so I picked up the exhibition catalogue afterwards. Most of the text was in Japanese – more reason for me to study! – but all the artworks were titled in English as well. I decided to pass on the Hokusai themed ramen noodle kit.

300m mark

Following the exhibition I took the elevator up to the top few floors, where the Harukas 300 observatory gives amazing views out over the city. And with the sky starting to clear after the typhoon, and the sun heading towards the horizon, there were some memorable sights.


Rounded off the evening with a mini pub crawl of 3 of the best local craft beer spots.

Monday 30th

With a slightly heavy head, I made an early start to Namba station, to catch the futuristic yet retro looking Rapi:t (ラピート rapiito) train to Kansai International Airport. The trainsets, officially designated as the Nankai 50000 series, were designed by architect Wakabayashi Hiroyuki and won the Blue Ribbon Prize in 1995, 1 year after entering service.

It was one last reminder for this trip of how the Japanese bring a unique, and detail focussed, twist to so many aspects of their lives. Once again, I really didn’t want to come home – one of these days I may end up staying there…

Sunrise from the Rapi:t


Nara: Hiking and History pt 2

Friday 27th

Long walk out to Yakushi-ji temple/shrine complex. Unlike the old town on the east, west of Nara station you are straight into a modern Japanese town, apartment blocks, homes, shops, some industrial. Spied another old vending machine, faded from decades out in the sun.

Walked along the Saho River, it runs in a wide concrete trough but at least is tree lined – the width and depth of the trough (and the sand banks where there are wider areas) indicated just how much rainfall it has to cope with at times. Another typhoon on the way this Sunday night, hope it doesn’t mess up my flight…

Yakushi-ji is one of the most famous imperial and ancient Buddhist temples in Japan, that was once one of the Seven Great Temples of Nanto, located in Nara. The temple is the headquarters of the Hossō school of Japanese Buddhism. More info at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakushi-ji and other sites. One of the two pagodas flanking the main hall was covered with scaffolding and hidden away while undergoing a full restoration and maintenance.

Bus back to Nara centre, then walked a northerly route toward the temple complexes at Nara park. Again, followed the river for some of the way, then up a steep track that (according to Google Maps) should take me into the back of the whole complex. Track ends in a bolted gate. Hmph. Luckily it wasn’t padlocked, so made my way through to a path that was rarely walked along in the forest – deep drifts of leaves and rotted branches.

Got to the temple complex, and wandered for a time taking photos of rarely co-operative, but very photogenic, deer.

Wandered down into Naramachi again, seeking out a brewpub called なら麦酒ならまち醸造所/麦舎(むぎや)- the name in brackets translates as ‘Mugiya’. 3 of their own brewed beers (brewed 200 litres at a time on premises), and great izakaya/tapas style food. Much needed after the days hiking.

A quick aside about the deer of Nara

According to local folklore, sika deer from this area were considered sacred due to a visit from Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine.He was said to have been invited from Kashima Shrine in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture, and appeared on Mt. Mikasa riding a white deer. From that point, the deer were considered divine and sacred by both Kasuga Shrine and Kōfuku-ji. Killing one of these sacred deer was a capital offense punishable by death up until 1637, the last recorded date of a breach of that law.

After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred/divine status, and were instead designated as national treasures and are protected as such. Today, visitors can purchase “deer-crackers” (鹿煎餅 Shika-senbei) to feed the deer in the park. They are also known as the bowing deer, because given a little encouragement they will bow to you to get their feed of crackers. But they can also be a little… ‘pushy’ when it comes to their food, and the sign here gives fair warning that they’re still wild animals, no matter how cute.

Since the deer are a symbol of Nara, they have unsurprisingly been used as the basis of the cute mascots of Nara city. Sento-kun, half deer half Buddhist novice, has been described as “kimo-kawaii” – cute but grotesque. Then Shikamaro-kun – a cute stylised sika deer – came along, and is much more popular. I’ll let you decide from the pictures, but I think the Sento-kun statue is possibly the weirdest! There’s also a recent film project, in the vein of the Power Rangers, called “Yamatochogin Naraiger” – Yamato Superman Naraiger! If you ever wanted to know what a deer turned into a Power Ranger looks like – now you do.

Nara: Hiking and History pt 1

Thursday 26th

Tatami living

Arrived the evening before at my hotel, the Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring Hotel (what a mouthful…). Only a few minutes’ walk from the station, and the most expensive hotel so far – but still only £100 per night. Traditional Japanese interior but very modern and bright, the reception area was granite floored, but then the rest of the hotel was tatami matting – even in the lifts. One of the staff took my suitcase and carefully cleaned the wheels, then showed me the little lockers where I could put my shoes – no shoes on the tatami! Really nice room, and hot spring bath facilities downstairs.

Found a little yakitori restaurant a few minutes’ walk away, a welcome dinner of chicken bits’n’pieces on skewers, washed down with sake.

Ancient and modern

After a lie-in, headed to Starbucks for breakfast (yes, Ok, I know, but it was only a few steps away at the station tourist info building, and I had a need for their iced coffee and apple pie). Then to roam the city. Yesterday I was the only western face in an amusement park full of Japanese people. Today – tourists everywhere, even later in the season Nara is still a big draw. Decided to head to the south of the city to avoid them.


Strolled out through the old town area of Naramachi, with some lovely old buildings and a characteristic style of ‘latticed houses’ – vertical latticework covering the wooden frontages. Side streets had a real mix of the old and new, the usual power lines on poles that you find everywhere in Japan contrasting against the aged wood and beautiful roof tiles. Spotted an interesting piece of modern apartment architecture: Happiness Heigts (sic). By the look of it, I think the name was a tad aspirational…
Stopped to take a few pictures of the lovely buildings at Shonen-ji Buddhist temple. Along the way I spied a very old example of the ubiquitous street vending machines.

My lucky day

Suddenly, found myself walking past Harushika sake brewery! Of course, I had to take advantage of their 500 yen sake tasting… with free glass! 5 different sake styles with tasting notes in English, and a helpful expert to talk me through the selections. From dry to sweet, and even a sparkling sake, sweet with a cloudy appearance. A selection of Narazuke (pickled vegetables) made with the sake lees (what’s left after the sake is made) rounded off the tasting, not really my thing but the smoked pickled squash was pretty tasty.

Carried on out of Naramachi heading for a path which led into the Kasugayama Primeval Forest – sounded like my kind of place! Passed by another small Buddhist temple with fabulous roof tiles and decoration on the way. Heading up a slope, the path took me into a forested valley with a large stream running down the middle – and occasionally down the path as well. Lots of smaller streams running down from the sides joining the main flow. Quite beautiful. Feet in sandals did get rather wet and muddy at times though, and with the hand laid stone paving lining lots of sections – which had accumulated moss and lichen – footing was a little uncertain at times.

Got to the top of the stream and the path joined onto a wider, well graded path shown as the Kasugayama walking path. Halfway along I came across another Buddhist temple, Kishibosonjin – clearly this was a place of pilgrimage, with the long hike to reach the site and then the steep steps to the temple buildings tucked away in the forest.

The path then took me back down towards my starting point at the edge of the area of the shrine grounds, and as I neared the exit from the forest I saw movement among the trunks to my left – a small herd of deer darting away as they saw me, crossing the path further down along where I was heading. Really lovely to see them in the forest rather than in the middle of the shrines or the park – it felt like they were in their proper place. There was a male and a dozen or so females, and predictably just as I got perfect shots lined up they would turn away or move behind a tree. Still, got some good ones.

Stopped into a bar/restaurant called LBK Craft that I’d found online, to grab a pint and book a seat for dinner later. Quick stop at the hotel for Onsen and a change of clothes, then back to LBK. The owners, Bob (American, long term resident of Japan) and Lily (Chinese, also long term in Japan) were fantastic hosts.

And Kimu (their culinary wizard) produced food that meant steak would never seem the same to me again – premium grade Japanese Kobe-bred Wagyu beef, and an awesome rice stirfry.


Before bed, decided to try the onsen baths on the ground floor. The hotel provides loose jinbei style pajamas that you can wear around the hotel and onsen, and towels for each day. Separate male and female baths were accessed by room key, and I followed the usual etiquette (great guide at http://www.onsenjapan.net/onsenbasics.php) – and after my long day hiking the 43degC bath was very welcome – once I got used to it!

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