Japan: a historical stroll through Nara
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
Back to Japan.
This wasn’t our first visit and certainly wasn’t going to be our last. This country has literally never stopped to fascinate us. Having a master in Japanese also helps to get around, make easy conversation with the locals to uncover hidden pearls (restaurant recommendations, non-touristic beautiful temples or other spots). But let’s make it clear that you don’t necessarily have to be able to speak Japanese to visit Japan. This country has grown so much over the last years that you will find English subtitles nearly everywhere in cities. So taking the train/subway or going out to eat has never been easier for tourists.
Japan is a country that is hard not to love. It is a land with a lot of contradictions. People can be really traditional yet modern. You won't find a country that cherishes its history so much, yet embraces all kinds of innovative technology as well! In the biggest cities on earth, the inhabitants will occupy every possible space outside of their house with a flowerpot or a fruit tree. The respect for each other and nature, I have never found in any other country before.
So not just a quick visit. This time we aimed to stay in Japan for two whole months to visit a couple more areas that were on our bucket list. Deciding what to visit in Japan was a real though cookie, there were plenty of places to visit and experience, but they could be really remote or just very far from anything else. We decided early on to visit Nara and Kyoto first and we would figure out the rest when we were in Japan. There is a difference in just going on a vacation and having a budget ready for that, and a world tour in which you hope to experience a lot of countries for a long time. Some countries may end up being more expensive than others. Some have expensive lodging, some have expensive transport. You have to take into account that the travel doesn’t end there. There’s gonna be a next country and you wanna make sure you still have some budget for that one and the following…
We departed from Los Angeles airport at 00.50 in the morning. Since it would be an 11 h flight straight to Tokyo we figured we would catch some sleep on the plane. From Tokyo we transferred and took an inland flight towards Osaka airport. Everything went smoothly on our first flight but when we transferred to our inland flight, airpot security stopped me to ask me about some content in my bag. I kind of expected this already because I know how strict Japan is on the subject of tattoos and I brought my machines with me. You’d thought I brought a gun to the airport. They asked me to open the case in which I carried my equipment and they looked and poked at it like it was some mini nuclear bomb that could go off anytime. I explained everything to them, in Japanese (this resolved the issue so much quicker) and they just wanted to sent it with regular luggage since it was in a case. After explaining that this was very expensive equipment and them reassuring me that it would be taken care of really gently, we went on our way to Osaka. A small delay and 1h flight time later we arrived in Osaka and picked up our luggage without any problem.
We still had to get to Nara, but if there is one thing that we love about Japan it’s their public transport system. 1h after we arrived in Osaka we were already in Nara!!! Just imagine, all the trains were on time, a train every 15 minutes, clean train cars and plenty of space to sit or stand… And in Belgium the trains run late when it is sunny, or rainy, or windy, or if you give them a funny look.
The first thing we ate after settling at our airbnb, was some good ol’ curry at the local coco ichiban. The coco ichiban is a Japanese chain restaurant that serves superdelicious curry. If you happen on one of these little restaurants, don’t hesitate. Dig in!
When you visit Nara you’ll encounter a lot of tourists in some areas. No, Nara is not an immigration hotspot but the main things for which people go to Nara: Kofukuji-ji, Todai-ji, Nara dear park, the Kasuga Taisha shrine, Isui-en garden,... are all pretty much in the same spot, just a 10 minute walk from the train station. There are a lot of other places but these are the most famous ones. One general tip of advice: if you want to visit things in peace and quiet with plenty of photo opportunities and not too many tourists, go really early.
We took it easy the first couple of days because we did have some jet lag (we think) and travelling for 17+ hours is not that much fun really, even if everything went well.
The first day we took a relaxing stroll through Nara, thinking we might just visit a couple of temples on our path. It was still early enough when we came upon the Kofuku-ji and the Kasuga Taisha shrine right by the deer park, but we decided to come back an other day for the Todai-ji because by noon, it was already swarming with tourists. The day after we mainly stayed at the airbnb to get some work done (editing the blog, going through pictures, …).
One thing to know is that Japan has 2 main religions: Shinto, which evolved from the Japanese culture, and Buddhism, which came from the mainland. The Buddhist temples are called ‘ji’ (meaning ‘temple’), and the Shinto shrines have no affix to their name or just the word ‘jingu’ (meaning ‘shrine’). Temples will often have a dark wooden look, and they can get really big (broad and high). Shrines you will most of the time recognise by their warm bright red colour. But don’t be surprised to see some mingling among them. These two religions have for some time been happily living together, so temple complexes with toriis (shinto gates) here and there are not uncommon. A lot Japanese people can’t even tell a buddhist custom from a shintoist. (Protective charms you’ll also find in both). We visited both a lot of temples as we did shrines. But at least you’ll know the difference a bit when we’re talking about them here.
The first temple we visited, was the Kofuku-ji. Just a 10 minute walk from our airbnb, the 5 story pagoda was easy to spot and recognisable. The Kofuku-Ji was one of the 7 great temples in Nara and a well maintained one. They had just finished rebuilding the central golden hall, which unlike its brothers is painted in bright red. When we talked with one of the caretakers at the Kofuku-ji, he explained how when something is run down, or so badly damaged it can’t be salvaged anymore, they just rebuild it. So some buildings were new, some seemed old but were new, and some were just old. They really don’t hold back replacing an old part of a pillar in a temple when it’s necessary. Now that's resilience!
Although a lot of temples are similar in style of architecture, they all have their own style, influenced by the branch of buddhism or the family/clan it was owned by. Also, while some focus more on a statue of Buddha, some spend more attention to bodhisattvas and other temples have a rustique zen garden or beautiful washitsu (Japanese rooms). It really depends on the temple. There are just never two the same in my opinion.
Since the area in Nara we stayed in had several temples close by each other, we decided to try and do most of them in one day. It’s not as if you spend hours and hours lingering around in a temple (except if its a huge temple complex).
So next one on our list was the Todai-ji. To get to this temple we had to walk through the Nara deer park. As you can guess it is full of deer and hanging out here is a delight! They are so cute and gentle! They are used to being fed by people since you can buy deer cookies from the several stalls scattered all over the park. The animals easily flock to the people because of this. Little word of caution: if you have food, stand still, tease them,… they can get a bit moody and pull at your sleeve or if you’re unlucky kick you,… even if they are pretty tame, they remain wild animals so be a dear (get it?) and use your common sense. Walk on if you don’t want to attract their attention.
After a 15 minute stroll through the deer park we finally arrived at the Todai-ji. Well, the gate leading up to the temple. This giant structure made in wood absolutely baffles the mind! There were some tourists walking beneath which gave some perspective. Gate vs ants really. Sadly enough we already saw the hordes of tourists arriving, kind of like the zombie hordes in the walking dead. We did walk up the the temple entrance, but decided to come back the next day really early so we would have a more opportunity to enjoy our visit to the temple.
After this, we made our way to the Kasuga Taisha shrine nearby. The Kasuga Taisha shrine was one of the most important shrines in Nara. It was build at the same time as the city itself and is dedicated to the protection of the city. It is a beautiful shrine, surrounded by the Nara Park and forest. The warmth of the red painted shrine really stands out in the dark green mossy forest in which it stands. The hundreds of brass lanterns hanging about, some of which bright gold and others already green due to oxidation, really give it that extra touch of magic. For just a small fee you can enter and explore some of the temple grounds. Totally recommend this! There is a dark room somewhere on the premise, filled with mirrors and lit lanterns, giving the impression of a thousand lanterns!
The next day we woke up early (at 6) and made our way back to the Todai-ji. You can only enter the temple itself from 8AM. But we still wanted to take some pictures before the busloads of tourists came trotting in. Obviously we weren’t the first ones with that idea. A couple of of school buses full of Japanese kids arrived and entered together with us. We still had enough time and room to take some beautiful pictures before making our way inside the temple. The entrance fee was 1000 yen but it was well worth it. In a beautiful green oasis the Todaiji stands out as an impressive wooden monument. The outside alone was gorgeous and when we entered the temple, we were greeted by one the of the biggest Vairocana buddha (15m) statues we had ever seen! The Todaiji is one of the largest wooden structures in the world and houses the bronze Vairocana buddha statue. This temple is definitely on my list of favourites for sure!
The following day we decided to go head a little more into the suburbs of Nara, towards the Horyu-ji. The temple was a bit more off the beaten track since it isn’t located at the centre of Nara near the other temples. Meaning there were a lot less tourists (yay!!), which gave us plenty of time and space to explore the temple complex at our own pace. The Horyu-Ji is one of the oldest temples in Japan and has one of the world’s oldest wooden structures that still stands today. Not just the main hall but the five story pagoda are in such a good state you’d think these were build yesterday.
We finished our stay in Nara with a couple of days exploring the inner city and shopping streets and eating lots of delicious foods! More about some below in the recommendations.
Rested and fulfilled of Nara, we packed up after ten days and made our way towards our favourite city, Kyoto, where the real temple/shrine rush began.
First a BIG important tip: If you really want to enjoy good and reasonably priced food, go where the locals go. Avoid places that look western or only have English pasted over the shop. Don’t look for food around touristic spots (famous temples, monuments or popular streets). Not only will you get little food that tastes poorly, you’ll probably pay double too (except food stalls). The smaller, greasier and full of locals places are the ones where you want to get your grub. And if they don’t speak a word English, just say the magic word ‘o-susume’. Which means ‘your recommendation’. You’ll always get the best food.
One pearl we discovered and are really excited to share is the Fujimon seimen. This ramenya has been featured in the Michelin guide! Japan is probably one of the few countries were it can still be easy and affordable to eat in restaurants mentioned in the guide. Not only the presentation of Fujimon’s ramen was perfect but the taste was absolutely divine. So far we had never tasted a ramen so well balanced yet flavourful. We could probably eat this every day! Another food, more like a snack, that is surely worth the try (though you will find it everywhere in Japan) is macha soft ice. Actually anything sweet as ice or cookies or cake with macha flavor doesn’t disappoint. Make sure to try these!
Maybe we didn’t notice it last time we were in Japan, but sweet potato seemed like a new trend! And everywhere you turned you’d find delicious freshly baked sweet potatoes or at the famous bakery ‘Vie de France’ I tried out a golden coloured sweet potato pastry. I don’t have to convince you to tell you the taste was heavenly!
Coco-ichiban curry. Already recommended to us by one of our best friends, we also became addicts of the delicious curry served in here. There's lots of dishes to choose out of, you can assemble your own plate or make some additions to an already existing dish! The food is really heartwarming and fills you up real good too so hop in there if you have a big appetite!
Always open google maps on your smartphone. Even offline you’ll still have a map and a dot representing your location so you should always be able to orientate yourself.
Temples and shrines:
Horyu-ji: this temple is a bit of the beaten track (not near all the others). It’s a beautiful complex with a great hall, a great pagoda and is the oldest (remaining) manmade wooden structure in the world. It’s definitely worth a visit and Haythim’s personal favourite in Nara! Take the Yamatoji line in Nara station and get off at the Horyuji station. ( 13 mins, 3 stops) and walk about 15 minutes on foot. Go in the morning. Entrance +- 1000 yen p/p.
Todai-ji: The Todaiji is in the tourist hotspot of Nara but it is really worth a visit. The entrance gate is huge and the temple itself is one of the biggest wooden structures in the world. It houses a 15m high Vairocana buddha that is absolutely gorgeous. My personal favourite! Exit Nara station, (you’ll see an information centre/starbucks on your left) and follow the main street towards the Kofuku-ji/ Nara deer park. You’ll have to walk a little through Nara deer park and then turn left towards the Todaji. Don’t worry there are more than enough maps and arrows pointing the right direction. Go early!! You have to be there at opening hour, and expect to see a lot of tourists later on. entrance +- 1000 p/p.
Kasuga-Taisha shrine: This shrine is one of our favourites as it sits nicely in the surrounding woods. It is stunning, calming and invigorating at the same time. it is most well known for all the lanterns. It is a bit off the path to the Todaiji but totally worth a visit. The grounds are free, access to the inner part is about 500 yen p/p.
Of course the other temples are also worth a visit but these are our must-see recommendations.