A Bit of Culture, a lot of Deer

After Sam and I parted ways I decided to take the remaining day and a half of my trip to soak up a bit of culture, starting with Osaka Castle.

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Osaka Castle is one of the most famous castles in Japan, and it’s very impressive to see. There’s a huge park surrounding it so you get a nice view walking up the path towards the actual castle. If I had been there just a week or two later, I might have seen some fall foliage, but as it was, the leaves were just starting to think about changing. But looking back I can’t be too upset about this – the weather has been so unseasonably warm throughout Japan that the leaves skipped changing color and just fell in many places, including where I live. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to see some real “koyo” (the Japanese word for fall foliage) next year.

When I arrived at the actual castle they were just about to close for the day, so I couldn’t take a tour. Instead I spent a while looking at the massive castle, taking pictures, and doing a bit of people watching. I really liked the tigers on the sides of the castle (you can see them in the top photo), but I gotta say, I think I liked Himeji Castle better. After a bit of reflection on the past few days I returned to town for a bit more shopping and planned out the next day.

Osaka is a great place to visit in Japan, not so much because it’s an amazing city (though I really like it!) but because it’s so close to lots of other places you might want to see. Kyoto is a 45 minute train ride away, and Himeji isn’t too far either. But since I went to both of those places last time, for this trip I decided to go to Nara – home of the famous deer park.

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Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, established in the 700s. There’s a ton of history to be found in Nara, along with dozens of beautiful temples, and of course, the (in)famous deer.

Nara park has hundreds of free-roaming, somewhat domesticated deer. I’m guessing this is because they’re protected within the grounds of the park, which has several important Buddhist relics and temples. Deer have a special place in Buddhism, because the Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park, though not this particular one. So the deer are sacred and protected. You can find people selling senbei (crackers) to feed the deer all over the place, and they’ll eat them from your hands. Personally, I decided against feeding the already overfed deer, since I’ve had my fair share of interactions with sacred animals, and really didn’t feel the need (you can’t really beat being blessed by an elephant!) Plus, I’d heard stories about their persistence and bad temperament, and the signs warning of head-butting didn’t really do anything to change my mind.

But besides the deer, I found Nara to be quite a fun trip. After walking through the deer park I arrived at Todaji, the main temple. Pictures don’t really do it justice, this thing is huge, as is the giant Buddha inside.

I made my way through and around the temples, taking in the various sights. Since I was traveling solo I went at a slow pace, which was nice, and managed to see almost every place I had set out to find, except for the sacred forest, which was kinda far away.

My favorite temple in Nara had to be Kasuga Taisha. It’s known for its lanterns, both stone and brass, and I almost missed the place because I took the wrong route and skipped the massive line of stone lanterns leading to the main entrance. Luckily I saw a huge group of people and figured it was probably worth visiting, whatever it was, and found out that certain parts of the shrine were open for just one day because it was Bunka no hi, or Japanese Culture Day.

The lanterns were gorgeous, and they even had a dark room where they lit a few and let people get the full effect of what it would be like at night or for festivals. It was beautiful, and photos don’t really do it justice (or, my low-quality iphone photos anyway).

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It was finally time to head back, and as I was walking toward the train station I passed by a parade. Everyone was dressed in period clothes and at the end of the procession there was a princess. Very cool.

I bought myself some tasty donuts and coffee at the train station and started the journey back to Osaka when I decided to double check my flight time. Turns out I was wrong, and the flight was actually an hour earlier than I had thought. I panicked a little, but there wasn’t much I could do – I was already on the train to my airbnb, and I needed to get my bags.Once I actually made it back to the apartment and grabbed my stuff, I remembered that the train to the airport was not exactly fast, and it was another painful hour of “will I make it???”

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Culture Day Parade

Of course, the answer is yes, I made it just in time. After a bit of arguing with a lady at check-in about how much stuff I could carry on (I tried putting on every layer of clothing and shoving all devices into my pockets to outsmart the bag scale, but was still a little overweight), she eventually gave in and let me through, and I promised to never do it again. Really I just learned that if I look panicked enough and struggle a bit more than necessary trying to speak Japanese I can get away with anything! But really, I don’t want to do that again…

I made it onto my flight and returned home without incident. All-in-all, it was a fantastic weekend.

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