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KimJapan May 7th, 2008 03:25 PM

3 days in Nara during Golden Week report
We had originally planned to spend 2 days and one night in Nara, and had reserved a room a month ago for that one night, May 5, at Matsumae Ryokan. Saturday afternoon we decided that we would try to go one day early, on Sunday, May 4, and spent the next 4 - 5 hours trying to find an available room, any room at any price. After countless online searches in English and Japanese, I stumbled upon a listing of places in Japanese that had some places listed that we hadn't called yet. I worked down the list, calling many places asking about reservations for Sunday night, the next day, during Golden Week (talk about hopeful...), and was told over and over, "sorry, full". The very last place I called, Pension Hasegawa, had a small twin room with no space for extra futon or bed, shared toilet and bath, for ¥12,000/night. The very friendly owner told me he would give it to us if we didn't mind being crowded and sharing 2 twin beds for the 3 of us. Of course, I took it.

Sunday, my husband worked until lunchtime, and we picked him up at around noon and headed off to Nara. We expected heavy traffic, and were prepared with a supply of snacks and drinks, but there was hardly any traffic at all between Kanazawa and Nara, and the only place we had any delay at all due to traffic was in Nara city itself, which I'm sure is like that any day of the week.

We arrived at Pension Hasegawa around 4:00 PM, and the owner was in front taking care of the pay parking he also runs in an old tennis court next to the Pension. He asked if it was me who had called yesterday, and welcomed us warmly, but saying he really wished he could give us a Japanese room with futons rather than the twin...but he could not as they were all occupied. We filled in our name and address on a form for check in, ordered breakfast for the morning, and he showed us the bathrooms on the first floor, the breakfast room, and our TINY room on the second floor.

The room was just big enough for the two twin beds, a small table with a TV, a sink, and a narrow space between the two beds to walk. 3 of us were very cozy. It was old and desperately needed some cosmetic attention. The doors to all of the rooms were that hollow type that have no weight and you can hear everything from the other side. The toilets were at the end of the hallway and were shared between all the rooms. Sounds bad? Well, not the Peninsula, but we loved it. The owner was so friendly and the vibe of the place was a bit like a camp dormitory. We were the only non-Japanese guests, and I don't think they get many...nothing in English.

We left our bags in the room, parked the car in the tennis courts, and set out to Nara Park. Pension Hasegawa is set out of Nara a bit, at the top of the deer park near Kasuga Temple. We were able to enter the park by a side path that wound uphill through forest. It was lovely, quiet and there were many deer eating trees and grass in the woods. The deer in the forest were mellow and calm, and did not bother us...unlike some we would meet later, which were much like the monkeys at the Fishing Village we visited with Tong...greedy and aggressive.

The park paths are well marked, and we found our way to Kasuga Temple easily. It is a lovely one, with wisteria in bloom. It smelled great! It turned out to be my favorite temple as well. I liked the design, the red, the wisteria, and all of the lanterns. We spent about an hour there, then walked down and through the deer park.

We found the first of many shikasenbei (deer crackers) sellers, and bought a stack of them to feed the deer (¥150/stack). The deer are clever, and know that you have them, and hone right in. Teaghan had hoped to feed them one at a time, one senbei at a time, but quicker than the blink of an eye, an adult male deer had grabbed the whole stack from her. Greedy. The next deer in line, who got nothing, was visibly perturbed, with ears flattened back, and bit her in the stomach area...luckily several layers of clothing protected her and there was no blood, but it was surprising and painful. Aggressive.

Being bitten didn't put her off feeding the deer, though, and we got another stack of shikasenbei. She did choose her deer more carefully now, though, and headed for the babies and mothers. There is a sign that says to avoid the mothers and babies because the mothers will be aggressive to protect their babies...but we found that the babies and moms were gentle, even polite, taking the single senbei offered and sniffing for more but not biting.

We made it into town by 6:00 or so, and were hungry. Although we had a map, and thought we knew where to find restaurants, based on the Rough Guide to Japan guidebook in English as well as a couple of Japanese travel magazines devoted to Nara...we could not find a place to eat. We wandered the streets, mostly dark and deserted, wondering where the places to eat were. Finally a man who wanted to practice his English directed us to a covered shopping street that led to Kintetsu Nara station, and we stopped at the first place that was not McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or udon. It was Italian, and smelled great. There was a pizza oven in the window, and we went in and ordered 2 pizzas, a salad, garlic toast, drinks, and relaxed. It felt great to sit down. Food came quickly and was better than we had expected. Total bill, including 2 beers and a glass of wine was under ¥5000. Good deal.

After dinner, we wandered a bit more, and found a Vietnamese place we decided to try the next day. Then we decided to walk back to our hotel, not really knowing how far it was pretty far, but we made it in under an hour.

Teaghan and I headed to the bath. Luckily we had brought bath towels with us, just in case, because none were provided. There was soap and shampoo. The water was hot. There was mold covering the shower hose, and a layer of slime on the shampoo bottles. We decided to quickly shower and skip the tub soak. In spite of the less than clean bath, we still loved this place. Out of the bath, the owner was in the lobby reading, and wished us a good sleep. We did sleep well.

KimJapan May 7th, 2008 03:52 PM

Morning came, and we went down to breakfast at 7:30 like we had requested. There were tables set up with breakfast trays, and 3 rice plain white rice, one white rice with a moutain vegitable called seri in it, and one with tea rice gruel (a Nara specialty). Our trays had salted salmon, various vegetables and pickles, and a lovely colored purple potato that had been grated into a paste that was quite tasty, a bowl of red beans. Miso soup was brought to us hot and rich with red miso. Great breakfast!

Right after breakfast we packed up and put our bags in the car, paid, and drove into town with the car as rain was predicted and we didn't want to walk an hour in the rain later to get the car when we checked into the next hotel. We found parking easily near Todaiji, the temple with the huge buddha, and it was a bargain at ¥500/day.

Todaiji is enormous. The wooden building that houses the huge buddha is awesome, and really dwarves the people who are there. Inside there are swarms of people, but it is so big it does not feel crowded. There is one really cool thing inside...a column of wood that has a hole in the base that if you can crawl through it you will have good luck. Only the smallest people can fit kids under 6. It's fun to watch them wriggle through. Even some babies go through. There are also souvenir sellers inside the temple, and omikuji (fortune) sellers. I decide to get my fortune, which turns out to be half-luck. A lot of things listed are sort of bad, like if I am sick I won't recover. It does, however, say that it would be good to travel!

It's lunchtime now, and luckily for us there are stalls selling food set up outside the temple. Meat on a stick, ice cream, okonomiyaki, french fries, squid, fried chicken...lots of food. Teaghan starts with ice cream and I have a taiyaki (custard filled pancake type thing)...dessert first. Then we move on to beef on a stick (¥700/per stick!!!), which was expensive but tasty and big enough for the 3 of us to share. An okonomiyaki and some french fries followed.

Then we move on to Kofukuji. This temple is famous for the 5 storey pagoda, which is nice. We fed more deer, walked around the temple grounds a bit, fed more deer, and called it a day as it had begun to spit rain.

Retrieved the car, and made a side trip to Jusco, and then on to our ryokan, Matsumae, for the night. Located in Naramachi, near restaruants, shops and Kofukuji, it is perfect for tourists. They really cater to foreigners, and we saw only one Japanese couple there. The rest of the guests were foreigners. The lobby is nice, the owners are friendly, but not in the same genuine kind of way that the owner of Hasegawa was. The owners both do wood carving, and there are some very nice pieces on display. They have all information in English, a room with two computers for internet, washer and dryer that guests can use for ¥300/wash and ¥300/dry. The baths were spotless. Breakfast choice is western or Japanese.

Our room was a 10 mat tatami room with a toilet and sink. Recently renovated, it is very nice. Plenty of space. Our futons are already set up for us. There is also a table and a TV. Windows look out to the next building. We settle in, it stops raining, and we head out to do a bit of shopping and for Vietnamese dinner.

We find a nice shop that sells hand spun naturally dyed organic cotton yarn, fabric, clothing and other goods. And a few antique shops that have some interesting things. Many souvenir shops. We wander some small streets and find an interesting shop selling Nepalese and Indian antiques, next door to an Indian cafe that looks promising as a spot for a snack and tea or lunch but not for dinner. We move on to the Vietnamese place. It's on the second floor in the covered arcade, and has a garish yellow sign. Inside, it is very nice, all wood, and smells great. All tables were full, so we opted to sit at the counter rather than wait. We could see into the kitchen, which was great entertainment. 6 staff in a very small space. 2 were Vietnamese.

Right after we were seated, a line of waiting customers formed down the stairs. We had just made it. We ordered thick noodles soup, sweet and sour spare ribs, spring rolls (fried and fresh), chicken curry with French bread. Outstanding. Lick the plate good. We condider moving to Nara.

KimJapan May 7th, 2008 04:04 PM

Back at the Matsumae, Teaghan takes a bath by herself and proclaims it excellent. Sleep.

My husband leaves before 7:00 to go back to Kanazawa by train to work. T and I have Japanese breakfast, which is very, tofu boiled in soy milk, various vegetables and pickles, 2 types of rice, miso soup. Western breakfast is cereal/milk, yogurt, fruit, eggs, bacon and toast. Almost everyone has western.

After breakfast, T and I had out to, yup, feed the deer. We come across a group of apparently homeless men starting out the day right with some sort of alcoholic drink and conversation. We watch them. We watch the many turtles sunning themselves. We go up to the pagoda of Kofukuji and buy more shikasenbei. Deer are aggressive today, and bit both of blood, but definitely foul. Greedy. Aggressive. We just don't learn.

Pack up the car, check out (3 people 1 night/2 breakfasts,¥17,000), and head to Gado, a roof tile making factory, where we had reserved to make a tile for good luck. Warmly greeted, we are led right into the factory where we can see the machines used to make the tiles. Gado makes the special tiles with images on them...and we do too. We use clay, push it into the mold, and then do our own design on the back side with a nail. Teaghans is inspired and all Japanese, lovely kanji and flowers. I'm at a loss, and settle for the date, Nara in English, and some squiggly lines. The tiles will be delived to us by takkyubin in about 3 weeks. ¥2000/each.

From there, we visited a dairy farm, complete with cows and ice cream, right in the city! Ice cream was very good, and served as our lunch. We had a cooler, and the shop clerk gave us ice and we brought home a bottle of milk and some wasabi cheese. The drive home was easy, with no traffic again. It was our first time to travel during Golden Week, and we had prepared ourselves for crowds and delays....but had none. Good luck I suppose. Final stop on the way home was the Sakura egg company, where you can buy fresh eggs from a vending machine. Fun, and great eggs.

We had a really nice trip, and would certainly recommend Nara. A lot to see there that is interesting, and lots of hands on activities in addition to the roof tile place. Some gorgeous hotels, too.

kuranosuke May 7th, 2008 04:08 PM

nice report. nara, another place for me to visit. ookini.

hawaiiantraveler May 7th, 2008 05:57 PM

Thanks Kim for the detailed report. Those deer are really aggressive!

We would have to buy the shikasenbei, then hide from the deer and open them and take out only one senbei at a time. Had lots of fun though.


satrijoe Jun 4th, 2008 07:25 AM

Hello Kim.

Great report.

I would like to ask for an advice from you. I have one hole in my lodging schedule and I was thinking to fill it with one night at a Ryokan. The previous night I will be staying in Osaka. I am considering the Matsumae Ryokan in Nara and was wondering if you recommend it based on your recent experience there.

Thanks in advance,

KimJapan Jun 4th, 2008 02:34 PM

Matsumae has a great location in Naramachi, is very clean, and owners are quite nice. It is very foreigner friendly, so much so in fact that there was only one Japanese couple there when we were and it was sold out.

So, if your are looking for cheap, good accommodation and do not mind that it feels more like an international dorm than a ryokan, then it is great.

For just us, I would not stay again...but we will bring my mother-in-law and sister-in-law there I think in September, as there is really no other place as squeaky clean and well located at that price.

satrijoe Jun 4th, 2008 04:31 PM

Thank you very much!

hester Jun 4th, 2008 06:02 PM

I enjoyed your report thanks for sharing with us!

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