Japan & China, Day 6: The Day We Visited Sacred Deer and Ate a Traditional Japanese Lunch

Day 6 - Tuesday, 9/16/14

After our hotel breakfast of salad, fries, yogurt, and whipped scrambled eggs, we hit the road for Nara.
It wasn't too long of a drive, and as soon as we started nearing Nara Park, we started seeing deer signs and catching glimpses of deer. I started getting really excited and snapping many a blurry picture of the deer we were passing.  There are over 1,200 wild sika deer, a species of deer native to much of East Asia. The deer were considered divine and sacred until the end of World War II, and now they are designated as national treasures.
It seriously takes the tourists forever to make our way through this area because we keep getting distracted by the deer!
Nandaimon Gate
Nio guardians (or benevolent kings) protect the entrance gate at temples, and the most famous Niō in Japan can be found at the entrance gate of Tōdaiji Temple 東大寺 in Nara.  The Niō are a pair of protectors who commonly stand guard outside the temple gate at Japanese Buddhist temples, one on either side of the entrance. The open-mouth version is commonly placed to the right of the temple, the closed-mouth version to the left. In Japan, the gate itself is often called the Niō-mon 仁王門 (literally Niō Gate). At Shintō shrines, however, the Niō guardians are replaced with a pair of koma-inu (shishi lion-dogs) or with two foxes (Francisco LOVED the lion-dogs). The Niō’s fierce and threatening appearance is said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons and thieves. 
Todaiji (東大寺, "Great Eastern Temple") is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple's influence on government affairs.
Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world's largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall's size. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The seated Buddha is 15 meters tall.
Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base that is the same size as the giant Buddha's nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. I attempted to squeeze through, but as soon as I encountered some resistance with my hips, I retreated because I had no interest in being wedged in a wooden pillar. :-P
Our next stop was lunch in Osaka. The restaurant we would be visiting was located in Dotonbori, one of the principal tourist destinations in Osaka. This was a very vibrant area with tons of people milling about.
Our original reservation time had been misunderstood, so we ended up with an extra half hour to walk around the area. We stopped at Mizukake Fudo Myo-o, a Hozenji-temple famous for Fudo Myo-o statue, which is covered in green moss due to the water that is regularly splashed on him by visitors as they pray for good fortunes.
Here is a quick video just to give you a better idea of the area.
video
Our lunch was at Ganko Sushi, a chain of restaurants that started in Osaka. The name means "stubborn sushi". We were eating on one of the upper levels of the restaurant (4, I think). We removed our shoes and went to the dining room our tour group was to be seated in.
There was one other vegetarian in our group, an Indian man who was traveling with his wife and daughter. His family told us about one of their first meals when they were out with the woman from our group who speaks Japanese. She had requested a vegetarian dish for him, and they brought him something that seemed a bit off but assured him that it was vegetarian. She asked what something specific was that was featured in the dish, and they responded that it was pork - she explained that he didn't eat pork, but they refused to take the dish back. From what I understand, this is typical of dining in Japan, and I had read very similar stories during my initial research back home.
Truth be told, I couldn't identify most of what we ate.  There was tempura, rice, various vegetables...I don't know; I didn't ask questions.  I ate most of it, and I'm glad I tried the local cuisine. I've just never been a big fan of Asian food.

After lunch, we switched buses and it was on to our last stop of the day - Osaka Castle. As we walked in, Nao explained that we were actually walking past a Japanese wedding party, so we all applauded for the bride and groom.
Osaka Castle is one of Japan's most famous.
We walked all the way to the top where there is an observation area to take in the view of the city.  
After some shopping, we bought a melon soda slushee float (delicious!) and we made it back to Kyoto by 4:00 PM. Nao gave us the airport taxi voucher for the following day. 
The AEON Mall was right across the street from our hotel, so we headed over there to check it out. It was a strong reminder of how overwhelming shopping in a foreign country can be, but it was such an interesting experience.  In this mall, there seemed to be different levels devoted to different categories. One floor was mostly women's clothes, one floor was mostly entertainment stores, one was the food court, etc. I stopped in a couple clothing stores and ended up with a couple of shirts I wanted to try on. I've always been one of those people who must try on everything even if it's the same exact black tee I always buy from Kohl's. ;-) I handed Francisco my travel purse that I keep on me at all times, so we always have our passports handy, and I went to the fitting room. I had basically stepped in to the room when I realized the fitting room attendant was trying to communicate to me that I needed to take my shoes off first. Oh...interesting. When we went to buy one of the shirts, I was trying to verify whether it was on sale or not, but this conversation was just going in circles with the cashier pointing to the price tag and me trying to indicate the sales rack I'd plucked it from. It did ring up on sale though, so, yay! 

The top level was the food court, so I grabbed another Purple Sweet Potato Shake.
We spotted an Italian restaurant and figured that cuisine was a safe bet again, so we shared a Quattro Formaggio pizza for dinner - again, pointing to what we wanted on the menu and verifying the quantity with our fingers. We ate a surprising amount of Italian food in Japan, LOL!    
We got up to pay, and there was a moment of sheer panic when I realized my purse was no longer across my chest. The passports! As Francisco tried to remain calm, I recalled that I had handed my bag to him when I went to try my shirts on, and we were just hoping that it was still in the store...and then I realized I had hung it on the back of my chair while we ate dinner. And we had to just breathe a big sigh of relief, damn near tears. There is nothing that kills an international trip faster than losing your passports. Whew, ok, near crisis averted.  There was a grocery store in the mall, so we walked around there before heading back outside - I find it so interesting to visit foreign stores!

It was our last night in Japan, so we headed across the street to the Kyoto Station to do a touch more shopping.  We walked the length of the station, and I stopped at the restroom...I only mention this because I wish I hadn't. I freaking loved the toilets in Japan. This was your standard public restroom stall: 
Very clean and much more private than American stalls. The doors closed more completely, spanning most of the height of the stall, i.e. no 2-inch gaps that allow you to make eye contact with others who walk past your stall, which seems par for the course in America. Here's an example of the bathroom stalls in the airport:
And of course, there were fancy features, including sound, bidet, etc.
The bathrooms at the Station were decidedly not fancy and very disappointing. Plus, there was no soap, so this single-handedly ruined my perception of awesome Japanese bathrooms. :-P OK, enough bathroom talk, LOL. 

So, Francisco stopped at a pastry shop, and I wandered down the corridor to check out the drug store at the end of the hall. As I turned back, I was suddenly halted by a police officer. I stopped and watched as nearly a dozen cops carried a Japanese man wrapped in a blanket outside to a waiting vehicle. He looked youngish and soaking wet - not sure if it was water or sweat. Ya, that was a bit unnerving, you know, especially with the threat of ebola still out there in the world. I retreated to Francisco's side, and we returned to the hotel. 

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