Japan can change drastically between regions and cities– hop on the train and you can be transported to the ocean, snow capped mountains, port cities, and rising skyscrapers just within a few hours. Through the highly efficient rail system, I’ve gone from Tokyo (Kanto region in Honshu) all the way down to Nagasaki (Kyushu in Southern Japan) in 8 hours with plenty of time to spare in the day for more exploration. Meeting a friend as you travel through is as simple as asking them to meet at a station– just be sure to let them know your train number and your expected time of arrival. Most stations will have plenty of restaurants and shops to meet in, which makes traveling by train extremely convenient. Come along as I travel throughout the Japan’s Kansai region in Nara and Osaka with my actual travel itinerary. This journey is a segment of a series of Japan travel: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
Lodging: Obachan’s house in Fujidera, Osaka
Nara was once the capital city of Japan from 710 to 794 and is the capital city in the Nara Prefecture. It is also to many temples, shrines, ruins, and Kasugayama Primeval Forest which collectively form the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nara Park is especially popular for its abundance of friendly (and respectful) deer. Buy a stack of thin wafers for ¥250 and I promise, you will make a lot of deer friends. They are very comfortable being around people, so don’t be surprised if they gently nudge, bow their heads to you, or tug at loose ends of your clothing.
In the Shinto religion, deer are considered to be messengers of the gods, which is why they roam freely in the foregrounds of the Todai-ji temple. This temple has the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world at an impressive height of 49 inches with exactly 960 curls on top of his head. This temple began construction in 728 and took over 20 years to build. The grounds are expansive and are perfectly suited in the calm backdrop of Nara.
Beautiful wooden beams and intricate carvings can be found inside of the temple, revealing its ancient history with many stories to tell. I gently ran my hands over the enormous wooden doors and felt a sense of tranquility being in this space. You may notice a small crowd around one of the pillars in Todai-ji with a hole in it. This hole is the same size as the Buddha statue’s nostril. It is said that if you are able to pass through this hole (squeeze my friends, squeeze!) then you will reach enlightenment in your next life. I did pass through that hole, so I suppose you and I will just have to meet in our next lives so I can let you know whether I have been granted enlightenment.
Our visit to Todai-ji was also New Year’s eve, and festive decorations were already underway to ring in the New Year. Shrines and temples are especially busy during this time because the temple bell is rung at midnight on New Year’s eve. The practice of visiting a shrine during the first days of the shougatsu (New Year) is called hatsumode. My traveling companions (Jun and Sarah) and I began to make our journey back to Jun’s obachan’s (affection term for grandmother) home in Osaka to spend the holiday with her.
Along the way to her home, we stopped for a soba (buckwheat) noodle dinner paired with stewed pork that was rich and salty. Soba is often served “cold” with a dipping sauce but can also be found in soups too. At this point, it occurred to me that I had come full circle; last year I began the first day of the year in Osaka, and here I was ending the same year in Osaka.
Obachan’s house is about a 20-minute walk from the Fujidera station in Osaka. Every time I visit here, I entertain thoughts about what it might be like to live in Japan. The path takes us through a small shopping arcade, unassuming neighborhood eateries, mini shrines, and through the true suburbs of Osaka. The streets are always quiet, landscapes are immaculate, and all is serene. Several homes are adorned with shougatsu (New Year) decorations such as kadomatsu, which are pine or bamboo decorations hung on gates to welcome ancestral spirits.
Although Obachan didn’t have a kadomatsu on her gate, she did have a kagami-mochi decoration (mirror rice cake with daidai on top) in her entry way. Feeling frosty from our walk, we tumbled into her home and headed straight for her kotatsu. This has got to be one of the best inventions of all time– it is essentially a low wooden table that is covered by a thick futon and heat source inside where the legs are. This is my favorite place to be during the winter time.
Midnight quickly arrived, so we donned our warmest clothing and walked to the Fujidera Temple, one of the 33 Buddhist temples in the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage in the Kansai region. The temple was crowded with other visitors paying their respects and ritualistically performing rites to say goodbye to the former year and usher in the new one with well-wishes.
Sarah, Jun, and I were enveloped into the crowds; waiting patiently for our turn to walk through the straw loop and light our incense near the temple. The air was thick with thought; the release of negative memories and quiet utterances of prayers for a new beginning. The smell of incense wove its way deep into the fibers of my clothing, my hair, and my very being. On our way out, we were offered hot cups of sake which we gratefully drank in preparation for the frigid walk home.
Lodging: Obachan’s house in Fujidera, Osaka
The next morning, I woke to hear the sound of Obachan scuttling back and forth through the kitchen. She had been preparing our first meal of the year with a quiet determination. Typically, the first meal on shougatsu is an intricate bento box called osechi. Obachan had made it a point to buy enormous osechi’s, as she was also hosting Jun’s uncle and his family that morning. She encouraged us to try a bit from every section, as each delicacy represented a different form of good fortune.
One of the most popular items is the kuromame, which is a sweet black soy bean (which have a delicous dessert-like quality about them). Ours were even topped with gold flakes, making the entire experience splendid. We ate until everyone was rendered into a zombie-like state and not a single bean more could be put into our mouths.
Sarah, Jun, and I decided to take a mid-day excursion to walk off some of the osechi and spend a bit of time exploring the neighborhood. We were hoping to find an arcade to play in but ended up getting lost in the suburbs of Fujidera for some time before reaching our destination. Tiny bits of snow began falling from the sky, dissolving almost instantaneously on the sidewalk. It was bitterly cold at this point, and I triple wrapped my thick scarf around my neck so only my eyes were exposed during the walk home.
The warm kotatsu had been waiting for us the entire time. Obachan laughed at us while we recounted our story of getting lost in the cold before finding the arcade (she thought it was a foolish venture to begin with). We began to help her prepare for dinner, which was going to be a festive meal of sukiyaki (Japanese hot pot) with nice cuts of thinly sliced beef, vegetables, tofu, and noodles dipped in a raw egg.
Sukiyaki begins with the sound of sizzling fat to season the pan. Obachan prefers to start off with meat only; so we get a taste of the marbled beef in its simplest form without any of the seasoning sauce. After our samples, we began to add heaps of enoki mushrooms, napa cabbage, tokyo negi (green onion), tofu, and of course, the tare (sauce).
We beat our raw eggs (make sure they are high-quality and pastured if purchased in the US) in our bowls and waited giddily with anticipation for the hot pot contents to cook. Jun assumed the role of designated “hot pot handler”, while his uncle Ken guided the cook time by letting him know when to put in the next item. Sukiyaki is one of my favorite Japanese dishes of all time and I’ve found is best enjoyed at home in a family setting (see my sukiyaki recipe here).
There is something remarkably touching about sharing a new dish at a home in a foreign land. You are able to witness the labor of love that goes into it; each slice of cabbage, washed mushroom, and the best cuts of meat imagineable intended to be consumed on this special day. Obachan’s neighborhood in Fujidera will always have a special place with me; and shougatsu, (New Year) will always hold meaning as a time to reflect, pray, and eat well amongst family.
See the Bowing Deer: Nara Park, Nara
Take a Chance at Enlightenment: Todai-ji, Nara
Try this Chilled Noodle Dish: Zaru Soba
Explore Kansai’s Temples: Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage
Make It At Home: Sukiyaki Recipe
Up next: Part IV in Tokyo and the Ghibli museum
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