A legend in Nara folklore says that when the gods came to visit in the 12th century, their spirits rode on the backs of deer from the mountains down into the city. Since then, deer have been protected, first as divine and today as “national treasures,” and continue to roam freely around Nara Park, where they are now the part of countless tourists photo ops, rather than the bearers of deities.
You’ll find them all over the area, mostly nonchalantly lingering near the deer food stall in order to most efficiently stampede once an unprepared tourist turns around with his purchase. Watching this process ad infinitum is highly amusing. Everyone stands around and watches on guy get swarmed and have his shirt partially eaten, has a good laugh at his expense, before someone else in the crowd steps up and the whole process repeats. Despite the city’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, these are hardly wild animals. I stood absentmindedly petting one’s head like a dog while looking for a restaurant on Google Maps.
Once the novelty of the deer wears off, you’ll find some interesting temples in the nearby area worth exploring. Todai-ji is the most famous, home to the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. As temple-weary as I was at this point, Todai-ji was still interesting and the Buddha is pretty impressive in person towering over the main hall.
Kasuga-taisha is the other famous site in the area, a Shinto shrine known for its hundreds of stone and bronze lanterns. To be perfectly honest, I’ve seen so many shrines and temples at this point that I sort of don’t know what’s going on anymore, so while Kasuga-taisha is beautiful and one of the must-see things in Nara, I had trouble getting excited about it, which is entirely about me and not a reflection of the shrine itself.
Beyond that, there’s frankly not a whole lot to do as a tourist in Nara. The Naramachi shopping district is worth a stroll and while you’ll find plenty to fill a day here, I think you’ll struggle beyond that. Many People visit Nara on a day trip from Kyoto and you won’t be shortchanging the city if you do.
Nara has some nice temples and gardens, but I found it to be a little lacking in personality. There’s no nightlife to speak of, which is perfectly fine, but there’s not a lot to activity during the day either outside the main sightseeing and shopping areas. I found a great little cafe and a surprisingly atmospheric bar, but were I to do it again, I would spend the extra day in Kyoto before heading to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima has proved to be the biggest surprise of my stay in Japan. I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this city and while it’s not going to blow you away with its beautiful architecture or amazing technological achievements, it’s a very pleasant place. Of course, the main attraction here is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park commemorating the nuclear attack.
There are several ways to handle the commemoration of something like this. Hiroshima has opted for simplicity and subtlety, which I found to be very moving (and I’m not easily moved). The Atomic Bomb Dome (formerly an exhibition hall) stands resolutely over the north end of the park on the opposite side of the river as the only structure to survive the bombing, despite being only a few city blocks from the hypocenter. The Children’s Peace Monument houses the colorful display of thousands of paper cranes and honors the children killed by the bombing, while the somber Memorial Cenotaph perfectly frames the Atomic Bomb Dome in the distance.
I usually steer clear of museums on my first visit to a city, as I often find it to be an artificial way to get to know a place, but the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a quick and worthwhile visit. It’s nicely done, with basically everything you would expect, from photos, to victims’ artifacts and a map of the blast site, and except for one misstep–a room with esoteric diagrams explaining the process of a nuclear explosion–everything is presented straightforwardly without any attempt at melodrama or sentimentality. The event speaks for itself.
Amazingly, there is almost no mention of U.S. involvement in this disaster, which absolutely astounded me. There is no finger-pointing, no blame, no condemnation of American actions. I would call this mature behavior, but that seems highly reductive. In the U.S., there’s more blame and name-calling passed around in the wake of natural disasters than the Japanese blame us today for something horrible the American government did to them. The attitude was very much, “This is what happened to us,” not, “Look what they did to us.”
Everything I saw in the park emphasized Hiroshima’s commitment to its position as a symbol of enduring peace and they walk the walk. Being angry seems temptingly easy, but there is nothing but hope for a peaceful future and a firm dedication to that principle in Hiroshima, alongside its reverence for the victims.
On a lighter note, while you won’t come to Hiroshima for its culinary prowess, you can’t leave without trying okonomiyaki. For some reason, every American source describes this as a “Japanese pancake,” which makes me wonder what kind of pancakes these people have been eating. There is something vaguely like a crepe involved in okonomiyaki, but it’s essentially just a large mound of food, with a portion size to thrill the average American.
I’m sure there are several ways to make okonomiyaki, but mine began with a light batter base on a large grill topped with lettuce, bean sprouts, pork, and various spices. Meanwhile, the chef was grilling noodles and frying an egg while this was cooking. Once everything was ready, she dumped the vegetables and the meat on top of the egg, so there was an egg base, with noodles and the lettuce-bean sprouts situation in the middle, and the thin “pancake” as the top layer with some kind of teriyaki-like sauce. It was kind of strange and enormous, but very, very good.
The best place to find okonomiyaki is Okonomi-mura, a maze of several food stalls, almost all of which have okonomiyaki, in Hiroshima’s hip shopping area. Because it’s on the second, third, and fourth floors, it will take a leap of faith to hop on the elevator from the ground floor, but you’ll be glad you did once you get there. There are probably various opinions out there as to which stall is the best, but I just wandered until I saw one with only Japanese people eating there and took a seat.
Most of the counters have less than 15 seats and I was one of five at Kazuchan’s place. Turn right off the elevator on the third floor and head almost to the end of the hall. You’ll see Kazuchan, who has a kind of Keith Richards vibe going on, in the restaurant on the right second from the end. He and the other chef both spoke a little English and were very friendly and explained the process to me as they were making my meal. It was the perfect last supper in Japan.
Outside the Peace Park and a few other sites (Hiroshima Castle is worth a visit), Hiroshima is largely devoid of major tourist sites, but unlike Nara, it’s just a nice place to be and walk around, even if there isn’t a whole lot to do. Hiroshima is a big enough city to be dynamic, but small enough to feel manageable. Even on a muggy weekday afternoon, it felt very lively. I saw an a cappella competition going on in a busy shopping area and a group of girls playing cards near Hiroshima Castle. In Nara, I sort of wondered what anyone did there, while in Hiroshima, I feel like I got a good sense of what the average person there might do with his spare time.
Japan is not one of the most accessible countries I’ve ever been to, but it does have some of the friendliest and most courteous people I’ve ever met. The culture is so deeply steeped in tradition that it can be hard to really get a handle on it as a foreigner just passing trough. So many Westerners that I met are absolutely enchanted by this enigmatic quality and I can understand why, but I never quite had that “wow” moment. That’s certainly not an objective comment on Japan, which is a lovely place, but I personally couldn’t ever get fully caught up in its mystique.
Not speaking Japanese can be a serious handicap. I met a couple who were on their last stop of a six-month tour of Asia and said that this was the most difficult country they visited in Asia in terms of navigating in English, particularly for a place that is so developed and has such a well-educated population. Don’t let that deter you from visiting this beautiful country; for a place that can feel so foreign in some ways, it will feel strangely familiar in others. If you’re someone who enjoys the many creature comforts of a modernized country, you’ll be right at home in the highly commercial and consumerist Japan, something that cannot be said of many other Asian countries.
A visit to Japan will almost surely make you feel completely like a fish out of water, which is most of the fun. Embrace the discomfort. My general state of mind in Japan oscillated between mild confusion and complete cluelessness, and I did my best to go with it. That’s the beauty of travel.
I’ve just arrived in Seoul (good timing, I know) and will be here for a couple of days before moving on to a 17-day stint in China.