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Dotonbori district in Osaka (June 2016).

On our final day, we made stops at both Nara Park and Osaka as means of finishing off strong our eight-day tour on the island of Honshu in Japan. Considering that they’re two of the island nation’s biggest attractions (next to Tokyo and Kyoto), Nara Park and Osaka didn’t disappoint when we visited, despite the short amount of time.

We started our day at Nara Park, located about 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) from Osaka. It was established in the early 14th century, thereby considered one of the oldest parks in Japan. What makes this park especially distinctive is the fact that it’s home to deer–lots of deer. Legend has it that deer were placed there by a Buddhist god and to this day they’re protected by the park due to their “divine” and “sacred” statuses. Numbering perhaps 1200 (or more), the Nara deer were an absolute delight to watch as they freely roamed the park grounds, subjected to dozens of photographs from the equally-numerous tourists.

Besides watching deer, one also has the option of feeding them crackers that could be purchased at designated food stands throughout the park. Our tour guide informed us that, even though the stands are filled with crackers, they don’t dare try to steal them, for they would be subjected to a lashing (or two) by the elderly women who work the stands!

Whereas the deer know not to mess with the cracker vendors, they were certainly vicious when it came to the tourists trying to feed them. Rather than politely waiting for them to offer, the deer will swarm in as soon as the people pay and receive the crackers. From nipping your clothes to all over your body, the deer will do anything to get access to those precious crackers, and it’s a matter of either showing them who’s boss (which often fails) or relinquishing the crackers by throwing them on the ground and running away. My family–mom, dad, and sister–tried to feed the deer, but they ended up getting bitten all over, from the hips to the butt. I was laughing so hard as I watched them, even video-taping the moment for posterity (terrible, I admit it). Considering that they’re so cute, those deer are anything but docile!

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Innocent…not really.

Within Nara Park, we also checked out the Tōdai-ji, a Buddhist temple which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s well-known for containing the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, measuring 15 meters (50 feet) tall. My family and I toured the temple to see it, and the statue certainly didn’t disappoint in stature.

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Todai-ji.

After visiting the temple, we left Nara Park, stopping for lunch nearby before making the drive to Osaka, which would be our final destination in Japan. It was a pleasant one-hour ride, and we arrived there in the early afternoon. Our first stop was at the Osaka Castle: considered one of the most iconic monuments in Japan, this castle performed an important role in unifying the nation during the 16th century. Much of the castle was destroyed in 1868 under the Meiji Restoration, but slowly reconstructed to its former glory beginning in the early 20th century. Today, its multi-tiered structure makes for a fairy tale-like appearance, with plenty of tourists making the visit to see the magical castle.

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Osaka Castle.

Granted, there was a long line for the elevator at the entrance, but there were also options for stairs. Being young and fit, some people in my tour group (including myself) opted to take the stairs, since there wasn’t a queue at all. Plus, it only happened to be eight floors. We reached the top for some views of Osaka, although being not that high up, they weren’t the most spectacular. Afterwards, we checked out the different floors, which were merely exhibits that detailed the history of the castle, from the royal family who lived there to the constant battles between shoguns for control.

It was lightly drizzling when we exited the castle and soon enough, we headed back to our coach to head to Osaka center, where we checked into our hotel near the busy, nightlife districts of the city. We arrived in the late afternoon and after dropping off bags in our rooms, we headed out for a brief city tour. The drizzling rain wasn’t letting up as we passed through the bustling district of Dōtonbori, which was filled with plenty of small eateries, clothing stores, and markets for people–tourists and locals alike–to enjoy themselves with. We passed by the Glico running man billboard, one of the most iconic symbols of the city (let alone Japan) since its inception in 1935–it’s famous for boosting morale during sporting events for Osaka, as well as being a popular photo-op for tourists.

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Glico running man billboard.
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In the Dotonbori district.

Funny enough, our final stop for the day (and in Japan) was at a cheesecake shop, where our tour guide told us that Japanese cheesecake is unique for its light, fluffy, and soft textures. My family and I ended up buying a large one to take back to our hotel to eat later that night, and I would say that it had a plain, almost-soufflé taste to it–not what I would consider my favorite dessert, but I do give props to the skill and time it takes to make it!

At the cheesecake shop, our tour guide bid us goodbye, for it was the end of our time in Japan. We thanked her for all she had done for us those past eight days, and from there, we split off to see the rest of Osaka that evening. Stomachs hungry, my family and I were craving ramen, but specifically that from Ichiran, a well-known shop that specializes in serving the food through individual stalls, where you see neither the people around you nor the server who gives you the food, only a hand which slides out under the counter to serve ramen. The ultimate definition of “eating in solitude,” I can imagine it being the perfect solution to introverts like myself!

The line was long when we entered Ichiran, but we happened to get there early enough so that there wasn’t such a huge wait, along with four seats for the four of us. We were led up to the third floor of the restaurant, where we took our seats, ordered our ramen by pencil and paper, and within minutes received our piping-hot, noodle-based dish. While I’ll say that the ramen tasted pretty good, I admit that I could get it of the same quality back in Los Angeles, especially Japantown. What made the meal noteworthy was the experience of eating in individual stalls, which was enjoyable in the end.

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Individual stalls at Ichiran.
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Ramen for dinner.

The rain was considerably heavier as we exited Ichiran. We tried not to let it deter us from wandering around a bit more in Dōtonbori–my sister and I got takoyaki (octopus batter shaped in balls) as a snack. It was incredible to watch the workers flip the batter with such precision as we waited in the long line outside in the rain. Personally, takoyaki isn’t my preferred Japanese snack (too gooey for me), but it was nice to get the “real stuff” in Japan. We headed back to the hotel afterwards, trying the Japanese cheesecake in our rooms before turning in for the night–we would be leaving the following morning for the airport, saying goodbye to Japan and the lovely time we spent there.

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Takoyaki.

Reflecting on my visit to Japan last summer, I would say that it’d been a pleasant experience. Having had just come from a long, eight-month stay in Europe, it was so interesting to see the juxtaposition between the Eastern and Western cultures when it came to sightseeing and trying local cuisine. Japan exceeded my expectations in cleanliness, efficiency, even customer service (the best I’ve experienced in all the countries I’ve visited so far)! Food was amazing, too, and I really appreciated how we got to see both the urban cities and the natural landscapes, all which added to the beauty of the island nation.

Even though my trip to Japan had ended, I wasn’t done traveling that summer–in fact, my family and I continued with a second leg of our journey to Taiwan, aka the motherland. Look for more adventures to come, as I recount my time in the capital city of Taipei, Taiwan!

 

— Rebecca

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