Kansai Region Day Trips – Deer, Tea and Monks

Part 3 of our 2014 trip to Japan

Places visited: Kobe, Nara, Koyasan, Uji

Of course, our time in the Kansai region did not start with various day trips. We spent a week each in Osaka and Kyoto, which is a lot to write about, so I’m starting with the more manageable accounts of the days spent in Kobe, Nara, Koyasan and Uji.

Kobe was our first destination, as our hostel in Osaka was close to a station on the JR Kobe line. We walked westwards, bought some expensive nama chocolates, which was absolutely divine, and admired the fusion-style architecture. We were window shopping in a rather long arcade (where we finally found a large cheap bag in a 100 Yen store, for all the souvenirs we had accumulated), when we stumbled upon an owl café. My lifelong dream was about to come true! The owls seemed well cared for, got a lot of rest and seemed calm and content, the staff was knowledgeable about the proper treatment of them. So for 1000 Yen including a drink, I had the opportunity to get close to about a dozen incredibly cute owls. I took hundreds of pictures during the one-hour timeslot and got to hold the tiniest owlet there (How befitting, as I am quite tiny myself and still get asked for my passport when buying beer, the threshold age is 16 in Germany…) Needless to say, I was giddy for days afterwards. We walked back towards the station, this time through Chinatown, which I liked a lot better than the one in Nagasaki. Not sure why we didn’t try any snacks, maybe because the prices were like 10- 20 times higher than in China. The baozi and mantou varieties were all very cutesy, little piglet or panda shaped buns etc., very fitting for Japan, the common Chinese version is usually more rustic. As the distance seemed manageable on the tourist map we had got from the station, we decided to walk to the Nada district. Two hours later, it became obvious that we wouldn’t get there anytime soon (we also took a huge detour accidentally) so we hopped on the train instead. Directions from the station attendant allowed to us to find two sake breweries (Shushinkan and Hakutsuru), the samples there were much to our liking (Shushinkan also served some good nigorizake) and we learned a lot by talking to the staff. I my opinion though, instead of sake improving the flavour of a good meal, it’s the meal itself that makes sake a fitting addition, on its own, it’s a bit too much for me with regards to taste. (I should point out that in daily life, I’m basically straight edge, don’t even taste the wine at church.) In addition, we dropped by Konan Muko no Sato, which sells a variety of pickles using sake lees. We got to taste quite a bit, they have an interesting, full-bodies flavor, but we preferred the tsukemono styles that make do without the sake element, because of that weird flowery taste mentioned below. Unfortunately, our earlier underestimation of the distances involved (and what a useless map!) left little time for our last destination. To make matters worse, after arriving at Shin-Kobe Station, we got lost quite a bit (again! What a day…let’s just blame the sake^^), and despite getting direction from the locals, got even further away from the ropeway station. According to japan-guide.com “A 15-20 minute climb through the woods takes you to the 43 meter tall Nunobiki Waterfall, whose name comes from its draped cloth-like appearance.“ We walked for almost one hour without getting anywhere near either the ropeway or a waterfall… It was then that we decided to a) get a better map next time and b) take public transport more often. We found a rather picturesque shrine, though. Two quite elderly hikers walked us back the whole (!) way to the ropeway entrance, chatting all the way about Japan and Germany (one of them had travelled to Germany for business in the 70s). As the middle station was closed by now, we had to skip the herb garden, much to my chagrin, but enjoyed stunning views of the city from the observatory as well as the “romantic illumination” at the rest house above the herb garden. Once again, we had noodles for dinner, this time excellent soba from a restaurant in the Osaka station building. Even though we often chose restaurants randomly, we were hardly ever disappointed.

I can now see why Nara is rated so highly, it is a truly special place, a town nestled between a huge mossy park inhabited by deer, and a magical forest. The National Museum was very well curated, but it can be a bit dulling to see so many “similar” (to the untrained eye) Buddhist statues in one place. Maybe with a keen interest in Asian religions, it would be an even more worthwhile visit. As we were about to leave, some sort of blessing ritual took place in the museum’s main hall, with monks chanting and bowing before the Buddha statue. Unexpected and kind of mysterious. We had a delicious lunch at Uma no Me (the people at the visitor center were very surprised about our choice when we asked them for directions), their interior design is stunning, the foods presentation was on par as well, with top-notch quality ingredients (though they were not fully able to comply with our request for not using fish, but I don’t expect that)… After lunch, we walked through the park, escaping the deer and on towards Kasuga Taisha. It takes a while to get there, but the path is lined with stone lanterns and the forest quite wild, so it’s worth the “detour” from the deer-dominated town centre. We spent the afternoon strolling through Naramachi. We tasted some sake, it’s really interesting to compare the different types and we got to keep our tasting cup… Apparently, my husband cannot get warmed up to sake at all, but still prefers it to shochu. He is more of a beer guy and got quite far in his mission to try as many brands and brews of Japanese beer as possible. The sake we tried in Nara was not my favorite either; I preferred some Nigorizake and Namazake we tried in Kobe and later on our trip. The flowery taste of some varieties of sake (and shochu) remind me too much of vodka or baijiu, even though the brewing process is quite different, of course. A little lighter on our feet, we explored the rest of Naramachi and bought some beautiful vintage Obi for 500 Yen each. There were lots of old merchant-style houses and quite a few vintage stores. In the evening, we met up with a family from the area, arranged through the non-profit organization Nagomi Visit. It was a strange (being treated like an esteemed guest in someone’s home you have never even talked to before), but amazing experience, one of the most memorable on our trip. If you have the chance to do a “Nagomi Visit”, take it! Being able to learn about the country you’ve visiting first hand and to share food is a wonderful opportunity.

On our last day in Osaka, we checked out early to take the first express train to Koyasan. We missed it, though, because the transfer between JR Namba and Nankai Namba was a little way longer than expected. We would have missed the next train, too, if I hadn’t written down all our train connections plus several alternatives – for the entire trip – in advance (I’m a bit obsessive, yeah…), as we kept checking the wrong screen, not the one for the Koyasan line. I love the variety of Japanese trains, but one thing that surprised me is that even for longer distances, commuter-style cars (with lengthwise benches) are used. We arrived at Koyasan, and after a short discussion, handed over our larger backpacks to the station staff for safe-keeping, as the lockers can only be used for one day. I forgot to take my jacket out, but at least I grabbed a long skirt so I wouldn’t have to endure the 10-15°C (as opposed to 30+°C in Osaka!) wearing a miniskirt. Our first destination was Okunoin. In my opinion, Okunoin is *the* reason to come to Mt. Koya. So if you only have time for a day trip, make sure to visit this cemetery. It has an absolutely mystical atmosphere even at daytime (and we mused, it could easily be the setting for a horror game) and invited you venture from the main path to explore. The forest appears almost primeval and merges holistically with the tombstones, lanterns, tori and jizo figurines. The latter are very special; they wear red hats and bibs, and look rather eerie, especially when they lurk in the mossy shadows. It is one of the most spiritual places I have ever been to. From Okunoin, we walked all the way back to Kongobuji Temple. On the way, we had lunch at a vegan restaurant, managed by a French(-speaking) woman and her partner. The food was very balanced and healthy, though slightly bland, but the pottery plates and cups were wonderful. I spent the rest of the trip trying to find similar tableware! We visited the Garan, though we didn’t bother to enter anywhere that required a fee, the architecture is stunning nevertheless. We continued on to Daimon Gate for a nice view of the surroundings of the mountain. On our way back, we tried (and bought) some walnut miso at one of the shops. It was already check-in time as we arrived at Daienin. When we wanted to take pictures in the garden, confusion arose (is it inappropriate to enter the garden?), but we were allowed to eventually, stumbling around on the wooden sandals provided. Our room was nothing special but had a nice view, the baths were clean but lacked atmosphere. The dining room, however, was stunning, the walls painted golden with colourful depictions of tranquil sceneries. The dinner (we had opted for the more expensive plan, though we were served the same as the other guests, had they coincidentally all made the same choice, we wondered) was filling, healthy and well-composed. Yet the somewhat austere, bland taste (I’m not talking about lack of spices, but rather the intrinsic taste of the ingredients) contrasted with the beautiful presentation, especially compared to the temple cuisine in Kyoto later on. The next morning had us get up early for the morning service, trying to sit through it in seiza was an unexpected challenge (I normally prefer kneeling to sitting, so I challenged myself, we were allowed to assume more relaxed poses). Afterwards, there was a very insightful talk with one of the head monks, about thoughts manifesting in deeds and responsibility as one person is the culmination of all generations that came before him/her. There was an opportunity to pray or bow before Buddha, which we did not participate in as we have different beliefs, but there was no pressure to do anything. Breakfast was similar to dinner, though not as substantial. We left Koyasan in the morning for Kyoto, the cable car and express train schedules aligned well. It is a rather long trip though, visiting from Kyoto would be somewhat inconvenient.

On our last full day in Kyoto, we got up early and took the train to Fushimi Inari. Arriving some time past 6 a.m., we walked all the way up, passing tori after tori at dawn is hypnotic, to say the least. There were few other visitors, but all greeted us – I love this sense of comradery among hikers in Japan. Afterwards, we made our way to Uji, further south from Kyoto. Uji was one of our favourite day trips, although we were a little “matcha-ed out” afterwards : ). We had booked a tea experience at Tokichi. It was just the two of us, and the graceful and very knowledgeable, kimono-clad hostess. We conversed entirely in Japanese, first ground the tea into fine powder (hard work!) and then walked over to a tiny tea house set in a wonderful garden. The tea ceremony was very special, we learned a lot about the intricacies of serving and drinking tea the proper way, from the correct way to enter the tea room to the meaning of the decoration, but since we were there to learn, it felt less stiff and potentially awkward than if the setting had been more formal. With regards to taste, the thick matcha was a real revelation, my husband found it way too bitter, though. We bought some Genmai-cha (my favourite) with matcha and some bancha candy afterwards. For lunch, we had two kinds of matcha soba noodles, some sort of savoury veggie wrap as well as matcha and bancha ice cream with kinako. I love how all the other ingredients highlight the earthy flavor of the tea without it becoming overpowering. We walked to the river, shopping a little for souvenirs (medium-priced matcha and two colourful tea containers) and then arrived at Ujigami Shrine. The shrine is quite small, but interesting with sacred heaps of sand and little rabbit omikuji. We hiked up the hill, past more hornets on steroids, getting lost in the forest as the signage was very confusing. Lest we lose our way further and have to walk all to way to the dam, we descended the hill and after a while ended up at a really beautiful temple (I think it’s Koshoji), whose general structure and gardens put some Kyoto temples to shame. We walked back along the river, visited a pottery shop (more chilled matcha!), and crossing the river, arrive on a small island with the 13-storied pagoda on it. And some poor cormorants in tiny cages. We made our way back to the station early, as we had a reservation for a fucha ryori dinner at Haku-un-an near Mampukuji in Obaku. We got lost trying to locate it, but a friendly old man walked us to it. Fucha ryori is a kind of shojin ryori (vegan monastic food), with Chinese elements. We regretted not choosing the more expensive set, the food, presentation and environs were excellent and ranks among the most memorable dining experiences on this trip. We were served at a red lacquered table in a private room overlooking the garden. The courses include various soups, vegetables in thickened sauce, and small, exquisitely presented nibbles, both cooked and tempura-style, as well as a fruity dessert and flowery tea.

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