Last week I gave you a glimpse of Tokyo and all the things you can do if you’re visiting. This week, I want to show you this amazing Japanese deer city!!
My second stop in Japan was actually Osaka, but since I got a JR 14-day pass for the duration of my stay in Japan, I was able to travel around the country on the JR line and the shinkansen (high-speed bullet trains). It ultimately saved us a lot of money, and we were able to see multiple cities without having to lug our luggage around everywhere.
In short, if you’re visiting Japan, look into the JR pass.
Ok, back to my original topic, the Japanese deer city, Nara. I saw Nara in a video a while before we even planned a trip to Japan, and honestly, I forgot all about it until we were actually in Japan! I was going through a few suggestions from friends, and one of them said she went to Nara. I quickly looked up how far it was from us and it turned out that it was only an hour from Osaka.
Nara: Japanese Deer City
It only took a 5-minute walk from the Nara train station to see the pretty Japanese deer wandering the streets and calmly crossing the road in the city! Unfortunately, it was a rainy day when we arrived, but that meant that there were fewer people out and more opportunities to interact with the deer.
Fun fact: if you bow to the deer, they will bow back! They’re extremely socialized and they’re considered sacred animals that were placed in the city to guard and protect it. Until 1637, it was an offense punishable by death to kill one of these deer.
We made Osaka our home base while we took smaller day-trips. Cross Hotel Osaka was in a fantastic location, perfectly located near the train and Dotonbori, the big, main shopping and food street along the canal.
While in Osaka, we visited the Osaka Castle in the Osaka Castle Park. I looked through different reviews and decided not to go inside the actual castle, but the park surrounding it was extremely pleasant and perfect for a stroll. There’s a great view of Osaka from the top of the stairs on the west side of the castle.
We also chose to go to an onsen while we were here. Things got a little less pleasant for me here. I really wanted to get the onsen experience, but I have two tattoos, and tattoos aren’t generally accepted or allowed in a lot of places. This meant I had to look for a place that allowed tattoos.
Via Wiki: “By 2015, around half (56%) of onsen operators had banned bathers with tattoos from using their facilities. The original reason for the tattoo ban was to keep out Yakuza and members of other crime gangs who traditionally have elaborate full-body decoration.
However, tattoo-friendly onsen do exist. A 2015 study by the Japan National Tourism Organisation found that more than 30% of onsen operators at hotels and inns across the country will not turn someone with a tattoo away; another 13% said they would grant access to a tattooed guest under certain conditions, such as having the tattoo covered up.
With the increase in foreign customers due to growing tourism, some onsens that previously banned tattoos are loosening their rules to allow guests with small tattoos to enter, provided they cover their tattoos with a patch or sticking plaster.”
We found a place an extremely bare-bones traditional bathhouse a few blocks away from the hotel. I brought a towel from the hotel, but unfortunately, didn’t realize I was supposed to bring soap and all with me. I figured I showered at the hotel so there’s no need to scrub right?
What Happens in An Onsen
After removing my shoes, placing them in a locker, and paying the admission fee, I entered a large changing room where a woman was sitting on a couch smoking (it’s acceptable to smoke in indoor establishments). I chose a locker in the corner and proceeded to undress. You go in fully nude- bathing suits are not allowed. I took my towel with me, but the bath area has no hooks or any place to put your towel, so you have to be creative with it (aka, put it on your head).
The entire time, I had my arms crossed because I didn’t want to offend anyone with my two tattoos on my inner arms. Everyone was Japanese and slightly older, so I didn’t want to take my chances and get thrown out, even though this place was listed as tattoo-friendly online. I mean, who knows, right? The owners might’ve changed since the listing was put up or something and now things might be different. A lot was written in Japanese after all.
When you enter, there are a wall of low showers and personal stools for you to sit on, as well as wash basins. You pick an unoccupied spot, sit on the little stool, turn on the water, and scrub away. This is the part that was hard for me. Like I said, I didn’t realize I was supposed to bring soap and washing tools. Sooooooo, I just sat there gliding my hands over my body and pretending to have a good scrub. Not sure if I fooled anyone.
After you’re done washing your nasty self, you fill the wash basin with water and wash away the area where you’re been scrubbing. You then wash your stool and put everything back. Now you’re ready for the actual onsen.
How an onsen works
In order to legally be classified as onsen (aka, a hot natural bath), the bathhouse must use water with “at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, including such minerals as iron, sulfur, and metabolic acid, and have an average temperature of 25 °C (77 °F) or warmer at the point of release. Stratifications exist for waters of different temperatures.”(Wikipedia)
There were five different baths in this bath house. The first was pleasantly warm, and apparently had some sort of electrical coils going around the perimeter of the bath. My husband later told me that it was an electrical bath, and you could feel currents go through the water (what the hell?) but I don’t think the women’s side worked because it just felt like a pleasant soaking bath to me.
The next one was slightly hotter, and I could feel my body temps rising. I didn’t stay here long because I wanted to move on to the jacuzzi. Once I was done with this one, I tried to step into the one next to it which turned out to be SCALDING HOT. So, no thanks.
After I thoroughly burned my legs in the boiling onsen, the freezing cold plunge one with the waterfall was a welcome relief.
And that’s the onsen experience! You basically go from warm, hotter, hot, to less hot, then to cold, before amping things up again. Things should be taken slowly and you shouldn’t jolt your body by suddenly increasing or decreasing temperatures a la Scandinavian country sauna/plunge pool experiences.
I think this was a least favorite place of mine to visit. Nothing wrong with Kyoto itself. I think it’s a very historic and beautiful place with many hidden gems, but the streets felt a little bit more sterile and targeted the wealthier western tourist.
My most enjoyable moments here were spent walking through Fushimi Inari-taisha, AKA the “orange gates” shrine. The bright vermillion hued torii (gates) were all donated by individual businesses, and the shrine itself is dedicated to Inari, the kami (“spirit”) of prosperity, agriculture, rice, etc.
The other recommended part of Kyoto are the small, winding streets of Gion. The neighborhood is widely known as a central geisha district of Japan. The geishas in Kyoto refer to themselves not as geishas however, but as geikos. A geiko specifically means “a woman of arts” whereas geisha means “person of the arts.”