I mentioned in Part 1 that we scuppered the entire Kyushu leg of our trip due to an earthquake and the eruption of Mt Aso. We did some brainstorming and research to consider our options in the Kansai area, which fortunately has many interesting and fun things to do and see.
We decided on a day trip to Nara, where Japan’s first capital was originally established and where deer roam free through a large park in central Nara. The deer number over a thousand and are considered sacred messengers from the gods in Shinto; there are stall set up with “deer cookies” for visitors to buy and feed them. Naturally this would be a fun activity with two toddlers. Right? More on that in a bit…
En route to Nara, we made an appointment to pick strawberries at a little farm recommended by one of James’ friends. The farm was located in Seika, a town that’s famous for strawberries; the official Visit Kyoto website has a page with more details about Seika (written in English). Japanese strawberries are mad tasty and sweet, so this was one of those activities that’s hands-down a winning proposition for kids and adults alike.
The kids took to the strawberry picking instantly. Emma only wanted the “small, cute ones” while Katy was a lot less discerning and got very grabby with any strawberry that caught her fancy. Alas in her enthusiasm she bruised nearly all that she grabbed – being very ripe, those berries bruised very easily too – so we ended up with bowls of mostly bleeding strawberries when we were done.
We didn’t understand a word the farm managers said and they didn’t understand us, so we got by with smiles and miming and understood we were meant to rinse down the berries before sitting down to eat them. They were SO GOOD.
At one point one of the older managers asked us “Singapore, no ichigo?” which I took to mean “do strawberries not grow in Singapore?” rather than “are there no strawberries in Singapore?” and replied accordingly. I hope I haven’t misinformed the man that we sad folks in Singapore would never get to taste an ichigo without having to leave the country…
Strawberries done, we went on our way towards Nara in search of deer. We certainly got a lot of deer for our troubles; the kids were initially very excited at spotting deer through the car windows, until it became clear that they were literally everywhere. Once we entered the deer park proper, Katy and Emma got quite a kick out of approaching and then shying away from the (rather bold) animals. They attempted to pat at least one of them, too.
It was when James bought the stack of deer snacks that everything went a little downhill. First, the deer tailed him back from the snack stall to where the rest of us were hanging out. Then they got pretty darn enthusiastic in their pursuit of said snacks.
To quote myself, from a Facebook post on the day of our visit:
What the guidebooks and websites say:
The deer are tame; they come up to you and bow when they want a snack.
A small herd advances on you once they detect the presence of deer snacks on your person. They bob their heads menacingly as they close in, with steely glints in their eyes.
You surrender the deer snacks tout suite lest the deer change their minds and munch on your child instead.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that those deer are disgustingly greedy. Besides the deer snacks, we also witnessed them chowing down on: a map, a packaged sandwich filched from a careless visitor, and some chips that an idling taxi driver fed them out of a foil package. I’m also told we were lucky that none of our party was actually bitten by one of the deer – so much for them being herbivores. At one point, one of them entirely freaked me out by lurking in my blind spot and trying to chew the Pocky sticks out of my tote bag. (I may or may not have shouted OH SHIT when I noticed; Katy may or may not have echoed OH SHIT as well… -_- )
To divert Katy’s attention from the deer, James introduced her to the pinecones that were lying everywhere (since Nara Park is planted with pine trees everywhere). Before we knew it, she was obsessively picking up every single pine cone in the park within her reach. Including those liberally covered in deer poop. Augh.
The rest of our day in Nara was pretty low-key. Katy fell asleep in her car seat while we were looking for lunch, so James found a spot to idle while the rest of us grabbed a beef bowl for lunch at Sukiya, a chain restaurant. We were getting really hungry so the beef and rice tasted extra delicious. I grabbed James a takeaway portion to eat while Katy slept, and the rest of us did some cursory exploration of the area near the Nara subway station. We found a nice hipster cafe called Rokumei and had some really good coffee there; it was easily the best damn coffee I’ve ever had in Japan.
After Katy woke up, we headed back towards the park to spend some time at Tōdai-ji temple. Tricia, Eugene and Emma opted to go inside the temple to explore the inside, while James, Katy and I hung out outside so that a slightly manic (from inadequate nap) Katy could blow off some steam. And of course, pick up more poopy pinecones.
We headed back into Kyoto for dinner. James suggested we hunt down a nice tempura dinner in the many restaurant areas in and around the JR Kyoto station, and given that we were all ready for a sit-down meal at this point I thought it was a great idea. Tempura in Japan is just unlike tempura anywhere else in the world: the batter is fluffier and more delicate, the ingredients are of course finer and fresher. And so we had a great dinner, punctuated twice by Katy howling from fatigue and having to be led outside to calm down a little. Alas I have no photos as I was a little busy wrangling Katy, plus I was pretty crabby from fatigue myself given what a packed day it had been. Luckily, there’s really nothing like a sumptuous hot meal to end off a full-on day.