Nara (Japan) and its treasures

Nara is a city just near Kyoto and can be done as a day trip if you are on a limited time. Hopping off from Nara station, we did a quick 20min walk to Nara park. At the entrance, you will be met by a herd of deers. The deers are believed to be protectors of the temple and hence roam free around the grounds. They are domesticated and the antlers are maintained smooth so they won’t be able to harm anyone. When the deers see you holding a cookie (available at the temple), some do a bow before taking a bite. It was funny and amusing. Some of the deers may bump you or nibble your clothes,too. Before you begin your journey, I suggest you get the free map offered at the entrance.

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Bow and the deer will bow back 🙂

20150501_132606 Surpassing the Nara Park, you walk into the forest led by a path of these stone structures called “lanterns” towards Kasuga Shrine. You typically see a few lanterns in other temples, but in Nara I saw a lot of them, all in rows leading to the temple. In fact, the oldest stone lanterns can be found here in Nara! Stone lanterns are built commonly near shrines and temples, funded by individuals and families (you will see description in each lantern) and then has been popularized to be found in wealthy homes. There are also copper or bronze lanterns you will see hanging under temple roofs.

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century-old lanterns hanging outside the Kasuga shrine

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A plank of wood shaped like a deer forthose visiting to write down their wishes and concerns as a form of prayer

When you are finished with your stop at Kasuga Shrine, you then walk towards Nigatsu-do Hall. When you reach this location, I suggest go up at the viewdeck in Nigatsu-do Hall. The view atop was breathtaking for me. You will have a wonderful glimpse ofthe temples below and the city ahead. This was one of my favorite spots.

the view from Nigatsu-do Hall   (credit: temporarilylost)

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stairs to Nigatsu-do Hall

After enjoying your walk and ancient appreciation of  Kasuga Shrine and Nigatsudo Hall, the last stop is the grandious Todaiji Temple, the largest wooden structure ever built in the world! In pictures, it looks average in size but when you are actually there, its HUGE!! Upon entering you will see this reaalllly big buddha to greet you. The building’s interiors are as amusing and beautiful as the exteriors.

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the Big Buddha/ Daibutsuden Hall inside Todaiji Temple (credit: photohito)

Thanks for reading!

How to get there:

Ride a train towards JR Nara Station

What to see: (all within walking distance)
Nara Park  – open24 hours – FREE visit
Toshodaiji Temple – 8:30-4:30pm – FREE
Kasuga Shrine- 6:00am-6:00pm – FREE in some parts of the shrine
Todaiji Temple-  entrance fee 1500yen (Todaiji museum + Daibutsuden/Buddha Hall)

Interesting finds in Japan

There is a lot of interesing ( unique, weird, odd, funny) things you will encounter in modern Japan. You don’t have to go far to find them because they are commonly seen in the big cities.

So here are some interesting things you might find along the way during your trip to Japan.

1. They change names of western movies. 

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Fast and Furious 7 as seen on billboards (2015)

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Despicable Me (2010)

Yes, you suddenly glance at a billboard and woah! Isn’t that…?? Yea it is.  But reason for this ( after asking around) is that they cannot literally translate the title to Japanese. If they do, it yields another meaning so they change it to the closest possible one that can be understood by them. If you go to Japan, don’t forget to spot one and take a snap, especially near the train stations 🙂

2. They like face masks… a lot

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When you go to stores, you will definitely see a display section for a variety of masks. Options are either on how much filter it has, and others are just for plain design. Its fairly common seeing people of different ages wearing masks while walking on the streets all year round. In our case, we visited Japan during pollen season. In some places in Tokyo, they do wear mask for fashion. Other locals wear mask also if they are sick (an act, they say, of being responsible enough not to infect others).

3. And… eye patches too?

 

The eyepatch! It’s not that common as masks. But I started seeing a few random girls with the same plain white eyepatch or “gantai” here and there as I walk on the streets. At first I was thinking, “How can I see three random people with a left eye patch in one day?” And I thought it couldn’t be a costume really because they were in civilian clothes and one in a school uniform. With some search, I read it was connected to manga/ anime fans wanting to copy the clique.

Although not everyone with eyepatch do it for the clique. Some Japanese women do eyelid surgery to make their eyes bigger, hence requiring an eye patch.

4. They have techy toilets

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This was what I was looking forward to see after reading it in a blog years ago. I call it the “magical toilet” !!! As soon as I landed in Japan, I rushed into the first restroom I could find and took a snap of this 🙂 They are warm toilet seats, with built in bidet/shower and dryer, and best of all, you have music! 🙂 I think there is nothing wrong having a pleasant time in the toilet. I definitely did.

Warning : Since the buttons are in Japanese , don’t be silly pressing them all. You sure dont want any water spraying on your face (like me). haha

5. They have funny english translations everywhere

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I had to read some public signs twice or thrice to get what it meant. I appreciate the fact that they tried stating it in english. Although I may say they should improve on this and put more english signs since they will be hosting the olympics soon.

6. Vending Machines will take your orders in fast food restaurants

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Like the magic toilet, this also was an interesting technology. On the screen, you are given a menu to pick an order. You then pay the machine with cash and the machine gives you a ticket to give to the server. The menu is mostly in Japanese. For us, we just clicked “recommended menu” and picked from the yummy pictures posted. Often fast food restaurants are manned by 2-3 people who are mostly in the kitchen.

7. Parking is more fun in Japan

Cool concept of parking is seen in Japan. You leave your car in a small space at a parking garage then a machine picks it up and places it in safely like a drawer in a cabinet! Aside from cars, they have the same concept for bikes too. This saves a lot of time and frustration finding a parking spot.

Thanks for reading! There’s a lot more interesting finds in Japan that I haven’t seen yet for sure. If you had encounters with those on this list or If you saw something interesting that didn’t make the list, please do share 🙂

Important things to note before travelling to Japan

Japan is a very beautiful country to visit.  For english speakers, there might be challenges we are not used to. But hey! that’s what makes travelling more fun and interesting. It is always best to be aware and be prepared so you can enjoy your trip to the fullest. Before you pack your bags and go, here are some things to note:

1. OTC (over the counter) medications are not as readily available.

Even the typical ibuprofen or pain relievers aren’t easily found so it’s best to carry some with you just in case. Bringing a few pieces of your preferred brand for anti-allergy and pain relievers do come in handy. In the event you forgot to bring some, you have to look online for the equivalent of the medications available in their local pharmacy, since the brands in Japan are different and  is in Kanji or Japanese language.

credit: snippets and scribbles

2. Tissue papers

While packing your stuff for your Japan trip, it’s really not needed to bring tissue. You’ll be surprised that while walking in the busy streets, they actually give away free tissue, along with some advertisements of course. Also, all public toilets in japan are equipped with tissue paper.

One more thing, you will notice some signs in the restrooms ( see above). Don’t be confused. Yes, they do throw their toilet tissue paper inside the toilet bowl. Reason for this? Unlike most of the places in the world, Japan has water soluble tissue and is safe to throw into the toilet.

3. Cash Only please

Don’t rely solely on your credit or debit cards because most of the stores in Japan only accept cash. Credit cards are used in big establishments and hotels. Make sure to have extra cash with you because they come in handy to buy foods and drinks. There are money exchange in the airport, some near the metro and some in town. I suggest you have your money changed when you are already in Japan. Since the rates change everyday, exchange a couple of hundreds in one town to another. In my experience, we had better rates in places far from Tokyo.

4. Trash bins in public: Rare to none at all.

Don’t be surprised if you won’t see any trash bins in public. This encourages people to minimize trash and keep trash to themselves and dispose it in proper locations (your home). They have a strict rule on garbage separation that has said to have been started since 1990s. The way rubbish separation/recycling rules are very strict and somewhat complicated for typical international tourists that it became impossible to expect every tourist/non-tourist to obey the rules, so they removed the trash bins on the street. I think this “no trash bin” in sidewalks is a good thing.  I never saw an insect in Japan –roaches, flies, bugs … nada. And I think this is one reason why streets are very clean 🙂
I advise you to bring a small plastic bag in your backpack to put trash.

5. Body language and hand signs are helpful in communicating

Not many Japanese can speak or understand english but they are very willing to help you in case you are finding your way around. Hand gestures while speaking helped us communicate with the locals. I also downloaded an offline English-Japanese dictionary.

6. Establishments open late and close early.

Like USA and other western countries, most business establishments such as malls open around 9am and close around 6pm. If you need anything in the middle of the night or early morning, you can go find 24 hour places like Lawsons or 7eleven.

7. No free Wifi

You can probably get free and good wifi in your accomodation. Other than that, you have to pay for your own. In the airport, you can choose between getting a sim card equipped with data or rent a pocket wifi for your stay. Prices will depend on the data plan you will choose.

*TIP: Before going to Japan or any other country, make sure your phone is open line/ unlocked.

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Top picks: Things you must try in Japan

Aside from visiting temples, castles, arcades and trying techy stuff around,  there are things you definitely shouldn’t miss trying when you are visiting in Japan. Here’s my top picks:

1. Green tea
There are a lot of varieties of green tea, even limited editions. Thats why you must grab your chance to try as much as you can. Some I have tried were green tea ice cream, cake, cookies, pudding, yogurt, chocolate and more. Its hard to find these items outside Japan so maximise your chances of trying these versions. These are the stuff I bought for breakfast 🙂

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2. Sake
Sake is their traditional drink also known by westerners as “rice wine”. There are two known types and there are different varieties. If you get a chance, stop by a sake brewery to see how they’re made. You can get one of these tiny sake packages for souvenirs also.

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3. Sleeping in a Ryokan
Ryokans are Japanese traditional houses. Sleeping overnight is enough to have an experience of this. They may come pricey.

4. Japanese Street food
Even with street food, there is art in preparing it. Watch and observe some interesting moves and enjoy the delightful foods in every stall.

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5. Traditional Costume
Dress up and walk around town in a kimono for a day. The best place to do this is in Kyoto. It is a traditional city with old buildings that will match your traditional attire when taking photos. Shops in town offer a package wherein they will provide the costume and dress you themselves. This was one of my memorable experiences.

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6. Ride a Shinkansen / bullet train
Why miss riding the fastest train in the world? Definitely not. An 8 hour trip can be made in 2 hours with these babies.

Japanese Shinkansen HDR

JAPAN RAIL PASS: To get or not to get one?

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This passport-sized ticket is a JR PASS (2015)

JAPAN RAIL PASS (JR PASS)

5 Things to know about JR PASS

1. It is an easy pass/ ticket. Meant for tourists to get around Japan using the JR Shinkansen (bullet train), buses and ferries operated by the JR Group.  You can use it unlimited number of times within the number of days your ticket is valid (see #2 ). Bullet trains mean shorter time travel. Example: A bus ride from Tokyo-Kyoto is 8-10hrs while with a Shinkansen it takes 2hrs.

*Note that it is valid for JR Group only

2. It comes with 7 days,  14 days, or 21 days validity. Take your pick. Please note that the pass is valid only on successive days. This means, even if you do not use the pass on daily basis, you will not get any additional days. Example, if you choose a 7-day-pass, and activate your JR pass on June20, it will expire on June 27 wheather or not you did not use it everyday.

3. You can ONLY purchase a JR PASS outside Japan and is only sold by accredited agencies. Click HERE to see accredited agencies in the Philippines. For non-Philippine citizens, check your country’s embassy of Japan.

4. There are two types of JR PASS tickets: Reserved (green car)  and non-reserved (ordinary). The green car is more expensive compared to non-reserved.  Reserved means you automatically have a seat number, you have wider seats and other amenities. Non-reserved means you don’t have an automatic seat number and you seat on any vacant seats. Although If preferred you can reserve seats beforehand thru the JR office. I took the ordinary ticket and I liked it a lot and I also saved money.

5. It cannot be used in some trains like Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen trains and some local buses. But thats ok.

CONCLUSION: If you want to explore japan and hop on and off across the country, YES! you better get one. It saves a lot of time from buying ticket on each ticket booth and waiting in line.  But if you are staying in one area or city for the whole trip, better not get one.

FAQ

Q: What is exactly a Shinkansen train?

A: Shinkansen is a term for bullet train. Its the easiest way to get around japan. There are different trains in Japan though. You will identify which type of train it is as it is flashed on the trains’ side.

Quick Steps to get a Japan Tourist Visa (Philippine Passport)

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Here are two quick steps to getting your Japan Visa this 2015:

STEP1: Prepare required documents

Requirements:

  • Valid Philippine Passport
  • Visa Application form
  • Photo with white background  (4.5cm x4.5cm )
  • Itinerary of Travel/ Daily Schedule in Japan (TAIZAI NITTEIHYO)
  • Bank Certificate
  • Birth Certificate
  • Marriage Certificate
  • ITR (Income Tax Return or Form 2316)
  • Additional documents*

*Additional documents: If you want to include helpful documents  to boost your chances of approval, it is highly encouraged. Example is a copy of your e-ticket/ return ticket, copy of your booked accommodation/ confirmed hotel reservations, a good one also is Employment certificate or a simple letter of “grant of leave from work” written by your boss.

*to avoid hassles , bring the original copy and a photocopy of all documents. (They will return the original copy once reviewed by agency)

STEP2: Pick a travel agency and schedule an appointment

You cannot process your papers thru any other route. There are only 7 accredited agencies that are recognized by the Japanese embassy to collect and process your papers . Beware of other agencies that offer otherwise.

click HERE for accredited agencies

When you have scheduled an appointment, make sure you bring the requirements above and its photocopies, prepare also for the agency fee (check your agency website). Japan Visa is GRATIS- No fees are imposed by the embassy of Japan to applicants who are granted a visa .Only the agency fee is what you will be paying.

Upon arriving in the agency, they will check your original documents and collect the photocopy of each. To avoid delays, prepare documents beforehand and completely fill up the visa application form you printed. Your passport will also be collected. You will be informed by your agency via text once your passport is ready for pick-up. As of the moment, be positive and pray your visa is coming soon 🙂

FAQS

Q: “How long will I wait for the results of my application?”

A: Its hard to tell, but we got ours after 7days. Agencies have claimed it takes 7-10 days waiting time

Q: “How much amount is needed to be visible in the Bank certificate?”

A:  Some say to ensure a 6-digit number, but to be honest I didn’t have a 6-digit number in my bank when I applied for a 7-day trip. Maybe its safe if your account has been around for more than 3months, and the amount in there should justify that you can  financially support yourself for the number of days you will stay in Japan. Make sure you have an enough amount to satisfy your travel period.

Feel free to leave a comment below for inquiries.
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