With MVP back in the States, I suddenly was doing so much more thinking when planning routes with my JR Pass. It used to be that I would just mindlessly follow what my compatriots were doing, but now I had to look up! and read! and Google! and ask people what was going on! etc.
One thing that tripped me up was the fact that the super express bullet trains, like the Nozumi or Mizuho, weren’t covered by my pass, but because they were so fast Google would only show those when I searched up trains. It was pretty annoying. Only by setting very specific times would I get trains I was looking for. I ended up reading the station displays for the semi-express trains I ended up taking.
In Nara, I dropped off my luggage at the Airbnb and then headed over to Nara Park to realize my lifetime achievement of becoming the Deer Queen. I bought two packs of crackers, twice as many as what VL suggested, and fed deer to past my heart’s content. I will say, some of those deer have very shallow bows. But there was one deer with a sweeping head bow that I think is quite impressive in hindsight.
After my short residency as queen I switched back to shrine mode and visited a couple, both of which were gorgeous. The first was the one with the giant Buddha, which was impressive due mostly to the grand scale of it. The second one was my absolute favorite, lined with stone lanterns and leading to a red and gold shrine with multiple layers and a directed route. There was even a dark room full of flickering lamps that was surreal. I paid my respects and got to see a priest? doing a ritual with a scroll in the interior.
On the walk back I saw a sake bar sign and felt a rush of yolo so I stepped right in. The guy didn’t speak any English but with pointing and smiling we both got what we wanted; there was a handy 2D chart on the fridge with savory/sweet and light/umami axes, so based on that I was able to choose some very nice sake. At some point these two girls at the bar started asking me a bunch of questions in limited English vocab and seemed very entertained / impressed that I was traveling solo and that I liked sake. They were super friendly! They talked about where they were from and we shared brief oh here’s where I grew up etc.
Afterwards I told them where I was going next (tofu dessert place, thanks VL) and they accompanied me. One of them bought me a soft serve soy ice cream cone while I was looking at the tofu, which was really nice of her. We talked some more and I learned some Japanese that I promptly forgot.
I go back to the Airbnb to blog a bit, rest a bit, charge the phone. Then with another blessing of VL’s Nara guide I go to a unagi place, which is delicious. I order double dessert as a way to commemorate the last fancy meal in Japan that I would likely be having. The seating in the restaurant was traditional, where you’d sit on the floor but there’d be a depression for your legs under the table deep enough that you could sit on it like you would a ledge. I don’t know what it exactly is about sitting on the ground, but it’s a nice change and I like it a lot. Feels cozier.
I stop by a jazz bar on the way back, which felt really American – there were stacks of Vinyl and CDs, and the songs were all American Jazz. The decor was cool – a round bar with piano key art and a middle circular island with all the spirits. My bartender was this friendly older woman who chatted with me a bit with the power and limitations of Google Translate. We talked about travel plans and at some point she recommended an old manga that she personally really liked.
Back at the Airbnb, my host has his own more bar, so I buy some Nara sake and we have a friendly chit chat for awhile. It was an easygoing and fun conversation, and super interesting. I suppose one of the main benefits of solo travel is that you end up talking with the locals a lot more rather than your travel buddies. I was really lucky today to have had so many opportunities to do just that, because normally I wouldn’t.
The Airbnb is in this traditional pre-war Japanese house, which was probably the coolest Airbnb of the whole trip. It was super compact, but in a friendly way – everything had a place and a use. My room itself was super unique; I’ve never seen anything like it – you’d step up from the ground, avoiding a low ceiling, to raised room with a warm rug and low table. Another step down was a sleeping space the size of a queen mattress, where my bed was set. Downstairs was a play / living room that also doubled as a dining space. I really wish I could’ve stayed longer, what with the really cool room and host. It was really something special.
I’m happy I ended up doing a bunch more stuff in Nara besides feeding deer, as it turns out.