Deer and Beer

Catching up with family is always informative. Either you learn that so-and-so is pregnant or he’s not talking to her anymore or that someone’s getting married or that simply: family knows you all too well.

Yesterday I spoke with a bunch of family. It seemed like the thing to do seeing as the weather was beautiful, I had the day off, and I had plans later to make dinosaur-shaped cookies. That last one really isn’t a cause of talking to family, nor an effect. It just was.

While talking to my grandmother who lives in Virginia, she commented on some of my posts, “Oh it’s just so nice that you have a bit more time now to write! But I do have to say, you don’t seem like you liked Japan as much.”

Curious. I never exclusively said, nor think, that Japan isn’t good or fun or chalked full of amazing things. But I would, if pinning Japan and Korea as destinations to travel, choose Korea. Shocker? Maybe – since Japan is that Romanticized far Eastern nation with beauty and art and food and Korea is this industrious economic powerhouse that is striving with all of its might to be recognized on a global tourism level.

Folks, that isn’t to say that I didn’t adore Japan. All in all, it was a treat. On our second day, we hopped onto a train that was “partially air-conditioned” in efforts to save energy because of the recent catastrophe, and headed away from Osaka to Nara.

Getting off the train after a few chapters in my book, Nara’s magical nature was foreshadowed by the first thing I saw: the mascot that is human but with antlers. What, you might ask, is with the antlers.

That curiosity was quelled within three blocks of the train station when Laura and I hauled our bags past the park – which is at least as large as the city-town itself. – there were wild deer everywhere. Sitting on the sidewalk, strolling through the park, eating out of people’s hands, it was almost surreal. I do have to say that I never saw a deer after sun-set, so I’m wondering where exactly they may go – maybe a little house somewhere, or back to the forest for some peace and quiet from the noisy humans.

The magic continued as we found our quaint hostel with free tea and snacks. The building itself was an old one that has been restored from years past. The stairs creaked and the doors didn’t shut all the way. Shoes weren’t to be worn in certain rooms and the building all together was a low-ceilinged home that wafted thoughts and smells of Japan long ago.

In true “Josh and Laura go to Japan” fashion, our only plan was to explore the park. That’s what was written all over guidebooks (which we didn’t have, and had to rely on our abilities to translate French from a guidebook from 2006 left in the hostel) so we decided to go with that French suggestion.

The park is expansive. It holds traditional Japanese temples, palaces, gates, Shinto shrines, endless trees, deer, places to buy deer treats, and some – but not a ton – touristy hubs. I have to say, I welcomed some of the souvenir shops not for the tangible things, but for the edible. See, when I left Korea for vacation, one of my co-workers (upon realizing that I was going away for the long weekend) first almost hit me out of jealousy, and then said “GREEN TEA ICE CREAM! GET ME ONE!”

That obviously couldn’t happen, but I did think about it. A little dry ice, a little rushing, maybe I could have done it… I think it’s the line at the immigration booth that would have killed that idea.

But instead, I decided to eat as much green tea ice cream as possible. So every touristy spot that had a large ice cream statue, I’d gaze at it longingly, talk about it, then move on. Finally, after that happened maybe six times, I’d get an ice cream on the seventh opportunity. Because it was every seven, that meant I ate a ton of ice cream seeing as there were probably one hundred places.

We spent a majority of the day in the park, just strolling, and trying to hit every little spot on our newly acquired maps (now in French, Spanish, German, and English – just for fun).  As we rounded the northern edge, we found ourselves in prime eating location and down right starving.

“What should we get?”

“I don’t know, sushi? Ramen? Soba?”

“Let’s just stroll.”

Never. Never ever ever say “let’s just stroll!” What does that lead to? A four o’clock lunch, that’s what. A four o’clock lunch with an eight o’clock run and a ten o’clock dinner in the hostel that you bought after your run and had to walk back then risk possibly not having the kitchen of your hostel open.

Was the ramen we eventually found worth it? Of course! Seeing as we didn’t know anything that was on the menu, and neither of us really read Japanese (Me: not at all; Laura: almost!), and there was no English… we just went ahead at got the special that was popping out to us in the middle of the menu: Ramen and Beer. Four o’clock Ramen and Beer? What could be better after green tea ice cream and deer all day?

With the ramen (I got traditional), six pot stickers came out, and a nice sized beer. It was the first time we had really sat down that day, and it just felt perfect. We were excited hungry tired energetic happy nervous eager sated all within a forty minute time-frame.

The ramen there is absolutely nothing like it ever will be in the states! A not-overly-salty base thin and flavorful filled with umami notes encompass noodles thick and chewy and vegetables not-overly-cooked like carrots and mushrooms. Chopsticks and spoons help you get through your meal with short breaks and you nab a crispy friend piece of chicken or pot sticker or grab a hold of a crisp, light beer. Some Japanese – as you probably well have heard – people polish off ramen in lightening speed, leaving me wonder how their stomachs may be okay and not taught with pain. I, on the other hand, took it nice and slow and really tried to enjoy every bite as I replenished and refreshed for the rest of the evening as well as the next day. We were off to another train ride and the old capital of Japan and large reason we decided on the Kansai region: Kyoto. Land of sushi and soba and geishas and temples and mystery and small, winding roads, and large department stores and and and our vacation was just starting.

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