Tokyo Disneyland (part 1)

Tokyo Disneyland (part 1)

Before I really get into this post, I have to tell you a few things. First of all, I am a huge Disney fan. I have been to Disney parks all over the world and I really enjoy comparing and contrasting them. (I grew up in central Florida, so I bet you can guess which park I’m most familiar with.) That said, I’ll try to keep things readable for people who are a lot less familiar with the parks, too.

The other thing is that I have had exceptionally bad luck with Tokyo Disneyland. I have been there three times now and each time was an unmitigated disaster. The first time? Typhoon. The second time? Got a phone call that our family dog died right before we went into the parks and there was bad weather. Those trips were both four years ago, while I was studying in Kyoto. I went one more time during this last trip, hoping to break the streak. Beautiful weather, my dogs were safe. But I did get food poisoning, which had me laid up in my hotel room for most of the trip.

Cool cool cool.

So as you might’ve guessed, I don’t exactly have one nice little narrative for a typical Tokyo Disneyland visit. That said, I had enough positive experiences amongst those three visits to cobble together one big blog post. That means that all of the information is from a four-year period, and so are all the photos. (And boy was I into portrait-style photos in 2014…) So please bear with me. This has been a wild ride.

Anyway, let’s start out with the basics. As most of you already know, Disney has several parks throughout the world — California (Disneyland), Florida (Walt Disney World), Paris (Disneyland Paris), Shanghai (Shanghai Disneyland), Hong Kong (Hong Kong Disneyland), and Tokyo (Tokyo Disneyland). 

What you may not know is that Disney doesn’t actually own all these parks. WDW, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris are all 100% Disney (as of 2017, when DLP was bought by Disney). Shanghai DL and Hong Kong DL are almost 50/50, but with a controlling share owned by the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government respectively. And Tokyo Disneyland? Well, that’s 100% independently owned by the Oriental Land Company.

Because Tokyo Disneyland only really licenses Disney properties, it’s pretty distinct from the other Disney parks. It’s split up into two separate parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. TDL is roughly analogous to California’s Disneyland or Florida’s Magic Kingdom and has a lot of similarities with most worldwide Disney parks. Tokyo DisneySea, though, is where things really go off the rails.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that Tokyo DisneySea has nothing to do with Disney. The central conceit is that it’s split up into various bodies of water from around the world, and two of these (Mermaid Lagoon and the Arabian Coast) are fairly focused on Disney properties. You can also find Toy Story characters in American Waterfront’s Toyville Trolley Park. Plus, you know, you’ll still be able to see Disney characters wandering around the park.

A vaguely Aladdin-y outfit on Daisy.
And they’re themed, too! Here’s Arabian Coast Daisy!

But unlike TDL, the percentage of TDS that is specifically Disney-related is a lot smaller, and non-Disney properties are mixed in there somewhat unexpectedly. It is more focused on interesting international and fantasy lands to explore than it is on traditional Disney characters, and sort of feels like a mixture of WDW’s Epcot and Animal Kingdom in that respect.

If you’ve never been to a Disney park before and you only have one day, I definitely recommend Tokyo Disneyland. It’s the quintessential Disney park and you’ll get to do all the quintessential Disney rides. That’s the park where you’re going to find Dumbo, It’s A Small World, and Cinderella Castle. It’s the easiest place to take a picture with Mickey, eat a waffle with Mickey’s face on it, and buy those very necessary Mickey Mouse ears. In other words, all those unmissable things you need to do during your first trip.

Minnie in a very cute harvest-themed dress, waving to the crowd.
Here’s a photo of Minnie from TDL’s Halloween parade. It was raining, so please pardon the image quality.

If you’re a seasoned Disney fan, though, you’ve gotta see Tokyo DisneySea. You’ll have a couple familiar rides, like Toy Story Mania and the Magic Carpets, but that’ll be shuffled up with Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage,  Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Aquatopia. Even the usual Disney mainstays, like Tower of Terror, exist in totally new incarnations that have very little in common with their American namesakes. It’s refreshing in its uniqueness — plus it’s just a truly beautiful park.

A Dia de los Muertos inspired character dressed up like a chef walking around Tokyo DisneySea.
And this is one of the characters you’ll see at Tokyo DisneySea for Halloween. Not quite as Disney as the other, huh?

There’s so much to say about each park that I’ve decided to split this topic into three different parks. This one for the basic info, the next for Tokyo Disneyland, and the last for Tokyo DisneySea. It’s just too much to comfortably read otherwise. This post will mostly just be an introduction along with some tips for avoiding problems at the parks, and then the actual trip reports will be up later this week.

With that said, I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning. Despite the name, Tokyo Disneyland is not actually in Tokyo, but in the nearby seaside town of Maihama. 99% of the people who go, though, will be going by way of Tokyo. The two most common ways to get to the parks are either taking the Maihama train from Tokyo Station or taking the Disneyland bus from Shinjuku Station. Having done both, I think I prefer taking the train in the morning (as it’s faster) and taking the bus back at night. You might need to leave a little early as the bus has a much more limited schedule, but there’s something comforting about just collapsing into a comfortable seat and not having to think about anything until you get back to the city.

If you take the train, please be warned that it can be a bit of an ordeal. The trains, especially in the morning, tend to be packed full of people and there’s a strong likelihood that you won’t be getting a seat for what’s a comparatively long train ride. The train itself isn’t easy to get to, either. Tokyo Station is a maze, enormous and twisty, and I’d leave at least twenty minutes to get from the entrance to the platform, if not longer. It’s exceptionally easy to get lost, especially if you are disabled (like me) or have quite a bit of luggage, both of which make it difficult to do stairs. There are elevators that will take you all the way to the platform, but they can be really confusing to track down. Definitely don’t be shy about asking for help — even someone who knows where they’re going will have at least a 10-15 minute journey through the station. You start to wonder if you’re going to poke your head out the door and find Osaka after you’ve wandered those tunnels long enough.

A sign welcoming guests to Tokyo Disneyland in the train station.

Once you finally get to the parks, though, you still won’t be in the parks. There is a front area you’ll need to pass through before you get to the parks proper. There is a large Disney store, a non-Disney shopping area called Ikspiari, the Disney Ambassador Hotel, and a second train station. The train station is where you really need to head. It works just like a normal Japanese train, not a typical Disney monorail, and you will need tickets to ride it. You can use Pasmo/Suica, or you can buy cute Disney train tickets at the train station. (These Disney train tickets are included with your stay if you stay at the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel or Hotel Miracosta.)

This second train station is where it really starts to feel like Disneyland.
The hanging handles on this train are shaped like Mickey's head.
Unsurprisingly, the Disney train is adorable.
The windows are also shaped like Mickey.
Just like so cute.

This train will take you to Tokyo Disneyland, the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, Tokyo DisneySea, Hotel Miracosta, and the non-Disney partner hotels’ shuttle station. (The new Tokyo Disney Celebration Hotel uses a bus service.) Tokyo Disneyland and the TDL Hotel are both on the same stop as they’re right next to each other, and Tokyo DisneySea and Hotel Miracosta are also the same stop — that hotel is literally inside the park.

The Tokyo Disneyland Hotel gives me strong Grand Floridian vibes inside.

If you plan on going to the parks for more than one day, I recommend staying at one of the Disney hotels. The non-Disney partner hotels are a bit cheaper, but they’re not nearly as easy to get to, which I learned the hard way. There’s a new economy hotel, the Celebration Hotel, (that, admittedly, I’ve not yet tried) that might also be a good compromise. It’s still a 20-minute bus ride, but it’s closer than the partner hotels and includes the same early access benefits as the other Disney hotels.

A picture of a hotel room. It has traditional Japanese sliding windows.
That said, the partner hotels are still nice.

The only option I actively do not recommend is going back and forth between Maihama and Tokyo every day. It’s a surprisingly long and frustrating trip. Plus you’ll have to leave obscenely early because you really, really want to get to Tokyo Disneyland when it opens. It’s fine to make that trip on your first day, but it gets very exhausting very fast when you’re doing it repeatedly.

As I mentioned before, if you stay at the Disney hotels, you’ll get passes that will let you into the park early — fifteen minutes early, in fact. That won’t sound like a lot of time to American Disney-goers who are used to extra magic hours, but believe me when I say you’ll want that head start.

Tokyo Disneyland is unlike most other Disney parks I’ve attended in that lines are just absurdly long. Sometimes you’ll find yourself wandering through part of the park that feels absolutely empty just because everyone is currently in line for a ride or character meet & greet. It is really not out of the ordinary to see 3+ hour lines for the most popular rides. That’s why that fifteen minutes, or the mad dash, is so dang important. It gives you a little head start so you can grab a fastpass and then get in line for another ride before the gates are opened to everyone else.

Hundreds of people lined up outside the park waiting to get in.
I got there maybe 15 minutes before the park opened and was met with this sight from the train station.

At Disney parks, fastpasses are passes you can get with your park ticket that are essentially reservations for rides. You might get a fastpass for Peter Pan, for example, that’ll tell you to come back between 5 and 6 pm to get on the ride. You can only get fastpasses one at a time and they run out early in the day for some rides, so they’re at a real premium. Though American parks have moved to electronic fastpasses you can reserve with your phone or Magic Band, as of the publishing of this post, Japan still uses the old paper passes. Fastpass booths are typically next to the ride in question.

A very fancy cake. Next to it is a small slip of paper with a date, time, and attraction on it.
Pictured to the left of this delicious dessert? A fastpass.

If you can’t manage to get to the parks early, I recommend aiming for the most popular rides (like Winnie the Pooh) during unpopular times, like during a parade or fireworks show. Otherwise you might spend your whole day waiting in a line, and that’s no fun.

Hundreds of people filling the entire street.
This is the line to get a fastpass for Toy Story Mania about ten minutes after the rope drop. Yeah.

Note: If you are disabled, I recommend going on Tokyo Disneyland’s website and looking at their “barrier free” policies. I have a mobility disability, so I rent an electric wheelchair at Disney parks. You can do this at Tokyo Disneyland, but they are bizarre about rain and will not rent you an ECV if it even looks like rain. They also have manual wheelchair rentals and operate under the Guest Assistance Card model, where you are given a small booklet by a cast member and instead of having you go through the line, the cast member over by the entrance of the ride will write down what time you came, add the estimated length of the line to that time, and give you a time when you should come back. In other words, you wait for the same amount of time you would in line, but you can go sit down somewhere during that period. It’s a lifesaver if you can’t stand up for extended periods.

Another thing that might be confusing if you’re used to other Disney parks is that Tokyo Disneyland does not accept reservations for its restaurants, per se. They have something called “Priority Seating” at some restaurants, though. That will involve, yes, yet another line. It’s sort of like a fastpass for restaurants; you get a Priority Seating pass and you’re given a time to come in. You’ll still need to wait in line, but not nearly as long. That said, Priority Seating can only be reserved online if you speak Japanese. If you ask your hotel or a cast member at a restaurant for help, however, they should be able to make a Priority Seating reservation for you.

If you can’t get a Priority Seating reservation or you just want a little more freedom in your plans, you can just wait in line. These lines go pretty quickly, but if you don’t want to wait to sit at one of their fancy sit-down restaurants, TDL/TDS both have really good quick service. I’ll go into more detail on their dining system in the other posts.

Yeah, this is basic quick service.

There are a few more things to watch out for if you’re used to other Disney parks. The one that surprised me the most was that you are often expected to sit down during shows and parades at the parks. Many families bring their own blankets or mats to sit on for this very reason. (There is a special section for wheelchair users.) Also, there are some shows at TDL/TDS that are lottery only. In other words, you need to go to a building, put your park ticket in a machine, and roll the dice. Did you win a seat at Big Band Beat? If not, you’re probably out of luck. The first show of the day is first-come, first-serve, but all the other shows are lottery only.

Finally — and this is the thing that might bring you the most trouble — if you’re used to American parks, you may expect to find cast members who know just about every language under the sun. But it’s a lot harder to find a cast member fluent in English at Tokyo Disneyland than it is to find a cast member fluent in Japanese at Walt Disney World. Between my visits, more maps and signs became available in more than one language (especially English and Chinese), but the language barrier with employees and other guests is still very, very real. My intermediate Japanese was enough to get around, but even then it can be confusing.

(There is also the regular Japanese issue of American debit cards and some credit cards being difficult to use. As of 2014, there were no American card-friendly ATMs in the park, so make sure you get backup cash in Tokyo at a 7-11 or post office just in case.)

All that said, to me the best part of going to a foreign (to me) Disney park is seeing how cultural differences influence the Disney experience. It’s fun to get Japanese curry with the Country Bears and try out Tokyo Disneyland’s many, many varieties of popcorn. It’s neat to hear the characters’ Japanese voices and to see which characters Japan loves best. (You may be surprised by that one.) And where else can you walk into a Disney building and find, to your deep confusion, an entire restaurant dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt?

A sign extolling the virtues of American President Teddy Roosevelt. It's in English first, then Japanese.
It’s a lot.

Seriously, instead of getting frustrated at the changes, I recommend just rolling with them. Some things that are different are really fun. And Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea are just really, really fun. The experiences may be different there, but they’re just as magical.

This post may have made all this seem confusing, but it’s really just me trying to head off any issues you might have so you can spend all your time at the parks having as much fun as I did. There are so many things that are great about Tokyo Disneyland that, like I said, I can’t even fit them all in one post. So just think of this post as the safety instructions you have to sit through before you get to go on the ride.

Next time: Mice, bears, pirates, princesses, toons, soy sauce popcorn… Disneyland Tokyo has all that and more, not to mention incredible meals, rides, parades, and character experiences.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha

There are an awful lot of iconic shrines and temples in Japan, and one of the most visited, photographed, and talked about is Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha. You might have seen pictures before. Imagine a long, winding tunnel of bright red torii gates dotted with fox statues large and small.

A photo of tourists walking through a tunnel of red torii gates.
It is not easy to get a photo without people in it when you’re in the flat part of the climb.

Fushimi Inari Taisha, more than being one of the most picturesque Japanese shrines, is also an incredibly important one. It’s the headquarters for one of Japan’s most popular and celebrated deities, Inari. Inari is imagined in a lot of different ways in Japanese religion and has a gender that’s… well, complicated. (Let’s just go with “they”.) Inari is associated with rice in Japan, which is tied almost inextricably to business and prosperity — which makes them a very popular deity. Inari is generally considered to have a human form, but is represented most often in the form of magical white foxes (kitsune) that serve as their messengers.

A large red torii surrounded on both sides by stone foxes.
You’ll see foxes taking on a sort of guardian role around many of the torii and buildings.
The main building of Fushimi Inari. There are more foxes surrounding it.
You’ll find them outside all the main buildings.

These foxes dominate the landscape in Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll see forbidding stone fox statues throughout the shrine complex, often carrying rice or keys (to the granary), but you’ll also see lots of tiny porcelain statues as well, especially on altars. Even the ema at this shrine are fox-shaped.

A stern stone fox statue holding a key in its mouth. It has a red bib around its neck and has a torii behind it.
You’ll see all kinds of fox statues as you climb.
Another similar statue. This one is holding a golden sheaf of rice and has golden fox fire at its tail.
Especially these stone foxes with red bibs. (Note the golden fox fire on its tail.)
A red wall with lots of little fox-shaped ema hanging from it.
You can buy ema at almost any shrine. They’re small wooden tablets that you write wishes on, then hang up on the provided wall.

The shrine buildings themselves are very beautiful, but it’s not the temple itself that’s famous — it’s its gates. Almost all Shinto shrines will have large red torii gates, though you’ll sometimes see ones made of stone or unpainted wood. These gates serve as a visible boundary between the world of deities/spirits (or kami) and that of humans. Some people still keep to traditional rules about these gates, especially bowing before entry and keeping to the sides when passing through them. (The center is reserved for the kami.)

Two huge torii gates enclosing the path up to the shrine.
Some of Fushimi Inari’s large red entrance torii.

Most shrines only have torii around entrances; like I said, these gates denote a sort of liminal space between worlds, so it makes sense that they would act as doors. There might be a large torii at the main entrance(s) of the shrine complex, then smaller torii throughout when it comes to smaller altars and sub-shrines. There’s a theme, though, and that’s usually “transition”.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is different. It has its typical torii at its entrances, but it also has something called the senbon torii, or the thousand torii. Once you’ve passed through the main shrine areas, you’ll find a path that winds its way up Inari’s mountain (also named Inari), and that path is lined with hundreds and hundreds of torii.

A front view of many torii back-to-back. There is about half a foot of space between each one, leading to a tunnel effect.
The entrance of the senbon torii.

The effect of this is really pretty incredible, especially when the light is slanting through the trees and torii to fall just so on the path in front of you. It’s no wonder that you’ll be spending most of your hike dodging selfies.

While the effect itself feels pretty magical, the torii themselves are less so. Many tourists wonder at the writing on the back of the torii gates. Are they dedications? Incantations? No, my friend, those are advertisements. Each torii in the senbon torii has been donated by a local business. It’s one part request to Inari for prosperity and one part billboard, frankly speaking, and while it feels a little cynical once you realize what they are, it’s also a donation befitting a deity that watches over business dealings.

Another photo of the torii tunnel. You can see the company names from this angle.
Still pretty striking, though, isn’t it?

The climb itself has different levels of difficulty. Most people will be able to handle at least some of it. It starts out relatively level (for a shrine complex, anyway) until you get to a small shrine part of the way up what has been (up until this point) basically a hill. After this little way station, though, the climb becomes much steeper and eventually starts to include stairs and becomes more of an actual hike. Many visitors turn back at this point, so while the walk gets more difficult after this area, it also empties out quite a bit. If you want to get a good picture of the torii sans tourists, that’s probably your best bet. Most of the remainder of tourists turn back at an intersection about halfway up the mountain (as this is where the torii start to peter out), but you’re welcome to go all the way up if you choose.

Another view of the tunnel. This one is dappled with shadows.
The walk definitely starts to feel more like something out of a Miyazaki movie.

There are small shrines sprinkled around the mountain paths, culminating in a shrine to Inari up near the peak. No matter how far you go, the walk is enjoyable. (Even if you might have to deal with some pedestrian traffic.) The area becomes more and more heavily wooded, and the quiet walk is soothing. Add to that all the little shrines and altars and you’ve got yourself a beautiful walk.

A large torii with a stone altar containing a few dozen tiny torii.
You can also purchase tiny torii to leave on altars around the shrines.
A smaller altar that contains more torii but also small fox statues and cups of sake.
You can also see small porcelain inari statues on this one. You’ll often see offerings of sake at Inari shrines, as the rice wine is a favorite of theirs. It’s usually just cheap one cup sake, though.
A gnarled portion of tree.
This tree cutting was supposed to have healing powers. Lots of elderly folks were touching this one.
A small shrine with torii stacked all over it.
One of the shrines up on the mountain. Even these are filled with torii.
A mossy stone altar full of stacks of tiny torii with wishes written on them.
You’ll find these tiny votive torii everywhere.
A small shrine with downed poles all over it.
There were a lot of natural disasters in 2018 in Japan. You could still see signs of that destruction throughout Fushimi Inari Taisha. Downed trees and poles, broken torii, etc.

Outside of the torii, there is still quite a bit to enjoy around the shrine grounds. There are a number of very beautiful buildings near the front of the shrine and a little cafe that provides a lovely view of the scenery. If you’re into something a little more casual, there are dozens of stalls selling souvenirs and snacks on the street leading up to the shrine itself. In this area, you’ll find all sorts of different kinds of snacks and meals, but maybe you should try a treat associated with Inari, like inarizushi (rice wrapped in sweet fried tofu pockets) or kitsune udon (udon soup with savory fried tofu soaking up the broth).

We stopped at the little tea shop and splurged on some gyokuro, a very fancy type of green tea.
A large torii gate surrounded by food and souvenir stalls.
There are tons of tiny stalls on the street leading up to the shrine.
A big bowl of kitsune udon.
Kitsune udon is my favorite.

Despite the very touristy feel of the area, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s still one of the most important shrines in Japan on a religious, cultural, historical, and political level. It has been historically included in Japan’s top rank of shrines and the shrine itself is almost 1300 years old. (Many of its buildings date to the fifteenth century, though.) It’s not shocking that along with the shops selling fox coin purses and sweet dango, you’ll also find shops selling religious objects for home use. You should keep a certain amount of respect as you climb Inari’s mountain paths, even if you spend half your time dodging selfie sticks.

In my personal opinion, Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most rewarding shrine visits you can make in Kyoto, particularly if you hike up a little further than the tour groups. It’s very popular, but it’s pretty easy to see why. You quickly feel like you’re in an entirely different world, ringed as you are with red, and you really half-expect to see foxes darting around in the forest out of the corner of your eye. The walk itself is beautiful, especially when you encounter some of the smaller shrines along the path, and there’s a real sense of nature that’s lost in some of the main shrines in larger cities. That said, it’s not nearly as difficult a climb as some sacred mountains in Japan and it’s very approachable to cultural laypeople and inexperienced hikers. Fully, fully recommended.



When my family decided to start planning this trip to Japan, one of the places I absolutely knew we needed to go was Nara. I went to Nara while I was going to school in Kyoto and it’s one of those day trips that’s just wholly Japanese and wholly unmissable. Nara’s very easy to access from just about anywhere in the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, etc.) by train and it’s so freaking neat. 

Nara was the capital of Japan during the Nara era (710-794 CE) and as a result, it has some truly incredible treasures there. There’s Tōdaiji, the largest wooden building in Japan, that was literally built around the enormous Buddha statue inside. There’s Kōfukuji, with its pagoda. There’s Kasuga Shrine with its thousand stone lanterns. And if you’re there during the fall, the imperial treasure house will be open for your perusal.

But if you’ve heard about Nara, it probably hasn’t been for any Buddhist monuments or imperial treasures. You’re here about the deer.

A picture of a deer posing for the camera.
Believe me when I say these deer are not camera shy.

The thing Nara is far and away the most famous for is its population of roaming shika deer that can be found all over the city. The deer are small enough to feed treats to and to pet, but a warning: they’re also spoiled rotten. After decades of tourists feeding them deer crackers and acorns on demand, these little monsters are willing to do just about anything to get the crackers that are their due, including ass-biting, head-butting, and straight-up picking your pockets. You will quickly become used to the sounds of tourists screaming as tiny deer chase them all over the park. And you know what? I love those little miscreants. I love them so much.

A baby deer screaming.
Don’t let the cute babies fool you!! They grow up into tiny criminals.
A bunch of deer lying down around a tree, coolly assessing me behind the camera.
Look at them staring you down. It’s like organized crime. Adorable organized crime.

Now, deer in and of themselves, especially shika deer, are traditionally considered sacred in Shinto, and so you’ll see statues of deer every so often in Shinto shrines.

A massive stone deer reclining next to a stone lantern.
A stone deer at Kasuga Shrine.
A smaller green deer under a little roof.
And a deer at Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto.

That said, Nara takes all that a lot further. The story goes that Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the deities enshrined at Kasuga Shrine, came to protect the region while riding a white deer, and after this, deer were considered particularly sacred to this area. After Shinto was removed as state religion post-WWII/Pacific War, the deer were declared a (cultural) national treasure rather than a religious one so they would retain their protected status. That said, you can still see traces of the deer’s religious heritage in shrines around Nara Park, especially Kasuga.

There’s really so much to do in Nara that it would take weeks to do it all, but I’ve personally done Tōdaiji, Kasuga Shrine, Tōdaiji’s annual treasure exhibition, and, of course, Nara Park. All that is clustered in a relatively small section of Nara, so you could probably do it all in one day if you had a head start and a lot of energy.

Just across from Nara Park, you’ll find the treasure hall. This hall, also known as Shōsōin, is associated with Tōdaiji and contains its treasures that aren’t always on display. This isn’t unusual for temples in Japan; major temples often open up their treasure houses for public perusal during the autumn months and the brief opportunity to see what they typically keep locked away should not be missed.

A picture of the outside of the museum. Also, a deer is biting a lady's coat in the background.
Shōsōin! Also pictured: a woman being mugged by a deer.

The Shōsōin has literally thousands of historical artifacts, and a selection of those objects is shown once a year for a few weeks. Once upon a time, you had to be literal royalty to see these objects. These days you mostly just have to dodge deer, wait in line, and pay 1100 yen. I went in 2014 and I have to say, it’s really worth the visit. Some of the treasures they have in there are absolutely incredible.

After you’ve spent a couple hours looking over the historical treasures that have been donated to Tōdaiji, you can make your way to the temple itself. The temple complex is relatively easy to find; just walk through the deer park until you get to the enormous wooden gate.

An ENORMOUS wooden gate. The people walking through it look like ants.
It’s uh. Hard to miss. Please note how tiny those people are who are standing on the threshold. Yeah, that’s not perspective. It’s that big.

A few more words about these deer: though they can be found all over Nara, they’re clustered most densely in Nara Park. It’s a large green space that has been entirely taken over by deer. This is both a blessing and a curse. If you don’t have any food on your person, the deer will allow you to pass mostly unmolested. That said, if you spend a couple hundred yen and buy a stack of deer crackers? I will pray for you, friend, because The Deer Are Coming.

A stack of very flat deer crackers bound up in a paper ribbon.
This is a stack of deer crackers that cost 150 yen.
A deer staring me down.
This is a deer noticing me holding those crackers and marking me as its next victim.

My parents didn’t exactly believe me when I told them the deer are demons. Adorable demons who have learned to bow on command, but demons nevertheless. This lasted about five minutes into our trip, when about twenty tiny deer gathered around my mother and started biting her butt. Yeah. They do that. They stole my father’s guide map and tore it to pieces. They stole deer crackers from my mother’s purse. I won’t lie to you all, I laughed a lot, even as the deer came for me.

(Note: do not eat the crackers. They are meant for deer and are probably made with bugs and grass and stuff. There are signs everywhere telling you not to eat the crackers, but I always see at least one teenage boy eat one on a dare and then start wailing. So heads up, I guess.)

There are honestly thousands of deer in Nara, and you will pass hundreds of them even if you just stick to the main path to Tōdaiji. There’s a reason everyone loves these tiny demons, though. They’re just so darn cute and at times really affectionate. They are just very, very spoiled.

A large stone with "Todaiji" carved into it and a good dozen deer sleeping behind it.
(The rock says Tōdaiji. The deer can’t read it.)

Because we are now approaching the gate of Tōdaiji (aka, the boundary between temple and deer extravaganza) I’ll tell you another little fun fact about Nara. It has two competing mascots. Many cities, organizations, companies, etc. in Japan have adorable mascots that are there to advertise, sell merch, and inform the public about important topics. Tōdaiji has two, the terrifying Sento-kun and the adorable Shikamaro-kun.

(Look, I never claimed to be free of bias.)

A cute deer kneeling with a cup of tea.
Shikamaro-kun is here in the train station to welcome you to Nara!
A terrifying baby-looking buddha with antlers.
And uh. So is Sento-kun.

Sento-kun is a bit of a controversial mascot. Some people, like me, find his creepy Buddha baby face to be… disquieting. Others (particular older Japanese folks) go further and find him to be fully sacrilegious. He was created as a nod to the incredibly famous daibutsu (great Buddha statue) at Tōdaiji, but a lot of people think that the historical Buddha just shouldn’t be used to sell t-shirts.

Shikamaro-kun is a rival mascot that’s been really gaining traction in recent years. Between my two visits in 2014 and 2018, signs, merch, sightings, etc. just exploded. And I don’t mind! Because Shikamaro-kun is adorable and not creepy at all!

Anyway, Tōdaiji. Tōdaiji, like most Japanese temples, has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times. The current building dates back to 1709, but you can see models of the previous incarnations of the temple inside the main hall. The initial building was created around 750 CE, and the daibutsu was completed in 751. So though the outer building is only a few hundred years old, the statues on the grounds and inside of it are positively ancient.

A shot of Todaiji from the outer fence.
Beautiful, isn’t it?

Most people just come for the daibutsu, but I’m here to tell you that the rest of the grounds are pretty magnificent as well. The main hall is enormous, easily the largest wooden building I’ve ever seen. The ancient gates are also huge, with great a and un statues to guard the entrance. There are seriously multiple National Treasures in this temple complex, so it’s worth putting aside a good amount of time to look around. Plus, y’know, everything there is huge. It does take a while to get around.

A front view of the temple. It is absolutely enormous.
There’s a loooong walkway that’s usually a lot more crowded with people than this. If you can squint, you’ll realize just how tiny the people by the doors are.

The daibutsu, though. The daibutsu. I can’t quite explain the reaction I had the first time I walked in and saw that statue. I’d heard that there was a big Buddha statue in there, of course. But there’s hearing big and there’s seeing big, and it is big. It’s one of the only times in my life that I’ve just stopped in my tracks and stared. Each one of the Buddha’s huge fingers is the size of an actual human being, and I’m here to tell you right now that there is no photo in existence that fully captures the size and grandeur of the Buddha statue found at Tōdaiji. You truly have to see it to believe it. 

A side view of the seated daibutsu. His hand is outstretched in the "no fear" gesture and he is gazing downward at visitors.
All those golden bodhisattva sitting behind him? Yeah, those are all a little larger than the size of an adult human.
Carvings of the temple and the buddha. They look golden against the bronze's patina.
A close-up of the detail work on the lotus petals.
This one is an elaborate portrait of the Buddha carved into a lotus petal.
These are really incredible and shouldn’t be missed as you walk by.

There are other statues in there, too. In any other temple, I’d call each one of them huge and spectacular. But after the daibutsu, well. Who can follow that act?

A golden statue of a seated Kannon.
A golden Kannon inside.
A huge statue of a guardian king.
One of the four guardian kings.

After you get over the splendor of the daibutsu and you’ve seen the other statues, after you’ve inspected the little architectural models and gotten your goshuinchō stamped, you’ll see a huge pillar inside the main hall that has a big ol’ hole in it. Well, “big”. It’s said that you’ll have good luck if you can crawl through this hole, and you always see people trying. That said, unless you’re very tiny (like, I’m talking possibly a child), it’s going to be a very tight fit. I remember looking at that pillar for the first time when I was 24 years old and thinking “god, I’m way too old to try and fit through that thing”. So I didn’t. Bad luck for me, I suppose.

A photo of the tree with a hole in it.
Here’s a tourist trying to squirm through. Godspeed.
Another guardian king.
Another one of the guardian kings inside. They’re so big.

One last note about Tōdaiji because my father specifically asked me about it — there’s a statue just outside the entrance/exit of the main building that looks… well, frankly, I think his exact words were:


It’s a statue of Bodhidharma/Daruma! He’s regarded as the man who brought Zen Buddhism to China, and thus facilitated its popularity in Japan. There’s this truly horrifying story that he used to meditate by wall-gazing. And he just didn’t move or blink or anything, which caused his arms and legs to wither away. There’s another story that once he accidentally fell asleep, so he then cut off his own eyelids so it’d never happen again. IN RELATED NEWS, have you ever seen a daruma in Japan? Yeah, that’s a monk whose arms, legs, and eyelids are gone.

A dilapidated wooden statue wearing a red cloak.
The Daruma statue outside of Tōdaiji.
A daruma doll. It is round with a red body and hood, golden accents, and wide white eyes.

A daruma doll. You fill in one eye when you make a wish, then the other once it comes true.
(Stock photo.)

In this case, though, it’s a pretty simple case of sympathetic magic. (In layman’s terms, when you do some kind of ritual on one thing in order to affect another thing.) With this statue, you’ll see people (especially elderly people) rubbing the statue on the part of the body that’s been hurting them. It’s said to work as a prayer to Daruma that will help ease your pain. His knees are rubbed practically smooth, possibly because you have to climb so many steps to reach him. We all have sore knees here.

After we left Tōdaiji, dad and I decided to walk to Kasuga Shrine. Now… it’s a long walk. Probably a longer walk than either of us realized just looking at the map. So there’s that. But it’s also a nice walk, for all that it’s mostly uphill. You’ll pass some smaller shrines and temple complexes, as well as a famous Kofun-era key-shaped burial mound. And even as you get further and further from the crowds of Nara, you’ll still see deer. They’re less mean up here, probably because they’re less accustomed to tourist handouts. Many of the deer sleep at Kasuga Shrine, so some of them were probably getting ready to turn in for the night.

Stone lanterns on the left covered in moss.
The path to Kasuga Taisha is lined with stone lanterns.
The stone lanterns lining the other side of the path.
Not even gonna lie, it feels a little like a Miyazaki movie.
A mother deer and its fawn behind some stone markers. The fawn is nursing.
It’s not unusual to see fawns nursing up here.

We eventually got to Kasuga not long before closing, and a word of warning: because we took so long walking there, we did miss the last bus back, which leaves like the minute the shrine closes. So either leave extra time or be prepared to walk back along the main road.

A splendid building with red gates.
The entrance to Kasuga Shrine.
A very old tree with a rope tied around it to denote that it's sacred.
An old, old tree that’s enshrined at the shrine.

That said, it’s definitely worth the hike. Along with the whole deer thing, Kasuga is very famous for its lanterns. They only light them once a year during a special festival, but they can still be seen unlit through the shrine grounds and they’re still incredibly beautiful. There are literally hundreds of  lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and materials; the old stone ones were my favorite.

Metal lanterns hanging from the roof of the shrine. They are green and brass.
Lanterns of all colors and materials…
A hallway lined with metal hanging lanterns.
Lanterns lining all the corridors…
A garden full of mossy stone lanterns.
All kinds of lanterns.

There’s a small room that’s pretty unobtrusive in the back of the shrine, but I’d try to look for it! It’s a recreation of what the shrine looks like when all its hanging lanterns are lit up. It’s very hard to take good photos because it’s all mirrors in there, but it’s also very beautiful in there.

A room full of lit hanging lanterns and mirrors.
It’s understandably difficult to take pictures in there, but boy did I try.

Possibly because we were there so late in the day, it was very quiet at Kasuga Shrine, and it was nice just walking through the rows and rows of lanterns. The grounds themselves are very pretty with quite a few baby deer running around, so it was just a really nice ending to our day.

Even more stone lanterns.
Even as you’re leaving, there are hundreds of lanterns.
Stone lanterns with deer carved into them.
This is Kasuga Taisha, after all, so the lanterns are themed.
A fawn following its mother.
There were so many babies back here and I loved them.

Though Nara’s known as mostly a really, really nice day trip, you could easily spend several days exploring the parks, temples, shrines, museums, palaces, and tombs found throughout the old city. Petting the deer might involve taking your life into your hands, but like. Let’s all be real with each other here. How often do you get the chance to pet and feed wild deer? It’s just a really neat experience all around.

Kinkakuji and Ryōanji

Kinkakuji and Ryōanji

A little east of Kyoto’s Arashiyama area, you’ll find two very famous temples that are within walking distance of one another, Kinkakuji and Ryōanji. Truthfully speaking, the two temples couldn’t be more different from each other; the only thing they seem to have in common is the crowds. Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, is one of Kyoto’s flashiest temples, an absolute must on a sunny day, and Ryōanji is a much more sedate temple whose fame is based on a sparse landscape and its use in meditation.

We hit up these two temples back to back due to their proximity to one another, but it was also pretty fun to see two such different religious sites one after the other. We started out with Kinkakuji, then took the bus to Ryōanji. (It’s only like two stops; it’s extremely walkable if that’s your preference.)

Now, Kinkakuji didn’t start out its life as a temple, and that really, really shows. Kinkakuji (not to be confused with Higashiyama’s Ginkakuji) was once the villa of a Muromachi-era shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and the wealth and power of its original owner show in its design. The pavilion itself is almost entirely coated in gold, which makes it a really magnificent sight on a sunny day, and the grounds are lovely. After Yoshimitsu’s death, the villa was dedicated as a Zen Buddhist temple, as he’d directed.

A pavilion coated in gold, viewed through a copse of trees. A heron perches on a rock in the foreground.
I actually took this photo the first time I was in Japan, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never get framing this perfect again, so I’ve really gotta milk this.

Kinkakuji, like most famous temples in Kyoto, was burned down a few times. The pavilion itself survived the Ōnin War, miraculously enough, only to be burned down by a monk struggling with mental illness in the 1950s. The reconstructed pavilion is incredibly beautiful, as are the grounds.

Kinkakuji has a certain allure in all seasons, but my favorite time of year to see it is autumn. The gleam of the golden pavilion against fiery red leaves is absolutely breathtaking. You’ll have to fight the crowds for that perfect photo, but it’s worth the effort.

A small bell tower surrounded by red leaves.
The bell tower, also taken last year when the leaves were a bit redder.
A shot of the autumn leaves.
Have I mentioned yet that Kyoto is gorgeous in the fall?

Once you’ve seen that first spectacular view of the temple reflected against the water, you can meander your way around the lake (be on the lookout for koi!) and look at the other buildings in the complex. The path is one-way to help accommodate the crowds, so be careful to take all the photos you want on your first pass. You won’t be allowed to go backward.

A glimpse of the pavilion from another angle. Trees are in the foreground.
A glimpse of the pavilion from around the lake.

Once the pavilion itself is out of sight, you’ll still be able to see Kinkakuji’s lovely gardens. It’s a little bit of a hike up some very old steps, but it’s a really nice view. As you round out your little tour, you’ll get a chance to get your book stamped, get omamori, and maybe even get a snack or a souvenir.

The whole situation is drenched in wealth and materialism, I won’t lie to you. In some ways, that feels sort of antithetical to the tenets of Zen Buddhism, but Buddhism’s a complicated subject in Japan and is often expressed in a lot of different ways.

To have an experience that’s more “traditional”, if still deeply touristy at this point, you can walk on over to Ryōanji. Ryōanji is a much quieter temple (unless you’re unlucky enough to run into a school or tour group) and the emphasis is on Zen meditation.

Ryōanji has one of the most famous Zen rock gardens (aka karesansui, or dry landscape gardens) in the world, and it is raked every morning by the monks that work there. It is both the garden’s layout and the actual act of raking that are supposed to lead to enlightenment. The repetitive nature of raking is intended to free the mind and disperse conscious thought, and while tourists aren’t going to experience that at Ryōanji, you’re still allowed to engage in the other kind of meditation: mindful sitting.

Ryōanji is most well known for its small rock garden that contains fifteen large rocks resting in a sea of tiny pebbles. It’s said that you can never see all of the large rocks at once from any angle on the viewing platform, and their placement is often likened to a mother tiger and her cubs crossing a river.

The left half of the garden. A bed of pebbles with a few large rocks on them, covered in moss.
It’s pretty difficult to even get the whole garden in one shot, the way things are laid out.
The right side of the garden, much the same as the left.
But it’s not meant to be digested all at once, is it? So it’s fine.

It is admittedly soothing to sit and consider the rocks, as long as the tourists around you are well behaved. I was surprised that even my father, who tends to be kind of hyperactive, seemed to enjoy just sitting there silently contemplating the garden. You’ll need to remove your shoes to gain access to the garden, so if you ever go, make sure you wear nice socks.

A glimpse inside the temple. Though it's a simple tatami room, the screens are painted with scenes of mountains and trees.
You can look at the interior of the temple, but even with your shoes off, you’re not allowed to go inside. The painted screens inside are really lovely.

The creator of Ryōanji’s famed rock garden is actually unknown. The official party line is that Sōami, a famous artisan of the time, designed it, but modern scholars doubt that claim. After all, a lot of things were retroactively credited to Sōami. It doesn’t help that the temple has gone through multiple fires and refurbishments, and the records aren’t always very thorough. There are a lot of theories about the true creator, each more interesting that the last, so if that’s something that interests you, I really recommend doing some digging of your own.

If that’s not a thing you’re concerned with, though, taking an hour to sit down on Ryōanji’s wooden porch and let your mind wander can be a relaxing pastime, especially if you go during an off period when you won’t have to deal with lines for a seat or loud tourists.

After you’ve taken your turn contemplating existence, you can walk around Ryōanji’s grounds. A lot of tourists just take their shoes off, look at the rocks, then head back out. But the grounds that the rock garden is a part of are beautiful in their own right, and I really recommend going for a walk and taking in the sights.

You can just see a bridge through the trees.
There’s a bridge leading to a little island in the lake that has a small shrine on it.

Despite its fame, Ryōanji is not actually my favorite dry landscape garden in Japan (I’m not sure it’s even in my top three), but it’s a site of serious cultural significance. I wouldn’t set aside a whole day to walk around the temple complex, but it’s definitely worth a stop if you’re in that part of Kyoto.

Both Kinkakuji and Ryōanji are considered must-sees in Kyoto. I agree with that assessment — Kinkakuji is visually spectacular, and from a cultural and historical standpoint, Ryōanji is extremely important — but it’s with the caveat that, well, both of them are must-sees. Everyone else will be seeing them as well. So I recommend going to see both of these unusual temples, but perhaps picking an off time, such as early morning or evening on a weekday or during the winter. It’ll be a much more enjoyable experience for you if you’re not packed in like a sardine. Save those for dinner.