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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
“WHAT IS THAT TERRIFYING RED STATUE OUTSIDE?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When it comes to vacation, I’m very much the kind of person who likes to run everywhere, see everything, and taste every dish that comes my way. That breakneck speed can get exhausting, though, and there’s something to be said about some hardcore relaxation.
When it comes to taking a nice long break during your vacation, hardly anything can beat a trip to a Japanese onsen. Onsen are ubiquitous all over Japan, and a quintessential Japanese experience. On its most basic level, an onsen is a place where you take a nice, long bath. In fancy natural mineral water. With a bunch of strangers. While naked.
If you’re from a country where communal bathing isn’t common, then that last point may take this from a relaxing outing to absolute nightmare material. I was nervous myself the first time I went to an onsen. That said, it’s amazing how quickly you get used to doing something when everyone around you treats it like it’s nothing. You might get a second look or two if you’re very clearly western, but no one’s going to be staring at your body while you’re trying to bathe. (That said, you might have to field some questions from extremely friendly grandmas.)
There are several specific rules for onsen, but they’re pretty easy to remember. Clean your body with soap at the provided showers before you get in the communal bath, don’t let long hair get in the water, take your tiny towel with you (but don’t put it in the water!) and leave your big towel in the dressing room, don’t splash or shout while in the water, make sure you go to the bathing room assigned to your gender… basically, just follow those around you. There are usually signs that explain what to do, and people are usually pretty patient with confused tourists.
Onsen are common all over Japan, and the onsen town takes that a step further. Onsen towns are entire towns that are devoted to the art of bathing. It could be a place where there’s a huge amount of natural hot springs, or it could be a place where those springs are reputed to have particular healing properties. Or, like Kusatsu Onsen, it could be both.
Kusatsu Onsen is one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan. A mind-boggling 32,000 liters of hot water bubbles up out of the earth every single minute and its high mineral content is supposed to be incredible for your health — though, admittedly, it does leave the entire town smelling a little like rotten eggs. There are several public baths that are open to tourists (as well as some that are reserved for residents) and a bustling little town has cropped up around them.
The main feature of Kusatsu Onsen is the yubatake, or hot water fields. Kusatsu’s hot spring water is so incredibly hot that it would severely burn anyone who tried to hop right in. The yubatake is an elegant solution to this problem. The water is channeled along a series of above-ground fields to expose it to the air and cool it down before it heads to the baths. The effect is very striking, especially at night when the fields are lit up by lanterns and colorful lights, and you’ll probably have to wait your turn for the requisite selfie. One of my favorite memories from Kusatsu Onsen was just strolling down the street at night, taking in the ambiance.
Another way that Kusatsu cools off its water is via yumomi, a special dance performed in a little theater next to the yubatake. Women wielding enormous paddles perform an elaborate dance and sing songs while agitating the spring water to cool it, and audience members are often encouraged to pick up a paddle and help them out. It’s a really cool experience, but also a very popular one; you’ll probably want to show up early if you want a good spot. Don’t make the same mistake I did, of accidentally standing in front of an elderly woman. People are super here for this show, and like I did, you might get forcefully moved aside.
(Please learn from my mistake: don’t mess with elderly women in Japan.)
Once you’ve walked through the picturesque old town and seen the water cool down, it’s time to try it out for yourself. There are several bathhouses to choose from throughout the town, and you can find guides there to help you choose which one you’d like to try first. You could try Otaki-no-yu, a large, fancy bathhouse that’s known for its pools that get increasingly hotter. I had more than one person ask me if I’d made it to the last one! There’s also Goza-no-yu, which has an elegant wooden interior and a community feeling inside. (This one was my favorite.) Or you could try something totally different and attempt the timed baths at Jizo-no-yu. The water here is extremely hot and you’re meant to stay in the healing water for exactly three minutes. Maybe it’s just me, but the timed baths feel sort of like you’re being microwaved…
After you’ve had a nice bath (or two, or three) it’s time for a snack. There are certain foods that are famous in onsen towns, and I was happy to try them out for myself. As you walk down the main street to the yubatake, you’ll run the gamut through vendors selling onsen manjuu, or steamed buns. These bready dumplings are generally filled with red bean paste, though you’ll find them in several flavors. Free samples are often pushed on tourists, generally paired with green tea.
I fell prey to these friendly hawkers my first time down the street, but I could hardly complain about the experience. A little brown manjuu was shoved into my hands and I was shepherded into their shop, where I was presented with a small cup of green tea.
I had no intention of buying a commemorative box of manjuu to take home as a present for my friends and family, but they didn’t seem to mind. Instead, as soon as they realized that I was an American tourist who had a reasonably good handle on Japanese, they immediately wanted to talk American baseball. Unfortunately, I understand foreign languages a lot better than I do sports. I just kind of nodded my head and drank my tea, and though I didn’t end up buying anything, I still got a friendly wave every time I walked by.
The other food onsen towns all seem to be known for is onsen tamago, or onsen eggs. These are soft-boiled eggs that are cooked directly in the hot spring water that the towns are known for. Eggs are often just put in baskets and left in a small hot spring to cook. Once you buy them, you’re given a little bowl and a packet of broth you can pour over your egg once you get it out of its shell. It’s a little awkward to get the hang of, but it’s truly delicious.
At the end of my first day in Kusatsu, I went back to my hotel, which was actually a ryokan. Ryokan are kind of like extremely fancy bed & breakfasts that are found across Japan. They are especially common around traditional areas and onsen towns. Many of these ryokan are family-owned and have been in the same hands for hundreds of years. Your typical ryokan will have you sleep in a small, traditional Japanese room (i.e. sleeping on a futon on tatami rather than a western bed), where you will also be served meals. These meals are generally included in the cost of your stay and will often be absolutely extravagant.
Kaiseki meals are very traditional in Japan and can be found in ryokan and fancy restaurants all over the country. (Especially Kyoto, a deeply historical town.) The meals include dozens of small dishes brought out to you in courses over the course of your evening. If you indulge in a kaiseki meal, expect to be eating it for at least a couple hours. (Note: this is one reason why you might be expected to check in at your ryokan relatively early in the evening.) If you’re foreign — or frankly, even if you’re Japanese — there’s a strong likelihood that a lot of what you will be served will be a complete mystery to you. We are not talking typical Japanese cuisine here, but instead haute cuisine fueled by seasonal foods, tradition, and the chef’s own ingenuity. Still, sometimes it’s a little fun to have no idea what you’re eating.
Most ryokan will have dinner and breakfast included, and will ask you about your dietary needs when you make your reservation. At the ryokan I stayed at in Kusatsu Onsen, breakfast was served in a separate dining room, but was no less extravagant.
After you’ve eaten so much food that you feel like you’re going to pass out, take a little rest in your traditional room, then head out to take, what else, yet another bath. Most ryokan in onsen towns also have their own private baths that you can use while staying there. This might be a little less overwhelming if you’re not used to communal bathing, as I’ve found them to be a little less crowded than public baths most of the time. You still go through all the same motions but get a somewhat quieter experience.
Or, you could go the exact opposite route, like I did, and take a visit to Sai no Kawara on the far side of Kusatsu Onsen. This is how I spent my second day there, and I believe that just this park is worth the trip up there. Sai no Kawara is a beautiful little park that’s full of hot springs releasing steam up into the air. The scenery is nothing short of gorgeous.
You’ll also find plenty to explore while you’re there. You can see the devil’s kettle, a hot spring that bubbles up like a kettle and mysteriously goes quiet as you approach, or maybe take a little trip up to the tiny Shinto shrine up on the hill. You can sit along the rocks and put your feet in a large communal foot bath under the watchful eye of Jizo. Or, you could climb all the way to the top and visit Kusatsu Onsen’s largest and most beautiful rotenburo.
Most onsen are indoors in a lovely bathhouse that pipes hot spring water into a wooden or rock-lined bath for you to soak in. However, rotenburo are something a little different and are not to be missed. These are outdoor baths that allow you to enjoy the famous mineral water of Kusatsu Onsen while surrounded with the beauty of nature. In my opinion, these are best enjoyed while it’s pretty chilly outside. The combination of cold air and hot water is one of the most relaxing things on earth, and a little bite in the air will keep you from getting too dizzy in the hot water.
Like indoor onsen, the rotenburo is split into two sides, one for men and one for women, and like most onsen, the sides are switched on a set schedule so you can try out both sides. You can hear the people on both sides, and paired with the sounds of nature and that of the rest of the park’s inhabitants, it can make for a louder experience. Still, there’s something really soothing about relaxing against the rotenburo’s rocks and maybe chatting with a friend. The water’s high mineral content feels almost fizzy against your skin, and you can see why doctors have praised its effects for decades.
Now, I have several chronic illnesses. I’ve heard about all number of quack therapies over the course of my life. People like to say that the water at Kusatsu can heal any ailment except heartbreak. Can bathing in an onsen’s mineral waters actually cure all of life’s ills? I’m leaning towards probably not — I’ve even seen people saying it can cure cancer, and that’s gonna be a big no from me. That said, I felt really good after bathing at Kusatsu Onsen. It gives you all of the benefits of taking a nice, long soak at home, but with hotter water and clear air. The entire town is devoted to relaxation and self-care, and that atmosphere really gets to you. And hey? What do I know? Maybe some of those minerals really helped out my skin.
If you want to try out the healing waters of Kusatsu Onsen, it is a bit of a hike. You’ll need to take a train out of Tokyo and then a connecting bus to Kusatsu Onsen station. If you’re staying at a ryokan, they will often be willing to pick you up here. If you’re only staying for the day (not recommended if you’re coming all the way from Tokyo) or you’re staying at a normal hotel/airbnb, you’re probably better off walking or taking the local bus. It’s not a very large town, and getting around it is pretty easy, but getting out there? Yeah, I’d set aside at least three hours for the trek from Tokyo.
There’s not a lot to do, exactly, in Kusatsu Onsen, but there’s something to be said for going out to a spa town to give yourself a break. If you’re going to be in Japan for quite a while, I wholeheartedly recommend taking some time to visit an onsen, whether in a fancy onsen town or just in the city. It’ll let you decompress after all of your frantic travels, and the hot water will soothe away your stress.
Hi! My name is Sarah and starting today, I’ll be joining the crowded world of travel blogging. I’ve always traveled a lot throughout my life, but I decided to start up a blog now because, truthfully speaking, I can be a little disorganized. I am absolutely the kind of person to write down the name of a restaurant I love and then lose it. Over time, I realized that I was also losing some of the most treasured memories I have of places I have been, and I don’t think that’s an uncommon experience. Some people combat that with scrapbooks. I’m here writing a travel blog. I want to write down my experiences, take pictures, record beauty — and I want to share all that with anyone else who loves the world as much as I do.
If you’re here reading all this, you’re probably wondering about the name. Is this blog about animals or something? Well… As much as I’ll probably be posting pictures of every stray cat I come across, this is not a zoological travel blog. What it is is a celebration of a life lived with disability. There’s a saying in the medical field: “When you hear the sound of hooves, think horses, not zebras.” The phrase is meant to remind medical students that they’ll be seeing common illnesses a lot more often than rare ones, so the common illnesses should be the ones they think of first. But where does that put the rest of us, the zebras?
A “zebra” is slang for a person who has a rare disease in many communities, and it has been particularly adopted by those who have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a group of connective tissue disorders. I personally have the hypermobility kind of EDS — in other words, I have to deal with a lot of subluxations, which are kind of like mini dislocations. My bones pop out of joint fairly often, but I can usually get them back in with time, effort, and a lot of painkillers. I also have a pretty bad case of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, which is less rare than it is rarely diagnosed. Distilled down to its bare bones, it’s a disorder that affects autonomic functions in the body, especially blood flow. For me, it means that my blood is rarely in the right place at the right time. That leads to exhaustion, numbness, fainting, dizzy spells, brain fog, nausea, problems with regulation of body temperature, and brief periods of blindness. Oof.
You can see why I didn’t consider travel for much of my life. It’s certainly a lot harder to do so when you’ve got a lot of physical problems to contend with. But the longer I live, the more I find ways to balance my body and my dreams. I’ve learned a lot of coping mechanisms, and while I still have to compromise sometimes, that doesn’t mean I can’t go out and see as much as I possibly can. I may never be able to climb the steps of the Eiffel Tower, but hey — I can take the elevator up halfway.
Frankly speaking, I don’t intend this to be some kind of inspirational or even educational blog — I just want it to be a little piece of me. I want to explore our world the way I’ve always dreamed of, and I want to do it while being honest about my own physical capabilities. I won’t apologize for what I can and cannot do, and I won’t sit around waiting for some nebulous future where I’ll be “well” enough to do everything. This body and this life are what I’ve got, and I intend to make full use of them.
Please join me on my travels around the world. I promise that if it’s nothing else, it’ll be interesting.