The next day, we hopped on the bus and headed to Kyoto for the morning. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan for over one thousand years, it is now the capital city of the Kyoto Prefecture located in the Kansai region. We stopped at the Buddhist Zen temple Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion, but officially named Rokuon-ji). The garden complex that it is located on is a classic Muromachi period garden, which offers a minimalistic approach that recreates larger landscapes in a smaller scale around a structure. The Golden Pavilion is set in a Japanese roundabout garden, so it provides quite the stunning setting for a scenic stroll and it makes for quite a wonderful photo backdrop. The top floors of the Golden Pavilion are covered with pure gold leaf, and the building also sits in front of a reflecting pond. Although it has been burned down numerous times throughout its history, once during the Onin war and again in an arson, the current structure was rebuilt in 1955 and is as stunning as ever.
After spending an hour or so at the garden, we set course for Nara, which is about an hour away from Kyoto. It is the capital city of the Nara Prefecture, and is located in the Kansai region of Japan. We would stop for lunch in town at Kutaro, a Yakiniku (BBQ meat) restaurant. I was really excited for this lunch as I learned that we would be having Kobe beef. If you’ve had Kobe beef in North America prior to November 2012, unfortunately you were likely scammed. Even since 2013, only 10% of all Kobe beef in Japan is exported, meaning only 390 cattle per year are allowed to leave the country. There are a lot of hamburger and hotdog joints, steakhouses, and even fine dining restaurants that are guilty of mislabeling or duping their customers into thinking they’re actually getting Kobe beef. Each place selling real certified Kobe beef will have a certificate or ID number that traces back to which animal it came from. Without this certification, you can bet that the beef you’re consuming isn’t actual Kobe beef. It’s not to say that the beef they’re serving isn’t good, it’s just that there are very strict rules under which Kobe beef is produced. What sets Kobe beef apart from other beef is the specific strain of cattle that is used, and the way the cattle are raised, fed, and slaughtered. In Kobe, Japan, Wagyu cattle are fed grass and beer, massaged with rice wine, and even listen to classical music before they are prepared for consumption.
We cooked our own Kobe beef along with other cuts of meat, and enjoyed Japanese curry on the side. It is recommended that you cook it medium-rare for optimal marblization, allowing the fat to melt in your mouth. However, we both preferred ours cooked medium. It did not disappoint, as it was both extremely tender and rich in flavour. If you have the chance to visit Japan and you call yourself a foodie, then you definitely need to try Kobe beef. Not doing so is like going to Montreal and not trying a Montreal smoked meat sandwich. Besides the Kobe beef, we also enjoyed various other cuts of pork, beef, and chicken, and helped ourselves to curry rice as well. After a big lunch, we set off for Tōdai-ji, a nearby Buddhist temple complex.
Above: What made this complex especially unique was the over 1,000 wild deer roaming the grounds freely. According to the Shinto religion, sika deer (or Japanese spotted deer) are regarded as sacred messengers of the gods. May and I both got really up close and personal with these deer.
Left: You can find vendors here selling shrimp chips for you to feed the deer. The deer can get quite aggressive, so don’t tease them too much or you just might get swarmed or worse, head-butted (seriously!). The deer are also quite smart; if you bow your head before feeding them, some of them will even bow back. Right: Some Japanese schoolgirls screaming and running away from a group of deer, clearly hot on their trails.
Above: The construction of Tōdai-ji (Eastern Great Temple) started in 728 AD and the current building finished in the early 18th century.
Above: Today, it is a natural treasure that is a popular hotspot with tourists and local Buddhists alike, as it also houses the world’s largest bronze statue of Daibutsu (Buddha Vairocana).
It was a fun day of sightseeing and good eats, and I certainly recommend visiting Kyoto and Nara if you happen to be around Osaka. That happens to be our next stop and final leg of our Japan tour, and we’re both excited for it since they say the food there is amazing. Stay tuned!