The guardians of Katsuoji

I’ve been to quite a few temples in Japan over the past several years, but no matter how many I visit, they will never fail to amaze me. The architecture, the composition, the structure, the minute details – everything about a temple’s design exemplifies the years of careful thought, consideration, and purpose that were interwoven into its development.

My first visit to Minoh’s Katsuoji Temple was no different than previous temple visits – in fact, Katsuoji may be one of the most beautiful I’ve been to yet, especially since I went while the maple leaves were still in color.




IMG_9154Though Katsuoji’s elaborate gardens, freshwater streams, and its mist-shrouded lake made for an unforgettable experience, my first time visiting Minoh’s hidden gem was more memorable than past temple visits for a different reason…IMG_9105IMG_9113

The dolls…

IMG_9106I first spotted these dolls upon walking onto the main bridge, where a group of 5 were gathered along the barrier, casually surveying people as they passed by. And the dolls weren’t only beside the bridge; these little figurines were scattered all over the temple – literally, everywhere!IMG_9119There were dolls along the ground, on pillars, barriers, even in the trees. As I wandered Katsuoji’s grounds, I grew fascinated by the sheer abundance of these pint-sized, toy-like creatures.IMG_9133 Thanks to Google, I’ve learned that these tiny figurines are known in Japan as “Daruma dolls.” They’re traditionally modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Though they’re typically red and depict a bearded man (Dharma), each doll varies in color and design depending on the region and artist.

In fact, because each Daruma is hand painted, no two Daruma have the exact same design.


Not only do Daruma dolls make for an adorable display, they are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck as well! Because of their bottom-heavy design, they return to an upright position when tilted over, a characteristic that has come to symbolize the ability to overcome adversity. The doll embodies the popular Japanese proverb: Nanakorobi yaoki, or “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

Because the dolls symbolize success, they are often purchased to act as encouragement for people to continue pursuing specific goals. Upon purchasing, the doll’s eyes are both blank white; the purchaser will then select a goal and paint in one of the figure’s two eyes. Then, once the desired goal is achieved, the second eye is filled in. People often bring their dolls back to the temple where they were originally purchased and place them anywhere and everywhere – hence the hundreds of scattered Daruma dolls throughout Katsuoji. IMG_9128At the end of the year, all the Daruma are brought back to the temple they were purchased from for a traditional burning ceremony. This ceremony, called the daruma kuyō (だるま供養), is held once a year, usually right after New Year’s Day. Afterwards, people purchase new Daruma dolls to bring home for a lucky start to the year.

Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to attend a burning ceremony this year. But to be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed watching these little bearded dolls burst into flames anyway – they’re way too cute to be destroyed, in my opinion. IMG_9140

Now that I know the history behind the Darumas, I’m still looking forward to greeting them at my next temple visit. Hopefully, the next temple I go to will have as many Darumas as Kastuoji.


For directions to Katsuoji temple, click here.


Jazz and ginger tea at Cafe Bazz Light

One of the (many) things I appreciate about Minoh is its abundance of well-decorated cafes. After finally crossing Salunpowaku off my bucket list, I made it a goal to visit every cafe in the area around my apartment – which doesn’t sound difficult, but you’d be surprised at just how many cafe’s can fit into one neighborhood in a tiny Japanese town.

My next stop was at Cafe Bazz Light, less than a five minute walk from Minoh station. The cafe is located on the bottom level of a tiny plaza behind a bike parking lot and is tricky to spot if you aren’t looking. My friend and I were actually planning on visiting the owl cafe (a cafe with live owls on display), which is located on the second floor of the same plaza. But, sadly, the owl cafe was about to close just as we arrived.

Spotting Cafe Bazz Light’s brightly lit windows on the bottom level, we decided to stop there instead for our daily dose of tea and coffee.

Stepping inside, we were welcomed by the owner, who sat at the front counter during our stay. We sat ourselves and took our time perusing the menu, which included meal sets and a long list of drinks.

My friend ordered a regular black coffee and I ordered ginger tea; our drinks arrived on a tray (which I’ve come to learn is typical of cafe’s in Japan) and came in lovely ceramic mugs stained army green.

The cafe was warm and cozy. And it smelled good – kind of woody and smoke-y, like a fireplace. With the heater on high, clippings from American newspapers pinned on the walls, and jazz music playing faintly in the background, I felt right at home. Out of all the cafe’s I’ve been to so far, I’ve felt most comfortable at Cafe Bazz Light. Though I have a long list of cafe’s left to visit, I’ll definitely go back to Cafe Bazz for the ambiance alone.

A day trip through Edo

Japan’s Edo period is, in my opinion, the most fascinating period in Japanese history. It was a time of artistic and cultural development, a time of peace, prosperity, and social progress. It also happens to epitomize most people’s idea of “traditional Japan:” think tea ceremonies on tatami mats, samurai warriors on horseback with swords in hand, travelers clad in brightly colored kimonos, etc.

The Edo period took place from about 1600 to 1868 (ending with the start of the Meiji restoration and western imperialism). But for one and a half train rides, a quick bus detour, and 1500 Yen, I got to travel back 200 years and experience a snippet of the Edo period in all its glory – ninja and samurai included – at Toei Studios Park in Uzumara, Kyoto.


Featuring a collection of various traditional buildings, which are occasionally used as a backdrop for filming historical movies and television dramas (known as jidaigeki films), the park is designed to resemble a quintessential small town from the Edo Period.

Unlike your typical theme park, there aren’t any rides, but Toei Studios Park offers a ton of different activities and attractions for guests to participate in during the day. There are ninja shows in the grand theater, sword-fighting lessons on the main street, even costume shops at the entrance where you can rent a kimono and wander the streets of ancient Japan as a geisha or samurai.

My friend and I watched a show called Class of the Ninjas: Ninja Show, Sasuke, which had the perfect amount of live action fight scenes, excessive shouting, and tacky special effects. We also watched behind-the-scenes footage of a scene in a period film from the director’s perspective and got to learn a few tips and tricks of the trade.

IMG_8209For the hungry traveler in search of refreshment, restaurants selling classic Japanese fare, like udon noodles and spiced curry, are interspersed throughout the tiny town. My friend and I stopped by a cafeteria with a simple, family-friendly menu selling both Japanese and western-style dishes. My friend ordered a hearty plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce – a staple of traditional Japan.

There were several food stalls along the main streets as well, offering snacks like mitarashi dango, grilled corn, and hot dogs, or “American wieners” as they were called. Though the food doesn’t necessarily stay true to the park’s theme, there’s something for everyone – young or old, tourist or local – to enjoy.


“Milk Hall:” a retro coffee shop on the main street that sells everything milk-related, including fruit parfaits, soft-serve ice cream, and a popular strawberry milk concoction.


The park itself is very small; it only took my friend and I about two hours to walk the entire vicinity. But regardless of its size, the experience of traversing ancient Japan on foot was well worth the trip – one that I doubt I’ll be able to have again. Unless I return for a second visit of course, which I’d say is very possible; I wouldn’t mind re-watching the Ninja Show Sasuke again.


Here’s a link to the park’s website if you want to learn more about the park, its attractions, and how to get there! If you’re in the Kansai area, I definitely recommend stopping by for an afternoon.

Nara Park: the land of bold and brazen deer

Nara, Japan: once upon a time the nation’s capital, now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Though Nara is well-known for its centuries-old temples, and its impressive array of history, arts, and culture museums, the city’s main and most beloved attraction is, without a doubt, the deer.

I’ve been desperate to visit the deer in Nara ever since arriving in Japan; I mean, it’s not everyday you get the chance to see a deer up close, let alone pet one on the head! Since Nara is only about a two hour commute from Minoh, many of my fellow Minoh JET’s had already been to Nara before. As I listened to stories about my friends’ deer-petting experiences over the last six months, I grew more and more eager for my own.

Finally, after months of attempting – and failing – to fit an excursion to Nara into my schedule, I had the chance to take the long overdue trip during the long winter break. Two days after Christmas, my friend (who’d been staying with me from the States) and I decided to brave the brutal winter winds and visit Nara Park.

Upon exiting Kinetsu-Nara station, we began making our way toward the park. I knew we were headed in the right direction when I started to see deer painted on street posts. IMG_9190And sure enough, after about a 10 minute walk, we spotted our first deer! IMG_9201IMG_9196And then our second, third, and many more after that. The deer were everywhere – I’d say I saw at least 30 in the area we walked through alone. Some were drinking from the stream, nibbling on the grass, others lounging beneath the shade. But, unsurprisingly, the majority of the deer in the area were gathered near a cart selling 鹿せんべい.IMG_9225鹿せんべい (pronounced shika senbei) are thin, round crackers made of flour, water, and bran that can be fed to the deer.  This cart, one of the many set up along the outskirts of the park, sold the crackers in a set of 10 for 150 yen each.

My friend and I purchased a set of shika senbei and split it between the two of us. Since I only had 5, I wanted to be careful about which deer I fed. I read online somewhere that the deer will sometimes bow to you for a cracker, which I thought sounded like fun to see, so I planned on handing out each of my five crackers to the deer that was the most polite, hoping to entice a head nod or two.

But the instant the nearby deer sniffed the crackers in my hand, none of them bowed. Instead, they charged toward me, like an ambush, advancing in my direction from all sides. At first, I was excited to attract the attention of so many deer, but my initial excitement quickly turned to alarm when the first deer to reach me began hitting me with his head! I tried to hide the crackers inside my jacket to make him stop, but the deer would not be fooled by my amateur tricks and continued bumping against my side. And then another deer came up and started butting my backpack. And another bit my jacket!IMG_9234I was so overwhelmed by the audacious, aggressive pack of deer that I ended up handing over all five of my crackers to the one closest to me, which devoured them all in seconds. Once the other deer realized that I had no more food left, they immediately dispersed. Cracker-less, and slightly traumatized, I watched the deer saunter away in search of yet another shika senbei-holding-human to attack.

No more deer came up to me after that, but I didn’t mind much – it was easier to take pictures of them at a distance anyway.IMG_9224IMG_9228My first experience with the Nara deer ended up being a bit different from what I expected it to be, but it was an experience that I know I’ll remember for a long time; after all, it’s not every day I get the chance to be ambushed by a pack of hungry deer. I’d even say that Nara Park has made it to the top of my list of favorite places in Japan, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone planning on visiting the area. But for those who do happen to make the trip to the Park, keep in mind that although the deer may look gentle, they definitely won’t be bowing to you for a cracker. IMG_9250 copy