Living in a Traditional Japanese Home is very Interesting…


We’ve been Air BnB-ing around Japan now for 5 weeks, but our place in Nara easily wins first prize in the interesting lodging category. It’s a traditional home, lived in for over 40 years by the current owners, Tadahiro and his wife.

Tadahiro’s English is creative, his wife is even less fluent – but language aside – this stay clearly ranks as one of my most extraordinary adventures.

As always – I used my check-list – but even so – things are never quite what they seem in the pictures. But first steps first – Finding Tadahiro’s home was easy – he picked us up at the tiny train station just 200 meters away – and insisted on driving us to his house. This is not the center of Nara – but then Nara is relatively small – and our location turned out to be absolutely perfect.

As a traditional home, you enter thru a tiny garden space (barely room for the empty tulip planters Tadahiro was working on) going directly into the entrance hall where you take off your shoes and put on slippers. There is only room in the entrance hall for one person at a time – and no where to sit – which caused the Intrepid Traveler a bit of trouble. She much prefers to sit down to take off her lace up sneakers. I went with easy to remove sandals- so for me – not a problem.

Once properly slippered – you are in the kitchen. Shoji screens on our left blocked access to the living space of our hosts – but they kept that door firmly closed most days. I admit to getting a peak in – and like the rest of this tiny house – it was cluttered with the remains of living in a place for over 40 years. Even Japanese accumulate stuff after a while – and there were at least two formal Kimono hanging up on a wall. Plus a lot of intermingled other clutter. But that’s their space!

The layout is typical of older style homes in the Nara region – kitchens were fire hazards – and as such were separated from the main house, and well used. This kitchen was no exception – not the designer granite kitchens of the west – this was a functional space with teeny appliances and virtually no space!

How tiny? The refrigerator (packed full, full, full) was in the entrance hall – as was the toaster oven placed awkwardly on a stool. The stove top had only 3 burners, and there was no oven. And no dishwasher. And no storage space. Everything was on display – all the family’s assorted and well used dishware next to the sink, and food stuff stored on shelves above the wooden dining table on the other wall. Crowded, tiny, clean but not new. Well used is the best description.

To deal with the lack of refrigerator space, our hosts were using a stack of strafoam ice boxes as spare fridges – those were kept in what they refered to as the fire escape – a 2nd set of stairs that lead upstairs. We never used that staircase, and in fact was told it was off limits. But several days later one of the other guests used it to carry up their suitcases. So maybe my lack of Japanese led to confusion on this point.

Our hosts (who admitted to being in our age bracket of 70+ (I’m guessing more like 80+)) have turned the upper floor of their rather large, but very traditional home into a interconnected series of 5 rooms separated only by sliding shoji screens. There are 4 obvious bedrooms, one common space with a sink and a table and a kettle for making hot water – and a toilet room. The bathroom (which has a bath and a shower – no toilet) is down stairs off the kitchen.

We were shown to our ‘room’ – a large tatami mat area with one window, one bed, one futon on the floor, and a lovely library space that provided just a bit of storage – first and only storage space we’ve seen in all the places we’ve stayedI We even had two hanging racks, and at least one shelf that we could use for our stuff. Unfortunately, the rest of the space was filled with Tadahiro’s father’s books – so it was a bit dusty. And there were stacks of scrolls as well. As I mentioned – clutter happens after 40+ years.. as I well know.

We snuck a peek into the other rooms. The largest room had a lovely space with two western chairs and it overlooked the traditional interior garden. That room was used mostly by family groups, and was priced a bit higher than our space. Adjoining the larger room was a smaller room with a window towards the street. Because the two rooms were only divided by shoji screens – if both spaces were ‘rented’, the guests in the smaller part of the larger room had to enter thru another set of screens. We decided that this must have been awkward, and of course anything said in either room was clearly audible everywhere on the upper level.

The 4th room almost appeared to be a later add-on. It adjoined the fire escape staircase and was an odd shape with many windows. We thought this was the prettiest room – but it offered only futons for sleeping, and while we were in Nara – was mainly rented to single men traveling on their own. We liked this room because it was closest to the toilet – but nothing was really that far – so despite our concerns, we never had an issue.

As mentioned, there was the fire escape (off limits?) staircase – and then the proper wooden staircase to this upper level. The proper staircase was very steep – and led down onto the glassed in narrow porch that overlooked the garden. From there you could turn right into the kitchen, or if you turned left – you were in the private quarters of our hosts. We always turned right of course.

Our hosts couldn’t carry our tiny carry-ons up the stairs, and neither could we – so we were instructed to take what we wanted out of our bags and leave them in a space beside the staircase. There are lots of nooks and crannies in the home – this was one of them! But we don’t have much – so it was easy to get ourselves organized, even without our suitcases in our quite comfy space. Our window overlooked the street outside – which turned out to be a bit noisy at night, even with the windows shut. I’m going to guess that there was absolutely no insulation in the home at all – and the shoji windows were single pane glass.

We were actually glad that it was warm (hot even) during our stay in Nara – the AC worked a treat. Each sleeping space had it’s own AC unit – and we turned on them all at one point to cool down the common room. It went well over 95 degrees for 3 days running. It was hot. But the AC definitely did the trick. We were extremely comfortable.

One of the reasons that Tadahiro’s home is so frequently booked is the quality of the breakfast they provide. Meat, Eggs, Home-made omelet, Bread slices, Jam, Ginger, Salad, and noodles (twice more like Italian spaghetti with meat sauce, once more Japanese style) – it was easily the nicest breakfast we were offered outside of the huge buffet at the APA hotel our first morning in Japan.

Since the kitchen is tiny, and the table in the kitchen could only seat 4 – we ate breakfast in shifts when the rooms were all occupied. And during our 5 nights in Nara – guests came and went with alarming frequency. Many folks only stay one night in Nara – they come, see the Deer Park and the Big Buddha and go. We’d barely have time to say hi before they would be gone. The most interesting of our fellow travellers arrived the day before we left unfortunately – but more on them later.

The ‘bath’ room – which contained the only shower – was located off the kitchen – so getting a shower in the morning was a bit awkward. You needed to time your bathing to avoid cooking time in the very narrow, very small kitchen. It actually ended up sounding worse than it was – you just waited your turn – and everyone got the shower they needed!.

As previously mentioned, privacy, in the North American context of that term, is seriously lacking. Yes you can ‘shut’ your shoji screens – but everything you do is clearly audible to all other guests.

This isn’t a bad thing if everyone is being polite, but the first night our fellow travellers were a family – husband, wife, and 6 year old daughter who apparently were having issues. Frequently it definitely sounded like they were fighting. Our host came up stairs to tell them to quiet down – and after that things were fine.

Speaking of our hosts – they are amazing. The breakfast they fixed us each morning has been lovely – although I find the wife’s habit of covering the plates with plastic wrap, and then serving the food (I’m guessing it saves on washing up) very strange. But she was consistent – there was always plastic wrap protecting the dishes from the food. And anything fried had a piece of foil decoratively placed under it – purpose unknown.

Tadahiro absolutely loves to explain how you should do things in their city – and we’ve been happy to follow most of his advice. While his English is limited – he clearly strives to be completely clear. Important note here – don’t disagree with him. Just nod politely and agree to do as he suggests. He justifiably feels that he’s lived here long enough to know what’s what. I checked out his suggestions with the wonderful local tourist offices – and not surprisingly – got different and sometimes better advice. We learned to pick and choose which advice to follow quite carefully.

We also had another issue. Despite the description in Air BnB that implies guests can use the kitchen, it’s clearly their kitchen – and while they said it was ok if we used it, when we tried to cook our dinner the first night, Tadahiro decided we weren’t doing it quite right. He pushed the Intrepid Traveler out of the way – and cooked our dinner for us. Since then, we’ve been very careful to only buy things that don’t need cooking. It’s easier.

Despite advertising that suggested they had a clothes washer – when we asked to do laundry, they directed us down the street to a coil operated laundry. It worked just fine. Next door is an Onsen – a public bath – but I think we’ll skip it this time.

But quibbles aside – my futon is comfy, and Jill has a bed – which makes her happy. We have a bit more storage kind of space here which is nice. Once we realized that the kitchen was off limits in fact, if not in principle, we shopped accordingly and had lovely dinners upstairs in the common space.

We are walking distance from some of the most interesting sites in Nara – yet clearly off the well beaten, overly touristy, path. There’s a bus stop nearby, and a huge grocery store. There’s even two places to pick up my morning Latte’s for just 150 Yen.

There was one couple in particular, that we totally enjoyed sharing the space with. They arrived the day before we left – but they were charming. The wife is Chinese, the husband American, and they are living in China. We spent a lovely evening laughing and chatting over wine (ours) and beer (theirs). I was truly sorry we were checking out in the morning. They were very interesting – and I wish them luck and health in their lives. They will need it. By all accounts, life in China is not particularly easy these days!

This blog has gone on long enough – we loved Nara – heat wave and all – and are heading to Narita in the morning. Right now it’s bedtime – tomorrow is another very hot day to look forward to enjoying.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Herds and Hordes – That sums up Nara


In my pre-trip reading – Nara sounded really cool. It was the capital of Japan for about 70 years – starting in 710 – and a backwater of the country every since. But my reading made it seem lovely – several interesting museums, traditional homes to visit (for free – we love that price point), a very intriguing guest host we could stay in at our price level, and it was the birth place of Japanese Buddhism in 703 or so.

What I didn’t know was that despite the fact that it’s a small town, it’s a small town with an agenda. It wants to compete with it’s bigger, more famous, and much more important neighbors – Osaka and Kyoto – and the city fathers are doing the best they can to make it so!

Some things are being doing very well too. Since it’s the original home of Buddhism in Japan – it’s famous among the tour group set – particularly the student tour groups. We’ve seen more student groups on tour than we’ve seen anywhere in Japan. And interestingly enough – some of them still do the ‘Hello’ thing to us as they walk by.

In case you don’t know what the ‘Hello’ thing is – every kid in a long group of students walks by and says – ‘Hello’. One after the other. Some of the kids branch out and say ‘How are you’ or ‘Where do you come from’ or other catch phases. They are clearly very proud that they finally have a chance to practice their English on real live tourists. It’s adorable.

When we were in Japan 20 years ago – all school groups did this. Today it’s one in 10 or so – and we’ve been told that those are the groups from well outside the major cities. Which figures – city kids see tourists constantly – the country kids don’t. So for them – we a treat.

Nara also has one of the best (and basically cheapest) bus systems we’ve run into. For 500 Yen you can get an unlimited day pass that is a small cedar plank. You wear this around your neck and just flash the drivers! Basically all the buses a tourist would care to ride are now free. Even if you aren’t prepared to cough up that much – a single ride is 210 Yen provided you stick to the city limits. But in addition to that – on the weekends Nara runs 3 ‘low cost’ bus lines on the heavily touristed routes. These smaller buses only cost 100 Yen – and they will do the trick if your desire is to arrive by train, visit the critical sites (The Big Buddha and the Deer Park) and then high tail it back to where you came from!

There is one obvious tourist confusing aspect of the bus system here in Nara – some of the bus lines require you to enter from the rear and pay as you exit, other lines work the other way – enter and pay immediately, exit when you want. Locals know which is which, and of course the bus drivers do – but us tourists? Forget about it! We are constantly trying to get on while everyone is getting off! It’s a mess. But I’m nit-picking – it’s still a really great way to get around the city.

Another thing that Nara has definitely gotten right is the Deer Park. This is a total hoot and a half. I didn’t want to enjoy it – but honestly – it’s beyond funny to watch tourists interact with Deer that know perfectly well that a) Tourists have Deer Crackers to feed them and b) Those Deer Crackers leaving the park! So while the deer are willing to bow to get a cracker – and they are even willing to pose for pictures, basically they know they have an easy life of it – and they put up with the constant petting, touching, and teasing with amazing grace.

Some deer have figured out that camping by the ladies selling the deer crackers is a winning strategy. Other deer have staked out their spots, and hang tough in that location. During one of our rest breaks, we watched a deer stand in one spot for at least 30 minutes – bowing repeatedly if needed to get a cracker. We also spotted deer that are just bored by the proceedings or have eaten their full for the day. They gather in the off-limits sections so the tourists can’t get to them.

And there are deer that clearly get off by playing with the tourists. They hang in the center of the pathways, shamelessly begging for crackers – and willing to what ever is needed to get them.

We are not talking deer in the hundreds by the way, we’re talking thousands of deer. And probably about an equal number of tourists. Not surprisingly – one of the big festivals here in Nara is the Spring Fawning.

Given the popularity of the deer park, and the historical significance of the city, and the marketing efforts that the city fathers have made to put Nara on the lists of all tourists – there are a lot of tourists!

Fortunately, they are clustered in the area near the Deer Park – making the Temple of the Big Buddha a tad crowded, and the buses heading to and from the Deer Park area packed. But outside of that space – and a couple of roads leading in and out of the area – the rest of Nara goes on with it’s business without interference.

And it gets worse – a lot worse – on the weekends. I’ve literally never seen this many tourists in one small space in my life.

On the good news side – Nara can handle crowds. In addition to the doubled up bus system on the weekends, the main attraction – The Big Buddha – is in a huge Temple. Plenty of room for everyone. And we arrived in the middle of a ‘classical’ concert! There was a wonderful Soprano with a glorious voice, accompanied by about 4 dozen kindergarten students who gave it all they had. Recognizable pieces included an hair raising version of Ave Maria – and an adorable ‘Take me out to the Ball Game’ – sung with tons of energy by the kids. For the music there was a piano, a violin and a cello. The acoustics were amazing.

Tourist bottle necks included the ‘crawl thru the nose of Buddha’ exhibit – which folks were lining up to do with great enthusiasm, and of course the bus stops. There was plenty of deer to go around however.

Once off the tourist track – the museums were lovely. Quiet, beautiful and generally free. We lucked into a tour of the section of the original Imperial Palace (703- 789 or so) that is being rebuilt in the traditional manner. But first they built a giant outer shell of steel beams, harnessed against earthquakes and Typhoons. Inside the outer shell is the area being used to hand carve using traditional equipment all the wood pieces needed to make the Main Gate of the Palace. Normally this area is closed to tourists – but when we were there it was open for visitors to go in and climb all the way to the top to gaze down from what will be the final height of the gate.

It was wonderful. There were craftsmen there showing us how to carve out the huge cedar columns and beams that will be used to make the Gate. We were told that all the Cedar comes from the Nara area. I was amazed. They are using only trees over 250 years old (the columns are huge), so there has to be a giant forest not too far away.

My other favourite site was the renown Gangoji Temple. While the Temple is beautiful, the highlight for me was the museum space where they had displaced some of the columns and beams they had found during the excavations. These wood pieces have been dated back to 700 AD! That makes them 1400 years old. Incredible.

For a garden walk, we opted for the free Yoshikien Garden rather than paying 900 Yen to visit it’s neighbor, the much better advertised Isuien Garden. We loved our tour of the Yoshikien Garden – we were alone on the paths, able to sit quietly on the deck of the tea house to admire the pond, and generally cool down from the heat and the hordes.

Speaking of heat – it’s been really really hot here in Japan. Over 30 degrees C (that’s over 90 degrees F) every single day. That kind of heat has taken a toll on our ability to get around – so that bus pass was a god-send.

One time we got on the AC bus, and it felt so good, we just rode around twice. The driver got really worried that we didn’t know we had to get off! He even found someone to explain that to us. But we re-assured him we were fine, and got off on the right stop the 2nd time around!

One final note – because of the heat – we’ve been visiting the local convenience stores in search of ice cream. And trying all the different options! I had a fabulous watermelon looking ice thing that actually had bits of chocolate placed into the red part looking like seeds. And the Intrepid Travellers favourite was a mint ice cream version covered in chocolate with crunchy pieces.

We are living the highlife here in Nara.

Signing off to check out a difference Convenience store (maybe their selection of Ice Cream is different) – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

We lo

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.