Venturing to Nara to see the Tiger Temple (Chogosonshi-ji) and Tsubosakadera

Tsubosakadera during the beginning of sakura season.

Last week I decided to venture to Nara to see various temples during the beginning of its sakura season and also stay in a cottage surrounded by wild deer. Fortunately the deer of Nara are very friendly creatures who love humans—especially if you buy senbei crackers to feed them. I first visited Nara when I was 19 years old during my study abroad trip and remember how vivid the central area was. Though I traveled to Yoshino and stayed at a ryokan 2 years ago while on a motorcycle trip, this was my first time returning to the central city of Nara in quite a long time. Nara is very close to both Kyoto and Osaka and makes the ideal day trip if you are visiting the Kansai region for a few days. I took some time off work so I could do photography here for two days and it was absolutely lovely, minus being lightly headbutted by deer for more crackers!

In this article series I will be highlighting some of the nicest temples in Nara, talking about my experience staying in the deer park, and also my day trip to Kyoto to see its sakura too.

Getting to Nara

The fastest way to get to Nara from Tokyo is to take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Kyoto, then the local Nara line to Nara Station. This trip takes around 3 hours and costs about 15,000 yen one way.

From Nara Station, there are many local buses and train lines you can take to get around the city. I would recommend staying here 2-3 days to see everything. I stayed in Nara for 2 days on this trip.

The Tiger Temple (Chogosonshi-ji)

The first stop on my Nara itinerary was Chogosonshi-ji, aka the Tiger Temple! Since 2022 is the year of the tiger, this temple has gained a lot of popularity. Chogosonshi-ji is south of central Nara but is definitely worth visiting because it has a huge complex of temples, hiking spots, and lots of interesting places to explore. Upon entering the temple grounds you will see the world’s largest paper mache tiger guarding the entrance! There is also a man selling tiger-shaped manjuu that I definitely recommend you try because they are warm and delicious. You can freely explore the temple at your pace, but I recommend walking through the tiger tunnel, visiting the main hall and looking at the good luck charms (I bought a mini tiger), and hiking to the top of the mountain through all of the tori if you have the energy. Be on the lookout for the striped mailbox as well, because it is right next to a beautiful sakura tree. I spent about 2 hours here and was very impressed with what I saw. Like the frog temple I visited last month, I would say this is one of my favorite temples in Japan because it is very interactive and there is a lot you can do here.

Address: 2280-1 Shigisan, Heguri, Ikoma District, Nara 636-0923
Entrance Fee: 300 yen

Tsubosakadera

The next temple on my list was Tsubosakadera, which is south of the Tiger Temple and extremely popular during sakura season because there are so many sakura trees here. Unfortunately the sakura were not in full bloom when I came, but there were enough of them that I felt satisfied with my visit. Tsubosakadera has not only Japanese but also Indian influences, and a number of the statues here were presented by India thanking the temple for helping people suffering from leprosy (source). I enjoyed hiking around the temple and seeing the giant Buddha from different viewpoints. The white architecture of this temple is truly striking and has a beautiful contrast with the bright pink blossoms. There are various halls you can walk through here too. One of them had a large collection of dolls and there were many statues surrounding the outside area. I spent about an hour here and then decided to head back to central Nara because seeing these two temples will take a lot out of your day. Both were highly worth the experience, especially during the spring season.

Address: 635-0102 Nara, Takaichi District, Takatori, 壷阪3
Entrance Fee: 600 yen

Bonus Food from Osaka

Before coming to Nara, I actually stopped in Osaka the night before to meet friends and eat delicious sweets. At Tokyo Station, one of the bento stands was selling sakura themed bento so I ate that on the way there. I loved the pink sticky rice and the mochi they included with it because it was so sweet and delicious! All of the food in the bento went so well together which is why I love trying seasonal ekiben.

Upon arriving to Osaka, I stopped at season & co in Umeda to eat their flowery bear cheesecake parfait. Not only was it extremely aesthetic, but it was also melt in your mouth goodness. The last place I stopped was daily dose coffee at DD House where I got a creamy latte with my name written on it and a matcha ice cream waffle shaped like a tiger! I love Osaka because it has a lot of creative coffee places that Tokyo doesn’t. If you have time then definitely check these places out because the staff does a really good job managing their cafes and making creative menus.

Thank you for reading the first article of my Nara article series. In my next article, I will be detailing my experience with the deer and the lovely place where I stayed for the night. Please look forward to it!

Free the Bears: Volunteering as a Bear Keeper in Cambodia

Whenever I travel to a new country, I like to spend a day doing volunteer work with animals.  Not only does it help support them, but it also gives me the chance to meet rare species and learn more about the culture of the country I’m visiting.  In Thailand I signed up for a program at the Elephant Sanctuary, and I just recently visited the Cleland Wildlife Park in Australia.  While I was researching animal programs in Cambodia, the Free the Bears volunteer program really caught my eye.  In this program, you will become a bear keeper for the day and get the chance to meet some extremely fascinating Cambodian Sun and Moon Bears!

About Free the Bears

Free the Bears was founded in order to help bears that had been neglected throughout Asia in “coffin-size” cages and milked for their bile, which could be used as an ingredient in medicine.  Fortunately this cruel practice is becoming illegal, but many bears are still being held in captivity.  This program helps educate volunteers on what we can do to save them, and also gives its participants to safely interact with them.  In addition to Cambodia, there are also other locations in Laos and Vietnam.  The Cambodian location is within Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, and free transportation is included when you sign up for the program.

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Several Moon Bears feast on a nutritious lunch of vegetables and honey.

Itinerary

When I accepted to the program, I was sent the following itinerary via email:

09.30 to 10.00 – Arrive at the centre and have introduction and welcome.
10.00 to 11.00 – Guided tour around the bear sanctuary and introduction to the bears.
11.00 to 12.00 – Preparing bear enrichment.
12.00 to 13.00 – Lunch.
13.00 to 15.00 – Tour of other animals at the centre.
15.00 to 15.30 – Helping keepers put out enrichment, feeding bears etc.
15.30/16.00 – Leave centre and return to Phnom Penh by approximately 5.00pm.

Being a Bear Keeper for a Day

My day began with a cheerful tour around the wildlife center.  I lucked out because I was the only person on the tour and that gave me the chance to ask a lot of questions.  All of the staff was very friendly and spoke English.  I got the chance to meet several of the bears and they all seemed well-treated and happy.  Unfortunately you are not able to pet the bears, as their claws can be quite sharp, but you can get pretty close to them and take pictures with them.

After I met all of the bears, we started preparing meals for them.  I chopped up some vegetables and stuffed them in bamboo and plastic balls.  After the meal prep, I was guided to a fence where I could toss the food balls over to them, and pass them the bamboo sticks through the fence.

Watching them eat was extremely adorable:

We also took bits of food and scattered them across their playground.  This gives the bears a chance to exercise their bodies, and they actually looked like they really enjoyed going on the hunt:

I learned that sun bears are actually the smallest and rarest of the bear species.  My favorite bear was this extremely rare one that looks like a lion:

However, all of the bears I met were extremely cute!  I thought that some of them may be in rough condition, but all of the ones I saw had no visible injury or scarring.  They looked like they were living a happy life, and that made me extremely grateful.

Meeting the other Animals

In addition to bears, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is home to many other species of animals including gibbons, tigers, elephants, and more!  This was my first time ever seeing a gibbon, and I was extremely impressed seeing them climb and swing with their long arms.

In addition to the gibbons, I also met the most beautiful tiger in the world:

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Who knew such hidden beauty existed here in Cambodia!  Seeing this tiger was absolutely breathtaking.

Overall Review

I was overall extremely satisfied with my experience with Free the Bears, and would recommend the program for all animal lovers.  It doesn’t matter how much previous volunteer experience you have, because being a bear keeper here is actually quite easy!

The program costs $90 for which is a bit expensive, but you receive a free T-shirt which is actually quite stylish, and lunch and transportation is also included.  If you put things into perspective, Cambodia is an under-developed country, and these bears are in need of help so this is a good investment.  I took my money here rather than shopping at the night market, and feel extremely enriched because of it.

I really liked traveling in Cambodia, and I am happy that I made my money count here.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!

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