Super Aesthetic Adventures in Okinawa and Miyako

Okinawa in a bottle as it appears in Non Non Biyori.

With the end of sakura season in central Japan, it’s time to start thinking about plans for one of the craziest holidays of the year—Golden Week. Though I’ve taken a number of 3 day trips this year, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve created a multi-day itinerary. In fact, the last time I’ve an extended trip was in January 2020 to Taiwan. I’ve decided that this month I’m going to beat the Golden Week rush and take a 5 day trip to Okinawa focusing on Naha and Miyakojima since a number of attractions have been added since my last trip in 2016.

The dates I have chosen are 4/23 – 4/27 which should give me enough time to see everything I want. My planned itinerary (so far) is listed below:

Tokyo → Naha → Miyako → Naha ↺ Tokyo

My itinerary in 2016 was similar but replaced Miyako with Ishigaki. Both islands are worth seeing from what I’ve heard and while my last trip was focused on sightseeing, this trip is more focused on photography. There will be plenty of relaxation and adventure as well of course!

Though Japan is currently between emergency states and still not open for international travel, a large number of companies are forced to close during this holiday and inevitably people will be traveling domestically. Roundtrip flights to Okinawa from Tokyo usually cost between 16000 – 23000 yen depending on which airline you choose, but I found a reasonably priced fight with Jetstar for the average of 20000 yen and purchased it because I want to arrive there early in the morning. Even if certain places have curfews or restrictions, I will make the most of what I can enjoy.

Day 1: Relaxing at Naha’s Sanrio Resort

I will be departing from Narita Airport at 8:10am and arriving to Naha Airport at 11:05am.

On my first trip to Okinawa in 2016, I mostly stayed in budget hostels so I could use my money for bus tours to see the highlights of the main island. This time since I have more money saved up and wanted to try nicer facilities, I fortunately found the perfect place to spend my first night in Naha. When Hotel Okinawa with Sanrio Characters opened just a few years ago, it was spread all over my timeline and I knew that I was destined to stay here eventually. This hotel has rooms with 66 individual designs of Sanrio so picking my favorite series was difficult, but I decided on the My Melody themed double just because I love the bright pink colors in the artwork. These rooms cost roughly 11000 yen a night and have a nice location so I think the experience will be worth it! You can definitely find slightly cheaper facilities around Naha, but they won’t be as aesthetic as this. Expect a lot of photos of this place from me!

After I get checked in, I plan on checking out Ti-da Beach Parlor for some high tier smoothies then checking out the surrounding beaches. I will also walk down the main street for old times’ sake and see if Epica is still going all night. I intend for this day to be chill but I’m open to whatever comes my way!

Day 2: Dessert Museum at Stem Resort

Another amazing attraction that got added to Naha after my first trip was the Stem Resort theme park with an extremely photogenic dessert museum. Like Sanrio Puroland in Tokyo that I just visited last month, the museum is very cute and has a number of photo opportunities. Though I am mostly coming here for the sake of photography, I am looking forward to enjoying the inflatables and dinosaur museum if I have time afterwards. Also the rooftop bar doesn’t sound like a bad idea either. The admission fee seems to vary from 1800 – 3000 yen depending on what attractions you want to see so that is actually quite cheap to enjoy a resort of this caliber.

After I finish shooting here, I plan on heading back to my hotel at Hotel Aqua City and enjoying some fine wine. This resort is cheaper than the Sanrio one and has an amazing pool. I will need to rest up because the next day I am flying to Miyako!

Day 3: Getting Acquainted with Miyako Island

I will depart from Naha Airport at 9:40am and arrive at Miyako Airport at 10:30am. A one way flight costs approximately 8000 yen but is overall worth it. Ishigaki (which I previously visited) and Miyako are the most popular islands to visit aside from the main one so I’m looking forward to comparing my experiences of the two.

On my first day I will mostly be getting acquainted with the island and taking it easy, but the places I want to see the most are Miyako Shrine, Kamamamine Park, and bike to Ibaru Island which is extremely rural but has some scenic points. There are a few bars and restaurants I have in mind too if they’re open. I’ve heard Miyako is much smaller than Ishigaki and has less things to do, but the beach game is still strong and I want to go somewhere that I’ve never been before. Regardless I am looking forward to getting away from the city and getting to know this little beach town!

I chose to stay at Hotel Locus for 2 nights just because it is located right on the beach and also has a beautiful pool. It is around the same price as the Aqua City Hotel in Naha so it’s affordable. I plan on renting a bike and also using taxis if needed to get around but overall most of the things I want to see are near my accommodation so it should be convenient.

Day 4: Snorkeling with Turtles & Cave Exploration

Since I still haven’t been able to travel to the Philippines and snorkel with turtles in Cebu like I originally planned last year, I decided to try it in Miyako! I found a good tour on Klook that includes the turtle experience with the exploration of a pumpkin-shaped limestone cave and figured that was right up my alley so I immediately booked it. I am beyond stoked to try underwater photography with equipment I bought last year for my GoPro but haven’t been able to use yet! This tour will take me around the Kerama Islands and has a lot of activity so it seems like a great deal. There are also kayaking and boat tours available, but I have already done that stuff in other countries already and am going for the more unique experiences. This tour lasts for around 6 hours so I know I will be exhausted by the end of the day, but it will be a blast!

Day 5: Final Day of Enjoying the Beach & Heading Home

On my final day I just want to go swimming at Sunayama Beach and explore any last place that I haven’t had time to see yet. I have to catch two planes to get back to Tokyo, but I will leave Miyako at 4pm and reach Tokyo at 10pm. I have a layover at Naha Airport so I can do souvenir shopping and photo editing while I wait. Though it seems like a long while, I am sure the time will go fast. Overall I love tropical weather so just the warm atmosphere is enough to make me happy. It’s been almost a year since I last had a beach vacation in Miyazaki, so I am more than ready for this trip! It’s going to be another one for the books. Please look forward to my upcoming Okinawa article series!

Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 2: The Philosopher’s Path, Maruyama Park, and Arashiyama

After a spending a full day of hiking around Uji and seeing the once in a lifetime view of a full moon and fully blooming sakura at Toji, I was ready to start my final day hitting the last few aesthetic destinations on my list! Please see Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1: Byodoin, Go River, and Toji Temple for the first part of this article series. This article expands my recommended sakura viewing spots and also lists my favorite food and travel accommodations for the spring season.

Kyoto is a place that’s full of adventure and serene nature no matter where you go, but here are the places that I wouldn’t miss out on in late March:

Philosopher’s Path

If you are looking to experience some of the best scenery in Kyoto, then your best bet is to start at the Philosopher’s Path. The main path itself is actually not that long but it is lined with beautiful canals and sakura trees galore. The branching paths will lead you to many historic temples, traditional restaurants, and other exciting sights. One major point of interest is the Kaege Incline which is an old hill with railroad tracks that are now no longer in use making it the perfect spot for photography.

I recommend arriving before 10am or else you will run into tourists and wedding photography if you come during the afternoon like I did, but the experience here was definitely unforgettable! Everyone here stared in awe at the sakura petals that gently fell from the trees and drifted into the canals. I felt completely relaxed among the smiling people around me. I rented a kimono and took some of my best pictures in this area. For more information on kimono rental, please see my Yumeyukata Article.

If you keep walking down the Philosopher’s Path, you eventually will hit Nanzenji which I visited in the fall and also Ginkakuji. There are plenty of places in between those two temples you can explore too.

Admission Fee: Free
Access: There are a number of stations and bus stops that you can access this path from, but I would recommend taking the Keihan-Keishin train line to Kaege Station so you can start at the Kaege Incline and work your way up!

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park is undoubtedly one of the most famous parks in central Kyoto. It has beautiful sakura, a picturesque pond, several temples, and amazing food stalls. I spent my 27th birthday drinking sake here and I will never forget the blissful experience. This time the same place that I bought sake at in October was selling sakura champagne so of course I had to indulge–they sure know how to make money here! Anyway, the major draw here in the spring is the sakura illumination at night. There is a zen garden with a projection of koi fish that look like they are swimming when you first walk in through the main entrance. The stairs near the hall of Chion-in have a neon pink flower projection spread across them that slowly changes color. The lights are creatively placed beneath the sakura to create an eloquent pink and white gradient that bring out the highlights of the petals. You can also stand in front of some of the lighting to have sakura images projected onto yourself. Technology sure is amazing! I was also very impressed to see a temple completely illuminated in blue where a sermon was in progress. I was surged with energy from all of these beautiful colors and would highly recommend coming to Maruyama both during the day and at night because you’ll never know what you’ll find here!

Admission Fee: 1000 yen
Access: Walkable from Gion Station and anywhere near Kawaramachi

Arashiyama

The final destination on my sakura itinerary was Arashiyama! Here I visited the Moss Temple in the morning, ran into Goddess Madoka in the streets, and then went hiking in Nakanoshima Park to see a beautiful view of the Oi River and mountain sakura trees. The climb to reach the lookout point takes roughly 20 minutes and is very leisurely compared to the hiking I did earlier in the day. One sight in Arashiyama I always enjoy seeing is Daihikaku Senkoji Temple because it is very colorful and looks extremely remote up in the mountains surrounded by trees. You can climb up to it by crossing the river and hiking for approximately 40 minutes. The view from the window is incredible, especially in the fall. Besides the park, I would recommend checking out the area around Tenryuji because there is a dragon mural and a lot of beautiful sakura there too. There are also onsen and cafes all around Arashiyama so it is very easy to relax here. I am happy to have ended my trip in such a beautiful place!

Admission Fee: Free for the park, but most temples have an average price of 500 yen to enter. However, you can always stand outside of the temples and take pictures of them like I did!
Access: From Kyoto Station, take the San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. This takes roughly 12 minutes and costs 240 yen. Most things you can reach by foot here.

Food

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without sampling aesthetic food. I have been to many restaurants and cafes here, but these are my top recommendations from this trip:

  • Veg Out: This is a cozy vegan place near the Kawaramachi River that serves up amazing Buddha Bowls! These meals are monk diet-friendly and contain the perfect balance of vegetables and grain. Mine tasted a lot like vegan taco rice and I ordered some fig and coconut chips to go. This meal gave me the exactly amount of energy I needed and I am so grateful that I visited here!
  • Salon de Royal: This is a chocolate shop that my friend recommended to me that is also near the river. It has delicious teas and wine and features an original chocolate that is shaped like the Eiffel Tower specked in gold! I also noticed they were selling chocolate high heels here for 3000 yen. I definitely enjoyed the vibe of this place because it had an outdoor deck and would come back in the future for more delicious candy. I even took a sakura tart to go!
  • Arashiyama Street Food: Fancy yourself some traditional taiyaki stuffed with bacon and eggs? How about a yuba tofu flavored donut or ice cream? They even have Miffy bread here too! I cannot wait to see what ridiculous street food they have next time I come!

More more recommendations, please see my Aesthetic Kyoto Food Series.

Accommodation

In previous times I’ve always stayed at guest houses or capsule hotels, but since my favorite capsule and spa is permanently shut now I opted for lush business hotel near the Kawaramachi River called OYO. The cheapest single room is roughly 3000 yen per night and it came with everything I needed for my adventure. The staff was friendly, the location was grand, and there was free coffee and tea too. Unfortunately I did not take any photos of the room because I ran out of time, but the ones displayed on Booking are pretty accurate. I would definitely stay here again, but I am also open to trying other options down the river because you never know what’s out there! I like staying in slightly different places each time because with a change of environment often comes newfound inspiration.

Final Thoughts

Despite the pandemic, this was the best and most intense sakura season that I have ever experienced. Last year when the pandemic hit, many parks were closed in major cities so I spent my time exploring new areas in Nagoya. While those areas were beautiful, they weren’t nearly as festive as Kyoto. I woke up at 7am almost every morning to hit every major spot, ate a large variety of food, and ended both nights with beautiful illuminations. By the end of the third day I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the shinkansen to Tokyo, but that is a sign of a trip well spent. For all my life I will never forget the sight of the full moon and fully blooming sakura!

I would like to come back to Kyoto next month to explore Uji more and also go to a cosplay event by acosta. And next year I have already decided that I want to spend sakura season in Nara with the deer!

My next upcoming trip is to Okinawa at the end of the month, and I am very excited to publish my itinerary! Thank you for all the positive comments on my recent posts and photos–I will continue to do my best to inspire people to travel in Japan once the effects of Covid become more diminished!

Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1: Byodoin, Go River, and Toji Temple

Earlier I wrote about my visit to Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple in Arashiyama, so today I will be writing about all of the best places to view the sakura in Kyoto! The best time of year to go is during the last week of March because the trees will be in full bloom and you can see them with their anime-like aesthetic. There is nothing more beautiful than watching the delicate petals be carried away in the breeze, especially if you are by a river or pond. Numerous sakura trees are planted around Kyoto so their distinctive pink petals are nearly impossible to miss, but I will cover my top three recommended spots in Part 1 of this article series. I recommend staying in Kyoto for at least three days so you don’t miss out on this festive season! Some of these views require precise timing and are a once in a lifetime chance to see, especially if you live outside of Japan.

Byodoin

Known for its tea room and gorgeous gardens, Byodoin is undoubtedly one of the best temples to enjoy a stroll around in Uji! It is quite easy to reach from Kyoto Station and only only takes around 35 minutes via the Nara Line. The petals that lined the paths to the main temple nearly made my heart melt. I brought my Totoro plush with me and took some pictures with him in the trees while listening to Nujabes (I frequently use my stuffed animals as markers when I am doing photography with a timer). The wait time to enter the main hall was roughly an hour so I decided to skip it this time, but honestly walking around the pond and doing photography was fulfilling enough for me. Not to mention some of the street food I saw here was hilarious! The matcha takoyaki and the green yakisoba are definitely on my aesthetic food list next time I come back here which will hopefully be soon if there is a music event here.

Entrance Fee: 600 yen (completely worth it)

Another place I recommend checking out in Uji is the heart-shaped temple that I visited last year!

Go River

After browsing various geotags on Instagram to see the most florescent sakura parks, I stumbled across the highly aesthetic Go River near Chusojima Station. This river has boat rides where you can float across a trail of sakura petals that have fallen into the water. When all of the petals have fallen off the trees, the water looks quite pink! I arrived here during the time when they were still on the trees, but the atmosphere of the place was incredible. Not many people were here on the weekday that I visited and I could get a lot of neat photos by walking across the bridges. Some of these branches were quite low to the ground so it was relaxing to lay down underneath them. I lived the true sakura picnic life here!

Park Admission Fee: Free
Boat Rental Fee: 1400 yen*

*Please note that tickets require advance purchase at the terminal on the side of the river.

Toji Temple

Undoubtedly the most spectacular illumination I have ever seen in Kyoto is the Toji Temple Sakura Illumination. When I arrived at 8pm on Monday, there was a full moon and fully blooming sakura which made it look like a wonderland buried within pink petals. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience and I am so happy that I entered at the perfect time of the season! The colors of these sakura and the clear reflection of the pagoda reflected in the water are still clearly etched in my memory. I felt full of energy and truly inspired by this miraculous site and would recommend it to everyone! You will truly feel like you have entered another world.

Admission Fee: 1000 yen (insanely cheap for this high quality view)

The Kiyomizudera Temple Illumination is also worth seeing, but I recommend going in fall because there are less sakura trees there.

High Tea at The Thousand Kyoto

This tea room is actually where my adventure began and I can’t recommend it enough! The Thousand Kyoto is around 8 mins walking from Kyoto Station and their seasonal tea set gave me all the energy I needed to go hiking around the aforementioned sakura parks. The set started with a cup of freshly made green tea and then was served with some delicious scones with strawberry jam. Next up was an assortment of chocolate, strawberry, and matcha cakes with quiche and tiny sandwiches. I thought that the cup they placed on the second tier was tea so I tried to drink it, but it was actually pudding!! They also had chocolate that looks like Nezuko’s muzzle from Demon Slayer, and I think that was my favorite sweet included in the set. I regret not taking more pictures with it, but at the same time I was hungry from going boxing in the morning before I left Tokyo. I had properly earned the right to eat these sweets and I was going to enjoy every last bite. After I was finished with all three tiers, they brought out a strawberry ice cream dessert as the final boss!! I washed it down with some spicy apple tea. No need for lunch or dinner that day, this was definitely breakfast fit for a queen.

High Tea Price with Unlimited Tea: 5000 yen (expensive but worth it for the high quality assortment of desserts and tea)

Final Thoughts

I was completely exhausted by the end of the day, but my heart and mind felt extremely full of all the beautiful sights that I have seen! Even if you can’t make it to all of these destinations, I would start with your favorite park, leisurely enjoy some wonderful food, then end your night at Toji Temple for an unforgettable experience. I will be publishing the second part of this article with my next top recommended sakura locations, so please look forward to it!

Exploring Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple: Saihoji

Over the last three days I have been backpacking around Kyoto for the purpose of seeing the sakura in full bloom and capturing them on camera. Having witnessed enough pink petals to last me the rest of the year, on my final day of the trip I decided to take a bus deep into Arashiyama to see the lush green moss garden of Saihoji, also known as “Kokedera”. I have ventured to Arashiyama at least three times in the past to see the bamboo forest and go hiking around Oi River, but I never knew that this place existed until one of my coworkers told me about a mysterious temple that only accepted reservations by postcard. Since I am a curious adventurer, I mailed a paid reply postcard addressed to Saihoji a week before my departure with my requested visiting time and received a written response welcoming me on March 31st, 2021. It is recommended to visit during the summer season when the moss looks its fullest by absorbing the most sunlight and rain, but Saihoji is open year-round to those who make a reservation. I was lucky enough to see the sakura outside of it at full bloom because I came at the end of March!

Getting to Saihoji & Reservation Process

Saihoji is actually quite easy to reach from Kyoto Station. The 73 and 83 buses are almost a straight shot there and take around 55 minutes to reach the Kokedera Bus Stop. The bus only costs 230 yen so I would recommend it over the train route which requires multiple transfers and is more expensive.

You can make a reservation for Saihoji one week ~ one month in advance. Usually they will ask you to enter between 10am to 12pm. If you live in Japan you can buy a paid reply postcard at any post office and mail it directly from there. You can write in either English or Japanese. Please note that garden is sometimes closed during times of the year for maintenance. For detailed instructions on how to fill out your postcard, please see the official admission page. If you live overseas, I recommend mailing it from your accommodation once you arrive to Japan as opposed to going through a foreign booking agency because it may cost double the price.

I found it ironic that the temple has an official Instagram account that updates frequently but still only accepts reservations via postcard. That is Japan in a nutshell for you!

Admission Fee: 3000 yen

This is more expensive than other temples in Japan, but the maintenance of the moss garden takes quite a lot of effort so I would say the money is worth it. This temple is extremely rare so I would recommend it to those who have been to Kyoto before and are looking for a more unique experience. You will also get a postcard and a sheet with kanji you can trace and offer as prayer. Though I am not religious, I enjoyed learning about the customs of Saihoji. I spent about 45 minutes here and was satisfied with what I saw.

Exploring the Moss Garden

Once you enter through Saihoji’s main entrance, you will immediately see the main temple and a small stone garden ahead. After paying your respects to the temple, the gate to the moss garden is simply a stone’s throw away. As you walk around you will discover a beautiful pond, tiny bridges to small islets, and the greenest moss that you have ever seen:

Seeing the reflection of the moss on the pond was my favorite part. Though areas were roped off to preserve the garden, there still was a lot to explore. Apparently Saihoji’s innovative design later influenced the layout of the Ginkakuji so this temple really has a lot going for it.

Here is a short video I took while trekking on the stone path around the moss garden:

I definitely felt relaxed and achieved total zen during this journey, but afterwards I headed back to central Arashiyama for some food because I was starving!

Recommended Food in Arashiyama

Since yuba (tofu skin) is extremely famous in this area, I decided to try to yuba rice set at Saga Tofu Ine. This meal was completely vegan and tasted even better than the yuba that I tried in Nikko! I also stopped by the Miffy Sakura Kitchen for dessert. This place was so popular that only the Danish and sakura cube bread were available when I arrived, but both of them were delicious and the little bunny shape was so adorable. I definitely want to come here outside of sakura season when it is less crowded!

Please look forward to my next two posts on the highlights of sakura season in Kyoto! I still have one more to publish on Nagoya too… It sure feels good to be busy traveling again!

Dancing inside of Japan’s Largest Kaleidoscope (Nagoya, Japan)

It’s been quite a long time since I last paid visit to Nagoya—one of the most charming cities in Japan as I see it—but with the emergency state now lifted in several prefectures outside of Tokyo and the sakura in bloom, I figured last weekend would be the ideal time to visit. One museum that I’ve had my eye on for quite a long time is the Mikawakougei Glass Art Museum that houses Japan’s largest kaleidoscope. This museum is roughly an hour and a half outside of Nagoya city and is comparably small in size to other art galleries, but the vivid colors of stained glass and the wondrous kaleidoscope that shows the origins of the universe made it worth the journey.

In year 2000 this kaleidoscope, called “Sphere”, even held the Guinness World Record for the largest kaleidoscope in the world. Though others have surpassed it now, it is still the largest kaleidoscope in Japan and walking inside of it creates a euphoric sensation that I have never felt before. In addition to the kaleidoscope, there are many other fantasy themed glass works that you can enjoy. One of my favorites was an army of frogs on a record player that mimicked a swimming animation when you hit a switch. This place definitely had an air of mystery to it and it was fun to watch other visitors’ reactions as I walked through. There are many different concepts that you could take away from this place, but the theme that I thought was most prominent was “things aren’t always what they seem”.

Entering the kaleidoscope is quite an unforgettable experience because it plays an animation that simulates the big bang and then turns into a series of bright psychedelic colors that reflects off of all surfaces. During this time your body will appear completely silhouetted against the neon glass making it the perfect photo opp. Your time inside of the kaleidoscope is limited, but you can keep lining up until you are satisfied with your photos. I think I entered it around 3 times and the wait time was only around 5-10 minutes each time. I even made a short dance video of it! Que the Persona Dancing All Night music because a new character has been unlocked (the song I actually used in this video was Point by Perfume):

Since it was hard to predict the lighting prior to visiting, the video quality isn’t the best but I will never forget the sensation of dancing inside of Japan’s largest kaleidoscope to one of my favorite songs! I look forward to seeing what other photos and videos people take because it truly feels like a theater in here.

Directions

From Meitetsu Nagoya Station, take the Meitetsu-Nagoya Line Express to Nishioguchi Station then wait for the Rokumangoku Kururin Bus 4 that will take you directly to the museum. You can also take a taxi from the station if you do not wish to wait for the bus. This journey takes roughly an hour and a half but only costs 1010 yen.

The entrance fee is only 700 yen which is a deal for what you can experience. This is way cheaper than what I am normally used to paying for a museum!

Address: Togo-5 Tomiyamacho, Nishio, Aichi 444-0326

Feasting on Eel for Dinner

After experiencing some amazing visuals inside of Japan’s largest kaleidoscope, I decided to meet my Japanese friend in central Nagoya for some mouthwatering eel. I had forgotten that besides Shizuoka, Nagoya is also extremely famous in Japan for its freshwater eel. According to my friend who is a local, the eels in Shizuoka have more of a light and fluffy texture while the eels in Nagoya are more charred. After tasting both, I can happily say that each cooking style has its merits. I wasn’t sure if I would like the thoroughly cooked Nagoya eel at first, but when paired with a fluffy omelette on rice the taste is out of this world! The eel and egg are best eaten together because not only do their textures balance, but their flavors do too!

The restaurant we chose to eat at was Unagi Kashiwa Nanatsuboshi near Issha Station, but you can find a number of eel restaurants around here. This restaurant also has chicken and fish for those who are not up for trying the eel/egg combo, but I highly recommend it!

Address: 2-73, Issha, Meitou-ku, Nagoya-shi, Aichi, 465-0093

Final Thoughts

Overall this was a perfect first day back in Nagoya. Seeing a noteworthy museum + fine dining = always a win in my book. I would recommend the Glass Museum to those who have already seen most of the museums in Nagoya and are looking for something different, as it is a bit far from the city but was a pleasant ride. It feels so great to finally be traveling again!

A Huge Step Forward in Robotics for the Earth Federation of Yokohama: The RX-78F00

If you’re a fan of Mobile Suit Gundam, you’ve probably heard of the life-sized models of RX-78-2 and RX-0 Unicorn that were built and displayed in Odaiba, Japan. I was lucky enough to see both while studying abroad in Japan in 2013 and recently while living here. Though various parts of their armor can transform and become illuminated at night, they unfortunately are not advanced enough to fully move like the Gundam in the anime series can. However, thanks to cutting-edge advancements in robotics from the Earth Federation of Yokohama, a full-scale moving Gundam now stands at the Gundam Factory available for all to see as of December 19th, 2020!

Like in the original series, this Gundam (named RX-78F00) is almost the exact image of the RX-78-2 and is 59 feet tall. It even was designed with a realistic cockpit although it currently cannot be operated. However, there is hope that it will be fully implemented some day! For the time being there is a 5G pilot experience sponsored by Softbank available within the museum area called the Academy which simulates the controls from a first-person viewpoint. The Gundam performs slightly different movements every 30 ~ 60 mins depending on what time of day you arrive then returns to standby within the dock. I arrived with my friend around 13:30 on a Sunday afternoon which was perfect because we were able to watch two different movement productions. While waiting you can easily kill time at the cafe or in the Academy reading about the technology behind this amazing mobile suit.

In the video that I captured below, you can see the Gundam emerge from the dock and fully operate its arms and legs which is unbelievable for a robot of its size. As it becomes activated, its eyes flash and audio plays along with it to heighten the tension of the moment. It truly does feel like a battle is about to begin on the pier at first, but the Gundam’s movements are completely friendly and non-hostile. Think of this as a test run:

Weekday Hours: 11:30 ~ 19:30
Weekend Hours: 10:30 ~ 19:30
Admission Fee: 1650 yen for basic entry // 3300 yen for the Gundam Dock Tower*

*Tickets need to be purchased in advance from the official website, but can be purchased on the same day. I recommend buying the normal entrance ticket unless you really want to see the Gundam up close from the viewing deck. I was satisfied with what I saw with the basic admission fee.

Currently with every ticket purchase you are given a 1/200 RX-78F00 Gunpla upon entrance. How cool is that!?

Once you show your ticket at the door and proceed to enter, the Gundam is impossible to miss. The area around it is quite spacious so I never once felt like it was crowded though there were a number of people here. We were fortunate enough to come on a sunny day so the sky and the clouds were clearly visible. The sun was shining on the ocean too. This was almost better than anime! Almost. I deeply appreciated the thumbs up I got at the end of this performance:

How does it move?

In the Academy you can read various infographics on how the Gundam was built and also leave your own message on paper notes outside. Though it doesn’t use Minovsky Particles or Luna Titanium Alloy, this mobile suit is biologically structured similarly to human anatomy and utilizes the latest technology in robotics to move. I will summarize my most interesting discoveries in the passage below:

Gundam Prototypes?

Within the Academy you will also see two Gundam prototypes; or robots that helped inspire the blueprints and framework for the moving RX-78F00. The first is WABOT-1 developed by Waseda University in Japan in the 1970s, which is credited as the first robot that could naturally walk like a human. The biggest challenge of getting a robot to walk is balance, as weight must be controlled on each leg with perfect timing or else the robot will fall over. Humans naturally pick up this ability while learning to walk as babies, but programming this habit into a robot is a different story. Due to the massive size of the RX-78F00, a device called a “reducer” also known as a gearbox was used it control its movements during bipedal walking. Even though the Gundam cannot currently walk on its own using the latest technology, the fact that it can move and form various positions is a huge step forward for science.

The 2nd prototype (or inspiration) is the HRP-2 which was designed by AIST and Kawada Industries to assist humans with various work-related tasks. This robot weighs 58kg and is 154cm tall making it the same size as a human. The HRP-2 was created in 2003 and can walk on uneven terrain while maintaining its balance. It can even get back into an upright position when falling down making it an extremely advanced robot. While it is still limited in what it can do, the HRP-2 displays signs of self-awareness which is vital in the future of developing AI for robots.

So what is in store for the future of robotics?

Though it is still unclear, there are many people backing the Gundam Global Challenge and anyone is free to contribute their ideas! It’s amazing to see how much this project has advanced since the first RX-78 Gundam was built in 2009. Nearly 10 years later we have a fully moving scale Gundam in Yokohama, and perhaps we will have a hovering one by the end of this decade. The writers of Gundam ZZ’s opening song “Anime Ja Nai” knew it all along, but here is proof that Gundam is not just anime—it’s the real driving force behind the Earth Federation of Yokohama.

Souvenirs & Final Thoughts

Because no trip around the space colony is complete without souvenirs, you can find all of these Gundam goodies and more available for sale at the factory’s gift shop! Since I’ve been to the Gundam Cafe in Akihabara already, some of the merchandise was already familiar to me, but my personal favorites here were the Haro popcorn balls and “milky marrons” because they had the best aesthetic design. I also loved seeing the standalone Gundam-themed Coca Cola vending machine outside too. Like a custom paint job on a Gunpla, you gotta admire that customization. My friend and I decided to order hot Gundam lattes and split the Haro-shaped red bean bun because why not? That’s exactly what Gundam pilots would do if they visited the Gundam Factory in Yokohama between battles, and we were here for the full experience!

Overall I had much more fun here than I originally imagined learning about robotics and seeing the Gundam move perfectly in synch with the audio. I would love to come back here at night and see it illuminated too! I hope that when I next visit the RX-78F00 will have even more moves for me to see, but until then I will fondly remember this experience.

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Kofu & Senga Falls (Part 3)

After spending a beautiful afternoon in Minobu and seeing the iconic Lake Motosu plus other places that are featured in Yuru Camp, I decided I would spend my final day in Yamanashi hiking around waterfalls and trying delicious food with my friends. Yamanashi is a great getaway and each and every experience I had here was memorable. Coming during off-season definitely had its perks because there were less people around and I really became well-acquainted with the area. Seeing Mt. Fuji from so many different angles was awesome too! I made a promise to come back here in the summer and go camping for real because this trip had a real impact on my life. I am extremely grateful that the Yuru Camp anime inspired me to come here and that my friends showed me around too. I would have never discovered all of these amazing places by myself!

For the full story of this article series, please see A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1) & A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Minobu (Part 2).

Shosenkyo & Senga Falls

From Kofu we drove around 30 minutes to Shosenkyo, which is known as one of the most beautiful gorges in Japan. My favorite gorge of all time is still Takachiho in Miyazaki, but this one is quite the sight to behold too. You can tell by the pure color of the water that this park is a treasure. The trails here are very easy to navigate and you can reach one of the two main waterfalls known as the Senga Falls in a pleasant 30 minute hike. As we reached the first waterfall, we noticed a rainbow appear above the rocks where the water was falling and stood in awe until it faded. Because we were having a super lucky day, the we saw a second rainbow appear over the second waterfall too!! If you come here around 2pm and the sun is out, you may be able to see this phenomenon too:

Local Temples & Alien

The summit of Shosenkyo has many notable sightseeing points that should not be missed. The Buddha Statue adorned in colorful papers and the crystal shop with the two friendly cats were some of my favorites. There’s also a bell shrine filled with—you guessed it—bells! The wooden plaques here are also unique because they are shaped like crystals and have the kanji for wish (願) written on them. My friend collects these and this one was one of my favorites in her collection. Did I mention there’s an alien statue with its own hashtag here too? This is a scale replica from Alien Vs. Predator. The people that manage the shops up here sure are interesting people! I was blown away by the uniqueness of it all and had an amazing time hiking. I really hope that this place is featured in Yuru Camp someday.

Recommended Kofu Cafes

On our way to the falls we decided to try a cozy cafe called Camel which has a combination of breakfast and early afternoon entrees making it the ideal place for brunch. I ordered the salmon lunch set which came with bread, yogurt, and salad making it a perfectly balanced meal. They also have amazing coffee here! The white chocolate latte was something I was surprised to find on the menu but it tasted fantastic. It must have been an original blend. After our hike we stopped at a small cafe near Kofu Station called Cafe Moala which is also famous for coffee and its seasonal tarts. We were lucky that strawberries were in season because the strawberry cheesecake tarts were out of this world. Every single meal I had in Yamanashi was baked with tender care and I enjoyed every bite!

Camel Cafe Address: 1832-5 Manriki, Yamanashi, 405-0031
Cafe Moala Address: 400-0031 Yamanashi, Kofu, Marunouchi, 1 Chome−9−8 2F

Final Thoughts & Future Trips

After an extravagant afternoon of hiking, my friends dropped me off at Kofu Station and I rode back to Tokyo with many happy memories and goals in mind for the next trip. By this point I think I’ve made it clear that Yamanashi is worth traveling to just as much as Kyoto and Osaka, so please be sure to add the home of Mt. Fuji in your next trip itinerary! I plan to come back to Yamanashi in the spring to re-shoot some photos during sakura season, and also go camping by Lake Motosu in the summer. I also hope to visit more areas that the currently airing season of Yuru Camp features too!

As for my upcoming trips for the year, Aomori is currently #1 on my list because I want see the sakura festival. It is currently unknown if it will be cancelled due to the pandemic so I am waiting until April to decide. I also want to visit Okinawa again to shoot some cosplay after the 2nd emergency state ends. This trip looks more hopeful. Other than that, I hope to go to Nagoya and Kyoto later this spring to see friends and also keep my eye on music events. This week has brought a lot of hopeful news so I hope things continue to get better. Until then I will continue to watch anime and take small local trips like this to keep myself in high spirits. I thank everyone that has read my articles and wish you all well! ♥

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Minobu (Part 2)

After hiking to all of the major Mt. Fuji viewpoints spending a cozy first night in Fujiyoshida, I woke up at 9am and rode the local trains to meet my friends at Kofu Station for another Yuru Camp-inspired day. In this article I’ll be writing about Minobu, a small city in Yamanashi where the main characters of Yuru Camp go to school and spend their daily lives. Unbeknownst to me, the real life Minobu has replica of Rin’s Vino Classic scooter and many goods from the series available for sale! Even if you are not a fan of the series, there are historic temples and shrines to see in this area as well as beautiful flowers year-round. Seeing this iconic town was definitely a big highlight of the trip for me.

For the first part of this article series, please see A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1).

Getting to Kofu & Minobu

From my hotel in central Fujiyoshida, I walked to Mt. Fuji Station (that’s right—THE Mt. Fuji Station) where I rode the Thomas the Tank Engine-themed Fujikyuko Train to Otsuki Station, then took the Chuo Line to Kofu Station. I really found it hilarious how each local stop on the Fujikyuko Line had its own Thomas mascot and the seats of the train were decoratively designed with all of the characters. Now that is peak aesthetic. This journey took around 2 hours and cost less than 2500 yen. It is also very easy to reach Kofu from Tokyo by taking the Chuo line or booking a bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. However, if you want to see all of Yamanashi then you might want to stop by Fujiyoshida first like I did!

Upon reaching Kofu Station, I met up with my friends and their bright blue car named Aqua, and we decided to get lunch nearby then drive to Minobu! There is a Minobu Line Limited Express that departs from Kofu Station and reaches the city in roughly an hour, but the destinations around Minobu are better accessed by car. However, if you are going on a Yuru Camp-inspired journey like myself and don’t have access to a car, I would recommend hopping on the train because you can see Rin’s scooter right by Minobu Station! The cost of the train is less than 2000 yen and the journey will be unforgettable.

Lunch at Tree -Anthony’s Kitchen-

One of the cafes that I was most looking forward to visiting was a western-themed kitchen called Tree with a skilled chef named Anthony who traveled to Japan from the UK. My friends had previously dined here for their Christmas Anniversary dinner and the pictures of the course they posted looked heavenly! They are also good friends with the owner and seemed to know everyone around us so I appreciated the friendly atmosphere. I was also beyond excited to finally try this delicious place for myself! This restaurant has a number of vegetarian and pescatarian options so I decided to get the falafel plate, though the squid burger looked tempting too. My friends decided on a meat pie with vegetables and spaghetti, and the three of us savored our delicious meals. Totoro definitely enjoyed dining in Yamanashi Prefecture too!

Address: 〒400-0048 Yamanashi, Kofu, Kugawahoncho, 12−3 sora E

Entering Yuru Camp Heaven in Minobu

After having a wonderful meal, we drove an hour to Minobu and stumbled into Yuru Camp heaven. In the car my friend was telling me about the famous Minobu Manjuu that she wanted me to try. When we arrived at Minobu Station, Rin’s Vino scooter was sitting adjacent to that very manjuu/souvenir store that she mentioned!! After taking a dozen pictures of it, we walked into the store and were blinded by Yuru Camp goods. Shima Rin Dango, keychains, plushies, ema, office supplies, curry, and more—everything was Yuru Camp themed. Even the vending machines by the parking lot that we parked at. My biggest flex on this trip was by sweet sake for 100 yen from the Rin vending machine:

After buying a bunch of merchandise (most notably the Shima Rin plush and dango) and greatly stimulating the Yamanashi economy, we decided to walk around the station for a bit and enjoy the scenery. I bought some Minobu Manjuu that this area is famous for and they tasted fresh and delicious. Rin’s famed dango tasted amazing as well. We were happy to see that the plum blossoms were already in bloom so we stopped to take pictures there before driving the local temples and doing some hiking. I was absolutely elated from this experience because I wasn’t expecting to see so much Yuru Camp here! MISSION SUCCESS!!

Exploring Minobu’s Local Temples

Since we had quite a lot to eat, we decided to go hiking to Kuonji Temple on the base of Mt. Minobu and also see a series of shrines around the area. The climb to reach the main temple had quite a lot of stairs and reminded me of the Tiger Temple I visited in Thailand. However, the view at the top of the hill was worth the effort. I had fun wandering around and seeing the flowers that had started to bloom. The color and architecture of each temple had quite a rich variety. Some temples looked worn and had traditional wooden architecture while others had bright colors and looked almost foreign. Even though this area has not yet been featured in the series, it is a colorful place that I would recommend to people coming to Minobu for their Yuru Camp pilgrimages. My friends also informed me that this a great place for seeing sakura!

Lake Motosu

While the sun was setting over Mt. Fuji, we decided it would be a great idea to drive to lake Motosu where Rin and Nadeshiko meet in the very first episode of Yuru Camp! There are famous campsites here that I plan on going to with my friends in the summer. The purpose of this winter trip was to familiarize myself with the area so I could come back and eventually go camping at my favorite areas in the future. I think that this area is definitely the best place because it has a lot of shade and a beautiful view of Fuji. I hope to write more about Lake Motosu in the future and make some more happy memories here!

Dinner & Dessert in Kofu

After seeing the highlights of Yuru Camp in central Yamanashi, we decided to stop at two amazing restaurants on our way back to my friends’ house where I was spending the night. One was a Japanese restaurant called Sakagura-kai that had some of the freshest salmon I had ever tasted and a huge selection of Yamanashi sake. Another was a cake shop called troisieme marche near the Fuji Five Lakes that had creamy cakes that melted in your mouth. The chocolate mousse used in the baking was some of the best I have had in a while. I would happily recommend all of the places that I mentioned in this because the food was phenomenal and they had a lot of selection.

Sakagura-kai Address: 567 Kita, Yamanashi, 405-0041

troisieme marche Address: 682 Kawaguchi, Fujikawaguchiko, Minamitsuru District, Yamanashi 401-0304

Ending the Night at Hottarakashi Onsen

The final destination of the night was Hottarakashi Onsen, featured in Season 1 Episode 5 of Yuru Camp. This hot spring is absolutely heavenly in the winter and has both an indoor and outdoor bath. Unfortunately the baths are public so photography inside is prohibited, but coming here is worth it for the view of the starry sky and city lights below. I think this is the best onsen that I’ve been to besides the resort in Nagano I traveled to earlier this year. My body definitely felt healed after all of the hiking I did this day, and I was ready for another round of drinks and Smash Bros. for when we got home!

Thank you for reading the second part of my Yuru Camp-inspired adventures! The final part will detail some beautiful hiking trails and waterfalls and be published later this week. Please look forward to it~

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1)

Just west of Tokyo lies the scenic Yamanashi Prefecture—home of Mt. Fuji and its famous amusement park, Fuji-Q Highland, that holds a several world records for its thrilling roller coasters. After climbing the mountain during my first summer in Japan and visiting the theme park a few months later, I thought I had seen everything this prefecture had to offer. However, after watching the comfy camping anime Yuru Camp (localized as “Laid-Back Camp”), I realized that there were many amazing places I had overlooked. Aside from Mt. Fuji, Yamanashi has beautiful campsites by the lake, hiking trails, kind locals, and an abundance of delicious food too!

In the first season of the anime, Shima Rin, the main protagonist of Yuru Camp, explores several campsites around Fujiyoshida on her scooter and meets other interesting characters through her adventures. In later episodes she explores the surrounding prefectures of Nagano and Shizuoka which I have both traveled to for music events so seeing them featured in the anime felt nostalgic. Though she prefers traveling alone, she eventually realizes that group camping can be extremely fun and rewarding. I relate to this feeling in many ways. Through the anime I have learned a lot of random facts about Japan and discovered a number of destinations I would like to travel to which is why it is one of my favorite series. I recommend it to everyone as it is extremely relaxing to watch!

Over the past weekend I decided to plan a three day trip to Yamanashi to see some of the spots mentioned in Yuru Camp and also meet up with some friends that live near Kofu Station. I decided to spend the first day sightseeing in Fujiyoshida solo so I could get acquainted with the area (Shima Rin style), then take the local train to Kofu and see my friends the next two days. This turned out to be a phenomenal idea because I was able to cover a lot of ground with the help of a kind local and my friends who own two cars. Though it is definitely possible to see Yamanashi by local train and bus, having a car is nice to reach the hiking trails and waterfalls.

Getting to Yamanashi (Shimoyoshida Station)

Since Yamanashi is the prefecture directly west of Tokyo, there are a number of ways to travel there by both train and bus. Because I am a pretty spontaneous person, I decided to hop on the local trains around 10am because they are pretty cheap and require no reservation. I rode the Chuo Line to Takao Station, then transferred on the same line to Otsuki Station where I took the Fujikyuko Line to Shimoyoshida Station. This journey took roughly 2 hours and cost under 2400 yen. This is nothing compared to the price of taking the shinkansen to Kyoto or Osaka!

You can also look into booking a bus ticket from Fuji Express or purchase one at the Shinjuku Bus Station if you don’t want to deal with transfers. These are around the same price as the trains but may be cheaper if you book them in advance.

Kofu Station is another popular destination in Yamanashi which I will be covering in my next article. Shimoyoshida Station is closer to the Five Fuji Lakes and Fuji-Q Highland which is why I came here first. It also is a great are for viewing sakura in the spring.

Trying Curry at “Little Robot”

As I usually do my morning workout before I travel anywhere so I can enjoy my food guilt-free, I was quite peckish when I arrived at Shimoyoshida Station. I decided to walk to a vegetarian-friendly curry restaurant called Little Robot that was 8 minutes down the road. Here they have delicious Indian curry sets for both veggie and meat lovers as well as vegan desserts. I tried a vegetable lunch set that had 3 mild curries, lightly fried vegetables, and a healthy portion of yellow rice. The combination of spices here was simply amazing and it gave me the energy I needed for hiking! I also ordered the vegan coconut balls because I was curious what they tasted like. Once again, they were powdered to perfection and you could tell that they were baked with love.

The owner and waitress were super friendly and invited me to a yoga class at their restaurant that night, but unfortunately I did not have time to go. However iff I come back here in the future to see the sakura, I would love to come! Yamanashi people definitely have a reputation for being genuinely friendly which I’ll get into under my next heading…

Chureito Pagoda

Out of all the places in Fujiyoshida, the Chureito Pagoda observation deck is one of the most iconic viewpoints in the city. Unfortunately since I came here in February there were no sakura or red leaves on the tress, but during the late spring and early fall seasons this area is picture perfect. The best thing is regardless of the time of year you can get the perfect view of Fuji up here. The hike is roughly 25 mins from Fujiyoshida Station and is fortunately a leisurely one. This pagoda is located in Arakurayama Sengen Park and has several trails and gardens you can see as well.

As I was setting up my tripod to take pictures, an older Yamanashi local approached me a started a conversation with me. He asked me the usual questions I get daily like where I was from, what I like about Japan, etc., then offered to drive me around the area. Since I saw him talking with other people around me and thought he was trustworthy, I took him up on his offer because there were a number of places that I wanted to see. This wasn’t the first time I hitch-hiked around rural Japan, anyway, and I was down for the adventure.

Kaneyamano Falls

Though Kaneyamano Falls haven’t been featured in Yuru Camp yet, they were still a destination that I really wanted to check out. Luckily they are a simple 15 minute drive from the pagoda and a 3 minute walk from the parking lot. To be honest I was expecting more of a hike to reach them, but they weren’t disappointing in the slightest and I got my hiking in later. Seeing a waterfall during the winter is a beautiful experience. In February there is not as much snow in the Fujiyoshida area, but the tiny patches of it lingering around the falls made it a wonderful spot for photography.

Local Shrines

As most Japanese guides are quite fond of showing tourists their local shrines, I couldn’t turn down my driver’s enthusiastic proposal to see Kitaguchi-hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine and Arayayama Shrine. I was impressed with the beautiful pine forest that lined the entrance to Sengen Shrine. Since we came here on a quiet Friday afternoon there weren’t many people here and we could enjoy our time here in peace. Both of these shrines are close to the falls and are easily reachable by car or local bus.

Lake Yamanaka

I woke up at 6am this morning to watch episode 5 of the currently airing Yuru Camp Season 2 before I departed, and was thrilled to see that they featured Lake Yamanaka near where I booked my hotel. This scenic lake is simply a 10-15 min drive from central Fujiyoshida and is absolutely breathtaking to see. I came in the afternoon and the sun was shining creating a beautiful sparkling effect over the water. This was pure bliss.

Here is a screenshot of Lake Yamanaka the anime which accurately depicts the patches of snow that I saw around the lake:

The anime version of Lake Yamanaka.
The real thing looks almost better than anime.

In the summer I would consider camping here so I could see the beautiful sakura around this area and the Fuji Five Lakes. In the winter I would recommend staying in a hotel or ryokan because the chill is simply too cold. Please see my recommendations at the bottom of this article.

Oshino Hakkai

Oshino Hakkai is a small village with interesting architecture that is just a short 10 minute drive from the aforementioned shrines and lake. It has 8 ponds and of course a clear view of Fuji year-round making it a popular destination. Unfortunately most of the vendors were closed for the winter, but we had fun walking across the bridge and seeing the koi swim in the pond. The roofs of the houses here reminded me of Shirakawago and were fun to see. The building structure in Yamanashi is definitely more exciting than houses found in Saitama or Chiba surrounding Tokyo.

Traveling during the off-season definitely means less is open, but you have the whole place to yourself which is the best!

After doing photography at all of these destinations I was fully satisfied and politely asked to be returned to my hotel. My driver kindly bought me chocolate bread and wine from Family Mart and dropped me off. What an amazing day, and this was only the 1/3 of the entire trip!

Accommodations

There are a number of affordable ryokan and hotels in this area, but if you are a backpacker like me then I definitely recommend staying at a guest house because it has everything you need. I chose Fuji Hostel YOU and got a private twin bedroom all to myself for 3200 yen per night. This guesthouse is located between Fujiyoshida Station and Mt. Fuji Station and has plenty of restaurants and convenience stores around it so it was the perfect choice for me. I would gladly recommend it to all of my friends.

Overall, Fujiyoshida is simply remarkable because you can see Fuji from anywhere you look. You can access Fuji-Q Highland and many beautiful parks and trails while feeling extremely close to the mountain in the heart of Japan. If you are a nature enthusiast then you cannot simply pass this place up. It’s crazy that it’s taken me this long to explore this area, but better late than never. I am happy that anime inspired me to travel here.

In my next article I will be writing about Minobu and Kofu—two areas in Yamanashi that are frequently referenced in Yuru Camp. Please look forward to my continued anime-inspired adventures through Fuji Town!

Living Life the Way it’s Supposed to be Lived (Onsen Trip to Nagano, Japan)

Snow falls gently on Lake Nojiri in Nagano creating a a picturesque winter scene.

Right before the second emergency state for Tokyo and surrounding areas was declared on January 7th, a number of business owners gathered in Nagano Prefecture to discuss what would become of their once booming industry that has rapidly declined this year due to the effect of the corona virus. According to a friend of mine who owns several ski resorts and ryokan in this area, they are currently only at 1/4 capacity this year. Usually Nagano is one of the most popular areas to do winter sports because it is easily accessible by shinkansen and has many hot springs where you can spend the night. It was also where the 1998 Winter Olympics were hosted and is famous for its snow monkeys which normally draw in a number of visitors from around the world each year. According to the Foreign Press Center, Nagano has surpassed Okinawa for having the longest life expectancy in Japan of above 80 years for both men and woman. Seeing the local tourism drop in such a boisterous place is a fatal blow to the nation, but also can’t be helped in this situation.

Though this is a tough time for everyone, currently many people in Nagano are strategizing what they can to keep their businesses alive. My friend who I met through writing articles online invited me to Nagano right before signing the contract to close one of their hotels for a final celebration. This became a two day trip that was completely sponsored and I am very fortunate that I was able to travel here so spontaneously. I previously traveled to Nagano in 2018 and saw the snow monkeys as well as an indie music show in Matsumoto, but I’ve never stayed at a ryokan here. Like the ryokan in Nara that I stayed at during my last sponsored motorcycle trip, this one did not disappoint!

Getting to Nagano

From Tokyo Station, Nagano Station is only 1 hour and 20 mins away and only costs 8340 yen to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen there. This is less hassle than going all the way to Kyoto or Osaka. I was initially worried about traveling here due to heavy snowfall last weekend and almost cancelled my trip, but my friend assured me that the snow was further north by Toyama and my trains from Tokyo would not be affected. I left around 9:30am and made it to Nagano Station by 11:30am. The trip was peaceful because I mostly slept on the train and drank a cup of umeshu from Ueno for a buzz when I woke up. Since I didn’t travel during the New Year’s holiday, this was my first major trip of 2021 and it was sure a memorable one!

Lunch at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Just as I arrived to Nagano Station, my friend was waiting for me in the parking lot with their car. The temperature was definitely chilly but not as cold as I had expected. I was happy to see the vast view of the snowy mountains but was also starving. Fortunately my friend was hungry too so after exchanging quick greetings we drove to Hotel Metropolitan Nagano and had a delicious lunch set at Shinano. I ordered a balance of sashimi, rice, tempura, and vegetables and has some delicious miso soup to warm me up. I loved the decorative dishes and the wine they had on display here. Already I was proud of myself for braving through the snow and making it here because the food was worth it!

Exploring Lake Nojiri

Since our ryokan checkin time was at 15:00, we had around 3 hours to kill. We decided to drive around Lake Nojiri since it was on the way to the onsen. Though the area around Nagano Station was mostly just frosty, we were surprised to see thick layers of snow piling up just 5km away on the forest roads. Fortunately my friend had a lot of experience driving here so it was not a problem. Once we arrived at the lake, we got out of the car to do some photography. There was a beautiful island in the middle of the lake that gleamed in the gentle sunlight. There were also little log cabins in clusters on the edge of the lake. My friend informed me that this area was called “Gaijin Mura” because foreign missionaries have owned property and have lived here for over 100 years. According to Outdoor Japan, they have managed to protect the place from “bubble-era developers” so this is actually a good thing. This area already has a number of resorts so it’s refreshing to see this atmosphere. You can rent cabins here year-round which sounds like an awesome to do in the summer!

I remember a while ago one of my Japanese friends traveled to this area and called it “雪の国” on Twitter. With all of the snow flurries around I can definitely see the reference to “Snow Kingdom” in Mario Odyssey!

Arriving at Onsen Paradise (Yorozuya)

After driving around Lake Nojiri in its entirety, we arrived to our ryokan, Yorozuya, around 15:30 and immediately went to the public outdoor hot springs since they are the largest and have the best scenery. We decided to use the smaller private ones at night after dinner. I had previously looked on Booking and other Japanese sites for ryokan deals, but could have never imagined staying somewhere so beautiful. My friend actually found this deal through a local travel agency in Nagano by going there in person. All of the rooms had their own custom design and were equipped with a kotatsu (which I slept under), yukata, amenities, and premium room service. It had been half a year since I had stayed in one of these room so I was beyond excited. I will be sure to consult with Japanese travel agencies in the future because this was for sure a better place than anywhere I looked at online. I felt fully relaxed and welcome during my stay so I would rate Yorozuya 5 stars.

Address: 〒381-0401 Nagano, Shimotakai District, Yamanochi, Hirao, 3137

Dinner with a Hint of Gold

After fully relaxing at the indoor and outdoor hot springs, we sat down for our dinner at around 18:30. This wasn’t my first time going to an onsen during winter, but seeing the snow fall from sky while the steam rises up from the water was definitely a sight to behold. Plus I already had a decent buzz going on from the sake and apple wine that I ordered for our room so I was in a really good mood!

An immaculate course dinner was served with an explanation before each dish by the kind waitress and I was amazed to find that there were real flakes of gold in my food! I think the seared fish, sashimi, and mushroom hot pot were my favorites but all of these dishes tasted out of this world. Dessert was light fruit and green tea-flavored pudding. Plus another round of nihonshu requested by yours truly! And there was a tiny serve-yourself bar in the basement of the ryokan. What more could you ask for in life? The view of the snowy mountain tops from the window topped it off.

Private Onsen

Since the outdoor bath in our room was frozen due to cold temperatures, the Yorozuya staff graciously offered us a free shuttle service to a nearby onsen where we could use private baths after dinner. There we found a steamy indoor bath filled with apples and an outdoor one decorated with bamboo and an umbrella. Since these baths were completely private, photography was allowed. This was the moment I had been waiting for!!

Final Thoughts

This trip is exactly what I needed to get 2021 off to the right start and set my mind free. I did not travel during the winter holiday because many places were affected by COVID-19 and I wanted to prioritize work and saving money. I have been bummed that I still haven’t been able to travel to the Philippines or Indonesia like I had planned to last year, but this trip reminded me that it’s really important to focus on self-care and that nature can be enjoyed in its simplicity. I graciously thank all of my friends here for taking care of me because I don’t know when it will be safe to visit America again. However, I am very happy with my life now and am also close to reaching one of my major financial goals this month so I plan to continue at this pace for now. I have faith that things will get better with time and that I will be able to meet my friends and family with a smiling face one day again. In the meantime, I’ll be playing FFXIV and giving my all to my current line of work.

What does this mean for the future of small Japanese businesses though? From my personal example I found it interesting that two ryokan were working together to ensure that all facilities were available to their customers. Perhaps these businesses can continue to rely on one another and also local travel agencies to keep their businesses alive. Though I definitely noticed less people here, I did not sense a complete loss of hope. Cuts and sacrifices will need to be made in order to survive these hard times, but as this culture has demonstrated many times, perseverance can go a long way.