Exploring Narai in Kiso Valley

A rainy yet beautiful day in the mountain town of Narai.

A place that’s been on my bucket list for quite a while is Kamikochi, a beautiful hiking area nestled in the valleys of Nagano, and this year I finally had the chance to go! I was actually planning to go last year, but the main camping area was attacked by a wild bear that tore a tent to shreds and stole a camper’s curry, so unfortunately my trip was cancelled. Fortunately this year they had the bears under control and no other attacks have been reported. However, this year we encountered wild monkeys during our hike but they were extremely friendly!

I will be covering my trip to Kamikochi in two separate posts since this trip lasted two full days. On the first day I rode from Tokyo to Enzan Station to meet my friends in Yamanashi which was on the way. From there we drove to Narai in Nagano by car which was roughly two hours away. This was an extremely smart move since the weather was rainy the first day but sunny for our hiking trip on the second day.

Narai is reachable by both car and the Chuo Line making it cheaper than taking the shinkansen. If you have the chance you should definitely check this town out because it has a lot of history and delicious food!

Getting to Know Narai

After parking or getting off at the station, all of the main strip of Narai can be explored by foot. The very first thing that I noticed was the Narai Kiso Bridge that will take you over to the shops and restaurants. In the Meiji Period, Narai was a famous post town and you can see why by how easy it is to get around here. The town is extremely condensed and features a lot of antique wooden buildings and cafes that you can explore. There are small art museums, soba and teishoku restaurants, as well as a stone path that will take you to Joryuji, a temple with a painting of a dragon inside. This was actually my favorite part of the town because I wasn’t expecting to see such a beautiful mural! Narai can be explored in about 1 hour and is the perfect place to stretch your legs before making it to other destinations in Nagano.

Shirahone Onsen

Before heading to our ryokan, we decided to stop by Shirahone Onsen which is a natural sulfur hot spring located in the mountains. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Narai but was completely worth the trip! For the entire day the weather was chilly and raining, but a soak in the onsen definitely put us back in high spirits. This is probably the best onsen I’ve been to in Nagano besides the fancy resort I stayed at in January. I just appreciated how simple but highly effective it was. Natural hot springs definitely have a healing property!

Address: Azumi, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-1515
Admission Fee: 520 yen (the baths are gender segregated)

Narai Food

Since Narai is located near the river, ayu (sweet fish) are one of the most popular meals here! When I first moved to Japan, I honestly didn’t know what to think of freshwater fish but recently they have really grown on me. For lunch I had a teishoku set which included ayu, miso, tofu, and rice in the town we visited earlier. The meal was simple but I couldn’t believe how amazing it was! For dinner we drove to a restaurant called Mominoki where I had vegetables with miso, another grilled ayu, and some delicious caramel and azuki ice cream topped with jelly cubes. I mentioned this in my last Nagano article, but the people here have the longest life span in Japan and you can easily see why. This prefecture is filled with onsen and beautiful nature and has wonderful food too! There are a lot of options for both meat lovers and vegetarians too.

Lodge Fumoto

After a full day of hiking, food, and hot springs, we decided to spend the night at Lodge Fumoto. Unbeknownst to us, we were the only 3 people staying that weekend so it was the ultimate party! The reason for that is a lot of buses to Kamikochi have reduced service due to the pandemic and you really need a car to get around. The hotel, or “lodge” is really no frills and has limited amenities but it has amazing hot springs. There is a shared indoor bath and a private outdoor one you can freely reserve. You can tell by the sulfur debris that sticks to the wood that these hot springs are legit and the surrounding outdoor scenery is absolutely breathtaking. I had an amazing stay here and am happy that we didn’t go camping so we could avoid the rain. The rooms here are around 6000 yen which is average for most ryokan too.

Thank you for reading the first part of my summer Nagano adventure! In my next article I will be writing about how we hiked through the entirety of Kamikochi and met the monkeys. Now is a really good time to travel here because there are far less people than usual!

Exploring a Kyoto with no People

A sunny day in the deserted Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.

Due to the nature of my job, I sometimes spontaneously find myself with consecutive days off so I try to take advantage of it by going on as many trips as possible. Since I had some web design clients to see in Nagoya, I decided to stop there first then make my way to Kyoto on a Tuesday morning so I could experience it with minimal tourism—the complete opposite of my cherry blossom trip in March! Though I thoroughly enjoyed my last trip to Kyoto because I was able to see the full moon with fully blooming sakura, this time I was able to see Arashiyama’s iconic bamboo forest more deserted than I had ever seen it before as well as hike to Daihikaku. If you want to travel throughout Kyoto without the interruption of tourists, then now is definitely the time! During my two day trip I spent a lot of time reflecting on myself and my recent projects which was very beneficial to developing my future goals for this year. I also managed to go to some nice cafes I didn’t have the chance to visit last time and snag a Miffy omelette sandwich from the Sakura Kitchen! Even though I’ve been to Arashiyama over 5 times, this view still amazes me:

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest Path

The path to Arashiyama’s bamboo forest is usually always bustling with tourists, food vendors, and rickshaw drivers desperately trying to get your business, but last Tuesday it was practically vacant. I passed by a few old Japanese people on their way to the onsen, but the normally crowded paths were empty and I was able to capture some amazing photos with the sun peaking out of the bamboo stalks. The dream Japan aesthetic.

Witnessing emptiness of Arashiyama made me feel both lucky and melancholy. Seeing it in this state is a rare opportunity indeed, but it also felt like a ghost town. I hurt for all of the small businesses struck by the effects of the pandemic. Fortunately my favorite clubs, bars, and venues have all been saved by online fundraisers but I worry for the lesser known places that heavily rely on tourism. I hope my small contribution of buying food from local restaurants and writing about them can help in some way!

Another place I love walking through is the Kimono Forest near Saga Arashiyama Station! I remember the first time I saw it I was completely amazed. The colorful patterns and artistic water fountain really stand out and are extremely inspiring to me. Sadly I didn’t have time to rent a kimono this time, but I hope to rent one and do a photo shoot during my next trip here!

Cafe Style Resort Saganoyu: The Onsen Cafe

One of my coworkers posted about a lovely cafe in Arashiyama that had the same interior decor that you would find at a local hot spring, so I just had to go and see it for myself! Saganoyu is not only famous for its one of a kind onsen decor, but also for its pasta dishes and pancakes. I decided to order the trademark pancakes with the onsen insignia because that was the most aesthetic dish on the menu. The pancakes were served up American style with less fluffiness and more substance which I liked. Sometimes the souffle-styled pancakes just have too much air in them but these were extremely filling. While I waited for my order I decided to walk around the cafe and admire all of the detail that was put into it. I loved the mirrors and little shower heads attached to the wall as well as the vintage shoe locker! They also had some really good chocolates that look like gold pieces of soap. Definitely come here if you are looking for a fun and creative atmosphere!

Address: 4-3 Sagatenryuji Imahoricho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8366

Hiking to Daihikaku

During my first ever trip to Arashiyama nearly 5 years ago, I hiked to the spot with cherry blossoms and noticed a mysterious hut with bright awnings standing out across the river. At first I thought it was perhaps someone’s house as people own property in the mountains here, but during my last trip I Googled it and found out it was a temple called Daihikaku. Last week I finally made the 20 minute trek up the mountain to see it in person for myself and I can happily say that the view was worth it. From the windows you can see the Oi River and the beautiful mountains that surround Kyoto. Being up close to the colorful flags flapping in the wind felt surreal because I had previously only seen them from the opposite side. The temple also is unmanned giving it a feeling of solitude. I can proudly say I have hiked up both sides of Arashiyama now!

What makes this temple even more meme-worthy is that it has its own official manga you can read on your way up. The page I zoomed into almost completely sums up my initial experience here.

The expression of the girl who turns around and notices the mysterious temple peaking out of the forest was exactly the same as mine when I first traveled to Arashiyama many years ago. Even now sometimes it’s sometimes easy to forget that this temple exists, but when I remember it I always feel happy. ☺️

If you have the time and energy, consider seeing Daihikaku from both sides of the river because the views are unique and change based on the season. The fall is usually the best time of year to go because you can see the bright red leaves contrast against the river.

Address: 62 Arashiyama Nakaoshitacho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-0004
Entrance Fee: 400 yen

Accommodation

Every time I go to Kyoto, I like to try a new city hotel by the Kawaramachi River so I can drink by it at night and gaze at the stars. This time I stayed at Hotel Resol Trinity, which is an upgrade of the hotel that I stayed at on my birthday because it has its own public onsen and nicer rooms. Since I came randomly on a weekday I only paid 4300 yen for my “Hollywood” style room. I slept here for almost 10 hours because I was exhausted from hiking and work so I would give it a 10/10 for its comfort. You can definitely find cheaper options but this is first class for the discounted price.

Address: 604-0943 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Kamihakusancho, 249

Visiting Ureshino, the Cheerful Hot Spring Town from Zombieland Saga

Private teacup baths at Yuzennoyado Toukai.

After a full day of doing some urban exploring of abandoned onsen and aesthetic museums in Takeo, I decided to take a bus to my onsen resort in Ureshino, Saga for some well-deserved relaxation. I chose to stay in Ureshino due to a friend’s recommendation of a famous local onsen with private teacup baths and a beautiful outdoor garden. Unbeknownst to me at the time I made the booking, Ureshino is featured in episode 4 of Zombieland Saga and also has the real life Cafe Moka that serves up amazing sweets just like in the anime! In this article I will be reviewing my stay in Ureshino and will also compare the real locations to their anime counterparts.

Morning Run in Ureshino

My favorite way to start the day in a new place is to go for a middle-distance run so I can get better acquainted with the area. Usually if there is a river or a shrine that I see on the map, I try to run in that direction so I will find the best scenery. Just mere minutes after crossing Ureshino Bridge I came across this beautiful river with stepping stones and multiple waterfalls. This area is actually featured in the first ending song of Zombieland Saga and is within 1km of the main resort area of Ureshino. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was! It almost felt like I had been spirited away to another world. You can follow this river trail for quite a long time and it will lead to more luscious nature. It’s no wonder why people come here to escape their busy lives.

Cafe Moka

While referencing the Zombieland Saga Wiki for the best nearby locations to visit, I noticed the famous sweets cafe in episode 4 was just 6 mins walking from my resort. What crazy luck was that! Cafe Moka has some of the best parfaits in Saga and also serves Japanese dishes like curry too. With its cozy atmosphere and welcoming staff, I can see why it was popular even before Zombieland Saga was released! Now that the 2nd season is airing, there is a bit of a wait to get in, but fortunately I was able to get a table. The first time I walked in the owner’s younger daughter came out to greet me, but then immediately noticed I was foreign and was at a loss for words—she just blinked at me and stared. I thought that her reaction was one of the best that I have gotten in a while! After traveling all over the world these kinds of things don’t even phase me any more, but I will admit it was funny. The owner sincerely apologized that the cafe was full but I decided to use the hot springs at my resort and come back. The second time I arrived an hour before the cafe closed and was seated, and it proved to be well worth the wait!

Though there were a lot of delicious sweets on the menu, I decided to go with the banana caramel parfait because I love Kyushu bananas. The whole entire time I was here I felt complete euphoria. There were posters and plaques autographed by the voice actors and MAPPA animators as well as figures galore. The owner brought out several notebooks with messages from them as well while I waited! As she served me my parfait, she asked me what zombie girl was my favorite and I had to say Saki.  I’d be friends with all the girls in Zombieland Saga, but Saki has the funniest and most unique personality. She has really interesting taste in everything from fashion to men and would for sure be the best girl to drink with. She always has the best punch lines too!

After spending around an hour here soaking up the full otaku culture, I decided to head back to my resort. The owner handed me the official Zombieland Saga Stamp Rally Map with the custom Cafe Moka stamp on it. Though making it to all of these locations without a car would be difficult, it could be done in approximately 4-5 days and is a good reference for even non-anime fans because it contains the most exciting highlights of Saga:

Official Zombieland Saga Stamp Rally Map

Main Points of Interest in Ureshino from Zombieland Saga

Here are the main points of interest that you can see on foot in Ureshino. All of these locations from Zombieland Saga took less than 15 minutes to see!

It’s absolutely mind-boggling to think that the artists and animators caught so many intricate details of this town, especially the pattern of the stray cats! Additionally I thought the legend of going to Toyotamahime Shrine and touching the white catfish to have beautiful skin was made up as part of the story, but it’s actually true! Visiting the shrine was so much fun and I would have never known about it if it wasn’t for this amazing series. I was happy to discover the foot baths and design of the bridge and resorts in the anime perfectly capture the essence of the real life Ureshino too. The overall atmosphere of Ureshino was very lively despite the pandemic and people were out and about at night wearing yukata. Fortunately Saga has not entered an emergency state so you can enjoy most of the scenery uninterrupted. It has a magic quality that you just simply can’t find in the city, so please visit if you get the chance!

Accommodation

Though there are a lot of wonderful onsen to stay at in Ureshino, I chose Yuzennoyado Toukai thanks to its beautiful teacup bath design. Staying here one night costs around 6000 yen and is well worth the price. The room that I stayed in by myself was spacious, quiet, and very clean. There are two different bathsa large shared one and the private outdoor teacups that you can reserve by calling the lobby. I recommend trying them both because they provide unique experiences that will relax and heal your body. There were ping pong tables in the lobby just like in anime too. It was almost too good to be true! I cherish my experience here because it brought me closer to nature and also gave me the chance to relive scenes from Zombieland Saga.

Thank you for reading about my experience in Ureshino! If you have any questions about Saga, please feel free to ask me. I will be writing one more article about Karatsu in this series. Please look forward to reading it later this weekend!

Urban Exploring in Takeo, Saga

An abandoned onsen exhibition reflecting the results of the Third Impact in Saga, Japan.

After having a fabulous day in Fukuoka exploring local shrines and temples, seeing the sunset on the beach, and relaxing at my onsen hotel, I decided to travel to Saga on the second day of my trip in Kyushu to do some urban exploring. When I was first researching prefectures in Japan years, I didn’t think Saga was that interesting compared to the others because it is extremely rural and is mostly known for its farmland and onsen. However, thanks to the hit anime series known as Zombieland Saga, a number of people have been flocking to Saga to visit real life places from the anime. This has greatly helped the economy of Saga during the pandemic and also brought light to many amazing places that were previously overshadowed. In this article I will be focusing on writing about urban exploring in Takeo Onsen and surrounding museums.

To reach Saga you can either fly to Saga Airport or take a train from Fukuoka like I did. Hakata Station to Takeo Onsen Station is about a one hour trip and costs 3100 yen. Though Saga is rural, I was able to use a combination of local buses, trains, and taxis to get around. Please look forward to reading about my adventure!

Exploring Abandoned Onsen

The first stop on my Saga itinerary was Takeo Onsen, which is small town of hot springs including a museum of abandoned ones making it ideal for urban exploring. This hot spring area is over 1300 years old making it a celebrated part of Saga’s history because many famous people have visited here. The museum is about a 15 minute walk from the station and is free to enter. It was really surreal entering a hot spring without water, but fortunately there were some non-abandoned hot springs nearby that you can relax at for the day. Plus the two story museum and vermillion gate are really worth checking out because they have interesting architecture. This area was actually featured in a manga splash page for Zombieland Saga. Interestingly the convenience stores in this area appear a solid color of brown instead of their original colors. My theory is this occurs because they have already been zombie-fied!

Takeo Shrine

Right down the street from the Takeo Onsen main area is Takeo Shrine! I decided to stop by and pay my respects. The pastel colors of this shrine really surprised me because they are really unusual but very pretty. I was happy to witness architecture of so many colors here!

Minefuyama Rakuen Lantern Exhibit

Despite being a rural part of Kyushi, Saga actually has quite the selection of interesting museums! The one that I was most looking forward to visiting was Mifuneyama Rakuen which you can actually walk to from Takeo Onsen. This museum has multiple rooms with cutting edge LED displays by teamLab and a beautiful outdoor garden as well. The first room that you enter has hundreds of flashing lanterns making it a popular destination for photographers. However, since I came here after Golden Week had already ended, there were hardly any people here at all! I had so much fun shooting here with my tripod. The staff was very lax here and let me set it up without any issue. That is one of the pros of traveling around rural places!

Minefuyama Rakuen Onsen Exhibition

The 2nd floor of Mifuneyama Rakuen had multiple rooms with hot springs and highly aesthetic projections. The room with the protruding pillars from the ground reminded me of a post-apocalyptic scene from Neon Genesis Evangelion and it was awesome! You cannot enter the baths here but walking around was an adventure initself. It felt surreal to be in a familiar scene with this abstract sci-fi theme going on:

Overall this museum takes about an hour to see and is my top pick in Kyushu thanks to all of these animated displays. The cheap entrance fee makes it more than worth it too! Unfortunately I did not have much time to see the outdoor area, but the museum featured in the next section fortunately had a lot of scenery!

Entrance Fee: 800 yen

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町武雄4100

Yoko Museum

My last stop of the day was the Yoko Museum which is about 10 mins of walking from Mifuneyama Rakuen. This museum has a beautiful outdoor garden with a red bridge that takes you across a river with several waterfalls. There are also some terraced crops that slightly resemble the famous rice fields in the western Saga. If you continue to follow the main path you’ll find a lookout point that you can climb up to. The indoor part of the museum has famous pottery, but since I have already been to many museums in Japan I opted for just the outdoor part. During certain times of the year there are illuminations, but there weren’t any going on when I arrived at this time. I explored all of this museum in about 40 mins and was very happy with what I saw. The flowers that bloom in Saga sure are pretty and this garden is arranged beautifully!

Entrance Fee: 600 for the garden only and 1000 for the garden & museum

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町4075-3

Breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen

Before embarking on this long aesthetic journey through Saga, I decided to eat a hearty breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen in Fukuoka near Tenjin Station where I was staying. The restaurant has some of the best organic food on the island. The breakfast set I had with fish, salad, soup, vegetables, and brown rice gave me enough energy for almost the whole entire day. I also tried their strawberry banana yogurt and granola dish for dessert and appreciated the heart-shaped fruit. Before setting off to Saga I highly recommend eating a nutritious meal here! I will be talking more about Saga cuisine in my next two articles.

Address: 810-0021 Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Imaizumi, 1 Chome−1−4 石松ビル1F

Thank you for reading the first part of my Saga article series! In my next article I will be talking about Ureshino, which is a popular hot springs resort area featured in the Zombieland Saga anime. Please look forward to it!

A Flawless Day in Fukuoka

Sunset at Momichi Park in Fukuoka, Japan.

Given the nature of my project-based job plus the economic effects of the pandemic, this Golden Week I found myself with more free time than ever before. After returning to Tokyo from Okinawa and checking my work email, I learned that I had three extra days to kill before I returned to the office. Not wanting to waste this newfound vacation time, I looked at places on my travel destination list and decided that Fukuoka and Saga had the best weather so I spontaneously booked yet another plane ticket to Kyushu from Narita Airport for around 17000 yen. By this time most people had returned to Tokyo from their long holiday so tickets were slightly cheaper than they were the previous week.

I left at 8:45am and landed at FUK Airport (Fukuoka Airport’s brilliant abbreviation) at 10:50am. One of my friends texted me and told me they didn’t know anyone else who travels as much as me and it really is true. I am highly determined to make the most of my life here and explore lesser known regions of Japan so I can better understand the culture of this country. I also love the thrill of going somewhere new and trying delicious food on my journeys so I can recommend it to others. I am happy to say that this trip was another huge success! Fukuoka is a tropical city with beaches, temples, amazing hot pot, and plenty of memes. This was my sixth time going after over 2 years and fortunately there still was a lot to see!

Hedgehog Pastries for Breakfast

My first stop from the airport was a small bakery called Patisserie Pas De Deux which is uber famous for its adorable hedgehog-shaped pastries. They also make custom cakes and and cute cookies that resemble animals. The first morning that I went they were already sold out of their hedgehog pastries so the owner profusely apologized for me and asked if I wanted to reserve one the next day. I filled out a form and was able to try one the following morning as soon as the store opened. Inside of the pastry was custard cream that tasted way better than anything that you could buy in stores so it was definitely worth the wait. I also bought a hedgehog cookie because it was irresistibly cute. If you come here, be sure to arrive in the morning so you have first pick of the pastries!

Address: 2 Chome-1-38 Takamiya, Minami Ward, Fukuoka, 815-0083

FUK Coffee

The second stop on my itinerary was a local coffee shop that was geniusly named FUK Coffee. Not only is the name hilarious but the mango smoothie I had was above the average quality of smoothies that I had tried in Japan. I’ve been to Fukuoka around five times but this was the first time that I had ever seen it. But I had to admit the concept was truly original and unique. Look at these guys, capitalizing on memes! My friend who lives in Kyushu came here to meet me and ordered their latte. We were both giggling at the artistic latte art they used all day. Definitely come here for the laughs—it’s a great way to kill time and meet up with friends since it’s near Tenjin Station. This is also one of the few places in the world where you can say “FUK” and have it be non-offensive.

Address: 3 Chome-21-17 Haruyoshi, Chuo Ward, Fukuoka, 810-0003

Tochoji Temple

After our hilarious meme coffee, my friend drove me to a local temple called Tochoji in central Fukuoka. At first glance I already loved the contrast of the bright red pagoda against the city skyscrapers. Once entering the temple, you can go through a pitch black tunnel underneath large golden Buddha that will lead you to enlightenment. The journey is really fun because you lose all of your senses in the darkness, but you can hold on to the walls to guide yourself. As I emerged I was greeted with bright sunlight arising from the parting clouds, so I definitely felt the after effects! I would happily recommend this temple to all of my friends because even if you’re not religious, exploring it is quite the adventure.

Address: 2-4 Gokushomachi, Hakata Ward, Fukuoka, 812-0037

Atago Shrine

After finding enlightenment, we decided to go to Atago Shrine because it has a great view of the skyline of Fukuoka. The climb to the top only took around 5 mins but there was so much to see! We took pictures of the mountains and the ocean as well as the tall city buildings that really didn’t look so big from up here. Near the shrine is a tea house that serves delicious sweets. I ordered the deluxe mochi set with macha while my friend tried their giant dango. We both couldn’t believe how delicious it was! Outside of the tea house was a forested garden that had smooth green leaves. Once again I was blown away by the architecture of the city—it really did feel limitless!

The best thing about Fukuoka is that even without a car you can take local buses around to see all of these aesthetic shrines. Everything is extremely reachable and you can relax and enjoy your day without being strict with time.

Address: 2 Chome-7-1 Atago, Nishi Ward, Fukuoka, 819-0015

Lunch at Bistro Shirokuma

Continuing the theme of animal-shaped meals, we stopped at Bistro Shirokuma for lunch. Their most famous dish is their Shirokuma Pasta which features creamy Italian carbonara topped with fluffy bear-shaped foamy cheese. It was almost a cheese overload compared to my regular diet but fortunately wasn’t too heavy on the stomach. Since I wasn’t driving, I also ordered a high ball. This restaurant was cheaper compared to ones found in central Tokyo and I was definitely taking advantage of it!

Address: 810-0023 Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Kego, 1 Chome−15−50 アークタウン 2F

Watching the Sunset at Momichi Seaside Park

After saying goodbye to my friend who lives a bit outside of the city, I decided to spend the remainder of my evening at Momichi Seaside Park. Similar to Aoshima in Miyazaki where I traveled to a year ago, this beach is one of the best places to watch the sunset on central Kyushu Island. When I arrived there were a number of people playing volleyball and drinking on the benches near the beach. I was happy to see that even amidst the pandemic that the island culture I loved so much here was still alive. While sipping on some sparkling sake I bought at Bic Camera, I watched the sky turn vivid colors and Fukuoka Tower light up. This was truly the life. I will never grow tired of watching the sunset on the beach in Asia!

Accommodation

In my previous trips to Fukuoka I always stayed with my friends in Hakata, but since they sold their house I decided to try a city hotel with an onsen so I could fully relax This time I stayed at Candeo Hotels Fukuoka Tenjin because it was central to the city and looked like it had amazing facilities. Every time I went to the onsen I had it completely to myself so I was lucky. This hotel is also close to the bars and night club district so the location is pretty amazing too. Rooms are around 4200 yen per night, but you can find way cheaper options around. Some hostels in Fukuoka are less than 1500 yen so I would recommend looking for what suits you best because there are a lot of places to choose from.

Thank you for reading the first article in my new Kyushu series! In my next article I will talk about exploring Saga from the hit anime series Zombieland Saga! Please stay tuned for more updates.

Final Day in Miyakojima: Exploring Irabu Island & The Great Bike Crisis that was Averted

A scene from Non Non Biyori: Okinawa e Ikukoto ni Natta recreated on Irabu Island.

After a sublime day of scuba diving on the best beaches in Miyakojima and exploring the pumpkin limestone cave, I was about ready to wrap up my Okinawa trip and fly back to Tokyo. However, before my flight departed at 4pm that day, there was one more island I wanted to see early in the morning. Irabu Island is connected to the mainland of Miyakojima by the appropriately named Irabu Bridge and can be reached by car, bike, and even on foot! It is roughly 11km from the main resort strip of Miyakojima and is extremely rural but has some beautiful beaches, cafes, and resorts to see. I figured it would be the perfect final destination to end my trip and reflect for a bit before taking the 5 hour plane ride home.

I woke up early, rented a regular road bike from my hotel, and set off for Irabu Island! During my morning run I had the chance to see the sun rise and it looked absolutely stunning on Painagama Beach. The blue colors of the ocean that surrounded Irabu were also impressive as I crossed the bridge. I had flashbacks to the Grand Tethe’alla Bridge from Tales of Symphonia as I made my way to the other side. This almost didn’t feel real!

It took me about 50 mins to bike to the main beach of Irabu called “Day’s Beach” but the view was definitely worth it. It looked just like the beach in one of my favorite anime movies Non Non Biyori: Okinawa e Ikukoto ni Natta. Even though this was slightly different from the setting of the movie, it still had the same vibe:

Here are some more photos that I took of Day’s Beach. If I had more time I would have went swimming! I noticed that there were a lot of farms and plantations here. One of the highlights of biking was stopping to see all of the tropical plants on the way:

After walking along the beach and feeling refreshed, I decided to stop by a nearby restaurant called Blue Turtle. Here I tried their signature rum cocktail called the “Blue Turtle”, ate some fried sweet potato and octopus, and drank a dragon fruit smoothie for dessert. The food here was top notch and the view of the beach was even better. Despite not being able to see any turtles during my scuba trip the previous day, this feast sort of made up for it.

Finally feeling fulfilled that I accomplished everything on my itinerary, I went to unlock my bike and set off back off across the bridge. But that is when disaster struck—as I started riding back I noticed I had a flat tire despite not feeling it at all before. I’ve ridden around Tokyo with flat tires on my bike when I’ve been short on time, but having this happen on a rural island is less than ideal. I thought about biking the 11km back or even walking if I had to since I had enough time, but I instead decided to do the smart thing and stop at the nearest resort and ask for help. Fortunately the staff at Azure Villa were more than willing to help me!

Initially I thought it was just a flat tire (パンクしたタイヤ) but after inspection the staff confirmed the tube was damaged too. This is the danger of renting bikes on rural islands—you truly never know what you’re getting and sometimes weather conditions can hasten these damages. Fortunately the staff drove me 11km back to my resort for free (because I don’t think most Okinawan taxis could carry this bike) and were super empathetic. I offered to pay them the normal taxi fee but they refused me. I couldn’t have asked for more kindness than what they had showed me. Okinawan culture is truly amazing!

When we arrived back at my resort on the mainland, Hotel Locus, the staff there was also super kind to me, gave me my bike rental money back, and added 様 to my name which was the greatest honor. I was able to make my flight with time to spare and saw everything on my itinerary, but if this would have happened the first day it would have killed the vibe a bit. However, no adventure is complete without some obstacle, and we all handled this in the best way possible so I’m proud.

Thank you to everyone that has kept up with my Okinawa article series! I am so happy I was able to make this trip safely in between emergency states and have such a phenomenal time. In the future I will be writing a spin-off series of my previous trip to Okinawa in 2016 mentioning all of the heritage spots I visited. This weekend I will be going to Kyushu to have some more island adventures, but they will be more a lot more relaxed than this. Life is never calm for an adventurer but I am loving every second of this life!

Luscious Beaches and Juicy Bananas at Miyakojima, Okinawa

Sunayama Beach at sunset at Miyakojima.

After I had my fill of the mainland of Okinawa staying at the Sanrio Resort and wandering through aesthetic neon paradise in Naha, I decided to fly to Miyakojima for the purpose of exploring luscious beaches and going scuba diving. Flights from Naha to Miyakojima cost just over 10000 yen roundtrip and take around 50 minutes to reach the airport. Since this island is extremely remote and located closer to Taiwan than the main islands of Japan, I think the price is extremely worth it. You can also take ferries to this island, but since the previous two days had a gale advisory I didn’t want to risk it being cancelled. Fortunately my flight was extremely smooth and I had an entire row all to myself! I was welcomed to Miyako with sunny weather and was able to explore the entire area around Painagama Beach where my resort was located. Miyako is relatively small in size and you can travel coast to coast from one end of the island to the other in just over an hour by car. Renting bikes to reach beaches is also very common.

Here are some of the best places that you can explore on the north side of the island near the airport. I will be covering over parts of the island in my future articles!

Miyako Shrine & Kamamamine Park

While waiting to checkin to my hotel, I decided to see some of the local attractions on foot. My first destination was Miyako Shrine, which is just a short 15 minute taxi ride from the airport. The shrine is small and humble but I enjoyed visiting it while feeling the ocean breeze. The colors of the roof are unique to Ryukyuan architecture and it felt like the perfect place to begin my journey! I next walked to Kamamamine Park which was right down the road and is famous for its giant shisa playground. You can climb into the shisa’s mouth and also slide down from the top of its back. I saw kids climbing on top of its head too. I was already loving the vibe of this island because it felt extremely open and free.

Address: Shimozato Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0013
Entrance Fee: Free

Sunayama Beach

After checking into my resort, I decided to rent an ebike from the staff and bike to Sunayama Beach (accommodation details are listed at the end of this article). From the main resort strip, Sunayama Beach is about 25 mins biking. What I liked about this beach is it’s not clearly visible from the entrance—you have to climb over a sand dune to see the ocean which makes it extremely hype. Fortunately it’s just a short hike and once you see the emerald color of the waves, then the realization that you’ve arrived in paradise finally hits you! I am so happy that this was the very first beach that I visited in Miyako because it’s truly gorgeous and matched the color of my nails.

Sunayama Beach was actually quite small but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. The arch rock on the beach is famous so I took a lot of pictures around it and then jumped in the water for a nice dip. The end of April is actually a great time to go swimming in Okinawa because the sun isn’t as harsh. I really wished there were hotels on this beach so I could wake up and go swimming here, but at the same time I liked the remote and private feel it had.

Yamatouga Ruins

The Yamatouga Ruins have stunning stone architecture reminiscent of ancient times and are a historic landmark of Miyakojima. I loved exploring the lush forested area and seeing the ivory that covered the walls. This is a cool place that I actually stumbled upon during one of my morning runs. It takes about 5 mins of walking from the entrance to reach the Yamato Well that still stores water. It’s amazing to see all of the architecture on this island because it really has been preserved well throughout time.

Address: Nishinakasone-353-1 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0006

Top Dessert Picks

Unfortunately due to the pandemic a number of restaurants were closed here so I ate simple meals at my hotel, but the dessert game on this island was extremely strong. Here are my top dessert pics near the main resort area! I will be writing about other food options in my future articles.

Banana & Cake Monte Doll

While searching for dessert places, I stumbled across Monte Doll and immediately fell in love with their smiling banana peel mascot. Before this trip I went to the gym nearly three times a week so I could become strong and flex next to it. I didn’t want to let banana senpai down. The curse of trying Okinawan bananas is they are so ripe you will never want to eat the regular ones outside of the island again! I got the banana smoothie with coconut bits and the banana cream cake and both were to die for. If you come to Miyakojima, please visit this place! They all of the banana souvenirs that you could dream of too.

Address: Nishizato-7-2 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0000

Blue Booth

After all the swimming I did this day, I treated myself to two different flavors of ice cream at Painagama Blue Booth near my resort. The first I tried was sweet potato, and the second I tried was caramel brownie. I appreciated how they included sweet potato chips and banana chips in their toppings because that’s definitely something that you don’t see every day! The atmosphere of this restaurant is extremely relaxing because they have little hammock seats as well as indoor and outdoor seating. In addition to ice cream, you can order hot dogs here too! They definitely have the perfect menu for a long day at the beach.

Address: Shimozato-247-2 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0013

Accommodation

After looking at a few properties on the main resort strip of Painagama Beach, I decided to settle with Hotel Locus because it was new and had a cute outdoor pool. The cheapest rooms are around 7000 yen per night but the hotel is easily accessible from Miyako Airport, has a bicycle rental service, and wonderful amenities. There is also a rooftop where you can watch the sun set every night on the harbor. I was very impressed with my two night stay here and would recommend it to my friends because it really has everything you need.

Thank you for reading the 3rd article in my Okinawa series. In my next articles I will be talking about scuba diving and exploring Ibaru Island on Miyakojima.

Wandering through Neon Aesthetic Paradise in Naha

Lost in paradise in the infinity pool at Hotel Aqua Citta.

After an extremely fulfilling first day in Naha sipping on premium fruit cocktails and chilling at the Sanrio Resort, I planned to wander through neon aesthetic paradise at two recent attractions that had been added to the city since my last trip: Stem Resort and DMM Kariyushi Aquarium. I also wanted to hit the infinity pool at my new resort and reflect on life before flying to Miyakojima the next day.

I had a busy day ahead of me but fortunately was able to accomplish everything on my itinerary and meet many new friends in the process! If you come to Okinawa, you will never forget the friendliness of the people or the vividness of the city. I’m happy to say that day two of my trip was another brilliant success.

Stem Resort

Stem Resort is a 4 floor amusement park that just opened last year consisting of the Hitasura Kawaii Museum, a dinosaur park, a waterpark with inflatables, and a rooftop bar with hot tubs. No matter what age you are you’re bound to find something here that strikes your interest here. Given my love for neon colors, the Hitasura Kawaii Museum is what attracted me here the most. When I first walked in I was greeted by a wall of donuts and rainbow popsicles dangling from the ceiling. There was a room with a giant high heel you could sit in and watch looping BLACKPINK music videos. The lip-shaped couch in the adjacent room was definitely relaxing to sit on and the room full of lanterns made me feel like I was back at the teamLab Borderless museum. Holy nostalgia. The neon sides and donut slide were also a great touch but I think my favorite room was the final one that had a ball pit full of rainbow alpacas. I took a nap in there and replenished my MP. I am so happy I could finally experience this new museum because it’s been on my bucket list for quite a long time.

Since it was still raining this day I was unable to check out the outdoor attractions, but I was extremely satisfied with what I saw indoors. I have already been to a dinosaur park in Okayama and plan on going to the unicorn inflatable park once I can finally enter the Philippines, so the Kawaii Museum was what I was truly most interested and fortunately got a ton of pictures there. For all of my life I will never forget the ball pit full of rainbow alpacas.

Address: 901-0225 Okinawa, Tomigusuku, Toyosaki, 3-35 屋上
Entrance Fee: Depends on what you want to see but I paid 1800 yen to enter and thought the experience was worth it!

DMM Kariyushi Aquarium

Have you ever dreamed of walking through an LSD aquarium filled with jellyfish tanks? Well look no further! And believe it or not, this is just one small exhibit that makes up the DMM Kariyushi Aquarium.

Though the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium that I visited in 2016 takes the crown for being the biggest and most diverse aquarium in Japan, the DMM Aquarium combines art with underwater life and also has a rainforest area. Its creative visuals and lighting definitely enhance the experience and almost make you feel like you are part of the exhibit! There is a room where you can take off your shoes and walk on a sealed panel to view all of the fish and sting rays swimming beneath your feet. I also got to see a sloth up close for the very first time in the rainforest area, and they even had a rare species of turtle here too!

I highly recommend trying the churros at the cafe. I bought them for the cute packing because I love tiny eels. This experience was so fun and had the best jellyfish exhibit that I had ever seen. If you’re looking for an artsy aquarium that is centrally located in Naha then this is your place!

Address: 3-35 Toyosaki, Tomigusuku, Okinawa 901-0225
Entrance Fee: 2400 yen

Vegan Omurice and Falafels at Ukishima Garden

Continuing my theme of trying new vegan restaurants, I decided to stop at Ukishima Garden to try some vegan omurice stuffed with rice and vegetables and order some falafel on the side. Instead of egg they used tofu to give this dish the classic fluffy texture. It was so creative and tasted even better than the usual omurice. I think this was actually the best dish that I had on the island! It was home cooked and made with love! They also have vegan burgers and taco rice on the menu as well as organic teas and wines. Check it out if you ever get the chance because this food is top notch!

Address: 2 Chome-12-3 Matsuo, Naha, Okinawa 900-0014

Accommodation

Although I adored the Sanrio Hotel I stayed at the night before, I really wanted to stay somewhere with a pool so I chose Naha Aqua Citta which is rated as one of the top city resorts. With its beautiful infinity pool, free welcome drink tickets, and friendly atmosphere, I can definitely see why! I met so many amazing people on the rooftop bar that invited me to play drinking games because I was alone. We even ended up going to a hookah bar called Silver Ren which had the best hookah that I’ve ever smoked in Japan. People of all ages, races, and cultures were here so it was truly an international experience. The cheapest rooms are around 6800 yen per night which are more than worth it for the amenities. I would definitely stay here again just so I could mingle and meet more awesome people.

In my next article I will talk about my trip to Miyako Island! Thank you for reading and please look forward to it~

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!

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