Flying to the Fisherman’s Town of Kushiro for Birdwatching and Hiking Expeditions (Part 2)

Hiking to the base of Mt. Io where volcanic gases spew from vents.

After a lovely first evening of exploring the central streets of Kushiro and having a whole rental apartment complex to myself, the next I departed on a full day bus tour to all of the major sightseeing points of this area. The White Pirika Bus I selected for this trip runs from January – March and will take you on a journey to see rare species of birds, famous lakes and mountains, and hot springs too! I really recommend this tour because I was able to see everything I wanted and it was cheaper than renting a car. The guides only speak Japanese, but will show you the best spots for birdwatching and hiking so you know exactly where to go without wasting any time. As someone who loves photography and listening to guides to practice Japanese, this was the optimal tour for me. I would advise booking this tour at least a week in advance online because it has limited availability.

The major spots that are covered in this tour are: Tsurumidai (for viewing the cranes), Sunayu (for viewing the swans), Mt. Io, Lake Mashu, and Lake Akan Hot Springs

Afterwards you can request to be dropped of at Kushiro Station, Kushiro Airport, or your accommodation.

If you come during the warmer seasons to Kushiro, you can reserve similar buses on the Akan Bus website, but the swans and cranes rarely appear. I recommend coming here during the winter because you can do and see the most!

Tsurumidai

The very first place we stopped on our tour was Tsurumidai, which is a popular lookout spot for the Japanese Red-crowned Crane (also known as the “Japanese Tanchou”). The Red-crowned Crane is one of the largest East Asian cranes and one of the rarest species of crane in the world. This bird is said to bring good luck and is a prominent symbol in many folklore and legends. It also appears in Japan Airlines’ logo! I enjoyed watching these cranes spread their wings and honk at one another. They seemed completely unbaffled by the presence of so many humans watching them from the other side of the fence. They were a lot bigger than I had initially anticipated, and that made watching them all the more fun. After March they usually migrate to other countries such as Russia and China. I was extremely lucky to catch sight of them this year!

Sunayu

The next stop of this tour was at Sunayu, which is a hot spring that oozes out of the sand for both humans and birds! Sunayu is located on the east side of Lake Kussharo, and is a popular campsite during the warmer months. During the winter, whooper swans flock to the warm waters for comfort and a number of people come to watch them. A few years ago, a group of my Japanese friends came here for photography and one of them created this melodic track called “Whooper Song” that was inspired by the sight of the whooper swan. Since then I wanted to come to Kushiro and see the bird for myself, so I’m extremely grateful I had this opportunity!

Here are more photos I took of the beautiful whooper swans. They truly are serene:

Mt. Io

Our third and perhaps most adventurous stop was at Mt. Io, which is an active volcano in Kushiro. It is famous for erupting sulfur and volcanic gases from its vents, and has a lot of characteristic geological formations. Climbing is prohibited, but you can hike up to the fenced area and get extremely close to the vents. I watched a Japanese couple stick their hands into the fumes and was concerned they were going to get burned, but it is safe to do this at the base! I tried it myself and found that the temperature was comfortably warm; kind of like a steam sauna. You can buy eggs cooked by the steam at the souvenir shop which I highly recommend, because they are healthy and delicious!

Lake Mashu

Our next destination was a brief stop at Lake Mashu, which is a caldera lake formed by an active volcano in Akan Mashu National Park. It has been called “the clearest lake in the world” and is considered Japan’s post beautiful lake. It is also one of the deepest lakes in this country. Visitors are not allowed to go down to the lake, but can view it from multiple observatories. I was thankful to have the tour guide here to point me in the right direction of to where to take the best pictures. Its waters truly were beautiful and reflected the surrounding winter scenery.

Lake Akan Hot Springs (and Lunch)

Our last stop was at Lake Akan Hot Springs where we were given an hour of free time to do whatever we wanted. Here you can choose to ride a banana boat, rent winter sports equipment, go shopping, or bathe in a hot spring bath. If you know me, you know I love hot springs so I naturally went to the nearest one at a hotel adjacent to the bus stop. The entrance fee was only 1000 yen and it included a towel and shampoo. I had the whole outdoor bath to myself so that was a plus! It felt so good to clean up after all the hiking I did this day. I also walked around the hot spring town and looked at the little shops. I enjoyed seeing all of the wood carving places and cafes, but unfortunately not a lot of things were open. I did enjoy how private this area was though; there was hardly anyone here except for our tour group and that was nice!

Right before this stop we were given a delicious bento lunch that contained fish or meat (I chose fish), and I ordered hojicha gelato for dessert. All of the food in Hokkaido is cheap and tastes amazing so you really can’t go wrong with what you eat here!

Final Thoughts

Overall this was one of the best tours I’ve ever been on in Japan because not only did it include lunch and entrance fees to all of the parks, but it also took me to every single place I wanted to see in Kushiro! I had a fantastic time seeing the birds, active volcanoes, and lakes this part of Hokkaido had to offer⁠—not to mention the hot springs! I feel extremely fulfilled to cross yet another dream destination off my list. I would recommend Kushiro to travelers who have already seen all of the major cities of Hokkaido and are looking for something more secluded and unique. I hope to come back to Hokkaido again during the summer for some more photography, because this island has a lot of untouched nature and exciting places to see. I feel so relaxed after getting out of the city for a while too!

Thank you for reading my Kushiro article series. I plan on going to Nara this year to see the cherry blossoms, and possibly Shimane and Yamaguchi too if I have time. Please expect more exciting articles from me!

Flying to the Fisherman’s Town of Kushiro for Birdwatching and Hiking Expeditions (Part 1)

Rare appearance of Whooper Swans at Sunayu in Kushiro, Hokkaido.

Earlier this week I flew to the small fishing village of Kushiro, Hokkaido, to live out my birdwatching dreams and see rare species that are exclusive to Japan and only gather during the early winter months. I have been to Hokkaido 4 times now (three times during the winter and once during the summer), and was happy to return since my last trip to the Lavender Fields of Furano. Kushiro is known for its delicious seafood, beautiful birds, and volcanic mountains with scenic lakes. There are various hot spring towns that surround the bases of the mountains attracting a number of tourists from outside of town each year. You can also partake in winter sports at Lake Akan which has rental gear during this season.

Overall I would describe Kushiro as a secluded getaway with many areas to hike through and enjoy year round. It was a much needed vacation from my crazy city life, and after completing this expedition I feel much more at ease and can think clearly now.

I would recommend Kushiro to those who have already seen the major cities of Hokkaido (such as Sapporo, Hakodate, and Otaru) and are looking for something different. This is definitely more of a remote area, so be prepared to travel a lot! Fortunately I have prepared a cost-efficient itinerary on how to best see Kushiro in two days without a car.

Getting to Kushiro from Tokyo

The best way to get to Kushiro is to fly directly to Kushiro Airport. The average cost of roundtrip tickets from Haneda Airport to Kushiro Airport is around 30,000 yen and takes about 1.5 hours. You can also take the train from Sapporo Station if you’re already in Hokkaido, but it takes over 4 hours and costs around 20,000 yen. Flying will save you a lot of time and stress, so I recommend looking for deals through Peach Aviation.

This time I decided to go with AIRDO Airlines because their flight schedule best fit my work schedule. My flight was very smooth, and my flight attendant noticed I had my Switch and Hisuin Growlithe plush with me so she gave me a free Pokemon postcard! This was truly exceptional service. I also enjoyed flying into the sunset on this trip and seeing all of the vibrant colors:

As you can see from the map, Hokkaido is close to Sakhalin, which is the largest island of Russia. At one time you could travel to Sakhalin by a five-hour ferry from Wakkanai, which is a port town at the tip of Hokkaido. For more information, see this writeup from Time Out Tokyo.

In 2018, there were discussions about the construction of a bridge from Hokkaido to Sakhalin that would connect Japan to Russia. I remember hearing about this in the news and thinking it was an interesting idea at the time, but the construction never happened (maybe for the better). With the way the world news is now, it’s truly shocking to believe that it was ever even a concept. My heart goes out to all of my friends in Europe and I hope for the safety of Ukraine.

Exploring Kushiro’s Main Street: Kita Odori

I arrived to Kushiro airport around 17:00, and took the Airport Limousine bus to the center of the city for 950 yen. The ride took around an hour and I couldn’t see much outside of my window because it was already pitch black. There was snow on the ground, but the temperature of Kushiro in March wasn’t really any different of how Michigan, my home town, is during this time of year. I would definitely recommend bringing warm clothes, a hat, and gloves, though! During summers in Kushiro, the snow completely melts and the temperature is more mild. However, I wanted to come in the winter specifically so I could see the rare types of birds that flock here.

After my bus arrived at Kushiro Station, the first thing I decided to do was eat some delicious seafood donburi which Hokkaido is famous for. I looked up a restaurant called 釧ちゃん食堂 釧路本店 that had phenomenal reviews so I took a 10 minute cab ride there and prepared to chow down. Trust me, I was not disappointed because I bought this huge bowl of fresh fish for only 2200 yen. The crab, sea urchin, and squid tasted so fresh and there were huge slabs of other fish included in this assortment too:

Address: 〒088-0623 Hokkaido, Kushiro District, Kushiro, Kowa, 4−11 2F

Another place where you can get delicious seafood is Kushiro Fisherman’s Wharf MOO which is right near the station, but it closes at 17:00 so be sure to get there early!

After filling my stomach and feeling completely satisfied, I decided to go to hot spring on top of a hotel called Paco Kushiro. This was within walking distance of my accommodation (see further below) and only cost 1000 yen to enter. It had a sauna, multiple spa baths, and an open air bath on the 12th floor that was perhaps the steamiest hot spring I had ever entered due to the cold temperature. I couldn’t take any pictures because it was public, but it greatly relieved my fatigue so I can’t recommend it enough!

When I awoke the next morning, I decided to go on a 4 mile run to get more acquainted with Kita Odori and the surrounding area. I first ran to Itsukushima Shrine, which was about a mile from my hotel. This is one of the biggest shrines in the area and is definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in them. I also passed by Yonemachi Park that had a lighthouse as a famous landmark. On my way back I stumbled upon Grace Church near the station. This is a tourist destination that also serves as a wedding hall, but I have seen many churches in the US so I wasn’t particularly interested in it. There was also a police station that had signs in Russian. The further north you go in Hokkaido, the more of this you will see!

After finishing my run, I decided to take a tour through the White Pirika bus company to see the major sights of Kushiro. I will be detailing and reviewing my experience in my next article!

Accommodation

This time I chose to stay in a brand new apartment complex called Kamuy Rera that is close to Kushiro Station. The average cost of single rooms is 4500 per night, but this is one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed at and I was the only guest there! It was great having an entire lounge to myself, plus all of the rooms were equipped with powerful heaters. In the past, sometimes I’ve made mistakes of staying in guest houses that aren’t insulated very well and have had trouble sleeping. However, I slept like a baby here and was ready for a full day of hiking the next morning. I would recommend staying here because it is centrally located and very quiet.

This concludes my introductory article of “Cool” Kushiro. In my next article, I will be writing in-depth about the unique species of birds in Kushiro and where to find them, plus my recommended hiking areas. Please look forward to my future adventures, because I have a lot planned this year!

Exploring Maebashi: Ikaho & Hatago Onsen

Standing on the stones steps of Ikaho Onsen that overlook the mountains of Gunma!

After a lovely morning of exploring famous temples in Takasaki, we decided to spend the afternoon and evening at some of the most aesthetic onsen in Maebashi; starting with Ikaho Onsen for the scenery. Maebashi is a small town in Gunma where the hit racing series Initial D takes place. I actually had forgotten this, but was highly amused to remember it again as I stumbled upon an Initial D manhole cover while walking to a soba shop. There are actually 7 different designs that you can see if you walk around Ikaho Onsen and Shibukawa Station. “Running in the 90s” and “Night of Fire” played in my head the entire time I was here!

This article will cover my experience at Ikaho Onsen and Akagi Onsen Hatago Chujikan, as well as some of my recommend pitstops along the way. You really can’t go wrong traveling around this peaceful mountainside town!

Ikaho Onsen

Ikaho Onsen is a beautiful hot springs town with stone steps that lead to a breathtaking view of Mt. Akagi in the distance. The main path is lined with little souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants. I noticed a miniature shrine adorned with rubber ducks off to the side and it really sparked joy in my heart. I also noticed a drink place called “Strawberry Bomb” that sold hot strawberry wine and naturally I bought it in a heartbeat. It was the epitome of delicious. I also tried 3 different colors of soba at a restaurant called Ikeya. The most delicious color was the seasonal yuzu one that was bright yellow.

There are a number of hot springs you can bathe in here, but we decided to choose one further up in the mountains. However, the lively and charming atmosphere of Ikaho is completely unmatched. Definitely stop by this place if you have the chance because you will undoubtedly enjoy it. I found it funny how this onsen had its own anime girl mascot too! You can see her printed on souvenirs and vending machines.

Address: 377-0102 Gunma, Shibukawa, Ikahomachi Ikaho, 香湯5-4

Akagi Onsen Hatago Chujikan

Hatago Onsen is nestled in a forest on the path up to Mt. Akagi and is the literal definition of a hot springs paradise. It is highly rated in Gunma due to its private location and gorgeous views. With my room came three different hot springs I could use (two indoor and one outdoor), delicious teishoku meals prepared by the staff, and a huge room that was completely covered by my sponsor. When I arrived I immediately started drinking sake and decided to warm up the indoor onsen attached to my room. It was small, but the steam from it completely cleansed my pores and I felt amazing. This was my first onsen trip in several months and it was top class!

I later wandered to the outdoor onsen before my dinner was served. Not only can you see the stars at night, but there is also a waterfall off in the distance! I couldn’t believe how relaxing this experience was—drinking sake and looking at the stars. But the amazing experience didn’t stop there, because for dinner I had delicious hot pot with salmon and vegetables, grilled river fish, and delicious vegetables. The staff was amazing and accommodated my pescatarian needs so I would give their service 5 stars. After dinner, I waded in the outdoor onsen one last time before drifting off to sleep in my warm futon. When I awoke there was snow on the ground! Though I only stayed here for one night, it was a completely magical experience I will never forget.

I also must add that after over 6 years of living in Japan, I finally tried natto for the first time as part of my breakfast. It wasn’t nearly as putrid as I had imagined, and actually had a nice texture to it. Though I am still skeptical of trying the natto sold at convenience stores and cheaper izakaya, I am so happy that I finally worked up the courage to try it at this resort! I am waiting for my health buff to kick in, as people always tell me that this is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. I was sad to leave this onsen, but I hope to stay at many others during this year!

Address: 2036 Naegashimamachi, Maebashi, 371-0241, Gunma Prefecture

Other Recommendations

Some of my other recommendations that you can see on the ride back home are Mizusawa Kannon Temple, Akagi Shrine, and Maebashi Park. All of these attractions take around 15-30 mins to see and are beyond beautiful. Be sure to try as many strawberry treats as you can!

Final Thoughts

Though I have been to Gunma at least 5 times now and seen it during different seasons, this was the first trip where I truly got the chance to appreciate the scenery, temples, and nature of the onsen. Traveling here in winter was a plus because there was definitely less people. I feel much more relaxed and focused since I got away from the city too. If you come to Gunma, I definitely recommend staying somewhere with the view of the mountains. You can find affordable accommodations in both Ikaho and Takasaki too. My sponsor with very pleased with the itinerary I came up with and we will likely work together again in April! We had delicious Italian food at Pastel Italiana at Takasaki Station to commemorate our first successful trip. I thoroughly enjoyed my authentic salmon roe pasta and cat-shaped bread:

For more of my onsen articles, please check out my Kusatsu and Nagano ones. Please look forward to my next exciting trip, hopefully happening next weekend!

Exploring the Wonders of Takasaki, Gunma: Temple Edition

The Daruma of Shorinzan Darumaji Temple await your visit!

After almost a half-year hiatus, Resurface to Reality is finally back—kicking off the year with a sponsored trip to Gunma Prefecture! At the end of last year I took a 3 month trip to America so I could see my family and friends and explore tropical regions of the country. It was both an awe-inspiring and well needed trip that changed my perspective in many ways, but at the same time I realized I really value my life in Asia and hope to keep expanding my professional life here for the time being. I am aiming to apply for permanent residence in Japan in 2025, and will continue to work in the videogame field as well as with independent sponsors to fund my trips. I will of course be paying for a number of them out of my own pocket as well as I have many places I personally want to photograph; such as Kushiro in Hokkaido which I am traveling to next month.

Even with the current quasi-emergency state in most prefectures, I was fortunately able to plan a safe route around Gunma with a rental car. The quasi-emergency state asks that some restaurants and businesses shorten hours and stop serving alcohol, but fortunately did not hinder any of the original sightseeing I had planned. Since I have already been to Takasaki for music events before and traveled to the famed Kusatsu Onsen, I am quite familiar with how this prefecture is laid out. This trip my aim was to see temples and hot springs that are harder to reach by public transport and fortunately I succeeded. Even if you do not have a car, most of these attractions are available to see by bus if you are patient.

Here is my 2 day recommended itinerary for Takasaki and Ikaho Onsen (I will be writing about Day 2 in a separate article):

Getting to Takasaki from Tokyo

The fastest way from Tokyo to Takasaki, one of the biggest cities of Gunma, is by shinkansen. We rode the Jōetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Takasaki Station which took 50 mins and cost around 5000 yen one way. However, in previous years I have rode the local trains to Takasaki which take over 2 hours but are significantly cheaper (please see my Kusatsu article linked above for reference). Driving from Tokyo to Gunma takes roughly 2 hours as well, but you will definitely encounter more traffic. I personally think riding the shinkansen is the smoothest way there, even if it is a bit pricier because we were able to enjoy delicious ekiben for breakfast (sea urchin and crab bento are pictured)!

From Takasaki, we rented a Toyota car from a rental place adjacent to the station. The reservation process was a breeze and didn’t take long at all. I am not going to go into detail of it since it is not the focus of this article series, but you can see the Toyota Rent a Car website for reference.

Shorinzan Darumaji Temple

My favorite place in all of Gunma is the Shorinzan Darumaji Temple because it goes extremely hard with its daruma aesthetics. Daruma are piled up on each side of the temple in almost a comical arrangement and there is even a vending machine with a daruma print that you can buy drinks from. I see these dolls everywhere around Japan so I’ve actually never contemplated their meaning deeply before I came to this temple, but they are linked with Buddhism and represent values such as concentration, fortune, and luck. Though red is the most common color, they can be painted in a number of artistic ways. In the little daruma museum next to the temple, I saw one painted like the penguin mascot on Suica cards! I also bought a pink daruma from the gift shop that is said to strengthen relationships.

While comparing daruma in Takasaki, you’ll notice that some have their eyes filled in and others don’t completely. That is because when you first purchase a daruma, you are supposed to fill in one eye when you make a wish, and fill the other eye if/when that wish comes true. The daruma are said to help accomplish your goals which is why they are so popular here. Though I am not normally a superstitious person, I will be putting this theory to the test! I will let everyone know if my wish comes true in year 2025… 😉

Entrance Fee: Free
Address: 296 Hanadakamachi, Takasaki, Gunma 370-0868

If you do not have a car, you can take the Shorinzan bus from the station which is insanely cheap and only takes 25 mins.

Byakue Dai-Kannon

This second series of temples features a giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy that is just as iconic to Takasaki as its beloved daruma. Even though it was a completely different vibe, I somehow got flashbacks to my trip to Singapore while I was here because you can go inside the statue and climb to the top just like the Merlion on Sentosa Island. Enshrined in this goddess are 20 buddhas you can pray to as you ascend the stairs. The climb up takes less than 5 mins if you don’t stop, and the surrounding area has other temples you can see. I loved seeing the year of the tiger ema here, and also how it was decorated for Valentine’s Day. There is also a red string that you can wrap around your little finger around so it connects you to the Goddess of Mercy as you pray (this is a permanent feature). The concept behind this place was really well thought out and I enjoyed seeing it. I am curious to see how it is decorated during other times of the year!

Entrance Fee: 300 yen to ascend to the top
Address: 2710-1 Ishiharamachi, Takasaki, Gunma 370-0864

This temple is just a few kilometers from the Daruma temple and can also be reached by bus/taxi if you do not have a car.

Now that I got two of my favorite temples out of the way, I think I will conclude the first part of this article and write about my favorite onsen in the next part. Please look forward to it being published soon! I am so happy to be writing about my travels again!

As a preview, take a look at the real life Mt. Akagi from Initial D (also known as Mt. Haruna IRL):

Cruising through the Whirlpools of Naruto City

View from a whirlpool cruise in Naruto City during the strongest tidal current.

After completing my ninja training at the Naruto x Boruto Theme Park, I decided the next logical thing to do on this vacation was set off on a whirlpool cruise in Naruto city. The Naruto Whirlpools are located underneath the bridge that connects Awaji Island to Shikoku. I used to live in this area nearly 6 years ago when I first moved to Japan. Though it was only for a short time, it felt nostalgic coming back here after all these years where my journey first began. You can see the whirlpools from the bridge but the best way to photograph them is on a whirlpool cruise. The tidal current can change depending on the time of year, so be sure to look at what is recommend from the booking website before you make a reservation. We decided to book a tour at 11:15 on an Aqua Eddy boat from Uzusio because it has an upper and lower deck where you can see the whirlpools from underneath the water. The cruise lasts for about 30 minutes and costs 2400 which was suitable for me.

Using my GoPro I managed to catch some pretty neat footage of the Naruto Whirlpools:

Being on this cruise was fantastic because the weather was perfect and I could feel the coolness of the ocean breeze. I reflected on my life a lot and thought about how much I had changed since I last saw these whirlpools. They really are something else! They definitely looked best from the top deck but it was fun to see the fish from the windows underneath the boat too. Be sure to make a reservation in advance because this cruise is quite popular.

Address: 264-1 Oge, Tosadomariura, Naruto-cho, Naruto- City, Tokushima 772-0053

Izanagi Shrine

One of the most famous shrines in Awaji is Izanagi, which is the oldest shinto shrine in Japan that houses Izanagi and Izamami. If you have played the Persona series then you may already be slightly familiar with the mythology. Izanagi is said to be a god of creation so this shrine is very sacred and is beautiful to see. There is a red bridge and miniature garden that make it very scenic. The ema here are shaped like peaches which I thought was pretty unique. I am grateful to have had the chance to finally visit!

Address: 740 Taga, Awaji, Hyogo 656-1521
Entrance Fee: Free

Swimming at Tsushi Beach

Before heading back to our ryokan, we decided to take a quick swim at Tsushi Beach which was walking distance from where we were staying. This beach was really unique because there were so many fish jumping out of the water! I had a couple close encounters with them but they were completely harmless. We were later told that this beach was designated for fishing by someone who spotted us from the shore, but we still had an amazing time here seeing the sunset and I got a really good workout in.

Staying at Yodoso

While I was looking at hotels close to the beach, I found a ryokan called Yodoso that was only 4000 yen per night. On an island famous for its fancy and upscale resorts which get to be pretty pricey, this felt like that ultimate deal. Score! Unfortunately my room was extremely simple and did not contain a private bathroom or shower, but it was okay for what it was; especially since we were only staying here for one night. The seafood breakfast we had was absolutely amazing here and was only 1000 yen extra. I definitely recommend trying the fish here! 1-2 night in Awaji is enough to experience the island.

Yumebutai Gardens

The Yumebutai Gardens of Awaji were designed by Tadao Ando, whose work I had previously seen on Naoshima Island. I was very interested in these gardens due to their unique square shape. This area was previously destroyed in 1998 by a huge earthquake, so it’s amazing to see how much was reconstructed. While we were here we ran into a photoshoot for a wedding and it was fun to see! The architecture here is breathtaking and it is completely surrounded by flower gardens that you can visit. For me the square one was by far the most aesthetic.

Address: 656-2306 Hyogo, Awaji, Yumebutai, 2−番地
Entrance Fee: Free

Final Meal

Before driving 6 hours back to Yamanashi where I would catch a local train to Tokyo, we decided to have our last meal on the island at a restaurant called Kitora located inside of the gardens. I decided to order a seafood platter and really appreciated how they put a cherry on top of the salmon roe. Not only did this look beautiful, but the taste was out of this world. I will never forget how much fun I had on this island! Fortunately I was able to 100% complete everything on my itinerary so I was satisfied.

My next trip is currently undecided as I will be temporarily leaving Japan to visit my home country next month now that I have my vaccine passport. However, I have my sight set on Fukui and would really like to sneak a trip in before I leave. Fingers crossed! When I return to Japan I will likely go to Sapporo in the winter so I can take pictures of the snow. I am very excited to see how the rest of this year unfolds.

Venturing to the Theme Parks of Awaji Island: Hello Kitty Smile & Naruto x Boruto Shinobi-zato

The great Hokage watch over Awaji Island.

After we had a fantastic stay in Kobe visiting Rokko Island, Chinatown, and Harborland, we decided to take a road trip to Hyogo Prefecture’s Awaji Island—a rural tropical paradise boasting resorts, farmland, and iconic amusement parks. There are also many beaches here that you can use for recreational fishing and swimming. The main reason I wanted to come here was to see the Naruto x Boruto theme park and also go on a whirlpool cruise, which I will detail in my next article. What I liked most about Awaji is that it had a variety of fascinating attractions enjoyable for all ages. I originally debated about solo tripping and taking the local bus around here, but Awaji is best explored by car. Fortunately my friends were on board with my itinerary and we were able to split the highway tolls while having an amazing vacation here!

Getting to Awaji

Awaji is connected to Kobe and Tokushima by bridge so you can reach the island by car or bus. There are no airports or trains on the island making it hard to get around, so I would recommend renting a car. From Kobe we drove about an hour to get to the central part of the island and were able to see quite a lot during our two day stay. I recommend staying 2-3 days so you have enough time to see all of the attractions you want and spend time on the beach.

For more information on the Awaji buses, please see the official Awaji Tourism website.

Naruto x Boruto Shinobi-zato

Naruto x Boruto Shinobi-zato is a permanent theme park that is part of Nijigen no Mori, a forested area of attractions and events on Awaji Island. This theme park originally opened in 2019 but was temporarily closed due to the effects of the pandemic in 2020. It reopened in 2021 and is now fully operational but requires all visitors to wear masks. As an avid fan of the series in middle school, I simply had to go. I really wished I would have brought my Naruto headband I brought from ebay when I was 12 years old, but it is sitting somewhere at my parents’ house in Michigan. When I visit home later this year I might break it out for old time’s sake. Though I’ve moved on to other anime, Naruto will always have a special place in my heart. I really wish I could show my middle school self these pictures so she could see how badass I am in my twenties.

After purchasing your ticket at the door, you will be handed a small sack containing two ninja scrolls. Basically the whole premise is a giant stamp rally where the aim is to find as many of your ninja allies as possible and collect stamps to master ninjutsu. As soon as you enter the park you will be greeted by cardboard cutouts of all the main characters and see the iconic monument of the great Hokage. If this isn’t weeaboo paradise, I don’t know what is! You can line up on either side of the monument to start an obstacle course. We chose the Uzumaki side, but the Uchiha side is also an option. The course was pretty fun and involved light climbing, door puzzles, and had a slide. The hints are written in Japanese, English, and Chinese so we were able to get through them without issue. The weather was really hot so we were sweating at the end, but collecting our first stamp was ever so satisfying.

After the first course we decided to explore the whole entire park. Past the Hokage monument are the Akatsuki, a large statue of Kurama, and a tiny cave area you can walk through. As you walk through these areas, you can hear character voices giving you hints on where to go. If you keep walking you will eventually loop around to the food and souvenir shop near the entrance of the park. You can order ramen, drinks, and sweets that your favorite characters eat from the series. My favorite thing that I saw in the gift shop was the coconut Kakashi chapstick. As a kid I would have absolutely loved this theme park, but as an adult it was fun looking back on all of the memories this series gave me.

Overall I would recommend spending 1-2 hours here. The entrance fee is a bit pricey but honestly the pictures I took here made it worth it. I really liked how they made half of this park an obstacle course so it felt more like real ninja training instead of something with roller coasters because it wouldn’t be as fitting. I would definitely come here for the meme factor if you are an anime fan.

Address: 2425-2 Kusumoto, Awaji, Hyogo 656-2301
Entrance Fee: 3300 yen (basic admission—shows and additional obstacle courses are more money)

Hello Kitty Smile

Originally we tried to enter a pancake restaurant for breakfast this morning, but since it was located near the central resort area it was too crowded for us to enter. Instead we went to get high tea and seafood at Hello Kitty Smile, which turned out to be a super magical experience even better than our original plan!

Hello Kitty Smile consists of a resort with a fancy cafe, seafood restaurant with an ocean view, and museum of underwater themed Hello Kitty characters. We decided to split the high tea set and order caramel lattes which was a great move. I really enjoyed all of the little cakes and Hello Kitty manjuu that they included in the set. For lunch we went downstairs to the main restaurant and all ordered garlic shrimp plates. The portion sizes were absolutely HUGE!! Awaji is famous for its seafood, namely shrimp, and I can definitely see why. I am happy that we were able to have both cute and hearty meals here.

Afterwards we decided to enter the Hello Kitty “Under the Sea” area which contained a lot of projection mapped images similar to teamLab but on a much smaller scale. It was still very fun to experience and there were a ton of photo ops—namely the trippy room filled with Hello Kitty plush dolls. Additionally I loved seeing the vintage car under the neon lights, the sparkly guitar, and meeting Hello Kitty herself! There was also an arts and crafts area for kids with a bunch of carnival games. I could see this as the ideal vacation for young children, but walking around the museum as an adult was fun too. Plus the view of the ocean was simply beautiful. I felt very relaxed here and was happy with what I saw.

Address: 985-1 Nojimahikinoura, Awaji, Hyogo 656-1721
Entrance Fee: 2300 yen

Godzilla Zipline

One of the best things I saw on this trip was people casually zipling into Godzilla’s mouth outside of the Naruto x Boruto Park:

DOOM!

Unfortunately I was wearing a short skirt so I couldn’t partake, but just watching this was absolutely hilarious! You gotta appreciate the strange things you stumble upon on these rural islands. For more information, please see the Godzilla Interception Operation website.

Thank you for reading the first part of my Awaji Island article series! In my next article, I will be talking about the whirlpool cruise, beaches, and my accommodation. Please look forward to it~

Chasing Sunsets on Sakurajima, Kagoshima’s Volcanic Island

View of Sakurajima from the Arimura Lava Observatory.

Right before my expedition to Ogawa Falls in the remote city of Kanoya, I decided to make a brief pitstop at the island of Sakurajima and spend the night at a Japanese ryokan by the ocean. Sakurajima is a volcanic island that has been on my bucket list for quite a while, but I was waiting for the perfect time of year to go which is late summer. While I was here I rented a bike and rode around to various viewpoints, took a bus to the Arimura Lava Observatory, and walked around the magma sand beach on the way back to my hot spring resort. The best part was watching the sunset from my private onsen by the sea. I will never forget the beautiful shades of the pink and orange sky that surround the active volcano. The volcano gently erupts ash every day but is safe to view from the marked viewpoints and observatories. Since Sakurajima doesn’t have much of a nightlife at all, you can really focus on appreciating nature when the sky turns dark.

Getting to Sakurajima

From the Kagoshima Ferry Port that is easily accessible by bus from the airport, Sakurajima is just a simple 15 minute ferry ride away. The ferry runs 24 hours and costs only 200 yen per passenger. Please see the ferry timetable for more information.

There are a number of bus tours you can choose from the Sakurajima Tourism Website, but you can also rent bikes and use a combination of public transport to get the most out of your experience. Here is my recommended itinerary for Sakurajima:

Exploring the West Side of the Island by Bike

As soon as I reached the Sakurajima ferry port, I calculated it would be faster to see the attractions on the west side of the island by bike, so I rented a cheap bike from a rental shop near Tsukiyomi Shrine. I decided I would see the shrine first, then bike to the Yogam Nagisa Footbath area so I could soak my feet in the water and gaze at the sparkling sea. The footbaths are completely free to use and are very relaxing for weary travelers. After snapping a few photos, I rode my bike to the Karasujima Observatory which gave me yet another beautiful view of the ocean. I then rode my bike to the “Portrait of a Shout” monument which is definitely worth seeing. This was my favorite piece of art on the island because it was so random but gladly welcomed. Seeing all these things took around 45 mins by bike which is way easier than walking or waiting for a bus, so I would recommend because it lets you get acquainted with the island.

Biking around the entire island is about 36km and is doable in a day, but since some places on the north side are shut due to the pandemic I would not recommend it unless you are dead-set on seeing all of the island by bike. Please note that most bike rental places want their bikes returned by 5pm too.

Taking a Bus to the Arimura Lava Observatory

After returning my bike, I took a local bus from the ferry port to the Arimura Lava Observatory which was very close to the beach and my ryokan. This was my favorite part of the trip because unlike other observatories, the Arimura one has the most walkways and mini tunnels you can walk through with the best view of the volcano. You can also see the ash from the volcano that looks like black sand around this area. This was the most photogenic spot of the island that I discovered and it was so fun seeing the volcano from multiple heights. If you enjoy hiking and are only here on a day trip, definitely come here first because you’ll enjoy it the most!

If you cross the street from the observatory and walk west toward the hotels, you will be able to see Arimura Beach that has black sand stained from the ash. Fortunately the ash is already dry when it lands on the sand and it is safe to walk on. This was my first time seeing a volcanic beach and I was truly amazed!

Address: 952 Arimuracho, Kagoshima, 891-1545

Staying Overnight at Sakurajima Seaside Hotel

While looking at places on the island, I wanted to stay somewhere close to the ocean with a natural hot spring included. Sakurajima Seaside Hotel fit that description perfectly and was in a great location on Arimura Beach so I booked it without hesitation. This hotel has ryokan style rooms with the option of having meals included. It also has public and private onsen naturally heated by the magma of Sakurajima. The best time to use the hot springs is when the sun starts to set because then it won’t be as hot. When I first got in, the water was extremely warm so it took some getting used to. However, the next day my muscles felt completely relaxed so I decided to go in again before checking out. When you get out of the bath you may notice some orange residue on your skin from the natural ingredients in the water but this is extremely healthy for it!

Taking a Bus or Taxi to Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate

In the morning before catching my ferry back to mainland, I decided to take a taxi to the Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate on the east side of the island. My taxi driver was very talkative and gave me the full history on its destruction that was caused by an eruption in 1914. I have never seen a tori submerged in the earth before, so this was yet another incredibly rare sight that is unique to Sakurajima. You can also come here by local bus—I just decided to use a taxi because I was short on time.

I this area there is also the Kurokami Observation Point, but it was closed due to the pandemic. I wasn’t disappointed because my pictures from the Arimura Lava Observatory turned out very well.

Address: 647 Kurokamicho, Kagoshima, 891-1401
Admission: Free

Trying Sakurajima Food

There are a number of restaurants scattered throughout the island, but I opted to get breakfast at my ryokan which included fresh fish, rice, salad, and miso soup. Food on the island is somewhat limited, but a lot of care went into preparing this breakfast and I enjoyed the variety. At the ferry terminal there is a cafe that sells volcanic ash ice cream cones and I can’t recommend them enough! The “volcanic ash” tastes suspiciously like crushed Oreo, but I will live its taste up to your imagination. I would just try whatever food that strikes you fancy here!

Final Thoughts

I am really glad I solo tripped and stayed overnight on Sakurajima because watching the sunset on this island was absolutely breathtaking! The majority of travelers that I have talked to usually day trip here to save time, but I feel very fortunate I had enough time to experience the volcano at night too. The staff at my ryokan were extremely kind and really took care of me. I also enjoyed having a lot of alone time to myself which is something that I don’t always get in Tokyo. Having a car would have been nice, but I managed to spontaneously figure out the public transport system and rent a bike which I am proud of myself for. Overall this was another 10/10 trip to Kyushu and I cannot wait to come back in the future.

This marks the end of my Kyushu article series, but I will be traveling to Kobe and Awaji this weekend and starting my next article series next week! Please look forward to it and thank you for reading as always!

Exploring Ogawa Falls and Kanoya City in Kagoshima

Ogawa Falls in Kanoya, Kagoshima.

While looking for destinations I wanted to travel to in Kagoshima after Amami Island, the two that stood out to me the most were Ogawa Falls and Sakurajima. Ogawa Falls are located remotely in a forest in the city of Kanoya, directly southeast of Sakurajima. Getting to Kanoya is a challenge because there are no trains that run through the city—you have to either take a bus from Kagoshima Airport or rent a car to get here. I opted to take the bus which was around 1.5 hours and 2100 yen. Though the city of Kanoya is quite rural, it is considered a nice town to stay in and has a number of delicious restaurants, shrines, and beautiful nature spots. I enjoyed my time here because it was very quiet and relaxing.

Here are my top recommendations that you can do over the span of two days!

Jintoku Inari Shrine

My first stop was Jintoku Inari Shrine, which I ran to from my hostel in the morning. This is a small shrine but has over 100 red gates and many fox deity statues. I also enjoyed seeing the fox-shaped ema with people’s wishes written on them too! When I arrived here at 9am (which is the opening time), I was the only person here which was quite relaxing. I really enjoyed the privacy of this shrine and felt at peace here.

Address: 1771-4 Shineicho, Kanoya, Kagoshima 893-0063
Admission: Free

Ogawa Falls

Ogawa Falls is a remote waterfall located south of Kanoya City with beautiful shades of water and rock formations. It takes about 45 mins to reach by car. I had my hostel call a taxi here and back because there is no other way to reach it by public transport. It’s really a shame that there’s not a local bus from Kanoya City that goes here, but I suppose there are not enough travelers that come to the city to justify the cause. The taxi here cost around 8000 yen one way which is quite expensive, but trust me the views were extremely worth the price! The hike to the falls is roughly 20 mins on pretty even terrain and there is a viewing deck with 2 floors you can stand on to see them. This place really didn’t feel like Japan because it looked more like a destination from Thailand or the Philippines. However, this truly shows how beautiful places in Kagoshima can be and I really encourage more people to make the journey here!

Additionally, there is a lovely cafe called aqua base by the parking lot where you can try fresh juice and sweet potato flavored monkey-shaped pastries. It truly was a dream come true for an aesthetic food lover so I bought their earrings of the pastry too! I will never forget my time here because it was truly unique and once again, I was the only person here which made it special!

Address: 5876-2 Tashirokawahara, 錦江町 Kimotsuki District, Kagoshima 893-2402
Admission: Free

Take Bakery and Cafe

While looking for pescatarian-friendly places in the area, Take Bakery and Cafe was one of the very first that popped up so I figured I would check it out. For breakfast before I went to Ogawa Falls, I decided to try their salmon and cream cheese bagel with a soy latte. It gave me just the energy I needed to hike through the falls and was delicious so I would highly recommend it. Since I was curious about their salads, I came back here for lunch after my trek since their bread and cheese was so amazing. I also started day drinking while I waited for my bus back to the airport and I can’t recommend their local wine enough! They recognized me from this morning and generously thanked me for coming twice. I would have gladly come for dinner too had I stayed another night here!

Address: 5-5 Kitadacho, Kanoya, Kagoshima 893-0007

Accommodation

Since my stay here was very short and I spent a good chunk of money on my resort in Amami, I opted to stay in Hotel & Hostel Haru. Rooms are around 2000 yen per night and I was the only person staying in my dormitory so it was a comfortable stay. Not only were the rooms extremely clean, the staff was very friendly and gave me free sake and helped me call my taxi to Ogawa Falls too. I was lucky to have found such a nice place in a remote city! In my opinion 2 days is all you need to see the highlights of Kanoya.

Another fun point of interest close to this hostel is Wadaiseki Park which has a statue of a kappa. I enjoyed being friends with him during my time here and we really vibed. Look forward to reading about Sakurajima in my next article!

Sailing through the Skies of Amami Island – First Paragliding Experience

Seeing northern Yo Beach from a new perspective via paragliding!

On my second day on Amami Island, I decided to knock out paragliding on my bucket list because it’s something I had wanted to do for years and it felt like the ideal time. Out of all the locations you can try it in Japan, Okinawa and Kagoshima are the most recommended due to their stunning ocean views. I first tried to go paragliding on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa 5 years ago on my birthday, but unfortunately the winds were too strong and my reservation was cancelled. This time the opposite problem occurred—the winds were initially too weak but picked up after an hour of waiting. Paragliding is simple in the fact that all that you need to do is run and jump in time with when you’re instructed to and the motor will do the rest. Before you know it you’ll be up in the sky staring down at the distant scenery below you. In case you fall there is a soft cushion of sand beneath you which is why I highly recommend paragliding on the beach. The beautiful hues of the ocean below my feet glittered in the shining sun and I felt as if I was truly alive!

Here is some footage from my GoPro over Amami Island’s most northern beach (Yo Beach). I originally thought the white building was a lighthouse, but it is actually a government office!

I booked my paragliding experience through パラグライダーハッピースカイ (Paragliding Happy Sky) online for 10,500 yen and had an incredible experience. Though this might be a bit more expensive compared to other countries like Thailand or the Philippines, Japan is probably the safest country to learn in as their instructors are very cautious and well-trained. I appreciated how they waited an hour with me for the winds to pick up an even offered to show me around the island so I could see the stars at night. The experience lasts for around 15 minutes and you can freely use your camera equipment while a license professional controls the motor and direction. The company will contact you with the best meeting point the night before and fortunately all of the paragliding locations are easy to reach by taxi.

To me it was an extremely exhilarating experience that increased my love for the ocean so I can’t recommend it enough—if you’re an adventurous person then you need to try paragliding!

Kayaking through Amami Mangrove Forest

Immediately after kayaking, I set off for the Amami Mangrove Forest via local bus because I really wanted to try kayaking there. This is one of the top destinations in Amami and the second largest mangrove in Japan. The waterways will take you deep through the forest so you can see various wildlife and the experience was very relaxing to me after paragliding. Renting a kayak is 1500 yen for an hour, but I noticed they were pretty lax on time. I had the opportunity to explore a lot of canals and was very satisfied with the experience despite the long 2 hour bus ride. If you rent a car then you can get around Amami Island much faster, but this mangrove is still somewhat remote from the main resort area. However, I passed through the downtown area on my way back and stopped for delicious Indian food at Durga Dining before heading back to relax at my resort!

Chasing Sunsets

Another fun activity I enjoyed was waking up with the sun and falling asleep with the moon. Every day and night I would watch the sun fall over the ocean and the landscape magically change color. As the land of the rising sun, Japan has a lot of neat places where you can chase sunsets but I definitely prefer it at the beach!

Other Activities

Snorkeling and diving is also extremely popular on Amami Island, but since I did this in Okinawa earlier this year I opted to try new things mentioned in this article. When it all comes down to it, appreciating nature and wildlife and relaxing is really the best thing you can do on this island. All of the resorts are extremely affordable and you can bike around to a number of attractions easily so Amami is a great destination for people who have already been to Okinawa and are looking for something more. I can proudly say that booking my trip here was my best decision of the year because I got the chance to see and experience so many things. Three days was the perfect amount of time to spend here too.

Though this was my last day on Amami Island, my adventure through Kyushu still continues! In my next article, I will talk about exploring the volcanic island, Sakurajima, in Kagoshima. Please look forward to it!

Exploring Amami Island: The Rich Paradise of Goats & Pristine Beaches

A warm welcome from Kurasaki Beach!

After raving in the mountains of Gunma for three days, I realized the end of summer would soon be upon us so the first week of September would be the ideal time to knock of a few places on my Kyushu bucket list—mainly Amami Island, Sakurajima, and the first crater of Mt. Aso. Since I already had a phenomenal vacation in Okinawa just before Golden week, I was craving one more long beach trip before it became too cold to swim. Fortunately for me, I found a number of discount one-way airline tickets and was able to string them together to create the ultimate bargain vacation throughout Kyushu. A number of my friends and coworkers asked me how I did it so I will try to explain my itinerary as thoroughly as possible. If you fly during certain times through Peach and Skymark airlines from Narita airport, you can find discount flights for almost 1/3 of the price all year round in Japan! It just takes some time analyzing Google Flights but really anyone can create the perfect vacation if they put enough heart and research into it.

The dates I chose to travel were 8/30 – 9/5. My completed itinerary was:

Tokyo (NRT Airport) → Amami → Kagoshima → Sakurajima (via ferry) → Kagoshima → Kanoya (for Ogawa Falls) → Fukuoka → Kumamoto → Mt. Aso → Kumamoto → Fukuoka Airport ↺ Tokyo

Since I don’t have an international driver’s license, I relied completely on buses, local trains, taxis, ferries, and even rented bikes too! I spent a lot of time on the road but I listened to music, played my Switch, and did a lot of GoPro editing on my phone too. This was my first time traveling in quite a long time due to the pandemic and the typhoons that hit Japan during Obon season, but I’m happy to say it was another huge success! I learned a lot about the rural life of Kyushu, swam in onsen and oceans, and made many friends along the way (both human and goat). It’s been a while since I last updated Resurface to Reality so I hope you enjoy reading all about my latest Kyushu adventures in this latest article series.

Getting to Amami Island

I chose Amami Island as my first destination because it is one of the most popular remote islands for water activities in Kagoshima. It is not technically part of Okinawa, but it is extremely close to some of its island chains and the weather is almost exactly the same. Amami is a place you go to getaway from the crowds and doesn’t have nearly as many people as Naha, but it does have a bustling downtown shopping area where you can interact freely with the islanders. I spent most of my time swimming at my resort and biking around beaches, but there are a number of wonderful things you can see here!

The easiest way to get to Amami Island is by plane, and fortunately all of the best resorts and beaches are near the airport too! You can also travel by ferry from Kagoshima and Okinawa, but these trips can take up to 11 hours which you could be using to relax during your Kyushu vacation. I departed from Narita Airport around 10am on a Monday and my ticket was only 7040 yen, which beats the long 9000 yen ferry! The plane ride was only 2.5 hours and I slept for over half of it. When I reached the airport, I could already feel the tropical breeze and the bright rays from the sun as soon as I went outside. A free shuttle bus was waiting for me outside too, and driver smiled at me and said “Let’s gooooo!” in English. The adventure was about to begin!

Accommodation: Caretta Resort Amami

While looking for accommodations in Amami, I wanted something on the beach preferably with a pool or a hot tub for the ultimate relaxation. Fortunately I found my ideal hotel match at Caretta Resort! Not only did this hotel have a gigantic pool, inflatables, and a hot tub, but it also had friendly goats and was located directly on Kurasaki Beach. This was the closest resort I found in Japan that resembled Koh Samui, one of my favorite islands in Thailand due to the proximity of the ocean and the huge pool. The hospitality was truly amazing and the people were so kind. There were a bunch of kids in the pool roleplaying Pokemon which really brought me back to my childhood too. The view from inside of the rooms is really beautiful too. If you book far enough in advance, you can get a room for under 10000 which truly is a steal for a resort of this quality. I splurged a bit but treating myself was truly worth it! This hotel has everything you need, including free bike rentals too.

I recommend staying in Amami for at least 3 days like I did so you can fully enjoy the beaches and also choose to go snorkeling, kayaking, or paragliding which I will get into in my next article!

Eating a Heart-shaped Donut at Heart Rock

After checking in at my lovely resort and greeting the goat that lives outside of it, I decided to rent a bike from my hotel and bike to the famous Heart Rock that was just 10 mins away. This heart-shaped pool appears most visible during low tides, but you can see it year-round. It is said to have some kind of healing property so it attracts a number of visitors each day.

Before going to Heart Rock, you can stop at Healthy Island Cafe and buy heart-shaped donuts that come in different flavors and also try goat milk ice cream! I enjoyed how creamy it was plus meeting all of the goats outside that had helped make it. You can purchase other products like goat soap, cheese, and mascots as well. The goat culture on Amami Island is truly amazing and everyone loves them!

I really enjoyed walking through the mini jungle area on the path to the beach and met a stray cat on my way to the rock. A lot of Amami is completely untouched making it the perfect place for adventurers to explore!

Heart Rock Address: 1346-1 Akaogi, Tatsugo, Oshima District, Kagoshima 894-0411

Trying Amami Foods & Sake

Amami Island is famous not only for its goat milk ice cream, but also its seafood and black sugar shochu! Due to the pandemic, a number of restaurants were closed so I just kept calling random ones near the beach until I found out that one named Restaurant AMAnesia was open until 7pm. I got extremely lucky because this restaurant was near a famous hotel and had a huge selection of seafood!

I decided to go with the mini steamed lobster set that came with local island specialties, rice, and vegetables. I also ordered a mini assortment of black sugar shochu. To my surprise it was very strong and not very sweet at all, but I still enjoyed it! After enjoying this delicious meal, I went outside to the beach to enjoy the ocean breeze. Boy this sure beat Tokyo!

AMAnesia Address: 1246-1 Kasaricho Oaza Yoan, Amami, Kagoshima 894-0508

I really enjoyed the privateness of Amami Island this day and reflected on my thoughts. This was an incredible first day with perfect weather and I was very excited for the rest of the week!

In my next article, I will be going into detail about various activities you can do on Amami such as paragliding and kayaking through the mangrove. Please look forward to my next article!