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):

Exploring Fukui: The Land of Dinosaurs and Castle in the Clouds (Part 2)

After spending a lovely day at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum, I decided to wake up early on the next day and hike to Ono Castle in hopes of seeing it shrouded in clouds. Besides its prized dinosaurs, Fukui is most famous for its “castle in the sky”. Unfortunately the weather was not cold enough for the clouds to appear as this is a rare phenomenon, but I managed to take some amazing photos from the observatory and try some delicious local food. I have translated some tips from a Japanese blog of how to best see the clouds that many tourism websites have not mentioned, so please continue reading if you’re interested. Overall I’m happy that I spent the night in Ono because it has some of the best hiking spots!

Ono Castle

The city of Ono is nicknamed “little Kyoto” for its rich history and is home to Ono Castle, which appears shrouded in clouds under certain weather conditions. Samurai residences, temples, and traditional shops also line the streets giving this town a unique vibe. Of all the cities I researched in Fukui, this seemed the coolest so this is where I decided to stay the night. The castle is right in the heart of the city and you can see why Fukui takes so much pride in it:

Conditions for the clouds to appear:

  • The sea of ​​clouds appears in the early morning from mid-October to early April. It is most likely seen from dawn to 8am depending on the season but may appear earlier/later.
  • The fall season is when the clouds are most likely to appear around 6:00am – 6:30am due to the humidity. It is best to aim for a day when the temperature falls rapidly.
  • The sea of clouds is most viewable from the ruins of Inuyama Castle which take roughly 25 minutes to hike. Please note that snow may accumulate during the winter season making the mountain harder to climb.
  • If it rains the day before, the clouds are usually still visible but the mountain may be shrouded in mist making them harder to see.
  • The day the sea of clouds appear in Ono, they will not appear on the following day.
  • It is recommended to bring a camera with a lens of at least 70mm to capture the most detail though I only brought my GoPro and iPhone 12 Pro Max camera.
  • Please be weary of wild bears and monkeys in the forest. I saw several monkeys when I climbed but they did not approach me.
  • According to the managers at my hostel, the sea of clouds only appears around 10 times per year and is a rare phenomenon.

For the best hiking route, please see this Google Map link. All of this information was translated from Shirofan and is accurate from my understanding.

Although I wasn’t able to see the clouds, I am still extremely happy with the beautiful photos I took of the castle during the sunrise! I was also able to see it illuminated during my first night in Ono which was really special. I will forever remember my experience here because it was such a fun hike.

Coffee at “coffe&cake紫おん”

Before my flight back to Tokyo, I decided to stop at coffe&cake紫おん to kill time. Yes, this shop hilariously omitted an “e” from their name. Good old Ono. I decided to order the orange Halloween Tart and warm anko bean milk because I was famished from my hike to the castle. The cake had just the right amount of sweetness and really hit the spot. I also enjoyed the added texture from the pie crust. This was my first time having anko milk and it tasted amazing! It was sweet like anmitsu and very filling to me. All of the coffee shops I saw in Ono seemed to have a unique atmosphere, but I am happy that I chose this one for its seasonal sweets. I also grabbed a dinosaur cookie on my way out because why not?

Address: 12-2 Motomachi, Ono, Fukui 912-0081

Oshozu

Oshozu is a natural cold water spring found near Ono Castle. The water is so pure you can drink it directly from the spring. There are funnels that you can use to collect the water and it is structured similar to a shrine. Besides Yakushima, this was one of the few places I could drink water directly from the source. It really is amazing how pure the water is here, and you can tell that the town really takes pride in it.

Address: 5-4 Izumicho, Ono, Fukui 912-0086

Additionally, there are samurai residences, museums, and temples that you can visit around the town if you are keen. Please check the Ono Castle Tourism website for more information.

Accommodation

Since I only stayed here for one night, I decided to stay at a guest house near Ono Castle called Arashima. To my surprise I was the only one here and had a whole room to myself! Arashima is very modest but is centrally located which is important for those who plan on hiking around the area. I accidentally selected the wrong arrival time while booking online, but the staff were kind enough to wait for me and I was met with a warm welcome. They gave me a map and some pretty good bar recommendations, like イチナナバル where I had some nice local wine before I went to sleep. They also informed me that Ono Castle is illuminated at night until 21:00 this season which I never would have known! I was happy that I stayed here because I picked up a lot of good information on Ono from the locals.

My final meal was nishin soba at Fukui Station before I went back to the airport. There is a standing soba restaurant before the ticket gates that is sinfully cheap and has noodles that taste amazing. This bowl contained simmered herring and packed quite the powerful punch:

This will be my last Japan blog for a while as I am getting ready to visit my friends and family in America, but worry not because I will be writing and traveling a ton next year. In 2022 I plan on visiting the remaining 5 prefectures of Japan I have left on my list and whatever Asian countries are safe to visit. Thank you all for your support and thank you for reading. See you in the new year unless plans change!

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~

Finding Paradise Within a City: Exploring Kobe

Over the weekend I went on the ultimate countryside paradise road trip to Kobe and Awaji Island with my friends from Yamanashi who own a car. I have been to Kobe three times total—once during my study abroad trip, another time to Nunobiki Waterfall, and this past holiday weekend because Shin Kobe Station is the closest shinkansen station to Awaji Island. Kobe is a small city you can easily see in a day but it has a beautiful harbor and amazing food. I had a nice stroll down memory lane visiting Chinatown, Harborland, and seeing Spiderman defend the city from atop a Kobe beef store. Glad to know that the city is still safe from heinous crime after all of these years! Without further ado, here are my top recommendations in Kobe:

Dick Bruna Table

When most people come to Kobe they go straight for the beef, but since I don’t eat meat I decided to search for the cutest restaurant in town which I deem Dick Bruna Table. This bunny themed restaurant has delicious entrees, wine, and cute desserts with unique interior decor. I loved how they used giant bunny plushies to help enforce social distancing too. I decided to order the rabbit rice with a fish à la carte for lunch and it was delicious! I notice the sekihan (sweet bean rice) in Hyogo has a defined texture and is less sweet than sekihan I’ve tried in other areas of Japan making it go well with a lot of dishes. Overall the food here was very high quality and even on a weekend I was able to get in without much of a wait. I would definitely recommend this place for lunch, and Chinatown for dinner!

Address: 2 Chome-16-1 Takashima, Nishi Ward, Yokohama, Kanagawa 220-0011

Dessert at Kobe Milk

Kobe Milk is an adorable stand outside of the entrance to Chinatown that sells top quality ice cream and pudding. You can customize your order by adding cookies and decorations on top or just order a regular ice cream cone or jar of pudding. I decided to get creative and request the bear and the Kobe Milk jug on top of mine. I’ve been eating a lot of ice cream this summer, and next to goat milk ice cream on Amami Island, I would have to say that this was the best that I’ve had!

Address: 50-0022 Hyogo, Kobe, Chuo Ward, Motomachidori, 1 Chome-1-1 Shinmotomachi Building 1F

Exploring Rokko Island

In hopes of entering the Kobe Artists Museum which I had never seen before, I decided to ride the Rokko-Line to Kobe’s man-made island with beautiful fountains, museums, and restaurants. To my dismay upon arrival I found out that the museum was closed until mid-December due to the pandemic, but fortunately the weather was sunny and there was a lot for me to see. The most shocking part of being on Rokko Island was seeing so many near naked children swimming in the fountain water while their parents idly chatted on the benches like this was some kind of giant onsen. My brain swiftly shifted gears from “shocked” to “I want to set up my tripod and get in too” so that is exactly what I did! Though I just dipped my feet in, the water was very pure and soothing on a warm summer day. Rokko is a lot similar to Odaiba in Tokyo except smaller in scale but it has the same kind of vibe. I would definitely recommend coming here to kill time during the day because it’s prettier than most of the parks that I’ve seen in central Kobe!

China Town

Chinatown is one of the most iconic spots in Kobe and has a lot neat stuff to see. Though there are a lot of Chinese restaurants here, you’ll see Kobe beef specialty shops strategically placed in between them. There are also arcades and souvenir shops here making Kobe’s Chinatown feel like a miniature version of Yokohama’s Chinatown. What makes Kobe’s Chinatown unique is definitely the statues of Spiderman. They’re definitely authentic and add to the culture of the city.

China Town Food

Since we were starving and on a time crunch, we decided to eat at literally the first restaurant we saw which was called 荟華源 and had an all you can eat menu for 1298 yen for an hour. We were the only people in the restaurant and did major damage in terms of how many dishes we ordered. My personal favorite is the shrimp chili, but the dumplings and vegetable tofu dish I ordered were very good too. The only thing I didn’t like was this bamboo wrapped fried rice with meat in it that was listed on the dessert menu by mistake (either that, or the waiter made a mistake with our order) but all the other food we had was amazing. You really can’t go wrong with any food you order here.

Kobe Harborland

After eating to our hearts’ content, we decided to walk to Kobe Harborland and end the night there. Hardborland is the ideal place for a stroll because it has wide paths and a glistening ocean, not to mention a variety of colorful ships. There are ferries here that you can ride to other places of Japan such as Shodoshima and Oita if you’re up for the long journey. There also is a giant ferris wheel that you can ride. I came here again on my morning run because it’s one of my favorite places in the city due to its cheerful atmosphere.

One thing that really surprised me was how well Kobe followed the emergency state guidelines by completely shutting off the majority of lights from shops and attractions at 8pm. Chinatown was a ghost town after we left. Parts of Harborland were still illuminated but it was darker than what I remembered. Additionally, no bars or restaurants on the central street were in operation at night. Though some might find this disappointing, I actually was impressed. I also saved a lot of money by not drinking!

Access & Accommodation

From Tokyo Station, Shin Kobe Station is around 3 hours and 15000 yen one way. Kobe is best seen on a combined trip to Osaka because there is more to see and do between both cities and they are very close.

Usually I always spend the night in Osaka, but since we were panning on going to Awaji Island early the next day we decided to stay in Kobe Luminous Hotel which was 5000 yen per night. This was a tad expensive compared to what I am normally used to paying, but it was close to the station and ideal for travel. My room was very high quality, extremely quiet, and I slept well here which was important because I had a lot of activities planned for the next day.

Please look forward to my next article on all of the best places to see on Awaji Island!

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 the Wonders of the Ghibli Bakery in Fukuoka: Lune Lapin

Would you risk being spirited away for a taste of this bread?

On the last day of my vacation, I decided to stop at a Ghibli-themed bakery on the outskirts of Fukuoka called Lune Lapin before flying back to Tokyo. This was yet another place that was recommend to me through my IG algorithms and it was definitely on point. Since this bakery is away from the central Hakata Canal area, it is a place that not many people may know about but it has the reputation for baking insanely delicious bread. After taking a combination local buses and trains, I arrived here at 10am on a Sunday morning when the character bread was just being taken out of the oven. As I entered the bakery I was greeted by a statue of a Laputian Robot and there also was a life-sized Totoro bus stop inside before the queue. Fortunately I arrived just in time to get a table and there was a lot of selection!

Though it was truly a tough decision on what to order, here is the bread that I chose to eat:

In my opinion, the bread filled with chocolate tasted the best! The Totoro and Jiji pieces had a lot of chocolate in them and almost tasted like freshly baked cookies so I would highly recommend them to everyone. The Catbus and Porco Rosso ones were filled with honey which wouldn’t be my first choice of filling but was also very sweet and addictive. The Calcifer one was filled with red jelly which I am not always a fan of, but it was only a small amount and the quality of bread was very high so I was able to enjoy it. I had probably consumed a lot of calories this morning, but I was going to a rave this night so I wasn’t particularly worried. This choice was 100% worth it.

The fun part about choosing the bread is each piece has a slightly different design so they are all very unique. For example, some pieces of the Totoro and Calcifer bread had their eyes and mouths open while other pieces didn’t. I liked the careful detail that went into preparing each one. Most pieces range from 200-400 yen so you can eat a lot for a small amount of money!

Here are some more photos I took of the interior decor. I was impressed with all the cells of Kiki’s Delivery Service they had hanging on the wall, plus the custom-made Laputa robots. Though this is not an official Ghibli Cafe, with all the merch they had I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t have some kind of connection to the studio. Their collection was extremely immense and I am excited to see it grow:

Getting to Lune Lapin

From Fukuoka’s Hakata Station, take the Kagoshima Line to Ongagawa Station. Then you can either take a taxi or ride the local bus from the front of the station to Hakusaoki and walk to the bakery. This journey takes about 1.5 hours and costs 1200-1700 yen. It is a bit far from the city center but is worth the journey in my opinion.

Address: 1 Chome-22-5 Denen, Onga, Onga District, Fukuoka 811-4343

Though the bakery is quite popular, people come and go a lot so no reservation is required. I would only recommend making a reservation if you are coming during a busy holiday or have specific bread that you wish to order. If you come in the morning there is much more selection available too!

Final Thoughts

Thank you for reading my latest article on one of the best bakeries that I’ve ever been to in Japan! In my final article in this series I will be talking about my trip to Sakurajima, a volcanic island in Kagoshima. This weekend I will be going to Kobe and Awaji so I will be starting my next article series next week. It sure feels good to be on the road and writing about my adventures again! I am excited to do a reflection post at the end of the year and look back on all of my progress. Thank you for all of your support!