Meeting the Penguins of Shimane Prefecture

It’s time to go back to school!

After a lovely night of eating seafood and drinking luxury cocktails in Kurashiki, it was time to head to the final destination of this backpacking trip: Shimane Prefecture. This was yet another rural prefecture of Japan on my list of places to visit, and I was ecstatic to go to Matsue Vogel Park to see botanical gardens and meet the famous penguins who sometimes wear seasonal outfits. I decided to go in late March because there was a special event where the penguins wear backpacks and waddle around the park at certain times to celebrate the back to school season. It’s much more fun to watch this video demonstration than to have me explain:

Words cannot describe how adorable this scene was. All of us made way for the incoming penguin colony *wearing backpacks* and watched them waddle to the other side of the room. At the end some of them got tired and sat on their bellies which was adorable. In addition to the back to school costumes, they also have special ones for Golden Week! I look forward to seeing what other penguin cosplay they come up with!

In addition to the penguins, there is a huge collection of other rare birds you can view, but I didn’t spend much time here because there were other things I wanted to see in Shimane. I did enjoy the huge flower baskets hanging from the first major greenroom, however. Matsue Vogel Park really has a lot of neat intricate design going for it:

Address: 52 Ogakicho, Matsue, Shimane 690-0263
Entrance Fee: 1050

Getting around Shimane Prefecture

Getting to and around Shimane Prefecture is difficult because it’s extremely rural, so I would highly recommend renting a car. There is limited public transportation available to all of the places mentioned in this article, but you will likely spend hours waiting for infrequent buses and trains. If you only plan on day tripping here like myself, then having a car is a must. However, if you decided to stay overnight then you can likely see all of these places by local train or bus—just be prepared to wait.

I decided to return to Tokyo by plane from the Izumo Airport which cost around 30,000 yen one way, but that is average because JAL has a monopoly on flights here. That may sound like a lot, but I am super close to seeing all prefectures of Japan and decided I will pay whatever it takes to complete my quest. I am very fortunate that my friend offered to drive me for this portion of the trip because it saved me a lot of time in money. The funny thing is, last time I was in Kurashiki, a similar occurrence happened too!

Lunch at a Hippie Cafe

For lunch we decided to go to an organic hippie cafe called Green’s Baby near the castle because it was easy to park there. Since Shimane is mostly farmland, you can expect the vegetables here to be top notch. I ordered a bagna cauda for myself and my friend ordered taco rice because we were hungry. Both tasted amazing, and we got to eat or meals while sitting in hammock chairs too! I would recommend this place to people who are tired of eating the same food and are looking for a new experience.

Address: 204 Tonomachi, Matsue, Shimane 690-0887

Yuushien at Daikon Island

Our next destination was Shimane’s most famous garden called Yuushien, which you can reach by crossing a bridge to Daikon Island. Yuushien has a variety of artistic flower arrangements, seasonal flowers, and Japanese gardens. It is truly serene and clearly reflects the changes of the seasons. My friend and I had a lot of fun stepping on the rocks and hiking up to the waterfall. Daikon Island is pretty rural but this garden gives it a ton of color.

After circling around the garden twice, we decided to treat ourselves to parfaits at the Yuushien Cafe. My friend ordered the signature matcha parfait, and I ordered an anko set that came with hot green tea. Once again, they both exceeded our expectations. Beforehand I had no idea that Shimane’s tea and desserts tasted so delicious, but it makes sense because there are plenty of organic farms here.

Address: 1260-2 Yatsukacho Hanyu, Matsue, Shimane 690-1492
Entrance Fee: 800 yen

Matsue Castle

Before heading to the airport where I would fly back to Tokyo, we stopped at Matsue Castle on the way. This is actually the only remaining castle in the San’in region and is very large with 4 floors and an indoor museum. Surviving many natural disasters, it has kept its wooden structure and not needed a concrete reconstruction. It stands on the shores of Lake Shinji, which is Shimane’s famous lake that spans 30 miles. It was fun to drive alongside the lake and see all the birds that reside in it. Matsue Castle has a great view of the surrounding area so it is the perfect way to start or end a trip!

Address: 1-5 Tonomachi, Matsue, Shimane 690-0887
Entrance Fee: 680 yen

Final Thoughts

It was extremely fulfilling to complete this long four day backpacking trip from Fukuoka to Shimane and see two prefectures I had never seen before. Would I recommend this itinerary to everyone? No, because it went at an extremely fast pace and only focused on places I had never seen before, but I think a lot can be learned from reading about my experience which is why I wanted to share it here. Those who have lived in Japan for a while may be interested in some of the places I have discovered. Some of these places were challenging to go to and required a rental car, but were definitely worth the effort. As of now, I only have three remaining prefectures of Japan to visit which I plan on seeing at the end of this month!

Thank you all to have kept up with my crazy journeys. This is the final article in this series, but I will be publishing my next series on my trip to Nara this month! Please look forward to reading about my experience staying in a cottage in the woods with hungry deer looming outside.

KEEP HOPE ALIVE: Journey to the Hill of Hope

Continuing on from my backpacking trip through Yamaguchi Prefecture, I next ventured to Hiroshima where my main destination was the white marble Hill of Hope on Setoda Island. This beautiful sculpture garden was designed by an architect named Kuetani Ittou who was born in Hiroshima and all of the marble materials were actually mined and transported from Italy. Visitors can freely climb around the walls and up the pristine stairs to see a beautiful view of the ocean. There is also a little cafe here that sells delicious sakura gelato on the way up to the top. Hope is still very much alive here, and this monument beautifully ties it together in harmony with the surrounding area.

Address: 553-2 Setodacho Setoda, Onomichi, Hiroshima 722-2411
Entry Fee: 1400 yen (includes entry to Kosanji Temple and the Kongo Gallery as well)

Getting to Setoda Island

From Hiroshima Station, take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Mihara Station, then take a short ferry ride to Setoda Island and you can walk directly there. This trip takes about 2 hours depending on the ferry time table at Mihara Port. You can also visit the rabbit island from here. These islands make ideal day trips because they are small and you can cover most of the area on foot.

For information on how to get to Hiroshima and my recommended sightseeing points, please see my previous Hiroshima and Onomichi articles.

Other Points of Interest

Right before the Hill of Hope is a beautiful temple complex called Kosanji that you will see on your way there. I enjoyed seeing its striking colors and the beautiful lilies in the water. This is definitely the most gorgeous temple in all of Hiroshima Prefecture. Setoda Island is also very famous for its lemons and you will see various shops selling lemonade here! Though small, this island is the perfect half-day trip and you can easily combine it with a trip to Hiroshima City or Okayama. I decided to take the train to Kurashiki in Okayama because I was meeting a sponsor in the evening. This ended up being a great idea because I got the chance to go on another boat ride and see the gorgeous canal town again!

Revisiting Kurashiki

I first visited Kurashiki years ago while hitch-hiking through Okayama and really enjoyed the rustic charm of the canals. Unfortunately the day I went was a holiday and the canal boats were fully booked, but this time I made it just in time for a boat tour! The ride is only around 15 minutes but you can see the town from a lovely angle while feeling the soft breeze from the canal. I was happy to finally experience this, because it felt similar to the settings of one of my favorite anime called Aria.

Address: 1-4-8 Chuo, Kurashiki City (Kurashiki Tourist Information Center)
Ticket Fee: 500 yen

Afterwards it was around 6pm so we decided to eat some delicious seafood at a nearby restaurant called Hamayoshi. I cannot recommend it enough because the squid and sashimi especially were amazing!

Accommodation

Last time I was backpacking in Okayama I stayed in a net cafe near the station, but this time I stayed at the Royal Park Hotel in Kurashiki. Upgrade much? This hotel is around 8000 yen per night but that is a fair price for this area and it has a public onsen plus breakfast included. For the amenities it was more than worth the price.

The next article will be the final part of this series where I will be visiting Shimane Prefecture for the first time. Thank you all for supporting me on this long and crazy journey.

Exploring one of Japan’s Most Rural Prefectures: Yamaguchi

Motonosumi Shrine in Northern Yamaguchi along the Sea of Japan.

After an eventful day in Fukuoka paying my respects to the frog gods and eating delicious food, I decided to take the bullet train to Yamaguchi the next morning because it was one of the few prefectures I had yet to explore in Japan. Yamaguchi is most famous for Akiyoshido Cave, which is the largest limestone cave in Japan. It is also famous for its blowfish and has delicious seafood you can try.

Other points of interest include Hagi, the old castle town, Beppu Benten Pond, and various bridges and shrines. Though renowned for its scenery, Yamaguchi does not have the best public transport. I would recommend seeing all of the prefectures in Kyushu before coming here because there is much more to do and the beaches and onsen are of much higher quality. That being said, Yamaguchi does have some interesting points that I will be highlighting in this article, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to finally see it!

Getting to Yamaguchi from Fukuoka

From Hakata Station, traveling to Shin Yamaguchi Station on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen takes around 35 mins and costs 6000 yen. From Shin Yamaguchi Station, you can take a bus or local train to various locations but I would recommend renting a car or taxi to get your time’s worth out of this prefecture.

Yamaguchi also has an airport (Yamaguchi Ube Airport) but it is cheaper to fly to Fukuoka and take the bullet train to reach the station. Once again, I would definitely recommend spending at least a day in Fukuoka and other parts of Kyushu because the atmosphere is better.

When I arrived at Shin Yamaguchi Station, I was actually surprised at how modern it was. I was expecting it to be an extremely rural station and pretty empty, but it had signs that clearly marked the area and I saw a decent number of people commuting here. The most disappointing part was that almost all the shops in the station were closed minus 7-Eleven and a tiny udon shop by the waiting room. I really wanted to try more of the local food but ended up settling for convenience store options because I was on a tight schedule.

I went to the tourist information center a grabbed a map so I wouldn’t get lost. Fortunately there is a cheap bus that goes from Shin Yamaguchi Station to Akiyoshido Cave so it is the best place to explore first. The workers at the information center also informed me that there are a number of taxis you can take from the caves to other locations in Yamaguchi, so that saved me the trouble of trying to call or book one in advance. Though I was initially expecting this to be a challenging day, fortunately everything I wanted to see was accessible even though I did not have a car.

Akiyoshido Cave

Akiyoshido is the largest limestone cave in Japan that’s existence can be traced back to 300 million years ago. It is part of the Akiyoshidai Plateau Quasi-National Park that has a number of phenomenal hiking spots and places to see. Inside of the cave you will notice formations that resemble various parts of Japan such as the Thousand Rice Fields, the Goddess of Mercy, and the “Big Mushroom”. The accessible part of the cave for tourists spans about one mile, and when you exit you will walk through a fluorescent tunnel that takes you through the essence of time. I thought this cave was well laid out, but I recommend Miyakojima’s Pumpkin Cave and Okayama’s Rainbow Cave because they are more interesting to see. However, there are additional places you can explore at this national park if you keep hiking after the exit. I did not have the time or energy to see them all, but please reference the Akiyoshidai Website for more information.

Address: 3506-2 Shuhocho Akiyoshi, Mine, Yamaguchi 754-0511
Entrance Fee: 1200 yen

After exiting the cave, I cut a deal with a taxi driver to take me to the following locations for 20,000 yen. Though this was expensive, this was the most cost efficient way for me to see all of Yamaguchi in one day and I don’t regret it.

Beppu Benten Pond

Beppu Benten Pond is a strikingly clear blue pond near the limestone caves in the small town of Mine. On sunny days that pond appears crystal clear like glass, reminding me of Monet’s Pond that I saw in Gifu. There is a legend that drinking Beppu’s water will extend your lifespan for a year, but since it was raining I did not try it out! There are a number of trout that live in this pond so I decided to leave the magical life-extending water to them. What’s also amazing is this pond’s temperature stays at 14 degrees Celsius all year. On the day that I went, the sunlight made a heart-shaped shadow on the pond which I thought was very special! If you go to Akiyoshido then I would definitely recommend checking this out because it is extremely nearby.

Address: 1578 Shuhocho Beppu, Mine, Yamaguchi 754-0603
Entrance Fee: Free

Motonosumi Shrine

From the pond, I had my taxi driver take me to Motonosumi Shrine which was all the way north next. This was about a 45 minute drive but was extremely worth it because the layout of this seaside shrine was gorgeous. Motonosumi Shrine is an Inari shrine which means it has fox deities and a large number of tori that lead to the offering box. Instead of being on the ground, the offering box is attached to one of the upper beams of the main tori making it extremely unique. It is said that good luck comes to whomever can toss their coins successfully into the box. I would recommend this shrine as the #1 sightseeing spot in Yamaguchi because there are not many others like it!

Address: 498 Yuyatsuo, Nagato, Yamaguchi 759-4712
Entrance Fee: Free

After fully exploring the shrine by the coast (it really only takes 25 mins to see), I had my taxi driver drop me off at Hagi Bus Center where I drank by myself and waited 2 hours for the Hello Kitty bus to pick me up and return me to Shin Yamaguchi Station so I could reach my next destination. Not complaining though, because I was riding in style! Do be mindful of the bus schedules here because buses are truly infrequent in this prefecture even when they connect to the major stations.

Other Recommendations

Other popular destinations in Yamaguchi include Tsunoshima Ohashi Bridge, which connects to a small island called Tsunoshima. If I had a rental car, I probably would had tried to go here, but the island is very rural and does not contain many points of interest outside of one of the oldest Western-styled lighthouses. Kintaikyo bridge near the airport is also very famous for its architecture, but since it was out of the way and I have already seen so many bridges in Japan I decided to skip it. I did not fully see the castle town but I did walk around Hagi while waiting for my Hello Kitty bus and it was interesting enough. Sadly it was raining else I would have taken more photos.

Most articles recommend staying 2 days in Yamaguchi to fully experience it, but I was able to see everything that I wanted in a single day trip. If you are doing a day trip like myself I would recommend choosing 3 spots that most interest you and sticking close to them. Though Yamaguchi is a place that I wouldn’t recommend to people because other rural prefectures like Gunma and Saga have far more to see, I was grateful for what I experience and was even more ecstatic to finally cross this place off my bucket list! When I was done sightseeing I returned to Shin Yamaguchi Station and rode the bullet train to Hiroshima Station because that is where my next adventure was about to begin.

In my next article, I will be exploring a small art island of Hiroshima and also re-visiting Kurashiki. The adventures truly never seem to end and I have been living life to the fullest this year. I cannot wait to see what other wonderful things are in store!

Exploring Fukuoka’s Frog Temple: Nyoirinji (Kaeru-dera)

Last week I decided to go on a spontaneous backpacking trip starting in Fukuoka and ending in Shimane Prefecture. The purpose of this trip was to explore 2 prefectures I had never seen before–Yamaguchi and Shimane–and also see some shrines, islands, and monuments in other prefectures that I had previously missed or not known about until earlier this year. Since Japan is gradually easing its entry restrictions for international students and business travel, my goal is to knock out as many destinations on my travel list between now and when tourists are allowed in again. When exactly that will be is currently unknown, but as long as covid cases don’t spike again like they did earlier in January, I think it could be possible later this year!

In this article series, I will be talking about some rare and little-known places in the 5 prefectures I visited in under 4 days. This trip went at an extremely fast pace since I had already been to some of these areas before, but it was extremely rewarding because I learned a lot about southern Tohoku and met up with friends along the way.

For information on how to get to Fukuoka from Tokyo and my recommended sightseeing points, please see my previous Fukuoka article from last year. I decided to start in Fukuoka just because there are a lot of discount flights there from Narita Airport, and it was convenient to take the shinkansen from Hakata Station to travel to other places on my list.

When I landed at Fukuoka Airport around noon, my best friend here came to pick me up in her car and we decided to go to Nyoirinji, aka the frog temple, which might be one of the most elaborate temples in the entire prefecture. Upon entering the grounds of this temple, over 5,000 frogs will welcome you!

First of all, I should note that this temple has influences from not only from Japan but other East Asian countries as well. It reminded me of some of the temples I had seen in Thailand and Vietnam long ago because it had a lot of foreign architecture. What I liked about it most was that it was very hands-on and had an amazing atmosphere being nestled in the countryside. You can crawl through and write messages on the metal frogs near the entrance which was very fun and interactive to me. There is also a giant frog that spits bubbles near the main entrance to the temple. How amazing is that!? If you walk through the gift shop and towards the back window, you will see a large variety of frogs from around the world. I spotted more than one Kermit plus a Beanie Baby from my childhood. I was not expecting to reconnect with my past like this, but I am so happy I did because these frogs brought back a lot of memories!

If you exit and keep walking around towards the back of this building, you can go downstairs to an area with neon lighting and hundreds of tiny Shinto statues. I thought this hidden part was so unique. I also recommend walking through the moss garden and up to the pagoda for a stunning view. This shrine truly has a lot for visitors to discover and that’s what makes it a special destination.

Address: 1728 Yokoguma, Ogori, Fukuoka 838-0105

Please note that you can get here by local train/taxi but traveling by car is the most efficient way.

Admission Fee: Free

Special Frogs & Monuments

While walking around the premises of Nyoirinji, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for special frogs and monuments! We spotted 2 Pikachu, a frog holding a 5 yen coin, Kumamon, and some lowkey frogs with their genitalia hanging out. These are just a few of many crazy but awesome things that you can see here!

Meet Nyoirinji’s Cat

When I was looking at pictures of this temple online, I saw this cat come up a lot and was very happy I had the chance to meet him in the flesh! He reminded me a lot of my own cat because he was very charming and cuddly. He seemed to enjoy all of the people coming to pet him at Nyoirinji while he basked in the sunlight. I’m quite envious of his lifestyle!

Fresh Eats in Fukuoka

While heading back to my accommodation, we decided to stop at some delicious shops on the way. Our first stop was at Kaisen Donburi Hanabi in Ropponmatsu, which is a really cool neighborhood just outside of central Fukuoka with a number of small coffee shops and music cafes. At Hanabi we ate mouthwatering seafood rice bowls that were probably the best I’ve ever had in this prefecture. I ordered shrimp topped with salmon roe and egg and couldn’t believe how huge the shrimp were! My friend and I joked that they must massage the shrimp here like they do the cows in Kobe to produce their famous beef!

For dessert we stopped at a CBD cafe called Green Life and had some really sweet CBD smoothies. CBD became really popular in Japan last year when the government restricted alcohol being sold at bars in efforts to stop covid from spreading. I don’t take it often but when I do, I definitely feel a bit more relaxed. The chocolate banana smoothie I had was blended very smoothly and I appreciate the large amount of chocolate sauce they used in their recipe too.

The next morning I stopped at a food truck called MEETS which sells coffee, bread, and delicious dessert waffles shaped like the moon. I absolutely loved the design of my moon waffle because not only did it have caramel, nuts, and chocolate on it, but also an oatmeal cookie! I thought this idea was so creative. On this trip I noticed a number of new food trucks have started popping up around the city and I’m excited to see what other delicious foods and desserts are sold in the future.

Spot the Cherry Blossoms

On my way to Hakata Station the next morning, I saw cherry blossoms blooming at Tochoji Temple! Unfortunately I didn’t have time to check out all of the major cherry blossom viewing spots, but please see Fukuoka Now’s Guide for more information on them.

In my next article, I will be exploring all the major sights of Yamaguchi Prefecture. Please look forward to it!

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!

Exploring Fukui: The Land of Dinosaurs and Castle in the Clouds (Part 1)

A trip to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum—arguably one of the coolest field trips in Japan!

Over the last two days, I decided to take a solo trip to Fukui Prefecture, one of the 6 prefectures of Japan I had yet to visit. My main two reasons for going were to see the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum and Ono Castle, which appears shrouded in clouds under certain weather conditions. The best time to photograph it is during the fall season so I decided to seize the opportunity in mid-October. Though very rural, Fukui has a rustic charm to it and also has delicious seafood since it is close to Kanazawa. I would recommend coming here after you have explored all of the major cities of Japan and are looking for something different as there is a lot of history here. The dinosaur museum is definitely the major draw for tourism but there are a lot of temples and castles to see too!

Getting to Fukui

Fukui is quite remote from Tokyo, so I flew from Haneda Airport to Komatsu Airport for around 25,000 yen through JAL Airlines then took a local bus to central Fukui. The flight took around one hour, and the bus ride took an additional hour. From Tokyo Station, the trip to Fukui Station is 3.5 hours and costs 15,000 yen one way, so flying is the cheaper option especially if you can book in advance.

While at Fukui Station, I enjoyed seeing all of the dinosaur themed foods, including sushi! Of course the sushi was mackeral flavored and not dinosaur flavored, but they really went hard with the marketing here and I respect the hustle. I treated myself to a crab ekiben which tasted amazing and went outside to see the giant dinosaur at the station square. It sure was a sight to see! Afterwards I decided to head directly to the city’s prized dinosaur museum.

Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum

From Fukui Station, I took the local train to Katsuyama where the dinosaur museum was located. On the way there, a the train attendant offered me a discount ticket to the museum which included roundtrip train and/or bus fare. The ticket cost 2600 yen but she subtracted my train ticket expensive from it so I only paid 1900 yen for it. This offer is currently available until the end of the year and I highly recommend it!

I was surprised to find that the dinosaur museum was larger than I expected with 4 floors, 2 cafes, and outdoor parks with large dinosaur models and a safari. There is a huge collection of fossils, dioramas, and skeletons that really do a good job in showing how these magnificent creatures came to life and evolved. My favorite part was the animatronics which looked shockingly realistic:

Out of all of the prefectures in Japan, the most dinosaurs have been unearthed from Fukui, including the Fukuititan! For a full list of everything that has been discovered here, please check out the Katsuyama City website. Additionally, each season a temporary exhibition is held, and during the time I came here it was sea dragon themed. It was really cool to learn that sea dragons actually existed in the form of the Gurifoderuma Kangi that was originally discovered in China. They really put a lot of effort into making their exhibits interactive and appealing to all ages which is why I give this museum a high rating.

Before leaving, I decided to grab a bite at the Saurus Kitchen and Dino Cafe. Both have very similar menus, but I wanted to try the dino pancakes and the tyranno parfait which are exclusive items. I was not disappointed because these two desserts really hit the spot and looked aesthetically pleasing. There’s also dino curry, ramen, and other dishes you can try here. You really can’t go wrong with this menu:

Overall I spent around 1.5 hours at this museum and could see why it was so hyped up. The dinosaur exhibits truly are massive and immerse you in a jurassic world. I have a newfound appreciation for Fukui Prefecture after seeing how much history it has!

Thank you for reading the first part of my Fukui article series. In my next article I will be talking about Ono Castle, more food, and accommodations so please stay tuned!