Aesthetic Food Finds in Nagoya Vol. 3 ft. Meijo Park

A trip to Nagoya is never complete without trying all of the delicious food available.  This aesthetic food adventure takes us to many dessert cafes and restaurants that have just re-opened after the emergency state ended.  We also drank at Meijo Park near Nagoya Castle which is one of the chillest spots I’ve found in this city with awesome scenery.  All of the places I visited this weekend have a lovely atmosphere and I can’t recommend them enough!

I’ll be expanding this list as I find more places, but feel free to suggest any you recommend in the comments!  Please see Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 for reference.

Holland

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Tom Nook ain’t got nothing on these cupcakes.

Around the time that Animal Crossing for Switch was released, these guys popped up in my recommended desserts feed on Instagram.  Though I don’t play the game because I value my free time, who could pass up the chance to try tanuki cupcakes!?  Holland is western-themed desserts and confectionery shop near Kanayama Station in Nagoya.  They sell individual sweets and customized cakes for a pretty affordable price.  The tanuki cupcakes come in strawberry and chocolate flavors.  They had both a wafer and cake-like texture underneath the frosting.  Honestly they hit the spot after traveling over 2 hours here from Tokyo.  I am excited to see what other fun cupcakes they design in the future!

Cafe One

Cafe One in central Sakae delivers breakfast of the champions with it’s signature nekopan.  Or should I say breakfast of the champio-nyans?  Whatever you want to call it, it’s mouthwatering and delicious.  I had ice cream milk coffee that was decorated to look like a cat with a mustache and a cookie tail on the side.  I instantly felt energized after consuming all that ice cream and sugar.  My boyfriend ordered neko melonpan that had no face but was thicc and tasted amazing.  I ordered the nekopan with almond eyes that was covered in peanut butter and marshmallow toppings with chocolate whiskers.  Honestly is was a bit overwhelming but was also some of the best bread I had ever tasted.  There are many flavors of nekopan available here so I’d love to try more in the future!

Dean & Deluca Deli

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Nothing says a balanced diet like nekopan and freshly chopped salad.

After consuming all of that sugar, we walked around for a while and decided we should eat something healthy for lunch.  Not too far from Cafe One is the Dean & Deluca Deli where you can order sandwiches and fresh salad for a healthy meal.  They offer juices, desserts, and takeout options here as well.  I decided to get the vegetable salad with avocado, grilled pumpkin, potato, lettuce, quinoa, and carrots.  It was a good balance to what I ate for breakfast and gave me a lot of energy for the rest of the day.  My boyfriend had the chicken sandwich and said it had his stamp of approval too.  This place is win-win for both vegetarians and people who like meat because it has a number of options.

Poket

Poket is a Hawaiin restaurant that just moved to the bottom floor of ASTIR Hotel in Sakae.  They are relatively new but have a really vibrant and welcoming atmosphere.  Poke Bowls are the specialty here which you can order with salad or rice as your base.  I customized my bowl to include sauteed octopus and vegetables.  For dessert, I decided to try their one of a kind “banana soft” which is vanilla ice cream that is carefully placed inside of a fresh banana.  The result is extremely photogenic and Instagrammable.  Bananas sure have evolved a lot!  The drink menu has Japanese drinks, Hawaiin beers, and pineapple sours.  I definitely felt like we were in a tropical place even though we are currently in the middle of the rainy season in Japan.  I would definitely come back here again to try more variety of of Poke and see what other crazy desserts they come up with!

杏ZU

For once I wasn’t the one that found this restaurant—full credit goes to my boyfriend for taking us here.  杏ZU specializes in vegan Chinese food but has a non-vegan menu too.  I decided to ordered the vegetables boiled with yuba tofu (vegan option).  I also tried some Chinese wine on the rocks.  It was bitter but tasted just right paired with the food.  My boyfriend got a chicken dish that was served in a delicious rice cracker.  What makes this place stand out from other Chinese restaurants is the seasoning they use in their cooking.  I tasted a hint of lemon in mine and it was very healthy because they didn’t use any butter in it.  I would really like to come back here and try some shrimp dishes in the future.  This place will be on my watch list.

Meijo Park

Situated next to Nagoya Castle, Meijo Park is one of the ideal places to drink or have a picnic.  Unlike other parks and gardens in Nagoya, it doesn’t have an entrance fee and is open 24 hours.  It feels like something out of an RPG because it has a giant windmill that looks like it holds secrets, a sundial that could possibly turn back time, and comically huge sunflowers everywhere.  Not to mention the adorable stray cats.  You could definitely use this place in a game map.  Anyway, my boyfriend and I spent 2 hours drinking here before Final Fantasy VII trivia night at Critical Hit.  We also tried the new Blue Hawaii donut at Lyrical Coffee Donut which was better than their matcha series.  I later came back here to watch the sunset and see the moon before I left for Tokyo.  This place has a wonderful aesthetic because all of the trees block the city lights.

That’s all the aesthetic food finds for this week.  I’ll have more to write about when I visit Nagoya again later this month!  Thank you for reading.

My favorite places to hang in Seoul

Since I’ve finished my Jeju Island article series, I’m going to write about some of my favorite places to hang out in Seoul next.  It’s hard to structure this article because there are literally so many cool areas of the city!  My two favorite districts in Seoul are by far Itaewon and Gangnam.  Both have extremely different vibes but are perfect for a night out depending on what my mood is.  Itaewon is friendliest and most international while Gangnam is the fanciest district is Seoul.  Even though I can’t speak Hangul, I never have trouble making friends in this city.  Spontaneously getting invited to a bachelor’s party while staying here was one of the coolest things that have ever happened to me in a foreign country.  I’ve been to Korea three times and hope to visit again when international travel is possible again.

Without further ado, here are the most fun places that I’ve discovered:

Common Ground

Common Ground is an urban mall that was built out of containers and is really fun to explore.  Unlike other malls, there’s not a huge mob of annoying shoppers here because those type of people usually go to the fancier malls in the center of the city.  Common Ground features small designer stores and also has restaurants and live music.  A lot of stores here import brands too.  No matter what your price range is, you can usually find something that fits your taste here.  I actually didn’t buy much but I had fun doing photography with the winter illuminations outside.  There was also a statue of an astronaut outside and some replicas of Roman statues inside the main building when I visited.  How aesthetic!

While I was walking around here, a Korean student came up to me and interviewed me for a university project.  Since I didn’t have a strict itinerary during my first trip, I happily participated.  She asked me various questions about my country and also gave me some Korean snacks.  Though it was a simple project, I was happy that I could help out.  Common Ground is close to many universities so it’s great for socializing and meeting people!

Lotte World

Lotte World is one of the most famous amusement parks in Korea.  In fact, it’s the largest indoor theme park in the world—which is why I had to go!  It’s located in the massive Lotte Mall that has hundreds of shops and food from all around the world.  If you are looking for top tier shopping in Seoul, then this is the place.  I came after the start of the new year so the park had a winter theme.  Fortunately it wasn’t very crowded and I could ride all of the rides that I wanted!  There are carousels, roller coasters, haunted houses, and my personal favorite: The Balloon Ride.  You can see the entire indoor park and mall from the top which makes it an amazing experience.

Even though Lotte World is owned by Lotte Co. Ltd., there are actually a lot of parallels between it and Disney Land.  For example, the outside of Lotte World resembles the Disney World Castle.  It also has a beautiful lake that you can view by walking across a bridge that leads to the artificially created “Magic Island” which is a lot like Disney Sea.  Despite these similarities, the attractions are quite different and the entrance to Lotte World is considerably cheaper.  If you like one park, you’ll probably like the other too.

I would recommend checking out Lotte World as opposed to other amusement parks because you can come here in any kind of weather thanks to the indoor park area.

Entrance Fee: 32$ for adults (cheaper than most amusement parks in Japan so it’s overall worth it)

Jogyesa Temple

The Jogyesa Temple in Insadong, Seoul is probably my favorite temple of all time in Korea.  I first came here during the Lotus Festival in April and many bright hand-crafted paper ornaments were hung around the entire complex.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!  Jogyesa is actually the center of Buddhism in Korea and many rituals and ceremonies are held here.  There are private prayer rooms as well as places that you can make public offerings.  The Chinese Scholar Tree was planted on the temple grounds because it is said to convert negative energy into positive energy and happiness.  Though I’m not particularly religious, I definitely felt in high spirits here.  Please check this place out if you ever get the chance.  The monks are very friendly and welcoming.

I enjoyed seeing the English pack of M&Ms being used as an offering when I went:

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Entrance Fee: Free

Myeongdong

Myeongdong is essentially the Shibuya/Harajuku of Seoul.  You can come here at any time of day and find something fun to do.  It has street food, hilarious fashion (“say no to kids, drugs”), recreational parks, and cafes galore.  The street and night markets have knock-off Gucci and Supreme which you can score for a low price.  I enjoyed eating octopus and drinking sochu while I walked through all the streets and alleyways.

Some of my favorite places I found around Myeongdong Station were:

  • Artbox – An adorable mall with art supplies, cosmetics, and accessories.  It reminded me of the LINE Friends store in Japan but had way more variety.
  • Stylenada 3CE – A pool-themed shopping mall and cafe with beautiful pink decor.  It has amazing desserts!
  • Bbongsin – An amazing restaurant with cold noodles and calzones.  Some of the best Korean food I’ve ever had!
  • Milky Bee – An ice cream shop with flower-shape gelato.
  • Happy Pills – Candy prescriptions.

Myeongdong has bars that stay open late, but not much of a club scene.  Continue reading to see my recommendations for clubs:

Gangnam

Ever since the song “Gangnam Style” became a hit song, I feel like this district doesn’t really need an introduction but I’ll give it a go anyway.  Gangnam is the most upscale district in Seoul but you can enjoy the nightlife here with almost any budget.  In addition to some of the most reputable clubs, it has secluded parks you can walk through by the river side and amazing cafes.  Gangnam itself is pretty spread out so people don’t normally drink in the streets like in Itaewon.  It’s classy and has a club area as well as a quiet upscale residential district as well.

My first memory of Gangnam was meeting up with some of my old college friends here and going to Octagon, where we got invited to VIP tables and drank champagne.  If you’re a girl then it’s really easy to meet people that will buy you drinks here.  The crowds and sound system are pretty insane too.  I honestly got too lit my first time here so I’d really like to come back and just focus on the music next time.

Last year I decided to get my eye bags removed at JK Plastic in Gangnam.  I had sunken eyelids that were caused by genetics so the veins under my skin would show and create permanent eye bags.  I always looked tired and wanted to fix the issue so I opted for eye surgery.  I chose JK Plastic because they are one of the highest-rated clinics in Korea and speak English.  It took about a week of downtime in Korea and then six weeks of recovery at home, but the skin beneath my eyelids has been fully restored now!  When I woke up from surgery I nearly cried because they did such an amazing job and I could already see the results despite having a swollen face.  During my down time I played visual novels and also watched a lot of anime.  It wasn’t so bad—just make sure you have enough time off to take care of yourself!

Plastic surgeons in Korea are the best in the world.  The advantage of going here is that if you’re a tourist you can get a tax refund from the surgery when you go to the airport.  I would not recommend plastic surgery in Japan because my friends have said the surgeons here are not as experienced or friendly.  I would recommend doing research, scheduling an online consultation with a clinic you like, and seeing what options fit you best.  I may write a full article on this at a later time!

Itaewon

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The inside of Fountain, one of my favorite watering holes in Itaewon.

Itaewon is my favorite place to start my night out in Seoul.  I have so many fond memories here.  It caters to the late-night international crowd and has small, condensed streets as well as beautiful murals that decorate the walls.  You can sit at an outdoor bar or go drinking in the street and easily meet people (both tourists and Korean nationals).  You can find pretty much any type of restaurant or dessert shop here too.  It has the feel of a college town but is much more upscale and classy.  Usually I spend my first night going to various clubs and bars then wake up and soak in Itaewon Land Spa.

My favorite club here is called Cakeshop because it features a lot of independent producers from both Seoul and other countries plus it has a great vibe.  It originally caught my eye because Carpainter did a set here in 2015 (unfortunately I was in America at the time or I would have gone).  The club is small enough with one DJ booth and bar that it’s easy to converse with people and enjoy the music.  I have made a number of friends here that I still stay in touch with.  The entry fee usually isn’t more than $25.

Besides Cakeshop, Fountain is a great place to check out.  The first floor is huge dance floor that’s always usually packed and the upper floors have tables and arcades for bigger groups.  The music here is usually western EDM which disinterests me, but the atmosphere of the club is impressive.  I have never paid any entrance fee when I have gone in.  What I remember of Club Awesome was awesome too!

Next time I’m here I really want to check out a club called Pumpkin.  If it’s actually Halloween-themed like its outer decor implies then I’m in.

Other Interesting Places:

  • Hongdae – Hongdae is a popular spot for college students and those who love K-pop music clubs.  I came here to visit the ADERerror store and also to do some shopping.  I didn’t like it as much as Itaewon or Gangnam due to my music taste, but I highly recommend you spend a night exploring here and see what you think.

    I found an amazing “Magical Item Shop” called Creamy DD with tons of Sailor Moon and other magical girl accessories here.  It’s easy to spot the sign if you walk down the main road:

  • Ihwa Mural Village – Since I went to Busan and saw Gamcheon I skipped this village, but if you are looking for beautiful murals and art to see then please check this place out!  I want to go here in the future.
  • Secret Garden – A scenic area around Changdeokgung Palace that I recommend checking out if you have the time.  It is one of the most beautiful gardens in Seoul!
  • Nami Island – A scenic island near Seoul where many K-dramas are filmed.  Click the link to read my full article on it!

Places to Stay

As a backpacker, I favor cheap hostels but the majority of accommodations in Korea are less expensive than in Japan.  You can likely find a nice hotel for $45 USD or less too.

Here are some of the places that I stayed at and enjoyed in Korea.  I booked them close in proximity to the clubs I was interested in checking out:

  • Guesthouse Yacht (Itaewon) – A very inexpensive apartment-style dorm in the heart of Itaewon.  This is my go-to place if I’m spending the night there because it’s safe, quiet, and conveniently located.
  • Kimchee Guesthouse (Gangnam) – A guest house near Gangnam City Office that has private and dorm rooms.  I stayed here during my eye surgery recovery period and it was perfect because my room had a shower inside it.  This is the cheapest you will get in the fanciest part of the city, I assure you.
  • Neo Seoul Guesthouse – I wanted to try staying in Hongdae for a night, so I chose this place because of the cool name.  It was cheap and I could easily access the airport limousine the next day so I recommend it for its convenience (Itaewon and Gangnam are a bit further away).

Dessert Recommendations

Please see Desserts that will make your heart melt in Seoul Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

This will be the last article about Korea that I write until my next trip!  Since I live in Japan, I can sometimes find cheap round-trip flights for under $150 so I come here usually once a year for a week long vacation.  Usually new restaurants and venues open, plus cosmetics and beauty clinics are really cheap here so I always have something to look forward to.  Until next time, Seoul!

 

Getting Invited to a Bachelor’s Party then traveling to Korea’s DMZ on the Day When Peace was Declared Between North Korea and South Korea [A True Story]

Apr. 27th, 2018 – I’ll never forget the day when I was strolling through Itaewon on my way to the club when I ran into a group of Korean guys who were pouring beer in plastic cups and passing them out to random people on the street.  Not wanting to be rude, I happily accepted one and drank it with them.  I noticed one of the guys in their group was dressed up in body armor made of cardboard and duct tape while the others playfully gave him commands.  Since this was only my 2nd time in Korea, I wasn’t sure if this was something normal or a special occasion.  Fortunately some of guys spoke English and informed me what was going on—this was a bachelor’s party.  A very casual and spontaneous one, apparently.  And I was invited!  Lucky me~

Since I left America when I was 21 years old, I never had the chance to partake in any wedding parties since I wasn’t old enough to drink.  Not many of my friends were mature enough to get married at that age either.  Who would have guessed that my first time attending one would be in Korea with a bunch of guys I just met?  I had booked a tour to the DMZ the next day, but I figured I could drink and relax for a few hours since it was my first night in town.  And this would historically be a night to remember, because the very next day North Korea and South Korea agree to end war.  But we wouldn’t know that until the next day…

After hanging out on the street and making conversation with random people, we moved to Awesome Lounge where they had reserved a VIP table.  I had been to a number of bars and clubs in Itaewon before, but this was my very first time here.  Everyone was extremely friendly and I was honestly having the time of my life.  Perhaps too much fun.  I remember drinking 1/3 of a bottle of champagne, pole dancing near the side of the VIP area, and losing my pocket wifi out of my purse which later cost me $60.  Fortunately I woke up with my wallet and passport the next day though.  The club was loud and dark enough so it was the perfect atmosphere to get belligerently intoxicated.  South Korea is a very safe country so you really don’t have to worry as long as you can make it back to your hotel.  I vaguely remember us going somewhere to get sashimi after the club.  It was one of the largest sashimi platters that I had ever seen in my life and man it was amazing!  I was happy that I took a picture so I could remember it.

After we finished eating it was near 2am so we happily parted ways.  I made sure to thank them for the most lit night in Itaewon ever and wish the cardboard armor guy good luck in his future marriage.  If this was just the bachelor’s party, I could only imagine how crazy the wedding party was going to be.

I drunkenly walked back to my hostel called Guesthouse Yacht.  Not only is it insanely cheap, but it’s on a hill just over the main street with all the bars and pubs.  The perfection combo.

Apr. 28th, 2018 – I woke up hungover but in an extremely elevated mood.  I couldn’t believe how crazy my first night out had started.  I was missing my pocket wifi, but I figured all the crazy memories from the previous night were more than worth it.  I had successfully attended my first bachelor’s party (even though I was a girl) and lived to tell the tale.  How often do you get to live out experiences like that?

Anyway, it was time to resurface to reality.  I had booked a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Klook for $45.  This tour will take you to the borders of North and South Korea, and you can climb through a tunnel to technically be inside the North Korean border.  You can only come here if you book a tour as entry into North Korea is extremely restricted and there is a checkpoint in Paju.  However, the tours are completely safe and you will be with an English-speaking guide at all times.  Learning about the Cold War and seeing the Four Infiltration Tunnels (that were dug between the borders for a surprise attack) is a rare experience and I was grateful I got the chance to climb through them.  The views of North Korea that you can see from the DMZ border are surreal.

My tour group was one of the first to visit after peace was made between the North and the South.  I had only figured this out shortly before my tour bus came to pick me up as the news was announced early this day.  I had planned this trip during my Golden Week vacation a month in advance and had no idea this was happening.  Everyone was in extremely high spirits and it was a great time to be in Korea!

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One of the most peaceful days at the DMZ in history.

Here are some pictures I took of North Korea.  It was neat to see it with my own eyes.  With all of the stories of it circulating online you often don’t know what to believe.  It looks like there’s an extremely forested area nearby from the border.  You wouldn’t even guess that it was North Korea at first:

North Korea is apparently famous for its chocolate soybean candy.  Or at least that’s what they want you to think.  I tried some at the souvenir shop and it wasn’t my favorite chocolate, but it definitely had a unique taste to it:

Here is a picture of my location within the border to prove I was in North Korea.  What’s ironic is North Korea supports Google Maps but South Korea doesn’t.  How crazy is that?

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Inside North Korea, baby!

Next we visited Dorasan Station (which leads to the capital of North Korea):

Dorasan Station connects the railway between North and South Korea.  It is located within the DMZ and has been out of use for years, but serves as a symbol of hope that unification may be possible in the future.  You can walk inside it and take pictures, but even though peace was made it will be quite a while before civilians can use it.  Apparently goods are transferred through it now, but limited information in English is available.

I was very moved by this tour.  Though North Korea has a dangerous reputation, I don’t want to believe that all of its people are bad.  I met one Australian girl on my Herb Island Tour later who said she had volunteered there.  I can’t remember the details of what she did, but she spent about a week there learning about the culture.  Since I am American, I know it is dangerous (and likely still impossible) for me to go, but when it becomes more safe I would really like to do a volunteer program there.  I hope in the future it continues to open its borders, as South Korea is a wonderful country that I hold dearly in my heart.

 

Pocheon Art Valley & Herb Island in South Korea

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Pocheon Art Valley in South Korea looks out of this world.

After spending an amazing 5 days on Jeju Island, I decided to fly back to Seoul and explore the places that I had overlooked on my first trip to Korea back in 2018.  Pocheon Art Valley and Herb Island caught my eye because they seemed up my alley.  Both places were slightly outside of the city and had a lot of fantastic nature to see with other quirky exhibits.  Every day tour that I’ve taken outside of Seoul has been well-organized and was easier than taking public transportation, so I booked a package that included both of them and strawberry picking for around $60 USD on Klook.  The tour has amazing ratings and gives you enough time to explore both places.  Entrance fees are included as well so it saves you both time and money.

Pocehon Art Valley

I started off my tour by completely going to the wrong station to get picked up my by tour guide.  That’s what happens when you’re jetlagged, can’t read Hangul, and are just ignorant in general from all the traveling you do abroad.  Fortunately I called Klook and my guide waited for me because our tour was only about 5 people.  I apologized to everyone and we made our way to the strawberry farm in a small van.  It was nice being in the Korean countryside.  The people on the tour were all in their twenties so it was easy to make friends with them.  I picked a ton of strawberries because I was starving.  After our baskets were full, we made our way to the art valley!

Pocheon Art Valley is a garnite quarry and geopark that has been transformed into a creative art valley.  In addition to stunning natural scenery you will see sculptures, planted flora, and even live concerts here.  There are arts and crafts workshops you can participate in as well.  I mostly came here for the exploration and aesthetic art aspect.  After our tour guide finished his explanation, we all set off in our own direction.  You can choose to ride the monorail or hike up the valley on your own (it doesn’t take that much time).  I hiked around the valley and saw many amazing sights!  You can see the silhouettes of the mountains once you get near the summit of the climbing area.  This was much easier than climbing Mt. Hallasan like I did the week before.  I had so much fun taking pictures here and can see why so many Korean dramas are filmed here.

After about 90 minutes, we met back at the van and drove to Herb Island.

Herb Island

Herb Island is perhaps one of the funniest memes I’ve come across in Korea (at least I thought it was very amusing).  First of all, it’s not actually an island━it’s a Christmas-themed amusement park with hundreds of Mediterranean herbs planted around it.  Plus it has a mini-zoo, soap-crafting workshop, and lavender ice cream which I highly recommend trying.  Everywhere you look there’s strange visuals.  I loved seeing the jellyfish and heart illuminations alongside the statues of Santa.  Walking through the gardens and the sea of Christmas lights in the summer was surreal.  The bakery with the herb cookies was also amazing.  This is my favorite amusement park in Korea because it’s just so random:

When you get through the sea of lights, you’ll come across a pen with miniature donkeys.  As if this “island” couldn’t get weird enough:

If I ever come back here, I swear to god I am crafting some herb soap.  I’ll also buy some more herb cookies for my friends as souvenirs.  Keep on staying weird, South Korea!

Overall I had a pleasant experience on this tour.  The traffic was heavy due to a public holiday I wasn’t aware so we were late coming back, but that was also my fault for initially being late to the tour.  I would like to re-visit Pocheon when I come back to Korea in the future.  I hope more people decide to come here because it’s the perfect day trip from Seoul!

The Tale of the Monkey Forest and Glaass Lounge in Nagano

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Matsumoto Castle in Nagano, Japan.

Nearly two years ago, I ventured north into the mountainous region of Nagano with two missions to accomplish.  The first was to see the famous hotspring-loving monkeys in Jigokudani.  Though a lot of monkeys in Asia are known to be feisty, the Japanese macaque (also known as snow monkeys) are said to be pretty relaxed.  It’s probably due to the fact that they have their own 24-hour hotspring to themselves.  The second objective was to go to a rare event in Matsumoto called Glaass Lounge.  This party is a gathering of house and techno enthusiasts that goes all night, and on this particular weekend Carpainter and Seimei of Trekkie Trax were to appear.  The stars had aligned for the ultimate weekend and I couldn’t be more excited!

 

Jigokudani Monkey Park

As soon as I arrived to Nagano Station, I went to the ticket office and purchased a day pass for Jigokudani Park.  The park is about an hour bus ride from the station, but you have the chance to see rare scenes of the countryside so it’s not a bad trip.  From the bus stop, the walk to the monkey park is about 30 mins through a lush pine forest.  When you get to the top of a hill in the mountains, you will see dozens of monkeys running through a roped-off area full of hotsprings:

Though you sadly cannot enter the hotsprings with the monkeys, you can get pretty close to them.  Often they will go under the ropes and leisurely mingle with people.  It is advised not to look them directly in the eyes because that is a sign of aggression.  Also there are notices posted not to feed them and to be careful with your bags (a.k.a. common sense).  I would allow yourself at least 1.5 hours to fully enjoy the park.  The monkeys are quite fun to observe and the mountain air feels lovely.

Besides the monkeys, the scenery surrounding the park made it worth the trip.  The mountain backdrop on the lake looked like something straight out of a postcard.  Plus hiking through the forest was an awesome workout and I saw many beautiful rivers along the way.  You can see the Japanese Alps from here too:

Admission Fee: 800 yen to enter the park // 3200 yen for admission to the park and roundtrip bus fare (I recommend this option unless you rent a car)

Although I had fun here, the day I went the monkeys weren’t particularly interesting in bathing even though it was cold out and there was snow on the ground.  Hakodate in Hokkaido has a better monkey onsen that you can see.  The monkeys there seem to love hotsprings more than the monkeys I saw here, but both are worth checking out.

Food

Due to having to catch a train into the city that night, I didn’t have a lot of time to look for places to eat but fortunately Nagano Station had me covered.  I managed to find some amazing kitsune udon (noodles topped with a thin layer of fried tofu), and oyaki (stuffed dumplings).  I was happy to see they had a number of vegetarian options and were very cheap to order individually.  Oyaki are a Nagano specialty so definitely try them if you get the chance!  You can find them literally all over the place in a variety of flavors.

Glaass Lounge

I arrived at Studio SONIC around 11pm when Glaass Lounge had just kicked off.  The club had a simple setup with a DJ booth in the front and a bar to the side, but since it was compact it was easy to socialize with people.  I found my friends immediately and told them the story of the bathing monkeys.  It felt great to experience the music scene of Matsumoto out here in the mountains.  A number of these DJs come to Tokyo events every once in a while too.

Monolith Slip, a duo of two music producers from this area were one of my favorite acts.  They create a lot of rave music and were featured on an earlier Haka Gang x Trekkie Trax compilation:

Besides them, I of course enjoyed seeing Carpainter as the featured guest.  As always, his techno/house mixes are amazing:

This party went on until 5am and was an experience I’ll never forget.  I haven’t been back to Nagano in over 2 years, but if there are more music events like these in the fture then I’ll definitely be tempted!

Address: 2 Chome-5-6 Fukashi, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-0815

Access

From Tokyo Station, take the Hokuriku-Shinkansen to Nagano Station.  This will take 2 hours and costs 8400 yen one way.  From Nagano Station you can take a bus to the monkey forest and the Shinano Limited Express to reach Matsumoto City.  All tickets can be purchased on they day you arrive, but if you are coming during a holiday I would book them in advance.  I would recommend 2 days and 1 night here to see everything.

Since I didn’t have a lot of money at time, I stayed at a net cafe called Carefree Cafe for a few hours after the party.  However, there are a lot of great hotspring resorts and ryokan you can stay in that are better!  Booking usually has some great deals depending on what you are looking for.

 

 

Riding a Bike through the Sky in Okayama (Washuzan Highland)

After hitch-hiking around Okayama and seeing all of the major sights it had to offer, I decided to make my way to Washuzan Highland so I could ride the “most terrifying rollercoaster in all of Japan” (that’s really not so terrifying).  Washuzan Highland is a Brazilian-themed amusement park about an hour from Okayama Station.  The park has everything from roller coasters to swimming pools to petting zoos.  Because it’s located in the countryside of Japan, it has a huge amount of attractions but not nearly as many tourists as other amusement parks.  With the tropical plants, Brazilian performers, and the vibrant atmosphere, I really did feel like I was in a different country here!

The terrifying rollercoaster, called the “SkyCycle”, is actually a pedal-powered roller bike that’s extremely high up in the sky.  Although I didn’t find it scary, the fear likely stems from the fact that it’s not automated like other rollercoasters; the bike is entirely in your control and you go around at your own pace.  Looking down might cause panic for those who are afraid of heights, but this is a great ride for people like me who love adventure.  The ride is only about a minute long but you get an awesome view of Okayama Prefecture and Shikoku Island from it:

I was a little disappointed that the ride wasn’t a bit longer, but I understand that people may get scared over time if it were.  The bike has two seats but you can ride it alone.  I rode it twice so I could experience it from both the inward and outward seats.  The outward seat is definitely more thrilling because it faces the edge and you can feel the motion of the turns more.  Though it looks a bit dangerous from all of the media exposure, SkyCycle is completely safe because each chair has a seat belt, so you don’t have to worry about falling off.  You should be careful of dropping your camera though!

After surviving the most terrifying rollercoaster, I decided to go swimming for a while in the pool.  It’s not very deep but it’s extremely refreshing on a hot day in August!  Next I did some rollerskating at the roller rink.  I specifically remember that the song Cookie by banvox started playing on a loudspeaker, and I picked up the pace.  It was really cool to hear one of his rare older songs played in his home prefecture!  By that point I was exhausted, so I bought a melon and hung out at the petting zoo.  I enjoyed seeing the white hens and hamster tree.  I ate some nice egg sushi from a place nearby as well (the tamago sushi here is ginormous).  Though this happened nearly three years ago, I still remember what an exhilarating experience this was!

Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures of the park, but trust me it’s worth riding the SkyCycle for this view:

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I may come back here again with my GoPro if I have time in the future.  If you have the time, consider checking out Okayama!  It’s such an under-rated city and has much for you to discover.

Access

303-1 Shimotsuifukiage, Kurashiki, Okayama 711-0926

Admission Fee: 2800 yen (worth it because there’s hardly any wait time for the rides)

Kanazawa: The City of Gold and Miraculous Wonder

People always ask me what my favorite place to visit outside of Tokyo is—and though it’s extremely hard to for me to choose because there’s simply so many—one of my favorite destinations of all time is Kanazawa.  Kanazawa is the capital city of Ishikawa prefecture and is known for its famous seafood market, historical buildings including samurai houses, and brilliant gold architecture.  It has a rustic charm that is similar to Kyoto, but is far less touristy and is surrounded by the beautiful sea.

Kanazawa is also the birthplace of famous musical artist Nakata Yasutaka (producer of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, capsule, and Perfume), who created his own indie music festival called OTONOKO that was held once a year from 2016-2018 (it currently if unknown when it will be held again).  The festival attracted around 200-300 people and created a close community of music lovers that had traveled from all over Japan.  It’s one of the best music festivals I’ve ever been to in Japan because it features both the experienced artists of ASOBISYSTEM and the new and upcoming talents too.  I was happy to share this experience with many friends I had met at his previous music events held in Tokyo and other cities as well as explore the famous capital that is his hometown.  There is so much to do in Kanazawa outside of the festival too!

Here’s a list I’ve compiled of all of my favorite places in Kanazawa.  You can easily spend 3 full days doing things here:

Kanazawa Castle & Kenrokuen

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Kanazawa Castle is one of my all-time favorite castles in Japan and is located right next to the famous Japanese garden Kenrokuen.  This castle is massive compared to other ones I’ve visited and you can tell a lot of detail was put its re-construction after in caught on fire in the 1600s.  I first came here in the winter when a light layer of snow had piled on top of the castle’s roof and it was extremely aesthetic.  I was glad that it was one of the first places I had visited because it’s a huge part of the city’s history.

Strolling through Kenrokuen and listening to all of my favorite music was also a huge pleasure.  It’s considered one of Japan’s “three most beautiful landscape gardens” and is the best garden of Kanazawa so you should definitely check it out if you’re here.

The castle is free to enter, and Kenrokuen’s admission is 320 yen.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

I recently wrote an article on the The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums I’ve Been to in Asia, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is my top pick.

What you see here might just be my favorite exhibition in the world.  The image of the pool looks like some kind of mirage or frozen frame from a vaporwave music video, but there are actually living, breathing people going about their daily routines under the waters of this pool.  You can even “dive in” and join them—but you can’t jump or use the ladder.  Instead you must reach the underwater zone from another entrance (which can easily be found by following the signs).  In addition to the pool, there are various rooms with simulations you can enter.

This museum is an important part of Kanazawa’s culture because it draws a large number of people to the city.  Its design is very modern but somehow fits in the center of Kanazawa’s historic streets because it has a beautiful outdoor park and is near the Kenrokuen Garden.  The outside of the museum has free exhibits you can see as well.

The entrance fee is 360 yen for temporary exhibitions (some exhibits are free).

Golden Ice Cream & Sake

Since Kanazawa is the city of gold, you can find all sorts of golden souvenirs here.  The golden ice cream is by far the most famous (and delicious too).  At a confectionery shop called Hakuichi, you can savor the best gold-leaf ice cream in Japan.  I went during October one year and they added an edible ghost topping too!  The gold sake is also something I bought back for home.  It tastes just like any other sake but the gold flakes inside make it look like a glittery snow globe.  My friends joke that I have eaten more gold than anyone they know, and that very well may be true.

Omicho Fish Market

The Omicho Fish Market is where you’ll find some of the freshest seafood in mainland Japan.  Kanazawa is most famous for crab, but you can find almost any other kind of fish imaginable.  My personal favorites were Kaisen Maruhidon (rice bowls with mountains of seafood on top) and the tiny servings of sea urchin sold in the stalls outside.  Most restaurants will gladly customize your orders for you and there are amazing sushi restaurants here as well.

One of my favorite memories was when Nakata Yasutaka’s first solo album Digital Native was announced the night before the festival, so my friend and I split a crab then ordered a pitcher of sangria from a restaurant below the station in celebration.  A waiter peeled a fresh avacado for us too, but I don’t actually remember what we ordered in last photo…  That just goes to show how much fun I had here!

Higashi Chaya District

The Higashi Chaya District of Kanazawa is where some of the traditional teahouses and upscale ryokan are located so it’s one of the prettiest parts of the city.  There are also cafes, souvenir shops, and a lot of interesting architecture here.  It’s a lot similar to Kyoto’s Gion district but the crowds are more evenly distributed.  I love the winding streets and also the liveliness here.  Everything seems like it was built to perfection.

I highly recommend checking out the Nomura Clan Samurai Home here because it has unique artifacts and a beautiful home garden.  The Godburger is also a nice meme.  Although haven’t eaten there yet, it’s definitely on my bucket list.

Piano of Memories (思い出ピアノ)

As I was walking underneath Kanazawa Station, I noticed a really interesting exhibit.  Here sat an ordinary piano that anyone could walk up to and play but it had an interesting concept.  People could upload videos with the hashtag “sharepiano” for others to listen to online.  I uploaded this video I took to Twitter and the pianist actually found it and was happy I captured this moment!

Kanazawa is a popular destination for both foreign and domestic tourists, but it’s spread out enough so that things like this can be heard and appreciated.

Hotsprings, Hotels, & Other Recommendations

When I first came to Kanazawa, I didn’t have a lot of money so I decided to stay at a hostel called Good Neighbors Hostel (now called Off) near the station for around 2500 yen a night.  The 2nd time I stayed at Neighbors Inn (owned by the same people) for around the same price.  Both were extremely memorable times.

The first time I met a Perfume fan from Hong Kong who had awesome stickers of all the idols on his laptop.  We became good friends during the duration of the festival and the hostel had a Death Note-inspired “Guest Note” that we wrote in (fortunately no one died).  The second time the hostel had a ball pit so I took hilarious photos of myself pregaming in it.  I always have the best time staying in this city no matter where I am.

If hostels aren’t your style, you can find a variety of cheap hotels on websites like Booking.  Additionally, if you are looking for a day hot spring I recommend Terume Kanazawa.  The admission fee is only 1100 yen.

The official after party for the festival was held at an event space called Double with two floors (one bar floor and one music floor).  It is here where the strong gather and continue to party until down.  In 2018 I managed to meet Nakata-san before he left and get me T-shirt signed.  It was on my birthday weekend so it made it extremely special:

Here is a shot of the after-party I recorded in 2018.  It truly was a time to be alive and I hope to go again if it resumes in the future:

Access

From Tokyo Station, take the Hokuriku-Shinkansen towards Kanazawa.  This takes approximately 3 hours and costs 15,000 yen one way.  Nakata Yasutaka actually designed the shinkansen departure melody for this train so it’s extremely special!

You can also fly to Komatsu Airport and take a bus to Kanazawa Station which may be cheaper unless you have the JR Rail Pass.

If you are interested in other day trips from Kanazawa, please see my Shirakawago article.

Swimming in the Gorgeous Beaches of Iwami from Free!

After riding camels through the desert of Japan, I decided to take a day trip to Iwami—a beautiful beach town on the west coast of Japan; also known as the real-life location of the swimming anime Free!  Iwami is a small and rural town, but doing sightseeing around the beaches will keep you busy for hours.  This place is perfect for people who love water sports and fishing that need a break from the city.  Besides Okinawa, I think Iwami has some of the best beaches in Japan.  If you rent a bike and ride around the coast it’s quite easy to find your own private beach to relax on.  It truly felt like a hidden oasis to me.  Plus I got to see yet another inspiration for one of my favorite series!

When I arrived at Iwami Station, I was thrilled to to find a mini Free! shrine dedicated to all of the characters.  A life-sized version of the bird-like school mascot also greeted me.  There were framed photos, guestbooks that you could draw in, and a whole desk of fan-made items dedicated to Rin’s birthday.  Seeing all of the time that went into this made me happy that I could be a part of it too.  Iwami is definitely a gem even if you aren’t a fan of the anime.

In addition to all of the character goods, they also had maps that mark all of the major sightseeing points from the anime (they hilariously said “Take Free” on the front):

I decided to rent a bike at the Iwami Tourism Office located next to the station for 500 yen per day.  Biking is the best way to see the entire town and saves you a lot of time and money.  I would allow 4-6 hours here depending on how long you want to go swimming.

The old-school road bike I rented wasn’t half-bad.  I also bought some cookies as an offering to my favorite character Haru.  After checking my map, I decided to head to the Uradome swimming area because that is the main beach featured in the anime.  It’s fortunately just a short ride from the station, and seeing all of the rock formations that surround the town on the way there is amazing.  I spent about an hour here swimming then road my bike to a rockier area with less people.  Treading the rocks hurt my feet a bit, but once you get in the water you will feel the best adrenaline rush.

This was my favorite beach that I found (you can search “Uradome Coast Oguri beach beaches” on Googles Maps to find the exact location):

Please swim here with caution because there aren’t as many lifegaurds here as the main swimming area.  There are literally beaches all over the town so you can find the one that suits you the best.  There are sandier ones in central Uradome you can easily access.

In Uradome you’ll also notice an island with a torii which is quite a famous lookout point.  Near it is Tajiri Port which is used for fishing and transporting goods.  These places were referenced in the anime as well:

After swimming to my heart’s content, I decided to explore more of Iwami by going on a boat tour at Uradome Coast Island Tour.  The “Pleasure Boat” boat tour is 1400 yen and around 40 mins.  I highly recommend this tour because you can get up and close to the unique rock formations that this area is famous for.  Plus it feels like an adventure:

After my little boating excursion, I decided to end my trip by hiking to Tajiri Shrine.  Luckily it’s not too far from the port.  One of the most unique parts of the town is you can actually see Makoto’s house here!  It is located near the top of Tajiri Shrine:

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The real-life version of Makoto’s house from Free!

When I reached the top of the shrine, I was surprised to find a Rin cosplayer there! Like me, she was a huge fan of the series and decided to spend her time here during the summer. We talked and actually became really good friends. I still stay in touch with her though I traveled here nearly 3 years ago.  I really regret not staying in Iwami overnight so I could see the sunset and the sunrise, but I plan on coming back here in the future!

Access

From Tottori Station, take the Nikko Bus for either Iwai/Kabushima or Iwai/Nagatanibashi and get off at Iwami Station.  This takes around 50 mins and costs 700 yen.

If you are coming from a larger city, I highly recommend flying to Tottori Station because you will save a lot of money.  Please see my previous article for more information.

While I was in Tottori, I stayed in a net cafe that is now permanently closed because I was short on cash.  However, there are more net cafes and better places that you can stay in.  Please see booking for better options!

 

 

Riding Camels through the Tottori Sand Dunes in Japan

The pictures you see above look like they might have been shot in the desert—or at the very least somewhere barren like Mongolia in East Asia.  However, they were actually taken in Tottori Prefecture on the west coast of mainland of Japan.  As a person who loves exploring unusual places, I had to research this place and plan a trip here immediately.  I was especially excited to meet the camels (who I naively thought were native to Japan at the time, but one of my Japanese friends informed me that they were likely imported from India).  I tried to research the origin of the camels online, but gathered that nobody really knew where they came from or how they got here like some kind of ominous mystery.  Regardless of their origin I was extremely stoked to see the!

Much to my delight, I found out that Tottori was the real-life location of the anime Free! and discovered the first ending song was inspired by the Tottori Sand Dunes.  This series was one of my favorite anime in college so traveling here was like a dream come true.

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Free! cast in the desert of Tottori with their non-native-to-Japan camels.

Tottori is almost a six hour journey by train from Tokyo, but flying here only takes one hour and is half the price (see the “Access” section for more information).  These are the biggest sand dunes open to the public in Japan so I would definitely recommend coming here if you have the chance.  This place is just too bizarre not to see and it has a lovely beach!  In addition to the camels, there are cable cars you can ride, specialty pear ice cream you can try, and a sand sculpture museum.  Sandboarding is also available for the adventurous!  Please see the official tourism website for more info.

Climbing the dunes was a bit of a challenge, but was worth it to see the gorgeous beach at the other end.  I had never experienced a desert-like landscape in my life and was amazed at how far the dunes go down.  Walking from the entrance to the park and climbing them took around a half an hour, but you can easily spend 2-3 hours here enjoying the views that are unlike anywhere else in Japan.  The cable car ride is only 300 yen and will help you save energy if you get too tired.

Here is an old video I took of the camels in August of 2017.  There were only a few of them around but they seemed to be kept in good care.  It costs 1300 yen to ride them and 100 yen for just a photo with them.  It was a very surreal sight for Japan:

After camel watching, I made my way to the beach a sip on some specialty sake I bought from the souvenir store.  It definitely felt like some kind of weird scene out of an anime:

After fully enjoying the sand dunes and the camels, my last stop was the Sand Museum.  Similar to the snow festival in Sapporo, there is a sand sculpture festival in Tottori.  The Sand Museum is open year-round but some exhibits change.  When I was there a sand sculpture of the detested president Trump greeted me at the entrance.  Regardless of my strong dislike of his presidency, I thought it was hilarious to see this here in the “desert” of Japan, of all places.  There was also a recreation of the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and several sculptures with inspiration from Hollywood and outer space.  You really can’t miss out on this place because it’s too iconic.  The admission fee is only 600 yen.

Access

From Tottori Station, take the Tottori Sakyu Bus to the very last stop which is the sand dunes (you can clearly see them from outside your window).  This takes 20 mins and only costs 380 yen.

A roundtrip flight from Tokyo to Tottori only takes one hour and costs around 20,000 yen.  However, I didn’t know this at first and road the train one way 6 hours for 18,000 yen (making it almost double the price round trip).  Unless you have the JR Pass, I would recommend flying there.

In my next post I will be talking about how to get to Iwami; another bug location from the anime Free!  Please look forward to it~

Visiting the Hot Spring Gods at Gero Onsen

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Gero Onsen during peak sakura season.

After making my pilgrimage to the real-life village from Your Name, I decided to take the Hida Express down to Gero Onsen; a popular hot springs town and resort destination in Gifu Prefecture.  I arrived at the perfect time in early April when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and nearly everything in nature looked picturesque.  The town is pretty straightforward to navigate with a river that surrounds a free public outdoor hot spring and several buildings with more hot springs and saunas available for day use.  There are more secluded resorts up in the mountains.  Even if you’re not interested in hot springs, there are still a number of parks and shrines that you can see.  I spent around three hours exploring Gero Onsen and it was very aesthetic day trip.

When I got off at Gero Onsen Station, I first walked to the Funsenchi outdoor hot spring so I could see the beautiful park next to it. This is the best place to view the sakura in Gero making it a wonderful spot for photography.  You can walk across the rocks that surround the hot spring to see the Hida River and mountains too.  Walking across the bridge will give you a great view of the town as well.

Funsenchi is free to use for all visitors as long as you wear a bathing suit but it’s quite small.  If you are here just for the day I recommend the following hot springs:

  • Sachi no Yu: My personal favorite that has an indoor hot tub, waterfall bath, and outdoor hot spring.  Entrance is only 350 yen.
  • Curegarden Open-air Bath: A large collection of outdoor hot springs with amazing views.  I wanted to go here, but it was sadly closed due to the COVID-19.  I will go again if I get the chance.  Entrance is 700 yen but likely worth it.
  • Shirasagi no Yu: This is a western-styled bath with no outdoor hot springs, but reviews say it’s good.  If you go, please tell me how it is.  Entrance is 360 yen.

*For a full list of resorts, please see the official Gero Onsen Guide.

After bathing for an hour at Sachi no Yu and feeling completely refreshed afterward, I decided to visit a temple called Onsenji and pray to the hot spring gods.  This was about a 15 minute walk on an incline but it was extremely fun because I got to see more of the town while listening to all of my favorite music.  When I reached the shrine, the sun was setting and I saw an amazing view of it behind the mountains:

Another thing I love about Gero is all of the frog motifs.  “Gero” is a noise that frogs  make (like ribbit in English) so obviously a frog was the ideal candidate for a mascot here.  I tried the Gero Manjuu from a local sweets shop and it was very delicious.  I also saw frog stuffed animals in a liquor store and frogs painted on the street.  This is truly a Frogger-themed onsen village and it’s kind of awesome.

After spending a good amount of time here, I decided to ride the express train down to Nagoya.  I debated about spending the night here because there are cheap hotels and guest houses, but I opted to go to the city instead so I could spend time doing photo editing at one of my favorite 200 yen bars called Moonwalk.  Gero Onsen is the ideal day trip but there isn’t much to do at night besides more hot springs.  The quality is definitely worth it though!

Access

From Nagoya Station, take the Hida Limited Express to Gero Onsen.  This takes around 2 hours and is 4700 yen one way.  

I combined this with my trip to Hida-Furukawa, so from there it only takes 1 hour and 2900 yen.  If you wake up early enough, you can experience Gero Onsen and the Your Name town in one day.  For me, that was the ideal choice.