Living Life the Way it’s Supposed to be Lived (Onsen Trip to Nagano, Japan)

Snow falls gently on Lake Nojiri in Nagano creating a a picturesque winter scene.

Right before the second emergency state for Tokyo and surrounding areas was declared on January 7th, a number of business owners gathered in Nagano Prefecture to discuss what would become of their once booming industry that has rapidly declined this year due to the effect of the corona virus. According to a friend of mine who owns several ski resorts and ryokan in this area, they are currently only at 1/4 capacity this year. Usually Nagano is one of the most popular areas to do winter sports because it is easily accessible by shinkansen and has many hot springs where you can spend the night. It was also where the 1998 Winter Olympics were hosted and is famous for its snow monkeys which normally draw in a number of visitors from around the world each year. According to the Foreign Press Center, Nagano has surpassed Okinawa for having the longest life expectancy in Japan of above 80 years for both men and woman. Seeing the local tourism drop in such a boisterous place is a fatal blow to the nation, but also can’t be helped in this situation.

Though this is a tough time for everyone, currently many people in Nagano are strategizing what they can to keep their businesses alive. My friend who I met through writing articles online invited me to Nagano right before signing the contract to close one of their hotels for a final celebration. This became a two day trip that was completely sponsored and I am very fortunate that I was able to travel here so spontaneously. I previously traveled to Nagano in 2018 and saw the snow monkeys as well as an indie music show in Matsumoto, but I’ve never stayed at a ryokan here. Like the ryokan in Nara that I stayed at during my last sponsored motorcycle trip, this one did not disappoint!

Getting to Nagano

From Tokyo Station, Nagano Station is only 1 hour and 20 mins away and only costs 8340 yen to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen there. This is less hassle than going all the way to Kyoto or Osaka. I was initially worried about traveling here due to heavy snowfall last weekend and almost cancelled my trip, but my friend assured me that the snow was further north by Toyama and my trains from Tokyo would not be affected. I left around 9:30am and made it to Nagano Station by 11:30am. The trip was peaceful because I mostly slept on the train and drank a cup of umeshu from Ueno for a buzz when I woke up. Since I didn’t travel during the New Year’s holiday, this was my first major trip of 2021 and it was sure a memorable one!

Lunch at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Just as I arrived to Nagano Station, my friend was waiting for me in the parking lot with their car. The temperature was definitely chilly but not as cold as I had expected. I was happy to see the vast view of the snowy mountains but was also starving. Fortunately my friend was hungry too so after exchanging quick greetings we drove to Hotel Metropolitan Nagano and had a delicious lunch set at Shinano. I ordered a balance of sashimi, rice, tempura, and vegetables and has some delicious miso soup to warm me up. I loved the decorative dishes and the wine they had on display here. Already I was proud of myself for braving through the snow and making it here because the food was worth it!

Exploring Lake Nojiri

Since our ryokan checkin time was at 15:00, we had around 3 hours to kill. We decided to drive around Lake Nojiri since it was on the way to the onsen. Though the area around Nagano Station was mostly just frosty, we were surprised to see thick layers of snow piling up just 5km away on the forest roads. Fortunately my friend had a lot of experience driving here so it was not a problem. Once we arrived at the lake, we got out of the car to do some photography. There was a beautiful island in the middle of the lake that gleamed in the gentle sunlight. There were also little log cabins in clusters on the edge of the lake. My friend informed me that this area was called “Gaijin Mura” because foreign missionaries have owned property and have lived here for over 100 years. According to Outdoor Japan, they have managed to protect the place from “bubble-era developers” so this is actually a good thing. This area already has a number of resorts so it’s refreshing to see this atmosphere. You can rent cabins here year-round which sounds like an awesome to do in the summer!

I remember a while ago one of my Japanese friends traveled to this area and called it “雪の国” on Twitter. With all of the snow flurries around I can definitely see the reference to “Snow Kingdom” in Mario Odyssey!

Arriving at Onsen Paradise (Yorozuya)

After driving around Lake Nojiri in its entirety, we arrived to our ryokan, Yorozuya, around 15:30 and immediately went to the public outdoor hot springs since they are the largest and have the best scenery. We decided to use the smaller private ones at night after dinner. I had previously looked on Booking and other Japanese sites for ryokan deals, but could have never imagined staying somewhere so beautiful. My friend actually found this deal through a local travel agency in Nagano by going there in person. All of the rooms had their own custom design and were equipped with a kotatsu (which I slept under), yukata, amenities, and premium room service. It had been half a year since I had stayed in one of these room so I was beyond excited. I will be sure to consult with Japanese travel agencies in the future because this was for sure a better place than anywhere I looked at online. I felt fully relaxed and welcome during my stay so I would rate Yorozuya 5 stars.

Address: 〒381-0401 Nagano, Shimotakai District, Yamanochi, Hirao, 3137

Dinner with a Hint of Gold

After fully relaxing at the indoor and outdoor hot springs, we sat down for our dinner at around 18:30. This wasn’t my first time going to an onsen during winter, but seeing the snow fall from sky while the steam rises up from the water was definitely a sight to behold. Plus I already had a decent buzz going on from the sake and apple wine that I ordered for our room so I was in a really good mood!

An immaculate course dinner was served with an explanation before each dish by the kind waitress and I was amazed to find that there were real flakes of gold in my food! I think the seared fish, sashimi, and mushroom hot pot were my favorites but all of these dishes tasted out of this world. Dessert was light fruit and green tea-flavored pudding. Plus another round of nihonshu requested by yours truly! And there was a tiny serve-yourself bar in the basement of the ryokan. What more could you ask for in life? The view of the snowy mountain tops from the window topped it off.

Private Onsen

Since the outdoor bath in our room was frozen due to cold temperatures, the Yorozuya staff graciously offered us a free shuttle service to a nearby onsen where we could use private baths after dinner. There we found a steamy indoor bath filled with apples and an outdoor one decorated with bamboo and an umbrella. Since these baths were completely private, photography was allowed. This was the moment I had been waiting for!!

Final Thoughts

This trip is exactly what I needed to get 2021 off to the right start and set my mind free. I did not travel during the winter holiday because many places were affected by COVID-19 and I wanted to prioritize work and saving money. I have been bummed that I still haven’t been able to travel to the Philippines or Indonesia like I had planned to last year, but this trip reminded me that it’s really important to focus on self-care and that nature can be enjoyed in its simplicity. I graciously thank all of my friends here for taking care of me because I don’t know when it will be safe to visit America again. However, I am very happy with my life now and am also close to reaching one of my major financial goals this month so I plan to continue at this pace for now. I have faith that things will get better with time and that I will be able to meet my friends and family with a smiling face one day again. In the meantime, I’ll be playing FFXIV and giving my all to my current line of work.

What does this mean for the future of small Japanese businesses though? From my personal example I found it interesting that two ryokan were working together to ensure that all facilities were available to their customers. Perhaps these businesses can continue to rely on one another and also local travel agencies to keep their businesses alive. Though I definitely noticed less people here, I did not sense a complete loss of hope. Cuts and sacrifices will need to be made in order to survive these hard times, but as this culture has demonstrated many times, perseverance can go a long way.

Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory Cafe at Shibuya Loft

As I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping with my best friend in Shibuya, we accidentally stumbled upon the Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory Cafe on the 2nd floor of Shibuya Loft. I had heard about the new Kingdom Hearts rhythm game that had recently been released, but didn’t realize that there was a new cafe for for it. Additionally, I later read online that the story was told from Kairi’s point of view and featured a new scene at the end that set things up for the next game in the series. Though at first I thought the game sounded like a more theatrical Theatrhythm with KH characters, as someone who has played the series from adolescence and still loved the music I was sold. I bought the game for Switch and made a reservation for the cafe online for the following Monday evening with my friend.

The Kingdom Hearts Cafe in Shibuya Loft is running from December 11th, 2020 – January 11th, 2020, but the featured menu at the Square Enix cafes in Tokyo and Osaka are running until March 12th, 2021. To make a reservation, please see the Cafe Homepage (I highly recommend making a reservation).

The entrance to the Shibuya Loft KH Cafe is adorable and features artwork of the 4 teams and gameplay trailers on several large monitors. To prevent spread of the corona virus, you are asked to sanitize your hands and write down your order at the entrance as well as wear as mask until you are seated. We booked the final slot at 19:20 and were lucky because we almost had the cafe completely to ourselves!

The menu from this cafe has some magical entrees. We ordered Kairi’s Memories of Cream Stew that came with rice in the shape of a paopu fruit and Mickey’s Tuna Sandwich with his little emblem stamped on the bread. There were also rice dishes that bared a resemblance to the Agrabah and Neverland stages, but we decided to focus on the themed character dishes this time. We ordered the Friendship Strawberry Tea that came with a lot of fruit and a plastic cutout of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy and made a toast. Kingdom Hearts food is not only elaborate but also very good! Please see the full menu on the Cafe Homepage.

There are a lot of neat souvenirs available for purchase here, but some of these things were already previously available for purchase in the Square Enix shop. I would mainly recommend coming here to collect the coasters as they will only be available for the duration of the cafe. And most importantly; enjoy the music! All of the remixed songs in the new game sound really amazing!

My only complaint with this cafe is that they didn’t have a large variety of desserts like previous Square Enix Cafe collaborations. They had seasalt ice cream popsicles which are iconic to the series, but I really wished they had a cute music note parfait that I could order too!

For previous reference, here was the seasalt ice cream I had during the KHIII event at Artnia:

The little star-shaped sprinkles really added to the ambience and it was cool to be served ice cream on a mini platter. Definitely high-class service here.

I also ate Cloud’s sword during the FF7R event. Hilarious how this parfait is banana-flavored, of all things:

Though a lot of fans have mixed feelings about the direction that Nomura is taking the KH and FF7R series, both have been a huge part of my life since childhood and I look forward to going to more events for them now that I live in Japan. I am super excited for the next installment in the World Ends with You and hope to go to that cafe too.

Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 2)

After my fantastic first day of exploring architectural shrines, climbing a part of Mt. Hiei, photographing the vibrant red maple leaves, and trying delicious parfaits and cocktails, I woke up early and set out for my second day in Kyoto! The goal of today was to see as many shrines as possible and also experience the indie music scene while eating delicious food along the way. Fortunately I was able to accomplish all of that and and learn more about one of my most favorite cities in Japan. There is truly always adventure to be had here!

Please see Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 1) for the first part of this article series.

Kiyomizudera Autumn Illumination

The highlight of my Autumn Adventures in Kyoto was seeing the beautiful illuminations at Kiyomizudera and surrounding temples. This temple is beautiful year-round, but fall is when its colors truly come to life. As you climb the steps you can see an awesome view of Mt. Otowa and Kyoto Tower in the distance that are partially obscured by the bright red leaves. There are light bulbs carefully placed beneath the maple trees so you can clearly make out the colors. The best place to take pictures is at the stage of Kiyomizudera which was built over 1000 years ago and has been the center of many kabuki shows and performances. In old times there was a legend that said if you jumped off this 4-story building and survived, your wish would be granted. Now you can simply make an offering at the shrine for your wish to be granted, and from my personal experience, sometimes wishes do come true!

After walking around the series of shrines and pagodas here, I also visited Kodaiji so I could see the dragon illumination. This temple has a zen garden and a picturesque pond so it is also another key spot for photography. If you continue to walk through the streets of Kiyumizudera, this temple is extremely easy to reach referencing the guideposts around the area. There are also food and souvenir shops galore so the atmosphere here is never dull!

Teori Zushi

While looking up unique dining options in Kyoto online, I came across teori zushi—which means “hand-woven sushi” at a restaurant called awomb. This healthy meal set is served with sushi rice and seasonal hand-picked fruits and vegetables so you can create your own customized maki rolls. The toppings are placed in a beautiful way that looks like art and you can use a fine-tipped brush to carefully apply soy sauce to your rolls. My personal favorites were the pumpkin and egg toppings because they were so light and delicious. Although some of these combinations may seem strange at first glance, you can season everything in a way that fits your own personal tastes so eating teori zushi is very fun! I would highly recommend this restaurant to people who love sushi and are looking for a new experience because this set gives you a way to experiment with flavor. I also ordered the sweet sake set so I could enjoy it with my meal.

awomb requires reservations in advance, but you can easily book a seat on their English website. The price for this meal set was around 3000 yen and the quality was well worth it. Please note their are two branches in Karasu and Nishikiyamachi so you can choose the location that’s most convenient for you. Overall this is the most delicious sushi I’ve tried in Kyoto!

Unique Kyoto Desserts

Though Kyoto has no shortage of mouth-watering food, two of my favorite desserts I tried on this trip was a flamingo egg waffle and dango topped with ice cream.

I first tried an egg waffle when I was in Hong Kong in 2017, but I had never seen one that looked like a flamingo before! You can try this delicious raspberry-flavored egg waffle with edible flowers at a teahouse called 京花果茶 圓-en-. The best part was honestly the the sweet cream they hid inside the waffle. I would gladly come back here and try another flavor if it was available! There is also flower tea available here for tea enthusiasts.

After I ate my teori sushi, I walked to Japanese Ice Ouca to try their famous “mitrashi dango”. You can choose between white or green dango and then select your favorite flavor of ice cream to go on top. I chose white dango with vanilla ice cream because I thought it would taste good with the sweet soy glaze and it did! This is such a simple concept (literally a scoop of ice cream on dango) but this is the first dessert place that I’ve seen it offered. I highly recommend trying it because it melts in your mouth and has the perfect combination of sweetness.

Both of these places are located in central Kyoto so they are pretty easy to access by bus or train. I look forward to the new dessert spots that pop up next time I visit!

“Pyramid” @ West Harlem

Whenever I travel to a different city in Japan, I try to immerse myself in the nightlife unique to that location as much as possible. West Harlem has become a reputable club in Kyoto that a number of my music friends have talked about. On the night I decided to check it out, the Kyoto-born label known as No Collar 4 Kicks (NC4K) was throwing their monthly event called “Pyramid”. This is a house, soul, and R&B free-for-all that starts at 10pm and goes on into the early hours of the morning. After doing all that sightseeing and photography I was ready to get my drink on.

As soon as I entered the club I was greeted by my friend 芽田ぱに子 who is a singer and trackmaker that moved to Kyoto to pursue her dream of music. I met her previously at a music workshop that was held in Kyoto the previous year. Though she was not performing tonight, it was great to see so many artists hanging out in one space and supporting one another. I also ran into two of my DJ friends who also came from Tokyo for the holiday weekend, any many rounds of drinks ensued. Within the first hour of my time here at West Harlem I felt extremely welcome!

The first DJ up was Lomax, also known as Magochi. Not only is he a talented DJ but he also makes delicious tacos under the name “Magobell”. Another artist from NC4K I really like is Stones Taro, who is the boss of the label and produces a lot of old school house music. My favorite song on NC4K is “New Old School” which they both made together. I heard it first when they performed at Batica in Tokyo in 2019:

This event was really cool because the DJs experimented with a lot of vinyl and the crowd had no idea what song was coming up next but almost everyone was on their feet dancing. At one point during the night I had a vodka tonic in one hand and a taco in the other while vibing to the beat so this event gets a solid 10/10 from me. Because I was dancing so, I didn’t take a lot of videos but here is a noteworthy one that shows the general atmosphere of West Harlem. Please check this venue out if you get the chance. Whatever night you go you’re sure to have a good time:

Final Thoughts

With the perfect mix of sightseeing, food, and music this day really couldn’t have been better. Whenever I first wake up in Kyoto, I always run to the Kawaramachi River from my hotel and skip across the turtle-shaped rocks while reflecting on life and preparing for the day ahead. Not only is this an exhilarating workout, but it also helps me get prepared for the day ahead. My music of choice while running here is in the blue shirt because he is also well-known in Kyoto and his music captures the essence of the city. I look forward to the next time I can travel here for another event!

In my next article I will be writing about the Evangelion sword exhibition I went to at Toei Animation amusement park. I will hopefully have more time to write this month because my projects are gradually slowing down. Please look forward to it!

A Well-deserved Trip to Ginzan Onsen and the Totoro Tree

It’s been quite a while since my last update due to my new job (which I love) and moving to the center of Tokyo (which took almost an entire month), but Resurface to Reality is back! I plan on making more frequent updates now that I am fully situated with my new life style (more about that later). Life has been extremely kind to me recently which is why I plan to do more writing!

This weekend I finally found some time to travel up north and see two destinations on my bucket list that I’ve wanted to explore for quite some time: Ginzan Onsen & The Totoro Tree. This was my very first time in Yamagata Prefecture and I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the Autumn weather was ideal for hiking. Due to the busyness of the Go To Travel Campaign, it was quite hard to book hotels so I opted for a day trip. One day was enough time for me to see everything that I had plan and also get lost on the way, but I recommend 2 – 3 days here if you have enough time.

Due to their strong Ghlibli resemblance, these are the two main places that I sought out:

The Totoro Tree

As a photographer who has traveled to various real-life anime locations including the Satsuki and Mei House and the Totoro Bus Stop, naturally this tree was high priority on my list of destinations. According to Yamagata Japan, the real name of this tree is “Kosugi no Ohsugi” which means “Giant Cedar Tree of Magarigawa”, but to the locals here it is simply referred to as “The Totoro Tree” because it looks like Totoro when viewed from a distance. At first I thought that perhaps someone had cut the hedges of the tree to look like Totoro, but upon my arrival I realized that it is far too large and remotely located for someone to do that. This tree naturally looks like Totoro and that’s why nature is awesome!

There is a viewing platform on the same road where you can see the tree from afar, but I recommend taking the walking trail adjacent to it so you can see it up close (it takes about 5 mins to reach the base of the tree). I brought my Totoro doll for size comparison. Not many people were there, but it was a hit with the children that had come with their families.

Address

〒999-5206 Yamagata, Mogami District, Sakegawa, Magarigawa, Unnamed Road

I rode from Tokyo Station to Shinjo Station which took 3.5 hours and cost 12,000 yen. Then I took a taxi from the station directly to the tree for around 10,000 yen (expensive, but also not the worst I’ve paid). Unfortunately without a car this area is difficult to access, but I was a woman on a mission so the experience was overall worth it to me. After living in Japan for over 5 years, I realize these are the kind of obscure places I most love to explore.

Ginzan Onsen

After getting tons of pictures of the Totoro Tree, I next made my way to a famous hot springs resort that is said to have influenced the Ghibli classic Spirited Away: Ginzan Onsen. This onsen is nestled in the mountains and features a hiking trail that will take you to a gorge, various shrines, and ruins of a silver ore mine. The traditional ryokan that are lined across the river from one another light up at night and present a very picturesque, movie-like scene. This onsen is most popular during the winter season, but I think it looks gorgeous year round! No matter what time of year you choose to go, you will be presented with beautiful scenery and a charming atmosphere.

I started my adventure out by getting some eggplant soba and soba soft cream from the nearby restaurant Izu no Hana. Pretty much all the restaurants in Ginzanso serve only soba and a few other dishes, but I was looking for something specifically vegetarian so I chose here. I did not make the wrong choice because their portion sizes were huge and the ingredients they used were very fresh. The soba soft serve ice cream is a must-try! The saltiness of it really balanced the otherwise sweet flavor.

After snapping some photos of the beautiful river and the free footbath (which I recommend using at night), I decided to make my way to the south of the town and climb the hiking trails. Some of them go up and give you an aerial view of the town, and some of them descend down toward the ruins of the silver mine. It is best to start before 4pm so it doesn’t get dark on your way back.

Within 5 mins of hiking you will stumble across a beautiful gorge:

This reminds me of Takachiho Gorge which I traveled to during the summer, but it was much smaller in scale. It still looked lovely with the vivid Autumn colors, however!

After about 25 mins of walking, I looped around the trail and discovered the cave to the silver mine ruins. This entrance is quite easy to walk passed so be sure to read the guideposts!

The caves only take around 5 mins to explore, but are definitely worth seeing for their cryptic skull-like design on the inside. What a sharp contrast to the beautiful village that I had visited before!

Overall I spent around an hour on this trail admiring the bright red leaves, wandering and getting lost with an old Japanese couple, and exploring the silver mine ruins. It was quite the fun adventure—one that my heart had yearned for quite a long time!

When I arrived back at the main hot springs village, it had already started getting dark so I relaxed by the footbath and did some night photography. What a long but fulfilling day this was!

Address

Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa, Yamagata

This onsen is easily reachable via bus Oishida Station, which is only 19 mins from the nearest station to the Totoro Tree. The buses from Oishida Station run once per hour, cost 720 yen, and take around 40 mins. The last bus stops at 6:41 after the town starts to get quiet, so be sure to check the time table if you’re day tripping like me.

Final Thoughts

Besides Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, no other hot springs resort comes close to how beautiful Ginzan is. What I liked most is that almost all of the attractions were accessible by foot, and you can take local buses to reach the onsen that were further out. Due to the corona influence, many of the bath houses were closed so I didn’t get to try any besides the free foot bath, but here is a full list for those who are interested.

Though I traveled nearly 8 hours combined with trains and buses, seeing a secluded part of Yamagata’s countryside was worth it because it inspired me to use my GoPro again after months of not using it. She’s back, baby!

As I made my way from Tokyo to Yamagata, various station attendants handed me postcards to commemorate my journey. It felt good to be backpacking again. I will be taking another trip to Kyoto this weekend in celebration of the three day consecutive holiday for the purpose of capturing the red leaves and trying cute cafes. Please look forward to my future (more frequent) updates!

A Trip to the Higashiyama Zoo & “Momo Cafe Dog Cafe” in Nagoya

Higashiyama Zoo: Home of the Handsome Gorilla Shabani

In between stopping at the newly-opened Ghibli Cafe in Osu, I decided to check out Higashiyama Zoo—home of Japan’s most handsome gorilla named Shabani—and a small dog cafe owned by a kind woman called Dog Cafe Momo Cafe during my most recent trip to Nagoya. Despite the midsummer heat, I was surprised by the welcoming atmosphere of both places. Unlike Tokyo’s tiny Ueno Zoo, Higashiyama is quite spread out and consists of a zoo, pond with rowboats, sky tower, amusement park, and botanical gardens. I severely underestimated how much there was to do there. Not to mention the amazing kindness that the dog cafe’s owner showed us when we visited the next day. As I’ve said a million times, Nagoya is seriously a gem that makes my trip worth it every time. Be it restaurants or places that involve cute animals; I’m never going to run out of things to discover!

Higashiyama Zoo

We arrived at Higashiyama Zoo early in the afternoon and almost immediately noticed we were starving. The good thing about this zoo is it’s easily accessible by riding the Higashiyama Line from central Nagoya, but be prepared for a lot of walking to reach your favorite animal exhibits! We stopped at the first zoo cafe we could find so we could regain our energy, though we later discovered there are nicer restaurants near the gorilla enclosure. I decided to try the signature Shabani the Gorilla Popsicle with some tiger pan, and my boyfriend dual wielded an ice cream cone and churros. It was the fantasy breakfast of the champions.

We slowly made our way to the elephant area where we noticed that one in particular was eating its mate’s ass. Poggers! Some animals, like the giant seal, seemed really fatigued by the heat but others were downright horny. We watched two turtles bone, then the larger one fell off and stood on his dick for a while. Ah, the miracles of nature. We also saw a lot of kangaroo balls but I was most excited to see the lone capybara here. As many people know, I am a capybara fanatic. Likely you can find one of your favorite animals here because this zoo really has a lot of them!

Next we decided to see the zoo from an aerial perspective by riding up to the top of the Sky Tower. Entrance is only an additional 140 yen with your zoo ticket and there’s also a small amusement park nearby. Most of the rides were aimed for children so we skipped that park, but perhaps we will take another trip to the amazing Nagashima Spa Land in the future. Anyway, check out this adorable tower mascot and view that we captured:

I love how this zoo not only has an original “&” symbol mascot (to imply it’s a zoo and more), but it also has created one for its illustrious tower too. We spent a while here cooling off and looking at our map so we could make our way to the main event: The Gorillas. Be warned, as they are extremely handsome:

Shabani is a stunning male gorilla who was born in the Netherlands, but he was raised in Australia and later transported to Nagoya (of all places) to be part of the Higashiyama Zoo. He gained a lot of fame for tightrope walking when he was 10 years old and now even has his own fan club. Apparently woman flock here to catch a glimpse of him because he is so handsome, but according to officials, he already has two wives: Ai and Nene (source: CNN). Even though he’s aged a bit since his initial debut, he still has a lot of charm. I was surprised to see that there were 5 other gorillas living here with him too! It was fun to see the excitement of everyone around me. I would recommend this place to people that love animals because they seem to be quite happy here.

Displaying Dominance: A gorilla throws a Styrofoam cup at his mate.

Though we didn’t fully get to see the botanical gardens, it was still a solid 10/10 trip. There was a rose garden we walked through that reminded us of Utena so that was a huge plus. I was surprised at how spread-out Higashiyama was. It took us around 3 hours to see everything but it was a great workout for us. Once the weather cools down, we plan on visiting a monkey park in Inuyama! However, we will never forget the face of Shabani, Japan’s most handsome gorilla.

Access

〒464-0804 Aichi, Nagoya, Chikusa Ward, Higashiyama Motomachi, 3 Chome−70

Entrance Fee: 500 yen (640 yen for Sky Tower entrance)

ドッグカフェ ももcafe

Because we clearly couldn’t get enough animal interaction this weekend, the very next day we went to Dog Cafe Momo Cafe in Imaike (which is also conveniently on the Higashiyama Line). This cafe is run by a very sweet lady who owns at least five dogs. Like the pug cafe I visited in Kyoto, she operates this business out of her house. Most of the people visiting the cafe were her friends so they all showed us exceptional hospitality. Sometimes other people bring their dogs too as we saw three more come at the end! If you want to pet dogs in Nagoya, this is definitely the place for you:

The system here is simple: you pay 400 yen as the entrance fee and receive a snack to feed the dogs. They will usually come over to you and beg for it and you are free to pet and hold them. This is the perfect therapy for people who can’t keep pets in their strict apartments. Plus dogs love attention! Unlike other animal cafes, these dogs are healthy and you can tell they are well taken care of. I loved their fancy clothes too. I definitely felt under-dressed here but fortunately the dogs didn’t seem to care:

This cafe is usually open until 10pm on weekends so you can drop by before you do your usual bar run. You can even drink wine with dogs here like I did! One hour was definitely enough time to interact with them all. They were surprisingly well-mannered and enjoyed being cuddled. Plus since it was in Nagoya, there wasn’t nearly as many people here so we could relax. The owner gave us a free refill of dog treats so we got to know each of them well. I would come back here in the future just to see if they are any new ones around!

The fact that their food is amazing should also be known. We tried their Loco Moco rice and it was amazing:

Home-cooked perfection.

Access

〒464-0850 Aichi, 名古屋市千種区今池Chikusa Ward, 15, 1-15-14 ハウス今池公園1階

Entrance Fee: 400 yen plus the purchase of one drink for 60 mins (was completely worth it)

That’s all for now since I have started working full time again! And it’s going exceptionally well except for the fact that I can’t get my sleep schedule under control (hence the reason I am awake at 4am typing this). However, I am planning another Nagoya trip for the four day consecutive holiday weekend coming up this month. I’m not sure exactly what it will entail but it should be just as aesthetic as the rest of my adventures. Thank you to all my dedicated readers!

Osu no Mori Cafe Kodama: The Gateway to Ghibli Paradise

After my recent encounter with Totoro in Miyazaki Prefecture, I just can’t seem to escape the Ghibli universe!  But hey, I’m not complaining at all.  Just recently a new Ghibli-themed cafe called Osu no Mori Cafe Kodama (大須の森カフェ コダマ) opened in the bustling Osu Kannon district of Aichi Prefecture.  This place was recommended to me through my Instagram algorithms since I am an aesthetic food enthusiast.  It’s still relatively unknown because it’s tucked away on the 4th floor of a building next to a trading card game store making it easy to pass by.  The first time we tried to come here it was sadly closed for obon holiday.  However, this time we were luckily able to enter and relive the nostalgia of these films once again while feasting on delicious food.

Because we had gone to the Higashiyama Zoo right before, we were just as hungry as these characters when we first walked in…

Immediately we were treated with outstanding service as the waiter gave us complimentary konpeito (star-shaped candy) and fans with Ghibli patterns to borrow so we could cool down from the vicious heat.  We already felt at home here.

Onto the main event: The Food.  Each dish is priced around 800 – 1200 yen and themed drinks are around 600 yen.  Soft drinks and alcohol is also available for a relatively cheap price.  We couldn’t believe how well-prepared everything was here:

“Sorry to eat your hat, Mei-chan…” Me

“I hope your bacon burns.” – Howl’s Moving Castle

“Hold your [drink], commoner. You are in the presence of the king of Laputa.”
– Castle in the Sky

I appreciated all of the careful detail put into these menu items—they are truly one of a kind.  I loved the cheese ribbon on my omurice and how they customized my order to be vegetarian.  My boyfriend loved his super thicc bacon and how much the eggs resembled those from Howl’s Moving Castle.  The drink I ordered was Laputa-themed and had a glowing ice cube that activated when you poured the mixer into the glass.  How cool is that?  Every menu item had some kind of figure or plush doll laying around so that you could associate it with what you were eating.  Though the cafe is small in size, I’ve never seen any place so intricately decorated.  This is an experience like nowhere else around here.

Here are a few more shots of the cafe.  There are framed pictures, books, a little fireplace where Calcifer sits, and motifs everywhere you look.  Additionally, Totoro requests that you sanitize your hands before entering!

In addition to what we ordered, there are also pancakes with a small cat print that resemble Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery service.  There are also a ton of themed drinks based on the films that you can choose from.  I would really like to order a bunch when I come back so I can experience them all!

Is it worth it?

Although I’ve had a number of wonderful dining experiences in Nagoya, this was by far one of the best themed cafes that I have ever been to.  The service was top tier and the portion sizes were extremely generous for the price.  Unlike the official cafe at the Ghibli Museum, Kodama has more creative dishes that resemble actual food from the movies.  The interior design really brought the scenes to life as there were plush dolls and figures from every film surrounding you.  The soundtracks from the movies playing softly overhead also brought back a lot of memories.  I hope to see them expand their menu in the future to add some things from Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Porco Rosso!  Overall it was completely worth the money we spent.  My only real criticism is that they didn’t have many desserts (only pancakes and a cake that resembles a potted plant), but hopefully that will change with time.

Also, if you ever go to Thailand, be sure to check out Bangkok’s Totoro Cafe as well!

Access

〒460-0011 Aichi, Nagoya, Naka Ward, Ōsu, 4 Chome−2−47 赤門ビル4階
Located on the 4th floor of the Akamon building near Kamimaezu Station.

*Though we walked in and were fortunately seated at the bar counter, it is recommended to make reservations via phone in advance.

Floating down Takachiho Gorge: Miyazaki’s Hidden Gem

Nested in the mountains of Miyazaki, Takachiho Gorge has been a dream destination of mine for quite a long time now.  I wanted to go here when I first visited Miyazaki in 2018, but I sadly didn’t have enough time as it requires a 3 hour one-way journey.  However, last weekend I finally achieved my goal of traveling here and the trip was completely worth it!  I did a combination of hiking and row boating through the gorge as well as stay in a traditional ryokan nearby.  There are also shrines and waterfalls you can see around the area.  From pictures Takachiho Gorge looks quite large, but it actually can be seen in 2 – 3 hours.  I will be writing a handy guide for those who are curious about how I solo-traveled here.

Getting to Takachiho

Reaching Takachiho’s bus center from Miyazaki Station takes 2.5 – 3.5 hours depending on when you leave.  Please keep in mind that some buses only run on weekends and you should try to leave between 7am – 9am if you want to maximize your time here.

I woke up around 6:30am and took the Sonic-Nichirin Limited Express to Nobeoka Station, then took the highway bus that heads towards Kumamoto to reach Miyakoh Bus Station in Takachiho.  This costs between 3000 yen – 5000 yen, but they sell 1000 yen bus tickets at the bus center that will save you a lot of money. 

There are a few cheaper routes that combine different buses, but I am pretty sure this route runs every day so I would recommend it to people.  Especially since it combines a train and bus ride so overall you will save time and be comfortable.

Food

Before heading down to the gorge, you’ll probably want to grab some food!  There are a few vending machines and souvenir stores near the entrance, but there are far more options in the heart of the town.  Fortunately you will pass through this area on your way there.  My top recommendation is Cafe Terrace Takachihoya because they have a long and established reputation here.  I ordered vegan keema curry rice with an egg for lunch and their famous tea macchiato topped with whipped cream and a signature cookie for dessert.  This was probably the best meal that I had in Miyazaki because it was really filling!  They also have curry, pancakes, sandwiches, and smoothies on their menu.  If I come back here, I would like to try more!

Exploring Takachiho Gorge

From the bus station, Takachiho Gorge is a 24 min walk or 10 min cab ride.  I chose to walk because I wanted to explore the town first.  On your way to the gorge you will walk by Takachiho Shrine that is partly obscured by the forest.  It fortunately only takes a short hike to reach the alter.  I loved the way the sun reflected off the roof when I arrived:

After a few more minutes of walking, you will be able to make out the row boats sailing down the mouth of the gorge and that’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived!

The best thing about Takachiho Gorge is it’s completely free to explore—the only things that cost money are the aquarium (spelled “aqurum”) and row boat rentals.  The row boat rentals are 3000 yen but are usually cheaper if you have people with you (see prices).  I highly recommend taking the row boats out because they give you a unique view of the gorge that you can’t see from above.  This was my first time ever solo row boating, but I am proud to say that I only crashed twice!  At least I didn’t fall into the water!

I would recommend queuing for a row boat as soon as possible because they often have a 50 min wait time due to their popularity.  While you are killing time, you can explore the hiking trails around the gorge to make the most out of your trip.  You can also sit at the rest area or visit the aquarium.  Once it’s time to board your boat, the staff will give you a life belt and instruct you on how to row.  It’s pretty straightforward and impossible to get lost because the route is clearly marked.  Going from one side to the other usually takes 30-45 mins depending on your rowing ability (I was a bit slower because I was also taking pictures).  There are cute ducks that will fearlessly paddle alongside you.  I enjoyed having them as company!  After around 3 hours, I was satisfied with what I had seen here and made my way back to the town.  I grabbed some chocolate shaved ice and called it a day.  It was fun seeing the aesthetic of Takachiho, though!

In addition to the gorge, you may be interested in the Ameterasu Railway.  You can ride past canyons and also see some illuminations on a classic train.  Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to go as it closes quite early, but if you have extra time in the morning it might be something worth checking out.

Where to Stay

If you wake up early enough, you can explore the gorge and head back to Miyazaki City just in time.  However, that would involve roughly 6 hours of riding a combination of buses and trains so I wouldn’t recommend it.  I planned on flying back to Tokyo the following afternoon so I stayed at Ryokan Yamatoya for the night.  That way I could be comfortable and leave early in the morning.  This ryokan is only 5000 yen per night and is right in the heart of the city so it was the perfect fit for me.  It also has a public bath, but unfortunately it was closed due to the pandemic.  That didn’t stop me from taking a hot bath in my huge room, however!  I also made some green tea and relaxed in the yukata they provided.  Relaxion and reflection.  Another trip itinerary down with 100% completion!!

The next day I took the same route back to Miyazaki Airport and flew back to Tokyo.  I was lucky that the bus center is within walking distance from my hotel.  Despite the pandemic, most of the domestic flights were on time and handled with proper care.  I felt safe the entire time that I was here.  Would I do this again?  Hell yeah!!  But I just got a new job offer so I will be working full time again!  That won’t stop me from continuing to write these articles, however!!

I am currently planning weekend trips to Nagoya and Kamikochi so I will have more content up later this month.  Thank you all for reading and I hope we can travel more soon.

My Homie Totoro: Traveling to the Iconic Bus Stop of Takaharu, Miyazaki

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My Homie Totoro.

After spending a lovely evening in Aoshima chasing sunsets and eating fresh crab, I decided to catch the very first train to Takaharu—a quaint farming town in Miyazaki where the life-size recreation of the Totoro Bus Stop is.  According to Oddity Central, this Totoro statue was built by an elderly couple residing here as a surprise for their grandchildren.  However, its design is so immaculate that it has attracted Totoro fans from all over Japan.  There’s not a whole lot to see in Takaharu as it is mostly a residential area in the mountains, but the backdrop of the mountains and fields behind the bus stop look like they came straight out of a Ghibli movie.  If you are obsessed with rare destinations in Japan like me then you might want to put Takaharu on your bucket list!  The countryside of Kyushu is simply stunning.

Traveling to Takaharu for Totoro

The journey to Takaharu from Miyazaki will take around 2 hours and cost 1500-2500 yen (which is not bad).  From Miyazaki Station, I took Kirishima Limited Express to Miyakonojo Station then transferred to the Kitto Line that took me to Takaharu Station.  You can also take local buses which are usually cheaper.  They will usually drop you off at the same locations depending on what time you leave.  From Takaharu Station, I asked the station attendant to hail me a taxi directly to Totoro.  If you simply say “Totoro” to your taxi driver they will know exactly what you mean.  This is a short drive that will only take 5 mins.  Once you reach Totoro, a warm feeling of nostalgia will wash over you.  Congrats, you have successfully completed your pilgrimage!

I should also note that there is a red umbrella you can rent for 100 yen so you can recreate the famous scene in the rain with Totoro.  Since the money goes directly to the people who built it, it’s a simple way to donate and show thanks!  I took many pictures with it on my GoPro and made some postcard-quality content.  If you come here alone like I did, there will likely be other people here to help you take your picture (or your taxi driver always can).

For information on accommodations in Takaharu, I would recommend checking out Guesthouse Nagata because it is right next to Totoro.  There isn’t much to do in this town as it is pretty residential so I spent another night in Aoshima, but if you have a lot of time in Kyushu you might enjoy staying here.  Getting your picture taken next to Totoro definitely makes the journey worth it!

Since I came here in the morning, I still had 2/3 of the day left to enjoy other activities in Miyazaki.  Here are some other fun things that I recommend doing:

Aoshima Hammock Cafe

Aoshima Hammock is a relatively new and unique experience that I hope more people seek out!  Unlike most hammock cafes in Japan, this place also includes a workshop and hammock rental system for those who are looking to relax in a hammock outside by the ocean.  Their system is relatively cheap and affordable.  If you go outdoors a lot you might consider buying one because they are made of high-quality yarn and come in many beautiful colors.  You can even sign up for a class to knit one yourself.

Since it was scorching hot outside, I decided to buy a drink at the cafe and relax on a hammock indoors (which is free).  However, outside the cafe is a beautiful park and rose garden by the water so I am considering renting a hammock in the future if I come back.  They will teach you how to install the hammock and give you all of the materials and are foreigner-friendly.  It’s a fun opportunity for you to learn how to better enjoy Aoshima life too!

Miyazaki Fruit Parfaits

One of the best things about coming to Kyushu is they have some of the freshest fruit in Japan.  Most notably the ice cream fruit parfaits in Miyazaki are to die for!  My top parfait recommendations are Sakuranbo and Fruit Ohno located near Miyazaki Station.  Even if you don’t like ice cream, they have dragon fruit, fresh strawberries, and melon that you can try without it.  I was thoroughly impressed by the design of these parfaits:

Sun Messe

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The Moai of Miyazaki.

Who would have guessed that Kyushu has Easter Island motifs on it??  Sun Messe is a bizarre tourist attraction where you can take pictures with Moai statues.  Your pictures can actually turn out pretty cool if you take them at the right angle (these were taken in 2018 so I regret not having a better camera).  While we were here, we chatted with two nice guys from Kumamoto who were here on vacation and later went to the beach with them.  What a strange place to socialize, but this place definitely has a powerful aura.

Nearby Sun Messe is the famous Udo Shrine and a beach that you can swim in!  This beach isn’t as pretty as Aoshima in my opinion, but it’s definitely worth checking out while you are here.  The atmosphere is pretty relaxing and you can make out mountains in the distance as you swim towards the horizon.  A great experience overall.

Entrance Fee: 800 yen (worth it for the weirdness here)

Florante Miyazaki

Flower lovers rejoice because there are beautiful flora growing in Miyazaki year-round!  At Florante Miyazaki you can see different types of plants being raised in outdoor gardens and greenhouses next to a beautiful pond in the summer.  I remember seeing citrus oranges being grown here for the first time of my life.  In the winter some facilities are closed but the park creates gorgeous illuminations.  I believe they happen year-round now.  I sadly could only come here during the day due to my busy schedule, but I hope to catch a night show here in the future!

Entrance Fee: 310 yen (very cheap)

Beach BBQs

Since Miyazaki borders the ocean, you can easily find seafood restaurants all over the city and beach fronts.  In 2018 my friend took me to a place where you could order fish and seafood to be grilled right in front of you.  It was such a fun experience trying Miyazaki specialties together!  I encourage you to try the shrimp because it is especially zesty.  You could also buy fish from a fish market and cook it on the beach if you have your own grill.  Not to mention there are sushi and sashimi restaurants galore.  You really can’t go wrong with food here because it’s way cheaper than in Tokyo!

Thank you for reading the 2nd article in my Miyazaki Series!  In my next article, I will be writing about my adventure to yet another rare gem—Takachiho Gorge.  Please look forward to it!

Exploring Miyazaki & Aoshima Island at Sunset

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Aoshima Beach at sunset.

Since I couldn’t travel to the Philippines, Indonesia, or New Zealand this summer, I decided to take a trip to Kyushu Island—also known as the tropics of Japan.  I’ve been to Kyushu around 6 times (most notably for my Yakushima Birthday Adventure), but this time my goal was to explore hard-to-reach destinations in Miyazaki Prefecture.  Kyushu is most famous for Fukuoka and Okinawa, but Miyazaki is just as beautiful as those places and has some extremely rare gems like Takachiho Gorge.  Surprisingly some Japanese people don’t even know about Takachiho because it’s so remote.  If you like swimming and outdoor adventures, then Miyazaki is the place for you!

My plan was stay for 4 days and travel to the following destinations:

Narita Airport (Tokyo) ⇛ Miyazaki Airport (Kyushu) ⇛ Aoshima Island ⇛ Takaharu City (for Totoro Bus Stop) ⇛ Aoshima Island (for rest) ⇛ Takachiho Gorge ↺ Tokyo

I previously went to Miyazaki in 2018 and paid nearly 50000 yen for my plane ticket because I was traveling during a holiday.  This is sadly the average price of non-discount airlines and is more expensive than international travel to surrounding Asian countries.  However, this time I only paid 12000 yen through combining one-way Jetstar and Peach Aviation flights.  A huge difference!  I will admit that I was a bit nervous traveling here during the pandemic, but this is one of my last summer vacations before I start working full time again.  Both airlines took great lengths to ensure our safety and enforced social distancing more than the trains in the city so I was grateful.  Kyushu can also be reached by train, but it takes 6-9 hours by shinkansen and is usually more expensive than airfare.  I recommend flying to save time and also to feel more comfortable.

Aoshima Beach

I boarded my plane mid-afternoon at Narita Airport and had a smooth 2 hour flight directly to Miyazaki Airport.  All I brought with me was my Totoro purse and backpack so check-in was no problem.  Once I arrived, I could already feel the ocean breeze from outside so I instantly felt relaxed.  There is a cheap bus that runs from the airport to Aoshima Beach, but since I was chasing sunsets I hailed a taxi there.  I arrived just in time to watch the sun set and get some swimming in.  I also pounded down 2 glasses of wine while wearing a fake Gucci shirt I bought in Osaka.  It felt great to be back again!

Aoshima is a fantastic beach because it’s connected to a tiny island by a bridge you can walk over.  On the island you will find a shrine, some unique rock formations called the Devil’s Washboard, random bars, and infinite palm trees.  You can see the whole island in 15 mins or less but I decided to go swimming here even after the main beach had closed.  After it started getting dark, I decided to walk back and relax at Aoshima Park. This area has a variety of restaurants and bars and usually stays open until 8pm-10pm depending on the day.  There is a free alkaline shower you can use here as well!

Dinner

For dinner, I decided to try the famous Aoshima Crab Bowl for 3000 yen.  It came with a whole rainbow of sashimi with it too:

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Face Hugger

10/10.  After feeling fulfilled, I decided to head back to my guest house and get some sleep.  I was venturing all the way to the legendary Totoro Bus Stop the next day, after all.  The party had just begun.

Where to Stay

The two best options for backpackers to stay at in Aoshima are Hooju Guest House and Fisherman’s Beach Side Hostel.  Both are 2100 yen per night and are located right on the beach.  They are extremely simple and have limited amenities, but are perfect for those who are planning on doing outdoor activities for most of their stay.  I felt extremely welcome during my time here and the other people in my dorm were respectful.  There is also bike rental available which saved me a lot of time!

As far as onsen go, I recommend the day hot spring at Grantia Hotel in Aoshima.  It has an indoor and outdoor onsen, sauna, and only costs 850 yen to enter.  A perfect way to unwind after the beach!

Alternatively you could stay near Miyazaki Station if you are planning to visit other cities in Kyushu.  Aoshima is about a 45min bus ride away from the city center so you won’t be on the beach, but you will be close to it.  No matter which location you choose, there’s a lot to see and do!

Bonus

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The opposite of the Majora’s Mask Moon.

One thing I loved about Miyzaki Airport is that all of the clocks resemble smiling suns.  The polar opposite of the Majora’s Mask Moon!  Miyazaki Airport is one of the happiest airports that you’ll visit.  The only thing that comes close is the Koh Samui Airport in Thailand with its beautiful outdoor garden.

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My dream house.

When I first visited Miyazaki in 2018, I stayed with two of my friends in their town house near Miyazaki Station.  This was very convenient for taking transportation and I got to know so much of the city thanks to their guidance.  While I was out running, I remember passing by this stunning pink house in their neighborhood.  The bright color and gorgeous design of the windows were extremely eye-catching.  Plus it looked extremely spacious.  That got me thinking…  If I ever get over my “party every weekend” phase, I might enjoy living in a house like this near the beach.  It’s really hard to predict the future at this point because Tokyo has the most financial opportunities for me, but it’s fun to fantasize about.  Where is your dream house?

Thank you for reading the first article of my Miyazaki Series!  I will be talking about visiting the famous Totoro Bus Stop in my next article.  Please stay tuned for more.

 

The Great Bike Trip: From Kawayu Onsen to Yoshinoyama (Day 3)

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Just restoring my MP.

Having survived the harsh sun and rain of the first two days, we next set off for our motorbike adventure deep in the mountains of Nara Prefecture!  On the way there we decided to stop at the famous cemetery in Koyasan and also make our way to some viewpoints so we could experiment with skyline photography.  I had a lot of fun testing out the Canon EOS M I was lent for this trip and it turned out to be quite the relaxing day.  Though some of the parts of the mountain were steep, they were overall smooth and easy to ride on.  The main motivation for riding here was the luxury ryokan awaiting us upon completion of this trail.  This trip was going by so fast that I couldn’t believe it was halfway over…

For the introduction and full context of this trip, please see Day 1 (From Tokyo to Ise) and Day 2 (From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen).

Departure

The 3rd day began on August 3rd at 6:30am.  I took one last dip in the river onsen before we departed because it was the perfect way to start the day.  We definitely got our money’s worth at Kawayu Ryokan!  Our original plan was to go to Awaji Island on this day but due to the rain our itinerary changed.  Tonight our final destination was a ryokan designed by a famous architect in the mountains of Nara (Yoshinoyama) which took approximately 4 hours to reach (with breaks included).  We decided to spend more time in Wakayama and see some extremely rare sites that are only accessible by vehicle while making our way through the deep mountain paths.

Our updated map travel map looked like this:

Mt. Tamaki & Tamakijinja Shrine

Our first destination was a viewpoint on Mt. Tamaki that was approximately 45 mins away from Kawayu Onsen.  It conveniently had a free parking lot for motorbikes since it’s located next to Tamakijinja Shrine.  The sun had already rose so we stood here and took pictures of the clouds cascading over the mountains.  The cedar trees in the forest were beautiful too!  They brought back fond memories that I had hiking through Yakushima.  How nostalgic.

We next walked 15 minutes to the World Heritage Site of Tamakijinja Shrine.  The area was partially shaded by foliage so it was an easy hike.  The morning breeze felt lovely too.

Tamakijinja Shrine

Tamakijinja Shrine is small in size but is located in one of the most beautiful areas of the mountain.  The cedar trees that surround it are estimated to be about 3000 years old.  If you ever get the chance to visit this area of Nara, I highly recommend this forest!  I would have never even known about it if it wasn’t for my experienced driver.

Tanize Suspension Bridge

Tanize Suspension Bridge is located near Mt. Tamaki and is one of the longest suspension bridges in Japan.  It connects the villages of Uenochi and Tanize and has a gorgeous pale blue river underneath it.  My driver thought I would appreciate the photo op so we stopped here to take a break.  The bridge was extremely stable and safe to walk across.  I didn’t get much of a thrill from it but I did love looking at the river below.  The construction that went into this is quite impressive.

Other than the bridge, there’s really not a lot to do here.  But I did try some strange-looking sushi wrapped in cabbage because that’s apparently the specialty here.  It was vegetarian-friendly and quite healthy.  The taste was a bit different than what I was used to but it gave me the energy I needed to power through the rest of this day:

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You really need to try cabbage sushi at least once in your life.

Koyasan

Our next stop was Koyasan (also known as Mt. Koya), which is a quaint little town in Nara filled with temples and one of Japan’s most famous cemeteries: Okunoin.  The mausoleum here is where is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, lies in eternal meditation.  He is one of the most prominent figures in religious history making this area a sacred pilgrimage site.  In addition to him, many monks and feudal lords have been buried here.  You’ll also find some interesting looking tombstones dedicated to animals and science figures.  There are numerous bridges that you can cross to reach the mausoleum which make the journey interesting.  I also noticed that the leaves on the trees here were already turning red even though August had just began!

This is a place that I would not normally choose to go by myself because I am not religious or that well-versed in history, but my driver guided me through it which made the experience a lot more enriching.  A curious thing that I noticed here was that many statues were wearing red bibs.  I asked my driver why, and he didn’t know off the top of his head so we both researched it while we were resting.

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Jizo statues protect the souls of children and travelers.

According to Tadaima Japan, these statues are called Jizo and have two main roles:

“Their main role is to protect children. They also protect the souls of children who passed away and unborn babies. […] The other main role of Jizo is to protect the travelers, which is why you will often find Jizo statues on the side of the roads.”

I’ve seen these statues before in other areas of Japan, but I never understood the true symbolism until now.  It makes sense that parents would want to wish a safe journey to their children in the afterlife by praying to Jizo.  I’ve also encountered some in my mountain hikes and am glad that they are watching over me.  Koyasan is a really great place to learn more about these kinds of subjects if you are interested.

After cooling off at the rest center here, we took a 2 hour ride towards Yoshinoyama to reach our final destination for the day:

Chikurin-in Gumpeon Ryokan

Our final destination was the famous Chikurin-in Gumpeon ryokan in Yoshinoyama.  This ryokan was originally a temple that housed high-ranking monks who appraised the mountain.  The former Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, has even stayed here!  Now it servers as a famous hotspring resort that is open to the public but much of the original architecture has been preserved.  A famous ikebana artist designed the garden outside and you can tell that a lot of articulate work was put into the aesthetic here.  Due to the pandemic, there was only one other guest staying at the time so we got upgraded to a family room for free.  That is literally the best hospitality we could have asked for.  It really was an honor staying here!

Here is a video tour of our upgraded family room.  This is hands-down the most fancy resort that I have every stayed at and I am eternally grateful to my sponsor for the trip:

Since the sun was going down and we were starving, we grabbed a healthy meal from a restaurant across the street.  The roads of Yoshinoyama are extremely narrow but you can easily find food and drinks near wherever you are staying.  Just be careful because some places close around 6pm.  This area designed for relaxing at your hotspring and is remote from the city so I recommend staying here overnight.  You will thank yourself later.

This was a seasonal food set that consisted of vegetables, soup, tofu, salad, tempura and rice.  It was so healthy and delicious.  You can find a lot of these meals in Yoshinoyama!

At this point we were exhausted and headed off to bed in our family-size ryokan, but I will be writing more about this area in my next and final article of this series!

Day 3 Itinerary: 80% Completion

It’s hard to score our completion due to us completely skipping over Awaji Island, but in hindsight I’m happy we did.  This was a full day that was packed with activity so I give us another 80%.  This gave us more time to explore the mountains of Nara and area around our famed ryokan.  Had we gone to Awaji, we would have missed out on seeing the shrines and learning about the history of Koyasan.  The best thing is that we agreed to go to Awaji on another trip over dinner so we wouldn’t be rushed with our activities.  That is the perfect compromise!

I will be writing my final article tomorrow as soon as I wake up.  Thank you to everyone that has been reading and supporting me!  There are many more adventures to come.