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.

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!

Radio EVA Cafe at 渋谷PARCO

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Unit-01 is looking fresh as ever.

Though the theatrical release of the Evangelion 4.0 movie has been indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic, official Evangelion collaborations are still going full swing in Japan.  Last week I visited the Radio EVA Cafe located on the 6th floor of the Shibuya PARCO building and tried some of their delicious desserts.  In addition they have some custom merchandise for sale.  Their menu had a lot of options, but my personal favorite was the purple mousse rose with leaf-shaped chocolate:

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I’ve eaten a lot of desserts in my time, but this was my first time trying purple mousse!

This mousse was perfect because it was super soft and creamy, but not too sweet!  The little bits of pancake also added to the texture.  Though the food is quite expensive (averaging 1500 yen per dish), the pro of coming to this cafe is that you get to see special scenes from the movie!  Unfortunately recording them is not allowed, but I was able to take a lot of pictures around the cafe:

I really enjoyed seeing the comic book art-style they chose here.  The interior design was really thought out and it was interesting to see fully English quotes.  Unfortunately there were not a lot of vegetarian options, but I loved the flavored drinks and desserts.  For the full menu, please see their official website.

The cafe will be running from 6/1/2020 – 8/2/2020.  There is no online reservation system so you can just walk in.  I went on a weekday at 6pm and was immediately seated.  For those who are unable to go, fear not!  There will likely be another cafe when the movie is finally released.  When that happens, I will be sure to check it out!

Exploring Black Virgin Mountain, Cao Dai Temple, and the Cu Chi Tunnels

After having some unique dining experiences in Ho Chi Minh, I decided to get out of the city and explore Black Virgin Mountain and the Cao Dai Temples on my 2nd day in Vietnam.  These are two very historic places in the southern part that I highly recommend checking out.  I booked a private tour through Get Your Guide because I wanted to hit as many destinations as possible and some are very difficult to reach alone.  This journey also brought me to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a massive underground network around the country.  Seeing remnants of the Vietnam War was surreal and a memory that I’ll always carry with me.

The tour was a little over $100 which is pricier than most I’ve gone on, but my guide was excellent and matched my pace.  This price also included the entrance fee to all of the places I was going to.  I prefer spending my days outside of the city learning about history and culture while spending my nights at the local bars so I have a complete experience abroad.  I was able to see and learn a lot in the time that I had which I am grateful for.

Black Virgin Mountain

The tour started at 7am and I was picked up directly from my hotel by my friendly tour guide.  She was a Vietnamese student who spoke polished English and was very skilled at conversation.  I was lucky to have met her!  We boarded a small van and made our way to Black Virgin Mountain, an inactive volcano in the south of Vietnam.  What makes this mountain so famous is its legend that has been passed down for generations.

As we boarded the cable car to the peak of the mountain, my guide told me the full story.  The Legend of the Black Virgin actually has two variations.  In one version she falls in deeply in love with a Khmer soldier.  When he is drafted to war, she jumps off the mountain out of heart break and agony.  In another version, she jumps off the mountain to protect her virginity when she is forced into an arranged marriage.  In both versions, she is a lady with black skin who is highly devoted to Buddhism and purity.  The legend is quite sad, but her faith and unyielding spirit is admirable.  There are many altars where you can leave offerings in her memory.

When we got off the cable car we reached a market area and a series of temples.  The cable car doesn’t take you all the way to the top, but you can easily reach the pagoda within 15 minutes of climbing.  According to other travelers, the mountain takes around 6 hours to climb to the top and back.  I am happy I rode the cable car because this was only my 2nd day here and I had a lot planned.  Perhaps in the future I will attempt to climb a Vietnamese mountain!

It was fascinating seeing the design of the temples here because they were painted in extremely bright colors.  They are similar to those in Thailand and Cambodia since they are bordering countries.  The fresh fruit being sold at the market also tasted amazing!  I also grabbed a bowl of Pho because it was cheap and the perfect food for exploring Vietnam.  I also noticed some scorpion wine at a gift shop but I didn’t buy it.

My guide took me to a temple where you first pray and make a wish, then pick up 3 splinters of wood and drop them on the ground to determine your fate.  If they all face the same way, then your wish will come true.  I was fortunately able to make my wish come true on the very first try (you get 3 tries total).  If you fail, it is highly implied that you can climb the mountain on another day and try again.

I’m not allowed to tell anyone my wish, but it has to do with traveling and connecting my aesthetic tastes with my career.  Maybe starting this website was part of the prophecy…

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The Wood Splinters of Fate.

After I finished paying my respects, I Mario Karted down the mountain.  It was honestly the perfect way to end my trip to Black Virgin Mountain because my body was surging with adrenaline!

Cao Dai Temples

Our next stop was Cao Dai Temple that sits not far from the base of the mountain.  It is famous for its beautiful architecture and the articulate painting of the sky in its main hall.  This is hands down the most impressive temple that I saw while I was backpacking through Vietnam, so please check it out if you get the chance!

Caodaism is a mysterious religion that was founded in Vietnam in 1926, so it is fairly recent.  The majority of Vietnamese people are non-religious or follow the teachings of Buddhism, but this religion is gradually gaining followers even in western countries.  Cao Dai means “high tower” and is represented by the divine eye.  Cao Dai blends Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam.  The worshippers wear white robes and perform several chants at the temple every day:

There is a scene from the movie Ghost in the Shell: Innocence that looks like it was influenced by Cao Dai Temple:

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Though I’m not religious, being here made me feel very alive.  It’s amazing to think about how much this religion has caught on!

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are perhaps the most iconic attraction around Ho Chi Minh City because they were utilized in the Vietnam War.  Fortunately we came late in the afternoon when not as many people were here.  The cool thing about this museum is that it’s almost entirely outdoors and encased in a green forest.  The tunnels have been widened so they’re easier for tourists to get through.  I enjoyed see all the trap doors and hideaways hidden in foliage.  There is also a large tank and shooting range you can check out.  This museum doesn’t highlight the horrors of the war so much like the Hoa Lo Prison (which I’ll get into later).  The Cu Chi Tunnels show a more strategic approach to how the Vietnam War was originally fought.  I was surprised to know that there were a number of woman soldiers involved as well.

Overall, this was an amazing tour that lasted the whole day.  I couldn’t believe that this was only my 2nd day here and that there were many more ahead!  Look forward to the rest of my adventures~

Journey to Yakushima: The Real-life Princess Mononoke Forest (Part 1)

On my 24th birthday in October nearly two years ago, I decided I travel all the way from Tokyo to Yakushima so I could see the lush island that inspired one of my favorite movies of all time—Princess Mononoke.  This journey took nearly 10 hours and involved a lot of hiking, but it was one of the best experiences of my life.  Yakushima has so much unspoiled nature and is also home of Japan’s oldest recorded tree in history: Jomonsugi.  There are numerous hiking trails and endless adventure to be had here.  In this article I will be retelling the tale of my 3 day stay and also my recommended hiking spots and tours.  I would plan on staying here for 3-5 days if possible so you can fully enjoy the nature!

About Yakushima

 

Yakushima is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Kyushu, Japan.  The island is mostly mountainous with 16 main hiking trails.  Many of them intersect so you can choose the path that best fits what you want to see.  There are mountain huts scattered in the forest that you can stay at for free overnight, but it is possible to complete most hikes within 6 – 12 hours.  Yakushima is close to Okinawa giving it a subtropical climate (in October I could still go swimming).  You can travel here any time of year, but I would recommend avoiding the rainy season (early June-July) as the forest can get flooded.

What’s amazing is that  even today many parts of this island remain unexplored.  Some areas outside of the trails are so steep it is not recommended to climb them without a guide or special equipment.  Fortunately the main trails are marked well enough that you can navigate them without a guide.  Just be sure to bring enough food and be cautious when climbing over rocks, steep areas, and places with low visibility.

*Maps are courtesy of Yakumonkey (a really handy guide for exploring).

Reasons to go:

  • Arguably one of the most beautiful forests to hike through in Japan.
  • If you are a Princess Mononoke fan, exploring Yakushima is a dream come true.
  • You can see rare wildlife (both plants and animals).
  • The freshwater streams are so clean that you can drink out of them.
  • The beaches are wonderful for swimming.
  • This island is extremely remote and still has a lot of things to be discovered.

The downside is that transportation is limited, and if you are not an outdoors person then you may find some of the hikes a bit difficult.  However, people of all ages have completed the hike to Jomonsugi and there are hiking groups available for all experience levels.  You can also choose to hike completely alone without a group like I did.

Here are the main spots that I hiked to:

Day 1: Shiratani Unsuikyo

Shiratani Unsuikyo is a dream-like world full of lush green mosses and some of Japan’s oldest cedars that inspired the setting of Princess Mononoke.  The lead artist of the movie, Oga Kazuo, spent quite a long time here sketching scenes that were used in the film.  You can easily see why this setting was chosen, as it is unspoiled and far from civilization making it the perfect home for creatures of the forest.  The water that runs from the stream here is so fresh that you can re-fill your water bottle with it and drink it while you hike.  I had never been to a place so clean and beautiful in my life, so this was one of the best places to spend my 24th birthday!

Three of the oldest cedar trees here are: Nidaiosugi, Kugurisugi, and Yayoisugi.  Though it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the forest, there are clear signs and markings around to guide you.  Keep your eyes out for deer too!  You’re likely run into other tour groups going around but they are easy to avoid.  This hike is not particularly strenuous; just remember to watch out for rain that makes the stones and moss slippery.

I arrived on a foggy day, so this was the view I got from the highest point of the forest:

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Shiratani Unsuikyo covered in a mysterious blanket of fog.

I was not disappointed by this view because it looked like I was walking through the clouds!  The fog gave the forest an eerie glow and you could still make out all of the main sightseeing points.  Fortunately my other two days here were completely sunny.

Duration: 4-6 hours of hiking
Admission Fee: 500 yen

My Recommendation: There are two main paths you can use to enter, but I recommend entering from the Miyanoura side because there are more frequent buses that lead there and back from the port.  You do not need a guide to hike through this area as it is pretty straightforward.  I came here by myself and did not have a single dull moment.

Day 2: Jomonsugi (Japan’s Oldest Tree)

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Behold, the oldest tree in Japan (around 7,200 years old)!

One of the most magical hikes in Japan is to the oldest tree in this country: The Legendary Jomonsugi.  Upon reaching the tree, you will receive its holy blessing and have explored much of Yakushima’s beauty.  You can actually access a route to Jomonsugi from the Shiratani Unsuikyo, but it is a strenuous hike so I recommend seeing them on separate days.  I enjoyed this hike much more than I did Fuji due to the beautiful cedar scenery.  Jomonsugi is quite massive in size (standing at 83 feet) and is like no other tree I’ve ever seen.  Besides the tree, there are many other aesthetic things to see on your way there:

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Wilson’s Stump: The heart-shaped stump.

The main points of interest on the way there are Wilson’s Stump and the abandoned logging village of Kosugidani.  Wilson’s Stump mysteriously formed a heart shape after the tree was cut down.  It was discovered by Ernest Henry Wilson who was an English botanist that came to Yakushima in the early 1900s.  Little remains of the old village (I thought it was a series of old storehouses when I first saw it), but historically it had a major impact on the development of Yakushima.

The hike starts off very easy.  You walk on what looks like railroad tracks into the forest and go through a few tunnels.  The hike is 22km but doesn’t get steep until you are much deeper in the forest.  I saw some wild mushrooms on the way there.  A tour guide told me that there’s a possibility that magic mushrooms may exist here in the wild though I didn’t try eating any.  The most difficult part is climbing up the narrow trails that lead to Jomonsugi.  Fortunately hiking through the Shiratani Unsuikyo the other day prepared me for that.  I reached Jomonsugi in around 3.5 hours and was stunned by its beauty.  I turned around and saw people of all ages smiling.  We had made the mythical trek!

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As I gazed at Jomonsugi, I was reminded of the World Tree from Tales of Symphonia.

As I gazed at Jomonsugi, I couldn’t help but think about the World Tree from one of my favorite videogames of all time: Tales of Symphonia.  This tree is what keeps the world alive in the game, and I felt a similar power from Jomonsugi.  It is the heart of Yakushima that keeps the forest safe.  Or keeps tourism alive.  Something like that.  I couldn’t think straight because I was so hungry.  Fortunately I had some riceballs prepared for me by my hotel:

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Riceballs from Suimeiso.

On the way down I noticed I was starting to get fatigued and my legs started to hurt.  The last two hours of this hike were the worst.  I run every day and am in shape, but I am not used to these forest hikes as I live in the city.  At one point I started to get spots in my vision, but fortunately I was not in danger of passing out.  I listed to Geofront by Carpainter and focused on climbing down to the rhythm.  I vowed if I survived this then I would someday see this artist in person (which I did a month later).  When I got back to the train track part of the trail, I was able to sit down and rest for a bit.  I think the hike only took me around 7 hours.  It was worth it for everything that I got to experience.

Duration: 6-10 hours of hiking (including travel to the trail head by bus)
Admission Fee: 1000 yen

My Recommendation: Get up as early as you can (preferably around 4am) and take the earliest bus to Arakawa Trail from where you are staying.  Your accommodation can help you as this is the most popular destination in Yakushima.  Most buses will arrive around 6am-7am.  PACK LOTS OF SNACKS!  The bus was full when I returned so I had to wait for the next one back.  I killed time with photo editing and it was alright, but I wish I had prepared more.  Regardless, this is one of the best hikes you’ll find in Japan and is extremely rewarding.  Do it if you get the chance!

Where to Stay: Suimseiso Minshuku

If you came here because of the movie like myself, then staying at Suimeiso Minshuku is your best bet!  This backpackers-styled hostel is only 3500 yen a night, includes some meals and snacks, and has signed Miyazaki drawings that are framed and displayed in the common room.  That is because Miyazaki was actually a former guest here!  The friendly staff are extremely hard-working and will make you feel welcome here.  I had trouble initially figuring out the bus routes, but they took the time to assist me.

Address: 1 Anbo, Yakushima, Kumage District, Kagoshima 891-4311

If tatami rooms are not your style, you can either send an inquiry to one of the Yakushima tour websites or check what’s available on Booking.  There are resorts available, but I would recommend saving that money for a more famous beach area like Okinawa.  When you’re in Yakushima, you’re going to want to be exploring nature as much as possible so staying inside is not ideal.

Food

To avoid the mistake I made of not having enough food while hiking, I HIGHLY recommend placing an order for breakfast and snacks from your accommodation in advance.  Since the majority of people that come to Yakushima are hikers and backpackers, almost all hotels will do this for you.  Tours will usually include a meal too.

After being famished from my hike to Jomonsugi, I found a restaurant called Smiley near my hotel that had delicious sandwiches, soup, ice cream, and cookies shaped like the island.  Now that was a satisfying meal!  There are other small restaurants and convenience stores around the ports too, but usually they are not open in the early morning when it’s recommended to start your hike.  It gets dark on the island around 7pm, so be sure to be careful of time.  Packing snacks is ideal and will save you a lot of time.

Access & Transportation

From Tokyo Haneda Airport, I flew to Kagoshima Airport the night before I sailed to Yakushima.  This cost around 20,000 yen and takes 2 hours.  I stayed at a cheap net cafe called Jiyu Kukan by Kagoshima Port which is fortunately close to the station.

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A stray cat in Kagoshima that decided to follow me around.  Will I become a magical girl now?

In the morning, I bought a roundtrip ferry ticket to Yakushima for 16,600 yen (the return trip must be used within 7 days but I was only staying for 3 days).  There are around 8 ferries that go to Miyanoura Port daily.  You can choose to stay somewhere here, but more backpackers stay in the Anbo Port area (which is where I stayed).

If you have any questions or would like to purchase a ticket in advance, I would recommend checking out Yes Yakushima’s website because they have updated time tables that change per season.  You can also fly here, but I decided to go by boat because I thought it would be more fun.  The ride takes around 2-3 hours.

Once on the island, you can get your accommodation to help you book a taxi or take the buses around.  I decided to go buy bus because it was extremely cheap.  You can rent a car, but some of the roads go deep into the mountains and are a bit dangerous for a driver who is inexperienced.  I would leave it to the bus drivers personally.

In my next article, I will be talking about a private tour that I went on during my final day here exploring beaches and hotsprings around the island.  Please look forward to it!

Hakone: Journey to the Real-life Tokyo-3

If you’ve ever looked up day trips from Tokyo on the internet, Hakone will be one of the most prominent results.  With it being the real-life location of Tokyo-3 from Evangelion and having many hotsprings, temples, and a great view of Mt. Fuji, that status is well-deserved.  It’s also home to one of my favorite museums in Japan which has sculptures that resemble vaporwave visuals called the Hakone Open Air Museum.  You should also try swimming in the famous red wine onsen at Yunessan to smooth your skin.  Wherever you go you’re bound to discover something interesting here because the nature is vast.

I’ve been to Hakone five times by myself and also with friends so I’ve seen all its major attractions.  Here are some of the coolest things that I’ve found:

Eva-Ya: The Evangelion Goods Store

As you exit the station and begin your wonderful journey here, one of the first things you’ll come across is Eva-ya; Hakone’s own original Evangelion Store.  Here you will find a number of goods from the anime including water bottles based off the characters’ designs, food with the NERV logo on it, and a life-sized Rei Ayanami.  Asuka fans don’t fret because she has plenty of merchandise too!  One of my best purchases here was Misato’s cross-shaped necklace (not pictured).  I also enjoyed the Unit 01-colored ice cream.  Of course you can visit the official Evangelion stores in Tokyo too, but this is the one located where the anime takes places and has slightly different merchandise.

Owakudani

Owakudani is Hakone’s volcanic crater that has sulfur vents and hotsprings making it a beautiful mountain getaway.  The sulfide causes the rocks to gain their lovely red hue.  In order to reach Owakudani, you must take a cable car ride from Hakone Ropeway.  There are black eggs sold here that are said to increase your lifespan.  I bought a four-pack of them and thought they were very delicious!  Only time will tell if their effect is really long-lasting.  Unfortunately due to the danger of the volcanic gas some of the hiking trails have been roped off here, but watching the plumes of smoke form from the main viewpoint is an amazing sight.  This crater is definitely worth seeing!

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the pirate ship fee included too).

 

Yunessan

Yunessan is my favorite onsen in all of Hakone because of its famous red wine onsen you can bathe in among many other unique hotsprings and pools.  This is a mixed-gender hotspring so swimsuits are required in most areas unless you rent a private onsen or pay to enter the gender-segregated bath called Mori no Yu.  The plus side is that you can enjoy Yunessan with all of your friends!  Last time I went they had coffee, sake, and pearl-water baths too.  Some of the baths rotate while others are permanent additions.  The outdoor area has water slides, a mystical cave that you can explore, and various hot springs positioned so you can get a clear view of the mountains.  This is always the most relaxing part of my trip.  During certain times they serve free glasses of red wine too so be sure not to miss out!

Entrance Fee: 2,900 (a bit expensive, but worth it for the variety here)

Outdoor Museums

I’ve already mentioned that the Hakone Open Air Museum is by far my favorite museum here (see my article The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums for more information), but I also want to point out beautiful Hakone Venetian Glass Museum.  This forest of glass has beautiful Venetian-inspired designs and adornments like nowhere else I’ve ever seen.  Outside you can find trees and a bridge intricately decorated with glass ornaments as well as a miniature pond.  Inside there are many hand-crafted glass sculptures and jewels as well.  I was very impressed with the aesthetic here:

The Okada Art Museum is also worth checking out.  Though I don’t have any recent pictures, they have many beautiful sculptures in the mountains and footbaths you can use too.  There are some traditional Japanese handcrafts and artifacts displayed too.

Entrance Fees: Varies on the museum, but I would research beforehand and budget 3000 – 5000 yen depending on what you want to see.  Keep in mind these are some of the best museums outside of Tokyo and have that awesome mountain view!

Hakone Shrine & Pirate Ship Tours at Lake Ashi

A trip to Hakone isn’t complete without seeing Lake Ashi and the famous Hakone Shrine along the shores.  I first saw it in the winter when snow was on the ground, but the summer is the ideal time to go if you want to experience the lake.  My friend and I decided to buy the tickets to ride the pirate ship and drank a bottle of Captain Morgan on it in true spirit.  The ship was very spacious and we could feel the gentle breeze of the lake while staring at the view of Mt. Fuji in the distance.  It was exhilarating—an experience like nowhere else in Japan!  I think the only other place where you can ride a pirate ship quite like this is at Tokyo Disney, but you don’t have the awesome mountain backdrop that you do here.

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the cable car fee included too).

Access

From Shinjuku Station, you can take the Romancecar Express to reach Hakone-Yumoto Station in 1.5 hours for 2300 yen.

Once reaching the station, all of the places I listed can be reached via bus within an hour, but I would allow yourself 6-8 hours here at least.  It took multiple trips in both the summer and the winter for me to see everything here, but you could probably see these things in approximately 2 days.

If you decide to stay here overnight, Hakone Japan has some good choices.  I plan to stay at a ryokan in the future and will write about my experience.

Exploring Mt. Daisen and the Ghost Town of Yonago

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The ceiling of Enryuin features hundreds of painted yokai by Shigeru Mizuki.

After riding camels in Tottori and swimming in the timeless ocean of Iwami, I set my sights on climbing Mt. Daisen which is about an hour away from Tottori Station.  Daisen-Oki National Park is quite expansive and has beaches, mountains, and the remnants of a volcano that is said to be inhibited by the gods.  There is also a lot of interesting wildlife you can see here such as salamanders and beautiful flora.  I even ran into a herd of cows on my way to the top.  Although I didn’t make it all the way up due to fog and visibility issues, I had the chance to explore some temples buried deep in the forest and bathe in a natural hotspring.  Though it’s quite remote from the major cities of Japan, Daisen is the perfect place for a hiking retreat or those who want to explore places outside of Fuji.  You could spend anywhere from a day to a week hiking around all of the trails here.

Exploring Mt. Daisen

The main trail to Misen Peak takes about 3 hours to climb, making the total climb around 4-6 hours.  I came here on a humid day in August, and unfortunately thick fog covered a lot of the trail so I only climbed for about 1.5 hours.  However, in that time I was able to make it to all of the temples and attractions that this trail is famous for.  I first stopped at the Daisen Farm Home of Milk to gaze at the cows living their peaceful farm life and try some of the famous ice cream here.  It was amazing as expected.  Next, I ventured to the two famous temples here: Daisenji and Enryuin.  Due to the fog I got lost on the way to Enryuin and accidentally walked through someone’s backyard in the forest, but they were thankfully kind enough to point me in the right direction.  I arrived in yokai heaven:

Daisenji is classic Buddhist temple that can only be viewed from the outside, where as Enryuin has an immaculate interior design and is designed for meditation.  Both are worth checking out to see the history and connection between them.  It is said that although yokai are monsters, they are viewed as gods here because they have the power to scare people and drive out their impure desires for the greater good.  At Enryuin, you can lay on your back and meditate by looking at the artwork of yokai painted on the ceiling.  They were drawn by Shigeru Mizuki, who is also the author of the manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro.  The monk here was very nice and welcomed me with kindness.

After having my fill of yokai watching (punny), I decided to seek out some food.  Hinokami Goen Yuin is a really handy place because it has hotsprings, guesthouses, food, and campground access.  I bought a soba set there and also bathed in the hotspring for an hour.  It started raining on the mountain so I came at the ideal time.  It was relaxing to watch the rain fall off the plains of the mountain while I relaxed at a sheltered outdoor hotspring.  This is peak mountain life (/end pun).

For a full list of attractions you can see in Daisen, please see their official website.  Usually the weather here is quite pleasant, but unfortunately I came during a rainy time.  If I come back I definitely want to explore the beaches and more of the volcanoes.

The Ghost Town of Yonago

 

Once the rain cleared, I decided to head to the ghost town of Yonago to see what it had to offer.  Since I prayed at Enryuin and survived the storm, I figured I could get through this.  Yonago is only an hour away from Daisen and is said to have a spiritual influence.  It is also the hometown of previously mentioned manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, so you can find his yokai artwork all over the place by walking around the streets from the station.  Did I see any ghosts here?  Many.  Take a look for yourself:

The design of this town is extremely aesthetic which is why it initially attracted my attention.  Everything from the streetlamps to the outdoor gardens to even the vehicles have some kind of strong yokai influence.  Though these are anime versions he created of the scarier yokai depicted in old Japanese folklore, they have an artistic sense that attract a number of visitors to the town.  I have never watched or read GeGeGe no Kitaro, but I can see why it’s so popular in Japan.  It’s a good way to get younger audiences interested in studying the myths behind these strange creatures.  Now I want to study more too!

I should also note that there is some amazing aesthetic food here including eyeball mochi, yokai oden, and all sorts of spooky sake:

This town is somewhat touristy, but visiting a yokai town is something that not many people can say they’ve done.  I had a lot of fun doing photography here and can gladly say that it was worth my time.  During this trip I learned that ghosts can definitely be your friends.

Access

From Tottori Station, I road the San-In Line to Yonago Station.  This took about one hour and cost 1600 yen.

Daisen has three main points of access.  I came here from a bus from Yonago Station.  Please see the Daisen Guide for more information.  Getting here should only take 40 mins – 1 hour, just be sure to watch the time tables.  You can also take a taxi.

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:

makotos house
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~

My journey to the real-life village from “Your Name”: Hida-Furukawa

Right before Japan declared its widespread emergency state in response to the COVID-19, I took a final trip to a place that has been on my travel list for quite a long time: Hida-Furukawa.  Located in the mountainous region of Gifu, this town is the real-life location of the fictional town “Itomori” in the movie Your Name.  Like its fictional counterpart, it is removed from the city and has a lot of wonderful nature you can explore.  In this post, I will be detailing my experience here and all of the main places captured in the movie.

Please see my photo documentary for detailed side-to-side comparisons with the anime!

The major points of interest are:

  • Hida-Furukawa Station (so you can see the cattle mascot Hida-gyu)
  • Hida City Library
  • Ajidokoro Furukawa (the same restaurant where the characters eat mochi)
  • 旧落合村バス停 (the infamous bus stop)
  • Hie Shrine in Takayama

But there are many other museums and hot springs to see during your trip!

Traveling to Hida-Furukawa Station

I woke up at 6am and rode the shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Toyama Station which took around 2 hours but was a scenic trip.  From there I switched to the Hida Limited Express and traveled 1.5 hours to reach Hida-Furukawa Station—the main location of the movie outside of Tokyo.  The journey takes 3-4 hours and costs around 14,000 yen in total, but is worth it for the amount of things you can see.  Even if you’re not a diehard fan of Your Name, Hida has a rustic charm that you won’t find in other places in Japan.

As soon as I got off, I was greeted by a cute cutout of Hida-gyu.  Hida is famous for its beef so it would make sense that its mascot looks like this:

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Welcome to Hida City!

Dining in Hida

Since I was starving I decided to stop by a local eatery called Fab Cafe Hida.  This restaurant is not in the movie, but it’s definitely worth trying because they have sweet sake chai and delicious salmon sandwiches.  I came here in early April so it was still snowing a bit even though there were some cherry blossoms in bloom.  I was happy to see that they had space heaters scattered throughout their cafe so I could stay warm.

A restaurant that is in the movie however is called Ajidokoro Furukawa, where the characters feast on glutinous mochi.  You’ll know this place when you see it because it has posters of the movie hung up around it.  The staff is extremely friendly and will give you a guestbook to look at and draw in while you wait for your food.  I was amazed by all the detailed drawings that people had sketched inside.  In addition to mochi, there is a lot of Japanese food here that you can order too.  I’m not a huge fan of mochi, but this was exceptionally delicious.  I can see why the place was featured in the movie now!

Hitting the Library and Local Shrines

One of the early scenes in the movie takes place at the Hida City Library which you can easily reach on foot from the station (almost all the major attractions I listed are within walking distance from here).  It’s quite an expansive library with multiple floors, toys and reading circles for children, and a number of classic titles.  This is the biggest library I have ever been to in Japan so I will always remember my experience here.  It brought back the memories I had renting books as a child in the days before ebooks existed.  What a time it is to be alive!

In addition to the library, you can check out the Hida Tourism Center for a free map and also stop by some of the city’s local shrines.  There are three shrines that are said to bring good luck in love if you visit them: Enko-ji, Shinshu-ji, and Honkou-ji.  Every January 15th there is a festival here that celebrates them.  Though the festival had long ended since I arrived here, I still had a lot of fun checking them out!

One of the major shrines in the movie (called Hie pictured above) is actually in Takayama.  Fortunately, Takayama is very easy to reach.  From Hida-Furukawa, you can take the Takayama Line to reach Takayama Station in 30 mins for 290 yen. Hie Shrine is around a 25 min walk from the station and is free to enter (or you can take a taxi).

There’s not much else to see in central Takayama, so I would recommend coming here after you fully finish exploring Hida-Furukawa.

The Infamous Bus Stop

This bus stop is arguably the most difficult place to get to, but is totally worth it for the comparative picture.  It’s literally out in the middle of nowhere—forests and a single vending machine are the only things that surround it.  Only a few number of buses stop here per day making it a real challenge to get here and back (you may be waiting for hours).  The nearest train station is Tsunogawa Station, but since this area is somewhat remote the trains are infrequent too.  But if you come all the way out to Hida, you might as well go for the gold.  I opted to pay a taxi driver 6900 ($60) for a round trip from Hida-Furukawa Station to here and fortunately he cut me a deal.

Inside the bus stop are more sketch books and posters of the movie.  It’s amazing to see how many people have made it out here!

Address: 旧落合村バス停  (If you show this to any taxi driver in Hida, they will know).

Other Points of Interest

While walking through Hida, be sure to look out for the Setogawa Canal!  This street is lined with beautiful buildings and you can also see koi fish swimming around.  It’s extremely picturesque:

There are also a number of sake distilleries you can walk in and see.  I found a sculpture of a life-sized robot near one of the shrines too!  It truly surprised me how much there is to see in this little town.

Though I didn’t have enough time to visit any museums, here is a list of some I’d want to visit in the future:

Final Remarks

Traveling to Hida and Takayama was definitely a great excursion out of the city for me.  I had the chance to relive some of my favorite parts of Your Name and also create my photo documentary so I will forever remember this trip.  However, even if you’re not a fan of the movie you will still enjoy this area if you like exploring rural Japan.  I did this entire trip in one day, but you could easily expand this into a 2-3 day trip if you stay at an onsen resort or ride the Hida express all the way to Nagoya or Osaka.  The local train that runs through Gifu is considerably less expensive than the bullet train.

In my next article I will be writing about Gero Onsen which is between Hida-Furukawa and Nagoya so it makes the perfect side-trip for those who are traveling here.  Please look forward to my future adventures!