Visiting Two of Aomori’s Most Aesthetic Art Museums

After an action-filled day visiting sakura parks, shrines, and real life anime movie locations, we decided to spend our final day in Aomori seeing two of the most aesthetic museums in the prefecture: Aomori Museum of Art and Towada Art Center. What drew me to these museums were their life-sized open air exhibits that fuses Japanese and Western art together in creative ways. Though places like Tokyo and Naoshima have many notable museums, I have never seen anything quite like the works here, which is another huge reason I wanted to visit Aomori. Please continue reading for my full review of these museums, and see for yourself what you think! If the weather is rainy during your trip like it was for us, visiting places like this is an ideal way to spend time.

Aomori Museum of Art

The Aomori Museum of Art is one of the craziest modern art museums I have ever visited in Japan, and that’s really saying a lot! What struck me the most was how random some of the permanent galleries here were. First we walked from the entrance to a room full of tribal paintings to a room full of Ultraman sketches by Tohl Narita himself. Next we walked through a hallway with pictures of ears on the wall into a room filled with stars. Finally the path lead to an outdoor area with a gigantic sculpted dog standing over a bowl filled with flowers. This dog is known as the “A to Z Memorial Dog”, which is considered to be a symbol of Aomori Prefecture. It was created by a Japanese artist named Yoshitomo Nara who projects the loneliness of his childhood into his fiberglass sculptures, creating a new wave of aesthetics. His artistic vision and personal experience growing up is much like my own, which is why I wanted to see his works in person so much.

Here is a handy excerpt from Public Delivery explaining the symbolism of his dog sculptures:

Yoshimoto Nara’s dogs evoke a myriad of emotions in the audience, including joy, anxiety, fear, insecurity, hope, playfulness, and confidence. His figures seem to exist in only a dream-like state where reality becomes what you make of it. His mixture of vulnerability, rebellion and hopefulness within his artworks connects intimately with people worldwide.

Throughout his career, he has incited a deep sense of childhood memory and the allure of youth while concurrently leaving a relentless reminder of the fundamental issues and problems of adulthood. This figure symbolizes a defiant spirit associated with youthful hopefulness and belief that we have what it takes to change the world.

Yoshitomo Nara’s shining dog sculptures – What you should know

In addition to dogs, there are also other sculptures of his in the museum including faces of people and a house with three children reading a book inside. The scene is a bit creepy at first, but after viewing the scene from multiple angles you’ll see that it is more cartoonish than it is scary. His works are much better seen in person than online, so I would encourage those who are interested to please come to Aomori to see them!

Address: Chikano-185 Yasuta, Aomori, 038-0021
Entrance Fee: 510 yen (may be extra for special exhibits)

Towada Art Center

Towada Art Center is an interactive art museum geared for both children and adults with a number of hands-on exhibits. I was really impressed with the variety of high-quality art that was placed outdoors including Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin that you can climb into, a horse made out of sculpted flowers, a giant ghost, and a big puffy car next to a puffy house. All of these things were life-sized and very eye-catching. Plus they were scattered around the museum and not just in front of it so there was really a lot to check out. Hilariously, we spent all of our time photographing the free outdoor exhibits and only went into the gift shop because we were satisfied with everything we had seen. I ordered an apple dessert at the cafe that was a replica of one of the sculptures outdoors because I thought it was unique. It tasted as exquisite as it looked because the “apples” were actually blueberries with red chocolate melted over them. Touché because that is art in itself.

Address: 10-9 Nishi2bancho, Towada, Aomori 034-0082
Entrance Fee: 800-1800 yen depending on what exhibits you want to see (outdoor exhibitions are free)

Eating Curry at unbreakable

While looking for cafes between the two museums, one name really caught my eye: unbreakable in Towada City. What exactly is it about this cafe that makes it unbreakable? Perhaps it’s the zestiness of the green curry or the size of the garlic shrimp? Whatever it was, it was definitely good. Of all of the cafes around, this one had the best assortment of rice dishes and latte flavors. I tried a vanilla one and it really hit the spot—I was caffeinated and ready to appreciate more art! This was yet another random find that really made my day. I hope these cafes can continue to stay in business because they truly make amazing food and drinks.

Address: Osaka-72-1 Osaka, Towada, Aomori 034-0041 (Note that this is in Aomori and not in Osaka)

Final Thoughts

While it was quite the long haul to and from Tokyo, Aomori was definitely worth the visit! Although it rained a bit during our trip, the scenery and cherry blossoms were lovely, the food and art museums were extremely diverse, and the city and shops had a lot of charm. The best time to visit this prefecture is probably during sakura season (like we did) and in the summer for the Nebuta Festival, but I imagine with all of the pretty trees Autumn would be a great time to visit too! If you can get a rental car, I would definitely recommend it as the parks and museums here are quite spread out and hard to reach with public transportation. Three days was enough to complete everything on our itinerary and we left Aomori feeling extremely satisfied.

This will be my last article for a while as I am heading to Hawaii next week, but when I return to Japan I plan on visiting the 2 prefectures that I haven’t been to yet: Akita & Iwate. Please look forward to reading more articles from me this summer, and I might decide to write a Hawaii series too!

A Road Trip to Aomori: Visiting the Nebuta Museum and Hirosaki Castle

A Perfect Aesthetic Moment: Sakura petals illuminated under the gates of Hirosaki Caste.

Last weekend I went on a roadtrip to one of my dream destinations during the peak of its cherry blossom season: Aomori Prefecture. Unlike most of Japan, Aomori’s sakura season starts usually from the last weekend of April until the first week of May because it is located up north facing Hokkaido. Aomori’s Hirosaki and Ashino parks are said to be the best places to see the sakura in all of Japan, so as a photographer visiting this prefecture was a huge goal of mine. The hardest challenges of visiting Aomori are timing your visit with the ideal weather and getting around, because the prefecture is quite rural. However, my group decided to bring a car so we could maximize our sightseeing opportunities. Besides its sakura, Aomori is also famous for its delicious apples. This is the first part of a three part article series, so please look forward to reading about my top recommendations here!

Getting to Aomori Prefecture & Accommodation

One way shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Shin Aomori Station are 17000 yen and the trip takes over 4 hours, so it is recommended that you fly to Aomori Airport to save time and money. Roundtrip airline tickets are usually around 30000 yen and you will reach Aomori Airport in just over an hour. However, since I was short on time and was meeting my friends who were staying in central Aomori with a car, I opted for the one way shinkansen ticket then drove 8 hours with them back to Tokyo when we were done sightseeing. It was a long trip, but overall very scenic and cost efficient!

You will definitely want a car to get around Aomori because public transportation is quite limited; especially if you want to see all of the sakura parks because they are spread out. We had originally planned on using some of the sightseeing buses here but were so glad we didn’t because they take a long time to reach places.

Since sakura season is crazy popular and Aomori only has a few hotels in the central area, be prepared to pay extra on accommodations during this time. I paid 15,000 yen for a two night stay at Aomori Route Inn Chuo but it was pleasant because it had a small indoor public bath and I was placed in the 420 room (blaze it). If you come outside of sakura season, then prices will be more reasonable.

Nebuta Museum

The most popular festival in Aomori is the Nebuta Festival, which is held every summer from Aug 2nd – Aug 7th and involves giant colorful floats with characters hand-painted by artists. The floats are carried by volunteers and illuminated by lanterns with dancers and taiko drummers accompanying them during the parade making it quite the spectacle. At the Nebuta Museum in central Aomori, you can see the floats on display all year and also read about the various characters depicted in the floats. If you are coming all the way to Aomori, then you should definitely visit this museum!

Entrance Fee: 600 yen
Address: 1 Chome-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori, 030-0803

Hirosaki Park at Night

Hirosaki Park is renowned as one of the best places to spend sakura season and contains several gardens and Hirosaki Castle within it. During sakura season special lights are placed under the sakura trees so the blossoms look illuminated at night. On the weekend we went, which was April 29th – May 1st, the sakura were predicted to be in full bloom but unfortunately due to heavy rain in the area a few days before, some of the petals had fallen. However, many of the weeping sakura trees (also known as prunus pendula) were in full bloom here so we managed to get a few good shots in. Had it not been for the drizzling rain that night, this park would have been ideal for a picnic!

For better sakura photos, please see my Kyoto article series from last year! We managed to get perfect photos of sakura in full bloom under a full moon.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen
Address: 〒036-8356 Aomori, Hirosaki, Shimoshiroganecho, 1

Top Food Picks

Right as you arrive to Shin Aomori Station and exit through the ticket gate, you will notice multiple gift and souvenir shops at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. I impulse bought an apple macaroon from one of them since I am a macaroon fanatic. As expected, it tasted very fruity and I adored the little apple brand on it! As far as sweets in Aomori go, I also recommend a tiny cake shop called Kashidokoro Kangetsu because it has cream puffs shaped like swans, cakes with dog faces, and tanuki cupcakes that are apple flavored! There are also some anko-filled sweets here that are really delicious. I ordered one shaped like a bamboo shoot and enjoyed both the aesthetic and taste.

For lunch I had a seafood scallop salad crepe at a place called Galetteria Da Sasino in central Aomori. I know that sounds like a weird combination of flavors but it actually tasted amazing! I really love the soft and spongy texture of crepes paired with seafood. For dinner we went to a sushi place called Kuruma Sushi because it was near the castle. I ordered a seafood bowl with the finest fish and mistakenly ordered a bottle of wine instead of a glass because I had a tough time understanding Tsugaru dialect. But I made that bottle last for three days so I got my money’s worth out of it. Just another day in the life!

Thank you for reading the first part of my Aomori article series. In my next article I will be writing about Ashino Park and a special house from a Studio Ghibli film. Please look forward to more!

KEEP HOPE ALIVE: Journey to the Hill of Hope

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

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

Getting to Setoda Island

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

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

Other Points of Interest

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

Revisiting Kurashiki

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

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

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

Accommodation

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

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

Cruising through the Whirlpools of Naruto City

View from a whirlpool cruise in Naruto City during the strongest tidal current.

After completing my ninja training at the Naruto x Boruto Theme Park, I decided the next logical thing to do on this vacation was set off on a whirlpool cruise in Naruto city. The Naruto Whirlpools are located underneath the bridge that connects Awaji Island to Shikoku. I used to live in this area nearly 6 years ago when I first moved to Japan. Though it was only for a short time, it felt nostalgic coming back here after all these years where my journey first began. You can see the whirlpools from the bridge but the best way to photograph them is on a whirlpool cruise. The tidal current can change depending on the time of year, so be sure to look at what is recommend from the booking website before you make a reservation. We decided to book a tour at 11:15 on an Aqua Eddy boat from Uzusio because it has an upper and lower deck where you can see the whirlpools from underneath the water. The cruise lasts for about 30 minutes and costs 2400 which was suitable for me.

Using my GoPro I managed to catch some pretty neat footage of the Naruto Whirlpools:

Being on this cruise was fantastic because the weather was perfect and I could feel the coolness of the ocean breeze. I reflected on my life a lot and thought about how much I had changed since I last saw these whirlpools. They really are something else! They definitely looked best from the top deck but it was fun to see the fish from the windows underneath the boat too. Be sure to make a reservation in advance because this cruise is quite popular.

Address: 264-1 Oge, Tosadomariura, Naruto-cho, Naruto- City, Tokushima 772-0053

Izanagi Shrine

One of the most famous shrines in Awaji is Izanagi, which is the oldest shinto shrine in Japan that houses Izanagi and Izamami. If you have played the Persona series then you may already be slightly familiar with the mythology. Izanagi is said to be a god of creation so this shrine is very sacred and is beautiful to see. There is a red bridge and miniature garden that make it very scenic. The ema here are shaped like peaches which I thought was pretty unique. I am grateful to have had the chance to finally visit!

Address: 740 Taga, Awaji, Hyogo 656-1521
Entrance Fee: Free

Swimming at Tsushi Beach

Before heading back to our ryokan, we decided to take a quick swim at Tsushi Beach which was walking distance from where we were staying. This beach was really unique because there were so many fish jumping out of the water! I had a couple close encounters with them but they were completely harmless. We were later told that this beach was designated for fishing by someone who spotted us from the shore, but we still had an amazing time here seeing the sunset and I got a really good workout in.

Staying at Yodoso

While I was looking at hotels close to the beach, I found a ryokan called Yodoso that was only 4000 yen per night. On an island famous for its fancy and upscale resorts which get to be pretty pricey, this felt like that ultimate deal. Score! Unfortunately my room was extremely simple and did not contain a private bathroom or shower, but it was okay for what it was; especially since we were only staying here for one night. The seafood breakfast we had was absolutely amazing here and was only 1000 yen extra. I definitely recommend trying the fish here! 1-2 night in Awaji is enough to experience the island.

Yumebutai Gardens

The Yumebutai Gardens of Awaji were designed by Tadao Ando, whose work I had previously seen on Naoshima Island. I was very interested in these gardens due to their unique square shape. This area was previously destroyed in 1998 by a huge earthquake, so it’s amazing to see how much was reconstructed. While we were here we ran into a photoshoot for a wedding and it was fun to see! The architecture here is breathtaking and it is completely surrounded by flower gardens that you can visit. For me the square one was by far the most aesthetic.

Address: 656-2306 Hyogo, Awaji, Yumebutai, 2−番地
Entrance Fee: Free

Final Meal

Before driving 6 hours back to Yamanashi where I would catch a local train to Tokyo, we decided to have our last meal on the island at a restaurant called Kitora located inside of the gardens. I decided to order a seafood platter and really appreciated how they put a cherry on top of the salmon roe. Not only did this look beautiful, but the taste was out of this world. I will never forget how much fun I had on this island! Fortunately I was able to 100% complete everything on my itinerary so I was satisfied.

My next trip is currently undecided as I will be temporarily leaving Japan to visit my home country next month now that I have my vaccine passport. However, I have my sight set on Fukui and would really like to sneak a trip in before I leave. Fingers crossed! When I return to Japan I will likely go to Sapporo in the winter so I can take pictures of the snow. I am very excited to see how the rest of this year unfolds.

Finding Paradise Within a City: Exploring Kobe

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

Dick Bruna Table

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

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

Dessert at Kobe Milk

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

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

Exploring Rokko Island

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

China Town

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

China Town Food

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

Kobe Harborland

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

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

Access & Accommodation

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

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

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

Visiting Ureshino, the Cheerful Hot Spring Town from Zombieland Saga

Private teacup baths at Yuzennoyado Toukai.

After a full day of doing some urban exploring of abandoned onsen and aesthetic museums in Takeo, I decided to take a bus to my onsen resort in Ureshino, Saga for some well-deserved relaxation. I chose to stay in Ureshino due to a friend’s recommendation of a famous local onsen with private teacup baths and a beautiful outdoor garden. Unbeknownst to me at the time I made the booking, Ureshino is featured in episode 4 of Zombieland Saga and also has the real life Cafe Moka that serves up amazing sweets just like in the anime! In this article I will be reviewing my stay in Ureshino and will also compare the real locations to their anime counterparts.

Morning Run in Ureshino

My favorite way to start the day in a new place is to go for a middle-distance run so I can get better acquainted with the area. Usually if there is a river or a shrine that I see on the map, I try to run in that direction so I will find the best scenery. Just mere minutes after crossing Ureshino Bridge I came across this beautiful river with stepping stones and multiple waterfalls. This area is actually featured in the first ending song of Zombieland Saga and is within 1km of the main resort area of Ureshino. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was! It almost felt like I had been spirited away to another world. You can follow this river trail for quite a long time and it will lead to more luscious nature. It’s no wonder why people come here to escape their busy lives.

Cafe Moka

While referencing the Zombieland Saga Wiki for the best nearby locations to visit, I noticed the famous sweets cafe in episode 4 was just 6 mins walking from my resort. What crazy luck was that! Cafe Moka has some of the best parfaits in Saga and also serves Japanese dishes like curry too. With its cozy atmosphere and welcoming staff, I can see why it was popular even before Zombieland Saga was released! Now that the 2nd season is airing, there is a bit of a wait to get in, but fortunately I was able to get a table. The first time I walked in the owner’s younger daughter came out to greet me, but then immediately noticed I was foreign and was at a loss for words—she just blinked at me and stared. I thought that her reaction was one of the best that I have gotten in a while! After traveling all over the world these kinds of things don’t even phase me any more, but I will admit it was funny. The owner sincerely apologized that the cafe was full but I decided to use the hot springs at my resort and come back. The second time I arrived an hour before the cafe closed and was seated, and it proved to be well worth the wait!

Though there were a lot of delicious sweets on the menu, I decided to go with the banana caramel parfait because I love Kyushu bananas. The whole entire time I was here I felt complete euphoria. There were posters and plaques autographed by the voice actors and MAPPA animators as well as figures galore. The owner brought out several notebooks with messages from them as well while I waited! As she served me my parfait, she asked me what zombie girl was my favorite and I had to say Saki.  I’d be friends with all the girls in Zombieland Saga, but Saki has the funniest and most unique personality. She has really interesting taste in everything from fashion to men and would for sure be the best girl to drink with. She always has the best punch lines too!

After spending around an hour here soaking up the full otaku culture, I decided to head back to my resort. The owner handed me the official Zombieland Saga Stamp Rally Map with the custom Cafe Moka stamp on it. Though making it to all of these locations without a car would be difficult, it could be done in approximately 4-5 days and is a good reference for even non-anime fans because it contains the most exciting highlights of Saga:

Official Zombieland Saga Stamp Rally Map

Main Points of Interest in Ureshino from Zombieland Saga

Here are the main points of interest that you can see on foot in Ureshino. All of these locations from Zombieland Saga took less than 15 minutes to see!

It’s absolutely mind-boggling to think that the artists and animators caught so many intricate details of this town, especially the pattern of the stray cats! Additionally I thought the legend of going to Toyotamahime Shrine and touching the white catfish to have beautiful skin was made up as part of the story, but it’s actually true! Visiting the shrine was so much fun and I would have never known about it if it wasn’t for this amazing series. I was happy to discover the foot baths and design of the bridge and resorts in the anime perfectly capture the essence of the real life Ureshino too. The overall atmosphere of Ureshino was very lively despite the pandemic and people were out and about at night wearing yukata. Fortunately Saga has not entered an emergency state so you can enjoy most of the scenery uninterrupted. It has a magic quality that you just simply can’t find in the city, so please visit if you get the chance!

Accommodation

Though there are a lot of wonderful onsen to stay at in Ureshino, I chose Yuzennoyado Toukai thanks to its beautiful teacup bath design. Staying here one night costs around 6000 yen and is well worth the price. The room that I stayed in by myself was spacious, quiet, and very clean. There are two different bathsa large shared one and the private outdoor teacups that you can reserve by calling the lobby. I recommend trying them both because they provide unique experiences that will relax and heal your body. There were ping pong tables in the lobby just like in anime too. It was almost too good to be true! I cherish my experience here because it brought me closer to nature and also gave me the chance to relive scenes from Zombieland Saga.

Thank you for reading about my experience in Ureshino! If you have any questions about Saga, please feel free to ask me. I will be writing one more article about Karatsu in this series. Please look forward to reading it later this weekend!

Urban Exploring in Takeo, Saga

An abandoned onsen exhibition reflecting the results of the Third Impact in Saga, Japan.

After having a fabulous day in Fukuoka exploring local shrines and temples, seeing the sunset on the beach, and relaxing at my onsen hotel, I decided to travel to Saga on the second day of my trip in Kyushu to do some urban exploring. When I was first researching prefectures in Japan years, I didn’t think Saga was that interesting compared to the others because it is extremely rural and is mostly known for its farmland and onsen. However, thanks to the hit anime series known as Zombieland Saga, a number of people have been flocking to Saga to visit real life places from the anime. This has greatly helped the economy of Saga during the pandemic and also brought light to many amazing places that were previously overshadowed. In this article I will be focusing on writing about urban exploring in Takeo Onsen and surrounding museums.

To reach Saga you can either fly to Saga Airport or take a train from Fukuoka like I did. Hakata Station to Takeo Onsen Station is about a one hour trip and costs 3100 yen. Though Saga is rural, I was able to use a combination of local buses, trains, and taxis to get around. Please look forward to reading about my adventure!

Exploring Abandoned Onsen

The first stop on my Saga itinerary was Takeo Onsen, which is small town of hot springs including a museum of abandoned ones making it ideal for urban exploring. This hot spring area is over 1300 years old making it a celebrated part of Saga’s history because many famous people have visited here. The museum is about a 15 minute walk from the station and is free to enter. It was really surreal entering a hot spring without water, but fortunately there were some non-abandoned hot springs nearby that you can relax at for the day. Plus the two story museum and vermillion gate are really worth checking out because they have interesting architecture. This area was actually featured in a manga splash page for Zombieland Saga. Interestingly the convenience stores in this area appear a solid color of brown instead of their original colors. My theory is this occurs because they have already been zombie-fied!

Takeo Shrine

Right down the street from the Takeo Onsen main area is Takeo Shrine! I decided to stop by and pay my respects. The pastel colors of this shrine really surprised me because they are really unusual but very pretty. I was happy to witness architecture of so many colors here!

Minefuyama Rakuen Lantern Exhibit

Despite being a rural part of Kyushi, Saga actually has quite the selection of interesting museums! The one that I was most looking forward to visiting was Mifuneyama Rakuen which you can actually walk to from Takeo Onsen. This museum has multiple rooms with cutting edge LED displays by teamLab and a beautiful outdoor garden as well. The first room that you enter has hundreds of flashing lanterns making it a popular destination for photographers. However, since I came here after Golden Week had already ended, there were hardly any people here at all! I had so much fun shooting here with my tripod. The staff was very lax here and let me set it up without any issue. That is one of the pros of traveling around rural places!

Minefuyama Rakuen Onsen Exhibition

The 2nd floor of Mifuneyama Rakuen had multiple rooms with hot springs and highly aesthetic projections. The room with the protruding pillars from the ground reminded me of a post-apocalyptic scene from Neon Genesis Evangelion and it was awesome! You cannot enter the baths here but walking around was an adventure initself. It felt surreal to be in a familiar scene with this abstract sci-fi theme going on:

Overall this museum takes about an hour to see and is my top pick in Kyushu thanks to all of these animated displays. The cheap entrance fee makes it more than worth it too! Unfortunately I did not have much time to see the outdoor area, but the museum featured in the next section fortunately had a lot of scenery!

Entrance Fee: 800 yen

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町武雄4100

Yoko Museum

My last stop of the day was the Yoko Museum which is about 10 mins of walking from Mifuneyama Rakuen. This museum has a beautiful outdoor garden with a red bridge that takes you across a river with several waterfalls. There are also some terraced crops that slightly resemble the famous rice fields in the western Saga. If you continue to follow the main path you’ll find a lookout point that you can climb up to. The indoor part of the museum has famous pottery, but since I have already been to many museums in Japan I opted for just the outdoor part. During certain times of the year there are illuminations, but there weren’t any going on when I arrived at this time. I explored all of this museum in about 40 mins and was very happy with what I saw. The flowers that bloom in Saga sure are pretty and this garden is arranged beautifully!

Entrance Fee: 600 for the garden only and 1000 for the garden & museum

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町4075-3

Breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen

Before embarking on this long aesthetic journey through Saga, I decided to eat a hearty breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen in Fukuoka near Tenjin Station where I was staying. The restaurant has some of the best organic food on the island. The breakfast set I had with fish, salad, soup, vegetables, and brown rice gave me enough energy for almost the whole entire day. I also tried their strawberry banana yogurt and granola dish for dessert and appreciated the heart-shaped fruit. Before setting off to Saga I highly recommend eating a nutritious meal here! I will be talking more about Saga cuisine in my next two articles.

Address: 810-0021 Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Imaizumi, 1 Chome−1−4 石松ビル1F

Thank you for reading the first part of my Saga article series! In my next article I will be talking about Ureshino, which is a popular hot springs resort area featured in the Zombieland Saga anime. Please look forward to it!

Dancing inside of Japan’s Largest Kaleidoscope (Nagoya, Japan)

It’s been quite a long time since I last paid visit to Nagoya—one of the most charming cities in Japan as I see it—but with the emergency state now lifted in several prefectures outside of Tokyo and the sakura in bloom, I figured last weekend would be the ideal time to visit. One museum that I’ve had my eye on for quite a long time is the Mikawakougei Glass Art Museum that houses Japan’s largest kaleidoscope. This museum is roughly an hour and a half outside of Nagoya city and is comparably small in size to other art galleries, but the vivid colors of stained glass and the wondrous kaleidoscope that shows the origins of the universe made it worth the journey.

In year 2000 this kaleidoscope, called “Sphere”, even held the Guinness World Record for the largest kaleidoscope in the world. Though others have surpassed it now, it is still the largest kaleidoscope in Japan and walking inside of it creates a euphoric sensation that I have never felt before. In addition to the kaleidoscope, there are many other fantasy themed glass works that you can enjoy. One of my favorites was an army of frogs on a record player that mimicked a swimming animation when you hit a switch. This place definitely had an air of mystery to it and it was fun to watch other visitors’ reactions as I walked through. There are many different concepts that you could take away from this place, but the theme that I thought was most prominent was “things aren’t always what they seem”.

Entering the kaleidoscope is quite an unforgettable experience because it plays an animation that simulates the big bang and then turns into a series of bright psychedelic colors that reflects off of all surfaces. During this time your body will appear completely silhouetted against the neon glass making it the perfect photo opp. Your time inside of the kaleidoscope is limited, but you can keep lining up until you are satisfied with your photos. I think I entered it around 3 times and the wait time was only around 5-10 minutes each time. I even made a short dance video of it! Que the Persona Dancing All Night music because a new character has been unlocked (the song I actually used in this video was Point by Perfume):

Since it was hard to predict the lighting prior to visiting, the video quality isn’t the best but I will never forget the sensation of dancing inside of Japan’s largest kaleidoscope to one of my favorite songs! I look forward to seeing what other photos and videos people take because it truly feels like a theater in here.

Directions

From Meitetsu Nagoya Station, take the Meitetsu-Nagoya Line Express to Nishioguchi Station then wait for the Rokumangoku Kururin Bus 4 that will take you directly to the museum. You can also take a taxi from the station if you do not wish to wait for the bus. This journey takes roughly an hour and a half but only costs 1010 yen.

The entrance fee is only 700 yen which is a deal for what you can experience. This is way cheaper than what I am normally used to paying for a museum!

Address: Togo-5 Tomiyamacho, Nishio, Aichi 444-0326

Feasting on Eel for Dinner

After experiencing some amazing visuals inside of Japan’s largest kaleidoscope, I decided to meet my Japanese friend in central Nagoya for some mouthwatering eel. I had forgotten that besides Shizuoka, Nagoya is also extremely famous in Japan for its freshwater eel. According to my friend who is a local, the eels in Shizuoka have more of a light and fluffy texture while the eels in Nagoya are more charred. After tasting both, I can happily say that each cooking style has its merits. I wasn’t sure if I would like the thoroughly cooked Nagoya eel at first, but when paired with a fluffy omelette on rice the taste is out of this world! The eel and egg are best eaten together because not only do their textures balance, but their flavors do too!

The restaurant we chose to eat at was Unagi Kashiwa Nanatsuboshi near Issha Station, but you can find a number of eel restaurants around here. This restaurant also has chicken and fish for those who are not up for trying the eel/egg combo, but I highly recommend it!

Address: 2-73, Issha, Meitou-ku, Nagoya-shi, Aichi, 465-0093

Final Thoughts

Overall this was a perfect first day back in Nagoya. Seeing a noteworthy museum + fine dining = always a win in my book. I would recommend the Glass Museum to those who have already seen most of the museums in Nagoya and are looking for something different, as it is a bit far from the city but was a pleasant ride. It feels so great to finally be traveling again!

A Huge Step Forward in Robotics for the Earth Federation of Yokohama: The RX-78F00

If you’re a fan of Mobile Suit Gundam, you’ve probably heard of the life-sized models of RX-78-2 and RX-0 Unicorn that were built and displayed in Odaiba, Japan. I was lucky enough to see both while studying abroad in Japan in 2013 and recently while living here. Though various parts of their armor can transform and become illuminated at night, they unfortunately are not advanced enough to fully move like the Gundam in the anime series can. However, thanks to cutting-edge advancements in robotics from the Earth Federation of Yokohama, a full-scale moving Gundam now stands at the Gundam Factory available for all to see as of December 19th, 2020!

Like in the original series, this Gundam (named RX-78F00) is almost the exact image of the RX-78-2 and is 59 feet tall. It even was designed with a realistic cockpit although it currently cannot be operated. However, there is hope that it will be fully implemented some day! For the time being there is a 5G pilot experience sponsored by Softbank available within the museum area called the Academy which simulates the controls from a first-person viewpoint. The Gundam performs slightly different movements every 30 ~ 60 mins depending on what time of day you arrive then returns to standby within the dock. I arrived with my friend around 13:30 on a Sunday afternoon which was perfect because we were able to watch two different movement productions. While waiting you can easily kill time at the cafe or in the Academy reading about the technology behind this amazing mobile suit.

In the video that I captured below, you can see the Gundam emerge from the dock and fully operate its arms and legs which is unbelievable for a robot of its size. As it becomes activated, its eyes flash and audio plays along with it to heighten the tension of the moment. It truly does feel like a battle is about to begin on the pier at first, but the Gundam’s movements are completely friendly and non-hostile. Think of this as a test run:

Weekday Hours: 11:30 ~ 19:30
Weekend Hours: 10:30 ~ 19:30
Admission Fee: 1650 yen for basic entry // 3300 yen for the Gundam Dock Tower*

*Tickets need to be purchased in advance from the official website, but can be purchased on the same day. I recommend buying the normal entrance ticket unless you really want to see the Gundam up close from the viewing deck. I was satisfied with what I saw with the basic admission fee.

Currently with every ticket purchase you are given a 1/200 RX-78F00 Gunpla upon entrance. How cool is that!?

Once you show your ticket at the door and proceed to enter, the Gundam is impossible to miss. The area around it is quite spacious so I never once felt like it was crowded though there were a number of people here. We were fortunate enough to come on a sunny day so the sky and the clouds were clearly visible. The sun was shining on the ocean too. This was almost better than anime! Almost. I deeply appreciated the thumbs up I got at the end of this performance:

How does it move?

In the Academy you can read various infographics on how the Gundam was built and also leave your own message on paper notes outside. Though it doesn’t use Minovsky Particles or Luna Titanium Alloy, this mobile suit is biologically structured similarly to human anatomy and utilizes the latest technology in robotics to move. I will summarize my most interesting discoveries in the passage below:

Gundam Prototypes?

Within the Academy you will also see two Gundam prototypes; or robots that helped inspire the blueprints and framework for the moving RX-78F00. The first is WABOT-1 developed by Waseda University in Japan in the 1970s, which is credited as the first robot that could naturally walk like a human. The biggest challenge of getting a robot to walk is balance, as weight must be controlled on each leg with perfect timing or else the robot will fall over. Humans naturally pick up this ability while learning to walk as babies, but programming this habit into a robot is a different story. Due to the massive size of the RX-78F00, a device called a “reducer” also known as a gearbox was used it control its movements during bipedal walking. Even though the Gundam cannot currently walk on its own using the latest technology, the fact that it can move and form various positions is a huge step forward for science.

The 2nd prototype (or inspiration) is the HRP-2 which was designed by AIST and Kawada Industries to assist humans with various work-related tasks. This robot weighs 58kg and is 154cm tall making it the same size as a human. The HRP-2 was created in 2003 and can walk on uneven terrain while maintaining its balance. It can even get back into an upright position when falling down making it an extremely advanced robot. While it is still limited in what it can do, the HRP-2 displays signs of self-awareness which is vital in the future of developing AI for robots.

So what is in store for the future of robotics?

Though it is still unclear, there are many people backing the Gundam Global Challenge and anyone is free to contribute their ideas! It’s amazing to see how much this project has advanced since the first RX-78 Gundam was built in 2009. Nearly 10 years later we have a fully moving scale Gundam in Yokohama, and perhaps we will have a hovering one by the end of this decade. The writers of Gundam ZZ’s opening song “Anime Ja Nai” knew it all along, but here is proof that Gundam is not just anime—it’s the real driving force behind the Earth Federation of Yokohama.

Souvenirs & Final Thoughts

Because no trip around the space colony is complete without souvenirs, you can find all of these Gundam goodies and more available for sale at the factory’s gift shop! Since I’ve been to the Gundam Cafe in Akihabara already, some of the merchandise was already familiar to me, but my personal favorites here were the Haro popcorn balls and “milky marrons” because they had the best aesthetic design. I also loved seeing the standalone Gundam-themed Coca Cola vending machine outside too. Like a custom paint job on a Gunpla, you gotta admire that customization. My friend and I decided to order hot Gundam lattes and split the Haro-shaped red bean bun because why not? That’s exactly what Gundam pilots would do if they visited the Gundam Factory in Yokohama between battles, and we were here for the full experience!

Overall I had much more fun here than I originally imagined learning about robotics and seeing the Gundam move perfectly in synch with the audio. I would love to come back here at night and see it illuminated too! I hope that when I next visit the RX-78F00 will have even more moves for me to see, but until then I will fondly remember this experience.

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.