A Lovely Day Trip to Kyoto’s Heart-shaped Temple: Shojuin

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A look through the heart-shaped window at Shojuin Temple in Ujitawara, Kyoto.

Immortal HeartI’ve been to Kyoto many times in many different seasons, but this month was the first time I’ve ever been to the remotely located heart-shaped temple called Shojuin in Ujitawara.  Amidst the fear of the corona virus, I was worried this temple may be closed like many other facilities in Japan, but I was fortunate to travel during a time when it was still open.  Located in a rural area accessible by bus from Uji Station, you will find that the view through the window is well worth the trip.  Even though I visited during the winter, I managed to take a lot of quality photos and learn about its history with only a few other Japanese tourists around me.

I arrived to the temple around 2pm when I predicted there would be optimal sunlight.  The weather was raining on and off but due to the way Shojuin is constructed, the light always falls through the heart-shaped window.  The temple consists of a few small building complexes but everything can easily be seen within 40 minutes.  Tea and a light snack are provided with the entrance fee as well as an explanation of the history as the inome window.  The word “inome” refers to a heart shape motif commonly found in Japanese temples and Buddhism.  The definition literally means “eye of the wild boar” in Japanese (which is said to be heart-shaped so it makes sense in theory).  It could also refer to the lime trees with heart-shaped leaves that are closely associated with Buddhism.  I have uploaded the English explanation I was given for reference if anyone wishes to investigate it further.

The inome window is also nicknamed the “Window of Happiness” making it the ideal place to pray for peace and love.  Though I do not consider myself a religious person, coming to this temple was a truly bright experience to me.  In addition to the window, there are also over 160 art tiles on the ceiling painted in brilliant colors.  While I was taking pictures, it started snowing for a brief period through the window.  This was my first time all year seeing snow in Japan, so it is a special moment I’ll never forget:

Though I was only here for around an hour and a half, I feel like I had the chance to witness this temple during all four seasons.  During my time here it rained, snowed, turned overcast, then sunlight came out right before it closed.  It was amazing!  The people around me couldn’t believe it either.  Just like my Quest to the Tower of the Sun, this also felt like an experience pulled straight from a video game.  I highly recommend this temple to everyone visiting Kyoto, because it’s not nearly as touristy or crowded as the Golden Pavilion or Kiyomizu-dera.

During the summer there is a wind chime festival here as well.  Please check the official Kyoto Tourism website for more information.

Access

294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862
Entrance Fee: 400 yen (includes tea and sweets)

Directions: From Kyoto Station, ride the Nara Line to Obaku Station, then ride the Uji Line to Uji Station.  From Uji Station, take the Keihan Bus to Ichumae Bus Stop.  Please note that Google Maps will suggest you to take a taxi to Shojuin Temple from this point, which I did on the way there for 2000 yen, but there is a “community bus” (which actually a small white van) that I missed which is free.  On the way back, I walked with some friendly Japanese girls from Hyogo to the free bus stop.  The bus stop looks like a shack that belongs to someone’s backyard because Uji is very rural, but we managed to find it with teamwork.  Keep your eyes out for the iconic heart-shaped bus stop that leads you to the magical heart-shaped temple (this is the best travel advice I’ve given anyone):

Exploring the Coastal City of Atami (Shizuoka, Japan)

After seeing the capybara zoo and the capybara illuminations of Izu, I decided to make my way to the coastal city of Atami and do some exploring around the beach and local area.  I chose to stay at this district during my backpacking trip through Shizuoka because it is centrally located and has a lot of nice seafood restaurants and floral parks you can visit.  My accommodation was at Megumi Guesthouse because it has an onsen and was only 3500 yen per night when I booked it.  Not bad at all!

Here are some of my favorite discoveries that I found during my two-day stay in Atami:

Idematsu Sun Beach

One of the best things about Atami is that the beach is only 5 minutes walking from the station!  When I woke up and went for my morning run, this was the very first place that I visited.  It was very serene and quiet, which is rare for a beach near the city.  Despite it being February, the temperature was extremely mild too.  It almost felt like a private beach to me.  In the summer, Atami holds a fireworks festival that many people attend.  I would like to come back during that time and see how the atmosphere changes!

BonBon Berry House & Maruya Terrace

If you love strawberries… well you’re absolutely going to love BonBon Berry!  This confectionery is full of fruits and desserts of high quality.  I first tried the original strawberry stick with manjuu and a small piece of strawberry cake.  It was so delicious, I came back the following day to try more~  I next ordered the strawberry shu cream that looks like a giant glazed strawberry but is actually a giant creampuff.  I traveled here in February, yet the strawberries were so fresh I felt like it was summer!

For lunch I decided to stop at Maruya Terrace near the central shopping street.  This restaurant will let you choose your favorite fish from the seafood store across the street and grill it for you on a seasoned sandwich.  I chose their famous mackerel sandwhich:

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This is one of the best fish sandwiches I have ever eaten!!

I couldn’t believe this sandwich was only 700 yen!  Seafood in Hokkaido and Kanazawa are much more expensive.  Atami is definitely one of the cheapest places to eat quality fish and I would like to try many kinds in the future!

Atami Ropeway & Kinomiya Shrine

Atami Ropeway definitely gives you access to one of the best views in the city!  For only 600 yen (roundtrip), you can take a cable car to the top of a mountain and see the city and surrounding seaside area.  As expected, the view was breathtaking~  I was happy that I brought my GoPro here.

Next I walked to the nearby Kinomiya Shrine because it’s one of the most famous in Atami.  I loved the green foilage and the leaves that were made into the shape of a heart:

If you’re looking for a hotspring, I recommend going to the nearby Nikkoutei Ooyu.  It is only around 1000 yen to go for the day and has a beautiful view of the surrounding nature.

Atami Plum Garden & Akao Herb and Rose Garden

Though February is usually not the prime season for flowers, I decided to check these gardens out anyway since I was in the area.  I was surprised to find beautiful buds when I first went running through the Atami Plum Garden.  According to the official website, this area has the fastest blooming plums in Japan:

This garden is divided into several areas; they have a Japanese garden, a Korean garden, an art museum, and dozens of plum trees that you can photograph pretty much year round.  I was surprised to find a miniature cave and waterfall here too.  This is much prettier than a lot of gardens that I’ve been to so I’m happy I came.  The entrance fee is only 300 yen.

Finally, I went to Akao Herb and Rose Garden, which actually is a garden up in the mountains!  From the bus stop, a free van will take you to the top (or you can choose to walk to the entrance).  When this garden is in full bloom, it truly looks like heaven.  Unfortunately I could not capture many flowers in bloom, but I got an awesome picture of me in my Orient T-Shirt on the swing.  I did manage to capture the photo below:

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February flowers of Akao Herb and Rose Garden.

What I liked about this garden is that there were hammocks and benches where you could relax and see the seaside.  In addition to the swing, they also had a trampoline!  There were many fragrances you could try for free as well.  This was one of the best views I have ever seen from a flower park, and I regret that I could not take more pictures of the roses.  All the more reason to come back here in the summer!

Entrance here is only 1000 yen.

Final Remarks

 

I love Atami because everything you need is either walking distance or just a short bus ride away: the ocean, mountain, hotsprings, restaurants, and beautiful gardens.  It’s very easy to relax and find inner peace here.  In addition to the capybaras, I loved the nature and food.  I’m so glad I discovered yet another floral beach paradise in Asia and I recommend that everyone else come and experience it for themselves.

Getting to Atami

From Tokyo Station, take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen towards Shin Osaka.  Atami Station is only 37 minutes away, which is closer than getting from one end of Tokyo to the other!  The cost is 4300 yen which is about the same as going to Nikko or Hakone.  It’s definitely worth the cost.

Falling Down the Capybara Hole at Izu Granpal Park (Shizuoka, Japan)

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Granpal Park is the perfect Capybara Onsen after party.

On my way back to Atami after meeting the friendly capybara at Izu Shaboten Zoo, I couldn’t help but notice an advertisement on the train with a picture of illuminated capybara in a garden full of LED lights (much like the photo I took above).  I was completely captivated by the image.  What was this magical place with LSD visuals and sparkling wonder doing in rural Japan?  Being the spontaneous adventurer that I am, I had to investigate!

With a quick Google search, I discovered that it was Izu Granbel Park, located adjacent to the capybara zoo I went to earlier that day.  Fortunately the park was open until 9:30pm, so it made the perfect after party location for my trip.  I immediately got off at the closest station and rode the Ito train line to Futo Station.  On the way I bought a mini bottle of wine from the nearby Family Mart and walked 20 minutes to the park (because illuminations are way more fun to watch with alcohol).

What’s hilarious is that Google Maps directs you to the back entrance of the park (which was closed when I reached it) so I had to jump a small fence to get inside.  However, my efforts of navigating a dark and solemn back road to reach my destination would be rewarded with a brilliant lightshow over a global atmosphere of twinkling bulbs:

I had definitely fell down the capybara hole and landed in some strange wonderland.  When I walked through the back entrance, I was greeted by giant neon candies and an endless field of glowing flowers as far as the eye could see.  Upon descending a hill in that area, a sea of radiant fish and a luminous backdrop of Mt. Fuji greeted me (only in Japan).  When I turned to walk up towards the front entrance, I stumbled upon a garden of lollipops with capybara and red pandas frolicking in them.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There was a photo opportunity here with literally every step.  This felt like something that I had made up in a dream because it was so bright and beautiful!

This was the best illumination I had ever seen in Japan.  Previously I had visited Aichi’s Floral Oasis, but this park’s lightshows were much more elaborate.  In addition to the global atmosphere of lights, they also had a mini zoo with gerbils and other small animals.  In the summer there is a waterpark and various rides open too.  Besides the LED (LSD?) capybaras, my favorite attractions were the Tunnel of Dreams and the unexpected dinosaur exhibit.  There’s also a glowing pirate ship and pirates restaurant that is dog-friendly.  If I had a dog, I would definitely bring them here!

This park really expanded my mind and put me in a good mood, so I would recommend it to everyone that visits Shizuoka!  You’ll find that the illuminations outside of the city are much more fun to see, plus this is probably the only place in the world where you can see real capybaras bathe at hotsprings during the day and illuminated ones at night.  A real fantasy come alive.

Address and Admission Price

Address: 1090 Futo, Itō, Shizuoka 413-0231

Entrance to the park is only 1300 yen (much cheaper than what I’ve paid to enter other illuminated parks).

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Capybara bathe in Devilman: Crybaby.

If you are interested in reading more about capybara bathing in hotsprings, please see my Izu Shaboten Zoo article.

Experiencing the Nightlife in Taiwan

Since no trip to a foreign country is complete without experiencing its nightlife, I decided to check out a few unique cocktail bars and venues in Taipei and Taichung while I was traveling in Taiwan earlier this year.  Through going to music events in Tokyo, I was fortunate to have met my friend Hojo who not only manages tours and bookings for foreign artists, but also curates in own events in Taiwan with CUSTOMS and DJs music that transcends genres (see Hojo’s SoundCloud for reference).  In Asia it’s generally easy to find bars and spots to socialize, but the scene I found here far exceeded my expectations.

At Taiwan’s venues, particularly at FINAL, the entrance fee is affordable, the cocktails and music are top-notch, and you can actually sit down with people and socialize.  A big issue with some venues in Tokyo is that they are too crowded, and although I am a club enthusiast I sometimes find it hard to relax even when I really enjoy the music.  People in Tokyo have a tendency to seek stimulation (and I am guilty as charged), but it’s very easy to get drained from the steady flow of events.  However, in Taiwan I never had that issue.  Each night I went out I was able to find the perfect atmosphere for whatever mood I was in, meet a lot of new friends, and make awesome memories that make me want to come back here in the future.

The Fucking Place (操場)

The very first bar I went to in Taipei was called The Fucking Place.  This place became a meme when Trekkie Trax toured here because one of their members got legendarily lit, so it’s been on my bucket list for quite a long time.  This bar is close to a lot of clubs in Taipei, so it makes the ideal pregaming spot.  But why the name, you ask?  Hojo explains it all in his Tweet below:

True to its name, Fucking Place’s atmosphere is cozy and welcoming.  They have a large selection of hard liquors and you can ask for your own favorite cocktail combination too.  I drank whiskey mixed with milk and reached the perfect level of drunk among good people.

The upstairs of the bar is also worth checking out because it has a mini gallery that will perhaps expand in the future:

FINAL

By far one of the best venues I’ve experienced in Asia is FINAL in Taipei.  I was at here 3 different nights during my 12 day stay in Taiwan because each night had a diverse variety of music.  This club has always been on my radar because a number of my favorite artists from Japan (including Carpainter and Onjuicy) have performed here, and Hojo also runs his own events here.  Each night I connected with different friends from around the world so I would say the scene here is very international and friendly.

By chance, Night Tempo and Neon City Records were doing a large show here on the first Friday of 2020 during my trip, so I was extremely lucky to see them here.  I have been following Night Tempo since college and attended his first HMV show in Tokyo, but recently haven’t been able to attend his events in Japan because they sell out extremely fast.  Fortunately I was able to get door tickets here and catch his amazing 2 hour performance while catching up with my friends in Taiwan.

Night Tempo’s style has really changed from sampling old Japanese songs to producing Showa era idol music and recently working with famous vocalists like Anri and Mariya Takeuchi.  He played at Fuji Rock last year in addition to touring many Asian countries and America as well.  I have met some of my best friends through his music, so I always try to catch his events whenever I can:

The very next day, Hojo hosted CUSTOMS featuring IVVVO who I met, and other aspiring international artists with a lot of talent.  As I have heard from my friends who previously attended CUSTOMS events in the US, this one was nothing short of amazing.  Each artist played whatever style of music they wanted, and no one could predict what was coming next so it was fun.  One of my favorite moments was captured below:

I would recommend FINAL to everyone because it plays and caters to all tastes of music.  The scene is here is one of the best I’ve come across in Asia and I look forward to seeing who else performs here.

The Cave

While I was in Taiching, I decided to check out this bar called The Cave because it was the other venue in Taiwan where Night Tempo toured.  I came here on a weekday so no live performer was playing, but I really appreciated the ambient atmosphere and the carefully mixed cocktails the bartender crafted for me.  I ordered one that looked like cotton candy and was coated with honey, and another delicious cherry one that was both delicious and high in alcohol content.  This was one of the best bars that I have been to in Taiwan, and I highly recommend it to everyone.  It was very cozy but perfect for the mood that I was in.

Afterwards, I decided to go on a walk to the nearby Taichung Park Pavilion.  I really appreciated the vibe of the neon lights and how bright the pavilion shone at night (I think it looks prettier at night than during the day).  Additionally I ran into so many cute dogs that were being walked here, so it was a real delight.

Round4

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We all know the lyrics to this one.

On my very last night in Taipei, I went to a small lounge called Round4 recommended by Hojo.  Since it was a weeknight it wasn’t very crowded, but the bartenders gave us the best hospitality.  A bartender named Jimmy came out and talked to us, and also made special coffee cocktails that I’ll never forget.  I really like it when the bartenders make an effort to connect with their visitors, so this is a place I’d like to drink at again because it has good vibes.

Which raises the question…

Will I return to Taiwan in the future?

Since it’s right next door to Japan, I would say there is a very high chance that I will return.  I had a phenomenal time both experiencing the night life and spending time with nature in this country.  There will be a music festival held at a temple this year that I am considering coming back for.  Once the dates are decided, I may buy another plane ticket depending on my schedule.  The life of a traveler who also loves clubbing is never complacent.

Standing at the Edge of the World: Laomei Reef & The Alpaca Cafe

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GoProing in the Reef: Laomei Beach still looks as awe-inspiring as ever in the winter.

Situated at the northern tip of Taiwan, Laomei Reef is a well sought-after location for photographers and beach goers alike with its stunning green scenery and relaxing atmosphere.  Though Taiwan isn’t particularly known for its beaches, I still wanted to experience at least one even though I came here during the dead of winter.  Hoping to capture the best lighting with GoPro, I arrived around sunset by taking the train to Tamsui Station from Taipei and then using a local bus (this took around 2.5 hours but was a nice day trip).  Even though it was the first week of January, all I needed to wear was a light jacket because the weather was sunny and mild.  During the summer months, I’ve heard that this beach transforms into quite the lively place.  I’d really like to come back and experience this in the future because beaches are my favorite places in the world.

Because there weren’t that many people around this time of year, I managed to capture some really great photos of the reef:

I love how the shallow water reflected the image of the sky above almost like a mirror.  You can actually get very close to the reef by standing on the trench by the shore.  According to John Ellis (a local photographer who I have been following), the reef was originally formed by a volcanic eruption that occurred over two hundred thousand years ago.  Summer is the best time to see the reef because that is when the most algae grows, but the beautiful shade of green is fortunately see-able in all seasons.  Though it was too cold to go swimming, I enjoyed watching the waves wash over the reef and felt at ease while I was here:

From this video it looks like I’m standing at the edge of the world!  Not wanting the adventure to end here, I decided to take a bus from here to the famous alpaca cafe called OIA Oia Art Cafe.  If you venture all the way out the the reef, you might as well take the time to pet the two lovely alpacas that live here because this cafe is very close:

I ordered a sweet beer and reminisced on all of my crazy encounters with animals while I was here.  Last year I went to the bunny island and miniature pig cafe in Tokyo, and now here I was in another foreign country drinking with animals (which I often prefer to humans).  Life is truly strange and amazing, and I am doing my best to live every minute to the fullest.

In addition to alpacas, they also have cats here.  I have been to many cat cafes already so I didn’t film them, but they were interesting to watch.  I spent most of my time petting the kind alpaca pictured above.  It looked very tired but fortunately well-fed, just like me.  Maybe we aren’t so different after all.

 

Making a Wish and Getting Spirited Away: Exploring Lantern Towns in Taiwan

After exploring Yehliu Geopark, I traveled to the small railroad town of Chifen where I was able to paint my wishes on a lantern and set it off into the sky.  Chifen was originally used as a hub to transport coal, but it has now been re-purposed into a district of lanterns and shops that travelers can stop by on their way to Jiufen.  It’s a very quaint town, but is definitely worth seeing as it has a lot of history.

Most lanterns are available for purchase at 200 Taiwanese dollars.  You are then handed an ink brush by the shop keeper and are free to write whatever you wish on your lantern.  I was surprised at how large the lanterns actually were!  The staff will assist you with safely lighting it, then it will gradually inflate and soar into the sky.  Here is a video of me with my lantern just before it flew away (it was a very happy time for me):

Although this activity definitely falls into the tourist category, it was an extremely fun experience for me after living in Asia for over 4 years, not to mention a great beginning to 2020.  I like to spend my New Year’s doing different things each year and this was definitely unique.

The colors of the lanterns have slightly different meanings which you can see below.  You can choose to customize the colors of your lantern if you have enough time:

Afterwards, I took the bus to the nearby town of Jiufen that inspired the famous movie Spirited Away.  This mountain town actually resembles a lot of places I’ve traveled to in Japan, but the illuminated lanterns at night make it an entirely new experience.  It was once a prosperous area of Taiwan filled with gold mines but was then abandoned shortly after WWII when the gold rush ended.  It went through a period of depression, but now it has grown into a bustling area full of shops, street food, hotels, and sightseeing.  There are a number of places that you can hike to from here as well (I recommend seeing the Golden Waterfall which I’ll talk about later).  Arriving here at night/dusk is ideal so you can see all of the illuminations:

I was amazed at how much this town resembled scenes from Spirited Away!  They had Miyazaki souvenir shops everywhere to pay homage which was cute.  It’s truly inspiring how much this place has transformed.  Since I came here on the 2nd day of January, it was extremely crowded and difficult to move up the hills due to the sheer amount of people, but fortunately I was able to see the majority of the town within 2 hours.  If I ever come back to Taiwan, I definitely want to come to Jiufen again.  It’s actually quite small, but each time you climb the hill you start to notice new things so I think it takes multiple trips to see it all.

Now when I watch this movie trailer, I can’t un-see all of the sights I saw in Taiwan:

I definitely had my Chihiro moments as I wandered aimlessly around the illuminated streets, looking for a way out but also captured by the charm of this beautiful new world.  Last year I went to Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, Japan, which also inspired Spirited Away.  One reason I love traveling in Asia is because it brings back so many memories of things I watched in my childhood.  I never want to leave!  One of my unwritten wishes is to continue immersing myself in culture so I can continue to learn more about the world and about myself.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Grand Adventures in Busan: Daewangam Park, Gamcheon Culture Village, and Jagalchi Market (Part 2)

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Shenanigans in the colorful Gamcheon Culture Village.

After missing the last bus to my hostel and staying by myself at a love hotel in Busan, I decided to make my way to the colorful Gamcheon Culture Village which is consists of historic houses and beautiful murals with awe-inspiring messages.  Originally in the 1950s this was a place where Korean refugees fled in South Korea, and the area was extremely undeveloped.  Now it has transformed into a beautiful place full of art and culture (hence the name).  Nicknamed the “Machu Picchu of Busan” this coastal village is the perfect place for a relaxing day of sightseeing.  There are a number of people that reside in the village as well, so tourists are asked to be respectful of houses outside of the map.

I decided to take a taxi to Gamcheon from my hostel, but Prepare Travel Plans has a good list of alternative ways to get here from Busan.  When I arrived to the village, I felt as if I had stepped into a storybook!  In fact, some of the stairs were painted with book titles.  It’s quite easy to get lost here because the buildings are extremely condensed, but I fortunately figured out my way around here by using the colored guideposts and English map from the tourist association.

I discovered a ton of interesting sights here like poop-flavored desserts, a statue from “The Little Prince”, animal-shaped dumplings, trick-eye art murals, locks that you can buy and wish for love with your partner, cotton candy cloud coffee, and all sorts of street food that was being sold in the alley.  If you buy a map (they are really cheap), then you can participate in a stamp rally that will guide you to all of the major sightseeing spots of the village.  I actually got lost at one point, but an elderly man pointed me in the right direction (even though we didn’t speak one another’s language).  It was extremely pleasant wandering through this town, and I am glad to see that it has turned into a source of happiness for people now.  The tourism here really does help the village, which is why I argue that visiting touristy places isn’t always a bad thing.

After a very colorful day, I decided to head back to central Busan and visit the Jagalchi Market which is very easy to get to because it’s in the heart of the city.  I recently watched Black Panther where part of the movie was filmed here, and it brought back so many memories!  I went late at night when not as many places were open, but I managed to find an amazing place that served me raw octopus:

It’s truly amazing seeing the large variety of seafood that is available.  You can select your food from the tank outside of the restaurant or you can ask them to choose for you.  I managed to break the language barrier by pointing at the octopus I wanted, and also used my translation app to order.  I noticed that outside of Seoul that not many Koreans speak English unless they have a reason to (such as an international career), but I still was able to get around find.  Busan is a very relaxing city compared to most found in Japan.  Tokyo is still my favorite city in the world, but I enjoyed experiencing life here.

I stayed here for only 2 days because I was short on time, but I recommend that people stay here for at least 3-4 days so they can see everything that this city has to experience.  There are a number of interesting parks and museums in Busan as well.  I will be publishing the rest of my adventures in Korea in the near future!