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~

The Jeju Chronicles: Climbing Mt. Hallasan

After getting a good dose of cycling and an impromptu dance party on Udo Island, I figured I’d spend my 2nd day in Jeju climbing Korea’s tallest mountain: Mt. Hallasan.  It’s actually not just a mountain— it’s an active volcano too!  Fortunately for us, it hasn’t erupted in over 1,000 years and doesn’t spew lava so it’s safe to climb.  Reaching the summit will give you the best view of the island which is why I wanted to take on the challenge.  I’ve climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan which was quite the strenuous hike of 3,776 meters.  Hallasan is still challenging, but is only 1,947 meters and has a lovely forest you can see on your way up.  I found the hike to be pleasant and surprisingly relaxing.

Hallasan National Park is in the center of the main Jeju island and is quite easy to get to from any accommodation.  It only took me around 45 mins via bus from my hostel.  The mountain has four main trails, but only two will take you all the way to the top.  I decided to start at the Seongpanak Trail then take the Gwaneumsa Trail down.  This is the best way to see Hallasan as you can reach the summit and fully experience all the sights on the main trails within 8 – 10 hours.  If you want a shorter hike, you can try Eorimok Trail or Yeongsil Trail which only take 2 hours.  I did not hike them, but from looking at pictures that others have posted I can see that they have similar scenery to the beginning of the main trails.  I never guessed that Korea would have such beautiful mountains, but I was surprised to see how jaw-dropping the views were the further I climbed:

I started climbing around 8:30am and bought a small bottle of Korean Sochu from a convenience store at the base so I could take little shots of it as I climbed up the mountain.  Fortunately my hostel provided free breakfast so with 3 pieces of egg toast I knew I would have the energy to go all the way.  I listened to all of my favorite music while walking through the forest and had a nice little reflection on life.  Here I was in Korea again.  I found out there’s way more to this country than K-pop, cosmetics, and partying in Seoul and Busan.  These violet flora I kept seeing were absolutely beautiful.  Before I knew it, I was walking up the stairs and could vaguely make out the peak.  Of course it looked closer than it actually was, but it was still within my sight.  This was honestly much more peaceful than my Fuji hike because there weren’t nearly as many people.  I could focus on the views and climb with ease in anticipation of climbing my first active volcano.

Initially the temperature was mild so the climb was very easy.  I wasn’t sweating or noticing a huge incline so I didn’t need to stop for many breaks.  As I started seeing signs that indicated the summit was near, the air felt cooler and I noticed there was snow on the ground.  It was then I realized the mistake that I had made—I wasn’t wearing enough layers!!  I was only wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and a waterproof Nike jacket so I didn’t have any heatwear.  Fortunately the cold didn’t bother me due to the adrenaline that was pumping through my veins.  Plus I’ve gone running in the snow in Michigan wearing shorts before, so I suppose this wasn’t the first time I had been exposed to this kind of temperature.  The wind started to make my cheeks turn red, but by that point I had already reached the top.

Seeing this beautiful crater lake Baengnokdam (백록담/白鹿潭) was my reward:

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The lake at the summit of Mt. Hallasan.

I was so happy to not only have climbed Japan’s tallest mountain, but now Korea’s too!! I actually enjoyed this more than Fuji due to it being shorter and having the crater lake at the top. Not to mention that there were far less people. I would recommend climbing both if you are a nature enthusiast traveling through Asia. The feeling of looking down at the island once you’ve reached the top is one of pure victory. I enjoyed experiencing snow on a sub-tropical island even if I was unprepared for it too.

Here is a video of us climbing towards the top:

After snapping a bunch of pictures, I started my descent on the Gwaneumsa Trail. I was still freezing, but fortunately the further I climbed down the faster my body temperature returned to normal. I was high on adrenaline and knew food was waiting for me at the bottom too, so that was my main motivation!

The Gwaneumsa Trail was initially a bit steep to climb down, but provided me with some gorgeous mountain views.  There was also a sign warning us to steer clear of wild boars.  Who would have guessed they were native to Korea!!  I found that getting down took less time than I expected, so I completed the climb in around 8 hours.  Not bad for my first big climb of the year.  I celebrated with some Korean seafood pancakes by a place near the trail entrance.  I tried to use a map to figure out the bus schedule, but unfortunately I didn’t have any service and was informed that buses are really infrequent here.  Despite the language barrier, the store owners were kind enough to call a taxi for me that wasn’t very expensive.  I was very thankful for my experience and also that the weather stayed nice!

After my hike I decided to try a hot spring in Jeju, because why not?  Tapdong Seawater Sauna (which is now sadly closed) was closest to my hotel so I decided to walk there.  Two things about it really amazed me.  The first was that you could go swimming in certain baths.  Usually at Japanese onsen, swimming is forbidden.  However, Jeju has a huge female diving community, so I could see where this makes sense.  The second was that Korean people brought water with them into the sauna.  That is also not allowed in Japan, but with the super hot temperature I could see why people did it.  The culture here was a lot more laid back which I really enjoyed.  The concierge jokingly called me an alcoholic because I was still carrying soju around with me, but I laughed and said it’s because I just climbed Hallasan and I was on vacation.  It was hard to believe that this was only my second day!!

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.

Kanazawa: The City of Gold and Miraculous Wonder

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

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

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

Kanazawa Castle & Kenrokuen

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

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

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

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

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

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

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

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

Golden Ice Cream & Sake

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

Omicho Fish Market

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

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

Higashi Chaya District

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

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

Piano of Memories (思い出ピアノ)

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

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

Hotsprings, Hotels, & Other Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

Access

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

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

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

Visiting the Hot Spring Gods at Gero Onsen

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Gero Onsen during peak sakura season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access

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

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

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!

A Ninja Village & Various Amusement Parks Around Nagoya (Part 2)

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View from Iga Ueno Castle overlooking the city of ninjas.

Yesterday I talked about visiting Legoland Japan and Nagashima Spa Land in Part 1, so today I’d like to talk about my expedition to the Ninja Village of Iga.  Though the historic practice of Ninjutsu is now considered a dead art, this village houses a large museum showcasing its origin.  There are also ninja shows performed by professional actors, shops and shrines, and a large castle you can enter.  Since this village is very remote, the number of tourists is usually lower than other attractions in Kansai.  Iga is located in Mie Prefecture but the whole city can be seen during a day trip from Nagoya or Osaka.

Riding the train from Iga-Kambe Station to Iga-Ueno Station is a one-of-a-kind experience because the train artwork was done by Reiji Matsumoto, most famous for Galaxy Express 999.  There are also ninjas poised to attack inside the train car, so you are best off practicing your defense techniques beforehand (jokes aside, the short ride through the mountainous terrain in this two-car train is incredible).

When you get off at Iga Ueno Station, you have the option to rent bikes or walk.  You can see the major points of attraction within 3 – 4 hours on foot, so I would just recommend walking.  You can pick up a map at the tourism center next to the station so navigating the city is self-explanatory.  I started my trip by eating some some ninja udon at a noodle place called Kyuan (I greatly appreciated the shape of the toppings) then headed to Iga Ueno Castle so I could get a nice view of the entire village:

After doing some photography, I made my way to the gates of the ninja museum.  There are ninja shows almost every hour that you can see for 400 yen.  Unfortunately they are not allowed to be recorded, but they are worth seeing if you come all the way out here.  I enjoyed seeing the cute tiger mascot of Iga and some of the weapons that ninjas used in ancient times.  There is some English guidance so you can read about the history of the city at your leisure.  The village museum is designed for all ages and there are some really interesting artifacts there.  There are also handmade ninja charms you can buy.

Is it worth it?

Iga is roughly 2.5 hours from Nagoya and is quite a long day compared to the other attractions I mentioned in the first part of my article.  The city itself is quite small and can be seen within 4 hours.  Some of the attractions seem a bit gimmicky, but like most rural places I’ve visited I still enjoyed my time here.  As someone who lives in one of the busiest cities in the world, I have great appreciation for places like this.  Much of the now-abandoned ninja culture has been preserved here, so this is a rare chance to see it if you are interested in the history of Japan.  Not to mention Iga is a peaceful place with friendly people so your time will be valued here.

If you are interested in reading about the history of the Iga Ninja online before you go, please check the Koka Ninja House website.

Access

117 Uenomarunouchi, Iga, Mie 518-0873

From Kintetsu Nagoya Station, take the Kintetsu Limited Express to Nabari Station, then transfer to the same express going to Iga-Kambe Station.  From there you can ride the special ninja train to Iga Ueno Station and get off to reach the ninja village.  This costs 4210 yen one way and takes 2.5 hours, but was overall worth it in my opinion.

Admission Fee: 500 yen

A Ninja Village & Various Amusement Parks Around Nagoya (Part 1)

Earlier this year I wrote about the Floral Oasis amusement park I visited in Aichi Prefecture, so today I’d like to highlight 3 of my other recommended day trips from Nagoya: Legoland, Nagashima Spa Land, and the Ninja Village in Iga.

Nagoya is a seriously underrated city because its central location makes it the ideal place to explore surrounding prefectures.  You can easily access Mie and Gifu by using the JR lines and also can get to Kyoto and Osaka by bus or shinkansen.  There is a lot of nature, hotsprings, and obscure amusement parks that can be found by venturing to the outskirts of Aichi and beyond.  I’ve definitely had my fair share of adventures here.

Legoland Japan Resort

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Everything is awesome.

Legoland Japan is a relatively new theme park that opened in April 2017 making it only 3 years old of today.  I’ve been to many Legolands in the US, but I had never been to a Legoland Amusement Park until August 2017 shortly after this park opened.  Originally this park was criticized for its high admission fee (4600 yen), but from my experience it’s worth the money.  A lot of work went into constructing this park and its intricate attractions.  Unlike other amusement parks in Japan, it’s quite spacious and there was almost no waiting time even for the most popular rides even though we went on a weekend.  As a kid who used to play with Legos and construct anime characters with them, being here in Japan was absolutely surreal.

My favorite attraction was the Submarine because you dive into an underwater ecosystem constructed of Legos and real fish and sharks!  I was impressed to have such a thrilling experience here because it reminded me a lot of Disney Sea.  There is also another attraction you can ride with boats equipped water guns!  Even though this isn’t a water park, it had a lot of attractions that are well-suited for the hot days of summer.  The Lego-shaped fries are also worth trying!  There is also an awesome recreation of the major cities in Japan and Mt. Fuji built with (you guessed it) Legos.  This is undoubtedly the biggest Lego display in Japan:

Though I would rank this as one of the top amusement parks in Japan, the main con of Legoland is that is it is mostly aimed at families—the roller coasters aren’t that thrilling and about half of the rides are designed for kids.  However, after living in Japan longterm I’ve really come to appreciate this place.  Maybe my childhood nostalgia is part of the factor, but I liked the creativity that was put into this park.  The good news is that it has expanded once since I’ve visited, and has the potential to add new attractions in the future (much like a real Lego town).  Coming here was worth it for the aesthetic experience.

Access

455-8605 Aichi, Nagoya, Minato Ward, Kinjofuto, 2 Chome−2−1

Entrance Fee: 4600 yen

Nagashima Spa Land

Nagashima Spa Land is an amusement park combined with a hotspring—the Japanese dream.  Unlike Legoland, it actually has some really thriller rides.  The Steel Dragon 2000 is the longest roller coaster in the world so it’s worth visiting just for that factor!  My biggest issue with amusement parks in Japan is that I feel like they are too small for the large amount of visitors and that the rides are not adrenaline-filled enough.  However, Nagashima Spa Land and Fuji Q Highland impressed me with the intensity of their rides.  There are non-thriller roller coasters and attractions for children here as well.

I spent a lot of time in the hotspring which explains the lack of pictures, but I did come back out for the fireworks show at night.  The park has limited attractions but it’s definitely worth a day trip for the Steel Dragon 2000.  If you combine the amusement portion with a trip to the hotspring, then you can definitely make this a full day experience.  Like Legoland, the waiting times for rides are not so bad.  The downside is a lot of surrounding schools take field trips here, so be sure to avoid Japanese holidays if you come.

Access

333 Nagashimacho Urayasu, Kuwana, Mie 511-1192

Entrance Fee: 4100 yen for unlimited rides / 1600 yen pay per ride (100 yen-300 yen)*

*I honestly recommend paying per ride because likely you will just want to ride the roller coasters.

In my next article I will be talking about the Ninja Village in Iga I visited.  Please see Part 2 next.

The Best Pug and Gaming Cafes in Kyoto

After eating the legendary floating noodles and having some aesthetic dining experiences in Kyoto, I figured I’d point out two of my favorite cafes there as well.  They both involve two of my favorite things: small animals & videogames so naturally I had to check them out.  I will be detailing my experiences below so hopefully more people will decide to visit!

Pug Cafe Living Room

Pug Cafe Living Room is a small space where you can interact with adorable little pugs dressed in colorful jerseys.  It was opened in the living room of the Japanese family’s house who owns it and currently there are 15 friendly pugs that reside there.  The system is very simple; you pay 1500 yen to enter and you have a full hour to play with the pugs.  The entry fee includes treats so naturally the pugs will come to you if you feed them!  They are quite energetic so it was difficult for me to take photos, but I really enjoyed my time here.  You can extend your visit for 500 yen per 30 minutes if you wish.  The cafe is a bit more crowded on the weekends but I was able to walk in on a Saturday and not have any wait time.  Be sure to check their calendar to see if they are open because they do have some irregular holidays.  If you are a pug lover, this is an experience that you can’t miss.

Access

151 Katsurakawatacho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto, 615-8017

Cafe la Siesta

Cafe la Siesta is a retro gaming cafe located in central Kyoto with 8bit-themed drinks, old school games, music events, and more!  I lucked out by coming here on a Wednesday night when all of the arcade games were free to play.  I ordered a Space Invader drink that had Crab-shaped ice cubes which was highly aesthetic and tasted awesome.  The wall of cartridges was also quite fun to check out because their collection of games was massive.  I’ve been to many gaming bars in Asia, but this and Space Station in Osaka are  my favorites due to the friendliness of the staff and the welcoming atmosphere (not to mention the interior decor).  I was only here for a short time but got the perfect buzz.

Access

366 Kamiyacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8024

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):