Exploring two of Cebu’s Best Diving Spots: Oslob & Moalboal

Swimming next to a whale shark is a memory you’ll hold for a lifetime!

During my stay in Cebu, I decided to book snorkeling tours to two of the best diving spots on the island: Oslob and Moalboal. In Oslob you have the once in a lifetime opportunity of swimming up close with whale sharks, and in Moalboal you can see beautiful coral reefs, the sardine run, and turtles. I highly recommend booking a local guide for the best experience because they will help you find the ideal spots to swim. These beaches are quite far from Cebu City, so be prepared to wake up early for a long trip. Your effort will reward with the memory of swimming next to some of Cebu’s most interesting aquatic wildlife, however!

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob

On my third day in Cebu, I woke up at 5am for a whale shark tour that I booked through Island Trek Tours on Klook. I liked this tour because it included hotel pickup and had snorkeling as an add-on for those who just want to watch the whale sharks from the boat (of course, I chose the snorkeling option). The average cost of the whale shark tours is $55-$75 depending on how much fuel you need to get to Oslob, but the money is more than worth the experience.

The journey to Oslob took about 3 hours but I slept for more than half the way and was the only person in the vehicle. When I arrived in Oslob, I checked in and received my snorkeling gear, then sat down for a short presentation on the rules of swimming with whale sharks. Basically they ask that you do not touch or feed them and also do not wear sun screen because the chemicals from it can harm them. Your swimming time with them lasts around 30-45 minutes because there are multiple tour groups, but that is more than enough time to take pictures and video. After agreeing to the instructions, I boarded a long paddle boat and arrived at the swimming location in mere minutes. I was astonished at how the whale sharks swim so close to shore, because if you have fins you could easily reach them.

It is suggested that you swim beside the whale sharks and not above or below them to keep them from being distressed. Fortunately whale sharks are patient creatures and will usually swim away if they become overwhelmed. I did not feel any discomfort or fear during this experience and would gladly do it again.

Here are some more pictures of the whale sharks and beachfront that I captured with my GoPro.

Whale sharks are endangered and are currently a protected species in the Philippines. If you book one of these tours, please be sure to be respectful of them.

Tumalog Falls

After the whale shark experience, my driver took me to Tumalog Falls where I had the chance to swim in a waterfall! The water was very clean and refreshing. I have never had the chance to swim in the pool of a waterfall before, so this was another first for me that I will treasure for a lifetime. Cebu truly is a haven for beautiful nature.

Food

Since there were limited restaurants by the whale shark beach in Oslob, I decided to just have snacks for lunch and go to Cebu City for dinner on the way back to my accommodation. I found this amazing upscale cocktail bar and restaurant called Circa 1900 that is located in a restored colonial house near the JY Mall. They have both western and Filippino dishes on their menu and the food and drinks are high quality. I ordered grapefruit and mango cocktails with two different appetizers. This was the best food that I had in Cebu and I can’t recommend this place enough!

Swimming in Moalboal

The next day I decided to book an Moalboal island hopping tour through KKday. This tour was pretty pricey due to the fuel cost needed to reach Moalboal, so I paid around $139 for it. However, the package included 3 different snorkeling spots on a private boat so the price was pretty fair for it. One thing to keep in mind is Moalboal used to be one of the best beach destinations in Cebu, but in 2021 a typhoon caused severe damage to some of the reefs and beaches here. The ecosystem has not been the same since and some areas of the beach are quite grainy. The water was not as crystal clear as I had hoped, but I still had fun venturing out here and seeing the sardine run and turtles.

The first dive spot was a beautiful coral reef near a rocky island. I saw a clown fish which was super cute and my guide helped me take videos of me diving with my GoPro. I was happy to see that this reef was in relatively good condition and that there were so many fish swimming here!

The second dive spot was Moalboal’s famous sardine run. Right off the shore of Panagsama Beach there are huge schools of sardines that gather every day. Their scales shimmer in the sunlight and they constantly move in a flowing motion, so they truly are a sight to behold. I had so much fun swimming with them because I had never seen so many tiny fish at once. Though I wished the water visibility was a bit better, I was happy with my experience here.

The last destination was swimming with turtles in the shallow waters of Panagsama Beach (which was very close to the sardine run). I loved seeing the turtles because they were huge and friendly. They didn’t seem to mind people swimming nearby them at all. The sad part was I noticed there was plastic waste in the water and the visibility here was pretty terrible. I had a way better time seeing turtles in Okinawa because the waters were pristine and there was no waste at all. In retrospect, I really wish I could have come to Moalboal before the typhoon but there was no way I could have done that during the height of the pandemic. I still recommend coming to Moalboal if you like swimming and diving, but be aware that the water quality is not always the best here.

Food

For lunch I asked my boat driver what he recommended, and he said to try The Boundary which was really close to the starting point of the tour. The restaurant had so many delicious entrees and drinks I didn’t know where to begin, so I ordered noodles, seasoned eggplant, and rice with a pina colada. Everything tasted amazing. The noodles reminded me of yakisoba in Japan and the drinks were as tropical as ever. Definitely don’t skip this place if you’re in Moalboal!

Thank you for reading my Cebu article series! I had a fantastic four days staying on this scenic island and it was overall a great starting point for my diving adventures. In my next article, I will be writing about my stay in Manila. Please look forward to it!

Cebu City Highlights & Bohol Island (Part 2)

A tiny Bohol Tarsier clings to a tree at the conservation area.

After an adventurous day of getting acquainted with all of the major sights of Cebu City, I decided to take a ferry from Cebu Port to Bohol Island so I could see the precious Tarsiers and the Chocolate Hills. Bohol is a popular tourist destination because it has a lot of unique wildlife and geographical features. There are many lush forests, beaches, and conservation centers for animals too. I would highly recommend visiting this island in person because it will leave a lasting impression on you.

Getting to Bohol

One-way tickets to Bohol are around $9 for a high-speed ferry and the journey only takes around two hours (I booked mine in advance through 12goAsia). Though you can stay overnight on the island, a day trip is usually sufficient.

Since I wanted to know more about the history of the island, I decided to book a private tour with a local through Wow Bohol Tours. The tour was $50 and included the following things:

  • Blood Compact Shrine
  • Baclayon Church Ruins                                    
  • Python Viewing
  • Tarsier Viewing
  • Man-made Forest
  • Butterfly Garden
  • Chocolate Hills
  • Souvenir Shop

Overall I had an amazing experience day tripping to Bohol and doing photography, so I encourage my friends to do the same.

The Chocolate Hills

The Chocolate Hills are Bohol’s most famous nature attraction because they have a unique color and shape. During the dry season they turn completely brown and resemble Hershey’s Kisses, but I came during the wet season in November when they were completely green. I think they look beautiful during all seasons regardless of color. You can see them best from viewpoints at Chocolate Hills Complex (where I visited) and Sagbayan Peak.

According to an article I read, the hills got their shape through a rare type of weathering:

Geologists believe that the hills were formed through weathering carving marine limestone on top of a clay layer. Its color is the main reason it’s called Bohol Chocolate Hills.

Unfolding the Majestic Beauty of Chocolate Hills in Bohol by Cielo Fernando

I would love to come back during the dry season and see them in their chocolate form too!

Tarsier Conservation Area

The second place we stopped was the Tarsier Conservation Area which is safe haven to the world’s smallest primates. The Bohol Tarsier is an endangered species due to having many predators in the wild so they protected here. Another interesting fact is that they can only have one offspring per year making it hard for them to keep their numbers up. Tarsiers are very shy but safe to approach them as long as you do not disturb them. Unfortunately you cannot hold or get super close to them, but the staff will take amazing photos from a safe distance if you lend them your camera. I was pleased with the quality of this conservatory and so happy that I got to see them. Hopefully they can continue to thrive in this jungle area and live a peaceful life.

Butterfly Garden

After the cute Tarsier overload, my driver took me to a small butterfly garden/conservatory. There were quite a lot of them fluttering around and some of them even landed on my head! The garden had an overhead net which protected the butterflies from bad weather conditions. I was informed by one of the butterfly keeps that sometimes the heavy rain damages their wings so they are unable to fly. This information made me sad, but fortunately they are able to reproduce enough so their livelihood can survive.

There were pythons you could hold here, but some had just eaten and looked sleepy so I opted not to hold them. Sometimes it’s better just to watch!

Lunch on a Floating Restaurant

After all of these exciting activities, my driver took me to an all-you-can-eat buffet at a boat restaurant called Rio Verde! The experience was fun because the turtle-shaped boat sailed down the river and there was live music that really brightened the atmosphere. I had a lot of fun trying different Filippino foods, especially the curry and fish. I was happy to see that they had vegetarian options as well.

The price was around $14 which was worth it for the amount of food you can eat.

Blood Compact Shrine

Our last stops were the Blood Compact Shrine and the Baclayon Church Ruins before returning to the Bohol ferry terminal. I was expecting the Blood Compact Shrine to have an altar, but actually it’s just a monument. This monument symbolizes the old ritual of cutting hands with an ally and mixing the blood in a cup with wine to drink as the sign of a treaty or close friendship. Many tribes in Bohol performed this ritual in the olden days, but it is not used anymore.

I sadly couldn’t go inside the Baclayon Church Ruins due to time constraints, but seeing the outside of them was sufficient enough for me. Additionally, I didn’t take many pictures of the man-made forest because there was a paved road for vehicles going through it, but it was fun to drive through. The trees were planted there as a reforestation project making the scenery look more green and I was happy to see them growing. Overall I was extremely satisfied with this tour, especially that I got to see the Chocolate Hills and the Tarsiers! My guide was very kind and let me wander freely around all of these attractions. If you are interested in seeing beaches or islands during your time on Bohol, there are other tours that you can choose from.

In my next article, I will be writing about the two best diving spots in Cebu. Please look forward to it, and thank you for your support as always!

Freediving at the Kerama Islands: Aka Island and Zamami Island Edition (Part 1)

Free diving with a turtle at Hizushi Beach on Aka Island.

After an amazing two days of dining and chasing sunsets in Naha and Okinawa City, I decided to take a ferry to the Kerama Islands and spend my next two days there focusing on freediving. The Kerama Islands consists of a cluster of 20 big and small islands, but the main 3 that people travel to are Aka Island, Zamami Island, and Tokashiki Island. I chose to go to Aka Island and Zamami Island because they have 2 dog statues that have quite a famous love story together; Shiro and Marilyn. Shiro (found on Aka Island) and Marilyn (found on Zamami Island) are known as “the Hachiko of the sea” and inspired the Japanese movie I want to see Marilyn. Hiking to the statues is a fun experience as outside of Shibuya’s famous Hachiko statue, I have not seen many other statues that are similar in Japan. Funny how these two dogs ended up in Okinawa!

On top of that, the coral reefs on Aka Island are said to be the most beautiful of Kerama so that’s where I decided to start. I was not disappointed because I got the chance to swim with turtle on my very first day there! I also enjoyed getting acquainted with the culture of the Kerama Islands because they are very small and the people that live there friendly and wholesome. Since I came here right before Golden Week, the islands were peaceful and quiet too. I will never forget the two days I spent here!

Getting to the Kerama Islands

From Naha’s Tomari Port, I took a high speed ferry that reached Aka Island in about one hour. Please see the monthly ferry time table to plan your trip and see the ticket cost. Tickets can be purchased in advance or on the day of your trip but they may sell out.

Tomari Port Address: 3 Chome-25-1 Maejima, Naha, Okinawa 900-0016

From Aka Island’s Port, I was able to walk to my hotel in under 5 mins and rent a bike to get around the island. All of the best beaches on Aka Island and Zamami Island are accessible by bike so there is no need to rent a car. You can even walk or run to some of the main sightseeing spots too.

Please note that the Kerama Islands are mostly for swimming and aquatic sports. There are not many restaurants or bars on the island, so you will probably want to eat at your accommodation (most hotels include meals). If you are interested in beaches with more of a nightlife, the main island of Okinawa is better to stay at (you can still day trip to one of the main Kerama Islands and have enough time for sightseeing). However, if you wish to see multiple Kerama Islands then it is best to stay there. I think Aka Island has the best selection of hotels so that is where I decided to stay. Please keep reading for more details.

Freediving on Aka Island

I arrived to Aka Island around 10am, checked into my accommodation (see details further below), rented a wetsuit and bike from my hotel for 2000 yen total, then decided to explore the 3 best beaches for swimming and diving which are: Aka Beach, Nishibama Beach, and Hizushi Beach. These beaches are within 10 – 15 mins of biking from each other and you can visit all of them in the day if you start around 1pm. Aka Beach is where I started since it was near my hotel, but the swimming area is roped off so you can only see a small portion of the coral reefs. I stayed here for about an 40 minutes and was able to see some tropical fish, but after that I decided to pack up my gear and bike to Hizushi Beach where I had the best luck because it is not roped off. After about 10 minutes of swimming, I found not only multiple schools of colorful fish, but also a sea turtle!

Here is a video I took on my GoPro of me swimming above the turtle:

This experience was absolutely magical given that the waters were so crystal clear and I felt comfortable swimming at this depth. The beaches of the Kerama Islands are so beautiful and pristine that they are often referred to as the “Kerama Blue” because they are some of the clearest in the world visited by many tourists who love the ocean. As I was diving, I felt like my vision was enhanced because I was able to see so many different shades I would never be able to see anywhere else other than underwater. Diving is an experience that will definitely change your perspective, so I recommend trying it or snorkeling at least to get a feel for it so you can experience the “Kerama Blue” as well.

Swimming and diving at the Kerama Beaches is typically safe, but do be careful of black and white branded sea snakes because they are extremely venomous. I saw 4 of them during my 2 days here, but they mostly stick to the bottom of the reef and only one came near me. Fortunately I was wearing a wetsuit and was able to swim away. I am guessing that the snake was coming up for air and was pulled by the current towards me, but you never know—it’s better to be safe than sorry! Despite this, I did not feel scared and continue to dive after waiting 15 minutes. Fortunately there were no more close encounters with snakes. Unlike land snakes, sea snakes slither much more slowly through the water so they are easier to avoid from my personal experience.

After about and hour and a half of swimming and diving at Hizushi Beach, I rode my bike to Nishibama Beach. This is more of an aesthetic beach for photography and sunbathing and has several cafes as well, but the coral reefs here are beautiful. I did not see any turtles here, but I did see a lot of unique fish and enjoyed the atmosphere. I spent about an hour here, but not all of it was spent diving. I spent time doing photography on the shore and also found a shell here that I took home as a souvenir so I could remember this day forever. This day felt completely and I was extremely satisfied with everything I saw here.

Please note that the peak turtle season is May – August but you can see them year round.

Staying at Hanamuro Inn

Out of all of the accommodations that I looked at on Aka Island, Hanamuro Inn was without a doubt the most fun and unique one to stay at! With its cheap rental gear (including snorkeling gear and bikes) it had a great system that was more of a deal than other rental shops on the island. It also had rooms with both and air conditioner and a fan, “hot tubs”, and delicious meals, so I think it was well worth the experience. The “hot tubs” were little bath tubs that you could wade and sun bathe in at any time of the day. They were ideal for relaxing in before and after the beach. The dinner I was served was a Japanese/American styled bento box with curry and french fries—the perfect combo. I loved how accommodating the staff was throughout my entire visit.

Please note that there are two Hanamuro Hotels on the island. There is a fancier one with a pool for those who are interested! Please see their website for more information as prices can change with the season. I paid around 12,000 yen for one night but it was worth it for the experience I had.

Hanamuro Inn is very close Maehama Beach where you can see wild deer roaming around the island! Unlike the deer in Nara, these deer are a little more timid but mostly seem to be calm around humans. Instead of senbei, they eat green grass on the island and it is advised that you do not feed them. The statue of Shiro the dog is very easy to find because it is directly north Aka Island’s Port. I think Shiro was the very first picture I took on this island, and I will hold it as a fond memory. At night you can see the stars shine brightly in the sky so I highly recommend staying overnight here if you can.

Other Dining Options

Since my hotel only served dinner and breakfast, I decided to have lunch at Hahna Cafe, which was just a short walk away from my hotel. They had delicious seafood pasta served with bread which I found to taste amazing because island food does not disappoint. They also have Okinawan soba and frozen cocktails and smoothies here. For dessert, I found a tiny cafe around the corner called guu guu that served some rice dishes, cakes, and desserts. I ordered no sugar coconut ice cream with azuki beans as the topping, and as expected it really hit the spot! I think since there are not very many restaurants on Aka Island, each one has a special charm.

Running to Geruma Island

Aka Island has a bridge that connects to Geruma Island where the Kerama Airport and elementary school is so I decided to explore this small and rural island before going to Zamami. Flying to Kerama Airport is typically more expensive, but perhaps is you wanted to come to the Kerama Islands directly without taking a ferry from Naha it would be to your advantage. Geruma was about 3.5 km from my hotel so I decided to run here. Walking here would take around 35-40 mins but if you run you can easily get here in 20 mins. Geruma has the lowest population of there Kerama Islands so there is not a lot to see here besides the main road that connects to the bridge, more coral reefs, and residential housing. The scenery did make it an interesting run though. My only complaint was that there seemed to be now vending machines to buy water at around, so be sure to stay hydrated if you come here! The beaches on this side appeared to have some washed up plastic on the shores so I would recommend not swimming here. Geruma is just something to check out if you are very curious like myself!

Thank you for reading my first article on the Kerama Islands! In my next article, I will talk about my experience exploring the next island I went to; which is Zamami. Look forward to reading more about my tropical adventures later this week!

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!

Chasing Sunsets on Sakurajima, Kagoshima’s Volcanic Island

View of Sakurajima from the Arimura Lava Observatory.

Right before my expedition to Ogawa Falls in the remote city of Kanoya, I decided to make a brief pitstop at the island of Sakurajima and spend the night at a Japanese ryokan by the ocean. Sakurajima is a volcanic island that has been on my bucket list for quite a while, but I was waiting for the perfect time of year to go which is late summer. While I was here I rented a bike and rode around to various viewpoints, took a bus to the Arimura Lava Observatory, and walked around the magma sand beach on the way back to my hot spring resort. The best part was watching the sunset from my private onsen by the sea. I will never forget the beautiful shades of the pink and orange sky that surround the active volcano. The volcano gently erupts ash every day but is safe to view from the marked viewpoints and observatories. Since Sakurajima doesn’t have much of a nightlife at all, you can really focus on appreciating nature when the sky turns dark.

Getting to Sakurajima

From the Kagoshima Ferry Port that is easily accessible by bus from the airport, Sakurajima is just a simple 15 minute ferry ride away. The ferry runs 24 hours and costs only 200 yen per passenger. Please see the ferry timetable for more information.

There are a number of bus tours you can choose from the Sakurajima Tourism Website, but you can also rent bikes and use a combination of public transport to get the most out of your experience. Here is my recommended itinerary for Sakurajima:

Exploring the West Side of the Island by Bike

As soon as I reached the Sakurajima ferry port, I calculated it would be faster to see the attractions on the west side of the island by bike, so I rented a cheap bike from a rental shop near Tsukiyomi Shrine. I decided I would see the shrine first, then bike to the Yogam Nagisa Footbath area so I could soak my feet in the water and gaze at the sparkling sea. The footbaths are completely free to use and are very relaxing for weary travelers. After snapping a few photos, I rode my bike to the Karasujima Observatory which gave me yet another beautiful view of the ocean. I then rode my bike to the “Portrait of a Shout” monument which is definitely worth seeing. This was my favorite piece of art on the island because it was so random but gladly welcomed. Seeing all these things took around 45 mins by bike which is way easier than walking or waiting for a bus, so I would recommend because it lets you get acquainted with the island.

Biking around the entire island is about 36km and is doable in a day, but since some places on the north side are shut due to the pandemic I would not recommend it unless you are dead-set on seeing all of the island by bike. Please note that most bike rental places want their bikes returned by 5pm too.

Taking a Bus to the Arimura Lava Observatory

After returning my bike, I took a local bus from the ferry port to the Arimura Lava Observatory which was very close to the beach and my ryokan. This was my favorite part of the trip because unlike other observatories, the Arimura one has the most walkways and mini tunnels you can walk through with the best view of the volcano. You can also see the ash from the volcano that looks like black sand around this area. This was the most photogenic spot of the island that I discovered and it was so fun seeing the volcano from multiple heights. If you enjoy hiking and are only here on a day trip, definitely come here first because you’ll enjoy it the most!

If you cross the street from the observatory and walk west toward the hotels, you will be able to see Arimura Beach that has black sand stained from the ash. Fortunately the ash is already dry when it lands on the sand and it is safe to walk on. This was my first time seeing a volcanic beach and I was truly amazed!

Address: 952 Arimuracho, Kagoshima, 891-1545

Staying Overnight at Sakurajima Seaside Hotel

While looking at places on the island, I wanted to stay somewhere close to the ocean with a natural hot spring included. Sakurajima Seaside Hotel fit that description perfectly and was in a great location on Arimura Beach so I booked it without hesitation. This hotel has ryokan style rooms with the option of having meals included. It also has public and private onsen naturally heated by the magma of Sakurajima. The best time to use the hot springs is when the sun starts to set because then it won’t be as hot. When I first got in, the water was extremely warm so it took some getting used to. However, the next day my muscles felt completely relaxed so I decided to go in again before checking out. When you get out of the bath you may notice some orange residue on your skin from the natural ingredients in the water but this is extremely healthy for it!

Taking a Bus or Taxi to Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate

In the morning before catching my ferry back to mainland, I decided to take a taxi to the Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate on the east side of the island. My taxi driver was very talkative and gave me the full history on its destruction that was caused by an eruption in 1914. I have never seen a tori submerged in the earth before, so this was yet another incredibly rare sight that is unique to Sakurajima. You can also come here by local bus—I just decided to use a taxi because I was short on time.

I this area there is also the Kurokami Observation Point, but it was closed due to the pandemic. I wasn’t disappointed because my pictures from the Arimura Lava Observatory turned out very well.

Address: 647 Kurokamicho, Kagoshima, 891-1401
Admission: Free

Trying Sakurajima Food

There are a number of restaurants scattered throughout the island, but I opted to get breakfast at my ryokan which included fresh fish, rice, salad, and miso soup. Food on the island is somewhat limited, but a lot of care went into preparing this breakfast and I enjoyed the variety. At the ferry terminal there is a cafe that sells volcanic ash ice cream cones and I can’t recommend them enough! The “volcanic ash” tastes suspiciously like crushed Oreo, but I will live its taste up to your imagination. I would just try whatever food that strikes you fancy here!

Final Thoughts

I am really glad I solo tripped and stayed overnight on Sakurajima because watching the sunset on this island was absolutely breathtaking! The majority of travelers that I have talked to usually day trip here to save time, but I feel very fortunate I had enough time to experience the volcano at night too. The staff at my ryokan were extremely kind and really took care of me. I also enjoyed having a lot of alone time to myself which is something that I don’t always get in Tokyo. Having a car would have been nice, but I managed to spontaneously figure out the public transport system and rent a bike which I am proud of myself for. Overall this was another 10/10 trip to Kyushu and I cannot wait to come back in the future.

This marks the end of my Kyushu article series, but I will be traveling to Kobe and Awaji this weekend and starting my next article series next week! Please look forward to it and thank you for reading as always!

Exploring Sadoshima: The Island of Gold Mines, Washtubs, and the Japanese Crested Ibis

Remember the washtub scene from Tales of Symphonia? On Sadoshima you can live the dream!

After seeing Skrillex close the first night of Fuji Rock in 2018, I decided to spend the next day sailing to Niigata’s obscure island with dark past: Sadoshima. Through a large portion of history this island was used as exile for heinous criminals but also for free thinkers who had critical opinions of the emperors at the time. Many people were contained in detention centers, but after the discovery of the gold mines on the islands they able-bodied were used as forced laborers. People from the mainland were also selected to help mine the gold. Nowadays the island is filled with luscious nature and the mines and prisons have been turned into museums. There are a number of activities that you can do on Sadoshima including swimming and taking a boat tour, but my main reason for coming is so I could ride in the washtubs (also known as hangiri or tarai bune).

Getting to Sadoshima

I purchased a ferry tickets from Sado Kisen for 2380 yen in advance and rode the car ferry. There are multiple boarding points, but I boarded at Bandaijima Ferry Terminal because it is closest to the shinkansen station. I would definitely recommend booking in advance so you can better plan your trip because only certain time slots are available.

The boat ride to Sadoshima from Niigata takes one hour and is a pretty smooth trip. I would recommend doing a day trip unless you plan on swimming a lot because most of the island can be seen in a day. There are various Sado Bus Tours you can reserve from the official website that take you to the main points of the island. You can also try renting a car or take a taxi, but the bus tours have the best value. I took the half-day course that included the gold mines, wash tubs, and Toki Forest Park for 4900 yen. I can happily say that my experience was worth the time and money because I got to witness a lot of rare sights!

Boarding the Ship

I boarded the ship at 6am and was surprised to find out that it was ginormous with a total of 6 floors. I booked second class seats because they were cheaper but the first class tickets come with small beds you can nap in. The ship even had anime mascots and cosplay that you could wear and take pictures in! Not to mention you could buy a lot of food and alcohol from the vending machines and staffed stalls. The view of the ocean from the top was amazing too and I still remember the gentle summer breeze. After backpacking in Asia for 3 years I was really getting used to the no frills ferries, but this was maybe the most luxurious boat I have ever ridden in my life. Even 3 years later while writing this I still remember how amazing it was!

Riding the Washtubs from Tales of Symphonia

As a child I adored Tales of Symphonia, and specifically remember there being a washtub scene in the game. In this scene the characters heroically board washtubs at the pier and sail to their next destination, some characters enduring the ride better than others making it comedic. Little did I know that I would get to experience the same thing here on Sadoshima! Fortunately the washtubs here are extremely pleasant to ride and you have your own captain to steer for you. A true luxury that is unique to this island.

In the past these boats were extremely popular for fishing due to their durability and low cost, but now there are much more powerful tools available so only remote villages are keeping this tradition alive. In Ito, Shizuoka, the Matsukawa Washtub Races are sometimes held, but these washtubs are leaner and meant for sports. Sadoshima is the best place to experience them and fortunately you can reserve them on the same day you arrive to the island. The ride is only for around 15 minutes but you can choose to ride multiple times. I had a blast reliving a scene from one of my favorite games!

Here is a video I took on my old camera. Sadly this was before my GoPro days but I remember how fun this was:

Kinzan Gold Mine

According to Japan Guide, Sadoshima’s Kinzan Gold Mine was the most active gold mine in Japan that produced over 400kg of gold and also silver and other metals too. It has two main paths that you can walk down and read the history while you explore the inner tunnels. One path has tiny robotic workers that reenact some of the activities in the mine and another has restored tunnels from the Edo Period. There is a gift shop that sells all sorts of crazy gold souvenirs including gold sake and sponge cakes with specks of gold in the frosting. It looks kind of tacky now but at the time I really enjoyed these kinds of places! I still have a gold necklace that I occasionally wear out that I bought from Sadoshima. I’d say the gift shops here are pretty top notch and it is always fun to look around~

Toki Forest Park

The Toki, or Japanese Crested Ibis, is an endangered species that is kept under special watch at Sadoshima. At Toki Forest Park you can learn all about them and observe them from a safe distance. The park is very beautiful and contains various facilities. There is an outdoor area where you can take a stroll through the garden and may have the chance to meet the costumed Toki mascot. There is an indoor area where you can see different pictures of Toki and learn all about their characteristics. I personally loved the distinct red color around their eyes. Sadly the Toki are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and starvation during the winter, but the preservation center here is aiming to take care of them and eventually release them into the wild. There were 6 birds here when I visited in 2018 and I am hoping there are more now. I bought the Toki change purse as a souvenir and as a reminder to not forget them.

Overall my experience to Sadoshima was very vivid and I definitely recommend coming here during the summer in Niigata. One day on the island was enough for me to do everything that I wanted, but if I come with a friend or a group of people I may consider staying longer. I hope to visit Niigata next year for the sake festival!

Luscious Beaches and Juicy Bananas at Miyakojima, Okinawa

Sunayama Beach at sunset at Miyakojima.

After I had my fill of the mainland of Okinawa staying at the Sanrio Resort and wandering through aesthetic neon paradise in Naha, I decided to fly to Miyakojima for the purpose of exploring luscious beaches and going scuba diving. Flights from Naha to Miyakojima cost just over 10000 yen roundtrip and take around 50 minutes to reach the airport. Since this island is extremely remote and located closer to Taiwan than the main islands of Japan, I think the price is extremely worth it. You can also take ferries to this island, but since the previous two days had a gale advisory I didn’t want to risk it being cancelled. Fortunately my flight was extremely smooth and I had an entire row all to myself! I was welcomed to Miyako with sunny weather and was able to explore the entire area around Painagama Beach where my resort was located. Miyako is relatively small in size and you can travel coast to coast from one end of the island to the other in just over an hour by car. Renting bikes to reach beaches is also very common.

Here are some of the best places that you can explore on the north side of the island near the airport. I will be covering over parts of the island in my future articles!

Miyako Shrine & Kamamamine Park

While waiting to checkin to my hotel, I decided to see some of the local attractions on foot. My first destination was Miyako Shrine, which is just a short 15 minute taxi ride from the airport. The shrine is small and humble but I enjoyed visiting it while feeling the ocean breeze. The colors of the roof are unique to Ryukyuan architecture and it felt like the perfect place to begin my journey! I next walked to Kamamamine Park which was right down the road and is famous for its giant shisa playground. You can climb into the shisa’s mouth and also slide down from the top of its back. I saw kids climbing on top of its head too. I was already loving the vibe of this island because it felt extremely open and free.

Address: Shimozato Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0013
Entrance Fee: Free

Sunayama Beach

After checking into my resort, I decided to rent an ebike from the staff and bike to Sunayama Beach (accommodation details are listed at the end of this article). From the main resort strip, Sunayama Beach is about 25 mins biking. What I liked about this beach is it’s not clearly visible from the entrance—you have to climb over a sand dune to see the ocean which makes it extremely hype. Fortunately it’s just a short hike and once you see the emerald color of the waves, then the realization that you’ve arrived in paradise finally hits you! I am so happy that this was the very first beach that I visited in Miyako because it’s truly gorgeous and matched the color of my nails.

Sunayama Beach was actually quite small but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. The arch rock on the beach is famous so I took a lot of pictures around it and then jumped in the water for a nice dip. The end of April is actually a great time to go swimming in Okinawa because the sun isn’t as harsh. I really wished there were hotels on this beach so I could wake up and go swimming here, but at the same time I liked the remote and private feel it had.

Yamatouga Ruins

The Yamatouga Ruins have stunning stone architecture reminiscent of ancient times and are a historic landmark of Miyakojima. I loved exploring the lush forested area and seeing the ivory that covered the walls. This is a cool place that I actually stumbled upon during one of my morning runs. It takes about 5 mins of walking from the entrance to reach the Yamato Well that still stores water. It’s amazing to see all of the architecture on this island because it really has been preserved well throughout time.

Address: Nishinakasone-353-1 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0006

Top Dessert Picks

Unfortunately due to the pandemic a number of restaurants were closed here so I ate simple meals at my hotel, but the dessert game on this island was extremely strong. Here are my top dessert pics near the main resort area! I will be writing about other food options in my future articles.

Banana & Cake Monte Doll

While searching for dessert places, I stumbled across Monte Doll and immediately fell in love with their smiling banana peel mascot. Before this trip I went to the gym nearly three times a week so I could become strong and flex next to it. I didn’t want to let banana senpai down. The curse of trying Okinawan bananas is they are so ripe you will never want to eat the regular ones outside of the island again! I got the banana smoothie with coconut bits and the banana cream cake and both were to die for. If you come to Miyakojima, please visit this place! They all of the banana souvenirs that you could dream of too.

Address: Nishizato-7-2 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0000

Blue Booth

After all the swimming I did this day, I treated myself to two different flavors of ice cream at Painagama Blue Booth near my resort. The first I tried was sweet potato, and the second I tried was caramel brownie. I appreciated how they included sweet potato chips and banana chips in their toppings because that’s definitely something that you don’t see every day! The atmosphere of this restaurant is extremely relaxing because they have little hammock seats as well as indoor and outdoor seating. In addition to ice cream, you can order hot dogs here too! They definitely have the perfect menu for a long day at the beach.

Address: Shimozato-247-2 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0013

Accommodation

After looking at a few properties on the main resort strip of Painagama Beach, I decided to settle with Hotel Locus because it was new and had a cute outdoor pool. The cheapest rooms are around 7000 yen per night but the hotel is easily accessible from Miyako Airport, has a bicycle rental service, and wonderful amenities. There is also a rooftop where you can watch the sun set every night on the harbor. I was very impressed with my two night stay here and would recommend it to my friends because it really has everything you need.

Thank you for reading the 3rd article in my Okinawa series. In my next articles I will be talking about scuba diving and exploring Ibaru Island on Miyakojima.

Floating down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

After hiking around Black Virgin Mountain & Cao Dai Temple, I decided it might be nice to go out on the water for a day.  Mekong River Delta, home to a maze of rivers, swamps, and floating markets, is the perfect place to go boating and experience an agricultural community.  This river starts in the Himalayas and flows through four other surrounding countries before reaching Vietnam.  The murky brown color of the water comes from the soil it washes up so the river itself is actually quite clean.  A majority of Vietnam’s rice and fish is transported to other areas from Mekong Delta, so it’s vital to the country’s economics.  Not to mention its jungle-like aesthetic makes it the perfect place to go on an adventure!

Mekong Delta can easily be reached from Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s cheapest to go on a tour.  I booked a group tour through Get Your Guide for around $28 and found it to be quite helpful.  I got to explore parts of the jungle, eat delicious Vietnamese food, and see some of the smaller islands.  One is even named after a unicorn!  I was fortunate that the other people on my tour were kind and welcoming.  I met one woman from Colombia that introduced me to her sons that were around my age (mid-twenties).  We all awkwardly laughed.  No vacation is complete without awkward random encounters!

Sailing on the Mekong Delta was amazing.  The weather was humid but fortunately there was a cool breeze.  No matter which direction you look there is a lot to see:

I highly recommend buying a nón lá (leaf hat) from the market during your trip.  Initially I thought that wearing one of these as a tourist would be embarrassing, but the hats are ideal for the weather here.  During warm days they can shield your entire face from the sun, and during rainy days the droplets will slide off  them keeping you completely dry.

After a while of sailing we stopped at Ben Tre, the capital of one of the largest provinces in the Mekong Delta, and got to explore some of the beautiful scenery on foot.  There was a tiny wildlife preserve with crocodiles, porcupine-like creatures, and other exotic animals.  A woman came with a colony of bees and showed us how honey was made (fortunately the bees didn’t seem hostile).  We also learned how coconuts were used to make desserts and got to try some coconut jelly!  It was so delicious.

Besides boats,the main form of transportation around the muddy banks of the Mekong Delta is by horse.  Although a lot of residents of Vietnam own motorbikes, they seem to be quite challenging to ride around here.  That is another reason why I recommend booking a tour.  Though it can take days to see the entire Mekong Delta here, just a day trip was enough for me.

I said it once but I’ll say it again: Vietnamese Cuisine tastes amazing and severely underrated.  For lunch we had a buffet that included elephant ear fish (see top picture), shrimp, omelette, rice, crackers, fresh fruit, and coconut jelly.  This kind of meal is simple but very filling.  Since I don’t eat meat, I informed the chef and they were able to accommodate my request.  If you’re looking for a fancier dinner, you can always order one back in Ho Chi Minh City!

I visited a similar place to Mekong Delta in Cambodia last year called Kampong Pluk.  It also has a floating economy, amazing fish, and many similarities to Vietnam.  I recommend checking out both because their cultures are slightly different.  I can’t pick a favorite because both of them were an entirely unique experience.

Here are some other things I recommend checking out in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Notre Dame Cathedral – A historic church with beautiful architecture.
  • Ho Chi Minh City Hall – An iconic landmark of the city,
  • Cafe ZONE 69 – I found this place during my morning run and thought it was hilarious.  I have no idea if it still exists or not, but it’s in the heart of the city.
  • Ho Chi Minh Opera House – I sadly didn’t have enough time to go, but I’d love to see a show here in the future.
  • Jade Emperor Pagoda – One of the prettiest temples in town.

I only stayed 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City, but that was enough for me because I got to see and experience a lot of different things.  In my next article, I will be talking about my experience in Hanoi and how it differs from this city.  As always, please stay tuned for more updates!