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!

 

The Jeju Chronicles: Exploring Udo Island

During Golden Week of 2018 I decided to venture to Korea for the 2nd time and explore its most famous beach resort island: Jeju.  This island is extremely unique because not only does it have the best beaches in Korea, but it also has the Nexon Computer Museum with the world’s longest running MMO.  There’s also the tallest mountain in Korea (Mt. Hallasan), a folk village with traditional houses, and a fairly famous sex museum.  As you can see, Jeju has something for everybody because there is a huge diversity of attractions to see.  A lot of people that live close to Korea come here to spend their honeymoons or school vacations, but there are many backpackers like me who travel here too.  In this article series I will be detailing my 5 day stay in Jeju in hopes that other people will decide to come in the future.

Traveling to Jeju

The best way to travel to Jeju is to take a direct flight from Seoul.  Jeju Air has the cheapest flights that range from $30 – $50 USD roundtrip.  The flight only takes about an hour.  Jeju is comparable in Okinawa in Japan, but is much smaller and doesn’t have as many islands you can travel to.  However, traveling here is much cheaper than most islands in Japan and it has a different vibe.  One of the best islands you can visit in Jeju is called Udo which is the very first place I went.

Udo Island Day Trip

Udo Island was my first destination once I reached Jeju Airport.  Fortunately you don’t need to fly here and can instead take a relaxing 15 minute ferry.  The reason I wanted to go to Udo is because it is the perfect cycling destination.  The island was named for its somewhat rectangular shape that looks like cow lying down.  I also chuckled because the name reminded me of U-DO in Xenosaga.  You can see most of the attractions on Udo within 3 – 4 hours via electric bike.  E-bikes can be rented for around $10 per day and are extremely worth it.  This was my very first time riding an e-bike, but fortunately it wasn’t scary!  You can see the ocean from any point in Udo making it a wonderful spot for photography.  Everyone rides slow so they can stop to take pictures.

Since I was starving, I stopped at a local seafood restaurant near the bike rental shop.  I couldn’t speak much Hangul but I was able to place an order.  They whipped me up some spicy crab and muscle stew which tasted amazing.  For dessert, I decided to try the peanut ice cream that Udo is famous for.  They placed two adorable teddy bear crackers on it too.  The salty and sweet combination makes it worthy of all the praise that it gets.  You can find this food literally all over the island and it’s much cheaper than food in Seoul.

Finally feeling full, I decided to make my way down to the beaches.  Gwakji Beach and Hamdeok Beach were my two personal favorites.  Both can be reached via e-bike in less than 30 minutes and are found on the north side.  Exploring these beaches can take up to an hour.  I came here in late April so it was a bit cold to swim but the weather was near perfect.  Korea’s weather is similar to Japan’s but is slightly more mild.

Besides the swimming and biking, there are many other exciting things to do on Udo.  You can go horseback riding for a short time if you talk to someone near the stables.  If you like art, most of the buildings are painted in bright colors and there are murals all over the island.  The food here never disappoints.  The octopus-shaped bread I tried was filled with cheese and absolutely amazing.  Just the  atmosphere of being on a small beach island is awesome too.  I enjoyed walking inside the the giant shells that were near the pier and also petting the store owner’s dogs.  Everyone here is extremely friendly so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier.

On my way back to return my e-bike, I stumbled upon one of the best DJ booth turned ice cream shop ever.  The chef was spinning some fresh island beats as he was whipping up ice cream.  This was an extremely rare vibe that I was not expecting:

The store Udo Prince Story (우도왕자이야기) has both phenomenal food and music. If you come all the way out here, be sure not to miss out. This was the best instant dance party I ran into here and was the perfect way to end my day trip.

After an exciting first day in Udo, I rode the ferry back to the main island where my accommodation “GreenDay” was.  There are a few hotels on Udo, but there is much more selection and nightlife on the main island of Jeju.

I chose GreenDay because I thought the name was hilarious and the dorms are only $15 per night.  I couldn’t pass up staying in this colorful little house:

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Taking a “Holiday” at GreenDay.

GreenDay Address: 251-9 Samdoi-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, South Korea

Udo Access

I took a cheap taxi to Seongsan Port, then a 15 minute ferry to reach the island.  The ferry ticket is only $10 one way.  Please see the Udo Ferry Time Table for reference.

In my next article, I will be talking about some of the quirky museums that I explored.  Please stay tuned for more!

 

Naoshima, Japan’s Avant-garde Island of Art

Welcome to Naoshima—Japan’s obscure avant-garde island full of art museums, beaches, and outdoor sculptures.  Since I am a lover of all things aesthetic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go here while I was traveling through Okayama.  This island is very small but has a lot to see.  It’s well-known among art enthusiasts and travelers that like to go off the beaten path.  The most iconic piece of art you’ll find is the giant yellow pumpkin at the pier designed by Yayoi Kusama, but there’s an artistic sense all around here.  Even if you’re not a huge fan of art, it’s really fun to go cycling and swimming here because it’s quite secluded from the rest of Japan.  This island is actually part of Shikoku though you can access it from Honshu too.  I’ll be detailing my full experience in this article!

Getting around Naoshima

From the net cafe I was staying overnight at (Jiyuu Kuukan), I walked to Okayama Station and rode the Seto-Ohashi Line to Chayamachi Station, then took the Uno Line to Uno Station for 50 mins total.  From Uno Station, I walked to the nearby port and rode a ferry for 30 mins to Naoshima island.  These ferries are frequent and leave almost every hour (see time table here).  It was a very fun ride and the weather was perfect too!

I rented a bike for 500 yen/day because cycling is the best way to see all of Naoshima.  The whole island takes about 2.5 hours total to cycle around and is pretty easy to navigate because it’s circular.  However, it’s easy to spend a whole day here because there are so many museums to see.  There are many hostels and resorts you can stay overnight at too.  I didn’t stay overnight here, but I really want to next time!

I started my trip by riding my bike to Gotanji Bathing Beach where the giant yellow pumpkin is.  I spent around an hour here swimming and seeing all of the Picasso-esque statues that line the beach area.  I met a mix of both Japanese and international travelers who were very friendly.  There was a giant raft in the middle of the swimming area where I actually took a nap on!  That’s how relaxing it is here~

After feeling refreshed from the ocean, I decided to make my way around to the major museums.  Some are free to enter but others have admission fees.  I would research them beforehand budget around 3000 – 6000 yen depending on what you want to see.

Exploring the Museums

The main museums worth seeing on the island are:

  • Benesse House – Museum by the beach with indoor and outdoor exhibits.  They combine their hotel with the “coexistence of nature, art and architecture” and are responsible for many projects on the island.
  • Chichu Art Museum – An ambient museum built mostly underground.  The natural light plays a huge role in seeing the artwork here.
  • Lee Ufan Museum – A contemporary art museum consisting of stones and two-dimensional paintings.  His art has a tranquil feeling when paired with the seaside viewpoint.
  • Ando Museum – A traditional wooden house that uses creative architecture to contrast light and shadow and the past from the present.
  • Teshima Art Museum – This is a famous art museum located on the nearby Teshima Island that resembles a water droplet and is perfect for photography.
  • Art House Projects – A series of small houses with a variety of different art from different artists.  For a full list, please see the Benesse Art Project Site.

*Please note that photography is not allowed at all museums, but is okay outside most places.

One of the most interesting things I saw was the light-up ‘Live & Die’ piece at Benesse House (pictured in the very top photos).  The words on the boards all have different associations with life and death.  While the lights faded, a Japanese man walked up and spread his arms out, as if embracing the words it had projected.  It was one of the coolest reactions I have ever witnessed at an art museum in my life.  I also saw a graveyard outside of the Lee Ufan museum.  Its juxtaposition with the art made me think more on the concept of life and death.  I did a lot of reflecting this day and it was very good for my mental heath.  That’s why I’m planning to come back here in the summer again and see all the spots that I missed!

Food & Drinks

There are restaurants, bakeries, and cafes all over the island so you can easily find a place that catches your interest.  I had cold soba noodles and matcha bread with anko for lunch at a place called Aisunao.  It was all homemade food and tasted amazing!  When I got back to Okayama, I drank a drink that smiled back at a Tiki Bar.  You seriously can find great selection here wherever you look!

Bathing in a Artsy Bath

Before I took the ferry back, I decided to bathe at the artsy bath called I♥湯 (I love you).  The outside of the bath house has an aesthetic mosaic design that looks like no other bath house in Japan.  The indoor area has equally beautiful architecture.  It was a great way to end the trip.  The entrance fee is only 660 yen.

Exploring other Islands

One regret I have is that I didn’t look into exploring the two smaller art islands you can access from Naoshima: Inujima & Teshima.  Both islands can be reached from Naoshima in less than 20 mins.  Benesse has a nice two-day itinerary where you can see all the major works of the three islands.  I will be going back hopefully later this year to see the small things that I missed!

Access

I mentioned the route that I took above, but there are multiple ways to get to Naoshima.  Please see the Benesse site for more information.

If you are interested in reading more of my art articles, please see my Yayoi Kusama and Innovative Art Museums in Asia articles!

Adventures in Arashiyama (Kyoto)

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Arguably one of the best views this forest has to offer.

With its vast nature including a bamboo grove, the Oi River which you can go sailing on, and a monkey park, Arashiyama is hands down one of the most popular day trips from Kyoto City.  Though this area attracts a large number of tourists each year, it’s easy to avoid them by taking side trails off the bamboo grove trail.  I was able to find complete bliss in solitude while hiking to several areas and listening to my favorite music.  I originally traveled here in 2018, but came back to try the delicious chilled soba noodles at a famous restaurant last year.  In this article I will be writing about the highlights of my Arashiyama hiking adventure and hopefully will inspire more people to visit!

Floating Down the Oi River

When you get off at Arashiyama Station, one of the first things you’ll notice is the gently flowing Oi river.  There are several shacks where you can rent boats and go on tours down the river and into the forested area.  This is one of the best ways to explore Arashiyama, so I opted for a private boat tour for 3000 yen.  Group tours are also available for a lower price.  The wooden boat has padded seats so its quite comfortable, and you can see beautiful scenes from floating down the river that you can’t see on foot!

While we were sailing a food boat (food truck but in boat form) sailed up to us and offered to cook me something.  I decided I wanted grilled squid and they made it right in front of me.  It was truly and amazing experience!  I’ve explored a floating village in Cambodia before which was quite large, but this river is much smaller and more relaxed.  If you love boating then there are a lot of amazing places in Asia that are worth checking out.  I aim to explore as many as I can.

I didn’t have the best camera on me at the time, but here is some footage of me sailing down the river on a wooden boat.  It was a pleasant trip that only takes about 30 mins:

Sunset at the Kimono Forest

If you come to Arashiyama, then you definitely need to stay and watch the sun set slowly on the mountains before you leave.  First the sky will flash to a bright gradient of red, orange, and yellow, then fade to a gentle magenta and pink hue.  Afterwards there is a garden of kimono-patterned pillars near Randen Arashiyama Station that becomes illuminated at night.  I had a fantastic time walking through here and taking pictures—it felt as if I had slipped into another world with all of the colors!  These memories still burn very bright in my mind today.

Bamboo Forest and Monkey Mountain

The main tourist attraction of Arashiyama is the bamboo forest which is about a 10 min walk from the station.  The massive stalks of bamboo that surround you are truly astounding.  Back in America I had never seen anything like this before, so I was very impressed by this area.  There are normally a lot of tourists on the main path, but you can find paths that lead into the mountains like the one pictured on the right to avoid them.  If you aim your camera towards the sunlight that is partially blocked by the bamboo stalks you can get some really nice pictures here.

When I hiked up the path shown above, I spotted a very interesting building structure from afar and zoomed into it.  It looks like either a shack with clothes hung out to dry or small shrine.  Climbing to that area seems like quite a feat because it is not connected to the main path of Arashiyama.  “Who lives here?” I wondered 2 years ago, and I still think about it to this very day:

After exploring the paths around the bamboo forest which really don’t take that much time to climb, I recommend checking out the Monkey Park atop a small mountain called Iwatayama.  The climb takes about 10-15 mins and you can see a nice view of Kyoto from the top as well as several enthusiastic monkeys.  Be sure not to make direct eye contact with them as they can be quite aggressive!  However, a barrier will protect you from being attacked my them.

Compared to the monkeys in Thailand, the ones in Kyoto are actually quite nice.  However, if you are in Japan for a long time and are able to go to Hokkaido, the Monkey Park in Hakodate is actually much more fun to see.  You can watch them bathe in a hotspring and have a clearer view of them with less tourists around you.

Chilled Soba Noodles at Tempura Matsu

While searching for aesthetic food in Kyoto (which is not that difficult to find), I stumbled upon a tempura restaurant that serves soba noodles in a one-of-a-kind bowl made out of ice.  As far as I know, no other restaurant besides Tempura Matsu serves soba quite like this.  The egg topping mixed with soy sauce gives it an amazing taste.  It is best eaten in the summer because it will cool you down.  Amazingly even in the warm temperature the ice bowl will hardly melt.  I was impressed with the craftsmanship of this dish:

Since I had a long journey here, I decided to reward myself with the course meal that was around 12,000 yen at the time.  This is quite expensive, but I believe you are able to order individual items off the menu if you request them.  From my experience, it was well worth the price.  Carefully prepared seafood, soup, rice, vegetables, soba, and dessert were served to me in this course.  Vegetarian options are available as well.

Getting to Arashiyama

Kyoto Station take Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station.  This takes about 15 mins and costs only 240 yen making it an extremely cheap trip.

Please note that accommodations here are quite popular, so you might want to book 2 months in advance if you want to stay in a nice onsen resort.

If you are a solo traveler or are on a budget, I recommend day tripping here from Kyoto City since accommodations there are cheaper.  If you want to use a day hotspring in Arashiyama, consider trying Fufunoyu.  It is only 1000 yen to enter and has a lovely outdoor hotspring that you can use.

I will be writing more about my adventures in Kyoto and accommodation options in my next few posts.  Please stay tuned for more info~

The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun Moon Lake (Part 2)

After visiting the eye-popping Rainbow Village, I decided to take a cheap local bus from Taichung Station to the famous Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan (its name immediately made me think of Pokémon Sun & Moon).  After an hour and a half ride, I was dropped off at Shuishe Pier, which is part of the central hub of Sun Moon Lake.  There are a number of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops that you can browse around, although the real adventure lies elsewhere!  From here you can ride ferries and buy tickets to attractions around the lake.  The ferry will take you to Ita Thao Pier and Xuanguang Pier which both have a number of hiking trails and sightseeing spots to explore.  If you are unsure of what to do, the official Sun Moon Lake website has a number of itineraries available.

Originally I was thinking of going to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village and ropeway (which is a huge amusement park with a waterpark), but due to the mild and foggy January weather, I opted to do some hiking instead.  My favorite viewpoint that I discovered was the Ci-en Padoga built by Chiang Kai-Shek in memory of his mother.  This was about a 40 minute hike through a bamboo forest but was easy to access thanks to the English guideposts.  The ferries depart from pier to pier every half hour, so you can see the majority of sights in one day.  However, if you wish to see the smaller islands and go to the amusement park that I mentioned above, you will definitely need two full days.

Unfortunately due to the fog it was hard for me to capture good footage of the hike I took, but the mountains surrounding the lake were breathtaking and gorgeous.  I would say this was the 2nd most beautiful place that I have been to in Taiwan; the 1st being Taroko Gorge.  I wish I could have spent two full days here, but I was happy with all of the scenery I was able to see in one day.  Getting between the piers only takes around 15 minutes, so you can definitely make the most of your time here if you plan it out.

When you purchase your ferry ticket (mine was only 250 TWD because they thought I was a student), you are given a map with all the major landmarks on them.  If you are a seasoned traveler, I would just follow your instinct and go wherever looks most interesting to you.  The guideposts make it pretty straightforward, and there are always usually hikers around to ask in case you get lost.  Sailing around and feeling like I was in an RPG was honestly the best aspect for me.  It was so nice getting out of the city and into this amazing world of nature:

In my next article, I will be writing about Taiwan’s southern city Kaohsiung and Cijin Island.  Thank you to all those who have kept up with my wild adventures!