Floating down Takachiho Gorge: Miyazaki’s Hidden Gem

Nested in the mountains of Miyazaki, Takachiho Gorge has been a dream destination of mine for quite a long time now.  I wanted to go here when I first visited Miyazaki in 2018, but I sadly didn’t have enough time as it requires a 3 hour one-way journey.  However, last weekend I finally achieved my goal of traveling here and the trip was completely worth it!  I did a combination of hiking and row boating through the gorge as well as stay in a traditional ryokan nearby.  There are also shrines and waterfalls you can see around the area.  From pictures Takachiho Gorge looks quite large, but it actually can be seen in 2 – 3 hours.  I will be writing a handy guide for those who are curious about how I solo-traveled here.

Getting to Takachiho

Reaching Takachiho’s bus center from Miyazaki Station takes 2.5 – 3.5 hours depending on when you leave.  Please keep in mind that some buses only run on weekends and you should try to leave between 7am – 9am if you want to maximize your time here.

I woke up around 6:30am and took the Sonic-Nichirin Limited Express to Nobeoka Station, then took the highway bus that heads towards Kumamoto to reach Miyakoh Bus Station in Takachiho.  This costs between 3000 yen – 5000 yen, but they sell 1000 yen bus tickets at the bus center that will save you a lot of money. 

There are a few cheaper routes that combine different buses, but I am pretty sure this route runs every day so I would recommend it to people.  Especially since it combines a train and bus ride so overall you will save time and be comfortable.

Food

Before heading down to the gorge, you’ll probably want to grab some food!  There are a few vending machines and souvenir stores near the entrance, but there are far more options in the heart of the town.  Fortunately you will pass through this area on your way there.  My top recommendation is Cafe Terrace Takachihoya because they have a long and established reputation here.  I ordered vegan keema curry rice with an egg for lunch and their famous tea macchiato topped with whipped cream and a signature cookie for dessert.  This was probably the best meal that I had in Miyazaki because it was really filling!  They also have curry, pancakes, sandwiches, and smoothies on their menu.  If I come back here, I would like to try more!

Exploring Takachiho Gorge

From the bus station, Takachiho Gorge is a 24 min walk or 10 min cab ride.  I chose to walk because I wanted to explore the town first.  On your way to the gorge you will walk by Takachiho Shrine that is partly obscured by the forest.  It fortunately only takes a short hike to reach the alter.  I loved the way the sun reflected off the roof when I arrived:

After a few more minutes of walking, you will be able to make out the row boats sailing down the mouth of the gorge and that’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived!

The best thing about Takachiho Gorge is it’s completely free to explore—the only things that cost money are the aquarium (spelled “aqurum”) and row boat rentals.  The row boat rentals are 3000 yen but are usually cheaper if you have people with you (see prices).  I highly recommend taking the row boats out because they give you a unique view of the gorge that you can’t see from above.  This was my first time ever solo row boating, but I am proud to say that I only crashed twice!  At least I didn’t fall into the water!

I would recommend queuing for a row boat as soon as possible because they often have a 50 min wait time due to their popularity.  While you are killing time, you can explore the hiking trails around the gorge to make the most out of your trip.  You can also sit at the rest area or visit the aquarium.  Once it’s time to board your boat, the staff will give you a life belt and instruct you on how to row.  It’s pretty straightforward and impossible to get lost because the route is clearly marked.  Going from one side to the other usually takes 30-45 mins depending on your rowing ability (I was a bit slower because I was also taking pictures).  There are cute ducks that will fearlessly paddle alongside you.  I enjoyed having them as company!  After around 3 hours, I was satisfied with what I had seen here and made my way back to the town.  I grabbed some chocolate shaved ice and called it a day.  It was fun seeing the aesthetic of Takachiho, though!

In addition to the gorge, you may be interested in the Ameterasu Railway.  You can ride past canyons and also see some illuminations on a classic train.  Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to go as it closes quite early, but if you have extra time in the morning it might be something worth checking out.

Where to Stay

If you wake up early enough, you can explore the gorge and head back to Miyazaki City just in time.  However, that would involve roughly 6 hours of riding a combination of buses and trains so I wouldn’t recommend it.  I planned on flying back to Tokyo the following afternoon so I stayed at Ryokan Yamatoya for the night.  That way I could be comfortable and leave early in the morning.  This ryokan is only 5000 yen per night and is right in the heart of the city so it was the perfect fit for me.  It also has a public bath, but unfortunately it was closed due to the pandemic.  That didn’t stop me from taking a hot bath in my huge room, however!  I also made some green tea and relaxed in the yukata they provided.  Relaxion and reflection.  Another trip itinerary down with 100% completion!!

The next day I took the same route back to Miyazaki Airport and flew back to Tokyo.  I was lucky that the bus center is within walking distance from my hotel.  Despite the pandemic, most of the domestic flights were on time and handled with proper care.  I felt safe the entire time that I was here.  Would I do this again?  Hell yeah!!  But I just got a new job offer so I will be working full time again!  That won’t stop me from continuing to write these articles, however!!

I am currently planning weekend trips to Nagoya and Kamikochi so I will have more content up later this month.  Thank you all for reading and I hope we can travel more soon.

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!

 

Hakone: Journey to the Real-life Tokyo-3

If you’ve ever looked up day trips from Tokyo on the internet, Hakone will be one of the most prominent results.  With it being the real-life location of Tokyo-3 from Evangelion and having many hotsprings, temples, and a great view of Mt. Fuji, that status is well-deserved.  It’s also home to one of my favorite museums in Japan which has sculptures that resemble vaporwave visuals called the Hakone Open Air Museum.  You should also try swimming in the famous red wine onsen at Yunessan to smooth your skin.  Wherever you go you’re bound to discover something interesting here because the nature is vast.

I’ve been to Hakone five times by myself and also with friends so I’ve seen all its major attractions.  Here are some of the coolest things that I’ve found:

Eva-Ya: The Evangelion Goods Store

As you exit the station and begin your wonderful journey here, one of the first things you’ll come across is Eva-ya; Hakone’s own original Evangelion Store.  Here you will find a number of goods from the anime including water bottles based off the characters’ designs, food with the NERV logo on it, and a life-sized Rei Ayanami.  Asuka fans don’t fret because she has plenty of merchandise too!  One of my best purchases here was Misato’s cross-shaped necklace (not pictured).  I also enjoyed the Unit 01-colored ice cream.  Of course you can visit the official Evangelion stores in Tokyo too, but this is the one located where the anime takes places and has slightly different merchandise.

Owakudani

Owakudani is Hakone’s volcanic crater that has sulfur vents and hotsprings making it a beautiful mountain getaway.  The sulfide causes the rocks to gain their lovely red hue.  In order to reach Owakudani, you must take a cable car ride from Hakone Ropeway.  There are black eggs sold here that are said to increase your lifespan.  I bought a four-pack of them and thought they were very delicious!  Only time will tell if their effect is really long-lasting.  Unfortunately due to the danger of the volcanic gas some of the hiking trails have been roped off here, but watching the plumes of smoke form from the main viewpoint is an amazing sight.  This crater is definitely worth seeing!

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the pirate ship fee included too).

 

Yunessan

Yunessan is my favorite onsen in all of Hakone because of its famous red wine onsen you can bathe in among many other unique hotsprings and pools.  This is a mixed-gender hotspring so swimsuits are required in most areas unless you rent a private onsen or pay to enter the gender-segregated bath called Mori no Yu.  The plus side is that you can enjoy Yunessan with all of your friends!  Last time I went they had coffee, sake, and pearl-water baths too.  Some of the baths rotate while others are permanent additions.  The outdoor area has water slides, a mystical cave that you can explore, and various hot springs positioned so you can get a clear view of the mountains.  This is always the most relaxing part of my trip.  During certain times they serve free glasses of red wine too so be sure not to miss out!

Entrance Fee: 2,900 (a bit expensive, but worth it for the variety here)

Outdoor Museums

I’ve already mentioned that the Hakone Open Air Museum is by far my favorite museum here (see my article The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums for more information), but I also want to point out beautiful Hakone Venetian Glass Museum.  This forest of glass has beautiful Venetian-inspired designs and adornments like nowhere else I’ve ever seen.  Outside you can find trees and a bridge intricately decorated with glass ornaments as well as a miniature pond.  Inside there are many hand-crafted glass sculptures and jewels as well.  I was very impressed with the aesthetic here:

The Okada Art Museum is also worth checking out.  Though I don’t have any recent pictures, they have many beautiful sculptures in the mountains and footbaths you can use too.  There are some traditional Japanese handcrafts and artifacts displayed too.

Entrance Fees: Varies on the museum, but I would research beforehand and budget 3000 – 5000 yen depending on what you want to see.  Keep in mind these are some of the best museums outside of Tokyo and have that awesome mountain view!

Hakone Shrine & Pirate Ship Tours at Lake Ashi

A trip to Hakone isn’t complete without seeing Lake Ashi and the famous Hakone Shrine along the shores.  I first saw it in the winter when snow was on the ground, but the summer is the ideal time to go if you want to experience the lake.  My friend and I decided to buy the tickets to ride the pirate ship and drank a bottle of Captain Morgan on it in true spirit.  The ship was very spacious and we could feel the gentle breeze of the lake while staring at the view of Mt. Fuji in the distance.  It was exhilarating—an experience like nowhere else in Japan!  I think the only other place where you can ride a pirate ship quite like this is at Tokyo Disney, but you don’t have the awesome mountain backdrop that you do here.

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the cable car fee included too).

Access

From Shinjuku Station, you can take the Romancecar Express to reach Hakone-Yumoto Station in 1.5 hours for 2300 yen.

Once reaching the station, all of the places I listed can be reached via bus within an hour, but I would allow yourself 6-8 hours here at least.  It took multiple trips in both the summer and the winter for me to see everything here, but you could probably see these things in approximately 2 days.

If you decide to stay here overnight, Hakone Japan has some good choices.  I plan to stay at a ryokan in the future and will write about my experience.

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!

Exploring an Abandoned Island in Japan: The Infamous Gunkanjima

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Gunkanjima — also known as Hashima Island or Battleship Island due to its shape.

Enter the stairway to hell.  Around 3 years ago, I was feeling dissatisfied with my office life (more on that later), so I decided to book a trip to the abandoned island where the live action Attack on Titan and Skyfall movies were filmed.  Unlike other remote places I’ve ventured to, I didn’t come here because I was a huge fan of the movies.  The reason I came here was to experience the eeriness of the desolate ruins and ponder on life while doing some photography.  The island itself is quite small and requires you to book a tour in advance due to safety concerns, but the sights here will leave you with a haunting feeling—in a good way.  You’ll also have the chance to learn about the unique history of Gunkanjima.  From the surface it looks like a simple island that was used to mine coal, but the more you look into it, the darker the story gets.

Gunkanjima was originally a coal hot spot in the 1800s but was abandoned in 1974 after the need for petroleum became greater.  After all the people left, nature took its course and many of the buildings gradually eroded away.  Trees and flowers started growing through the cracks eventually making it on the way to become a UNESCO World Heritage Historical Site due to its supernatural beauty.  However, during World War II many Korean and Chinese prisoners of war were sentenced to harsh labor here.  It is estimated that over 1000 of them died.  This is where the image of the island gets controversial.

Should it serve as a historical landmark or a haunting memorial?

When you first get off the boat, the island seems nothing more than a collage of broken wreckage.  You can make out some of the buildings but you have no idea what they once were.  As you look at the details closely, it’s wondrous to see what parts of the structures have collapsed and what parts are still standing.  Then as you hear the explanation by the guide (which is in Japanese but they have a translated English brochure), you start to really wonder what went on here.  Though there are no visible bloodstains or remains of corpses here, it becomes easier to imagine as you start to explore and think about it.

What makes it the spookiest is the way it was originally constructed.  There are labyrinths of avenues and the infamous “stairway to hell”, which is a narrow staircase that has now somewhat caved in and looks deformed.  Looking at these pictures, it’s hard to believe that this island once had a primary school and apartments that housed hundreds of residents then became a prison.  But it’s all true.  I don’t personally believe the ghost stories, but there are some interesting rumors on the net.  If you would like to take a virtual tour of Gunkanjima Island and learn more, please The Forgotten World.

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So what did I gain from coming here?  A new perspective.  A sight that I will forever remember.  A lot to analyze and think about.  A fun boat ride.  A day off from work.  Bragging rights that I made it all the way to a remote place.  Some mindfuck (the usual).

Jokes aside, I am really happy that I came here.  My heart goes out to all of the war victims.  Remote and out of public eye, probably few people knew what actually happened here.  Witnessing a rare part of history made me really made me more grateful for my own life.

Is the island safe to visit?

Yes.  There are trained guides that will take you in groups of people.  Most of the island is roped off, but you can still freely walk around and do photography to your heart’s content.  You can’t climb the stairs or enter any eroded buildings, but you can get very close to the wreckage without worrying about it collapsing on you.

Booking a Tour

There are number of companies that run chartered group tours you can browse, but I chose the one by Yamasa that cost 4200 yen.  They have both English and Japanese support and a lot of availability.  The tour gives you roughly an hour to explore the island before they take you back to Nagasaki, but due to its small size that is plenty of time.

You cannot access this island by yourself.  Remember to be respectful when you are here.

Access

This island is in Nagasaki and is quite a long journey from Tokyo (about 7 hours), but it’s worth the trip if you’re a true explorer.

Take a flight to either Fukuoka or Nagasaki Airport, then a bus to Nagasaki Station.  From there you can take a taxi or bus to Nagasaki Port and reach the island in 40 mins via boat (which needs to be booked in advance and is weather-dependent).  This will cost minimum 20,000 yen but is overall worth it for the experience.

The weather was cloudy when I went which was perfect for the overall aesthetic.  Please do not go if you are faint of heart.

If you are interested in other eerie islands stories I have, please see my Okunoshima article.

Swimming in the Gorgeous Beaches of Iwami from Free!

After riding camels through the desert of Japan, I decided to take a day trip to Iwami—a beautiful beach town on the west coast of Japan; also known as the real-life location of the swimming anime Free!  Iwami is a small and rural town, but doing sightseeing around the beaches will keep you busy for hours.  This place is perfect for people who love water sports and fishing that need a break from the city.  Besides Okinawa, I think Iwami has some of the best beaches in Japan.  If you rent a bike and ride around the coast it’s quite easy to find your own private beach to relax on.  It truly felt like a hidden oasis to me.  Plus I got to see yet another inspiration for one of my favorite series!

When I arrived at Iwami Station, I was thrilled to to find a mini Free! shrine dedicated to all of the characters.  A life-sized version of the bird-like school mascot also greeted me.  There were framed photos, guestbooks that you could draw in, and a whole desk of fan-made items dedicated to Rin’s birthday.  Seeing all of the time that went into this made me happy that I could be a part of it too.  Iwami is definitely a gem even if you aren’t a fan of the anime.

In addition to all of the character goods, they also had maps that mark all of the major sightseeing points from the anime (they hilariously said “Take Free” on the front):

I decided to rent a bike at the Iwami Tourism Office located next to the station for 500 yen per day.  Biking is the best way to see the entire town and saves you a lot of time and money.  I would allow 4-6 hours here depending on how long you want to go swimming.

The old-school road bike I rented wasn’t half-bad.  I also bought some cookies as an offering to my favorite character Haru.  After checking my map, I decided to head to the Uradome swimming area because that is the main beach featured in the anime.  It’s fortunately just a short ride from the station, and seeing all of the rock formations that surround the town on the way there is amazing.  I spent about an hour here swimming then road my bike to a rockier area with less people.  Treading the rocks hurt my feet a bit, but once you get in the water you will feel the best adrenaline rush.

This was my favorite beach that I found (you can search “Uradome Coast Oguri beach beaches” on Googles Maps to find the exact location):

Please swim here with caution because there aren’t as many lifegaurds here as the main swimming area.  There are literally beaches all over the town so you can find the one that suits you the best.  There are sandier ones in central Uradome you can easily access.

In Uradome you’ll also notice an island with a torii which is quite a famous lookout point.  Near it is Tajiri Port which is used for fishing and transporting goods.  These places were referenced in the anime as well:

After swimming to my heart’s content, I decided to explore more of Iwami by going on a boat tour at Uradome Coast Island Tour.  The “Pleasure Boat” boat tour is 1400 yen and around 40 mins.  I highly recommend this tour because you can get up and close to the unique rock formations that this area is famous for.  Plus it feels like an adventure:

After my little boating excursion, I decided to end my trip by hiking to Tajiri Shrine.  Luckily it’s not too far from the port.  One of the most unique parts of the town is you can actually see Makoto’s house here!  It is located near the top of Tajiri Shrine:

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The real-life version of Makoto’s house from Free!

When I reached the top of the shrine, I was surprised to find a Rin cosplayer there! Like me, she was a huge fan of the series and decided to spend her time here during the summer. We talked and actually became really good friends. I still stay in touch with her though I traveled here nearly 3 years ago.  I really regret not staying in Iwami overnight so I could see the sunset and the sunrise, but I plan on coming back here in the future!

Access

From Tottori Station, take the Nikko Bus for either Iwai/Kabushima or Iwai/Nagatanibashi and get off at Iwami Station.  This takes around 50 mins and costs 700 yen.

If you are coming from a larger city, I highly recommend flying to Tottori Station because you will save a lot of money.  Please see my previous article for more information.

While I was in Tottori, I stayed in a net cafe that is now permanently closed because I was short on cash.  However, there are more net cafes and better places that you can stay in.  Please see booking for better options!

 

 

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~

Journey to Amanohashidate: Kyoto’s Picturesque Sandbar

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View of Amanohashidate from Kasamatsu Park’s ropeway.

Due to the abrupt school closure and cancellation of public events put into effect by the Japanese government as prevention of the Corona Virus spread last week, I suddenly found myself with an abundance of free time.  Not wanting to waste this newfound freedom, I decided to hit up my friends in Kansai and see what the situation was like in the west.  As predicted, they informed me that there were noticeably less tourists around Kyoto and the prices of hotels had dropped drastically.  This was my chance!  Avoiding the public areas where the usual masses occupy (and now an increase of students too), I set my sights on a remote sandbar located in northern Kyoto: Amanohashidate.

If you follow my adventures, you’ll know that I went to Amanohashidate last year after Nanoboro Festa in August (see An Eerily Beautiful Beach in Northern Kyoto).  However, because I visited the fishing village of Ine first that day, it was already dark when I reached Amanohashidate and I could only take pictures of the highly aesthetic neon-colored beach.  It was definitely worth the trip, but this time I wanted to arrive during the day time so I could take pictures from the top of the ropeway.  The ropeway is at the north end of the sandbar located in Kasamatsu Park, so you must arrive before 5pm if you want to get to the top.  Fortunately I made it there early and managed to take a lot of awesome photos!

I arrived at Amanohashidate Station from Kyoto Station around 2pm and decided to walk on the beach for a while.  It was windy and a bit chilly, but the coast was still beautiful to see because the sun was out.  All shops still seemed to be in operation here, and it was easy to ask people at the tourist center for directions.  A few Japanese tourists were here in addition to myself, but the numbers were considerably less than the summer.  I was happy because that meant I had the optimal photo opportunity.  I found it funny how Amanohashidate has an anime girl personification in addition to a cute pinecone mascot!

For lunch I grabbed a kani meshi (krab rice) bento and a small selection of sushi from Kyoto Station.  See my Tentacle Bento Article for more information about the best on-the-go lunches in Kyoto.  In addition to octopus, crab here is also amazing (sorry, Mr. Krabs)!

To cross the sandbar, you can either rent a bike for 200 yen/2 hours and ride 20 mins to the other side, or take a boat ride for 600 yen and cross it in 10 mins (from the Amanohashidate Official Tourism website).  I’m normally a biker, but since it was windy I opted for the boat ride.  A family and their dog joined me so I wasn’t alone.  Kasamatsu Park is just a short walk from Ichinomiya Pier and the chair lift is very fun to ride.

Here is footage from my GoPro of the sandbar and the chairlift.  It’s really amazing to see how big Kyoto is:

At the souvenir shop at the top of the mountain I found some nice oddities.  The pinecone nuts were very interesting, and even more so were the pastries with a design of a person staring at you while bent over.  Apparently this is the pose many people use in their photos with the sandbar when they reach the top.  I guess it looks cool because you can see the sandbar inbetween your legs but… why?  Stay weird, Japan.

After riding back down the chairlift, I spent my remaining time on the beach as planned.  I highly recommend coming here in the summer if you have time because it gives you some of the best views of Kyoto.  I would like to come in the summer again and attempt to go swimming here!

Access

Monju, Miyazu, Kyoto 626-0001 (from Amanohashidate Station)

Directions: From Kyoto Station, take the Hashidate Limited Express 5 towards Toyo-Oka.  This costs around 5000 yen but it has the fewest transfers and will get you there in 2 hours.  The express train also has an antique vibe to it and is fun to see.

I will be writing about fun places in Kansai as well as the all you can drink capsule hotel I found in central Kyoto next.  The fear of the virus has not stopped my traveling or events organized by my friends even though large scale events such as Anime Japan have been cancelled.  Please remember that it’s safe to travel in Japan if you continually wash your hands, use sanitizer, and practice good hygeine.

Exploring the Colorful City of Kaohshiung & Cijin Island (Part 1)

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The astrological murals of Formosa Boulevard Station shine brilliantly.

After exploring Taichung for two days and having a lovely day out on Sun Moon Lake, I decided to ride the MRT south and explore Kaohsiung City in southern Taiwan. This city is famous for its art murals, the Tiger Dragon Pagoda, and its ferry terminal that leads to the popular destination Cijin Island.  Historically Kaohsiung was used as a port town during the Qing Dynasty, and much of its culture has been preserved because you can still ride boats and find night markets here.  However, artists have transformed Pier 2 into a gathering spot with murals, pop-up stores, galleries, and cafes.  I rented a bike from my hostel at Legend Hotel Pier 2 for 100 TWD and biked 10 minutes to explore the area.  Pier 2 stretches for about a mile and has an abundance of things to see!

I enjoyed seeing all of the painted dragon murals that reflect the symbol of the town’s prized pagoda, and even the electrical boxes had faces on them!  They had some kind of dinosaur exhibit aimed at children going on as well (this place was very family-friendly).  I laughed at the name of the “CHIN CHIN perfume” place (Google the Japanese meaning of “chin chin” but don’t look at the images).  I truly had a fun time here.  I also loved that there was a park where you could rent kites and roam around.  This place had a more relaxed and open feel than Taipei and was the perfect getaway from the city:

After roaming around here for a while, I decided to buy a ferry ticket to Cijin Island at the ferry terminal.  Cijin Island is only 5 minutes away so it’s a very hassle-free trip and only costs 25 TWD.  What’s also cool is you can bring your bike on-board for free because the boat is huge (you also have the option of bike rental at Cijin).  Cijin is a long rectangular strip, so you can bike the entire island within an hour and 30 minutes.  The main sightseeing spots are the Rainbow Church and the Windmill Park by the beach.  There are also temples and and street food galore so you will never go hungry no matter how far you bike.

Though I had a fun time here, I will issue a word of warning: When I set my purse down to take pictures of the Rainbow Church (which is a series of rainbow pillars actually used in wedding photography), someone opened my wallet and stole all of my cash.  I won’t say how much I lost, but it was a considerable amount.  I reported it to the police station on Cijin Island and they checked the security cameras, but unfortunately they were unable to find the thief.  I acknowledge that this was fully my fault, but at the same time I am sad that this happened.  Previously I had gone swimming and left my personal belongings on the beach in other countries without any occurrences of theft, but now I know I should be a lot more careful.  Fortunately the thief did not steal my credit cards, or else I would be in real trouble.  However, I do not want this incident to reflect badly on Cijin Island or Taiwan.  Taiwan is still what I would consider to be a very safe country, and I hope my articles inspire people to visit it!

Look forward to Part 2 of my Kaohsiung journey where I visit the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas and more of the city!