Osaka Summer Highlights: Tsukenkaku and Unique Gourmet Experiences

Braving the skies of Shin Sekai at Tsutenkaku Tower!

After spending a lovely two nights in Kyoto and revisiting one of my favorite temples, I decided to take the local train to Osaka so I could climb the Tsutenkaku Tower and continue my aesthetic food journey around Kansai for two days. I have been to Shin Sekai and seen the iconic Parisian-like tower many times but never ascended to the top until this trip. The panoramic view of Osaka from the 5th floor is absolutely amazing, so I would recommend it to those who love seeing city skylines and aren’t afraid of heights. I also visited many unique restaurants and cafes this time around that I wish to share with others because you can’t find them anywhere else in Japan!

Tsutenkaku Tower

Located in Shin Sekai, Tsutenkaku Tower is comparable to both Tokyo Tower and the Eiffel Tower with its steel beams and breathtaking view of the entire city. Like Tokyo Tower, you can choose to ascend to different observation decks (both the 4th and the 5th), but I would recommend buying a ticket to the 5th because the open air deck is definitely worth seeing. There is a glass platform you can peer down from if you’re not afraid of heights, and the view from it truly is a thrill. One thing I absolutely loved here were the neon rainbow lights attached to the wall between the 4th and 5th floors. They definitely gave the interior of the tower its own retro vibe. There were also disco balls hanging from the 4th floor as well as golden statues you could touch for luck. On top of that, there’s a slide that you can ride down that simulates an amusement park ride! I didn’t try it this time, but it’s on the list for next time I come to Osaka!

When you exit the tower, there is a souvenir shop and a really neat display of various companies that started in Osaka, such as Glico. If you’ve been to downtown Osaka then you’ve definitely seen the iconic Glico Running Man!

Address: 1 Chome-18-6 Ebisuhigashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka, 556-0002
Entrance Fee: 800 ~ 1000 yen (depending on which observation deck you choose)

Osaka Castle

Since Osaka Castle is another place that I haven’t visited since my study abroad trip, I decided I would see it again on this time! Like Tsutenkaku, this castle is an important landmark of Osaka with its iconic golden fish placed on the roofs and gates that are said to help protect the castle from fires. What’s interesting about this castle is that it’s surrounded by a moat, but part of the moat is dry and now grows green vegetation. You can see the best angle of the castle when you exit the park with the way the sun shines down on it and the trees frame its adorned structure.

I was surprised to see boats floating around the castle when I visited because I did not remember them before. You can book a boat tour through Gozabune Boat if you are interested in riding in a replica of Hideyoshi Toyotomis’s original vessel. He was the warrior who built this castle and was also obsessed with gold.

Address: 540-0002 Osaka, Chuo Ward, Osakajo, 1番1号
Entrance Fee: 600 yen

The Latest Aesthetic Gourmet Experiences in Osaka

As a lover of aesthetic food, I had quite a long list of places that I wanted to try in Osaka! Here are the best ones that I’ve came across during this trip:

Dogyan

Dogyan is a pop-up shop near Osaka castle that serves ramen and Ghibli inspired shaved ice. What makes the shaved ice so unique here is that they use a lot of frosting instead of just syrup to create the shape of the character. I tried the Calcifer one from Howl’s Moving Castle because I found his face hilarious. I would recommend that my friends try Totoro and No Face ices to tell me how they taste! The Calcifer one I tried tasted similar to a frozen cake and was very sweet. I would like to come back and try their noodles when I have more of an appetite.

Dogyan has very specific operating days so be sure to check their Instagram for more information.

Egg Takoyaki

Located underneath Umeda Station, there is a takoyaki shop called Takonotetsu that sells takoyaki with all sorts of different toppings such as cheese, egg, and different flavors of mayonnaise! I have eaten takoyaki in Osaka many times before, but never with egg on top. I was happy I tried it with my Japanese friends because the egg gives the fried part of the takoyaki a creamier texture and contains a lot of protein. Cheese takoyaki is also very good, but the cheese melts fast so you have to watch out! I can’t wait to eat takoyaki again next time I’m in Osaka!

W Osaka

W Osaka is a new upscale hotel that was just constructed last year and boasts a wonderful restaurant and café! The café I visited was called MIXup, and if you go early enough then you don’t usually need a reservation. I was enamored by their aesthetic statues that looked like they got splashed with rainbow paint and their placemats the resembled records. I decided to try their award winning pastry, the “Bouteille de Grand Marnier”, which the creator of the pastry herself served to me! The delicate orange, chocolate, and caramel combination of it completely blew my mind. In addition to this, they have macarons, parfaits, and other pastries you can try. You can order food too if you make a reservation. I will definitely come back here one day to try more gourmet pastries!

Sushi at Tiffany’s

And I said, what about sushi at Tiffany’s? While browsing Instagram, I was recommended a peculiar restaurant that serves caviar out of Tiffany’s glassware, and I knew immediately I had to go. Located close to Umeda, “Kitashinchi Sushi Tsu” (北新地 すし通) is a unique sushi restaurant that serves its sushi on Tiffany dishes and is very high-end. I absolutely adored the decor here, and the quality of fish was the best I’ve ever had in Kansai. I booked the “Anniversary Course” through Tabelog which was around 10,000 yen, but it was completely worth the price. If you come here, expect to pay a lot but prepare to have your mind blown by how good the food is. Sometimes you just need to be a fancy bitch and eat an anniversary course by yourself!

Moonkery

Moonkery is just your everyday Taiwanese tea shop with a giant moon on the 2nd floor that makes the perfect photo opp. This is actually the coolest tea shop that I’ve ever been to because it has a futuristic space scene and also serves desserts. I tried the coldbrew herbal tea and was a huge fan of it! The tea leaves in the bottle really gave it an ample flavor. I hope to come back here and try one of their pastries next time because I would like to support their business. I hope more aesthetic cafes like this continue to pop up!

Accommodation

Since I was seeing Night Tempo on his Showa Groove Tour on this trip, I decided to stay at a travel hotel called Hotel Morning Box in Shinsaibashi near the venue. I really liked this place because it had a public bath, a nice cafe where you could relax, and the cheapest rooms were around 3000 yen. I was sad because Asahi Plaza, the famous sauna and capsule hotel, closed during the pandemic, but at least this hotel as a wonderful warm bath you can use and the prices are very similar. Though I usually stay in different hotels when visiting Kansai, I truly want to stay in this one again because I enjoyed how new the rooms were and the central location.

Thank you for reading about my super aesthetic journey to Osaka! I still have one more article to write in this series about Nagoya’s World Cosplay Summit, so please look forward to it!

A Road Trip to Aomori: Visiting the Nebuta Museum and Hirosaki Castle

A Perfect Aesthetic Moment: Sakura petals illuminated under the gates of Hirosaki Caste.

Last weekend I went on a roadtrip to one of my dream destinations during the peak of its cherry blossom season: Aomori Prefecture. Unlike most of Japan, Aomori’s sakura season starts usually from the last weekend of April until the first week of May because it is located up north facing Hokkaido. Aomori’s Hirosaki and Ashino parks are said to be the best places to see the sakura in all of Japan, so as a photographer visiting this prefecture was a huge goal of mine. The hardest challenges of visiting Aomori are timing your visit with the ideal weather and getting around, because the prefecture is quite rural. However, my group decided to bring a car so we could maximize our sightseeing opportunities. Besides its sakura, Aomori is also famous for its delicious apples. This is the first part of a three part article series, so please look forward to reading about my top recommendations here!

Getting to Aomori Prefecture & Accommodation

One way shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Shin Aomori Station are 17000 yen and the trip takes over 4 hours, so it is recommended that you fly to Aomori Airport to save time and money. Roundtrip airline tickets are usually around 30000 yen and you will reach Aomori Airport in just over an hour. However, since I was short on time and was meeting my friends who were staying in central Aomori with a car, I opted for the one way shinkansen ticket then drove 8 hours with them back to Tokyo when we were done sightseeing. It was a long trip, but overall very scenic and cost efficient!

You will definitely want a car to get around Aomori because public transportation is quite limited; especially if you want to see all of the sakura parks because they are spread out. We had originally planned on using some of the sightseeing buses here but were so glad we didn’t because they take a long time to reach places.

Since sakura season is crazy popular and Aomori only has a few hotels in the central area, be prepared to pay extra on accommodations during this time. I paid 15,000 yen for a two night stay at Aomori Route Inn Chuo but it was pleasant because it had a small indoor public bath and I was placed in the 420 room (blaze it). If you come outside of sakura season, then prices will be more reasonable.

Nebuta Museum

The most popular festival in Aomori is the Nebuta Festival, which is held every summer from Aug 2nd – Aug 7th and involves giant colorful floats with characters hand-painted by artists. The floats are carried by volunteers and illuminated by lanterns with dancers and taiko drummers accompanying them during the parade making it quite the spectacle. At the Nebuta Museum in central Aomori, you can see the floats on display all year and also read about the various characters depicted in the floats. If you are coming all the way to Aomori, then you should definitely visit this museum!

Entrance Fee: 600 yen
Address: 1 Chome-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori, 030-0803

Hirosaki Park at Night

Hirosaki Park is renowned as one of the best places to spend sakura season and contains several gardens and Hirosaki Castle within it. During sakura season special lights are placed under the sakura trees so the blossoms look illuminated at night. On the weekend we went, which was April 29th – May 1st, the sakura were predicted to be in full bloom but unfortunately due to heavy rain in the area a few days before, some of the petals had fallen. However, many of the weeping sakura trees (also known as prunus pendula) were in full bloom here so we managed to get a few good shots in. Had it not been for the drizzling rain that night, this park would have been ideal for a picnic!

For better sakura photos, please see my Kyoto article series from last year! We managed to get perfect photos of sakura in full bloom under a full moon.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen
Address: 〒036-8356 Aomori, Hirosaki, Shimoshiroganecho, 1

Top Food Picks

Right as you arrive to Shin Aomori Station and exit through the ticket gate, you will notice multiple gift and souvenir shops at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. I impulse bought an apple macaroon from one of them since I am a macaroon fanatic. As expected, it tasted very fruity and I adored the little apple brand on it! As far as sweets in Aomori go, I also recommend a tiny cake shop called Kashidokoro Kangetsu because it has cream puffs shaped like swans, cakes with dog faces, and tanuki cupcakes that are apple flavored! There are also some anko-filled sweets here that are really delicious. I ordered one shaped like a bamboo shoot and enjoyed both the aesthetic and taste.

For lunch I had a seafood scallop salad crepe at a place called Galetteria Da Sasino in central Aomori. I know that sounds like a weird combination of flavors but it actually tasted amazing! I really love the soft and spongy texture of crepes paired with seafood. For dinner we went to a sushi place called Kuruma Sushi because it was near the castle. I ordered a seafood bowl with the finest fish and mistakenly ordered a bottle of wine instead of a glass because I had a tough time understanding Tsugaru dialect. But I made that bottle last for three days so I got my money’s worth out of it. Just another day in the life!

Thank you for reading the first part of my Aomori article series. In my next article I will be writing about Ashino Park and a special house from a Studio Ghibli film. Please look forward to more!

Meeting the Penguins of Shimane Prefecture

It’s time to go back to school!

After a lovely night of eating seafood and drinking luxury cocktails in Kurashiki, it was time to head to the final destination of this backpacking trip: Shimane Prefecture. This was yet another rural prefecture of Japan on my list of places to visit, and I was ecstatic to go to Matsue Vogel Park to see botanical gardens and meet the famous penguins who sometimes wear seasonal outfits. I decided to go in late March because there was a special event where the penguins wear backpacks and waddle around the park at certain times to celebrate the back to school season. It’s much more fun to watch this video demonstration than to have me explain:

Words cannot describe how adorable this scene was. All of us made way for the incoming penguin colony *wearing backpacks* and watched them waddle to the other side of the room. At the end some of them got tired and sat on their bellies which was adorable. In addition to the back to school costumes, they also have special ones for Golden Week! I look forward to seeing what other penguin cosplay they come up with!

In addition to the penguins, there is a huge collection of other rare birds you can view, but I didn’t spend much time here because there were other things I wanted to see in Shimane. I did enjoy the huge flower baskets hanging from the first major greenroom, however. Matsue Vogel Park really has a lot of neat intricate design going for it:

Address: 52 Ogakicho, Matsue, Shimane 690-0263
Entrance Fee: 1050

Getting around Shimane Prefecture

Getting to and around Shimane Prefecture is difficult because it’s extremely rural, so I would highly recommend renting a car. There is limited public transportation available to all of the places mentioned in this article, but you will likely spend hours waiting for infrequent buses and trains. If you only plan on day tripping here like myself, then having a car is a must. However, if you decided to stay overnight then you can likely see all of these places by local train or bus—just be prepared to wait.

I decided to return to Tokyo by plane from the Izumo Airport which cost around 30,000 yen one way, but that is average because JAL has a monopoly on flights here. That may sound like a lot, but I am super close to seeing all prefectures of Japan and decided I will pay whatever it takes to complete my quest. I am very fortunate that my friend offered to drive me for this portion of the trip because it saved me a lot of time in money. The funny thing is, last time I was in Kurashiki, a similar occurrence happened too!

Lunch at a Hippie Cafe

For lunch we decided to go to an organic hippie cafe called Green’s Baby near the castle because it was easy to park there. Since Shimane is mostly farmland, you can expect the vegetables here to be top notch. I ordered a bagna cauda for myself and my friend ordered taco rice because we were hungry. Both tasted amazing, and we got to eat or meals while sitting in hammock chairs too! I would recommend this place to people who are tired of eating the same food and are looking for a new experience.

Address: 204 Tonomachi, Matsue, Shimane 690-0887

Yuushien at Daikon Island

Our next destination was Shimane’s most famous garden called Yuushien, which you can reach by crossing a bridge to Daikon Island. Yuushien has a variety of artistic flower arrangements, seasonal flowers, and Japanese gardens. It is truly serene and clearly reflects the changes of the seasons. My friend and I had a lot of fun stepping on the rocks and hiking up to the waterfall. Daikon Island is pretty rural but this garden gives it a ton of color.

After circling around the garden twice, we decided to treat ourselves to parfaits at the Yuushien Cafe. My friend ordered the signature matcha parfait, and I ordered an anko set that came with hot green tea. Once again, they both exceeded our expectations. Beforehand I had no idea that Shimane’s tea and desserts tasted so delicious, but it makes sense because there are plenty of organic farms here.

Address: 1260-2 Yatsukacho Hanyu, Matsue, Shimane 690-1492
Entrance Fee: 800 yen

Matsue Castle

Before heading to the airport where I would fly back to Tokyo, we stopped at Matsue Castle on the way. This is actually the only remaining castle in the San’in region and is very large with 4 floors and an indoor museum. Surviving many natural disasters, it has kept its wooden structure and not needed a concrete reconstruction. It stands on the shores of Lake Shinji, which is Shimane’s famous lake that spans 30 miles. It was fun to drive alongside the lake and see all the birds that reside in it. Matsue Castle has a great view of the surrounding area so it is the perfect way to start or end a trip!

Address: 1-5 Tonomachi, Matsue, Shimane 690-0887
Entrance Fee: 680 yen

Final Thoughts

It was extremely fulfilling to complete this long four day backpacking trip from Fukuoka to Shimane and see two prefectures I had never seen before. Would I recommend this itinerary to everyone? No, because it went at an extremely fast pace and only focused on places I had never seen before, but I think a lot can be learned from reading about my experience which is why I wanted to share it here. Those who have lived in Japan for a while may be interested in some of the places I have discovered. Some of these places were challenging to go to and required a rental car, but were definitely worth the effort. As of now, I only have three remaining prefectures of Japan to visit which I plan on seeing at the end of this month!

Thank you all to have kept up with my crazy journeys. This is the final article in this series, but I will be publishing my next series on my trip to Nara this month! Please look forward to reading about my experience staying in a cottage in the woods with hungry deer looming outside.

Exploring Fukui: The Land of Dinosaurs and Castle in the Clouds (Part 2)

After spending a lovely day at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum, I decided to wake up early on the next day and hike to Ono Castle in hopes of seeing it shrouded in clouds. Besides its prized dinosaurs, Fukui is most famous for its “castle in the sky”. Unfortunately the weather was not cold enough for the clouds to appear as this is a rare phenomenon, but I managed to take some amazing photos from the observatory and try some delicious local food. I have translated some tips from a Japanese blog of how to best see the clouds that many tourism websites have not mentioned, so please continue reading if you’re interested. Overall I’m happy that I spent the night in Ono because it has some of the best hiking spots!

Ono Castle

The city of Ono is nicknamed “little Kyoto” for its rich history and is home to Ono Castle, which appears shrouded in clouds under certain weather conditions. Samurai residences, temples, and traditional shops also line the streets giving this town a unique vibe. Of all the cities I researched in Fukui, this seemed the coolest so this is where I decided to stay the night. The castle is right in the heart of the city and you can see why Fukui takes so much pride in it:

Conditions for the clouds to appear:

  • The sea of ​​clouds appears in the early morning from mid-October to early April. It is most likely seen from dawn to 8am depending on the season but may appear earlier/later.
  • The fall season is when the clouds are most likely to appear around 6:00am – 6:30am due to the humidity. It is best to aim for a day when the temperature falls rapidly.
  • The sea of clouds is most viewable from the ruins of Inuyama Castle which take roughly 25 minutes to hike. Please note that snow may accumulate during the winter season making the mountain harder to climb.
  • If it rains the day before, the clouds are usually still visible but the mountain may be shrouded in mist making them harder to see.
  • The day the sea of clouds appear in Ono, they will not appear on the following day.
  • It is recommended to bring a camera with a lens of at least 70mm to capture the most detail though I only brought my GoPro and iPhone 12 Pro Max camera.
  • Please be weary of wild bears and monkeys in the forest. I saw several monkeys when I climbed but they did not approach me.
  • According to the managers at my hostel, the sea of clouds only appears around 10 times per year and is a rare phenomenon.

For the best hiking route, please see this Google Map link. All of this information was translated from Shirofan and is accurate from my understanding.

Although I wasn’t able to see the clouds, I am still extremely happy with the beautiful photos I took of the castle during the sunrise! I was also able to see it illuminated during my first night in Ono which was really special. I will forever remember my experience here because it was such a fun hike.

Coffee at “coffe&cake紫おん”

Before my flight back to Tokyo, I decided to stop at coffe&cake紫おん to kill time. Yes, this shop hilariously omitted an “e” from their name. Good old Ono. I decided to order the orange Halloween Tart and warm anko bean milk because I was famished from my hike to the castle. The cake had just the right amount of sweetness and really hit the spot. I also enjoyed the added texture from the pie crust. This was my first time having anko milk and it tasted amazing! It was sweet like anmitsu and very filling to me. All of the coffee shops I saw in Ono seemed to have a unique atmosphere, but I am happy that I chose this one for its seasonal sweets. I also grabbed a dinosaur cookie on my way out because why not?

Address: 12-2 Motomachi, Ono, Fukui 912-0081

Oshozu

Oshozu is a natural cold water spring found near Ono Castle. The water is so pure you can drink it directly from the spring. There are funnels that you can use to collect the water and it is structured similar to a shrine. Besides Yakushima, this was one of the few places I could drink water directly from the source. It really is amazing how pure the water is here, and you can tell that the town really takes pride in it.

Address: 5-4 Izumicho, Ono, Fukui 912-0086

Additionally, there are samurai residences, museums, and temples that you can visit around the town if you are keen. Please check the Ono Castle Tourism website for more information.

Accommodation

Since I only stayed here for one night, I decided to stay at a guest house near Ono Castle called Arashima. To my surprise I was the only one here and had a whole room to myself! Arashima is very modest but is centrally located which is important for those who plan on hiking around the area. I accidentally selected the wrong arrival time while booking online, but the staff were kind enough to wait for me and I was met with a warm welcome. They gave me a map and some pretty good bar recommendations, like イチナナバル where I had some nice local wine before I went to sleep. They also informed me that Ono Castle is illuminated at night until 21:00 this season which I never would have known! I was happy that I stayed here because I picked up a lot of good information on Ono from the locals.

My final meal was nishin soba at Fukui Station before I went back to the airport. There is a standing soba restaurant before the ticket gates that is sinfully cheap and has noodles that taste amazing. This bowl contained simmered herring and packed quite the powerful punch:

This will be my last Japan blog for a while as I am getting ready to visit my friends and family in America, but worry not because I will be writing and traveling a ton next year. In 2022 I plan on visiting the remaining 5 prefectures of Japan I have left on my list and whatever Asian countries are safe to visit. Thank you all for your support and thank you for reading. See you in the new year unless plans change!

The Tale of the Monkey Forest and Glaass Lounge in Nagano

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Matsumoto Castle in Nagano, Japan.

Nearly two years ago, I ventured north into the mountainous region of Nagano with two missions to accomplish.  The first was to see the famous hotspring-loving monkeys in Jigokudani.  Though a lot of monkeys in Asia are known to be feisty, the Japanese macaque (also known as snow monkeys) are said to be pretty relaxed.  It’s probably due to the fact that they have their own 24-hour hotspring to themselves.  The second objective was to go to a rare event in Matsumoto called Glaass Lounge.  This party is a gathering of house and techno enthusiasts that goes all night, and on this particular weekend Carpainter and Seimei of Trekkie Trax were to appear.  The stars had aligned for the ultimate weekend and I couldn’t be more excited!

 

Jigokudani Monkey Park

As soon as I arrived to Nagano Station, I went to the ticket office and purchased a day pass for Jigokudani Park.  The park is about an hour bus ride from the station, but you have the chance to see rare scenes of the countryside so it’s not a bad trip.  From the bus stop, the walk to the monkey park is about 30 mins through a lush pine forest.  When you get to the top of a hill in the mountains, you will see dozens of monkeys running through a roped-off area full of hotsprings:

Though you sadly cannot enter the hotsprings with the monkeys, you can get pretty close to them.  Often they will go under the ropes and leisurely mingle with people.  It is advised not to look them directly in the eyes because that is a sign of aggression.  Also there are notices posted not to feed them and to be careful with your bags (a.k.a. common sense).  I would allow yourself at least 1.5 hours to fully enjoy the park.  The monkeys are quite fun to observe and the mountain air feels lovely.

Besides the monkeys, the scenery surrounding the park made it worth the trip.  The mountain backdrop on the lake looked like something straight out of a postcard.  Plus hiking through the forest was an awesome workout and I saw many beautiful rivers along the way.  You can see the Japanese Alps from here too:

Admission Fee: 800 yen to enter the park // 3200 yen for admission to the park and roundtrip bus fare (I recommend this option unless you rent a car)

Although I had fun here, the day I went the monkeys weren’t particularly interesting in bathing even though it was cold out and there was snow on the ground.  Hakodate in Hokkaido has a better monkey onsen that you can see.  The monkeys there seem to love hotsprings more than the monkeys I saw here, but both are worth checking out.

Food

Due to having to catch a train into the city that night, I didn’t have a lot of time to look for places to eat but fortunately Nagano Station had me covered.  I managed to find some amazing kitsune udon (noodles topped with a thin layer of fried tofu), and oyaki (stuffed dumplings).  I was happy to see they had a number of vegetarian options and were very cheap to order individually.  Oyaki are a Nagano specialty so definitely try them if you get the chance!  You can find them literally all over the place in a variety of flavors.

Glaass Lounge

I arrived at Studio SONIC around 11pm when Glaass Lounge had just kicked off.  The club had a simple setup with a DJ booth in the front and a bar to the side, but since it was compact it was easy to socialize with people.  I found my friends immediately and told them the story of the bathing monkeys.  It felt great to experience the music scene of Matsumoto out here in the mountains.  A number of these DJs come to Tokyo events every once in a while too.

Monolith Slip, a duo of two music producers from this area were one of my favorite acts.  They create a lot of rave music and were featured on an earlier Haka Gang x Trekkie Trax compilation:

Besides them, I of course enjoyed seeing Carpainter as the featured guest.  As always, his techno/house mixes are amazing:

This party went on until 5am and was an experience I’ll never forget.  I haven’t been back to Nagano in over 2 years, but if there are more music events like these in the fture then I’ll definitely be tempted!

Address: 2 Chome-5-6 Fukashi, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-0815

Access

From Tokyo Station, take the Hokuriku-Shinkansen to Nagano Station.  This will take 2 hours and costs 8400 yen one way.  From Nagano Station you can take a bus to the monkey forest and the Shinano Limited Express to reach Matsumoto City.  All tickets can be purchased on they day you arrive, but if you are coming during a holiday I would book them in advance.  I would recommend 2 days and 1 night here to see everything.

Since I didn’t have a lot of money at time, I stayed at a net cafe called Carefree Cafe for a few hours after the party.  However, there are a lot of great hotspring resorts and ryokan you can stay in that are better!  Booking usually has some great deals depending on what you are looking for.

 

 

Hitch-hiking my way through Okayama, Japan

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Okayama Castles stands proudly on a summer morning.

Three years ago I decided to go backpacking through Okayama for the main purpose of visiting Washuzan Highland so I could ride the infamous pedal-powered roller coaster of terror through the sky, but I got sideswept into come crazy adventures in the city before I even made it there.  Some of these are too good not to share so I’m writing this story in three separate articles.

It all started while I was walking from Okayama Station to Jiyuu Kuukan, the net cafe where I was staying for the night because I didn’t have much money, when a Japanese guy around my age started talking me up.  Unlike most people I encounter in this type of situation, he wasn’t trying to hit on me (or at least he didn’t make it obvious).  He invited me out for drinks because he was taking the TOEIC [English proficiency exam] soon and wanted to practice his English.  He also noted that it was quite rare to see solo woman travelers here in Okayama, but I get that a lot wherever I travel.  It doesn’t really phase me at all.  I agreed to go out for drinks with him because well, I love drinking!

I didn’t really teach him much English because I don’t consider myself qualified (despite being an English teacher previously), but I did answer his questions and make him feel more confident.  He informed me he worked at a car company nearby in Kurashiki; a place in Okayama that I had planned on visiting.  In return for my English lesson (if you could call it that), he offered to drive me around Okayama since many parts of the prefecture are difficult to reach by just using the trains.  So the next day I hit him up with a series of destinations I had come up with.  Buckle up because this is a crazy ride!

Le Soleil Patisserie

My favorite dessert place in Okayama is hands down Le Soleil.  Their double-layered cheese cake (literally called double cheese cake) is the best cheese cake I’ve ever had in my life.  The whipped cream on top is immense, but not overpowering.  It melts like butter in your mouth.  They have tons of other delicious sweets and pastries available too.  What originally inspired me to come here was banvox’s birthday post:

He originally used to reside in or near Okayama so the chefs of Le Soleil sent him this giant cheese cake.  Since you can’t order this specific cheese cake in Tokyo, I made it a mission to try it here.  The bakery is conveniently on the way to Kurashiki so it’s easy to stop here even if you don’t have a car (though it may be a bit of walk, it’s not too far).

Access

88-3 Nakaobie, Kurashiki, Okayama 710-0013

Kurashiki

Kurashiki is the beautiful canal town of Okayama with a European aesthetic and design.  You can go for canal rides and browse the traditional shops that line the riverbed.  There are beautiful buildings covered with ivy in the Ivy Square and the Ohara Museum, which is the oldest Western art museum in Japan. I didn’t have time to check everything out but I did manage to take some awesome photos.  Being here was extremely relaxing.

While I was here, I convinced my friend try the local dish, takomeshi, with me.  Despite being an Okayama native, he had never tried it before.  This consists of chopped octopus with rice and is very delicious!  I forget the name of the restaurant we went to, but most seafood restaurants will have it or some kind of variation.

Access

Kurashiki Station is only 15 mins and 330 yen from Okayama Station (no car needed).

Yubara Onsen

My friend asked me if I wanted to go to a hotspring, and I said sure, why not!  Yubara Onsen is probably the most unique onsen I’ve been to because it’s outdoors, mix-gender, and open 24/7.  Plus it’s completely free unless you need to rent towels or swimwear.  The hotsprings are remote and secluded enough to where it pretty much has developed its own nudist culture.  Of course you can choose to wear swimwear, but be aware that many people will bathe naked.  Though once you start soaking in the hotspring, you completely forget about the other people and focus on the nature around you.  The backdrop of the mountains and the dam is simply breathtaking.  This was the first time I had ever bathed naked in a mixed hotspring but I felt very safe and welcome.

Access

Yubara Onsen is about an hour away from Okayama City by car, and 2 hours by bus (for 2600 yen one way).  Since the onsen is free, this is not a bad price to pay.

Makido Rainbow Caves

19875428_10212085236757604_8629948251575125813_nAfter a relaxing trip to the onsen, my friend and I decided to end the day with a trip to some psychedelic rainbow caves.  I’m not making this up.  I’ve been to caves all over Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, but I’ve never seen any cave as colorful as the Makido Caves in Okayama.  These look like something straight out of a Final Fantasy game:

They nickname this place the “Dream Palace” for a good reason.  Makido is a limestone cave brought to life with carefully placed illuminated lights.  These lights bring out the colors and beauty of the cave and make it a very fun place to explore.

For those who are looking for a more normal cave experience, Makido has you covered.  You can find a non-illuminated section of the cave by following the main route.  They have an area where you can throw coins into the lake for good luck:

It takes about 30-40 minutes to see everything here.  We walked around the cave twice so we could watch all of the changing illuminations.

Access

2276-2, Toyonagaakouma, Niimi City, Okayama Prefecture

This cave takes about 1.5 hours to reach from Okayama City.  Some of the roads are quite narrow so it takes a lot of concentration to navigate (fortunately I was with an experienced driver).  If you are going by train, you must first take the Hakubi Line to Niima Station then take a bus to get here which takes around 2.5 hours and is 2000 yen.

Final Thoughts

I could not wrap my head around how amazing this day was.  We had managed to see so many things and I felt extremely grateful for this experience.  I owe it all to my friend who drove me around!  Unfortunately I lost contact with him after this trip, but I sincerely am thankful for his kindness and hope he passed his English exam.

Here is a video I took in 2017 on Snapchat to commemorate my hitch-hiking experience.  I remember playing all of my favorite Nakata Yasutaka-produced songs for my driver:

Kanazawa: The City of Gold and Miraculous Wonder

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

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

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

Kanazawa Castle & Kenrokuen

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

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

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

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

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

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

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

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

Golden Ice Cream & Sake

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

Omicho Fish Market

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

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

Higashi Chaya District

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

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

Piano of Memories (思い出ピアノ)

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

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

Hotsprings, Hotels, & Other Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

Access

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

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

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

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

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View from Iga Ueno Castle overlooking the city of ninjas.

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

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

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

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

Is it worth it?

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

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

Access

117 Uenomarunouchi, Iga, Mie 518-0873

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

Admission Fee: 500 yen

Finding Inner Peace while Backpacking through Hiroshima & Miyajima (Japan)

Over the weekend, I had the grand opportunity to explore Hiroshima and its smaller cities: Onomichi, Fukuyama, and the famous Rabbit Island.  Despite the tragedy that occurred here [which you can still see the remains of at places like the Atomic Bomb Dome], Hiroshima has rebuilt itself into a beautiful city where many people live, work, and come to travel–it has both a sense of peace and adventure to be had.

I had previously visited central Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial Museum when I was 19 years old and first studying abroad in Japan, but it took me 6 years to find the proper time to come back here.  I feel so fortunate that I was able to go backpacking and explore the fascinating cities here, because they are truly unlike any place I’ve explored in Kanto, Kansai, Kyushu, or Hokkaido.  You’ll notice that this area is definitely more quiet than other places, but it’s perfect for reflecting on life and spending time with yourself.  I found that it’s also easy to make friends at the local eateries and bars as well.

Getting to Hiroshima

From Tokyo, I booked a flight in advance for around 25,000 yen from Haneda Airport to Hiroshima Airport through ANA because that is the fastest an most cost-effective way to get here for someone living as a long-term resident in Japan.

You can also travel by train (which I recommend for everyone who purchased a JR Pass because it will be covered), but it can take up to 5 hours from Tokyo.  It is better to take the shinkansen from Osaka, Nagoya, or Kyoto if you plan on exploring multiple areas of Japan.

I stayed at at Hostel Mallika for just under 1800 yen per night (the accommodations are extremely affordable).

Things to do in Hiroshima

My top recommendations for Hiroshima are going to the Peace Museum and Memorial Park, seeing the castle, trying some okonomiyaki, and also checking out Miyajima Island, which is just a short boat ride away!  I boarded the ferry at the pier near the Memorial Park because it was near by hotel (you can see the exact location and time tables from the Miyajima Tourist Website).  Roundtrip tickets are 4000 yen, but I think the experience is extremely worth it!

Exploring Miyajima Island

On Miyajima Island, you can see friendly deer, visit the highly aesthetic Itsukushima Shrine (you will see it on many postcards in Japan), and eat some fresh oysters.  There is a shopping street, a lovely beach, and a ton of other shrines and historical monuments to visit.  It’s recommended to come here during the summer season since the weather will be more pleasant, but I came during late November and was surprised to be able to see lovely fall foliage around the island.

Though Miyajima is a popular tourist destination (attracting grade school Japanese tourists and some foreign ones as well), you will find that it’s far less crowded and more peaceful than other places in Japan.  I had a lot of fun reminiscing here.  Though it’s been 6 years since I’ve last been here, I was surprised to find that it’s almost exactly the same as I remember.  The only thing that has changed is that some of the shops and cafes have become more modernized, but you can still find traditional Japanese food here.

For food recommendations, I suggest trying the green tea ice cream topped with the deer cookie and the oyster soba sold near the pier.  Though it doesn’t really suit the style of the island, I came across some interesting Rilakkuma burgers sold on the shopping street.  You can choose to have an eel or oyster croquette burger, or a dessert burger made.  I tried the eel croquette burger, and I couldn’t believe how delicious it was!  Additionally, I found a bar called “Oyster” on the same street.  You can order your first alcoholic beverage for 600-700 yen, and refills are 200-300 yen depending on what you order.  This is a cost-effective way to turn up on Miyajima, as the convenience stores are quite limited here.

Another thing I loved about this island is how many people brought their dogs.  I saw five dogs and one deer approaching them out of curiosity, yet all of them coexisted in harmony.  I wish that we [as humans] could do more of this.  The other picture I captured of the deer is arguably the most meme-worthy photo on this trip.  Being on this island really taught me a lot!  The average time that people spend here is usually 2-3 hours.

Eating at an Anime Okonomiyaki Restaurant

After fully exploring Miyajima, I decided to head back to the mainland to meet a friend of my boss.  Since I am an avid anime fan, he took me to a popular anime izakaya called “Momijitei“.  This restaurant is small, but has an amazing atmosphere and absolutely delicious food!  The restaurant is plastered with Love Live and Idolm@ster posters, there are cute anime girls beckoning you to order Coca Cola (and other drinks), and anime openings loop continuously on tiny TV screens.  This place definitely is a vibe, and serves some of the best okonomiyaki in town.

I had a nice conversation with one of the staff about Touhou Project.  He was surprised to know that a foreigner knew about the series, but if only he knew how popular the fanbase was outside of Japan!

I decided to order the seafood okonomiyaki with shrimp, drink a few glasses of wine, and enjoy the small but definitely fun nightlife of Hiroshima.  As a special service, the staff brought out a dessert with little ice cream bunnies.  At this point I was definitely tipsy and overcome with happiness.

The irony was that I was planning on going to the Rabbit Island the next morning, so this was the perfectly chosen dessert.  I was sure to thank everyone there for their hard work and hospitality.

In my next articles, I will be covering smaller towns outside of Hiroshima and also the Pasocom Ongaku Club events I went to at small event spaces here.  If you have any questions regarding Hiroshima, please feel free to ask me!

Exploring Hikone: A Castle Town with a Mythical Island and Fierce Cat Samurai

Over the weekend I made the amazing discovery that samurai cats are real!  About an hour east from Kyoto lies a quiet castle town called Hikone with the adorable samurai cat mascot you see here: Hikonyan.  Hikone is in Shiga Prefecture and borders Lake Biwa, one of the most famous lakes in Japan due to its lovely scenery.  I decided to start my trip by taking a ferry from Nagahama Port, which is just a few stops north of Hikone Station on the JR Tokaido-Sanyo line, and visit the mythical island in the middle of the lake called Chikubushima.  See the ferry schedule for reference–a roundtrip ferry ticket is around 3000 yen.

Chikubushima is known as the “Island of the Gods” and is said to be imbued with magical powers.  Though I am not a religious person, I appreciate going on journeys like this because it gives me the chance to see rare parts of the world!  You can walk around the whole entire island within 30 mins and see shrines, a beautiful view of the lake, and also try some local cuisine at the cafes (though the selection is very limited).

The main point of interest here is visiting Hogonji Temple and making a wish with a daruma doll.  Daruma Dolls are a special kind of talisman here that you can write your wish on a slip of paper and put it inside the doll for good luck.  The Japanese people at the shrine were extremely kind and helped me do this.  Though this island was tinier than I expected, it was a very nice way to start my trip!

After the pleasant ferry ride back (which only takes 30 mins), I then decided to go directly to Hikone Castle to see the Hikonyan Show!  During this time, the fiercely adorable samurai cat will come out before the castle gates to greet his visitors.  Hikonyan is treated as a celebrity by Japanese people.  I was surprised to see a line of people with cameras out waiting to see him, but he is definitely worth the hype!  He appears every day and you can see the timetables here.

In addition to Hikonyan, you can walk through the Hikone Castle, see the Genkyu-en Gardens, and also visit the Yume Kyōbashi Castle Road that has shops and souvenirs.  I visited all of these places by foot from Hikone Station, but you can also take buses around the city!  By 6pm, I was exhausted from all the travel so I decided to go back to my capsule hotel in Kyoto.  Hikone makes for the perfect day trip from Kyoto because it is easy to access and full of history.