The Great Bike Trip: From Tokyo to Ise (Day 1)

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Bite the bullet, baby.

Thanks to all of my crazy adventures around Asia and the 200+ articles I’ve published here on Resurface to Reality, I finally got an offer for a sponsored motorbike trip around the Kansai region of Japan (meaning all expenses were covered). The trip lasted for a span of 4 days and we road to many places including shrines, beaches, and mountain paths that are impossible to access by car or other vehicles. Granted I wasn’t the one driving due to not possessing a full Japanese driver’s license, but I was in charge of doing photography and video as well as preparing our camp. Even though I rode on the back of the bike it was still one of the most thrilling and exciting experiences of my life. I loved the feel of the wind in my hair and the clear view of the mountainous landscape and rivers as opposed to looking at them through a foggy train window.  Yeah, this is the life!

About the Bike

The bike model we rode on was a BMW F900XR that had extremely powerful capabilities.  It can carry a lot of weight and has high long distance performance.  I rode with an experienced driver who I had previously met before and trusted. They also were a fan of Ghost in the Shell and loved obscure places in Japan so naturally we got along well. Usually we both prefer traveling alone, but for the sake of trying something new we agreed to go on this trip together. It was amazing to have such an experienced guide with me so I could learn more about the history of the places that we were visiting. If for whatever reason our itinerary failed (which fortunately it did not), I had the option to return home via train. That’s one of the best parts of living in Japan━for the most part the road and train system is impeccable.

What’s that about a Sponsorship?

I want to iterate that there’s really no big secret to getting sponsored. This opportunity was presented to me without me seeking it. I’m just extremely passionate about travel and am always sharing my experiences with others (on this website and in real life; drunkenly at bars too).  I prefer to waste no time and have no hesitations when I travel somewhere new. Naturally that draws me to other people who have similar interests. If you are interested in travel and have the time, then I encourage you to go for it and keep a detailed log of your journeys. You will thank yourself later and also have stories for ages.  I am lucky that my sponsor offered me the option to go on future trips like this because I took the chance and succeeded!

Departure

The 4 day journey began on August 1st and I departed Tokyo at 6am. We had practiced riding on highways in Tokyo a few times and I was pretty comfortable with the feeling of it. However, I decided to ride the shinkansen to Nagoya Station and meet my driver at Kinjofuto Harbor so we could ensure a smoother trip. Morning traffic on the highways can be a bit rough so this way the load would be lighter and my driver wouldn’t have to take as many breaks. Kinjofuto Harbor is hilariously located next to Lego Land (which I visited exactly 3 years ago), and has easy access to the country roads.  We met up around 9:30am (exactly as planned), I put on my helmet and gear, and then we rode to our first destination: Ise Shrine.  This trip took approximately 3 hours with breaks in between.

Ise Shrine: Home of Amaterasu

Ise Shrine, known as “Japan’s most sacred shrine” actually consists of two shrines: The Inner & Outer Shrine.  These shrines were built over 2000 years ago and are said to house the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu.  If you’ve played the Shin Megami Tensei series, you already know that this goddess is a big deal.  The outer shrine is easy to access and has areas were you can pray and buy good luck charms.  I bought a pink one that looks like a magatama for hopes of safe travel.  As you walk further into the forested area, you will come across a large wooden bridge that will lead you to the inner shrine.  Photography is strictly prohibited here, but you can take photos from the bottom of the stairs.  Reaching the inner shrine is like reaching the origin of Japan.  This sanctuary is built out of sacred wood and is a cherished relic of this country.   I would highly recommend coming here if you ever get the chance because I definitely felt enlightened here.  For Japanese people and believers of the Shinto Gods, this is the holy ground.

Okage Yokocho

After visiting Japan’s most sacred shrine, we walked through the old-school street reminiscent to ancient times called Okage Yokocho.  Here you can get your fortune told (I got moderate luck), buy all sorts of souvenirs, and try some delicious seafood!  The oyster on a stick coated with soy sauce I tried was amazing.  There were also cute stray cats basking in the sunlight and wind chimes adorned on some of the buildings.  Though it was somewhat touristy, if definitely had an atmosphere of its own.

For lunch I had an amazing seafood ricebowl from the very first restaurant we walked passed because I was starving.  You kind find udon, unagi, and sushi places all over this street but this was my all time favorite.  You can’t beat the freshness of this shrimp:

Iseshima Skyline

After eating we rode for around 40 minutes and drove up a large hill to see Iseshima Skyline.  You can only access this viewpoint by vehicle because the incline is quite steep and the road is around 16km.  I have a video of us driving here that I will upload when I finish editing.  This skyline is famous because on a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji!  I am happy that I traveled here by bike so I could experience it.  My video doesn’t do it justice.

Camping on Mihama Beach

Mihama Beach was hands down my favorite part of the trip!  We rode about 2.5 hours to reach here and arrived right before sunset so I could go swimming and do photography.  The sunset was breathtaking and looked like something you’d see in Southeast Asia.  Not to mention the beach was so remote that hardly anyone was there—just the way I like it.  The people I did run into were very friendly and asked me where I was from and the usual.  I wish I would have talked to them more but I was so focused on the aesthetics that it was hard for me to do anything but swim and frolic on the beach.  I was supposed to go the the Philippines and Bali this year, but due to the pandemic my trips were cancelled.  Mihama Beach is likely the closest I will get to being in a tropical paradise this year so I will forever travel my experience here.

My driver set up camp while I was swimming (that was super nice of them).  It was a simple tent that fit two sleeping bags.  I was pretty exhausted by that point, so I fell asleep immediately and barely remember “camping”.  However, our campsite was gorgeous because it was right in front of the beach.  I’m happy that this could be my first camping experience in Japan.

Day 1 Itinerary: 100% Completion

Though this was my first full day riding a motorbike and it was pretty intense, we successfully went to every destination we planned.  The rainy season had just ended and it was extremely humid, but other than that it was a perfect ride.  My legs were a bit sore from riding but I got a lot of exercise in so I was fine.  I am so grateful for all the rare things I was able to see.  The next few days had their itineraries slightly altered due to rain, but the setback led us to see other amazing things.  Please stay tuned for the next 3 days!

Aesthetic Food Finds in Nagoya Vol. 3 ft. Meijo Park

A trip to Nagoya is never complete without trying all of the delicious food available.  This aesthetic food adventure takes us to many dessert cafes and restaurants that have just re-opened after the emergency state ended.  We also drank at Meijo Park near Nagoya Castle which is one of the chillest spots I’ve found in this city with awesome scenery.  All of the places I visited this weekend have a lovely atmosphere and I can’t recommend them enough!

I’ll be expanding this list as I find more places, but feel free to suggest any you recommend in the comments!  Please see Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 for reference.

Amelie Cafe

When I first saw the pink refrigerator door that serves as the entrance to this cafe, I was already enamored by its aesthetic.  Amelia Cafe, located on the 3rd floor of the PARCO building in Sakae, has a large range of fulfilling dishes and beautiful desserts.  I ordered the vegetable and seafood salad while my boyfriend ordered the massive curry that had a volcano of cheese fondue in it.  I had never seen such a wild combination but it tasted amazing!!  We also ordered the strawberry and Orea milk bottles topped with whipped cream and chocolate to go along with our orders.  At that point we were already feeling full, but we couldn’t leave without defeating the final boss: The Rainbow Cake Pudding Parfait.  It surprisingly had a light texture so we finished it off in now time.  Hungry protagonist unite!  Next time I come here, I would really like to try the waffles and tiramisu coffee drinks.  The portions are huge but the food is actually quite cheap.  This is a good place to eat with groups and also the ideal date spot.  I’m really lucky that my boyfriend found this place!

Holland

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Tom Nook ain’t got nothing on these cupcakes.

Around the time that Animal Crossing for Switch was released, these guys popped up in my recommended desserts feed on Instagram.  Though I don’t play the game because I value my free time, who could pass up the chance to try tanuki cupcakes!?  Holland is western-themed desserts and confectionery shop near Kanayama Station in Nagoya.  They sell individual sweets and customized cakes for a pretty affordable price.  The tanuki cupcakes come in strawberry and chocolate flavors.  They had both a wafer and cake-like texture underneath the frosting.  Honestly they hit the spot after traveling over 2 hours here from Tokyo.  I am excited to see what other fun cupcakes they design in the future!

Cafe One

Cafe One in central Sakae delivers breakfast of the champions with it’s signature nekopan.  Or should I say breakfast of the champio-nyans?  Whatever you want to call it, it’s mouthwatering and delicious.  I had ice cream milk coffee that was decorated to look like a cat with a mustache and a cookie tail on the side.  I instantly felt energized after consuming all that ice cream and sugar.  My boyfriend ordered neko melonpan that had no face but was thicc and tasted amazing.  I ordered the nekopan with almond eyes that was covered in peanut butter and marshmallow toppings with chocolate whiskers.  Honestly is was a bit overwhelming but was also some of the best bread I had ever tasted.  There are many flavors of nekopan available here so I’d love to try more in the future!

Dean & Deluca Deli

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Nothing says a balanced diet like nekopan and freshly chopped salad.

After consuming all of that sugar, we walked around for a while and decided we should eat something healthy for lunch.  Not too far from Cafe One is the Dean & Deluca Deli where you can order sandwiches and fresh salad for a healthy meal.  They offer juices, desserts, and takeout options here as well.  I decided to get the vegetable salad with avocado, grilled pumpkin, potato, lettuce, quinoa, and carrots.  It was a good balance to what I ate for breakfast and gave me a lot of energy for the rest of the day.  My boyfriend had the chicken sandwich and said it had his stamp of approval too.  This place is win-win for both vegetarians and people who like meat because it has a number of options.

Poket

Poket is a Hawaiin restaurant that just moved to the bottom floor of ASTIR Hotel in Sakae.  They are relatively new but have a really vibrant and welcoming atmosphere.  Poke Bowls are the specialty here which you can order with salad or rice as your base.  I customized my bowl to include sauteed octopus and vegetables.  For dessert, I decided to try their one of a kind “banana soft” which is vanilla ice cream that is carefully placed inside of a fresh banana.  The result is extremely photogenic and Instagrammable.  Bananas sure have evolved a lot!  The drink menu has Japanese drinks, Hawaiin beers, and pineapple sours.  I definitely felt like we were in a tropical place even though we are currently in the middle of the rainy season in Japan.  I would definitely come back here again to try more variety of of Poke and see what other crazy desserts they come up with!

杏ZU

For once I wasn’t the one that found this restaurant—full credit goes to my boyfriend for taking us here.  杏ZU specializes in vegan Chinese food but has a non-vegan menu too.  I decided to ordered the vegetables boiled with yuba tofu (vegan option).  I also tried some Chinese wine on the rocks.  It was bitter but tasted just right paired with the food.  My boyfriend got a chicken dish that was served in a delicious rice cracker.  What makes this place stand out from other Chinese restaurants is the seasoning they use in their cooking.  I tasted a hint of lemon in mine and it was very healthy because they didn’t use any butter in it.  I would really like to come back here and try some shrimp dishes in the future.  This place will be on my watch list.

Iceland Market

This mysterious restaurant popped up in my Instagram feed one day and got me thinking… just what is an Icelandic Market doing in Nagoya!?  I looked at their menu and decided I would try their bread bowl with shrimp soup.  The other choices were tomato curry and Nagoya spice because that’s totally what people eat in Iceland.  Though not completely authentic, this was the best bread bowl that I’ve ever had in Japan!  My boyfriend had a hot dog wrapped in bacon which he said was pretty good.  This restaurant is about 40 mins from Nagoya Station and is quite small, but it’s worth checking out if you’re looking for something different.  I definitely enjoyed the theme.

Meijo Park

Situated next to Nagoya Castle, Meijo Park is one of the ideal places to drink or have a picnic.  Unlike other parks and gardens in Nagoya, it doesn’t have an entrance fee and is open 24 hours.  It feels like something out of an RPG because it has a giant windmill that looks like it holds secrets, a sundial that could possibly turn back time, and comically huge sunflowers everywhere.  Not to mention the adorable stray cats.  You could definitely use this place in a game map.  Anyway, my boyfriend and I spent 2 hours drinking here before Final Fantasy VII trivia night at Critical Hit.  We also tried the new Blue Hawaii donut at Lyrical Coffee Donut which was better than their matcha series.  I later came back here to watch the sunset and see the moon before I left for Tokyo.  This place has a wonderful aesthetic because all of the trees block the city lights.

That’s all the aesthetic food finds for this week.  I’ll have more to write about when I visit Nagoya again later this month!  Thank you for reading.

My favorite places to hang in Seoul

Since I’ve finished my Jeju Island article series, I’m going to write about some of my favorite places to hang out in Seoul next.  It’s hard to structure this article because there are literally so many cool areas of the city!  My two favorite districts in Seoul are by far Itaewon and Gangnam.  Both have extremely different vibes but are perfect for a night out depending on what my mood is.  Itaewon is friendliest and most international while Gangnam is the fanciest district is Seoul.  Even though I can’t speak Hangul, I never have trouble making friends in this city.  Spontaneously getting invited to a bachelor’s party while staying here was one of the coolest things that have ever happened to me in a foreign country.  I’ve been to Korea three times and hope to visit again when international travel is possible again.

Without further ado, here are the most fun places that I’ve discovered:

Common Ground

Common Ground is an urban mall that was built out of containers and is really fun to explore.  Unlike other malls, there’s not a huge mob of annoying shoppers here because those type of people usually go to the fancier malls in the center of the city.  Common Ground features small designer stores and also has restaurants and live music.  A lot of stores here import brands too.  No matter what your price range is, you can usually find something that fits your taste here.  I actually didn’t buy much but I had fun doing photography with the winter illuminations outside.  There was also a statue of an astronaut outside and some replicas of Roman statues inside the main building when I visited.  How aesthetic!

While I was walking around here, a Korean student came up to me and interviewed me for a university project.  Since I didn’t have a strict itinerary during my first trip, I happily participated.  She asked me various questions about my country and also gave me some Korean snacks.  Though it was a simple project, I was happy that I could help out.  Common Ground is close to many universities so it’s great for socializing and meeting people!

Lotte World

Lotte World is one of the most famous amusement parks in Korea.  In fact, it’s the largest indoor theme park in the world—which is why I had to go!  It’s located in the massive Lotte Mall that has hundreds of shops and food from all around the world.  If you are looking for top tier shopping in Seoul, then this is the place.  I came after the start of the new year so the park had a winter theme.  Fortunately it wasn’t very crowded and I could ride all of the rides that I wanted!  There are carousels, roller coasters, haunted houses, and my personal favorite: The Balloon Ride.  You can see the entire indoor park and mall from the top which makes it an amazing experience.

Even though Lotte World is owned by Lotte Co. Ltd., there are actually a lot of parallels between it and Disney Land.  For example, the outside of Lotte World resembles the Disney World Castle.  It also has a beautiful lake that you can view by walking across a bridge that leads to the artificially created “Magic Island” which is a lot like Disney Sea.  Despite these similarities, the attractions are quite different and the entrance to Lotte World is considerably cheaper.  If you like one park, you’ll probably like the other too.

I would recommend checking out Lotte World as opposed to other amusement parks because you can come here in any kind of weather thanks to the indoor park area.

Entrance Fee: 32$ for adults (cheaper than most amusement parks in Japan so it’s overall worth it)

Jogyesa Temple

The Jogyesa Temple in Insadong, Seoul is probably my favorite temple of all time in Korea.  I first came here during the Lotus Festival in April and many bright hand-crafted paper ornaments were hung around the entire complex.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!  Jogyesa is actually the center of Buddhism in Korea and many rituals and ceremonies are held here.  There are private prayer rooms as well as places that you can make public offerings.  The Chinese Scholar Tree was planted on the temple grounds because it is said to convert negative energy into positive energy and happiness.  Though I’m not particularly religious, I definitely felt in high spirits here.  Please check this place out if you ever get the chance.  The monks are very friendly and welcoming.

I enjoyed seeing the English pack of M&Ms being used as an offering when I went:

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Entrance Fee: Free

Myeongdong

Myeongdong is essentially the Shibuya/Harajuku of Seoul.  You can come here at any time of day and find something fun to do.  It has street food, hilarious fashion (“say no to kids, drugs”), recreational parks, and cafes galore.  The street and night markets have knock-off Gucci and Supreme which you can score for a low price.  I enjoyed eating octopus and drinking sochu while I walked through all the streets and alleyways.

Some of my favorite places I found around Myeongdong Station were:

  • Artbox – An adorable mall with art supplies, cosmetics, and accessories.  It reminded me of the LINE Friends store in Japan but had way more variety.
  • Stylenada 3CE – A pool-themed shopping mall and cafe with beautiful pink decor.  It has amazing desserts!
  • Bbongsin – An amazing restaurant with cold noodles and calzones.  Some of the best Korean food I’ve ever had!
  • Milky Bee – An ice cream shop with flower-shape gelato.
  • Happy Pills – Candy prescriptions.

Myeongdong has bars that stay open late, but not much of a club scene.  Continue reading to see my recommendations for clubs:

Gangnam

Ever since the song “Gangnam Style” became a hit song, I feel like this district doesn’t really need an introduction but I’ll give it a go anyway.  Gangnam is the most upscale district in Seoul but you can enjoy the nightlife here with almost any budget.  In addition to some of the most reputable clubs, it has secluded parks you can walk through by the river side and amazing cafes.  Gangnam itself is pretty spread out so people don’t normally drink in the streets like in Itaewon.  It’s classy and has a club area as well as a quiet upscale residential district as well.

My first memory of Gangnam was meeting up with some of my old college friends here and going to Octagon, where we got invited to VIP tables and drank champagne.  If you’re a girl then it’s really easy to meet people that will buy you drinks here.  The crowds and sound system are pretty insane too.  I honestly got too lit my first time here so I’d really like to come back and just focus on the music next time.

Last year I decided to get my eye bags removed at JK Plastic in Gangnam.  I had sunken eyelids that were caused by genetics so the veins under my skin would show and create permanent eye bags.  I always looked tired and wanted to fix the issue so I opted for eye surgery.  I chose JK Plastic because they are one of the highest-rated clinics in Korea and speak English.  It took about a week of downtime in Korea and then six weeks of recovery at home, but the skin beneath my eyelids has been fully restored now!  When I woke up from surgery I nearly cried because they did such an amazing job and I could already see the results despite having a swollen face.  During my down time I played visual novels and also watched a lot of anime.  It wasn’t so bad—just make sure you have enough time off to take care of yourself!

Plastic surgeons in Korea are the best in the world.  The advantage of going here is that if you’re a tourist you can get a tax refund from the surgery when you go to the airport.  I would not recommend plastic surgery in Japan because my friends have said the surgeons here are not as experienced or friendly.  I would recommend doing research, scheduling an online consultation with a clinic you like, and seeing what options fit you best.  I may write a full article on this at a later time!

Itaewon

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The inside of Fountain, one of my favorite watering holes in Itaewon.

Itaewon is my favorite place to start my night out in Seoul.  I have so many fond memories here.  It caters to the late-night international crowd and has small, condensed streets as well as beautiful murals that decorate the walls.  You can sit at an outdoor bar or go drinking in the street and easily meet people (both tourists and Korean nationals).  You can find pretty much any type of restaurant or dessert shop here too.  It has the feel of a college town but is much more upscale and classy.  Usually I spend my first night going to various clubs and bars then wake up and soak in Itaewon Land Spa.

My favorite club here is called Cakeshop because it features a lot of independent producers from both Seoul and other countries plus it has a great vibe.  It originally caught my eye because Carpainter did a set here in 2015 (unfortunately I was in America at the time or I would have gone).  The club is small enough with one DJ booth and bar that it’s easy to converse with people and enjoy the music.  I have made a number of friends here that I still stay in touch with.  The entry fee usually isn’t more than $25.

Besides Cakeshop, Fountain is a great place to check out.  The first floor is huge dance floor that’s always usually packed and the upper floors have tables and arcades for bigger groups.  The music here is usually western EDM which disinterests me, but the atmosphere of the club is impressive.  I have never paid any entrance fee when I have gone in.  What I remember of Club Awesome was awesome too!

Next time I’m here I really want to check out a club called Pumpkin.  If it’s actually Halloween-themed like its outer decor implies then I’m in.

Other Interesting Places:

  • Hongdae – Hongdae is a popular spot for college students and those who love K-pop music clubs.  I came here to visit the ADERerror store and also to do some shopping.  I didn’t like it as much as Itaewon or Gangnam due to my music taste, but I highly recommend you spend a night exploring here and see what you think.

    I found an amazing “Magical Item Shop” called Creamy DD with tons of Sailor Moon and other magical girl accessories here.  It’s easy to spot the sign if you walk down the main road:

  • Ihwa Mural Village – Since I went to Busan and saw Gamcheon I skipped this village, but if you are looking for beautiful murals and art to see then please check this place out!  I want to go here in the future.
  • Secret Garden – A scenic area around Changdeokgung Palace that I recommend checking out if you have the time.  It is one of the most beautiful gardens in Seoul!
  • Nami Island – A scenic island near Seoul where many K-dramas are filmed.  Click the link to read my full article on it!

Places to Stay

As a backpacker, I favor cheap hostels but the majority of accommodations in Korea are less expensive than in Japan.  You can likely find a nice hotel for $45 USD or less too.

Here are some of the places that I stayed at and enjoyed in Korea.  I booked them close in proximity to the clubs I was interested in checking out:

  • Guesthouse Yacht (Itaewon) – A very inexpensive apartment-style dorm in the heart of Itaewon.  This is my go-to place if I’m spending the night there because it’s safe, quiet, and conveniently located.
  • Kimchee Guesthouse (Gangnam) – A guest house near Gangnam City Office that has private and dorm rooms.  I stayed here during my eye surgery recovery period and it was perfect because my room had a shower inside it.  This is the cheapest you will get in the fanciest part of the city, I assure you.
  • Neo Seoul Guesthouse – I wanted to try staying in Hongdae for a night, so I chose this place because of the cool name.  It was cheap and I could easily access the airport limousine the next day so I recommend it for its convenience (Itaewon and Gangnam are a bit further away).

Dessert Recommendations

Please see Desserts that will make your heart melt in Seoul Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

This will be the last article about Korea that I write until my next trip!  Since I live in Japan, I can sometimes find cheap round-trip flights for under $150 so I come here usually once a year for a week long vacation.  Usually new restaurants and venues open, plus cosmetics and beauty clinics are really cheap here so I always have something to look forward to.  Until next time, Seoul!

 

Houtong: Home of the Cat Village and Taiwan’s Tastiest Pineapple Cakes

After hiking Elephant Mountain and paying a visit to Laomei Reef, I decided it was time to travel to Houtong━a village in Taiwan renowned for its high population of cats.  Similar to the origin of the rabbit island I visited last month in Japan, this was originally an old mining town that has attracted hundreds of cats (the former was a nuclear testing ground that is now overrun by rabbits).  Fortunately there are a number of residents, volunteers, and tourists that look after these cats every day.  If you are an feline lover, this is simply a day trip that cannot be passed up in Taiwan.

Getting to Houtong from Taipei is quite easy; from Songshan Station you can take a cheap 40 minute train directly to Houtong Station.  When you get off at the station, you will notice there are two exits; one goes up into the hillside of the village where most of the cats lounge around and play, and the other leads to the roadside with nearby souvenir shops and restaurants.  If you are eager to see the cats like I was, I would recommend taking the stairs to the hillside first.  In fact, you may even see some furry friends lounging around in the station!

There are a number of things about this village that really charmed me.  First of all, I loved how the cats acted like they owned the place.  They weren’t afraid of humans at all and some of them were actually very friendly despite having to put up with us invading their space every day.  I also loved the Neko Atsume cookies and pineapple cakes they were selling here.  The shops had so many free samples that I tried every flavor (the chocolate pawprint-shaped pineapple cakes happened to be my favorite).  I was informed by the shop owner that apparently these are the most delicious cakes in Taiwan, so I decided to bring back some souvenirs for my roommate and friends in Japan.  They definitely had the cutest shape out of all of the pineapple cakes that I had seen here!

I also enjoyed the simple decor of the village.  You could tell that the volunteers put effort into making helpful signs and guides for tourists as well.  These adorable cat-like ornaments were hung in the station:

It really doesn’t take that long to explore the village; I spent about an hour and a half doing photography and exploring the shops.  However, cat-watching is definitely something that you could spend all day doing.  You can purchase food for them at any of the shops or cafes (I stopped by one to order a vodka latte for myself so I could warm up).  I enjoyed watching this kitty run across the souvenir table:

Houtong truly reminded me of a mountain town in Japan because it was peaceful and had the same kind of atmosphere.  Other than the cats, there is a river and a number of temples that you can see nearby.  It is considered to be rural but the trains run here pretty frequently.  On the way back to Taipei, I decided to stop by the Golden Waterfall that you can reach by bus from the nearby Ruifang Station.  You could also combine this with a trip to the Jiufen lantern town if you want!

Unfortunately it was pitch dark when I reached the Golden Waterfall, but this is the best picture I managed to take:

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The Golden Waterfall at dusk.

Afterwards, I decided to go back and relax at my hotel.  This is trip is a great way to see the countryside east of Taipei and also see the unforgettable village run by cats.  Since Jiufen inspired Spirited Away, I can’t help but wonder if Houtong inspired The Cat Returns

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.

Hello Kitty Desserts at EGG & SPUMA

A diner and dessert restaurant called EGG & SPUMA located in the Shinjuku Lumine building serves up some of the most delicious Sanrio collaboration items you’ve ever laid eyes on.  They serve a lot of comfort food like omelettes, risotto, and pancakes on their menu that changes with new featured items each season.  Cocktails and sweet drinks are also available.

I ordered Hello Kitty pancakes topped with apples slices, custard, and whipped cream.  They melted like butter in my mouth and had an extremely soft texture!  I also tried pink lemonade topped with a Hello Kitty donut.  Thought it was an extremely unlikely combination, it was amazing!  The donut was extremely thick and completely covered in strawberry frosting.  The lemonade size was noticeably large compared to most drinks here.  I wanted to try more, but felt extremely full after this!

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the quality of food here for it being part of a theme cafe.  Be sure to try their seasonal pancakes if you ever get the chance to stop by!

A Relaxing Day and Vivid Night in Koh Lanta, Thailand

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A night to remember at the Mushroom Bar Paint Party in Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta is one of my favorite places in Thailand due to its exotic nature and vivid nightlife featuring parties with fire acrobatics and neon lights.  The island is small enough that you can pretty much see all the major destinations in three days, but the beaches stretch on for miles and there are many bars so you could spend quite a long time here and never get bored.  There are less tourists on this island because there are no airports here, but you will run into a lot of adventurous backpackers and it’s really easy to make friends during evening events.

The best way to come to Koh Lanta is by taking a 3 hour ferry from Phuket or other surrounding islands (I booked my ticket online in advance through 12go).  I stayed at Pinky Bungalow Resort, and booked my own private bungalow for less than $25 per night by going through Booking instead of their official website.  My bungalow was right on the beach and it also had a pool with a lot of delicious restaurants nearby!

Outside of my bungalow were a lot of stray cats!  One kitten was a tuxedo cat that reminded me of my own cat, Leo.  The staff of Pinky Bungalows were really friendly and helped me call a taxi to get around.  You can also use apps like Grab (which is similar to Lyft and Uber in the US), or rent a motorbike.

One of my favorite restaurants was called Happy Veggie, near the Koh Lanta Animal Welfare Center.  Here I had a delicious vegan burger with a black sesame bun, and an acai yogurt smoothie bowl for dessert.  It was absolutely delicious and the fruit was some of the freshest that I have ever had.

I spent the majority of the day swimming on the beach next to my bungalow, and also taking photographs of the surrounding nature.  As I was on my way to my hotel via taxi, I noticed a sign for a neon paint party at Mushroom Bar.  After looking it up, I found that it was right across the street from my bungalow so I went over around 7pm to check it out!

I was in for a wild night as lanterns illuminated the beach overhead and neon paint glowed with messages left behind from previous backpackers who had came here.  I ordered a blue vodka cocktail and was informed that the party wouldn’t start until 10pm so I decided to lay in a hammock and catch up with my messages.

When I went up for my 2nd drink, I noticed there was a special drink menu with happy shakes and joints for sale, so I curiously decided to order the happy shake.  The bartender confirmed that my order was correct, then he blended the strange concoction for me and I sipped on it for a while as people finally started coming to the party.

As the night went on, the breeze felt cooler, the colors danced and flickered with the music, and before I knew it, I was dancing on the beach with these travelers from Britian, and free tequila shots were given out at the bar.  The music was a nice blend of house and techno, which felt perfect for the mood.  A lot of travelers in their mid twenties showed up and it was joyful talking to all of them.  The colors from the surrounding bars all blurred together to create this beautiful glow, and I felt a sense of excitement, awe, and wonder.  I felt exactly like the dog I captured in the photo below:

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A dog from the Koh Lanta Animal Welfare Center frolics outside of the Mushroom Bar.

As if they appeared out of nowhere, around midnight a group of trained acrobatics came to the beach and put on a grand fire show.  Apparently these happen almost every night, or whenever one of the beach bars has its weekly party:

Around 3am I finally felt tired so I went back to my bungalow and fell asleep.  Though the taste of the happy shake wasn’t that appetizing, I would recommend it to those who are looking to enjoy the beach in a new way.  Just one is good enough to feel the happiness that most people seek, and the people at the bar seem to take good care of you.

The next morning was met with a beautiful afterglow as I prepared to tour the islands surrounding Koh Lanta.  I tried some delicious fried squid and bananas soaked in tapioca milk at a restaurant nearby with a newfound sense of determination and wonder for my future travels!

Volunteering at the Koh Lanta Animal Welfare Center (Thailand)

Koh Lanta is an exotic and tropical island located in the Krabi Province of Thailand.  It is somewhat secluded and is a popular backpacking and resort destination due to its relaxed nature and beautiful wildlife.  One of the key points of interest on my 2nd trip to Thailand was doing some volunteer work, so I decided to volunteer at the Lanta Animal Welfare Center!

The Lanta Animal Welfare Center is a non-profit charity that saves animals from injuries and abuse, and then aims to release them back into the wild where they were found or to give them to proper homes.  Due to the location of Koh Lanta being far away from the mainland of Thailand, this is sometimes difficult so they are accepting both volunteers and donations.  Anyone visiting Thailand can come here and help out.  There is no cost for doing so (though donations are encouraged), so all it costs is your time!

Below is a video of the main are of the center that I captured:

A typical visit to the center usually starts out with a tour so you can become acquainted with some of the animals and hear their stories.  For example; according the the official website a dog was injured by a coconut falling from a tree and lost the use of his back legs.  Fortunately nurses were able to cure the spinal injury that he suffered from, and now he can walk again!

The founder of this Welfare Center was able to fund it by cooking at a restaurant for many years and using the profits to build the cages and medical areas within it. As of now, approximately 15,000 animals have been sterilized and saved thanks to the help and support of volunteers.  They also have mobile clinics where workers are sent to other parts of Thailand to treat animals that can’t make the way here, and also for the purpose of sterilization and vaccination.  Unfortunately the Thailand government does not give any aid to animals, so workers here are trying to spread awareness and hopefully receive some funding in the future.

After the tour, you are free to walk around Kitty City and pet the cats, or take a dog out on a walk!  I took a puppy named Hailey around the beach and went running with her.  There is also a Kitty Cafe where I bought a delicious cupcake.  All money spent here goes towards maintaining the center, and the food here is very delicious.

For those who are interested in working here, Job Opportunities are sometimes listed on the website, but it is easiest to come in-person and start volunteering first.  If you are interested in donating, please see the Donation Page.  I hope that more backpackers decide to stop here, because it really is rewarding and meaningful to everyone. ♥

Adopting a Stray Cat in Japan

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Note: This is a post from my previous website.  I have decided to re-publish it in hopes of helping other foreigners with pet adoption in Japan!

After settling in Tokyo, I promised myself that I would achieve my life-long goal of adopting a stray animal.  Roughly 3 weeks after accepting an IT job in Tokyo, I decided to adopt this little guy through a wonderful resource called Japan Cat Network (JCN).  Japan has an abundance of stray cats; some of which are seeking domestication.  JCN is an international Facebook group where people from all over the country post cat adoption ads, and also share stories of their own pets for others to discuss.

Feeling welcome, I posted an ad saying I was looking to adopt a sociable stray and eventually I was contacted by a person from Chiba who said they had the perfect cat for me.  After several exchanges and ensuring that my landlord and housemates were okay with keeping an animal, I made the decision to take him into our sharehouse.  I decided to call him “Leo” after my favorite Fire Emblem Awakening character.

Leo is the perfect cat for me.  He can take care of himself yet is always open towards human affection such as kissing, petting, snuggling, and hugging.  According to his previous caretaker, he used to wander through the neighborhoods of Chiba meowing and trying to get in other peoples’ homes.  Unfortunately his caretaker could not adopt him, so she had her daughter contact me in regards to adopting him.  At first, I was a bit afraid that Leo would have trouble adjusting to the house since he had always been an outdoor cat.  However, he adjusted to our home quite well!

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When I first brought him indoors, he was very docile and tried to hide underneath the steps of our entrance.  Within an hour he came out, and when I brought him to my room (as pictured above), he instantly took to the blankets!  He loved rubbing his paws in my bedspread and was able to cuddle next to my Neko Atsume plush.  After I petted him for a while and he rubbed his scent on me, we became instant best friends.  Now Leo will wait for me to get back from work and meow at me to welcome me home!

To those who want a pet but don’t necessarily have the money or time to fill out the paperwork, I definitely recommend adopting one.  All you need to adopt a pet is their original papers from their previous caretaker or shelter.  With proper time and care, you can form a wonderful bond with them just like any other pet.  I am very fortunate that Leo doesn’t bite at all and acts like he’s been a house pet his entire life.  The only negative behaviors he demonstrates are scratching at the walls to stretch and trying to run outside when the door is open, but this is normal cat behavior that can be corrected.  Now that he has adjusted to the house, I let him out from time to time because he always knows to come back.

I am so happy that I have a pet to keep me company in a foreign country.  He has helped me through homesickness and depression, and even when I have a bad day I always look forward to coming home to him.  Words can’t describe how much he has made me a happier person.  I have decided to take him wherever I go, even if I have to bribe a yakuza to help me sneak him out of the country.  I will always love Leo for life!  Though the vet doesn’t know his true age, they suspect he is around 4-7 by the wear on his teeth.  I plan to give him a happy, and relaxing life for years to come!

Further Notes: I published the blog approximately three years ago on my website (as you can see, my writing style has changed a bit), but it still holds true.  I have now moved into a private apartment, and Leo is very happy here.  He has not been outside at all in over 2 years, but he is quite happy laying on my bed and watching the birds from the window.  Fortunately there is a lot of natural sunlight here, and I have learned all of his favorite cat food brands by now, so I believe he is living a good life.

If you have any questions on pet adoption, feel free to ask me in the comments below.  I wrote this blog to demonstrate how easy it is to adopt an animal, and also to show that doing so can make them extremely grateful!