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!