Entering Capybara Heaven at Izu Shaboten Zoo (Shizuoka, Japan)

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Capybara freely bathe in an orange-filled hotspring at Izu Shaboten Zoo.

Last weekend on my backpacking journey through Shizuoka prefecture to see Carpainter perform in Hammamatsu, I decided to stop in Izu to see the infamous hotspring-loving capybara of Japan.  Izu Shaboten Zoo is one of the few places in the world where you can get up close with these large adorable rodents and see them bathe in a natural hotspring filled with oranges (which are a specialty of this prefecture).  Native to South America, capybaras are mammals with webbed-feet that are quite well-mannered around humans and other animals.  Like platypuses, capybaras enjoy being both on land and in water with a diet consisting of mostly grass and dried plants.  The ones at Izu Shaboten are easy to approach and very entertaining to watch in the bath!

Exploring Izu Shaboten Zoo

In addition to capybaras, there are also a number of other rare animals housed here including red pandas, kangaroos, unique species of birds, and reptiles.  I’ve been to a lot of zoos in Asia, but I highly recommend this one because it’s less like a zoo and more like a wildlife conservation area.  The natural habitat of each animal is preserved as much as possible and they all seem to be in great health.  Being up close to kangaroos reminded me of my trip to Australia last summer!  This place truly didn’t feel like Japan because other zoos in this country are comparably small in size.

I spent the most time in the Capybara Rainbow Pen (an area separate from the bath) feeding and petting the ones that wanted attention.  You can purchase capybara grass for 200 yen and they will be eternally grateful for your kindness!

Outside from the capyabaras, I enjoyed watching the red panda diligently march on its tree branch.  A Japanese couple beside me describe its movements as “ゴロゴロ” (I love accidentally overhearing people so I am able to learn new words everyday).

Another of my favorite places was the cactus garden, because you can purchase cheap capybara pots and customize your favorite cacti to take home.  Just all of the detail that was put into this attraction amazes me:

You can also take a boat ride around the park because it has a small river that runs through it and leads to other areas, but I chose to explore most of the park on-foot so I could capture more angles with my GoPro.  I would recommend spending at least 3 hours here because there is a lot to see and do━especially if you are a photographer.

Eating a Capybara Burger

At the Gibbon restaurant found near the entrance of the zoo, no one eats alone!!  That’s because there is a huge stuffed capybara sitting at every table to keep you company.  I came here on Valentine’s Day, so this cabybara date made it the most memorable one of my life.  Getting back to the food—the burger was made of fresh bread and was delicious (I customized mine to be vegetarian).  If I had more room for food I would have tried the omelet rice duck because it looked pretty aesthetic from the menu picture.  For a full list of restaurants, please see the official site.

Buying Capybara Souvenirs

My apartment in Tokyo is already full of stuffed animals that friends have won for me, but I could not pass up the chance to buy an adorable stuffed capybara holding an orange here.  I also bought some chocolat baumkuchen (cake) for my friend.  Everything here was extremely well-priced compared to other zoos because I only payed around 1200 yen for the plushie and 800 yen for the cake.  I already want to come back in the summer to buy more capybara merch!  Also, the restaurant signs here made me laugh:

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Mt. Omuro

Right beside the Izu Shaboten Zoo stands Mt. Omuro, which is an inactive volcano you can take a lift up for 700 yen.  Since I decided to go to the ropeway in Atami, I skipped this attraction, but it is worth seeing if you have time.  There are cute little shops you can look at while you’re waiting for the bus too.

Getting to Izu Shaboten Zoo

From Tokyo Station I took the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Atami, then the Ito Line to Ito Station, and finally a local bus to the zoo.  This costs around 5000 yen and takes 2.5 hours.  You can easily do this as a day trip, but I spent 3 days in this prefecture because there are a number of things to see besides the capybara (which I will get into in my next articles).

Entrance to the zoo is 2300 which may seem expensive, but with the diverse number of animals they have here I think the price is fair.

Address

Izu Shaboten Zoo, 1317-13 Futo, Itō, Shizuoka 413-0231

Final Remarks

Izu Shaboten Zoo was by far my best experience with animals in Japan because I got the chance to pet capaybaras in addition to seeing other rare species.  The zoo has a adorable theme with the hotspring and petting zoos which makes it a suitable attraction for all ages.  Since it’s more remote from the major cities of Japan that means it’s less crowded.  If I decide to go again, I will combine this with a trip to Shirahama Beach which is a little further south of here.  I will be writing more about my adventures in Shizuoka Prefecture over the next coming days, so please look forward to them because this is only the beginning!

Experiencing the Nightlife in Taiwan

Since no trip to a foreign country is complete without experiencing its nightlife, I decided to check out a few unique cocktail bars and venues in Taipei and Taichung while I was traveling in Taiwan earlier this year.  Through going to music events in Tokyo, I was fortunate to have met my friend Hojo who not only manages tours and bookings for foreign artists, but also curates in own events in Taiwan with CUSTOMS and DJs music that transcends genres (see Hojo’s SoundCloud for reference).  In Asia it’s generally easy to find bars and spots to socialize, but the scene I found here far exceeded my expectations.

At Taiwan’s venues, particularly at FINAL, the entrance fee is affordable, the cocktails and music are top-notch, and you can actually sit down with people and socialize.  A big issue with some venues in Tokyo is that they are too crowded, and although I am a club enthusiast I sometimes find it hard to relax even when I really enjoy the music.  People in Tokyo have a tendency to seek stimulation (and I am guilty as charged), but it’s very easy to get drained from the steady flow of events.  However, in Taiwan I never had that issue.  Each night I went out I was able to find the perfect atmosphere for whatever mood I was in, meet a lot of new friends, and make awesome memories that make me want to come back here in the future.

The Fucking Place (操場)

The very first bar I went to in Taipei was called The Fucking Place.  This place became a meme when Trekkie Trax toured here because one of their members got legendarily lit, so it’s been on my bucket list for quite a long time.  This bar is close to a lot of clubs in Taipei, so it makes the ideal pregaming spot.  But why the name, you ask?  Hojo explains it all in his Tweet below:

True to its name, Fucking Place’s atmosphere is cozy and welcoming.  They have a large selection of hard liquors and you can ask for your own favorite cocktail combination too.  I drank whiskey mixed with milk and reached the perfect level of drunk among good people.

The upstairs of the bar is also worth checking out because it has a mini gallery that will perhaps expand in the future:

FINAL

By far one of the best venues I’ve experienced in Asia is FINAL in Taipei.  I was at here 3 different nights during my 12 day stay in Taiwan because each night had a diverse variety of music.  This club has always been on my radar because a number of my favorite artists from Japan (including Carpainter and Onjuicy) have performed here, and Hojo also runs his own events here.  Each night I connected with different friends from around the world so I would say the scene here is very international and friendly.

By chance, Night Tempo and Neon City Records were doing a large show here on the first Friday of 2020 during my trip, so I was extremely lucky to see them here.  I have been following Night Tempo since college and attended his first HMV show in Tokyo, but recently haven’t been able to attend his events in Japan because they sell out extremely fast.  Fortunately I was able to get door tickets here and catch his amazing 2 hour performance while catching up with my friends in Taiwan.

Night Tempo’s style has really changed from sampling old Japanese songs to producing Showa era idol music and recently working with famous vocalists like Anri and Mariya Takeuchi.  He played at Fuji Rock last year in addition to touring many Asian countries and America as well.  I have met some of my best friends through his music, so I always try to catch his events whenever I can:

The very next day, Hojo hosted CUSTOMS featuring IVVVO who I met, and other aspiring international artists with a lot of talent.  As I have heard from my friends who previously attended CUSTOMS events in the US, this one was nothing short of amazing.  Each artist played whatever style of music they wanted, and no one could predict what was coming next so it was fun.  One of my favorite moments was captured below:

I would recommend FINAL to everyone because it plays and caters to all tastes of music.  The scene is here is one of the best I’ve come across in Asia and I look forward to seeing who else performs here.

The Cave

While I was in Taiching, I decided to check out this bar called The Cave because it was the other venue in Taiwan where Night Tempo toured.  I came here on a weekday so no live performer was playing, but I really appreciated the ambient atmosphere and the carefully mixed cocktails the bartender crafted for me.  I ordered one that looked like cotton candy and was coated with honey, and another delicious cherry one that was both delicious and high in alcohol content.  This was one of the best bars that I have been to in Taiwan, and I highly recommend it to everyone.  It was very cozy but perfect for the mood that I was in.

Afterwards, I decided to go on a walk to the nearby Taichung Park Pavilion.  I really appreciated the vibe of the neon lights and how bright the pavilion shone at night (I think it looks prettier at night than during the day).  Additionally I ran into so many cute dogs that were being walked here, so it was a real delight.

Round4

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We all know the lyrics to this one.

On my very last night in Taipei, I went to a small lounge called Round4 recommended by Hojo.  Since it was a weeknight it wasn’t very crowded, but the bartenders gave us the best hospitality.  A bartender named Jimmy came out and talked to us, and also made special coffee cocktails that I’ll never forget.  I really like it when the bartenders make an effort to connect with their visitors, so this is a place I’d like to drink at again because it has good vibes.

Which raises the question…

Will I return to Taiwan in the future?

Since it’s right next door to Japan, I would say there is a very high chance that I will return.  I had a phenomenal time both experiencing the night life and spending time with nature in this country.  There will be a music festival held at a temple this year that I am considering coming back for.  Once the dates are decided, I may buy another plane ticket depending on my schedule.  The life of a traveler who also loves clubbing is never complacent.

Exploring the Colorful City of Kaohshiung & Cijin Island (Part 2)

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View from atop the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

After fully exploring Pier 2 and Cijin Island, I decided to spend my 2nd day in Kaohsiung seeing some of the major landmarks.  Since I rented a bike for 24 hours, I biked 8 km from where I was staying at the pier to reach the famed Dragon and Tiger Pagodas.  It was a little scary biking on the highway for the first time in Taiwan, but I managed to survive and catch some neat sights on the way there.  The pagodas are surrounded by a lotus pond and are seven stories high, so visiting them is quite the experience.  Once you climb all the stairs, you will get the perfect view of the Zuoying District of the city:

The symbolism of the dragon and tiger is a bit ambiguous, but they both represent a balance of power although they have contrasting characteristics.  According to Shaozhi, in Chinese culture dragons are said to control water and have great strength, whereas tigers symbolize righteousness and harmony.  I was amazed at how both entrances were designed to fit their appearances.  Here is some footage I took from atop the Dragon Pagoda:

According to a sign outside, if you walk through the dragon’s mouth and walk out the tiger’s, it is said to bring good luck.  So that’s exactly what I did!  It still has yet to come, but it’s only the beginning of the year.  Inside you will find illustrations of various Buddhist and Taoist characters:

Surrounding the pagodas are other temples and Buddhist statues that you can easily reach on foot.  I didn’t stop to see them all, but you could easily spend a few hours in this district of the city seeing them all.  People are very laid-back and friendly too.

Next, I biked to Formosa Boulevard Station so I could see its famous murals.  From what I read online, it’s one of the most beautiful stations in Taiwan.  It did not fall short of my expectations:

The Dome of Light within the station is the largest glass work in the world and was designed by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata.  I was amazed by how beautiful it was!  Various astrological figures are depicted in this glass (some human-like and some creature-like), as well as very intriguing patterns.  To me it looks like a galaxy riddled with the mysteries of our origin:

Another amazing part of Kaohsiung City is its hyper-realistic dog ice cream:

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I made a separate post on Aesthetic Food Finds in Taiwan, so please check it out if you are interested!  This is my last article in my Taiwan series, but I will be writing a bonus article on the nightlife I experienced here.

From what I’ve experienced, most cities in Taiwan only require 2-3 days of time to see all the major sightseeing spots.  I spent around 5 days total in Taipei doing day trips and other activities, but 2 days of full activity worked for me in all the other areas I visited.  I hope that everyone can visit this beautiful country and have the same wonderful adventures that I did!

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

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The astrological murals of Formosa Boulevard Station shine brilliantly.

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

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

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

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

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

The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun and Moon Lake (Part 1)

 

Wanting experience life outside of Taipei, I researched other cities in Taiwan that would fit my adventurous spirit.  Taichung, Taiwan’s 2nd most populous city, caught my interest right away because of its Rainbow Village and picturesque Sun and Moon Lake which are both accessible by bus from the central station.

Rainbow Village

The bright and beautiful colors of this village immediately caught my eye–plus I was curious to know the origin of how it became so psychedelic–so I wanted this place to be my first destination in Taichung.  I took the MRT from Taipei to reach Taichung Station within 2 hours, then I took a local bus to reach Rainbow Village within 15 minutes.  I was greeted by these crazy-colored murals painted on a neighborhood of cozy houses.  The village was a bit smaller than what I had expected, but there were literally so many things to see here!

This village was designated as a home for refugees that fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, but was sadly planned to be demolished after the war ended.  Not wanting to see his home destroyed, Huang Yong-Fu (who was drafted for the war but still resided in the village), started painting the entire village in rainbow colors in hopes that it would be preserved.  Though not many other refugees were living there at the time, his artwork was noticed by nearby university students and they formed a petition to keep the 11 houses intact.  Fortunately it was successful, and the village has become a popular tourist attraction for everyone to enjoy and learn about the history of the war.  Yong-Fu is nicknamed the “Rainbow Grandpa” of the village, and his murals will always be an important part of Taichung’s history.

This village is literally a photographer’s paradise!  I was really happy to capture a lot of quality footage on my GoPro even though there were a lot of people around.  The murals seem to have cultural influences from all around the world.  There are a number of animals and humans depicted in them with interesting symbols so your interpretation of them completely depends on you.

After spending a good hour here, I decided to take a taxi back to Loosha Hotel where I was staying for the night (I chose it because it was cheap and centrally located).  Taichung can be done as a day trip, but I would recommend staying here 2-3 days if you can see everything.  I will be covering the famous Sun and Moon Lake in my next article this week!  Thank you for reading.

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

Climbing Elephant Mountain in Taiwan (and other Intriguing Day Trips)

As someone who loves hiking, photography, and animals, I couldn’t pass up day tripping to Elephant Mountain (像山/Xiangshan Trail) in Taipei.  Although there’s no actual elephants here, you can get some of the best views of Taipei City from the top, and also try delicious elephant butter bread at the base of the mountain for only 30 TWD.  The climb to the elephant-shaped rocks where this mountain gets its name from only takes around 30 minutes max, so I’d rate it as an overall easy climb.  From the rocks you can reach a central viewing platform and get a fantastic view of Taipei 101 and all surrounding buildings.  Perfect for traveling photographers like me!

To reach the start of Xiangshan Trail, you only need to ride the train 20 mins from Taipei Main Station to Xiangshan Station.  It’s pretty straightforward from there–just follow all of the elephant-shaped signs to the mountain path to start climbing.  What I loved about this mountain is that it had an open-air gym that’s free to use at the top.  I saw less tourists and far more Taiwanese locals here going for walks with their dogs and also lifting weights.  What a way to flex!

If you want to keep climbing to reach the other trail head, it takes around 2.5 hours, but the spot with the elephant rocks at the beginning has the best views of the city.  I spent a good hour and a half here taking photos and also exploring the open gym area.  After I was satisfied, I decided to pay a visit to the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall:

This is actually only a 5 minute ride from Taipei Main Station to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (yes, it’s so famous that it has its own station).  This memorial was named after Chiang Kai-shek, the former President of the Republic of China.  It has a number of building complexes to see and a statue as well.  I had a lot of fun climbing the stairs and taking photos from different angles.  Even if you’re not a history buff, this place is still a lot of fun to see.

I’ll be covering my next day trip to Houtong Cat Village in my next article.  Thank you for reading as always!