Exploring Narai in Kiso Valley

A rainy yet beautiful day in the mountain town of Narai.

A place that’s been on my bucket list for quite a while is Kamikochi, a beautiful hiking area nestled in the valleys of Nagano, and this year I finally had the chance to go! I was actually planning to go last year, but the main camping area was attacked by a wild bear that tore a tent to shreds and stole a camper’s curry, so unfortunately my trip was cancelled. Fortunately this year they had the bears under control and no other attacks have been reported. However, this year we encountered wild monkeys during our hike but they were extremely friendly!

I will be covering my trip to Kamikochi in two separate posts since this trip lasted two full days. On the first day I rode from Tokyo to Enzan Station to meet my friends in Yamanashi which was on the way. From there we drove to Narai in Nagano by car which was roughly two hours away. This was an extremely smart move since the weather was rainy the first day but sunny for our hiking trip on the second day.

Narai is reachable by both car and the Chuo Line making it cheaper than taking the shinkansen. If you have the chance you should definitely check this town out because it has a lot of history and delicious food!

Getting to Know Narai

After parking or getting off at the station, all of the main strip of Narai can be explored by foot. The very first thing that I noticed was the Narai Kiso Bridge that will take you over to the shops and restaurants. In the Meiji Period, Narai was a famous post town and you can see why by how easy it is to get around here. The town is extremely condensed and features a lot of antique wooden buildings and cafes that you can explore. There are small art museums, soba and teishoku restaurants, as well as a stone path that will take you to Joryuji, a temple with a painting of a dragon inside. This was actually my favorite part of the town because I wasn’t expecting to see such a beautiful mural! Narai can be explored in about 1 hour and is the perfect place to stretch your legs before making it to other destinations in Nagano.

Shirahone Onsen

Before heading to our ryokan, we decided to stop by Shirahone Onsen which is a natural sulfur hot spring located in the mountains. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Narai but was completely worth the trip! For the entire day the weather was chilly and raining, but a soak in the onsen definitely put us back in high spirits. This is probably the best onsen I’ve been to in Nagano besides the fancy resort I stayed at in January. I just appreciated how simple but highly effective it was. Natural hot springs definitely have a healing property!

Address: Azumi, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-1515
Admission Fee: 520 yen (the baths are gender segregated)

Narai Food

Since Narai is located near the river, ayu (sweet fish) are one of the most popular meals here! When I first moved to Japan, I honestly didn’t know what to think of freshwater fish but recently they have really grown on me. For lunch I had a teishoku set which included ayu, miso, tofu, and rice in the town we visited earlier. The meal was simple but I couldn’t believe how amazing it was! For dinner we drove to a restaurant called Mominoki where I had vegetables with miso, another grilled ayu, and some delicious caramel and azuki ice cream topped with jelly cubes. I mentioned this in my last Nagano article, but the people here have the longest life span in Japan and you can easily see why. This prefecture is filled with onsen and beautiful nature and has wonderful food too! There are a lot of options for both meat lovers and vegetarians too.

Lodge Fumoto

After a full day of hiking, food, and hot springs, we decided to spend the night at Lodge Fumoto. Unbeknownst to us, we were the only 3 people staying that weekend so it was the ultimate party! The reason for that is a lot of buses to Kamikochi have reduced service due to the pandemic and you really need a car to get around. The hotel, or “lodge” is really no frills and has limited amenities but it has amazing hot springs. There is a shared indoor bath and a private outdoor one you can freely reserve. You can tell by the sulfur debris that sticks to the wood that these hot springs are legit and the surrounding outdoor scenery is absolutely breathtaking. I had an amazing stay here and am happy that we didn’t go camping so we could avoid the rain. The rooms here are around 6000 yen which is average for most ryokan too.

Thank you for reading the first part of my summer Nagano adventure! In my next article I will be writing about how we hiked through the entirety of Kamikochi and met the monkeys. Now is a really good time to travel here because there are far less people than usual!

Urban Exploring in Takeo, Saga

An abandoned onsen exhibition reflecting the results of the Third Impact in Saga, Japan.

After having a fabulous day in Fukuoka exploring local shrines and temples, seeing the sunset on the beach, and relaxing at my onsen hotel, I decided to travel to Saga on the second day of my trip in Kyushu to do some urban exploring. When I was first researching prefectures in Japan years, I didn’t think Saga was that interesting compared to the others because it is extremely rural and is mostly known for its farmland and onsen. However, thanks to the hit anime series known as Zombieland Saga, a number of people have been flocking to Saga to visit real life places from the anime. This has greatly helped the economy of Saga during the pandemic and also brought light to many amazing places that were previously overshadowed. In this article I will be focusing on writing about urban exploring in Takeo Onsen and surrounding museums.

To reach Saga you can either fly to Saga Airport or take a train from Fukuoka like I did. Hakata Station to Takeo Onsen Station is about a one hour trip and costs 3100 yen. Though Saga is rural, I was able to use a combination of local buses, trains, and taxis to get around. Please look forward to reading about my adventure!

Exploring Abandoned Onsen

The first stop on my Saga itinerary was Takeo Onsen, which is small town of hot springs including a museum of abandoned ones making it ideal for urban exploring. This hot spring area is over 1300 years old making it a celebrated part of Saga’s history because many famous people have visited here. The museum is about a 15 minute walk from the station and is free to enter. It was really surreal entering a hot spring without water, but fortunately there were some non-abandoned hot springs nearby that you can relax at for the day. Plus the two story museum and vermillion gate are really worth checking out because they have interesting architecture. This area was actually featured in a manga splash page for Zombieland Saga. Interestingly the convenience stores in this area appear a solid color of brown instead of their original colors. My theory is this occurs because they have already been zombie-fied!

Takeo Shrine

Right down the street from the Takeo Onsen main area is Takeo Shrine! I decided to stop by and pay my respects. The pastel colors of this shrine really surprised me because they are really unusual but very pretty. I was happy to witness architecture of so many colors here!

Minefuyama Rakuen Lantern Exhibit

Despite being a rural part of Kyushi, Saga actually has quite the selection of interesting museums! The one that I was most looking forward to visiting was Mifuneyama Rakuen which you can actually walk to from Takeo Onsen. This museum has multiple rooms with cutting edge LED displays by teamLab and a beautiful outdoor garden as well. The first room that you enter has hundreds of flashing lanterns making it a popular destination for photographers. However, since I came here after Golden Week had already ended, there were hardly any people here at all! I had so much fun shooting here with my tripod. The staff was very lax here and let me set it up without any issue. That is one of the pros of traveling around rural places!

Minefuyama Rakuen Onsen Exhibition

The 2nd floor of Mifuneyama Rakuen had multiple rooms with hot springs and highly aesthetic projections. The room with the protruding pillars from the ground reminded me of a post-apocalyptic scene from Neon Genesis Evangelion and it was awesome! You cannot enter the baths here but walking around was an adventure initself. It felt surreal to be in a familiar scene with this abstract sci-fi theme going on:

Overall this museum takes about an hour to see and is my top pick in Kyushu thanks to all of these animated displays. The cheap entrance fee makes it more than worth it too! Unfortunately I did not have much time to see the outdoor area, but the museum featured in the next section fortunately had a lot of scenery!

Entrance Fee: 800 yen

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町武雄4100

Yoko Museum

My last stop of the day was the Yoko Museum which is about 10 mins of walking from Mifuneyama Rakuen. This museum has a beautiful outdoor garden with a red bridge that takes you across a river with several waterfalls. There are also some terraced crops that slightly resemble the famous rice fields in the western Saga. If you continue to follow the main path you’ll find a lookout point that you can climb up to. The indoor part of the museum has famous pottery, but since I have already been to many museums in Japan I opted for just the outdoor part. During certain times of the year there are illuminations, but there weren’t any going on when I arrived at this time. I explored all of this museum in about 40 mins and was very happy with what I saw. The flowers that bloom in Saga sure are pretty and this garden is arranged beautifully!

Entrance Fee: 600 for the garden only and 1000 for the garden & museum

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町4075-3

Breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen

Before embarking on this long aesthetic journey through Saga, I decided to eat a hearty breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen in Fukuoka near Tenjin Station where I was staying. The restaurant has some of the best organic food on the island. The breakfast set I had with fish, salad, soup, vegetables, and brown rice gave me enough energy for almost the whole entire day. I also tried their strawberry banana yogurt and granola dish for dessert and appreciated the heart-shaped fruit. Before setting off to Saga I highly recommend eating a nutritious meal here! I will be talking more about Saga cuisine in my next two articles.

Address: 810-0021 Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Imaizumi, 1 Chome−1−4 石松ビル1F

Thank you for reading the first part of my Saga article series! In my next article I will be talking about Ureshino, which is a popular hot springs resort area featured in the Zombieland Saga anime. Please look forward to it!

Scuba Diving and Exploring the Pumpkin Limestone Cave in Miyakojima

Halloween came early this year in Miyakojima.

After spending a pleasant first day on Miyakojima exploring local shrines, biking to Sunayama Beach, and stumbling across old ruins, it was time to get to the main event—scuba diving with turtles. And more importantly, trying out my underwater camera equipment that I bought for my GoPro Hero 7 last year. I had originally planned to scuba dive with turtles in Cebu last March but my trip to the Philippines got cancelled due to the pandemic. I still have the ticket and still plan on going after I get vaccinated, but I imagine it’s going to be quite a long time until I can safely enter. Luckily with its pristine coral beaches, Miyakojima is one of the best places to go scuba diving in Japan so I finally got the chance to go here!

This article will detail my scuba diving experience at Shigira Beach and Boraga Beach as recommended by my instructor.

Scuba Diving at Shigira Beach

Before coming to the island, I decided to reserve a tour package from Klook that included both scuba diving with turtles and exploring the pumpkin limestone cave. Though I brought some of my own scuba gear, I really wanted to go with a local who knew the island well so I could learn the most about it. The combined tour cost 13500 yen which is much more expensive than doing similar activities in Thailand of the Philippines, but for what I saw the price was worth it. My tour started at 9:30 at Shigira Beach which was just a 30 min taxi ride from my hotel. From there I met up with my instructor who took me to the best scuba spot based on the weather conditions. The tour was entirely in Japanese but fortunately easy for me to understand.

The major bummer is that no turtles appeared, however. It might have been due to the gale advisory that swept Japan just a day before, but you would think with the lack of tourists that more wildlife would be around! Looking on the bright side, I did get to see a bunch of clown fish up close. And I also learned how to swim and use the correct settings on my camera to take quality photos. The reefs were absolutely beautiful and once again I felt like I was in the Little Mermaid World of Kingdom Hearts. Though I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to see the turtles here, I vow to meet them once I can safely travel to Cebu!

Exploring the Pumpkin Limestone Cave

While researching destinations I wanted to travel to in Miyakojima, the pumpkin limestone cave was #1 on my list. As soon as I saw the pictures of it online I knew I needed to see it with my own eyes. I mean where else in the world can you see something like this? After a short break my instructor kindly drove me to Boraga Beach where the cave was located. This is just roughly 15 mins from Shigira Beach where the turtles apparently reside. I was surprised to find that the water was extremely shallow and rocky so we were given special boots to wear as to not hurt our feet. The entrance to the cave is about a 15 min walk over rocks, but the gorgeous blue shades of the water made it fun. Once you reach the entrance of the cave, there is a gap of emerald water that you can swim through to go inside. How cool is that?

I was unaware this is actually a religious place, so we were asked to pray before entering. Though I am not religious, I am honored to have received the pumpkin god’s blessings. The inside of the cave is extremely dark so we were given flashlights so we could see where we were going. You can see the beautiful pumpkin shape as soon as you enter the cave and it looked almost ethereal from where I was swimming. My instructor guided me to a ledge where I could start climbing to the top. Though parts were a bit slippery, it was overall easy to reach the highest point where water was dripping down from stalactites. My instructor told me to sit down underneath them so the cool water droplets would hit my skin, and it really did feel relaxing! The inside of the cave was warm so the mini shower was much appreciated. There was also mud here that you could smear on your face for smooth skin. I saw mud masks in the souvenir shops before and was happy that I had the chance to experience the real thing. The mud here really does make your skin look smoother after you wash it off!

It took us roughly 20 mins to fully explore the cave, but my instructor stopped to give me some pretty interesting lectures. Here is a video of me jumping off the highest ledge of the pumpkin cave taken by my instructor. The gap was extremely narrow and a bit scary so you can hear me scream! But rest assured, this is a safe tour and I was wearing a life jacket and helmet so everything was fine. Even if you’re afraid of heights, this really isn’t that bad:

Nature & Soba

In between going to the two beaches, my instructor dropped me off at a delicious soba place called Maruyoshi Shokudo. Not only were the noodles cheap here, but the staff was amazing. They made me a custom fish and veggie bowl since I’m pescatarian and I topped it with some light curry powder to give it the perfect zest. Miyako soba is extremely famous and after eating here I can see exactly why it is true. I also explored some gardens nearby and discovered some beautiful butterflies and flora. Nature is also impressive here because everything gets a lot of sunlight. It was so fun to see all of the wildlife up close!

Chasing Sunsets

The tour ended around 3pm and my instructor drove me back to my hotel so I had just enough time to shower off, grab some food, and start chasing sunsets! The first and last two pictures were taken at morning and night at Painagama Beach near my resort. The middle picture was taken at Shigira Beach right before I left. As I grabbed some shochu from the convenience store across the road, I was surprised to see that a number of locals were gathered around playing instruments, drinking, and watching the sunset on a Tuesday night. But this is just Okinawan culture plain and simple. Though I am addicted to the city due to the endless opportunities it offers, island life is truly the life for me. I love being on the beach because I feel the happiest there.

This was my last night in Miyakojima and I think it was extremely well spent! I have one last article of my Okinawa series to publish, then I will be spontaneously traveling to Kyushu at the end of this week to finish Golden Week with a bang. Thank you all for reading and supporting my dream!

Wandering through Neon Aesthetic Paradise in Naha

Lost in paradise in the infinity pool at Hotel Aqua Citta.

After an extremely fulfilling first day in Naha sipping on premium fruit cocktails and chilling at the Sanrio Resort, I planned to wander through neon aesthetic paradise at two recent attractions that had been added to the city since my last trip: Stem Resort and DMM Kariyushi Aquarium. I also wanted to hit the infinity pool at my new resort and reflect on life before flying to Miyakojima the next day.

I had a busy day ahead of me but fortunately was able to accomplish everything on my itinerary and meet many new friends in the process! If you come to Okinawa, you will never forget the friendliness of the people or the vividness of the city. I’m happy to say that day two of my trip was another brilliant success.

Stem Resort

Stem Resort is a 4 floor amusement park that just opened last year consisting of the Hitasura Kawaii Museum, a dinosaur park, a waterpark with inflatables, and a rooftop bar with hot tubs. No matter what age you are you’re bound to find something here that strikes your interest here. Given my love for neon colors, the Hitasura Kawaii Museum is what attracted me here the most. When I first walked in I was greeted by a wall of donuts and rainbow popsicles dangling from the ceiling. There was a room with a giant high heel you could sit in and watch looping BLACKPINK music videos. The lip-shaped couch in the adjacent room was definitely relaxing to sit on and the room full of lanterns made me feel like I was back at the teamLab Borderless museum. Holy nostalgia. The neon sides and donut slide were also a great touch but I think my favorite room was the final one that had a ball pit full of rainbow alpacas. I took a nap in there and replenished my MP. I am so happy I could finally experience this new museum because it’s been on my bucket list for quite a long time.

Since it was still raining this day I was unable to check out the outdoor attractions, but I was extremely satisfied with what I saw indoors. I have already been to a dinosaur park in Okayama and plan on going to the unicorn inflatable park once I can finally enter the Philippines, so the Kawaii Museum was what I was truly most interested and fortunately got a ton of pictures there. For all of my life I will never forget the ball pit full of rainbow alpacas.

Address: 901-0225 Okinawa, Tomigusuku, Toyosaki, 3-35 屋上
Entrance Fee: Depends on what you want to see but I paid 1800 yen to enter and thought the experience was worth it!

DMM Kariyushi Aquarium

Have you ever dreamed of walking through an LSD aquarium filled with jellyfish tanks? Well look no further! And believe it or not, this is just one small exhibit that makes up the DMM Kariyushi Aquarium.

Though the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium that I visited in 2016 takes the crown for being the biggest and most diverse aquarium in Japan, the DMM Aquarium combines art with underwater life and also has a rainforest area. Its creative visuals and lighting definitely enhance the experience and almost make you feel like you are part of the exhibit! There is a room where you can take off your shoes and walk on a sealed panel to view all of the fish and sting rays swimming beneath your feet. I also got to see a sloth up close for the very first time in the rainforest area, and they even had a rare species of turtle here too!

I highly recommend trying the churros at the cafe. I bought them for the cute packing because I love tiny eels. This experience was so fun and had the best jellyfish exhibit that I had ever seen. If you’re looking for an artsy aquarium that is centrally located in Naha then this is your place!

Address: 3-35 Toyosaki, Tomigusuku, Okinawa 901-0225
Entrance Fee: 2400 yen

Vegan Omurice and Falafels at Ukishima Garden

Continuing my theme of trying new vegan restaurants, I decided to stop at Ukishima Garden to try some vegan omurice stuffed with rice and vegetables and order some falafel on the side. Instead of egg they used tofu to give this dish the classic fluffy texture. It was so creative and tasted even better than the usual omurice. I think this was actually the best dish that I had on the island! It was home cooked and made with love! They also have vegan burgers and taco rice on the menu as well as organic teas and wines. Check it out if you ever get the chance because this food is top notch!

Address: 2 Chome-12-3 Matsuo, Naha, Okinawa 900-0014

Accommodation

Although I adored the Sanrio Hotel I stayed at the night before, I really wanted to stay somewhere with a pool so I chose Naha Aqua Citta which is rated as one of the top city resorts. With its beautiful infinity pool, free welcome drink tickets, and friendly atmosphere, I can definitely see why! I met so many amazing people on the rooftop bar that invited me to play drinking games because I was alone. We even ended up going to a hookah bar called Silver Ren which had the best hookah that I’ve ever smoked in Japan. People of all ages, races, and cultures were here so it was truly an international experience. The cheapest rooms are around 6800 yen per night which are more than worth it for the amenities. I would definitely stay here again just so I could mingle and meet more awesome people.

In my next article I will talk about my trip to Miyako Island! Thank you for reading and please look forward to it~

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Kofu & Senga Falls (Part 3)

After spending a beautiful afternoon in Minobu and seeing the iconic Lake Motosu plus other places that are featured in Yuru Camp, I decided I would spend my final day in Yamanashi hiking around waterfalls and trying delicious food with my friends. Yamanashi is a great getaway and each and every experience I had here was memorable. Coming during off-season definitely had its perks because there were less people around and I really became well-acquainted with the area. Seeing Mt. Fuji from so many different angles was awesome too! I made a promise to come back here in the summer and go camping for real because this trip had a real impact on my life. I am extremely grateful that the Yuru Camp anime inspired me to come here and that my friends showed me around too. I would have never discovered all of these amazing places by myself!

For the full story of this article series, please see A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1) & A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Minobu (Part 2).

Shosenkyo & Senga Falls

From Kofu we drove around 30 minutes to Shosenkyo, which is known as one of the most beautiful gorges in Japan. My favorite gorge of all time is still Takachiho in Miyazaki, but this one is quite the sight to behold too. You can tell by the pure color of the water that this park is a treasure. The trails here are very easy to navigate and you can reach one of the two main waterfalls known as the Senga Falls in a pleasant 30 minute hike. As we reached the first waterfall, we noticed a rainbow appear above the rocks where the water was falling and stood in awe until it faded. Because we were having a super lucky day, the we saw a second rainbow appear over the second waterfall too!! If you come here around 2pm and the sun is out, you may be able to see this phenomenon too:

Local Temples & Alien

The summit of Shosenkyo has many notable sightseeing points that should not be missed. The Buddha Statue adorned in colorful papers and the crystal shop with the two friendly cats were some of my favorites. There’s also a bell shrine filled with—you guessed it—bells! The wooden plaques here are also unique because they are shaped like crystals and have the kanji for wish (願) written on them. My friend collects these and this one was one of my favorites in her collection. Did I mention there’s an alien statue with its own hashtag here too? This is a scale replica from Alien Vs. Predator. The people that manage the shops up here sure are interesting people! I was blown away by the uniqueness of it all and had an amazing time hiking. I really hope that this place is featured in Yuru Camp someday.

Recommended Kofu Cafes

On our way to the falls we decided to try a cozy cafe called Camel which has a combination of breakfast and early afternoon entrees making it the ideal place for brunch. I ordered the salmon lunch set which came with bread, yogurt, and salad making it a perfectly balanced meal. They also have amazing coffee here! The white chocolate latte was something I was surprised to find on the menu but it tasted fantastic. It must have been an original blend. After our hike we stopped at a small cafe near Kofu Station called Cafe Moala which is also famous for coffee and its seasonal tarts. We were lucky that strawberries were in season because the strawberry cheesecake tarts were out of this world. Every single meal I had in Yamanashi was baked with tender care and I enjoyed every bite!

Camel Cafe Address: 1832-5 Manriki, Yamanashi, 405-0031
Cafe Moala Address: 400-0031 Yamanashi, Kofu, Marunouchi, 1 Chome−9−8 2F

Final Thoughts & Future Trips

After an extravagant afternoon of hiking, my friends dropped me off at Kofu Station and I rode back to Tokyo with many happy memories and goals in mind for the next trip. By this point I think I’ve made it clear that Yamanashi is worth traveling to just as much as Kyoto and Osaka, so please be sure to add the home of Mt. Fuji in your next trip itinerary! I plan to come back to Yamanashi in the spring to re-shoot some photos during sakura season, and also go camping by Lake Motosu in the summer. I also hope to visit more areas that the currently airing season of Yuru Camp features too!

As for my upcoming trips for the year, Aomori is currently #1 on my list because I want see the sakura festival. It is currently unknown if it will be cancelled due to the pandemic so I am waiting until April to decide. I also want to visit Okinawa again to shoot some cosplay after the 2nd emergency state ends. This trip looks more hopeful. Other than that, I hope to go to Nagoya and Kyoto later this spring to see friends and also keep my eye on music events. This week has brought a lot of hopeful news so I hope things continue to get better. Until then I will continue to watch anime and take small local trips like this to keep myself in high spirits. I thank everyone that has read my articles and wish you all well! ♥

Living Life the Way it’s Supposed to be Lived (Onsen Trip to Nagano, Japan)

Snow falls gently on Lake Nojiri in Nagano creating a a picturesque winter scene.

Right before the second emergency state for Tokyo and surrounding areas was declared on January 7th, a number of business owners gathered in Nagano Prefecture to discuss what would become of their once booming industry that has rapidly declined this year due to the effect of the corona virus. According to a friend of mine who owns several ski resorts and ryokan in this area, they are currently only at 1/4 capacity this year. Usually Nagano is one of the most popular areas to do winter sports because it is easily accessible by shinkansen and has many hot springs where you can spend the night. It was also where the 1998 Winter Olympics were hosted and is famous for its snow monkeys which normally draw in a number of visitors from around the world each year. According to the Foreign Press Center, Nagano has surpassed Okinawa for having the longest life expectancy in Japan of above 80 years for both men and woman. Seeing the local tourism drop in such a boisterous place is a fatal blow to the nation, but also can’t be helped in this situation.

Though this is a tough time for everyone, currently many people in Nagano are strategizing what they can to keep their businesses alive. My friend who I met through writing articles online invited me to Nagano right before signing the contract to close one of their hotels for a final celebration. This became a two day trip that was completely sponsored and I am very fortunate that I was able to travel here so spontaneously. I previously traveled to Nagano in 2018 and saw the snow monkeys as well as an indie music show in Matsumoto, but I’ve never stayed at a ryokan here. Like the ryokan in Nara that I stayed at during my last sponsored motorcycle trip, this one did not disappoint!

Getting to Nagano

From Tokyo Station, Nagano Station is only 1 hour and 20 mins away and only costs 8340 yen to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen there. This is less hassle than going all the way to Kyoto or Osaka. I was initially worried about traveling here due to heavy snowfall last weekend and almost cancelled my trip, but my friend assured me that the snow was further north by Toyama and my trains from Tokyo would not be affected. I left around 9:30am and made it to Nagano Station by 11:30am. The trip was peaceful because I mostly slept on the train and drank a cup of umeshu from Ueno for a buzz when I woke up. Since I didn’t travel during the New Year’s holiday, this was my first major trip of 2021 and it was sure a memorable one!

Lunch at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Just as I arrived to Nagano Station, my friend was waiting for me in the parking lot with their car. The temperature was definitely chilly but not as cold as I had expected. I was happy to see the vast view of the snowy mountains but was also starving. Fortunately my friend was hungry too so after exchanging quick greetings we drove to Hotel Metropolitan Nagano and had a delicious lunch set at Shinano. I ordered a balance of sashimi, rice, tempura, and vegetables and has some delicious miso soup to warm me up. I loved the decorative dishes and the wine they had on display here. Already I was proud of myself for braving through the snow and making it here because the food was worth it!

Exploring Lake Nojiri

Since our ryokan checkin time was at 15:00, we had around 3 hours to kill. We decided to drive around Lake Nojiri since it was on the way to the onsen. Though the area around Nagano Station was mostly just frosty, we were surprised to see thick layers of snow piling up just 5km away on the forest roads. Fortunately my friend had a lot of experience driving here so it was not a problem. Once we arrived at the lake, we got out of the car to do some photography. There was a beautiful island in the middle of the lake that gleamed in the gentle sunlight. There were also little log cabins in clusters on the edge of the lake. My friend informed me that this area was called “Gaijin Mura” because foreign missionaries have owned property and have lived here for over 100 years. According to Outdoor Japan, they have managed to protect the place from “bubble-era developers” so this is actually a good thing. This area already has a number of resorts so it’s refreshing to see this atmosphere. You can rent cabins here year-round which sounds like an awesome to do in the summer!

I remember a while ago one of my Japanese friends traveled to this area and called it “雪の国” on Twitter. With all of the snow flurries around I can definitely see the reference to “Snow Kingdom” in Mario Odyssey!

Arriving at Onsen Paradise (Yorozuya)

After driving around Lake Nojiri in its entirety, we arrived to our ryokan, Yorozuya, around 15:30 and immediately went to the public outdoor hot springs since they are the largest and have the best scenery. We decided to use the smaller private ones at night after dinner. I had previously looked on Booking and other Japanese sites for ryokan deals, but could have never imagined staying somewhere so beautiful. My friend actually found this deal through a local travel agency in Nagano by going there in person. All of the rooms had their own custom design and were equipped with a kotatsu (which I slept under), yukata, amenities, and premium room service. It had been half a year since I had stayed in one of these room so I was beyond excited. I will be sure to consult with Japanese travel agencies in the future because this was for sure a better place than anywhere I looked at online. I felt fully relaxed and welcome during my stay so I would rate Yorozuya 5 stars.

Address: 〒381-0401 Nagano, Shimotakai District, Yamanochi, Hirao, 3137

Dinner with a Hint of Gold

After fully relaxing at the indoor and outdoor hot springs, we sat down for our dinner at around 18:30. This wasn’t my first time going to an onsen during winter, but seeing the snow fall from sky while the steam rises up from the water was definitely a sight to behold. Plus I already had a decent buzz going on from the sake and apple wine that I ordered for our room so I was in a really good mood!

An immaculate course dinner was served with an explanation before each dish by the kind waitress and I was amazed to find that there were real flakes of gold in my food! I think the seared fish, sashimi, and mushroom hot pot were my favorites but all of these dishes tasted out of this world. Dessert was light fruit and green tea-flavored pudding. Plus another round of nihonshu requested by yours truly! And there was a tiny serve-yourself bar in the basement of the ryokan. What more could you ask for in life? The view of the snowy mountain tops from the window topped it off.

Private Onsen

Since the outdoor bath in our room was frozen due to cold temperatures, the Yorozuya staff graciously offered us a free shuttle service to a nearby onsen where we could use private baths after dinner. There we found a steamy indoor bath filled with apples and an outdoor one decorated with bamboo and an umbrella. Since these baths were completely private, photography was allowed. This was the moment I had been waiting for!!

Final Thoughts

This trip is exactly what I needed to get 2021 off to the right start and set my mind free. I did not travel during the winter holiday because many places were affected by COVID-19 and I wanted to prioritize work and saving money. I have been bummed that I still haven’t been able to travel to the Philippines or Indonesia like I had planned to last year, but this trip reminded me that it’s really important to focus on self-care and that nature can be enjoyed in its simplicity. I graciously thank all of my friends here for taking care of me because I don’t know when it will be safe to visit America again. However, I am very happy with my life now and am also close to reaching one of my major financial goals this month so I plan to continue at this pace for now. I have faith that things will get better with time and that I will be able to meet my friends and family with a smiling face one day again. In the meantime, I’ll be playing FFXIV and giving my all to my current line of work.

What does this mean for the future of small Japanese businesses though? From my personal example I found it interesting that two ryokan were working together to ensure that all facilities were available to their customers. Perhaps these businesses can continue to rely on one another and also local travel agencies to keep their businesses alive. Though I definitely noticed less people here, I did not sense a complete loss of hope. Cuts and sacrifices will need to be made in order to survive these hard times, but as this culture has demonstrated many times, perseverance can go a long way.

Floating down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

After hiking around Black Virgin Mountain & Cao Dai Temple, I decided it might be nice to go out on the water for a day.  Mekong River Delta, home to a maze of rivers, swamps, and floating markets, is the perfect place to go boating and experience an agricultural community.  This river starts in the Himalayas and flows through four other surrounding countries before reaching Vietnam.  The murky brown color of the water comes from the soil it washes up so the river itself is actually quite clean.  A majority of Vietnam’s rice and fish is transported to other areas from Mekong Delta, so it’s vital to the country’s economics.  Not to mention its jungle-like aesthetic makes it the perfect place to go on an adventure!

Mekong Delta can easily be reached from Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s cheapest to go on a tour.  I booked a group tour through Get Your Guide for around $28 and found it to be quite helpful.  I got to explore parts of the jungle, eat delicious Vietnamese food, and see some of the smaller islands.  One is even named after a unicorn!  I was fortunate that the other people on my tour were kind and welcoming.  I met one woman from Colombia that introduced me to her sons that were around my age (mid-twenties).  We all awkwardly laughed.  No vacation is complete without awkward random encounters!

Sailing on the Mekong Delta was amazing.  The weather was humid but fortunately there was a cool breeze.  No matter which direction you look there is a lot to see:

I highly recommend buying a nón lá (leaf hat) from the market during your trip.  Initially I thought that wearing one of these as a tourist would be embarrassing, but the hats are ideal for the weather here.  During warm days they can shield your entire face from the sun, and during rainy days the droplets will slide off  them keeping you completely dry.

After a while of sailing we stopped at Ben Tre, the capital of one of the largest provinces in the Mekong Delta, and got to explore some of the beautiful scenery on foot.  There was a tiny wildlife preserve with crocodiles, porcupine-like creatures, and other exotic animals.  A woman came with a colony of bees and showed us how honey was made (fortunately the bees didn’t seem hostile).  We also learned how coconuts were used to make desserts and got to try some coconut jelly!  It was so delicious.

Besides boats,the main form of transportation around the muddy banks of the Mekong Delta is by horse.  Although a lot of residents of Vietnam own motorbikes, they seem to be quite challenging to ride around here.  That is another reason why I recommend booking a tour.  Though it can take days to see the entire Mekong Delta here, just a day trip was enough for me.

I said it once but I’ll say it again: Vietnamese Cuisine tastes amazing and severely underrated.  For lunch we had a buffet that included elephant ear fish (see top picture), shrimp, omelette, rice, crackers, fresh fruit, and coconut jelly.  This kind of meal is simple but very filling.  Since I don’t eat meat, I informed the chef and they were able to accommodate my request.  If you’re looking for a fancier dinner, you can always order one back in Ho Chi Minh City!

I visited a similar place to Mekong Delta in Cambodia last year called Kampong Pluk.  It also has a floating economy, amazing fish, and many similarities to Vietnam.  I recommend checking out both because their cultures are slightly different.  I can’t pick a favorite because both of them were an entirely unique experience.

Here are some other things I recommend checking out in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Notre Dame Cathedral – A historic church with beautiful architecture.
  • Ho Chi Minh City Hall – An iconic landmark of the city,
  • Cafe ZONE 69 – I found this place during my morning run and thought it was hilarious.  I have no idea if it still exists or not, but it’s in the heart of the city.
  • Ho Chi Minh Opera House – I sadly didn’t have enough time to go, but I’d love to see a show here in the future.
  • Jade Emperor Pagoda – One of the prettiest temples in town.

I only stayed 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City, but that was enough for me because I got to see and experience a lot of different things.  In my next article, I will be talking about my experience in Hanoi and how it differs from this city.  As always, please stay tuned for more updates!

 

Monet’s Pond: Just as Gorgeous as the Original Paintings (Gifu, Japan)

Over the weekend I decided to re-visit Gifu Prefecture and see if it’s famous water lily pond in Seki was worth the hype.  This originally nameless pond has been nicknamed “Monet’s Pond” (モネの池) by the locals because it closely resembles the Water Lilies art series painted by Claude Monet in the late 1800s.  Depending on the season and the weather, the scenery of the pond can vastly change.  Some online reviews have said that Monet’s Pond is a vibrant place that is a spitting image of the artwork, while others have dismissed it for appearing as murky and overrated.  It’s somewhat humorous to see the variety of scrutiny this place gets (both in English and Japanese).

My favorite review comes from “Kevin B” on Google:

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“It is nice, but professional photograph[s] ruined it for me.  My expectations were too high, don’t trust the pictures on the Internet.” – Kevin B

This could be true of any place, anywhere—don’t trust the pictures on the internet.  Kevin B’s review implies if you set your expectations too high, you will be undoubtedly disappointed.  Especially since the pond is located in a considerably remote location with infrequent transportation.  But as an adventurer, reading that description just made me want to travel here even more so I could see it for myself.

Fortunately I was not disappointed because the photos I captured look complementary to the artwork:

Fun Fact: I didn’t actually look at any of the Water Lilies paintings until after I went to the pond because I didn’t want my expectations to be warped.  I only looked at them for reference in order to accurately write this article.

Here is a gallery of photos that I took.  The pond is quite small in size, but depending on where you stand you can see an entirely different reflection in the water:

I was lucky because I got the chance to see Monet’s Pond in both sunny and cloudy weather in the hour that I was there.  During sunny weather the pond perfectly reflects the clouds in the sky giving it that dream-like oil painting aesthetic.  During cloudy weather it looks a lot darker, but with the floating water lilies it still appears beautiful.  Perhaps in the colder months it looks more bare and devoid of color, thus provoking the negative reviews.  Coming in June gave me the perfect experience though.  I was extremely satisfied with what I saw.

In this video the Koi look like they’re swimming through the clouds:

If you search for pictures of the pond online, you will see mixed results.  Some photos have been purposely edited with filters and textures to look more like the paintings.  However, the photos on the Official Gifu Tourism Website look pretty natural.  I used both my iPhone’s camera and my GoPro so I could closely compare the detail.  I only edited the lighting and shadows slightly in the photos I posted here because the sunlight was already optimal.  It is recommended to come in the summer and fall months for the best viewing but the pond is open year-round.

Even if we can’t trust the internet, one thing we all can agree on is that this cheesecake replica of Monet’s Pond is awesome:

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Monet’s Pond Cheesecake created by an anonymous pastry chef (posted on Grapee).

Not gonna lie, seeing this cake was another huge inspiration for my journey here.  Perhaps Gifu Prefecture will some day replicate this idea and create a cafe with food and souvenirs based on the pond like many other places in Japan.  Until then, enjoy this capitalist-free piece of nature.

Access

From Gifu Station take the N83 bus towards ほらどキウイプラザ行き (Horado Kiwi Plaza) and get off at the last stop.  I was a bit disappointed to see that there were no kiwis here (this is simply a parking lot on the side of a highway).  From the bus stop at the parking lot you will see a small van waiting adjacent to the bus.  The van’s time tables are aligned with the local buses so you can take it for free to Monet’s Pond.  The bus ride takes about 1.5 hours, and the van ride takes 15 mins, so the total travel time is around 1 hour and 45 mins.  Though this is a bit of a journey, the ride only costs 670 yen and the pond has no entrance fee making it one of the cheapest attractions in Gifu.

If you like seeing the country side of Japan and don’t mind riding the bus, then I would recommend this trip to you.  Just be sure to watch the weather and get there early so you have enough time to take pictures and return to the station.  Besides the pond, there’s really not a lot to do in Seki.  There’s a local shrine and a few places to eat, but most of the area is used for farming.  After seeing the pond I went to Nagoya to spend time with my friends because there’s much more to do there.  This was a great escape from reality though.  I was happy to confirm that the pond does indeed resemble the real artwork and is not just a hoax.

If you are interested in seeing more attractions in Gifu Prefecture, please check out my Your Name and Gero Onsen articles!

The Most Psychedelic Museums in Tokyo

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Step into the stars at teamLab’s “Borderless” museum in Odaiba.

As Japan slowly starts to re-open its museums and recreational facilities, I figured I’d write an article on some of the most psychedelic museums I’ve been to in Tokyo!  Earlier I wrote an article on the Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums I’ve been to in Asia, but today I want to share my experience at some of my runner-up choices.  All of these places should be re-opening soon, but I will include links to the websites so you can verify it for yourself.  Prepare yourself for some rich neon aesthetic visuals:

Art Aquarium

Dive into a sea of colors at Nihombashi’s gallant Art Aquarium!  This is a seasonal exhibition that is typically held at the end of each year and attracts a large number of gatherers.  Many tanks are elaborately decorated with jewels reminiscent of the Edo period and illuminated with neon lights.  You can see a number of kingyo (goldfish) here as they swim in a vivid motion that is beautifully captured with the layout of the aquarium.  There are projections on the wall that create a mirror-like effect with the intricate glass designs.  I’ve been to a number of museums in Asia before, but I’ve never seen anything as captivating as this.

It’s hard to describe this in words, so here is a video I took back in 2017:

Admission Fee: 1000 yen*

*The location and time of this museum changes each year, so be sure to check their official website for more information.

teamLab Borderless

If you’ve researched any museums in Japan, teamLab probably appears at the top of the list.  Hands down, this team consists of some of the most creative and innovative designers in the world.  They have created cutting-edge visuals that represent many familiar environments but take you to a whole another planet.  If you are interested in seeing the latest art and technology exhibits in the world then their current exhibits are something you should definitely check out!

Borderless is a relatively new museum in Odaiba that defines itself as “a museum without a map”.  The very first room is like a maze with floral patterns projected all over the walls and the ceiling.  As you explore the rooms, you will find somewhere that looks like a forest with visuals of falling rain and lily pads.  It truly feels like you’ve entered a cyberpunk world as you navigate through various virtual structures.  I pictured “The Wired” from Serial Experiments Lain, but fear not because Borderless is far more colorful and welcoming.

You will eventually reach a room full of flickering lanterns which is one of the most popular attractions here.  You only have around 2-3 minutes to take pictures, so be sure to use your time wisely.  After you exit, you will be released into what seems like a giant planetarium, but also has an art aquarium and places for children to play.  Unlike the art aquarium I mentioned above, you can draw your own fish on paper then have them scanned and displayed in a virtual fish tank that is projected on the wall:

I truly can’t decide which aquarium I enjoyed the most—this or the one in Nihombashi!  The Doraemon and Luffy fish here are definitely a rare find.  I was happy to see that there were attractions for people for all ages to enjoy.

The con of this museum is the time limit in the lantern room (which you cannot re-enter once you exit), and the fact that so many people choose to do photoshoots and take selfies here that sometimes it feels more like a tourist attraction than a place to appreciate art.  However, the museum is so big you can easily wander to a place where there are less people and find peace.  Plus the soothing music played from the speakers drowns out idle chatter.  I found that some projections are so immersive that you completely forget the people around you too.  I’m still amazed by everything I was able to see here.

Critics online joke how this is one of the most-photographed museums in Japan and that they’re tired of seeing photos here, but you can’t deny how genius the exhibitions here are.  This museum has overall received numerous praise and is a place that I’d recommend to most people who are interested.  You’ll never forget your experience here.

Admission Fee: 3200 yen*

*You MUST select a timeslot and purchase a ticket online in advance to enter the museum.  See the official website for ticket sales (it is best to buy from them directly).

teamLab DMM.Planets

DMM.Planets is an older teamLab exhibit that I first visited in 2016 in Odaiba, but it later got moved to Toyosu as a permanent museum.  Once again, this is one of the most popular museums in Japan as it takes you through a psychedelic journey in space:

When you enter the museum, you are asked to take off your shoes and put them in a locker because some exhibits completely prohibit shoes. Oh boy, what an adventure! The very first room you enter simulates a black hole. The lights are dimmed and you must climb over beanbags that threaten to suck you into the void. Fortunately, this is quite a fun challenge. Once you climb over them (many people choose to sit and relax in them first because they are quite comfy), you will reach a room full of mirrors and dazzling hanging lights. This is the most popular attraction, because the lights simulate falling stars and you can take really beautiful pictures with them. This really reminded me of a Kirby game!

After the lightshow comes the infamous psychedelic pond that you will walk through to reach the next area. Here you can see projected koi fish swimming around your ankles and other beautiful LSD-inspired works of art. I had a blast taking photos here because it was so interactive that I felt like I was part of the exhibit. You will be asked to wash your feet before and after you enter this area so everything stays sanitary. The water isn’t that deep at all so you really don’t have to worry about getting wet. Just be sure to project your phone!

The last room simulates a small planetarium with beautiful floral aesthetics and star shapes projected on the ceiling. You can lay down and look up at the sky as if you were star-gazing. The best part is you can stay here as long as you want. I stayed for quite a while because it was very relaxing!

Between Planets and Borderless, it’s really hard for me to choose a favorite because I have wonderful memories at each of the exhibits. I would almost say I like Planets more because there are no time limits and there are less people now that the museum has been here for a while. However, if you are only in Japan for a short while, I would recommend Borderless because the Odaiba area has more to see than Toyosu. I would research both of them first and see which one strikes you as the most interesting before choosing.

Admission Fee: 3200 yen*

*You MUST select a timeslot and purchase a ticket online in advance to enter the museum.  See the official website for ticket sales (it is best to buy from them directly).

If you are interested in any of my other art museum articles outside of Tokyo, please see my Naoshima article!  I will continue to check out museums and review them as more of places re-open!

Adventures in Arashiyama (Kyoto)

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Arguably one of the best views this forest has to offer.

With its vast nature including a bamboo grove, the Oi River which you can go sailing on, and a monkey park, Arashiyama is hands down one of the most popular day trips from Kyoto City.  Though this area attracts a large number of tourists each year, it’s easy to avoid them by taking side trails off the bamboo grove trail.  I was able to find complete bliss in solitude while hiking to several areas and listening to my favorite music.  I originally traveled here in 2018, but came back to try the delicious chilled soba noodles at a famous restaurant last year.  In this article I will be writing about the highlights of my Arashiyama hiking adventure and hopefully will inspire more people to visit!

Floating Down the Oi River

When you get off at Arashiyama Station, one of the first things you’ll notice is the gently flowing Oi river.  There are several shacks where you can rent boats and go on tours down the river and into the forested area.  This is one of the best ways to explore Arashiyama, so I opted for a private boat tour for 3000 yen.  Group tours are also available for a lower price.  The wooden boat has padded seats so its quite comfortable, and you can see beautiful scenes from floating down the river that you can’t see on foot!

While we were sailing a food boat (food truck but in boat form) sailed up to us and offered to cook me something.  I decided I wanted grilled squid and they made it right in front of me.  It was truly and amazing experience!  I’ve explored a floating village in Cambodia before which was quite large, but this river is much smaller and more relaxed.  If you love boating then there are a lot of amazing places in Asia that are worth checking out.  I aim to explore as many as I can.

I didn’t have the best camera on me at the time, but here is some footage of me sailing down the river on a wooden boat.  It was a pleasant trip that only takes about 30 mins:

Sunset at the Kimono Forest

If you come to Arashiyama, then you definitely need to stay and watch the sun set slowly on the mountains before you leave.  First the sky will flash to a bright gradient of red, orange, and yellow, then fade to a gentle magenta and pink hue.  Afterwards there is a garden of kimono-patterned pillars near Randen Arashiyama Station that becomes illuminated at night.  I had a fantastic time walking through here and taking pictures—it felt as if I had slipped into another world with all of the colors!  These memories still burn very bright in my mind today.

Bamboo Forest and Monkey Mountain

The main tourist attraction of Arashiyama is the bamboo forest which is about a 10 min walk from the station.  The massive stalks of bamboo that surround you are truly astounding.  Back in America I had never seen anything like this before, so I was very impressed by this area.  There are normally a lot of tourists on the main path, but you can find paths that lead into the mountains like the one pictured on the right to avoid them.  If you aim your camera towards the sunlight that is partially blocked by the bamboo stalks you can get some really nice pictures here.

When I hiked up the path shown above, I spotted a very interesting building structure from afar and zoomed into it.  It looks like either a shack with clothes hung out to dry or small shrine.  Climbing to that area seems like quite a feat because it is not connected to the main path of Arashiyama.  “Who lives here?” I wondered 2 years ago, and I still think about it to this very day:

After exploring the paths around the bamboo forest which really don’t take that much time to climb, I recommend checking out the Monkey Park atop a small mountain called Iwatayama.  The climb takes about 10-15 mins and you can see a nice view of Kyoto from the top as well as several enthusiastic monkeys.  Be sure not to make direct eye contact with them as they can be quite aggressive!  However, a barrier will protect you from being attacked my them.

Compared to the monkeys in Thailand, the ones in Kyoto are actually quite nice.  However, if you are in Japan for a long time and are able to go to Hokkaido, the Monkey Park in Hakodate is actually much more fun to see.  You can watch them bathe in a hotspring and have a clearer view of them with less tourists around you.

Chilled Soba Noodles at Tempura Matsu

While searching for aesthetic food in Kyoto (which is not that difficult to find), I stumbled upon a tempura restaurant that serves soba noodles in a one-of-a-kind bowl made out of ice.  As far as I know, no other restaurant besides Tempura Matsu serves soba quite like this.  The egg topping mixed with soy sauce gives it an amazing taste.  It is best eaten in the summer because it will cool you down.  Amazingly even in the warm temperature the ice bowl will hardly melt.  I was impressed with the craftsmanship of this dish:

Since I had a long journey here, I decided to reward myself with the course meal that was around 12,000 yen at the time.  This is quite expensive, but I believe you are able to order individual items off the menu if you request them.  From my experience, it was well worth the price.  Carefully prepared seafood, soup, rice, vegetables, soba, and dessert were served to me in this course.  Vegetarian options are available as well.

Getting to Arashiyama

Kyoto Station take Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station.  This takes about 15 mins and costs only 240 yen making it an extremely cheap trip.

Please note that accommodations here are quite popular, so you might want to book 2 months in advance if you want to stay in a nice onsen resort.

If you are a solo traveler or are on a budget, I recommend day tripping here from Kyoto City since accommodations there are cheaper.  If you want to use a day hotspring in Arashiyama, consider trying Fufunoyu.  It is only 1000 yen to enter and has a lovely outdoor hotspring that you can use.

I will be writing more about my adventures in Kyoto and accommodation options in my next few posts.  Please stay tuned for more info~