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.

Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory Cafe at Shibuya Loft

As I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping with my best friend in Shibuya, we accidentally stumbled upon the Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory Cafe on the 2nd floor of Shibuya Loft. I had heard about the new Kingdom Hearts rhythm game that had recently been released, but didn’t realize that there was a new cafe for for it. Additionally, I later read online that the story was told from Kairi’s point of view and featured a new scene at the end that set things up for the next game in the series. Though at first I thought the game sounded like a more theatrical Theatrhythm with KH characters, as someone who has played the series from adolescence and still loved the music I was sold. I bought the game for Switch and made a reservation for the cafe online for the following Monday evening with my friend.

The Kingdom Hearts Cafe in Shibuya Loft is running from December 11th, 2020 – January 11th, 2020, but the featured menu at the Square Enix cafes in Tokyo and Osaka are running until March 12th, 2021. To make a reservation, please see the Cafe Homepage (I highly recommend making a reservation).

The entrance to the Shibuya Loft KH Cafe is adorable and features artwork of the 4 teams and gameplay trailers on several large monitors. To prevent spread of the corona virus, you are asked to sanitize your hands and write down your order at the entrance as well as wear as mask until you are seated. We booked the final slot at 19:20 and were lucky because we almost had the cafe completely to ourselves!

The menu from this cafe has some magical entrees. We ordered Kairi’s Memories of Cream Stew that came with rice in the shape of a paopu fruit and Mickey’s Tuna Sandwich with his little emblem stamped on the bread. There were also rice dishes that bared a resemblance to the Agrabah and Neverland stages, but we decided to focus on the themed character dishes this time. We ordered the Friendship Strawberry Tea that came with a lot of fruit and a plastic cutout of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy and made a toast. Kingdom Hearts food is not only elaborate but also very good! Please see the full menu on the Cafe Homepage.

There are a lot of neat souvenirs available for purchase here, but some of these things were already previously available for purchase in the Square Enix shop. I would mainly recommend coming here to collect the coasters as they will only be available for the duration of the cafe. And most importantly; enjoy the music! All of the remixed songs in the new game sound really amazing!

My only complaint with this cafe is that they didn’t have a large variety of desserts like previous Square Enix Cafe collaborations. They had seasalt ice cream popsicles which are iconic to the series, but I really wished they had a cute music note parfait that I could order too!

For previous reference, here was the seasalt ice cream I had during the KHIII event at Artnia:

The little star-shaped sprinkles really added to the ambience and it was cool to be served ice cream on a mini platter. Definitely high-class service here.

I also ate Cloud’s sword during the FF7R event. Hilarious how this parfait is banana-flavored, of all things:

Though a lot of fans have mixed feelings about the direction that Nomura is taking the KH and FF7R series, both have been a huge part of my life since childhood and I look forward to going to more events for them now that I live in Japan. I am super excited for the next installment in the World Ends with You and hope to go to that cafe too.

A Leisurely Stroll through the Heart of Osaka

After my Autumn Adventures in Kyoto, I decided to stop by Osaka to see a college friend and hit up some interesting cafes with her before heading home to Tokyo. My friend has quite the interesting career history of freelance English teaching in Vietnam and then moving to Japan to eventually accept a software engineer position for Rakuten. She will be moving to Tokyo at the end of this month and I am beyond excited to go on more exciting adventures with her! Crazy how we both met at Michigan State University and ended up here. I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by people who constantly drive me to be a better person!

In celebration of her new job, we bought white wine and chocolates from Family Mart and talked about our recent endeavors. Though I see Osaka as a bustling city full of opportunities, she expressed that there is a lot less to do here than in Tokyo and she can’t wait to make the move. Though Osaka was once a city I considered working in, after hearing this from her it re-affirmed my belief that Tokyo is one of the most exciting cities in the world and has endless things to do and see. More than anywhere else. Despite this reflection, Osaka will always have a special place in my heart as a fun city to travel to. ♥

For more information on Osaka, please see my Super Aesthetic Adventures in Osaka article series!

Cafe Stop #1: TKG Osaka

TKG Osaka, or “tamago kake gohan” as my Japanese friend likes to call it (literally translates to “egg over rice”) is a popular yakitori joint around Kansai. Fortunately it is centrally located and was just a 10 minute walk from my friend’s apartment in Nipponbashi. Though I don’t eat meat, the adorable egg face created with carefully-sliced seaweed completely won me over. This is a dish that you can easily make yourself at home, but this restaurant has special lunch and dinner sets that you can order as a complete meal. I chose a set with vegetables that cost around 1200 yen. Not everyone likes the taste of raw egg over rice, but once you get used to the texture it’s quite the hearty dish.

Address: 〒542-0076 Osaka, Chuo Ward, Nanba, 3 Chome-7, Gems Namba 8F

Cafe Stop #2: Cafe Twinkle’s Recipe

After eating our smiling egg rice dishes, we came across a brightly-painted cafe blaring K-pop with a strong retro vibe called Cafe Twinkle’s Recipe. Not wanting to dash our aesthetic cafe streak, we decided to stop by for a quick drink here. Let me tell you that the banana juice and interior decor was off the chain. Plus the waitress noticed I was wearing a BLACKPINK hoodie so she decided to play “Lovesick Girls” for us. This was the highlight of my trip. Honestly if you have time I would recommend stopping by here because you never know exactly what you’ll walk into. Next time I would love to try their cakes and macarons!

Address: 〒556-0005 4-chōme-17-10 Nipponbashi

Cafe Stop #3 Osaka Panda

Here it is—my main reason for coming to Osaka: to eat panda ice cream!! Osaka Panda is extremely small but serves up delicious baked goods, ice cream, and drinks. I originally discovered it through my Instagram algorithms and was enamored by its adorable design. Though there are panda pies and ice cream drinks galore, we decided to try the seasonal panda parfait. This included ice cream, chocolate, pie crust, granola, and sweet potato flavor which created a rich taste full of flavor. I would recommend this cafe to my friends because it is near Denden Town and offers takeout options. If you go, please tell me what the seasonal parfait looks like! I see the December one had reindeer antlers which really makes me wonder what other new sweets they’ll introduce here.

Address: 4 Chome-13-15 Nipponbashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka, 556-0005

Pit Stops

Now that we had nearly limitless energy from all of the delicious food we ate, we decided to go sightseeing around Osaka by foot! We first dropped by the Pokemon Center where we were immediately handed a limited edition Pikachu card. The festive kimono it was wearing really fit the mood of this trip. I picked up some Pokemon cookies for my coworkers and then scurried out because it was extremely crowded for the holiday. But really, when is the Pokemon Center not busy? Sometimes you just gotta [politely] push past the crowds to get what you want!

We next walked around Denden Town and looked through the anime shops just for fun. There was an outdoor flea market going on much like the ones you see in Akihabara selling figures, plushies, and DVDs. Though nothing caught my eye, the memories of all the anime I watched between freelancing came to mind and I felt happy. Revolutionary Girl Utena was one of the best anime I had discovered this year. We also stumbled upon a poster with Tifa advertising a game music event called VGM-FUN. Though the event had already passed, we decided we would try to check out a similar one if our paths crossed again in this wonderful city!

Heading Home

Due to the large number of people that came to Osaka through the GoTo Travel Campaign, I decided to head home around 3pm. The reserved seats on the shinkansen were already sold out so I bought a non-reserved ticket. Fortunately there was enough room that I was able to take a seat! But in the future I think I will try to reserve one in advance so I don’t have to stress about it.

When I arrived home, my cat Leo was waiting for me. Though I had a lot of fun and took a ton of amazing pictures, I was extremely happy to be back! This was my last trip of 2020 as international travel is restricted and even domestic travel is discouraged. In 2021, I have my sights set on Okinawa and Kyushu. I would also like to go to Awaji and Aomori in the spring if they are open.

In my next article I will be talking about the limited things I was able to do in Tokyo over the New Year’s holiday. Though there are more things to do here than in other countries, it definitely felt weird to me not spending NYE on a tropical island. However, I was able to make the best of the situation and do a lot of freelance work for extra cash. When the opportunity for travel comes again, I will be more than ready!

Thank you to all of my readers in 2020, and I hope to update even more this year. Please stay safe and look forward to more articles from me!

Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 2)

After my fantastic first day of exploring architectural shrines, climbing a part of Mt. Hiei, photographing the vibrant red maple leaves, and trying delicious parfaits and cocktails, I woke up early and set out for my second day in Kyoto! The goal of today was to see as many shrines as possible and also experience the indie music scene while eating delicious food along the way. Fortunately I was able to accomplish all of that and and learn more about one of my most favorite cities in Japan. There is truly always adventure to be had here!

Please see Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 1) for the first part of this article series.

Kiyomizudera Autumn Illumination

The highlight of my Autumn Adventures in Kyoto was seeing the beautiful illuminations at Kiyomizudera and surrounding temples. This temple is beautiful year-round, but fall is when its colors truly come to life. As you climb the steps you can see an awesome view of Mt. Otowa and Kyoto Tower in the distance that are partially obscured by the bright red leaves. There are light bulbs carefully placed beneath the maple trees so you can clearly make out the colors. The best place to take pictures is at the stage of Kiyomizudera which was built over 1000 years ago and has been the center of many kabuki shows and performances. In old times there was a legend that said if you jumped off this 4-story building and survived, your wish would be granted. Now you can simply make an offering at the shrine for your wish to be granted, and from my personal experience, sometimes wishes do come true!

After walking around the series of shrines and pagodas here, I also visited Kodaiji so I could see the dragon illumination. This temple has a zen garden and a picturesque pond so it is also another key spot for photography. If you continue to walk through the streets of Kiyumizudera, this temple is extremely easy to reach referencing the guideposts around the area. There are also food and souvenir shops galore so the atmosphere here is never dull!

Teori Zushi

While looking up unique dining options in Kyoto online, I came across teori zushi—which means “hand-woven sushi” at a restaurant called awomb. This healthy meal set is served with sushi rice and seasonal hand-picked fruits and vegetables so you can create your own customized maki rolls. The toppings are placed in a beautiful way that looks like art and you can use a fine-tipped brush to carefully apply soy sauce to your rolls. My personal favorites were the pumpkin and egg toppings because they were so light and delicious. Although some of these combinations may seem strange at first glance, you can season everything in a way that fits your own personal tastes so eating teori zushi is very fun! I would highly recommend this restaurant to people who love sushi and are looking for a new experience because this set gives you a way to experiment with flavor. I also ordered the sweet sake set so I could enjoy it with my meal.

awomb requires reservations in advance, but you can easily book a seat on their English website. The price for this meal set was around 3000 yen and the quality was well worth it. Please note their are two branches in Karasu and Nishikiyamachi so you can choose the location that’s most convenient for you. Overall this is the most delicious sushi I’ve tried in Kyoto!

Unique Kyoto Desserts

Though Kyoto has no shortage of mouth-watering food, two of my favorite desserts I tried on this trip was a flamingo egg waffle and dango topped with ice cream.

I first tried an egg waffle when I was in Hong Kong in 2017, but I had never seen one that looked like a flamingo before! You can try this delicious raspberry-flavored egg waffle with edible flowers at a teahouse called 京花果茶 圓-en-. The best part was honestly the the sweet cream they hid inside the waffle. I would gladly come back here and try another flavor if it was available! There is also flower tea available here for tea enthusiasts.

After I ate my teori sushi, I walked to Japanese Ice Ouca to try their famous “mitrashi dango”. You can choose between white or green dango and then select your favorite flavor of ice cream to go on top. I chose white dango with vanilla ice cream because I thought it would taste good with the sweet soy glaze and it did! This is such a simple concept (literally a scoop of ice cream on dango) but this is the first dessert place that I’ve seen it offered. I highly recommend trying it because it melts in your mouth and has the perfect combination of sweetness.

Both of these places are located in central Kyoto so they are pretty easy to access by bus or train. I look forward to the new dessert spots that pop up next time I visit!

“Pyramid” @ West Harlem

Whenever I travel to a different city in Japan, I try to immerse myself in the nightlife unique to that location as much as possible. West Harlem has become a reputable club in Kyoto that a number of my music friends have talked about. On the night I decided to check it out, the Kyoto-born label known as No Collar 4 Kicks (NC4K) was throwing their monthly event called “Pyramid”. This is a house, soul, and R&B free-for-all that starts at 10pm and goes on into the early hours of the morning. After doing all that sightseeing and photography I was ready to get my drink on.

As soon as I entered the club I was greeted by my friend 芽田ぱに子 who is a singer and trackmaker that moved to Kyoto to pursue her dream of music. I met her previously at a music workshop that was held in Kyoto the previous year. Though she was not performing tonight, it was great to see so many artists hanging out in one space and supporting one another. I also ran into two of my DJ friends who also came from Tokyo for the holiday weekend, any many rounds of drinks ensued. Within the first hour of my time here at West Harlem I felt extremely welcome!

The first DJ up was Lomax, also known as Magochi. Not only is he a talented DJ but he also makes delicious tacos under the name “Magobell”. Another artist from NC4K I really like is Stones Taro, who is the boss of the label and produces a lot of old school house music. My favorite song on NC4K is “New Old School” which they both made together. I heard it first when they performed at Batica in Tokyo in 2019:

This event was really cool because the DJs experimented with a lot of vinyl and the crowd had no idea what song was coming up next but almost everyone was on their feet dancing. At one point during the night I had a vodka tonic in one hand and a taco in the other while vibing to the beat so this event gets a solid 10/10 from me. Because I was dancing so, I didn’t take a lot of videos but here is a noteworthy one that shows the general atmosphere of West Harlem. Please check this venue out if you get the chance. Whatever night you go you’re sure to have a good time:

Final Thoughts

With the perfect mix of sightseeing, food, and music this day really couldn’t have been better. Whenever I first wake up in Kyoto, I always run to the Kawaramachi River from my hotel and skip across the turtle-shaped rocks while reflecting on life and preparing for the day ahead. Not only is this an exhilarating workout, but it also helps me get prepared for the day ahead. My music of choice while running here is in the blue shirt because he is also well-known in Kyoto and his music captures the essence of the city. I look forward to the next time I can travel here for another event!

In my next article I will be writing about the Evangelion sword exhibition I went to at Toei Animation amusement park. I will hopefully have more time to write this month because my projects are gradually slowing down. Please look forward to it!

Osu no Mori Cafe Kodama: The Gateway to Ghibli Paradise

After my recent encounter with Totoro in Miyazaki Prefecture, I just can’t seem to escape the Ghibli universe!  But hey, I’m not complaining at all.  Just recently a new Ghibli-themed cafe called Osu no Mori Cafe Kodama (大須の森カフェ コダマ) opened in the bustling Osu Kannon district of Aichi Prefecture.  This place was recommended to me through my Instagram algorithms since I am an aesthetic food enthusiast.  It’s still relatively unknown because it’s tucked away on the 4th floor of a building next to a trading card game store making it easy to pass by.  The first time we tried to come here it was sadly closed for obon holiday.  However, this time we were luckily able to enter and relive the nostalgia of these films once again while feasting on delicious food.

Because we had gone to the Higashiyama Zoo right before, we were just as hungry as these characters when we first walked in…

Immediately we were treated with outstanding service as the waiter gave us complimentary konpeito (star-shaped candy) and fans with Ghibli patterns to borrow so we could cool down from the vicious heat.  We already felt at home here.

Onto the main event: The Food.  Each dish is priced around 800 – 1200 yen and themed drinks are around 600 yen.  Soft drinks and alcohol is also available for a relatively cheap price.  We couldn’t believe how well-prepared everything was here:

“Sorry to eat your hat, Mei-chan…” Me

“I hope your bacon burns.” – Howl’s Moving Castle

“Hold your [drink], commoner. You are in the presence of the king of Laputa.”
– Castle in the Sky

I appreciated all of the careful detail put into these menu items—they are truly one of a kind.  I loved the cheese ribbon on my omurice and how they customized my order to be vegetarian.  My boyfriend loved his super thicc bacon and how much the eggs resembled those from Howl’s Moving Castle.  The drink I ordered was Laputa-themed and had a glowing ice cube that activated when you poured the mixer into the glass.  How cool is that?  Every menu item had some kind of figure or plush doll laying around so that you could associate it with what you were eating.  Though the cafe is small in size, I’ve never seen any place so intricately decorated.  This is an experience like nowhere else around here.

Here are a few more shots of the cafe.  There are framed pictures, books, a little fireplace where Calcifer sits, and motifs everywhere you look.  Additionally, Totoro requests that you sanitize your hands before entering!

In addition to what we ordered, there are also pancakes with a small cat print that resemble Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery service.  There are also a ton of themed drinks based on the films that you can choose from.  I would really like to order a bunch when I come back so I can experience them all!

Is it worth it?

Although I’ve had a number of wonderful dining experiences in Nagoya, this was by far one of the best themed cafes that I have ever been to.  The service was top tier and the portion sizes were extremely generous for the price.  Unlike the official cafe at the Ghibli Museum, Kodama has more creative dishes that resemble actual food from the movies.  The interior design really brought the scenes to life as there were plush dolls and figures from every film surrounding you.  The soundtracks from the movies playing softly overhead also brought back a lot of memories.  I hope to see them expand their menu in the future to add some things from Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Porco Rosso!  Overall it was completely worth the money we spent.  My only real criticism is that they didn’t have many desserts (only pancakes and a cake that resembles a potted plant), but hopefully that will change with time.

Also, if you ever go to Thailand, be sure to check out Bangkok’s Totoro Cafe as well!

Access

〒460-0011 Aichi, Nagoya, Naka Ward, Ōsu, 4 Chome−2−47 赤門ビル4階
Located on the 4th floor of the Akamon building near Kamimaezu Station.

*Though we walked in and were fortunately seated at the bar counter, it is recommended to make reservations via phone in advance.

Floating down Takachiho Gorge: Miyazaki’s Hidden Gem

Nested in the mountains of Miyazaki, Takachiho Gorge has been a dream destination of mine for quite a long time now.  I wanted to go here when I first visited Miyazaki in 2018, but I sadly didn’t have enough time as it requires a 3 hour one-way journey.  However, last weekend I finally achieved my goal of traveling here and the trip was completely worth it!  I did a combination of hiking and row boating through the gorge as well as stay in a traditional ryokan nearby.  There are also shrines and waterfalls you can see around the area.  From pictures Takachiho Gorge looks quite large, but it actually can be seen in 2 – 3 hours.  I will be writing a handy guide for those who are curious about how I solo-traveled here.

Getting to Takachiho

Reaching Takachiho’s bus center from Miyazaki Station takes 2.5 – 3.5 hours depending on when you leave.  Please keep in mind that some buses only run on weekends and you should try to leave between 7am – 9am if you want to maximize your time here.

I woke up around 6:30am and took the Sonic-Nichirin Limited Express to Nobeoka Station, then took the highway bus that heads towards Kumamoto to reach Miyakoh Bus Station in Takachiho.  This costs between 3000 yen – 5000 yen, but they sell 1000 yen bus tickets at the bus center that will save you a lot of money. 

There are a few cheaper routes that combine different buses, but I am pretty sure this route runs every day so I would recommend it to people.  Especially since it combines a train and bus ride so overall you will save time and be comfortable.

Food

Before heading down to the gorge, you’ll probably want to grab some food!  There are a few vending machines and souvenir stores near the entrance, but there are far more options in the heart of the town.  Fortunately you will pass through this area on your way there.  My top recommendation is Cafe Terrace Takachihoya because they have a long and established reputation here.  I ordered vegan keema curry rice with an egg for lunch and their famous tea macchiato topped with whipped cream and a signature cookie for dessert.  This was probably the best meal that I had in Miyazaki because it was really filling!  They also have curry, pancakes, sandwiches, and smoothies on their menu.  If I come back here, I would like to try more!

Exploring Takachiho Gorge

From the bus station, Takachiho Gorge is a 24 min walk or 10 min cab ride.  I chose to walk because I wanted to explore the town first.  On your way to the gorge you will walk by Takachiho Shrine that is partly obscured by the forest.  It fortunately only takes a short hike to reach the alter.  I loved the way the sun reflected off the roof when I arrived:

After a few more minutes of walking, you will be able to make out the row boats sailing down the mouth of the gorge and that’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived!

The best thing about Takachiho Gorge is it’s completely free to explore—the only things that cost money are the aquarium (spelled “aqurum”) and row boat rentals.  The row boat rentals are 3000 yen but are usually cheaper if you have people with you (see prices).  I highly recommend taking the row boats out because they give you a unique view of the gorge that you can’t see from above.  This was my first time ever solo row boating, but I am proud to say that I only crashed twice!  At least I didn’t fall into the water!

I would recommend queuing for a row boat as soon as possible because they often have a 50 min wait time due to their popularity.  While you are killing time, you can explore the hiking trails around the gorge to make the most out of your trip.  You can also sit at the rest area or visit the aquarium.  Once it’s time to board your boat, the staff will give you a life belt and instruct you on how to row.  It’s pretty straightforward and impossible to get lost because the route is clearly marked.  Going from one side to the other usually takes 30-45 mins depending on your rowing ability (I was a bit slower because I was also taking pictures).  There are cute ducks that will fearlessly paddle alongside you.  I enjoyed having them as company!  After around 3 hours, I was satisfied with what I had seen here and made my way back to the town.  I grabbed some chocolate shaved ice and called it a day.  It was fun seeing the aesthetic of Takachiho, though!

In addition to the gorge, you may be interested in the Ameterasu Railway.  You can ride past canyons and also see some illuminations on a classic train.  Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to go as it closes quite early, but if you have extra time in the morning it might be something worth checking out.

Where to Stay

If you wake up early enough, you can explore the gorge and head back to Miyazaki City just in time.  However, that would involve roughly 6 hours of riding a combination of buses and trains so I wouldn’t recommend it.  I planned on flying back to Tokyo the following afternoon so I stayed at Ryokan Yamatoya for the night.  That way I could be comfortable and leave early in the morning.  This ryokan is only 5000 yen per night and is right in the heart of the city so it was the perfect fit for me.  It also has a public bath, but unfortunately it was closed due to the pandemic.  That didn’t stop me from taking a hot bath in my huge room, however!  I also made some green tea and relaxed in the yukata they provided.  Relaxion and reflection.  Another trip itinerary down with 100% completion!!

The next day I took the same route back to Miyazaki Airport and flew back to Tokyo.  I was lucky that the bus center is within walking distance from my hotel.  Despite the pandemic, most of the domestic flights were on time and handled with proper care.  I felt safe the entire time that I was here.  Would I do this again?  Hell yeah!!  But I just got a new job offer so I will be working full time again!  That won’t stop me from continuing to write these articles, however!!

I am currently planning weekend trips to Nagoya and Kamikochi so I will have more content up later this month.  Thank you all for reading and I hope we can travel more soon.

Exploring Miyazaki & Aoshima Island at Sunset

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Aoshima Beach at sunset.

Since I couldn’t travel to the Philippines, Indonesia, or New Zealand this summer, I decided to take a trip to Kyushu Island—also known as the tropics of Japan.  I’ve been to Kyushu around 6 times (most notably for my Yakushima Birthday Adventure), but this time my goal was to explore hard-to-reach destinations in Miyazaki Prefecture.  Kyushu is most famous for Fukuoka and Okinawa, but Miyazaki is just as beautiful as those places and has some extremely rare gems like Takachiho Gorge.  Surprisingly some Japanese people don’t even know about Takachiho because it’s so remote.  If you like swimming and outdoor adventures, then Miyazaki is the place for you!

My plan was stay for 4 days and travel to the following destinations:

Narita Airport (Tokyo) ⇛ Miyazaki Airport (Kyushu) ⇛ Aoshima Island ⇛ Takaharu City (for Totoro Bus Stop) ⇛ Aoshima Island (for rest) ⇛ Takachiho Gorge ↺ Tokyo

I previously went to Miyazaki in 2018 and paid nearly 50000 yen for my plane ticket because I was traveling during a holiday.  This is sadly the average price of non-discount airlines and is more expensive than international travel to surrounding Asian countries.  However, this time I only paid 12000 yen through combining one-way Jetstar and Peach Aviation flights.  A huge difference!  I will admit that I was a bit nervous traveling here during the pandemic, but this is one of my last summer vacations before I start working full time again.  Both airlines took great lengths to ensure our safety and enforced social distancing more than the trains in the city so I was grateful.  Kyushu can also be reached by train, but it takes 6-9 hours by shinkansen and is usually more expensive than airfare.  I recommend flying to save time and also to feel more comfortable.

Aoshima Beach

I boarded my plane mid-afternoon at Narita Airport and had a smooth 2 hour flight directly to Miyazaki Airport.  All I brought with me was my Totoro purse and backpack so check-in was no problem.  Once I arrived, I could already feel the ocean breeze from outside so I instantly felt relaxed.  There is a cheap bus that runs from the airport to Aoshima Beach, but since I was chasing sunsets I hailed a taxi there.  I arrived just in time to watch the sun set and get some swimming in.  I also pounded down 2 glasses of wine while wearing a fake Gucci shirt I bought in Osaka.  It felt great to be back again!

Aoshima is a fantastic beach because it’s connected to a tiny island by a bridge you can walk over.  On the island you will find a shrine, some unique rock formations called the Devil’s Washboard, random bars, and infinite palm trees.  You can see the whole island in 15 mins or less but I decided to go swimming here even after the main beach had closed.  After it started getting dark, I decided to walk back and relax at Aoshima Park. This area has a variety of restaurants and bars and usually stays open until 8pm-10pm depending on the day.  There is a free alkaline shower you can use here as well!

Dinner

For dinner, I decided to try the famous Aoshima Crab Bowl for 3000 yen.  It came with a whole rainbow of sashimi with it too:

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Face Hugger

10/10.  After feeling fulfilled, I decided to head back to my guest house and get some sleep.  I was venturing all the way to the legendary Totoro Bus Stop the next day, after all.  The party had just begun.

Where to Stay

The two best options for backpackers to stay at in Aoshima are Hooju Guest House and Fisherman’s Beach Side Hostel.  Both are 2100 yen per night and are located right on the beach.  They are extremely simple and have limited amenities, but are perfect for those who are planning on doing outdoor activities for most of their stay.  I felt extremely welcome during my time here and the other people in my dorm were respectful.  There is also bike rental available which saved me a lot of time!

As far as onsen go, I recommend the day hot spring at Grantia Hotel in Aoshima.  It has an indoor and outdoor onsen, sauna, and only costs 850 yen to enter.  A perfect way to unwind after the beach!

Alternatively you could stay near Miyazaki Station if you are planning to visit other cities in Kyushu.  Aoshima is about a 45min bus ride away from the city center so you won’t be on the beach, but you will be close to it.  No matter which location you choose, there’s a lot to see and do!

Bonus

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The opposite of the Majora’s Mask Moon.

One thing I loved about Miyzaki Airport is that all of the clocks resemble smiling suns.  The polar opposite of the Majora’s Mask Moon!  Miyazaki Airport is one of the happiest airports that you’ll visit.  The only thing that comes close is the Koh Samui Airport in Thailand with its beautiful outdoor garden.

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My dream house.

When I first visited Miyazaki in 2018, I stayed with two of my friends in their town house near Miyazaki Station.  This was very convenient for taking transportation and I got to know so much of the city thanks to their guidance.  While I was out running, I remember passing by this stunning pink house in their neighborhood.  The bright color and gorgeous design of the windows were extremely eye-catching.  Plus it looked extremely spacious.  That got me thinking…  If I ever get over my “party every weekend” phase, I might enjoy living in a house like this near the beach.  It’s really hard to predict the future at this point because Tokyo has the most financial opportunities for me, but it’s fun to fantasize about.  Where is your dream house?

Thank you for reading the first article of my Miyazaki Series!  I will be talking about visiting the famous Totoro Bus Stop in my next article.  Please stay tuned for more.

 

The Great Bike Trip Conclusion: From Yoshinoyama to Tokyo (Day 4)

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Yoshinoyama Shrine on a warm summer day.

After finally making it past the rain to our lovely ryokan in Yoshinoyama, we decided to spend the final day of our great bike trip leisurely exploring its hiking trails before heading back to Tokyo.  The summit of Mt. Yoshino is quite easy to reach from the hotel area, only taking around 20 mins of climbing.  From here you can get a great view of Nara and there are a number of old shrines you can visit too.  Obviously the best time of year to visit is during spring when the sakura trees are in bloom, but coming during summer was probably the second best choice.  Staying here made me feel refreshed and closer with nature.  I never would have known about this place have it not been for my driver!  With a positive attitude, we set off to the summit to begin the last day of our grand adventure…

For the introduction and full context of this trip, please see Day 1 (From Tokyo to Ise), Day 2 (From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen), and Day 3 (From Kawayu Onsen to Yoshinoyama).  This article will cover the final day of our great bike trip.

Departure

The 4th day began on August 4th at 7:00am.  I woke up at 6:30 to go for a run around the mountain paths of Yoshinoyama and also wander through the garden in the backyard of our ryokan.  Our original plan was to depart early explore places around Takayama, but since I already did a pilgrimage to the town from Your Name, I wanted to see more of the mountains of Nara.  I have actually only been to Nara during my study abroad trip to Japan in 2013.  Seeing the rare areas by motorbike was a grand opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.  We planned to return to Tokyo at dusk and I was to ride the shinkansen home from Nagoya so my driver’s load would be lighter on the busiest highways.

Our updated map travel map looked like this (of course we were stopping at many places in between the 3 hour ride):

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Chikurin-in Gumpeon Road

One reason I’m happy we took our time at our ryokan is because there’s so much to see around it!  Additionally our reservation included a hearty breakfast that consisted of fish, salad, vegetables, egg, rice, tea and water mochi for dessert.  This set was so filling and delicious:

 

After checking out, we strolled down the road to the summit.  Along the way we saw a restaurant with a Shiba Inu, a workshop labeled “Mad Garage”, and a shrine guarded by tengu statues called Sakuramotobou.  This street is extremely narrow but has a lot of interesting things to see.  Due to the pandemic some stores were closing early, but everyone here was friendly and did their best to make us feel welcome.

 

Yoshinoyama Shrines

The main shrine of Yoshinoyama is called Yoshino Jingu and is located to the north of the hotel area, but there are dozens of others that you can see on the way.  Some of my favorites were Kinpusenji due to its old wooden architecture, and the smaller inner shrines of the because they had variety in their design.  What I liked most about Yoshino Jingu was it was adorned with wind chimes during this time of year:

 

After walking around for a while and soaking up the atmosphere, we decided to pay to have our fortune told… but there was only one fortune remaining!  So we did what two responsible adults would do and shared it.  And in return the fortune rewarded us with the best luck possible!  I really hope this helps me with future trips and job interviews!!

 

Here is a video we took of the wind chimes dancing in the breeze.  Up in the mountains there are few other noises to drown them out so their sound resonates beautifully:

 

When we reached the summit of Mt. Yoshino I had my first encounter with a Japanese Murder Hornet.  I could guess what it was immediately due to its immense size.  My driver confirmed my suspicions and told me to stand still and act as naturally as possible.  Their behavior is quite similar to that of normal bees so it’s best to not run from them as that will make them more defensive.  Fortunately these creatures are not vehement and even then it’s hard to die unless you’re stung by a group of them.  I managed to take one super-zoomed in photo to commemorate my survival:

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The not-so-murderous murder hornet.

After we saw the shrines and took pictures at the summit, we road back towards Tokyo while stopping at some viewpoints in the hills along the way.

Soni Highlands

 

While riding through Nara, we decided to take a pit-stop and try the famous blueberry ice cream made with Hokkaido Milk here.  I was not expecting that much, but the taste was actually creamy and delicious.  Plus seeing the deer/human mascot of this area was hilarious!  My driver thought it was an atrocity though.

Since the Soni Highlands were on our way back, we decided to ride up the plateau and see the pampas grass.  Though there wasn’t much to see at the top, the breeze sure did feel nice.  If we would have had more time and preparation, I would have loved to have a picnic here!

The Sonikogenonsen Okame Hot Spring is conveniently located next to the highlands, so we stopped there on our way back.  Due to being in the hills this onsen is extremely sunny.  What I liked the most is that there were straw hats in the outdoor onsen area you could wear to keep the sun out of your face.  The entrance fee is only 750 yen so it’s a good deal.

Returning Home

 

Feeling completely satisfied by this enthralling experience, I was finally ready to head home.  We drove from Nara to Nagoya where my driver dropped me off on the Meitetsu Line so I could take the shinkansen back to Tokyo.  Since I was sunburned and feeling quite tired, I could sleep off the exhaustion versus ride back on the highway.  This also gave me some time to reflect on trip and made the baggage on the bike lighter (I carried my helmet and clothes back with me) so it was a smart move.  We had succeeded in the great bike trip.  I’ll never forget this feeling for the rest of my life!

Day 4 Itinerary: 80% Completion

Though our original plan changed when we reached Yoshinoyama because decided to explore the mountains more, I’m happy things turned out this way.  Our ryokan stay would have been rushed if we drove to another prefecture so quickly and we would have missed out on the breakfast and lovely hikes that we took.  After getting to know the area of Yoshinoyama, I would really like to come back here during sakura season and see how beautiful it is!  This day was definitely slower-paced compared to the rest, but the hikes gave me a good workout.  4 days of biking was the perfect amount and I was lucky to be accompanied with such an experienced driver.  If you ever have the chance to go motorbiking through Japan (both as a driver or passenger) please do it!  It will open up a whole new world and take you to places that you can’t reach by public transportation.  Many people have been road tripping and camping during the pandemic to avoid public places and it is a much safer way to travel.

Future Opportunities

My sponsor and I both agreed that this trip went extremely well and we would like to plan more in the future.  Though we both normally travel solo, we learned a lot of new things through one another and agreed the trip was more fun together.  For example, they enjoyed guiding me through ancient places like Koyasan and I was grateful for their history lecture and taste in ryokan.  The only con was they don’t nearly enjoy the beach as much as I do, and I don’t like to camp when rain is forecasted.  Fortunately we were able to compromise on these things and got along quite well.  That is a vital skill we need to learn to live a happy life.

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Cheers to a successful trip!

Future Destinations

Some of our potential destinations this year include camping sites in Nagano and Shikoku.  We would also like to travel around Tohoku because I haven’t explored much of it yet.  Our departure date will depend on my work schedule, but I am doing my best to balance work and play!

Please look forward to future road trip articles from me or share your own experience in the comments~

The Great Bike Trip: From Kawayu Onsen to Yoshinoyama (Day 3)

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Just restoring my MP.

Having survived the harsh sun and rain of the first two days, we next set off for our motorbike adventure deep in the mountains of Nara Prefecture!  On the way there we decided to stop at the famous cemetery in Koyasan and also make our way to some viewpoints so we could experiment with skyline photography.  I had a lot of fun testing out the Canon EOS M I was lent for this trip and it turned out to be quite the relaxing day.  Though some of the parts of the mountain were steep, they were overall smooth and easy to ride on.  The main motivation for riding here was the luxury ryokan awaiting us upon completion of this trail.  This trip was going by so fast that I couldn’t believe it was halfway over…

For the introduction and full context of this trip, please see Day 1 (From Tokyo to Ise) and Day 2 (From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen).

Departure

The 3rd day began on August 3rd at 6:30am.  I took one last dip in the river onsen before we departed because it was the perfect way to start the day.  We definitely got our money’s worth at Kawayu Ryokan!  Our original plan was to go to Awaji Island on this day but due to the rain our itinerary changed.  Tonight our final destination was a ryokan designed by a famous architect in the mountains of Nara (Yoshinoyama) which took approximately 4 hours to reach (with breaks included).  We decided to spend more time in Wakayama and see some extremely rare sites that are only accessible by vehicle while making our way through the deep mountain paths.

Our updated map travel map looked like this:

Mt. Tamaki & Tamakijinja Shrine

Our first destination was a viewpoint on Mt. Tamaki that was approximately 45 mins away from Kawayu Onsen.  It conveniently had a free parking lot for motorbikes since it’s located next to Tamakijinja Shrine.  The sun had already rose so we stood here and took pictures of the clouds cascading over the mountains.  The cedar trees in the forest were beautiful too!  They brought back fond memories that I had hiking through Yakushima.  How nostalgic.

We next walked 15 minutes to the World Heritage Site of Tamakijinja Shrine.  The area was partially shaded by foliage so it was an easy hike.  The morning breeze felt lovely too.

Tamakijinja Shrine

Tamakijinja Shrine is small in size but is located in one of the most beautiful areas of the mountain.  The cedar trees that surround it are estimated to be about 3000 years old.  If you ever get the chance to visit this area of Nara, I highly recommend this forest!  I would have never even known about it if it wasn’t for my experienced driver.

Tanize Suspension Bridge

Tanize Suspension Bridge is located near Mt. Tamaki and is one of the longest suspension bridges in Japan.  It connects the villages of Uenochi and Tanize and has a gorgeous pale blue river underneath it.  My driver thought I would appreciate the photo op so we stopped here to take a break.  The bridge was extremely stable and safe to walk across.  I didn’t get much of a thrill from it but I did love looking at the river below.  The construction that went into this is quite impressive.

Other than the bridge, there’s really not a lot to do here.  But I did try some strange-looking sushi wrapped in cabbage because that’s apparently the specialty here.  It was vegetarian-friendly and quite healthy.  The taste was a bit different than what I was used to but it gave me the energy I needed to power through the rest of this day:

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You really need to try cabbage sushi at least once in your life.

Koyasan

Our next stop was Koyasan (also known as Mt. Koya), which is a quaint little town in Nara filled with temples and one of Japan’s most famous cemeteries: Okunoin.  The mausoleum here is where is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, lies in eternal meditation.  He is one of the most prominent figures in religious history making this area a sacred pilgrimage site.  In addition to him, many monks and feudal lords have been buried here.  You’ll also find some interesting looking tombstones dedicated to animals and science figures.  There are numerous bridges that you can cross to reach the mausoleum which make the journey interesting.  I also noticed that the leaves on the trees here were already turning red even though August had just began!

This is a place that I would not normally choose to go by myself because I am not religious or that well-versed in history, but my driver guided me through it which made the experience a lot more enriching.  A curious thing that I noticed here was that many statues were wearing red bibs.  I asked my driver why, and he didn’t know off the top of his head so we both researched it while we were resting.

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Jizo statues protect the souls of children and travelers.

According to Tadaima Japan, these statues are called Jizo and have two main roles:

“Their main role is to protect children. They also protect the souls of children who passed away and unborn babies. […] The other main role of Jizo is to protect the travelers, which is why you will often find Jizo statues on the side of the roads.”

I’ve seen these statues before in other areas of Japan, but I never understood the true symbolism until now.  It makes sense that parents would want to wish a safe journey to their children in the afterlife by praying to Jizo.  I’ve also encountered some in my mountain hikes and am glad that they are watching over me.  Koyasan is a really great place to learn more about these kinds of subjects if you are interested.

After cooling off at the rest center here, we took a 2 hour ride towards Yoshinoyama to reach our final destination for the day:

Chikurin-in Gumpeon Ryokan

Our final destination was the famous Chikurin-in Gumpeon ryokan in Yoshinoyama.  This ryokan was originally a temple that housed high-ranking monks who appraised the mountain.  The former Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, has even stayed here!  Now it servers as a famous hotspring resort that is open to the public but much of the original architecture has been preserved.  A famous ikebana artist designed the garden outside and you can tell that a lot of articulate work was put into the aesthetic here.  Due to the pandemic, there was only one other guest staying at the time so we got upgraded to a family room for free.  That is literally the best hospitality we could have asked for.  It really was an honor staying here!

Here is a video tour of our upgraded family room.  This is hands-down the most fancy resort that I have every stayed at and I am eternally grateful to my sponsor for the trip:

Since the sun was going down and we were starving, we grabbed a healthy meal from a restaurant across the street.  The roads of Yoshinoyama are extremely narrow but you can easily find food and drinks near wherever you are staying.  Just be careful because some places close around 6pm.  This area designed for relaxing at your hotspring and is remote from the city so I recommend staying here overnight.  You will thank yourself later.

This was a seasonal food set that consisted of vegetables, soup, tofu, salad, tempura and rice.  It was so healthy and delicious.  You can find a lot of these meals in Yoshinoyama!

At this point we were exhausted and headed off to bed in our family-size ryokan, but I will be writing more about this area in my next and final article of this series!

Day 3 Itinerary: 80% Completion

It’s hard to score our completion due to us completely skipping over Awaji Island, but in hindsight I’m happy we did.  This was a full day that was packed with activity so I give us another 80%.  This gave us more time to explore the mountains of Nara and area around our famed ryokan.  Had we gone to Awaji, we would have missed out on seeing the shrines and learning about the history of Koyasan.  The best thing is that we agreed to go to Awaji on another trip over dinner so we wouldn’t be rushed with our activities.  That is the perfect compromise!

I will be writing my final article tomorrow as soon as I wake up.  Thank you to everyone that has been reading and supporting me!  There are many more adventures to come.

The Great Bike Trip: From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen (Day 2)

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Yunomine Onsen – A colorful hotspring where you can cook eggs in the boiling water!

After a peaceful night of camping at the gorgeous Mihama Beach in Mie, we next planned to make our way to some remote World Heritage sites in Wakayama Prefecture.  I had never traveled there before, so I was lucky that my driver was well-acquainted with the area.  If you ever travel to Wakayama, I recommend skipping the city and heading straight for Nachi Falls.  It’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls that I have seen in Japan aside from those in Yakushima and has a bright red pagoda you can climb.  Honestly you could spend the whole day wandering through the forests here, but we decided to divide our time between shrines and hotsprings!

For the introduction and full context of this trip, please see Day 1 (From Tokyo to Ise).

Departure

The 2nd day began on August 2nd at 4:30am.  We packed up our campsite at Mihama Beach and decided to choose Nachi Falls as our first destination because it was where I wanted to do photography the most.  We had booked a ryokan in Yoshinoyama for the night which was roughly 5 hours away from our starting point (with breaks in between).  However, we figured that there was a ton of places we could stop at on the way so we wouldn’t get tired.  Unfortunately due to heavy rain we had to take refuge at a river onsen and spend the night there, but we still visited 4/5 of our planned destinations so I was happy with what we accomplished.

Our updated map travel map looked like this.  Fortunately we had already arrived in Wakayama and seen everything we wanted before it rained:

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Nachi Falls

Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall in Japan that falls vertically.  It also has lovely surrounding scenery and a series of Shinto shrines you can visit.  The forest has a mythical feel to it as there are trees, bamboo, and all sorts of plants growing in it.  If you look at Wakayama travel websites, the red pagoda is the image that is featured the most!  That is why I had to come here and see if it was worth the hype.  As most places I put a lot of time and research into, I enjoyed seeing it to its full extent:

Nachi Falls is so huge that you can see it as soon as you enter the World Heritage site.  The first viewpoint is marked with a yellow tori and only takes a few minutes to reach.  However, the best viewpoints are a little further out.  The red three-storied pagoda takes about a 15 minute hike to reach, but you can borrow a walking stick for free to help you climb the stairs (mine looked like a bamboo stick).

This area is completely free to see, but the pagoda costs 300 yen to enter.  The top floor is fenced but has a hole where you can clearly view the waterfall and feel a nice breeze.  You will also receive a piece of paper with a brief history of how it was constructed.  If you climb up the hill next to the pagoda, then you can take the iconic shot of it next the waterfall.  Pure aesthetics, baby!

While Mihama Beach was my favorite destination, this was likely my 2nd favorite.  Nachi Falls is much more pretty than anything that surrounds the major cities in Japan.  Only temples in Kyoto can compare to it, but there are far less people here in Wakayama!

Kumano Sanzan

Kumano Sanzan is another one of the most popular World Heritage sites in Wakayama which consist of a series of shrines.  There are tons of Kumano Shrines located throughout Japan, but the three in Wakayama are said to be the originals, or the “headquarters” as my sponsor calls it.  The three Kumano Shrines (called Kumano Sanzan) are: Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine (by the waterfall we visited), and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine.

Since we had already seen the one by Nachi Falls, we decided to travel to the other two by bike.  Fortunately they only take 15-30 mins and a simple hike to reach.  Kumano Sanzan is actually my sponsor’s favorite series of shrines so that is why it was high on our list of places to go.  He even has a custom sticker of the Kumano’s bird mascot on our bike (which I had hilariously left my swimsuit out to dry on)!

The pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan is extremely relaxing and there is fortunately a lot of shade.  I can see why it is one of the most sought-out journeys in Japan.  If you only have time to see one of them, definitely go to the Grand Shrine in Nachi Falls!

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The origin story.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat at Cafe Alma at the base of the last shrine.  I couldn’t helped but laugh because “Alma” is actually the name of my obscure home town…

Yunomine Onsen

Since we were making perfect time, we decided to ride for 30 mins and stop at a small hotsprings town in the mountains called Yunomine Onsen.  It looks big from the first picture I took, but it’s actually quite small.  It’s comparable to the onsen you’d find in Takasaki or Gifu but still has a lot of unique charm.  Yunomine has a few public baths but mostly consists of private ryokans.  It’s perfect for travelers to stop at for a quick break, however.  After some debate, we decided to try the medicine bath with sulfur water from the natural hotspring.  It’s extremely hot but it’s supposed to relax and heal your muscles.  I lucked out and had a private bath completely to myself for a while!

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Eggscellent.

I spent about an hour in the bath house, and when I got out my driver had bought some eggs for us to boil in the hot water that was flowing through the town.  The eggs tasted absolutely delicious!  Hotspring-boiled food is one of the most unique dining experiences in Japan.

Then the rain hit…

We packed up all of our things and were about to take off when suddenly it started downpouring.  We debated about heading out because we had proper rain gear packed, but since we planned on driving deep into the mountains it wasn’t safe.  My sponsor called the ryokan he had booked and was able to change the reservation to the following day, but we were temporarily at a loss of what to do.

We tried to make a reservation at a guest ryokan in Yunomine, but unfortunately they were on holiday.  The others were extremely expensive.  My phone was dying and I was starving.  The rain started to subside where we were at after 45 mins, but it was predicted to fall heavy in our next destination.  I suggested that we get a hotel so we would be safe for the night versus camping.  Luckily my sponsor was able to find a cheap ryokan near Kawayu Onsen that was just 10 mins away by bike.  This was our lucky break.

Though our plans were delayed, bathing at this river onsen actually turned out to be one of the most fun experiences on this trip and made up for the rain:

Kawayu Onsen

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Kawayu Onsen: A secluded hotspring resort with a river you can bathe in too.

When we reached Kawayu Onsen, the rain had completely stopped and the town was enveloped in a beautiful white mist.  I liked the aura of this place already.  We stayed at Sansuikan Kawayu Matsuya for 7500 yen a night (fortunately paid for by my sponsor) and had a spacious ryokan room.  We ate some cheap Chinese food that was nearby and decided to go for another bath (because that was really all there was to do).  This onsen was ingeniously laid out because the hot bath was surrounded by thick rocks, but you could climb down and swim into the river the cool off.  At one point at I got relaxed that I laid down on my back and almost floated away… Just kidding!  The river is too shallow to do that but it does get deeper of you enter it from outside the hot spring entrance.  My body felt absolutely amazing after this bath and I was ready to take on the next day!

Day 2 Itinerary: 80% Completion

Though the rain delayed us from reaching our final destination, we were still able to go to 4/5 places so it was overall a successful day.  By this point I had completely gotten used to riding on the motorbike and fortunately the hotspring visits restored my HP.  These onsen villages are extremely hard to reach by public transportation, so yet again I had gotten another rare opportunity to see more of rural Japan.  I have many fond memories here in Wakayama and am actually thankful that the rain led us on this path.  If we would have skipped Yunomine and left earlier, we could be stranded on the highway or forest.  Perhaps the gods of Kumano were really looking out for us…

Please stayed tuned for the next 2 days!