Exploring Sadoshima: The Island of Gold Mines, Washtubs, and the Japanese Crested Ibis

Remember the washtub scene from Tales of Symphonia? On Sadoshima you can live the dream!

After seeing Skrillex close the first night of Fuji Rock in 2018, I decided to spend the next day sailing to Niigata’s obscure island with dark past: Sadoshima. Through a large portion of history this island was used as exile for heinous criminals but also for free thinkers who had critical opinions of the emperors at the time. Many people were contained in detention centers, but after the discovery of the gold mines on the islands they able-bodied were used as forced laborers. People from the mainland were also selected to help mine the gold. Nowadays the island is filled with luscious nature and the mines and prisons have been turned into museums. There are a number of activities that you can do on Sadoshima including swimming and taking a boat tour, but my main reason for coming is so I could ride in the washtubs (also known as hangiri or tarai bune).

Getting to Sadoshima

I purchased a ferry tickets from Sado Kisen for 2380 yen in advance and rode the car ferry. There are multiple boarding points, but I boarded at Bandaijima Ferry Terminal because it is closest to the shinkansen station. I would definitely recommend booking in advance so you can better plan your trip because only certain time slots are available.

The boat ride to Sadoshima from Niigata takes one hour and is a pretty smooth trip. I would recommend doing a day trip unless you plan on swimming a lot because most of the island can be seen in a day. There are various Sado Bus Tours you can reserve from the official website that take you to the main points of the island. You can also try renting a car or take a taxi, but the bus tours have the best value. I took the half-day course that included the gold mines, wash tubs, and Toki Forest Park for 4900 yen. I can happily say that my experience was worth the time and money because I got to witness a lot of rare sights!

Boarding the Ship

I boarded the ship at 6am and was surprised to find out that it was ginormous with a total of 6 floors. I booked second class seats because they were cheaper but the first class tickets come with small beds you can nap in. The ship even had anime mascots and cosplay that you could wear and take pictures in! Not to mention you could buy a lot of food and alcohol from the vending machines and staffed stalls. The view of the ocean from the top was amazing too and I still remember the gentle summer breeze. After backpacking in Asia for 3 years I was really getting used to the no frills ferries, but this was maybe the most luxurious boat I have ever ridden in my life. Even 3 years later while writing this I still remember how amazing it was!

Riding the Washtubs from Tales of Symphonia

As a child I adored Tales of Symphonia, and specifically remember there being a washtub scene in the game. In this scene the characters heroically board washtubs at the pier and sail to their next destination, some characters enduring the ride better than others making it comedic. Little did I know that I would get to experience the same thing here on Sadoshima! Fortunately the washtubs here are extremely pleasant to ride and you have your own captain to steer for you. A true luxury that is unique to this island.

In the past these boats were extremely popular for fishing due to their durability and low cost, but now there are much more powerful tools available so only remote villages are keeping this tradition alive. In Ito, Shizuoka, the Matsukawa Washtub Races are sometimes held, but these washtubs are leaner and meant for sports. Sadoshima is the best place to experience them and fortunately you can reserve them on the same day you arrive to the island. The ride is only for around 15 minutes but you can choose to ride multiple times. I had a blast reliving a scene from one of my favorite games!

Here is a video I took on my old camera. Sadly this was before my GoPro days but I remember how fun this was:

Kinzan Gold Mine

According to Japan Guide, Sadoshima’s Kinzan Gold Mine was the most active gold mine in Japan that produced over 400kg of gold and also silver and other metals too. It has two main paths that you can walk down and read the history while you explore the inner tunnels. One path has tiny robotic workers that reenact some of the activities in the mine and another has restored tunnels from the Edo Period. There is a gift shop that sells all sorts of crazy gold souvenirs including gold sake and sponge cakes with specks of gold in the frosting. It looks kind of tacky now but at the time I really enjoyed these kinds of places! I still have a gold necklace that I occasionally wear out that I bought from Sadoshima. I’d say the gift shops here are pretty top notch and it is always fun to look around~

Toki Forest Park

The Toki, or Japanese Crested Ibis, is an endangered species that is kept under special watch at Sadoshima. At Toki Forest Park you can learn all about them and observe them from a safe distance. The park is very beautiful and contains various facilities. There is an outdoor area where you can take a stroll through the garden and may have the chance to meet the costumed Toki mascot. There is an indoor area where you can see different pictures of Toki and learn all about their characteristics. I personally loved the distinct red color around their eyes. Sadly the Toki are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and starvation during the winter, but the preservation center here is aiming to take care of them and eventually release them into the wild. There were 6 birds here when I visited in 2018 and I am hoping there are more now. I bought the Toki change purse as a souvenir and as a reminder to not forget them.

Overall my experience to Sadoshima was very vivid and I definitely recommend coming here during the summer in Niigata. One day on the island was enough for me to do everything that I wanted, but if I come with a friend or a group of people I may consider staying longer. I hope to visit Niigata next year for the sake festival!

The best things to do on your first trip to Kyoto (Part 1)

Over the past few months I’ve explored the rural northern parts of Kyoto including the fishing town of Ine and the beautiful beach of Amanohashidate, but in this post I’d like to highlight the main tourist spots from my earlier archives just for reference.

I first visited Kyoto in 2013 during my study abroad trip in Japan, and returned in late 2015 for a visit during my epic job search.  I now visit Kyoto 3-4 times per year for music events (mainly at Metro) and also for eating aesthetic food.

The longer I live in Japan, the more I come to appreciate this peaceful city.  From nearly anywhere in Kyoto you can see the mountains and be reminded of the beautiful terrain this country has.  As the former capital of Japan, Kyoto has almost everything you could want in a place to live; shopping centers, street food, temples filled with years history, and a variety of night clubs.  Not to mention Nintendo HQ!  Though Tokyo has the most opportunity for foreigners, I often fantasize about what my life would be like if I lived here.  It definitely would be an exciting one~

Here are my recommendations on things to see during your first trip to Kyoto:

The Golden Pavilion

Out of all the building structures I’ve seen in Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is by far the most breathtaking.  Built overtop a pond, you can see it shining elegantly with its gold leaf coating during any time of the year.  I first came here in Autumn when it shone with a beautiful contrast to the leaves that were turning a bright shade of red.  The best time to come is during the golden hour (5pm) because the lighting is optimal and you can see a perfect reflection of it on the water.  Though you are not allowed to enter the pavilion, you can still admire its impressive design from afar.  I learned from the pamphlet I was given the gold lacquer is thought to dispel and purify pollution and negative thoughts.  Being here definitely put my mind at ease and I think it’s somewhere that everyone should visit at least once.  I have never seen any other place that’s as gold as this besides the Golden Buddha in Nara.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Line to Kita-Oji Station then Bus 205 to the Kinkakuji Bus Stop.  This costs 490 yen and takes 30 mins.

Entrance Fee: 400 yen

Fushimi Inari

The best way I can think to describe Fushimi Inari is “a shrine of shrines”.  If you want to experience one of the biggest shrine networks surrounded by nature in Japan, then all travel guides will point you here.  Similar to the Golden Pavilion (but much more red in color), there is really no place quite like here.  You will be stunned by the thousands of red torii gates and trails that lead to the summit of Mt. Inari.  The climb takes about 2.5 hours to reach from the base.  You will notice that there are many fox statues here which are said to be the messengers of the shrine.  Though this place is a tourist hotspot, I definitely recommend it.  If you are looking for a less crowded shrine, you can try going to Daigoji in Kyoto too because it is similarly red and historical.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Nara Line to Inari Station.  This only takes 5 mins and costs 150 yen.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen

Nintendo HQ

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Where it all began.

Before I came to Japan most of my time was spent gaming or watching anime. I have some of my best adolescent memories and have met many friends through Nintendo games and events. So coming here—to the main HQ building of Nintendo in Kyoto—was surreal to me.  Of course you’re not allowed to enter, but you can walk by the building and are free to take pictures.  There is not much else to see in this district, but this building is definitely worth seeing if you’re a Nintendo fan.

Access

From Shiokoji Takakura bus stop near Kyoto Station, you can take Bus 205 to Kyoto Shiyakushomae and walk 3 mins there.  You can also take a cheap taxi or rent bikes to get here.

Address: 11-1 Kamitoba Hokodatecho, Minami Ward, Kyoto, 601-8501

In Part 2 of this article I will be talking more about the touristy things I did in Kyoto when I first moved to Japan.  Often people look down upon tourism, but it is essential to the economy of most Asian countries and also has been valuable in my understanding of the culture here.  You should never feel ashamed for being a tourist.

Aesthetic Dining Experiences in Kyoto, Japan Vol. 1

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Soft mochi and iced green tea at a traditional sweets store in Gion.

Whenever I travel to a new place, I like trying a combination of the local cuisine and the most crazy places that I can find.  Kyoto is known for its tofu, noodles, kaiseki (vegetarian dishes), and of course; matcha sweets (which includes green tea-flavored ice cream, parfaits, and more).  Here is a list I have compiled of the most unique dining experiences I have had in Kyoto:

Gold Ramen at Zundoya

Zundoya is an extremely popular ramen chain in Japan because of their affordable and delicious bowls.  In their Tokyo and and Kyoto branches, they have the option to purchase gold flakes which you can sprinkle on any ramen dish on their menu.  This comes with a hefty extra 5000 yen charge, but was fun to do just for the aesthetic purpose of eating golden ramen.  You can buy these gold flakes at souvenir shops in Kyoto and Kanazawa.  They can be used as a topping for virtually any food due to them being flavorless.

The regular bowls of ramen are also packed with flavor!  The funny thing was I came here after a music workshop with some of my Japanese friends per their recommendation.  That’s when you know it’s a good place to eat!

Kichi Kichi Omurice

Omelette and rice dishes (dubbed omurice) are an extremely popular food combination in Japan, and this restaurant does it best!  When you see the head chef, Yukimura Motokichi, slice a freshly baked omelette and have it perfectly melt over the rice in an almost cinematic fashion, you’ll understand why this restaurant is so popular.

This meal was seriously the best omurice I had ever tasted because the omelettes are cooked to be extremely fluffy.  Since this website is so popular, it is recommended to make a reservation on their website.

Kitten Company Cafe

As the name implies, this cafe has cat-themed sweets, and is extremely vegan-friendly.  I tried their vegan curry, chocolate cake, and kitten cookies.  All of them were scrumptious, and I was delighted to see the curry arranged in the form of a happy cloud!  No reservation is required for this restaurant, but you can see their website here.

Menbaka Fire Ramen

NO RAMEN NO LIFE” is the English slogan that greets you at this ramen restaurant.  I immediately liked the atmosphere the minute I entered.  Menbaka puts a large amount of green onions and pours oil right over the dish before it is served to create an explosive fiery effect.  Just watch the video of me seconds before the fire starts to burn:

The taste of the ramen is quite ordinary; maybe a little more oily but otherwise unnoticeable.  It is worth going to once just to see the fire!  This restaurant does not accept reservations; you must lineup and take a numbered ticket.  You can explore other places in Kyoto while you are waiting, so it’s not so gruesome of a wait.

Green Tea Soba Noodles

Tsujiri Teahouse offers one of the most unique noodle dishes I’ve ever seen in my life: green tea soba and tofu in a white milk-like broth.  Though that doesn’t sound appetizing at first, it actually has a refreshing taste!  I ordered mine chilled and they really hit the spot.  If you are feeling adventurous, this is definitely a good thing to try!  In additional to noodles, there are many parfaits and sweets here.  Next time I come to Kyoto, I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for more unique food like this!

The Most Aesthetic Temple in the World: Wat Rong Khun

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With a bridge crossing a tranquil lake and a display of hundreds of outreaching stone hands leading to the gate of heaven, Wat Rong Khun is easily the most aesthetic temple I have ever laid eyes on.  The way this temple is structured symbolizes the Buddhist teaching of withholding your desires to reach true happiness and enlightenment.

On my last day in Thailand, I flew from Phuket to Chiang Mai and decided to embark on a long journey to witness the beauty of Wat Rong Khun–a famous Buddhist temple that is also known as the “White Temple” among travelers.  My fascination with this temple first started when I was at the Unicorn Pub in Hanoi, Vietnam, and a bartender told me about this beautiful white temple with golden toilets.  For aesthetic purposes, I knew I needed to come here!  I booked my tour in advance through KKDay, who came and picked me up at my hostel on a bus with other backpackers.  Wat Rong Khun is located in Chang Rai and it took about 2 hours to get there, but trust me, this was definitely worth the trip.

This temple is both awe-inspiring and quite horrific at the same time.  The outreaching hands definitely made me think of all the corrupt people in the world that value their egos and material things more than helping others.  These people definitely fall victim to themselves in the end because at death they have nothing left.  However, after I crossed the bridge and reached the inner chamber, the beautiful art, intricate statues, and gleaming white architecture made me realize that finding peace and happiness is in this crazy world is definitely possible–just don’t try to take any shortcuts or else you’ll just end up as another hand!

What’s both confusing and hilarious is that the murals depict both popular eastern and western characters like Hello Kitty, Superman, and Harry Potter, as well as western singers like Michael Jackson (unfortunately no photography was allowed inside so I did not take any pictures, but there are likely pictures floating online).  According to Slate, juxtaposing these pop culture figures with Buddhist figures has sparked controversy from the Thai government, but I honestly see this display more as modern art than defamation or blasphemy.  The golden toilets are also worth a trip to.  You will definitely never see anything else in the world like this!

I would highly recommend coming to Chiang Mai and Rai on your trip to Thailand, because much like Kyoto and surrounding areas in Japan, these towns are filled with temples, unique art, nature, and are more relaxing than other huge cities like Phuket and Bangkok.  The major con to coming to this temple was there are a lot of tourists and staff with megaphones rushing us through because the bridge is quite narrow for people pass through on.  However, there are many temples in Thailand to choose from!  The road to heaven is not an easy one, but coming here reminded me that letting go of your personal desires and working towards a greater concept is a very important lesson in life.