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!

Hakone: Journey to the Real-life Tokyo-3

If you’ve ever looked up day trips from Tokyo on the internet, Hakone will be one of the most prominent results.  With it being the real-life location of Tokyo-3 from Evangelion and having many hotsprings, temples, and a great view of Mt. Fuji, that status is well-deserved.  It’s also home to one of my favorite museums in Japan which has sculptures that resemble vaporwave visuals called the Hakone Open Air Museum.  You should also try swimming in the famous red wine onsen at Yunessan to smooth your skin.  Wherever you go you’re bound to discover something interesting here because the nature is vast.

I’ve been to Hakone five times by myself and also with friends so I’ve seen all its major attractions.  Here are some of the coolest things that I’ve found:

Eva-Ya: The Evangelion Goods Store

As you exit the station and begin your wonderful journey here, one of the first things you’ll come across is Eva-ya; Hakone’s own original Evangelion Store.  Here you will find a number of goods from the anime including water bottles based off the characters’ designs, food with the NERV logo on it, and a life-sized Rei Ayanami.  Asuka fans don’t fret because she has plenty of merchandise too!  One of my best purchases here was Misato’s cross-shaped necklace (not pictured).  I also enjoyed the Unit 01-colored ice cream.  Of course you can visit the official Evangelion stores in Tokyo too, but this is the one located where the anime takes places and has slightly different merchandise.

Owakudani

Owakudani is Hakone’s volcanic crater that has sulfur vents and hotsprings making it a beautiful mountain getaway.  The sulfide causes the rocks to gain their lovely red hue.  In order to reach Owakudani, you must take a cable car ride from Hakone Ropeway.  There are black eggs sold here that are said to increase your lifespan.  I bought a four-pack of them and thought they were very delicious!  Only time will tell if their effect is really long-lasting.  Unfortunately due to the danger of the volcanic gas some of the hiking trails have been roped off here, but watching the plumes of smoke form from the main viewpoint is an amazing sight.  This crater is definitely worth seeing!

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the pirate ship fee included too).

 

Yunessan

Yunessan is my favorite onsen in all of Hakone because of its famous red wine onsen you can bathe in among many other unique hotsprings and pools.  This is a mixed-gender hotspring so swimsuits are required in most areas unless you rent a private onsen or pay to enter the gender-segregated bath called Mori no Yu.  The plus side is that you can enjoy Yunessan with all of your friends!  Last time I went they had coffee, sake, and pearl-water baths too.  Some of the baths rotate while others are permanent additions.  The outdoor area has water slides, a mystical cave that you can explore, and various hot springs positioned so you can get a clear view of the mountains.  This is always the most relaxing part of my trip.  During certain times they serve free glasses of red wine too so be sure not to miss out!

Entrance Fee: 2,900 (a bit expensive, but worth it for the variety here)

Outdoor Museums

I’ve already mentioned that the Hakone Open Air Museum is by far my favorite museum here (see my article The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums for more information), but I also want to point out beautiful Hakone Venetian Glass Museum.  This forest of glass has beautiful Venetian-inspired designs and adornments like nowhere else I’ve ever seen.  Outside you can find trees and a bridge intricately decorated with glass ornaments as well as a miniature pond.  Inside there are many hand-crafted glass sculptures and jewels as well.  I was very impressed with the aesthetic here:

The Okada Art Museum is also worth checking out.  Though I don’t have any recent pictures, they have many beautiful sculptures in the mountains and footbaths you can use too.  There are some traditional Japanese handcrafts and artifacts displayed too.

Entrance Fees: Varies on the museum, but I would research beforehand and budget 3000 – 5000 yen depending on what you want to see.  Keep in mind these are some of the best museums outside of Tokyo and have that awesome mountain view!

Hakone Shrine & Pirate Ship Tours at Lake Ashi

A trip to Hakone isn’t complete without seeing Lake Ashi and the famous Hakone Shrine along the shores.  I first saw it in the winter when snow was on the ground, but the summer is the ideal time to go if you want to experience the lake.  My friend and I decided to buy the tickets to ride the pirate ship and drank a bottle of Captain Morgan on it in true spirit.  The ship was very spacious and we could feel the gentle breeze of the lake while staring at the view of Mt. Fuji in the distance.  It was exhilarating—an experience like nowhere else in Japan!  I think the only other place where you can ride a pirate ship quite like this is at Tokyo Disney, but you don’t have the awesome mountain backdrop that you do here.

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the cable car fee included too).

Access

From Shinjuku Station, you can take the Romancecar Express to reach Hakone-Yumoto Station in 1.5 hours for 2300 yen.

Once reaching the station, all of the places I listed can be reached via bus within an hour, but I would allow yourself 6-8 hours here at least.  It took multiple trips in both the summer and the winter for me to see everything here, but you could probably see these things in approximately 2 days.

If you decide to stay here overnight, Hakone Japan has some good choices.  I plan to stay at a ryokan in the future and will write about my experience.

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

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

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

Exploring Izu Shaboten Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

Eating a Capybara Burger

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

Buying Capybara Souvenirs

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

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Mt. Omuro

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

Getting to Izu Shaboten Zoo

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

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

Address

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

Final Remarks

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

Getting my daily dose of durian at Double Durian Cafe

As a solid tradition, I like to try extremely foreign food whenever I’m in a new country for the experience of it.  When I landed in Singapore, the first cafe that caught my eye was the uncanny Double Durian Cafe.  Famous for its durian pizza and flavored pastries, this cafe has gained quite a reputation.  Situated close to the City Square Market and my Spacepod Hostel, I figured this would be the perfect place to stop for an unforgettable first meal and to see what the craze about durian is all about.

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Double Durian, home of the durians.

The durian, arguably the most smelly fruit in the world, is widely sold in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and other tropical Asian countries.  It is often used as an ingredient in cooking, featured in flavored desserts like durian ice cream, or sold as a whole at the market for those daring enough to eat it raw.  Due to its extremely potent smell, which some have described as smelling like gym socks or fruity onions, it is banned from certain hotels and airports.  Because of its infamous reputation, the fruit has become somewhat of a meme, and its spiky exterior made it an actual weapon in the Battle of Matchan.  Even upon thorough research, the fruit is quite the enigma to those of us who grew up in the west.

In Exploring the Nutritional Contents and Benefits of Durian, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia lists the following benefits from eating durian:

“Durian is widely celebrated for its long list of health benefits, which include the ability to boost immune system, prevent cancer and inhibit free radical activity, improve digestion, strengthen bones, improve signs of anaemia, prevent premature aging, lower blood pressure, and protect against cardiovascular diseases.”

As you can see, the durian is quite the versatile fruit which led me to trying this cafe.  I decided to order the famous durian pizza and cake to see what they were really like.  The cake wasn’t as sweet as I was used to, but it had an extremely unique texture and I really enjoyed the spiky green frosting!  The taste of durian was very subtle, so I would recommend trying a durian dessert before trying the extremely potent fruit itself.  One cake is the perfect size for one person.

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In addition to durian cake, there are cheese and fruity flavors available at Double Durian!

Though covered in cheese and prepared with a western style of cooking, the pizza was definitely overpowering to me.  The pieces of durian were quite large and visible, and the taste was extremely noticeable despite the other toppings since there was no sauce included in this recipe (it was basically cheesy durian bread).  If they minced up the durian and added sauce, I think it would taste a lot better to me.  I would only recommend trying this if you are extremely brave or interested in unique durian cuisine, because this is definitely a challenge.

Whether you use durian as a pizza topping or a weapon of self-defense, I would recommend trying it at least once if you are ever in an Asian country!