My favorite places to hang in Seoul

Since I’ve finished my Jeju Island article series, I’m going to write about some of my favorite places to hang out in Seoul next.  It’s hard to structure this article because there are literally so many cool areas of the city!  My two favorite districts in Seoul are by far Itaewon and Gangnam.  Both have extremely different vibes but are perfect for a night out depending on what my mood is.  Itaewon is friendliest and most international while Gangnam is the fanciest district is Seoul.  Even though I can’t speak Hangul, I never have trouble making friends in this city.  Spontaneously getting invited to a bachelor’s party while staying here was one of the coolest things that have ever happened to me in a foreign country.  I’ve been to Korea three times and hope to visit again when international travel is possible again.

Without further ado, here are the most fun places that I’ve discovered:

Common Ground

Common Ground is an urban mall that was built out of containers and is really fun to explore.  Unlike other malls, there’s not a huge mob of annoying shoppers here because those type of people usually go to the fancier malls in the center of the city.  Common Ground features small designer stores and also has restaurants and live music.  A lot of stores here import brands too.  No matter what your price range is, you can usually find something that fits your taste here.  I actually didn’t buy much but I had fun doing photography with the winter illuminations outside.  There was also a statue of an astronaut outside and some replicas of Roman statues inside the main building when I visited.  How aesthetic!

While I was walking around here, a Korean student came up to me and interviewed me for a university project.  Since I didn’t have a strict itinerary during my first trip, I happily participated.  She asked me various questions about my country and also gave me some Korean snacks.  Though it was a simple project, I was happy that I could help out.  Common Ground is close to many universities so it’s great for socializing and meeting people!

Lotte World

Lotte World is one of the most famous amusement parks in Korea.  In fact, it’s the largest indoor theme park in the world—which is why I had to go!  It’s located in the massive Lotte Mall that has hundreds of shops and food from all around the world.  If you are looking for top tier shopping in Seoul, then this is the place.  I came after the start of the new year so the park had a winter theme.  Fortunately it wasn’t very crowded and I could ride all of the rides that I wanted!  There are carousels, roller coasters, haunted houses, and my personal favorite: The Balloon Ride.  You can see the entire indoor park and mall from the top which makes it an amazing experience.

Even though Lotte World is owned by Lotte Co. Ltd., there are actually a lot of parallels between it and Disney Land.  For example, the outside of Lotte World resembles the Disney World Castle.  It also has a beautiful lake that you can view by walking across a bridge that leads to the artificially created “Magic Island” which is a lot like Disney Sea.  Despite these similarities, the attractions are quite different and the entrance to Lotte World is considerably cheaper.  If you like one park, you’ll probably like the other too.

I would recommend checking out Lotte World as opposed to other amusement parks because you can come here in any kind of weather thanks to the indoor park area.

Entrance Fee: 32$ for adults (cheaper than most amusement parks in Japan so it’s overall worth it)

Jogyesa Temple

The Jogyesa Temple in Insadong, Seoul is probably my favorite temple of all time in Korea.  I first came here during the Lotus Festival in April and many bright hand-crafted paper ornaments were hung around the entire complex.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!  Jogyesa is actually the center of Buddhism in Korea and many rituals and ceremonies are held here.  There are private prayer rooms as well as places that you can make public offerings.  The Chinese Scholar Tree was planted on the temple grounds because it is said to convert negative energy into positive energy and happiness.  Though I’m not particularly religious, I definitely felt in high spirits here.  Please check this place out if you ever get the chance.  The monks are very friendly and welcoming.

I enjoyed seeing the English pack of M&Ms being used as an offering when I went:

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Entrance Fee: Free

Myeongdong

Myeongdong is essentially the Shibuya/Harajuku of Seoul.  You can come here at any time of day and find something fun to do.  It has street food, hilarious fashion (“say no to kids, drugs”), recreational parks, and cafes galore.  The street and night markets have knock-off Gucci and Supreme which you can score for a low price.  I enjoyed eating octopus and drinking sochu while I walked through all the streets and alleyways.

Some of my favorite places I found around Myeongdong Station were:

  • Artbox – An adorable mall with art supplies, cosmetics, and accessories.  It reminded me of the LINE Friends store in Japan but had way more variety.
  • Stylenada 3CE – A pool-themed shopping mall and cafe with beautiful pink decor.  It has amazing desserts!
  • Bbongsin – An amazing restaurant with cold noodles and calzones.  Some of the best Korean food I’ve ever had!
  • Milky Bee – An ice cream shop with flower-shape gelato.
  • Happy Pills – Candy prescriptions.

Myeongdong has bars that stay open late, but not much of a club scene.  Continue reading to see my recommendations for clubs:

Gangnam

Ever since the song “Gangnam Style” became a hit song, I feel like this district doesn’t really need an introduction but I’ll give it a go anyway.  Gangnam is the most upscale district in Seoul but you can enjoy the nightlife here with almost any budget.  In addition to some of the most reputable clubs, it has secluded parks you can walk through by the river side and amazing cafes.  Gangnam itself is pretty spread out so people don’t normally drink in the streets like in Itaewon.  It’s classy and has a club area as well as a quiet upscale residential district as well.

My first memory of Gangnam was meeting up with some of my old college friends here and going to Octagon, where we got invited to VIP tables and drank champagne.  If you’re a girl then it’s really easy to meet people that will buy you drinks here.  The crowds and sound system are pretty insane too.  I honestly got too lit my first time here so I’d really like to come back and just focus on the music next time.

Last year I decided to get my eye bags removed at JK Plastic in Gangnam.  I had sunken eyelids that were caused by genetics so the veins under my skin would show and create permanent eye bags.  I always looked tired and wanted to fix the issue so I opted for eye surgery.  I chose JK Plastic because they are one of the highest-rated clinics in Korea and speak English.  It took about a week of downtime in Korea and then six weeks of recovery at home, but the skin beneath my eyelids has been fully restored now!  When I woke up from surgery I nearly cried because they did such an amazing job and I could already see the results despite having a swollen face.  During my down time I played visual novels and also watched a lot of anime.  It wasn’t so bad—just make sure you have enough time off to take care of yourself!

Plastic surgeons in Korea are the best in the world.  The advantage of going here is that if you’re a tourist you can get a tax refund from the surgery when you go to the airport.  I would not recommend plastic surgery in Japan because my friends have said the surgeons here are not as experienced or friendly.  I would recommend doing research, scheduling an online consultation with a clinic you like, and seeing what options fit you best.  I may write a full article on this at a later time!

Itaewon

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The inside of Fountain, one of my favorite watering holes in Itaewon.

Itaewon is my favorite place to start my night out in Seoul.  I have so many fond memories here.  It caters to the late-night international crowd and has small, condensed streets as well as beautiful murals that decorate the walls.  You can sit at an outdoor bar or go drinking in the street and easily meet people (both tourists and Korean nationals).  You can find pretty much any type of restaurant or dessert shop here too.  It has the feel of a college town but is much more upscale and classy.  Usually I spend my first night going to various clubs and bars then wake up and soak in Itaewon Land Spa.

My favorite club here is called Cakeshop because it features a lot of independent producers from both Seoul and other countries plus it has a great vibe.  It originally caught my eye because Carpainter did a set here in 2015 (unfortunately I was in America at the time or I would have gone).  The club is small enough with one DJ booth and bar that it’s easy to converse with people and enjoy the music.  I have made a number of friends here that I still stay in touch with.  The entry fee usually isn’t more than $25.

Besides Cakeshop, Fountain is a great place to check out.  The first floor is huge dance floor that’s always usually packed and the upper floors have tables and arcades for bigger groups.  The music here is usually western EDM which disinterests me, but the atmosphere of the club is impressive.  I have never paid any entrance fee when I have gone in.  What I remember of Club Awesome was awesome too!

Next time I’m here I really want to check out a club called Pumpkin.  If it’s actually Halloween-themed like its outer decor implies then I’m in.

Other Interesting Places:

  • Hongdae – Hongdae is a popular spot for college students and those who love K-pop music clubs.  I came here to visit the ADERerror store and also to do some shopping.  I didn’t like it as much as Itaewon or Gangnam due to my music taste, but I highly recommend you spend a night exploring here and see what you think.

    I found an amazing “Magical Item Shop” called Creamy DD with tons of Sailor Moon and other magical girl accessories here.  It’s easy to spot the sign if you walk down the main road:

  • Ihwa Mural Village – Since I went to Busan and saw Gamcheon I skipped this village, but if you are looking for beautiful murals and art to see then please check this place out!  I want to go here in the future.
  • Secret Garden – A scenic area around Changdeokgung Palace that I recommend checking out if you have the time.  It is one of the most beautiful gardens in Seoul!
  • Nami Island – A scenic island near Seoul where many K-dramas are filmed.  Click the link to read my full article on it!

Places to Stay

As a backpacker, I favor cheap hostels but the majority of accommodations in Korea are less expensive than in Japan.  You can likely find a nice hotel for $45 USD or less too.

Here are some of the places that I stayed at and enjoyed in Korea.  I booked them close in proximity to the clubs I was interested in checking out:

  • Guesthouse Yacht (Itaewon) – A very inexpensive apartment-style dorm in the heart of Itaewon.  This is my go-to place if I’m spending the night there because it’s safe, quiet, and conveniently located.
  • Kimchee Guesthouse (Gangnam) – A guest house near Gangnam City Office that has private and dorm rooms.  I stayed here during my eye surgery recovery period and it was perfect because my room had a shower inside it.  This is the cheapest you will get in the fanciest part of the city, I assure you.
  • Neo Seoul Guesthouse – I wanted to try staying in Hongdae for a night, so I chose this place because of the cool name.  It was cheap and I could easily access the airport limousine the next day so I recommend it for its convenience (Itaewon and Gangnam are a bit further away).

Dessert Recommendations

Please see Desserts that will make your heart melt in Seoul Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

This will be the last article about Korea that I write until my next trip!  Since I live in Japan, I can sometimes find cheap round-trip flights for under $150 so I come here usually once a year for a week long vacation.  Usually new restaurants and venues open, plus cosmetics and beauty clinics are really cheap here so I always have something to look forward to.  Until next time, Seoul!

 

Getting Invited to a Bachelor’s Party then traveling to Korea’s DMZ on the Day When Peace was Declared Between North Korea and South Korea [A True Story]

Apr. 27th, 2018 – I’ll never forget the day when I was strolling through Itaewon on my way to the club when I ran into a group of Korean guys who were pouring beer in plastic cups and passing them out to random people on the street.  Not wanting to be rude, I happily accepted one and drank it with them.  I noticed one of the guys in their group was dressed up in body armor made of cardboard and duct tape while the others playfully gave him commands.  Since this was only my 2nd time in Korea, I wasn’t sure if this was something normal or a special occasion.  Fortunately some of guys spoke English and informed me what was going on—this was a bachelor’s party.  A very casual and spontaneous one, apparently.  And I was invited!  Lucky me~

Since I left America when I was 21 years old, I never had the chance to partake in any wedding parties since I wasn’t old enough to drink.  Not many of my friends were mature enough to get married at that age either.  Who would have guessed that my first time attending one would be in Korea with a bunch of guys I just met?  I had booked a tour to the DMZ the next day, but I figured I could drink and relax for a few hours since it was my first night in town.  And this would historically be a night to remember, because the very next day North Korea and South Korea agree to end war.  But we wouldn’t know that until the next day…

After hanging out on the street and making conversation with random people, we moved to Awesome Lounge where they had reserved a VIP table.  I had been to a number of bars and clubs in Itaewon before, but this was my very first time here.  Everyone was extremely friendly and I was honestly having the time of my life.  Perhaps too much fun.  I remember drinking 1/3 of a bottle of champagne, pole dancing near the side of the VIP area, and losing my pocket wifi out of my purse which later cost me $60.  Fortunately I woke up with my wallet and passport the next day though.  The club was loud and dark enough so it was the perfect atmosphere to get belligerently intoxicated.  South Korea is a very safe country so you really don’t have to worry as long as you can make it back to your hotel.  I vaguely remember us going somewhere to get sashimi after the club.  It was one of the largest sashimi platters that I had ever seen in my life and man it was amazing!  I was happy that I took a picture so I could remember it.

After we finished eating it was near 2am so we happily parted ways.  I made sure to thank them for the most lit night in Itaewon ever and wish the cardboard armor guy good luck in his future marriage.  If this was just the bachelor’s party, I could only imagine how crazy the wedding party was going to be.

I drunkenly walked back to my hostel called Guesthouse Yacht.  Not only is it insanely cheap, but it’s on a hill just over the main street with all the bars and pubs.  The perfection combo.

Apr. 28th, 2018 – I woke up hungover but in an extremely elevated mood.  I couldn’t believe how crazy my first night out had started.  I was missing my pocket wifi, but I figured all the crazy memories from the previous night were more than worth it.  I had successfully attended my first bachelor’s party (even though I was a girl) and lived to tell the tale.  How often do you get to live out experiences like that?

Anyway, it was time to resurface to reality.  I had booked a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Klook for $45.  This tour will take you to the borders of North and South Korea, and you can climb through a tunnel to technically be inside the North Korean border.  You can only come here if you book a tour as entry into North Korea is extremely restricted and there is a checkpoint in Paju.  However, the tours are completely safe and you will be with an English-speaking guide at all times.  Learning about the Cold War and seeing the Four Infiltration Tunnels (that were dug between the borders for a surprise attack) is a rare experience and I was grateful I got the chance to climb through them.  The views of North Korea that you can see from the DMZ border are surreal.

My tour group was one of the first to visit after peace was made between the North and the South.  I had only figured this out shortly before my tour bus came to pick me up as the news was announced early this day.  I had planned this trip during my Golden Week vacation a month in advance and had no idea this was happening.  Everyone was in extremely high spirits and it was a great time to be in Korea!

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One of the most peaceful days at the DMZ in history.

Here are some pictures I took of North Korea.  It was neat to see it with my own eyes.  With all of the stories of it circulating online you often don’t know what to believe.  It looks like there’s an extremely forested area nearby from the border.  You wouldn’t even guess that it was North Korea at first:

North Korea is apparently famous for its chocolate soybean candy.  Or at least that’s what they want you to think.  I tried some at the souvenir shop and it wasn’t my favorite chocolate, but it definitely had a unique taste to it:

Here is a picture of my location within the border to prove I was in North Korea.  What’s ironic is North Korea supports Google Maps but South Korea doesn’t.  How crazy is that?

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Inside North Korea, baby!

Next we visited Dorasan Station (which leads to the capital of North Korea):

Dorasan Station connects the railway between North and South Korea.  It is located within the DMZ and has been out of use for years, but serves as a symbol of hope that unification may be possible in the future.  You can walk inside it and take pictures, but even though peace was made it will be quite a while before civilians can use it.  Apparently goods are transferred through it now, but limited information in English is available.

I was very moved by this tour.  Though North Korea has a dangerous reputation, I don’t want to believe that all of its people are bad.  I met one Australian girl on my Herb Island Tour later who said she had volunteered there.  I can’t remember the details of what she did, but she spent about a week there learning about the culture.  Since I am American, I know it is dangerous (and likely still impossible) for me to go, but when it becomes more safe I would really like to do a volunteer program there.  I hope in the future it continues to open its borders, as South Korea is a wonderful country that I hold dearly in my heart.

 

Naoshima, Japan’s Avant-garde Island of Art

Welcome to Naoshima—Japan’s obscure avant-garde island full of art museums, beaches, and outdoor sculptures.  Since I am a lover of all things aesthetic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go here while I was traveling through Okayama.  This island is very small but has a lot to see.  It’s well-known among art enthusiasts and travelers that like to go off the beaten path.  The most iconic piece of art you’ll find is the giant yellow pumpkin at the pier designed by Yayoi Kusama, but there’s an artistic sense all around here.  Even if you’re not a huge fan of art, it’s really fun to go cycling and swimming here because it’s quite secluded from the rest of Japan.  This island is actually part of Shikoku though you can access it from Honshu too.  I’ll be detailing my full experience in this article!

Getting around Naoshima

From the net cafe I was staying overnight at (Jiyuu Kuukan), I walked to Okayama Station and rode the Seto-Ohashi Line to Chayamachi Station, then took the Uno Line to Uno Station for 50 mins total.  From Uno Station, I walked to the nearby port and rode a ferry for 30 mins to Naoshima island.  These ferries are frequent and leave almost every hour (see time table here).  It was a very fun ride and the weather was perfect too!

I rented a bike for 500 yen/day because cycling is the best way to see all of Naoshima.  The whole island takes about 2.5 hours total to cycle around and is pretty easy to navigate because it’s circular.  However, it’s easy to spend a whole day here because there are so many museums to see.  There are many hostels and resorts you can stay overnight at too.  I didn’t stay overnight here, but I really want to next time!

I started my trip by riding my bike to Gotanji Bathing Beach where the giant yellow pumpkin is.  I spent around an hour here swimming and seeing all of the Picasso-esque statues that line the beach area.  I met a mix of both Japanese and international travelers who were very friendly.  There was a giant raft in the middle of the swimming area where I actually took a nap on!  That’s how relaxing it is here~

After feeling refreshed from the ocean, I decided to make my way around to the major museums.  Some are free to enter but others have admission fees.  I would research them beforehand budget around 3000 – 6000 yen depending on what you want to see.

Exploring the Museums

The main museums worth seeing on the island are:

  • Benesse House – Museum by the beach with indoor and outdoor exhibits.  They combine their hotel with the “coexistence of nature, art and architecture” and are responsible for many projects on the island.
  • Chichu Art Museum – An ambient museum built mostly underground.  The natural light plays a huge role in seeing the artwork here.
  • Lee Ufan Museum – A contemporary art museum consisting of stones and two-dimensional paintings.  His art has a tranquil feeling when paired with the seaside viewpoint.
  • Ando Museum – A traditional wooden house that uses creative architecture to contrast light and shadow and the past from the present.
  • Teshima Art Museum – This is a famous art museum located on the nearby Teshima Island that resembles a water droplet and is perfect for photography.
  • Art House Projects – A series of small houses with a variety of different art from different artists.  For a full list, please see the Benesse Art Project Site.

*Please note that photography is not allowed at all museums, but is okay outside most places.

One of the most interesting things I saw was the light-up ‘Live & Die’ piece at Benesse House (pictured in the very top photos).  The words on the boards all have different associations with life and death.  While the lights faded, a Japanese man walked up and spread his arms out, as if embracing the words it had projected.  It was one of the coolest reactions I have ever witnessed at an art museum in my life.  I also saw a graveyard outside of the Lee Ufan museum.  Its juxtaposition with the art made me think more on the concept of life and death.  I did a lot of reflecting this day and it was very good for my mental heath.  That’s why I’m planning to come back here in the summer again and see all the spots that I missed!

Food & Drinks

There are restaurants, bakeries, and cafes all over the island so you can easily find a place that catches your interest.  I had cold soba noodles and matcha bread with anko for lunch at a place called Aisunao.  It was all homemade food and tasted amazing!  When I got back to Okayama, I drank a drink that smiled back at a Tiki Bar.  You seriously can find great selection here wherever you look!

Bathing in a Artsy Bath

Before I took the ferry back, I decided to bathe at the artsy bath called I♥湯 (I love you).  The outside of the bath house has an aesthetic mosaic design that looks like no other bath house in Japan.  The indoor area has equally beautiful architecture.  It was a great way to end the trip.  The entrance fee is only 660 yen.

Exploring other Islands

One regret I have is that I didn’t look into exploring the two smaller art islands you can access from Naoshima: Inujima & Teshima.  Both islands can be reached from Naoshima in less than 20 mins.  Benesse has a nice two-day itinerary where you can see all the major works of the three islands.  I will be going back hopefully later this year to see the small things that I missed!

Access

I mentioned the route that I took above, but there are multiple ways to get to Naoshima.  Please see the Benesse site for more information.

If you are interested in reading more of my art articles, please see my Yayoi Kusama and Innovative Art Museums in Asia articles!

Exploring an Abandoned Island in Japan: The Infamous Gunkanjima

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Gunkanjima — also known as Hashima Island or Battleship Island due to its shape.

Enter the stairway to hell.  Around 3 years ago, I was feeling dissatisfied with my office life (more on that later), so I decided to book a trip to the abandoned island where the live action Attack on Titan and Skyfall movies were filmed.  Unlike other remote places I’ve ventured to, I didn’t come here because I was a huge fan of the movies.  The reason I came here was to experience the eeriness of the desolate ruins and ponder on life while doing some photography.  The island itself is quite small and requires you to book a tour in advance due to safety concerns, but the sights here will leave you with a haunting feeling—in a good way.  You’ll also have the chance to learn about the unique history of Gunkanjima.  From the surface it looks like a simple island that was used to mine coal, but the more you look into it, the darker the story gets.

Gunkanjima was originally a coal hot spot in the 1800s but was abandoned in 1974 after the need for petroleum became greater.  After all the people left, nature took its course and many of the buildings gradually eroded away.  Trees and flowers started growing through the cracks eventually making it on the way to become a UNESCO World Heritage Historical Site due to its supernatural beauty.  However, during World War II many Korean and Chinese prisoners of war were sentenced to harsh labor here.  It is estimated that over 1000 of them died.  This is where the image of the island gets controversial.

Should it serve as a historical landmark or a haunting memorial?

When you first get off the boat, the island seems nothing more than a collage of broken wreckage.  You can make out some of the buildings but you have no idea what they once were.  As you look at the details closely, it’s wondrous to see what parts of the structures have collapsed and what parts are still standing.  Then as you hear the explanation by the guide (which is in Japanese but they have a translated English brochure), you start to really wonder what went on here.  Though there are no visible bloodstains or remains of corpses here, it becomes easier to imagine as you start to explore and think about it.

What makes it the spookiest is the way it was originally constructed.  There are labyrinths of avenues and the infamous “stairway to hell”, which is a narrow staircase that has now somewhat caved in and looks deformed.  Looking at these pictures, it’s hard to believe that this island once had a primary school and apartments that housed hundreds of residents then became a prison.  But it’s all true.  I don’t personally believe the ghost stories, but there are some interesting rumors on the net.  If you would like to take a virtual tour of Gunkanjima Island and learn more, please The Forgotten World.

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So what did I gain from coming here?  A new perspective.  A sight that I will forever remember.  A lot to analyze and think about.  A fun boat ride.  A day off from work.  Bragging rights that I made it all the way to a remote place.  Some mindfuck (the usual).

Jokes aside, I am really happy that I came here.  My heart goes out to all of the war victims.  Remote and out of public eye, probably few people knew what actually happened here.  Witnessing a rare part of history made me really made me more grateful for my own life.

Is the island safe to visit?

Yes.  There are trained guides that will take you in groups of people.  Most of the island is roped off, but you can still freely walk around and do photography to your heart’s content.  You can’t climb the stairs or enter any eroded buildings, but you can get very close to the wreckage without worrying about it collapsing on you.

Booking a Tour

There are number of companies that run chartered group tours you can browse, but I chose the one by Yamasa that cost 4200 yen.  They have both English and Japanese support and a lot of availability.  The tour gives you roughly an hour to explore the island before they take you back to Nagasaki, but due to its small size that is plenty of time.

You cannot access this island by yourself.  Remember to be respectful when you are here.

Access

This island is in Nagasaki and is quite a long journey from Tokyo (about 7 hours), but it’s worth the trip if you’re a true explorer.

Take a flight to either Fukuoka or Nagasaki Airport, then a bus to Nagasaki Station.  From there you can take a taxi or bus to Nagasaki Port and reach the island in 40 mins via boat (which needs to be booked in advance and is weather-dependent).  This will cost minimum 20,000 yen but is overall worth it for the experience.

The weather was cloudy when I went which was perfect for the overall aesthetic.  Please do not go if you are faint of heart.

If you are interested in other eerie islands stories I have, please see my Okunoshima article.

Kanazawa: The City of Gold and Miraculous Wonder

People always ask me what my favorite place to visit outside of Tokyo is—and though it’s extremely hard to for me to choose because there’s simply so many—one of my favorite destinations of all time is Kanazawa.  Kanazawa is the capital city of Ishikawa prefecture and is known for its famous seafood market, historical buildings including samurai houses, and brilliant gold architecture.  It has a rustic charm that is similar to Kyoto, but is far less touristy and is surrounded by the beautiful sea.

Kanazawa is also the birthplace of famous musical artist Nakata Yasutaka (producer of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, capsule, and Perfume), who created his own indie music festival called OTONOKO that was held once a year from 2016-2018 (it currently if unknown when it will be held again).  The festival attracted around 200-300 people and created a close community of music lovers that had traveled from all over Japan.  It’s one of the best music festivals I’ve ever been to in Japan because it features both the experienced artists of ASOBISYSTEM and the new and upcoming talents too.  I was happy to share this experience with many friends I had met at his previous music events held in Tokyo and other cities as well as explore the famous capital that is his hometown.  There is so much to do in Kanazawa outside of the festival too!

Here’s a list I’ve compiled of all of my favorite places in Kanazawa.  You can easily spend 3 full days doing things here:

Kanazawa Castle & Kenrokuen

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Kanazawa Castle is one of my all-time favorite castles in Japan and is located right next to the famous Japanese garden Kenrokuen.  This castle is massive compared to other ones I’ve visited and you can tell a lot of detail was put its re-construction after in caught on fire in the 1600s.  I first came here in the winter when a light layer of snow had piled on top of the castle’s roof and it was extremely aesthetic.  I was glad that it was one of the first places I had visited because it’s a huge part of the city’s history.

Strolling through Kenrokuen and listening to all of my favorite music was also a huge pleasure.  It’s considered one of Japan’s “three most beautiful landscape gardens” and is the best garden of Kanazawa so you should definitely check it out if you’re here.

The castle is free to enter, and Kenrokuen’s admission is 320 yen.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

I recently wrote an article on the The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums I’ve Been to in Asia, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is my top pick.

What you see here might just be my favorite exhibition in the world.  The image of the pool looks like some kind of mirage or frozen frame from a vaporwave music video, but there are actually living, breathing people going about their daily routines under the waters of this pool.  You can even “dive in” and join them—but you can’t jump or use the ladder.  Instead you must reach the underwater zone from another entrance (which can easily be found by following the signs).  In addition to the pool, there are various rooms with simulations you can enter.

This museum is an important part of Kanazawa’s culture because it draws a large number of people to the city.  Its design is very modern but somehow fits in the center of Kanazawa’s historic streets because it has a beautiful outdoor park and is near the Kenrokuen Garden.  The outside of the museum has free exhibits you can see as well.

The entrance fee is 360 yen for temporary exhibitions (some exhibits are free).

Golden Ice Cream & Sake

Since Kanazawa is the city of gold, you can find all sorts of golden souvenirs here.  The golden ice cream is by far the most famous (and delicious too).  At a confectionery shop called Hakuichi, you can savor the best gold-leaf ice cream in Japan.  I went during October one year and they added an edible ghost topping too!  The gold sake is also something I bought back for home.  It tastes just like any other sake but the gold flakes inside make it look like a glittery snow globe.  My friends joke that I have eaten more gold than anyone they know, and that very well may be true.

Omicho Fish Market

The Omicho Fish Market is where you’ll find some of the freshest seafood in mainland Japan.  Kanazawa is most famous for crab, but you can find almost any other kind of fish imaginable.  My personal favorites were Kaisen Maruhidon (rice bowls with mountains of seafood on top) and the tiny servings of sea urchin sold in the stalls outside.  Most restaurants will gladly customize your orders for you and there are amazing sushi restaurants here as well.

One of my favorite memories was when Nakata Yasutaka’s first solo album Digital Native was announced the night before the festival, so my friend and I split a crab then ordered a pitcher of sangria from a restaurant below the station in celebration.  A waiter peeled a fresh avacado for us too, but I don’t actually remember what we ordered in last photo…  That just goes to show how much fun I had here!

Higashi Chaya District

The Higashi Chaya District of Kanazawa is where some of the traditional teahouses and upscale ryokan are located so it’s one of the prettiest parts of the city.  There are also cafes, souvenir shops, and a lot of interesting architecture here.  It’s a lot similar to Kyoto’s Gion district but the crowds are more evenly distributed.  I love the winding streets and also the liveliness here.  Everything seems like it was built to perfection.

I highly recommend checking out the Nomura Clan Samurai Home here because it has unique artifacts and a beautiful home garden.  The Godburger is also a nice meme.  Although haven’t eaten there yet, it’s definitely on my bucket list.

Piano of Memories (思い出ピアノ)

As I was walking underneath Kanazawa Station, I noticed a really interesting exhibit.  Here sat an ordinary piano that anyone could walk up to and play but it had an interesting concept.  People could upload videos with the hashtag “sharepiano” for others to listen to online.  I uploaded this video I took to Twitter and the pianist actually found it and was happy I captured this moment!

Kanazawa is a popular destination for both foreign and domestic tourists, but it’s spread out enough so that things like this can be heard and appreciated.

Hotsprings, Hotels, & Other Recommendations

When I first came to Kanazawa, I didn’t have a lot of money so I decided to stay at a hostel called Good Neighbors Hostel (now called Off) near the station for around 2500 yen a night.  The 2nd time I stayed at Neighbors Inn (owned by the same people) for around the same price.  Both were extremely memorable times.

The first time I met a Perfume fan from Hong Kong who had awesome stickers of all the idols on his laptop.  We became good friends during the duration of the festival and the hostel had a Death Note-inspired “Guest Note” that we wrote in (fortunately no one died).  The second time the hostel had a ball pit so I took hilarious photos of myself pregaming in it.  I always have the best time staying in this city no matter where I am.

If hostels aren’t your style, you can find a variety of cheap hotels on websites like Booking.  Additionally, if you are looking for a day hot spring I recommend Terume Kanazawa.  The admission fee is only 1100 yen.

The official after party for the festival was held at an event space called Double with two floors (one bar floor and one music floor).  It is here where the strong gather and continue to party until down.  In 2018 I managed to meet Nakata-san before he left and get me T-shirt signed.  It was on my birthday weekend so it made it extremely special:

Here is a shot of the after-party I recorded in 2018.  It truly was a time to be alive and I hope to go again if it resumes in the future:

Access

From Tokyo Station, take the Hokuriku-Shinkansen towards Kanazawa.  This takes approximately 3 hours and costs 15,000 yen one way.  Nakata Yasutaka actually designed the shinkansen departure melody for this train so it’s extremely special!

You can also fly to Komatsu Airport and take a bus to Kanazawa Station which may be cheaper unless you have the JR Rail Pass.

If you are interested in other day trips from Kanazawa, please see my Shirakawago article.

An Enchanted Trip to The Ghibli Museum (Tokyo)

Yesterday I wrote about my trip to the Satsuki and Mei House in Nagoya, so today I would like to write about my experience at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo.  The Ghibli Museum is located near Inokashira Park where Hayao Miyazaki grew up making it a very special place to visit.  If you have any interest in film or animation you should definitely check this place out.  It’s extremely popular so tickets must be purchased in advance (see below for more information), but outside there is a lot of beautiful nature you can see while you are waiting for your turn to enter.  Once you go inside, you will be hit with a wave of nostalgia and wonder as you navigate through the imaginative worlds that Miyazaki has created.  There is also a theater where you can watch short films that change frequently.  For a full list of exhibits, please see the official museum website.

Within the museum you can find various scrapbooks with details hinting at some of the inspirations for each film.  Paint brushes are also on display to show how the delicate backgrounds were made.  There are also life-sized recreations of the movies such as the robot from Castle in the Sky and children are able to climb inside the giant Catbus plush on one of the floors.  Picture frames of sketches and artwork are almost everywhere.  Photography within the museum is not allowed, but it is okay to take photos outside and around it.  I spotted a miniature onsen sculpture from Spirited Away in a garden and also a Totoro plush peeking out a window.  Almost everywhere you look there is a cute Ghibli reference!  The museum takes roughly 1 hour to fully see, but slightly longer if you wish to see the theater films (depending on how busy it is).

My favorite Ghibli movie is Kiki’s Delivery Service because it was the first one I ever watched, but Spirited Away comes second.  I have visited the real-life locations/inspirations for Spirited Away at Dogo Onsen and Jiufen in Taiwan.  The more I travel around Asia, the closer I hold these films to my heart.  They were a very important part of growing up for me.

After exploring the museum, you can also stop at the Ghibli Cafe and have a quick snack.  The food here is quite simple (likely due to high demand), but I ordered hot chocolate and my friend ordered pudding while we reflected on our trip here.  Our sweets were quite satisfying.  After waiting 3 months to get in, we wanted to savor every moment.

Reserving Tickets

I originally used a Loppi machine at the Lawson convenience store chain to book my tickets 3 months in advance.  If you make a reservation on a weekday, you should have a chance of getting in faster.  If you are overseas, please see Tofugu’s Guide on how to best purchase tickets.

Admission Fee: 1000 yen

Access

1 Chome-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, Tokyo 181-0013

From Shinjuku Station, take Rapid Chuo Line to Mitaka Station (you can also take the non-express as well).  From Mitaka Station, you can walk to Mitaka Eki Minamiguchi Bus Stop and take a bus directly to the museum.  This takes around 30-40 mins and costs 430 yen.

A Ninja Village & Various Amusement Parks Around Nagoya (Part 2)

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View from Iga Ueno Castle overlooking the city of ninjas.

Yesterday I talked about visiting Legoland Japan and Nagashima Spa Land in Part 1, so today I’d like to talk about my expedition to the Ninja Village of Iga.  Though the historic practice of Ninjutsu is now considered a dead art, this village houses a large museum showcasing its origin.  There are also ninja shows performed by professional actors, shops and shrines, and a large castle you can enter.  Since this village is very remote, the number of tourists is usually lower than other attractions in Kansai.  Iga is located in Mie Prefecture but the whole city can be seen during a day trip from Nagoya or Osaka.

Riding the train from Iga-Kambe Station to Iga-Ueno Station is a one-of-a-kind experience because the train artwork was done by Reiji Matsumoto, most famous for Galaxy Express 999.  There are also ninjas poised to attack inside the train car, so you are best off practicing your defense techniques beforehand (jokes aside, the short ride through the mountainous terrain in this two-car train is incredible).

When you get off at Iga Ueno Station, you have the option to rent bikes or walk.  You can see the major points of attraction within 3 – 4 hours on foot, so I would just recommend walking.  You can pick up a map at the tourism center next to the station so navigating the city is self-explanatory.  I started my trip by eating some some ninja udon at a noodle place called Kyuan (I greatly appreciated the shape of the toppings) then headed to Iga Ueno Castle so I could get a nice view of the entire village:

After doing some photography, I made my way to the gates of the ninja museum.  There are ninja shows almost every hour that you can see for 400 yen.  Unfortunately they are not allowed to be recorded, but they are worth seeing if you come all the way out here.  I enjoyed seeing the cute tiger mascot of Iga and some of the weapons that ninjas used in ancient times.  There is some English guidance so you can read about the history of the city at your leisure.  The village museum is designed for all ages and there are some really interesting artifacts there.  There are also handmade ninja charms you can buy.

Is it worth it?

Iga is roughly 2.5 hours from Nagoya and is quite a long day compared to the other attractions I mentioned in the first part of my article.  The city itself is quite small and can be seen within 4 hours.  Some of the attractions seem a bit gimmicky, but like most rural places I’ve visited I still enjoyed my time here.  As someone who lives in one of the busiest cities in the world, I have great appreciation for places like this.  Much of the now-abandoned ninja culture has been preserved here, so this is a rare chance to see it if you are interested in the history of Japan.  Not to mention Iga is a peaceful place with friendly people so your time will be valued here.

If you are interested in reading about the history of the Iga Ninja online before you go, please check the Koka Ninja House website.

Access

117 Uenomarunouchi, Iga, Mie 518-0873

From Kintetsu Nagoya Station, take the Kintetsu Limited Express to Nabari Station, then transfer to the same express going to Iga-Kambe Station.  From there you can ride the special ninja train to Iga Ueno Station and get off to reach the ninja village.  This costs 4210 yen one way and takes 2.5 hours, but was overall worth it in my opinion.

Admission Fee: 500 yen

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.

A Quest to The Tower of the Sun (Osaka, Japan)

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The Tower of the Sun stands proudly in Osaka representing the evolution of life.

Over the weekend while attending a unique club-turned-campsite event at Club Daphnia, I decided to stop by the Tower of the Sun (太陽の塔) because it’s one of the few attractions in Osaka that I haven’t been to yet.  The Tower of Sun is located in Osaka’s Expo ’70 Commemorative Park among flower gardens, museums, and other recreational facilities.  There’s even a “Dream Pond” with pedal boats (much like Tokyo’s Ueno Park) and a foot bath you can use.  This area is truly a unique place and feels like it’s part of an RPG map with the Tower as a dungeon surrounded by fields of flowers.  It’s also far away enough from the city that you can leisurely relax here, but you can easily access it by riding the Osaka Monorail.

The tower itself is 70m tall and was designed by the artist Taro Okamoto for the 1970 Japan World Exposition.  The design was a hit success and attracted millions of visitors so it still stands in the exact same place today.  According to the Official ’70 Expo Website, the three faces of the tower each represent a different phase of life:

The “Golden Mask” located at its top, which shines and suggests the future, the “Face of the Sun” on its front, which represents the present, and the “Black Sun” on its back, which symbolizes the past.

From the front it looks like it only has two faces, but if you walk around to the rear of the tower you can see the black face of the past and enter the museum. Unfortunately due to the effect of the corona virus, the museum was temporarily closed.  However, the gift shops and cafes were still open and there was a lot of sightseeing for me to do in the park.  There is a 4th face within the tower as well as intricate sculptures demonstrating the evolution of life (from the dinosaur age until the present) so I hope to come back to see it in the future when it’s open.

This tower has become somewhat of a meme in Japanese society due to its unique design.  I’ve seen a number of people cosplay it on Halloween and apparently it has somewhat of a cult-like following.  Some Japanese people around me were describing it as “scary-looking” but it just looks like something out of a NieR game to me.  I honestly think what it symbolizes is truly wondrous and I’m happy that they kept it as the mascot of the Expo park.  The souvenirs they sold at the gift shop were hilarious too!  You could buy anything from $100 action figures and plush dolls to $5 dollar keychains.  I liked the design of the T-shirt too.  I bought a keychain because I thought it was very cute.

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Friendly Tower of the Sun takoyaki man.

On my way back I saw a takoyaki store that had Tower of the Sun action figures next to it.  As I was taking a picture, the man gave me a thumbs up sign.  I really love Osaka and am excited to write all about my adventures here!  Despite the fear of the virus, life in Osaka seems to be carrying on as normal which is relieving.

Access

1-1 Senribanpakukoen, Suita, Osaka 565-0826
Entrance Fee: 250 yen (the cheapest I have paid to enter a tourist attraction in a while)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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