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

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Just restoring my MP.

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

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

Departure

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

Our updated map travel map looked like this:

Mt. Tamaki & Tamakijinja Shrine

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

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

Tamakijinja Shrine

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

Tanize Suspension Bridge

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

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

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

Koyasan

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

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

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Jizo statues protect the souls of children and travelers.

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

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

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

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

Chikurin-in Gumpeon Ryokan

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3 Itinerary: 80% Completion

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

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

The Great Bike Trip: From Tokyo to Ise (Day 1)

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Bite the bullet, baby.

Thanks to all of my crazy adventures around Asia and the 200+ articles I’ve published here on Resurface to Reality, I finally got an offer for a sponsored motorbike trip around the Kansai region of Japan (meaning all expenses were covered). The trip lasted for a span of 4 days and we road to many places including shrines, beaches, and mountain paths that are impossible to access by car or other vehicles. Granted I wasn’t the one driving due to not possessing a full Japanese driver’s license, but I was in charge of doing photography and video as well as preparing our camp. Even though I rode on the back of the bike it was still one of the most thrilling and exciting experiences of my life. I loved the feel of the wind in my hair and the clear view of the mountainous landscape and rivers as opposed to looking at them through a foggy train window.  Yeah, this is the life!

About the Bike

The bike model we rode on was a BMW F900XR that had extremely powerful capabilities.  It can carry a lot of weight and has high long distance performance.  I rode with an experienced driver who I had previously met before and trusted. They also were a fan of Ghost in the Shell and loved obscure places in Japan so naturally we got along well. Usually we both prefer traveling alone, but for the sake of trying something new we agreed to go on this trip together. It was amazing to have such an experienced guide with me so I could learn more about the history of the places that we were visiting. If for whatever reason our itinerary failed (which fortunately it did not), I had the option to return home via train. That’s one of the best parts of living in Japan━for the most part the road and train system is impeccable.

What’s that about a Sponsorship?

I want to iterate that there’s really no big secret to getting sponsored. This opportunity was presented to me without me seeking it. I’m just extremely passionate about travel and am always sharing my experiences with others (on this website and in real life; drunkenly at bars too).  I prefer to waste no time and have no hesitations when I travel somewhere new. Naturally that draws me to other people who have similar interests. If you are interested in travel and have the time, then I encourage you to go for it and keep a detailed log of your journeys. You will thank yourself later and also have stories for ages.  I am lucky that my sponsor offered me the option to go on future trips like this because I took the chance and succeeded!

Departure

The 4 day journey began on August 1st and I departed Tokyo at 6am. We had practiced riding on highways in Tokyo a few times and I was pretty comfortable with the feeling of it. However, I decided to ride the shinkansen to Nagoya Station and meet my driver at Kinjofuto Harbor so we could ensure a smoother trip. Morning traffic on the highways can be a bit rough so this way the load would be lighter and my driver wouldn’t have to take as many breaks. Kinjofuto Harbor is hilariously located next to Lego Land (which I visited exactly 3 years ago), and has easy access to the country roads.  We met up around 9:30am (exactly as planned), I put on my helmet and gear, and then we rode to our first destination: Ise Shrine.  This trip took approximately 3 hours with breaks in between.

Ise Shrine: Home of Amaterasu

Ise Shrine, known as “Japan’s most sacred shrine” actually consists of two shrines: The Inner & Outer Shrine.  These shrines were built over 2000 years ago and are said to house the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu.  If you’ve played the Shin Megami Tensei series, you already know that this goddess is a big deal.  The outer shrine is easy to access and has areas were you can pray and buy good luck charms.  I bought a pink one that looks like a magatama for hopes of safe travel.  As you walk further into the forested area, you will come across a large wooden bridge that will lead you to the inner shrine.  Photography is strictly prohibited here, but you can take photos from the bottom of the stairs.  Reaching the inner shrine is like reaching the origin of Japan.  This sanctuary is built out of sacred wood and is a cherished relic of this country.   I would highly recommend coming here if you ever get the chance because I definitely felt enlightened here.  For Japanese people and believers of the Shinto Gods, this is the holy ground.

Okage Yokocho

After visiting Japan’s most sacred shrine, we walked through the old-school street reminiscent to ancient times called Okage Yokocho.  Here you can get your fortune told (I got moderate luck), buy all sorts of souvenirs, and try some delicious seafood!  The oyster on a stick coated with soy sauce I tried was amazing.  There were also cute stray cats basking in the sunlight and wind chimes adorned on some of the buildings.  Though it was somewhat touristy, if definitely had an atmosphere of its own.

For lunch I had an amazing seafood ricebowl from the very first restaurant we walked passed because I was starving.  You kind find udon, unagi, and sushi places all over this street but this was my all time favorite.  You can’t beat the freshness of this shrimp:

Iseshima Skyline

After eating we rode for around 40 minutes and drove up a large hill to see Iseshima Skyline.  You can only access this viewpoint by vehicle because the incline is quite steep and the road is around 16km.  I have a video of us driving here that I will upload when I finish editing.  This skyline is famous because on a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji!  I am happy that I traveled here by bike so I could experience it.  My video doesn’t do it justice.

Camping on Mihama Beach

Mihama Beach was hands down my favorite part of the trip!  We rode about 2.5 hours to reach here and arrived right before sunset so I could go swimming and do photography.  The sunset was breathtaking and looked like something you’d see in Southeast Asia.  Not to mention the beach was so remote that hardly anyone was there—just the way I like it.  The people I did run into were very friendly and asked me where I was from and the usual.  I wish I would have talked to them more but I was so focused on the aesthetics that it was hard for me to do anything but swim and frolic on the beach.  I was supposed to go the the Philippines and Bali this year, but due to the pandemic my trips were cancelled.  Mihama Beach is likely the closest I will get to being in a tropical paradise this year so I will forever travel my experience here.

My driver set up camp while I was swimming (that was super nice of them).  It was a simple tent that fit two sleeping bags.  I was pretty exhausted by that point, so I fell asleep immediately and barely remember “camping”.  However, our campsite was gorgeous because it was right in front of the beach.  I’m happy that this could be my first camping experience in Japan.

Day 1 Itinerary: 100% Completion

Though this was my first full day riding a motorbike and it was pretty intense, we successfully went to every destination we planned.  The rainy season had just ended and it was extremely humid, but other than that it was a perfect ride.  My legs were a bit sore from riding but I got a lot of exercise in so I was fine.  I am so grateful for all the rare things I was able to see.  The next few days had their itineraries slightly altered due to rain, but the setback led us to see other amazing things.  Please stay tuned for the next 3 days!

Exploring Hanoi City: A Tropical, Colorful, Communist Tokyo (Part 2)

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Hanoi — my favorite city in Vietnam!

Since I published my introduction of Hanoi yesterday, I’m now going to be detailing my experience here in tropical, colorful, Communist Tokyo!  I only stayed in Hanoi for 2 days because I spent most of my time in Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc Island, but it actually ended up being my favorite city in Vietnam.  Hanoi is super condensed and has a lot to see, so backpackers will rejoice at how easy and fun it is to explore.  I made a lot of friends here that I hope to see again during my future trips!

Hanoi VS Ho Chi Minh

The biggest decision that first time travelers to Vietnam will make is what city they want to see the most.  All of my Vietnamese friends in Japan recommended Hanoi because they think it’s prettier, but Ho Chi Minh is cheaper to fly to from most Asian countries so I started there.  I researched both cities thoroughly and couldn’t pick a favorite so I decided I’d see them both!  Fortunately roundtrip flights between the two cities are only $40 dollars, so you can easily see them both during your trip to Vietnam.

Reasons to go to Hanoi:

  • The streets are condensed making it easy to get around on foot.  Ho Chi Minh has a lot more traffic and you need to take a taxi or motorbike to get to some places.
  • You can access the emerald waters of Halong Bay from Hanoi.  Halong Bay usually takes 2-3 days to fully experience but is one of the prettiest areas of the country.
  • I found it much more easy to make friends here.  Ho Chi Minh is more spread out so meeting people outside of clubs was difficult.
  • There are more parks and nature around Hanoi.  You can also reach Sapa, a beautiful mountain village with terraces, from here.

Reasons to go to Ho Chi Minh

  • HCM is a huge international business hub which is why flights into this city are less expensive.  If you have an international driver’s license and are not afraid of motorbiking through huge crowds, you might save money here.
  • Though HCM isn’t near any beaches or beautiful waters, Mekong Delta is definitely worth seeing.
  • HCM has a lot of international cuisine and upscale restaurants.  I ate some of the best food I had in Vietnam here.
  • If you are a history buff, you will enjoy seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels here!

I recommend a minimum of 3 days and 3 nights in each city if possible.

Main Points of Interest

Here are the main points of interest I explored in Hanoi.  For food recommendations, please check out my Aesthetic Food Finds article!

  • Hỏa Lò Prison – One of the most historic prisons used during the Vietnam War.  Tickets are around $10.  
  • Ngoc Son Temple – A beautiful white temple located on Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi.
  • Chua Tran Quoc – A pagoda on an islet in central Vietnam.  I walked here from my hotel and reached it in 30 minutes.  On the way there you can see beautiful parks!
  • Cat Ba Island – A beautiful island in Halong Bay.  I did not visit it because I went to Phu Quoc Island instead, but I would love to go in the future!
  • Water Puppet Shows – Vietnam is famous for its water puppet shows and my biggest regret is that I didn’t book a ticket in advance to see one.  I recommend using a website like GetYourGuide to buy one before your trip because they will deliver it directly to your hotel.
  • The Obama Combo – You can eat at the same bun cha restaurant as Obama did and order the Obama Combo in Hanoi!

Honestly the highlights of Hanoi were just wandering around the streets and seeing the culture here.  This was my first time traveling to a tropical Asian country so it truly felt like an adventure to me.  I loved going for morning runs and watching people do yoga in the park.  I bargained for a scarf at the Đồng Xuân Market and ate a lot of fresh fruit.    Seeing all the different markets influenced by the doi moi policy was eye-opening.  This is what I imagined Tokyo would be like if it hadn’t radically reformed after World War II.

However, aside from a few people most residents I encountered in Hanoi seemed truly happy.  This made me happy as well!

The Toilet Club

Have you ever dreamed of throwing a Communist party in a toilet?  Because at the Toilet Club (formerly known as the IP Club) you totally can!  This is where I spent my last night in Hanoi before flying off to the tropical island of Phu Quoc for my 25th birthday.  I chose this club because of its meme-worthy name, but the variety of music the DJs spin here is pretty decent.  They have regular house and trance nights along with an international selection of artists.  You can expect to see a lot of foreigners here, but it’s still a high-class club.  Worth the experience in my opinion.

I can’t even remember what I drank here, but I remember coming here on a Monday night so the entrance was free.  I met a bunch of backpackers from Australia and we exchanged travel stories.  I had so much fun dancing!  The club closed around 1am so I ordered a motorbike through Grab back to my hostel because that’s what was most convenient.  It was my first time ever riding on the back of a motorcycle, but fortunately I didn’t fall off!  What a way to end my night in Hanoi.

Accommodation

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HANOI GOLDEN -HOTEL-

Most accommodations in Hanoi are extremely inexpensive, so I decided to book a private room in the center of the city at Hanoi Golden Hotel for $20 per night.  The neon sign outside of the hotel makes it look like the entrance to a brothel, but the rooms were extremely clean and the service was outstanding.  They upgraded me to a family room for free because they had extra rooms available which was awesome.  The staff called me beautiful (in a respectful way) even though I had been walking for hours and my hair was super frizzy.  I couldn’t help but smile even though I know that flattery is cheap.  I definitely felt good vibes during my entire stay here.

What I liked about Hanoi was that there was no strange cultural or language barrier here like there is in Japan, so temporarily escaping that was nice.  Though I could never live longterm in Vietnam because I’d get tired of all the attention and vendors chasing me down, I do see myself vacationing here.  The main advantage is that travel in Vietnam is much cheaper than in Thailand or Japan.  Just be sure to watch out for taxi meter scams!  And learning how to bargain at markets will also be helpful to you.  I’ve learned through trial and error, plus a lot of negotiation (while sometimes buzzed).

Another strong point is people have a lot less in Vietnam but seem happier.  Woman seem more liberated too.  There’s a lot that you can learn by observing the life style of people here.  In my next article, I will be writing about my experience staying in Phu Quoc Island.  Please anticipate it, because Phu Quoc is my favorite part of Vietnam!

Exploring Hanoi City: A Tropical, Colorful, Communist Tokyo (Part 1)

Since I’ve lived in Japan for over 4 years now, I often wonder what the country would be like if it hadn’t radically reconstructed after the destruction caused by World War II.  Of course the US military including General MacArthur was responsible for political and social reforms in Japan, and eventually the economy stabilized, but what if the country had been left to ruin and was forced rebuild itself from scratch like Cambodia?  I believe it is thanks to the hard work of Japanese people and the influence of the pre-existing constitutional monarchy that Japan was able to modernize itself.  Whether you agree with Japanese politics or not, the way this island country restored itself is incredible.

Then I look at countries like Vietnam who also went to war against the US but are controlled by a Communist government.  While I was in Hanoi I visited the Hỏa Lò Prison and learned about the history of the Vietnam War.  Unlike what happened during World War II, the North Vietnam military still wanted to overtake the South.  Let’s take a look at what happened in Vietnam after Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords…

“By the early 1980s, Vietnam’s government was coming to realize that communism would not provide a miracle cure for rapidly modernizing the country and growing its economy.” Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam, pp. 398-99

Since Communism is clearly flawed, a new market reform called “Doi Moi” was introduced to the country.  This type of market revolves around supply and demand.  This means sometimes people receive more than others, but essentially the work you put forth will eventually pay you back.  Thanks to the farmers and exporters, Vietnam was able to gradually rebuild its economy.  Additionally this type of reform helped Vietnamese citizens fight poverty:

“At the end of the war, 70 percent of the people in Vietnam were living below the official poverty line. Today, that number is estimated to be less than 20 percent.”
Asia Pacific Curriculum

As of right now, many people in Japan are beginning to live on the verge of poverty, and work motivation lower than most developed countries around the world.  Though they make less income on average, you’ll notice that citizens in Vietnam have a much more positive outlook on life.  And it’s not just due to cultural differences.  You have to stop and think, why is this?

In my next article, I will be highlighting some of the places I visited in Hanoi including the prison and exploring these ideas now.  Thank you all for reading!

Floating down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Exploring Black Virgin Mountain, Cao Dai Temple, and the Cu Chi Tunnels

After having some unique dining experiences in Ho Chi Minh, I decided to get out of the city and explore Black Virgin Mountain and the Cao Dai Temples on my 2nd day in Vietnam.  These are two very historic places in the southern part that I highly recommend checking out.  I booked a private tour through Get Your Guide because I wanted to hit as many destinations as possible and some are very difficult to reach alone.  This journey also brought me to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a massive underground network around the country.  Seeing remnants of the Vietnam War was surreal and a memory that I’ll always carry with me.

The tour was a little over $100 which is pricier than most I’ve gone on, but my guide was excellent and matched my pace.  This price also included the entrance fee to all of the places I was going to.  I prefer spending my days outside of the city learning about history and culture while spending my nights at the local bars so I have a complete experience abroad.  I was able to see and learn a lot in the time that I had which I am grateful for.

Black Virgin Mountain

The tour started at 7am and I was picked up directly from my hotel by my friendly tour guide.  She was a Vietnamese student who spoke polished English and was very skilled at conversation.  I was lucky to have met her!  We boarded a small van and made our way to Black Virgin Mountain, an inactive volcano in the south of Vietnam.  What makes this mountain so famous is its legend that has been passed down for generations.

As we boarded the cable car to the peak of the mountain, my guide told me the full story.  The Legend of the Black Virgin actually has two variations.  In one version she falls in deeply in love with a Khmer soldier.  When he is drafted to war, she jumps off the mountain out of heart break and agony.  In another version, she jumps off the mountain to protect her virginity when she is forced into an arranged marriage.  In both versions, she is a lady with black skin who is highly devoted to Buddhism and purity.  The legend is quite sad, but her faith and unyielding spirit is admirable.  There are many altars where you can leave offerings in her memory.

When we got off the cable car we reached a market area and a series of temples.  The cable car doesn’t take you all the way to the top, but you can easily reach the pagoda within 15 minutes of climbing.  According to other travelers, the mountain takes around 6 hours to climb to the top and back.  I am happy I rode the cable car because this was only my 2nd day here and I had a lot planned.  Perhaps in the future I will attempt to climb a Vietnamese mountain!

It was fascinating seeing the design of the temples here because they were painted in extremely bright colors.  They are similar to those in Thailand and Cambodia since they are bordering countries.  The fresh fruit being sold at the market also tasted amazing!  I also grabbed a bowl of Pho because it was cheap and the perfect food for exploring Vietnam.  I also noticed some scorpion wine at a gift shop but I didn’t buy it.

My guide took me to a temple where you first pray and make a wish, then pick up 3 splinters of wood and drop them on the ground to determine your fate.  If they all face the same way, then your wish will come true.  I was fortunately able to make my wish come true on the very first try (you get 3 tries total).  If you fail, it is highly implied that you can climb the mountain on another day and try again.

I’m not allowed to tell anyone my wish, but it has to do with traveling and connecting my aesthetic tastes with my career.  Maybe starting this website was part of the prophecy…

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The Wood Splinters of Fate.

After I finished paying my respects, I Mario Karted down the mountain.  It was honestly the perfect way to end my trip to Black Virgin Mountain because my body was surging with adrenaline!

Cao Dai Temples

Our next stop was Cao Dai Temple that sits not far from the base of the mountain.  It is famous for its beautiful architecture and the articulate painting of the sky in its main hall.  This is hands down the most impressive temple that I saw while I was backpacking through Vietnam, so please check it out if you get the chance!

Caodaism is a mysterious religion that was founded in Vietnam in 1926, so it is fairly recent.  The majority of Vietnamese people are non-religious or follow the teachings of Buddhism, but this religion is gradually gaining followers even in western countries.  Cao Dai means “high tower” and is represented by the divine eye.  Cao Dai blends Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam.  The worshippers wear white robes and perform several chants at the temple every day:

There is a scene from the movie Ghost in the Shell: Innocence that looks like it was influenced by Cao Dai Temple:

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Though I’m not religious, being here made me feel very alive.  It’s amazing to think about how much this religion has caught on!

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are perhaps the most iconic attraction around Ho Chi Minh City because they were utilized in the Vietnam War.  Fortunately we came late in the afternoon when not as many people were here.  The cool thing about this museum is that it’s almost entirely outdoors and encased in a green forest.  The tunnels have been widened so they’re easier for tourists to get through.  I enjoyed see all the trap doors and hideaways hidden in foliage.  There is also a large tank and shooting range you can check out.  This museum doesn’t highlight the horrors of the war so much like the Hoa Lo Prison (which I’ll get into later).  The Cu Chi Tunnels show a more strategic approach to how the Vietnam War was originally fought.  I was surprised to know that there were a number of woman soldiers involved as well.

Overall, this was an amazing tour that lasted the whole day.  I couldn’t believe that this was only my 2nd day here and that there were many more ahead!  Look forward to the rest of my adventures~

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.