A Roadtrip to Aomori: Visiting Ashino Park, Seibi-en, and Takayama Inari Shrine

The sun fades into the clouds on the main path to Takayama Inari Shrine.

After an amazing day of eating delicious food and seeing the sakura in Hirosaki Park, we started out extremely early on our next day of sightseeing in Aomori. Our first destination was Ashino Park, which is Aomori’s other famous sakura park that is roughly 2 hours away from the main part of the city. The illuminated sakura we saw by Hirosaki Castle the previous night were absolutely gorgeous, so we wanted to try seeing them during the day too! We also found out about Seibi-en through a friend, which is the real life location of Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arietty so we decided to head there after. Our final destination for the day was Takayama Inari Shrine, which is a beautiful shrine near the Sea of Japan. This day was long but we were fortunately able to accomplish everything on our itinerary.

Ashino Park

Ashino Park is located south of the central part of Aomori City and is famous for its 1500 cherry blossom trees and “sakura tunnel” that a retro train frequently runs through. Like Hirosaki Park, Ashino was voted as one of the best places in Japan to see the cherry blossoms so we absolutely had to come here even though it was a bit of a trip. The park has a river that snakes through it and you can rent boats from a boathouse to spend time out on the water. There is also a famous suspension bridge that connects the park to a popular camping area in Aomori. Though many of the sakura petals had fallen into the water from the previous harsh weather that week, the park was still stunning to walk through. Fortunately many of the weeping sakura trees were still in bloom and I managed to get a few good shots here!

Entrance Fee: Free
Address: Goshogawara, Aomori 037-0202

Seibi-en

Our next stop was Seibi-en, which is a beautiful house that combines Western and Japanese architecture and has a zen garden, similar to the Umineko Manor I visited last year in Tokyo. The first floor of the house is completely Japanese styled and contains several tatami rooms and a bath. There is a framed picture from The Secret World of Arietty on one of the tables so you can recall the resemblance. The 2nd floor is completely Western styled and was unfortunately closed when we visited, but you can clearly see its distinctive style from outside. The staff will also take you on a tour to a chamber called Gohoden that is completely made out of gold lacquer works of art. As you walk on the stone steps in the garden that lead to a small island, you will also see a small shrine called Seibi Shrine that is connected. The composition of both the house and garden is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and really make me want to watch the movie again so I can see more! This was my favorite place that I saw in Aomori and I would happily recommend to to everyone visiting because it is close to Hirosaki Park and also accessible by train.

Entrance Fee: 430 yen
Address: Ishibayashi-1 Saruka, Hirakawa, Aomori 036-0242

Takayama Inari Shrine

Our last stop of the day was Takayama Inari Shrine, which was located in a pretty remote area next to the Sea of Japan, but it is definitely worth seeing! This shrine is said to represent good harvests and safety at sea. It was also the most beautiful shrine we saw in Aomori due to the bright red tori being surrounded by coastal scenery. It is similar to Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto but not nearly as big or steep of a hike. I enjoyed seeing the ponds, bridges, and beautiful trees that lead to the scenic view on the top of a hill. We arrived at the perfect time because the sun was starting to set and it gave the shrine a beautiful glow. I was awestruck by how aesthetic this shrine was so I also recommend seeing this if you are up for the drive.

Entrance Fee: Free
Address:
Washinosawa-147-1 Ushigatacho, Tsugaru, Aomori 038-3305

Food Picks

For lunch we decided to stop at a curry place that had a lot of vegan options called Michiru. I ordered a 5 curry set with rice, vegetables, and a giant egg and it tasted amazing! The pink fish curry was hands down the best because it packed the most flavor. The other vegetable curries had more of a bland taste but they were healthier than regular curry at least. I appreciated how they used fresh vegetables and organic ingredients here. For dessert I ordered ice cream topped with Aomori’s famous apple jam and my friend ordered organic cheesecake. Both were made with tender care and were the perfect way to end the meal. I’d definitely come back here in the future if I could so I could try more of the seasonal dishes! We also saw the A to Z Memorial Dog on the way to the restaurant because he was located nearby inside of the Former Yoshii Shuzō Brick Warehouse. I will be talking more about his symbolism in my next article.

For dinner we stopped at a teishoku place called Yayori nearby our hotels in the central city of Aomori. As we entered we found out that they normally only sell bento boxes during Golden Week while we were traveling, but since we had came all the way there the chefs made a special menu just for us! I enjoyed the fresh fish and vegetables because they were extremely nourishing. And it was very inexpensive too. I really appreciate how kind the staff was to us here.

Thank you for reading the second article of my Aomori series! The next article will cover various museums and be the final one. Please look forward to hearing about all of the creative modern art we discovered in this rural prefecture!

A Road Trip to Aomori: Visiting the Nebuta Museum and Hirosaki Castle

A Perfect Aesthetic Moment: Sakura petals illuminated under the gates of Hirosaki Caste.

Last weekend I went on a roadtrip to one of my dream destinations during the peak of its cherry blossom season: Aomori Prefecture. Unlike most of Japan, Aomori’s sakura season starts usually from the last weekend of April until the first week of May because it is located up north facing Hokkaido. Aomori’s Hirosaki and Ashino parks are said to be the best places to see the sakura in all of Japan, so as a photographer visiting this prefecture was a huge goal of mine. The hardest challenges of visiting Aomori are timing your visit with the ideal weather and getting around, because the prefecture is quite rural. However, my group decided to bring a car so we could maximize our sightseeing opportunities. Besides its sakura, Aomori is also famous for its delicious apples. This is the first part of a three part article series, so please look forward to reading about my top recommendations here!

Getting to Aomori Prefecture & Accommodation

One way shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Shin Aomori Station are 17000 yen and the trip takes over 4 hours, so it is recommended that you fly to Aomori Airport to save time and money. Roundtrip airline tickets are usually around 30000 yen and you will reach Aomori Airport in just over an hour. However, since I was short on time and was meeting my friends who were staying in central Aomori with a car, I opted for the one way shinkansen ticket then drove 8 hours with them back to Tokyo when we were done sightseeing. It was a long trip, but overall very scenic and cost efficient!

You will definitely want a car to get around Aomori because public transportation is quite limited; especially if you want to see all of the sakura parks because they are spread out. We had originally planned on using some of the sightseeing buses here but were so glad we didn’t because they take a long time to reach places.

Since sakura season is crazy popular and Aomori only has a few hotels in the central area, be prepared to pay extra on accommodations during this time. I paid 15,000 yen for a two night stay at Aomori Route Inn Chuo but it was pleasant because it had a small indoor public bath and I was placed in the 420 room (blaze it). If you come outside of sakura season, then prices will be more reasonable.

Nebuta Museum

The most popular festival in Aomori is the Nebuta Festival, which is held every summer from Aug 2nd – Aug 7th and involves giant colorful floats with characters hand-painted by artists. The floats are carried by volunteers and illuminated by lanterns with dancers and taiko drummers accompanying them during the parade making it quite the spectacle. At the Nebuta Museum in central Aomori, you can see the floats on display all year and also read about the various characters depicted in the floats. If you are coming all the way to Aomori, then you should definitely visit this museum!

Entrance Fee: 600 yen
Address: 1 Chome-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori, 030-0803

Hirosaki Park at Night

Hirosaki Park is renowned as one of the best places to spend sakura season and contains several gardens and Hirosaki Castle within it. During sakura season special lights are placed under the sakura trees so the blossoms look illuminated at night. On the weekend we went, which was April 29th – May 1st, the sakura were predicted to be in full bloom but unfortunately due to heavy rain in the area a few days before, some of the petals had fallen. However, many of the weeping sakura trees (also known as prunus pendula) were in full bloom here so we managed to get a few good shots in. Had it not been for the drizzling rain that night, this park would have been ideal for a picnic!

For better sakura photos, please see my Kyoto article series from last year! We managed to get perfect photos of sakura in full bloom under a full moon.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen
Address: 〒036-8356 Aomori, Hirosaki, Shimoshiroganecho, 1

Top Food Picks

Right as you arrive to Shin Aomori Station and exit through the ticket gate, you will notice multiple gift and souvenir shops at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. I impulse bought an apple macaroon from one of them since I am a macaroon fanatic. As expected, it tasted very fruity and I adored the little apple brand on it! As far as sweets in Aomori go, I also recommend a tiny cake shop called Kashidokoro Kangetsu because it has cream puffs shaped like swans, cakes with dog faces, and tanuki cupcakes that are apple flavored! There are also some anko-filled sweets here that are really delicious. I ordered one shaped like a bamboo shoot and enjoyed both the aesthetic and taste.

For lunch I had a seafood scallop salad crepe at a place called Galetteria Da Sasino in central Aomori. I know that sounds like a weird combination of flavors but it actually tasted amazing! I really love the soft and spongy texture of crepes paired with seafood. For dinner we went to a sushi place called Kuruma Sushi because it was near the castle. I ordered a seafood bowl with the finest fish and mistakenly ordered a bottle of wine instead of a glass because I had a tough time understanding Tsugaru dialect. But I made that bottle last for three days so I got my money’s worth out of it. Just another day in the life!

Thank you for reading the first part of my Aomori article series. In my next article I will be writing about Ashino Park and a special house from a Studio Ghibli film. Please look forward to more!

Freediving at the Kerama Islands: Aka Island and Zamami Island Edition (Part 1)

Free diving with a turtle at Hizushi Beach on Aka Island.

After an amazing two days of dining and chasing sunsets in Naha and Okinawa City, I decided to take a ferry to the Kerama Islands and spend my next two days there focusing on freediving. The Kerama Islands consists of a cluster of 20 big and small islands, but the main 3 that people travel to are Aka Island, Zamami Island, and Tokashiki Island. I chose to go to Aka Island and Zamami Island because they have 2 dog statues that have quite a famous love story together; Shiro and Marilyn. Shiro (found on Aka Island) and Marilyn (found on Zamami Island) are known as “the Hachiko of the sea” and inspired the Japanese movie I want to see Marilyn. Hiking to the statues is a fun experience as outside of Shibuya’s famous Hachiko statue, I have not seen many other statues that are similar in Japan. Funny how these two dogs ended up in Okinawa!

On top of that, the coral reefs on Aka Island are said to be the most beautiful of Kerama so that’s where I decided to start. I was not disappointed because I got the chance to swim with turtle on my very first day there! I also enjoyed getting acquainted with the culture of the Kerama Islands because they are very small and the people that live there friendly and wholesome. Since I came here right before Golden Week, the islands were peaceful and quiet too. I will never forget the two days I spent here!

Getting to the Kerama Islands

From Naha’s Tomari Port, I took a high speed ferry that reached Aka Island in about one hour. Please see the monthly ferry time table to plan your trip and see the ticket cost. Tickets can be purchased in advance or on the day of your trip but they may sell out.

Tomari Port Address: 3 Chome-25-1 Maejima, Naha, Okinawa 900-0016

From Aka Island’s Port, I was able to walk to my hotel in under 5 mins and rent a bike to get around the island. All of the best beaches on Aka Island and Zamami Island are accessible by bike so there is no need to rent a car. You can even walk or run to some of the main sightseeing spots too.

Please note that the Kerama Islands are mostly for swimming and aquatic sports. There are not many restaurants or bars on the island, so you will probably want to eat at your accommodation (most hotels include meals). If you are interested in beaches with more of a nightlife, the main island of Okinawa is better to stay at (you can still day trip to one of the main Kerama Islands and have enough time for sightseeing). However, if you wish to see multiple Kerama Islands then it is best to stay there. I think Aka Island has the best selection of hotels so that is where I decided to stay. Please keep reading for more details.

Freediving on Aka Island

I arrived to Aka Island around 10am, checked into my accommodation (see details further below), rented a wetsuit and bike from my hotel for 2000 yen total, then decided to explore the 3 best beaches for swimming and diving which are: Aka Beach, Nishibama Beach, and Hizushi Beach. These beaches are within 10 – 15 mins of biking from each other and you can visit all of them in the day if you start around 1pm. Aka Beach is where I started since it was near my hotel, but the swimming area is roped off so you can only see a small portion of the coral reefs. I stayed here for about an 40 minutes and was able to see some tropical fish, but after that I decided to pack up my gear and bike to Hizushi Beach where I had the best luck because it is not roped off. After about 10 minutes of swimming, I found not only multiple schools of colorful fish, but also a sea turtle!

Here is a video I took on my GoPro of me swimming above the turtle:

This experience was absolutely magical given that the waters were so crystal clear and I felt comfortable swimming at this depth. The beaches of the Kerama Islands are so beautiful and pristine that they are often referred to as the “Kerama Blue” because they are some of the clearest in the world visited by many tourists who love the ocean. As I was diving, I felt like my vision was enhanced because I was able to see so many different shades I would never be able to see anywhere else other than underwater. Diving is an experience that will definitely change your perspective, so I recommend trying it or snorkeling at least to get a feel for it so you can experience the “Kerama Blue” as well.

Swimming and diving at the Kerama Beaches is typically safe, but do be careful of black and white branded sea snakes because they are extremely venomous. I saw 4 of them during my 2 days here, but they mostly stick to the bottom of the reef and only one came near me. Fortunately I was wearing a wetsuit and was able to swim away. I am guessing that the snake was coming up for air and was pulled by the current towards me, but you never know—it’s better to be safe than sorry! Despite this, I did not feel scared and continue to dive after waiting 15 minutes. Fortunately there were no more close encounters with snakes. Unlike land snakes, sea snakes slither much more slowly through the water so they are easier to avoid from my personal experience.

After about and hour and a half of swimming and diving at Hizushi Beach, I rode my bike to Nishibama Beach. This is more of an aesthetic beach for photography and sunbathing and has several cafes as well, but the coral reefs here are beautiful. I did not see any turtles here, but I did see a lot of unique fish and enjoyed the atmosphere. I spent about an hour here, but not all of it was spent diving. I spent time doing photography on the shore and also found a shell here that I took home as a souvenir so I could remember this day forever. This day felt completely and I was extremely satisfied with everything I saw here.

Please note that the peak turtle season is May – August but you can see them year round.

Staying at Hanamuro Inn

Out of all of the accommodations that I looked at on Aka Island, Hanamuro Inn was without a doubt the most fun and unique one to stay at! With its cheap rental gear (including snorkeling gear and bikes) it had a great system that was more of a deal than other rental shops on the island. It also had rooms with both and air conditioner and a fan, “hot tubs”, and delicious meals, so I think it was well worth the experience. The “hot tubs” were little bath tubs that you could wade and sun bathe in at any time of the day. They were ideal for relaxing in before and after the beach. The dinner I was served was a Japanese/American styled bento box with curry and french fries—the perfect combo. I loved how accommodating the staff was throughout my entire visit.

Please note that there are two Hanamuro Hotels on the island. There is a fancier one with a pool for those who are interested! Please see their website for more information as prices can change with the season. I paid around 12,000 yen for one night but it was worth it for the experience I had.

Hanamuro Inn is very close Maehama Beach where you can see wild deer roaming around the island! Unlike the deer in Nara, these deer are a little more timid but mostly seem to be calm around humans. Instead of senbei, they eat green grass on the island and it is advised that you do not feed them. The statue of Shiro the dog is very easy to find because it is directly north Aka Island’s Port. I think Shiro was the very first picture I took on this island, and I will hold it as a fond memory. At night you can see the stars shine brightly in the sky so I highly recommend staying overnight here if you can.

Other Dining Options

Since my hotel only served dinner and breakfast, I decided to have lunch at Hahna Cafe, which was just a short walk away from my hotel. They had delicious seafood pasta served with bread which I found to taste amazing because island food does not disappoint. They also have Okinawan soba and frozen cocktails and smoothies here. For dessert, I found a tiny cafe around the corner called guu guu that served some rice dishes, cakes, and desserts. I ordered no sugar coconut ice cream with azuki beans as the topping, and as expected it really hit the spot! I think since there are not very many restaurants on Aka Island, each one has a special charm.

Running to Geruma Island

Aka Island has a bridge that connects to Geruma Island where the Kerama Airport and elementary school is so I decided to explore this small and rural island before going to Zamami. Flying to Kerama Airport is typically more expensive, but perhaps is you wanted to come to the Kerama Islands directly without taking a ferry from Naha it would be to your advantage. Geruma was about 3.5 km from my hotel so I decided to run here. Walking here would take around 35-40 mins but if you run you can easily get here in 20 mins. Geruma has the lowest population of there Kerama Islands so there is not a lot to see here besides the main road that connects to the bridge, more coral reefs, and residential housing. The scenery did make it an interesting run though. My only complaint was that there seemed to be now vending machines to buy water at around, so be sure to stay hydrated if you come here! The beaches on this side appeared to have some washed up plastic on the shores so I would recommend not swimming here. Geruma is just something to check out if you are very curious like myself!

Thank you for reading my first article on the Kerama Islands! In my next article, I will talk about my experience exploring the next island I went to; which is Zamami. Look forward to reading more about my tropical adventures later this week!

Meeting the Penguins of Shimane Prefecture

It’s time to go back to school!

After a lovely night of eating seafood and drinking luxury cocktails in Kurashiki, it was time to head to the final destination of this backpacking trip: Shimane Prefecture. This was yet another rural prefecture of Japan on my list of places to visit, and I was ecstatic to go to Matsue Vogel Park to see botanical gardens and meet the famous penguins who sometimes wear seasonal outfits. I decided to go in late March because there was a special event where the penguins wear backpacks and waddle around the park at certain times to celebrate the back to school season. It’s much more fun to watch this video demonstration than to have me explain:

Words cannot describe how adorable this scene was. All of us made way for the incoming penguin colony *wearing backpacks* and watched them waddle to the other side of the room. At the end some of them got tired and sat on their bellies which was adorable. In addition to the back to school costumes, they also have special ones for Golden Week! I look forward to seeing what other penguin cosplay they come up with!

In addition to the penguins, there is a huge collection of other rare birds you can view, but I didn’t spend much time here because there were other things I wanted to see in Shimane. I did enjoy the huge flower baskets hanging from the first major greenroom, however. Matsue Vogel Park really has a lot of neat intricate design going for it:

Address: 52 Ogakicho, Matsue, Shimane 690-0263
Entrance Fee: 1050

Getting around Shimane Prefecture

Getting to and around Shimane Prefecture is difficult because it’s extremely rural, so I would highly recommend renting a car. There is limited public transportation available to all of the places mentioned in this article, but you will likely spend hours waiting for infrequent buses and trains. If you only plan on day tripping here like myself, then having a car is a must. However, if you decided to stay overnight then you can likely see all of these places by local train or bus—just be prepared to wait.

I decided to return to Tokyo by plane from the Izumo Airport which cost around 30,000 yen one way, but that is average because JAL has a monopoly on flights here. That may sound like a lot, but I am super close to seeing all prefectures of Japan and decided I will pay whatever it takes to complete my quest. I am very fortunate that my friend offered to drive me for this portion of the trip because it saved me a lot of time in money. The funny thing is, last time I was in Kurashiki, a similar occurrence happened too!

Lunch at a Hippie Cafe

For lunch we decided to go to an organic hippie cafe called Green’s Baby near the castle because it was easy to park there. Since Shimane is mostly farmland, you can expect the vegetables here to be top notch. I ordered a bagna cauda for myself and my friend ordered taco rice because we were hungry. Both tasted amazing, and we got to eat or meals while sitting in hammock chairs too! I would recommend this place to people who are tired of eating the same food and are looking for a new experience.

Address: 204 Tonomachi, Matsue, Shimane 690-0887

Yuushien at Daikon Island

Our next destination was Shimane’s most famous garden called Yuushien, which you can reach by crossing a bridge to Daikon Island. Yuushien has a variety of artistic flower arrangements, seasonal flowers, and Japanese gardens. It is truly serene and clearly reflects the changes of the seasons. My friend and I had a lot of fun stepping on the rocks and hiking up to the waterfall. Daikon Island is pretty rural but this garden gives it a ton of color.

After circling around the garden twice, we decided to treat ourselves to parfaits at the Yuushien Cafe. My friend ordered the signature matcha parfait, and I ordered an anko set that came with hot green tea. Once again, they both exceeded our expectations. Beforehand I had no idea that Shimane’s tea and desserts tasted so delicious, but it makes sense because there are plenty of organic farms here.

Address: 1260-2 Yatsukacho Hanyu, Matsue, Shimane 690-1492
Entrance Fee: 800 yen

Matsue Castle

Before heading to the airport where I would fly back to Tokyo, we stopped at Matsue Castle on the way. This is actually the only remaining castle in the San’in region and is very large with 4 floors and an indoor museum. Surviving many natural disasters, it has kept its wooden structure and not needed a concrete reconstruction. It stands on the shores of Lake Shinji, which is Shimane’s famous lake that spans 30 miles. It was fun to drive alongside the lake and see all the birds that reside in it. Matsue Castle has a great view of the surrounding area so it is the perfect way to start or end a trip!

Address: 1-5 Tonomachi, Matsue, Shimane 690-0887
Entrance Fee: 680 yen

Final Thoughts

It was extremely fulfilling to complete this long four day backpacking trip from Fukuoka to Shimane and see two prefectures I had never seen before. Would I recommend this itinerary to everyone? No, because it went at an extremely fast pace and only focused on places I had never seen before, but I think a lot can be learned from reading about my experience which is why I wanted to share it here. Those who have lived in Japan for a while may be interested in some of the places I have discovered. Some of these places were challenging to go to and required a rental car, but were definitely worth the effort. As of now, I only have three remaining prefectures of Japan to visit which I plan on seeing at the end of this month!

Thank you all to have kept up with my crazy journeys. This is the final article in this series, but I will be publishing my next series on my trip to Nara this month! Please look forward to reading about my experience staying in a cottage in the woods with hungry deer looming outside.

KEEP HOPE ALIVE: Journey to the Hill of Hope

Continuing on from my backpacking trip through Yamaguchi Prefecture, I next ventured to Hiroshima where my main destination was the white marble Hill of Hope on Setoda Island. This beautiful sculpture garden was designed by an architect named Kuetani Ittou who was born in Hiroshima and all of the marble materials were actually mined and transported from Italy. Visitors can freely climb around the walls and up the pristine stairs to see a beautiful view of the ocean. There is also a little cafe here that sells delicious sakura gelato on the way up to the top. Hope is still very much alive here, and this monument beautifully ties it together in harmony with the surrounding area.

Address: 553-2 Setodacho Setoda, Onomichi, Hiroshima 722-2411
Entry Fee: 1400 yen (includes entry to Kosanji Temple and the Kongo Gallery as well)

Getting to Setoda Island

From Hiroshima Station, take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Mihara Station, then take a short ferry ride to Setoda Island and you can walk directly there. This trip takes about 2 hours depending on the ferry time table at Mihara Port. You can also visit the rabbit island from here. These islands make ideal day trips because they are small and you can cover most of the area on foot.

For information on how to get to Hiroshima and my recommended sightseeing points, please see my previous Hiroshima and Onomichi articles.

Other Points of Interest

Right before the Hill of Hope is a beautiful temple complex called Kosanji that you will see on your way there. I enjoyed seeing its striking colors and the beautiful lilies in the water. This is definitely the most gorgeous temple in all of Hiroshima Prefecture. Setoda Island is also very famous for its lemons and you will see various shops selling lemonade here! Though small, this island is the perfect half-day trip and you can easily combine it with a trip to Hiroshima City or Okayama. I decided to take the train to Kurashiki in Okayama because I was meeting a sponsor in the evening. This ended up being a great idea because I got the chance to go on another boat ride and see the gorgeous canal town again!

Revisiting Kurashiki

I first visited Kurashiki years ago while hitch-hiking through Okayama and really enjoyed the rustic charm of the canals. Unfortunately the day I went was a holiday and the canal boats were fully booked, but this time I made it just in time for a boat tour! The ride is only around 15 minutes but you can see the town from a lovely angle while feeling the soft breeze from the canal. I was happy to finally experience this, because it felt similar to the settings of one of my favorite anime called Aria.

Address: 1-4-8 Chuo, Kurashiki City (Kurashiki Tourist Information Center)
Ticket Fee: 500 yen

Afterwards it was around 6pm so we decided to eat some delicious seafood at a nearby restaurant called Hamayoshi. I cannot recommend it enough because the squid and sashimi especially were amazing!

Accommodation

Last time I was backpacking in Okayama I stayed in a net cafe near the station, but this time I stayed at the Royal Park Hotel in Kurashiki. Upgrade much? This hotel is around 8000 yen per night but that is a fair price for this area and it has a public onsen plus breakfast included. For the amenities it was more than worth the price.

The next article will be the final part of this series where I will be visiting Shimane Prefecture for the first time. Thank you all for supporting me on this long and crazy journey.

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

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

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

Getting to Sadoshima

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

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

Boarding the Ship

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

Riding the Washtubs from Tales of Symphonia

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

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

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

Kinzan Gold Mine

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

Toki Forest Park

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

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

Exploring Karatsu on the Night of the Olympic Torch Relay

Terrarium at Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori

After spending a lovely evening in my teacup-shaped bath in Ureshino and visiting the cafe featured in Zombieland Saga, I set off for Karatsu which is another featured area from the series. Karatsu is famous for its terraced rice fields and was also one of the locations for the 2021 Olympic Torch Relay. By pure coincidence I just happened to be there on the final day of the relay in Saga on May 9th. Though I didn’t have time to watch it due to my returning flight departing that night to Tokyo, I was happy to see Saga during one of liveliest times. Saga previously had the reputation of being one of the most boring prefectures in Japan, but Zombieland Saga and the relay have changed that. I was able to see so many sights in such a short time so I was overall very satisfied with my trip.

Without further ado, here are my top recommendations in Karatsu:

Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori

Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori is a nature park in the mountains with beautiful flora and an observatory with reflective surfaces where you can take aesthetic pictures. I was very impressed to see trees whose leaves had already turned red here at the start of summer! There are also nature trails that lead you through lush forests and take you to the top of the mountain. The best part about this place is that it’s open year round so you can see the scenery during every season!

Previously I had tried to go to a similar temple in Kyoto called Rurikoin, but it is only open during certain times of the year and requires reservation. Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori is just as beautiful and has no closing time, so I would recommend this place instead.

Getting here was a bit of a challenge as I had to ride to Kyuragi Station from Saga Station on a local train that only comes once or twice per hour and call 3 different taxi companies to take me here, but I can proudly say that my effort was worth it! Show Taxi kindly picked me up from the station and drove me back when I had finished sightseeing without any difficulty. This is one of the best places to do photography in Karatsu and due to its remote location, it is not very crowded either.

Address: 667 Kyuragimachi Hirano, Karatsu, Saga 849-3131

Terraced Rice Fields

One of the best places to view the sunset in Karatsu is at the terraced rice fields of Terraced Rice Fields of Hamanoura because they are usually filled up with water in the summer and have a dramatic backdrop of the sea. The patterns are gorgeous here and almost remind me of scenery in Bali! These are way more interesting than the usual rice fields you find in prefectures just outside of Tokyo, so they were high on my list of things to see. Due to the Olympic Torch Relay taking place in this area, there were a lot of people here but I managed to snap some amazing photos and bask in their beauty.

Once again, these rice fields are a bit remote so I rode the train to Karatsu Station and hailed a cab outside of it. I as extremely fortunate that my driver was familiar with Zombieland Saga and offered to take me around to all of the famous places from the anime. He also informed me that since so many fans of the anime have been coming to Saga lately that the economy here is in quite good shape. This is not the first time that I’ve heard otaku are saving Japan’s economy, and I am very happy to be part of the movement!

Address: Hamanoura, Genkai, Higashimatsuura District, Saga 847-1433

Zombieland Saga Mansion

On the way back to the station, my driver took me to the official mansion from Zombieland Saga! This building was previously the Karatsu City Museum of History and Folklore but closed in 2003. Further back in history, it was also the former Mitsubishi branch of Saga explaining its beautiful western design. Though you can’t go inside of it, you can admire it from afar. If you look at the windows, you may see some familiar zombie idols looking back at you! Nearby this mansion is Ohori Park which you will also recognize from the series. If I had more time I would have gone to Karatsu Castle too, but I am happy enough that I got the chance to see Franchouchou HQ up close! Karatsu Station currently has Zombieland Saga flags and cutouts to welcome tourists, so I felt very at home here.

Saga Rebellion

Episodes 8 and 9 of Zombieland Saga Revenge focus on Yugiri’s past during the Meiji Era of Japan. In this era Saga was seized and became a part of Nagasaki triggering the Saga Rebellion of 1874. After finally being liberated from her job as a high ranking courtesan, Yugiri meets a young man who is determined to restore Saga’s status as an independent prefecture. Watching these episodes really moved me because I learned that the spirit of the people of Saga is unyielding and indigenous. They could have surrendered but they fought for their independence and that is why Saga is its own prefecture separate from Nagasaki today. When I studied the Meiji Era in college, Saga was never once mentioned so I was delighted to learn about this from one of my favorite anime and research it on my own. I hope this series continues to shed light on lesser known facts about history so I can continue to learn about them!

Organic Lunch at Ohisama

While waiting for the infrequent local trains in Saga, I decided to try an organic food restaurant called Ohisama near the castle. This building not only has an amazing kitchen but is also connected to a small store that sells organic food. I happily indulged in their lunch set that was completely vegetarian. Saga cuisine has a ton of flavor and is really out of this world! Everything on my plate was extremely delicious and came with healthy brown rice and miso soup. Yet again I was excited to have eaten such a wholesome meal made with tender care.

Address: 2 Chome-5-30 Tafuse, Saga, 840-0823

Heading Back to the Airport

The most beautiful train ride ever from Karatsu Station to Fukuoka Airport!

Though I really wished I could have stayed to watch the Olympic Torch Relay, I had a flight to catch in Fukuoka and work the next day so I had my driver drop me off at Karatsu station and took the rapid train to the airport. I was about to play my Switch to pass time when I was blinded by an emerging light from the opposite window. This was the most beautiful train ride I had ever experienced because there was so much sunlight and I could sea the ocean and forests of Saga. It felt like I was warping through time and was truly an unforgettable experience—the perfect way to end this trip!

Overall I had an amazing time visiting Fukuoka and Saga over the span of 3 days and am still mindblown by all of the things that I had saw. Although at first I thought Saga was extremely boring compared to the other prefectures in Kyushu, the journey greatly changed my way of thinking and I have Zombieland Saga to thank for that. The history of Saga is extremely rich and I get fired up just thinking about the Saga Rebellion. I am happy that they fought for their independence and won, else this trip would have never been possible!

I hope to come back to Kyushu this summer to see Kagoshima and the volcanic island Sakurajima. It is also a dream of mine to see a rocket launch from Tanegashima, so I am positive I will be back in Kyushi in the future. Thank you for keeping up with my adventures. I will be writing more soon!

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Minobu (Part 2)

After hiking to all of the major Mt. Fuji viewpoints spending a cozy first night in Fujiyoshida, I woke up at 9am and rode the local trains to meet my friends at Kofu Station for another Yuru Camp-inspired day. In this article I’ll be writing about Minobu, a small city in Yamanashi where the main characters of Yuru Camp go to school and spend their daily lives. Unbeknownst to me, the real life Minobu has replica of Rin’s Vino Classic scooter and many goods from the series available for sale! Even if you are not a fan of the series, there are historic temples and shrines to see in this area as well as beautiful flowers year-round. Seeing this iconic town was definitely a big highlight of the trip for me.

For the first part of this article series, please see A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1).

Getting to Kofu & Minobu

From my hotel in central Fujiyoshida, I walked to Mt. Fuji Station (that’s right—THE Mt. Fuji Station) where I rode the Thomas the Tank Engine-themed Fujikyuko Train to Otsuki Station, then took the Chuo Line to Kofu Station. I really found it hilarious how each local stop on the Fujikyuko Line had its own Thomas mascot and the seats of the train were decoratively designed with all of the characters. Now that is peak aesthetic. This journey took around 2 hours and cost less than 2500 yen. It is also very easy to reach Kofu from Tokyo by taking the Chuo line or booking a bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. However, if you want to see all of Yamanashi then you might want to stop by Fujiyoshida first like I did!

Upon reaching Kofu Station, I met up with my friends and their bright blue car named Aqua, and we decided to get lunch nearby then drive to Minobu! There is a Minobu Line Limited Express that departs from Kofu Station and reaches the city in roughly an hour, but the destinations around Minobu are better accessed by car. However, if you are going on a Yuru Camp-inspired journey like myself and don’t have access to a car, I would recommend hopping on the train because you can see Rin’s scooter right by Minobu Station! The cost of the train is less than 2000 yen and the journey will be unforgettable.

Lunch at Tree -Anthony’s Kitchen-

One of the cafes that I was most looking forward to visiting was a western-themed kitchen called Tree with a skilled chef named Anthony who traveled to Japan from the UK. My friends had previously dined here for their Christmas Anniversary dinner and the pictures of the course they posted looked heavenly! They are also good friends with the owner and seemed to know everyone around us so I appreciated the friendly atmosphere. I was also beyond excited to finally try this delicious place for myself! This restaurant has a number of vegetarian and pescatarian options so I decided to get the falafel plate, though the squid burger looked tempting too. My friends decided on a meat pie with vegetables and spaghetti, and the three of us savored our delicious meals. Totoro definitely enjoyed dining in Yamanashi Prefecture too!

Address: 〒400-0048 Yamanashi, Kofu, Kugawahoncho, 12−3 sora E

Entering Yuru Camp Heaven in Minobu

After having a wonderful meal, we drove an hour to Minobu and stumbled into Yuru Camp heaven. In the car my friend was telling me about the famous Minobu Manjuu that she wanted me to try. When we arrived at Minobu Station, Rin’s Vino scooter was sitting adjacent to that very manjuu/souvenir store that she mentioned!! After taking a dozen pictures of it, we walked into the store and were blinded by Yuru Camp goods. Shima Rin Dango, keychains, plushies, ema, office supplies, curry, and more—everything was Yuru Camp themed. Even the vending machines by the parking lot that we parked at. My biggest flex on this trip was by sweet sake for 100 yen from the Rin vending machine:

After buying a bunch of merchandise (most notably the Shima Rin plush and dango) and greatly stimulating the Yamanashi economy, we decided to walk around the station for a bit and enjoy the scenery. I bought some Minobu Manjuu that this area is famous for and they tasted fresh and delicious. Rin’s famed dango tasted amazing as well. We were happy to see that the plum blossoms were already in bloom so we stopped to take pictures there before driving the local temples and doing some hiking. I was absolutely elated from this experience because I wasn’t expecting to see so much Yuru Camp here! MISSION SUCCESS!!

Exploring Minobu’s Local Temples

Since we had quite a lot to eat, we decided to go hiking to Kuonji Temple on the base of Mt. Minobu and also see a series of shrines around the area. The climb to reach the main temple had quite a lot of stairs and reminded me of the Tiger Temple I visited in Thailand. However, the view at the top of the hill was worth the effort. I had fun wandering around and seeing the flowers that had started to bloom. The color and architecture of each temple had quite a rich variety. Some temples looked worn and had traditional wooden architecture while others had bright colors and looked almost foreign. Even though this area has not yet been featured in the series, it is a colorful place that I would recommend to people coming to Minobu for their Yuru Camp pilgrimages. My friends also informed me that this a great place for seeing sakura!

Lake Motosu

While the sun was setting over Mt. Fuji, we decided it would be a great idea to drive to lake Motosu where Rin and Nadeshiko meet in the very first episode of Yuru Camp! There are famous campsites here that I plan on going to with my friends in the summer. The purpose of this winter trip was to familiarize myself with the area so I could come back and eventually go camping at my favorite areas in the future. I think that this area is definitely the best place because it has a lot of shade and a beautiful view of Fuji. I hope to write more about Lake Motosu in the future and make some more happy memories here!

Dinner & Dessert in Kofu

After seeing the highlights of Yuru Camp in central Yamanashi, we decided to stop at two amazing restaurants on our way back to my friends’ house where I was spending the night. One was a Japanese restaurant called Sakagura-kai that had some of the freshest salmon I had ever tasted and a huge selection of Yamanashi sake. Another was a cake shop called troisieme marche near the Fuji Five Lakes that had creamy cakes that melted in your mouth. The chocolate mousse used in the baking was some of the best I have had in a while. I would happily recommend all of the places that I mentioned in this because the food was phenomenal and they had a lot of selection.

Sakagura-kai Address: 567 Kita, Yamanashi, 405-0041

troisieme marche Address: 682 Kawaguchi, Fujikawaguchiko, Minamitsuru District, Yamanashi 401-0304

Ending the Night at Hottarakashi Onsen

The final destination of the night was Hottarakashi Onsen, featured in Season 1 Episode 5 of Yuru Camp. This hot spring is absolutely heavenly in the winter and has both an indoor and outdoor bath. Unfortunately the baths are public so photography inside is prohibited, but coming here is worth it for the view of the starry sky and city lights below. I think this is the best onsen that I’ve been to besides the resort in Nagano I traveled to earlier this year. My body definitely felt healed after all of the hiking I did this day, and I was ready for another round of drinks and Smash Bros. for when we got home!

Thank you for reading the second part of my Yuru Camp-inspired adventures! The final part will detail some beautiful hiking trails and waterfalls and be published later this week. Please look forward to it~

Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 2)

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

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

Kiyomizudera Autumn Illumination

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

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

Teori Zushi

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

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

Unique Kyoto Desserts

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

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

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

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

“Pyramid” @ West Harlem

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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.