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!

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!

Revisiting the Tropical Cities of Naha and Okinawa-shi

Though it’s called “Moon Beach”, you can definitely soak up the rays here!

Exactly one year ago before the Golden Week rush, I decided to fly to Okinawa to visit Naha and Miyakojima for the purpose of practicing underwater photography and traveling to newly opened dream destinations such as the Sanrio Hotel. The trip was a total blast and later helped me discover my love for free diving while I was in Hawaii this winter. Since I am planning another trip to Hawaii this month and am going to be diving with an experienced friend, I decided to book a spontaneous trip from Tokyo to Naha, Okinawa, last week so I could get some practice in. I am happy to say that this year’s trip was also a success and I saw a lot of aquatic wildlife all by myself! It’s fantastic to see such an improvement in my diving ability in just a year while travel was extremely limited. I am excited to dive in other Asian countries in the future as the world starts to open up!

If you live in Japan, then Okinawa is hands down the best place to enjoy beaches, surf, and dive. Last year I flew to Miyakojima during my trip so I could go scuba diving tour in a pumpkin-shaped limestone cave. This year I decided to focus on the Kerema Islands that are just a short ferry ride away from Naha’s central Tomari Port. They have beautiful beaches that are easily accessible and great for seeing turtles. Like last year, I decided to stay in Okinawa for 6 days so I could both practice diving and spend time with friends. Roundtrip tickets from Tokyo to Naha are between 15,000 – 20,000 yen this time of year. Please read my previous Naha article on how to best travel to Okinawa from Tokyo. This year due to there being no state of emergency, I noticed more travelers than last year, but the weekdays were still pretty quiet.

Exploring New Cafes in Naha

I arrived to Naha Airport around 12:00pm and was hungry so I decided to hunt for the most aesthetic food on the main island. Since I wanted my first day to be relaxing, this article will mostly focus on cafes, beaches, and restaurants I explored in the major cities before setting sail to the Kerama Islands. Here are my top discoveries for 2022:

DAISY

Like the name implies, DAISY encompasses all food that is aesthetic and floral. I loved the pastel walls and hanging lightbulbs from the ceiling because they definitely added a flair to the dining experience. My very first meal in Okinawa was flowery pizza topped with lemon and lime, a flowery grapefruit drink, and flowery ice cream for dessert! This cafe popped up in my recommendations on Instagram and in all my days I have never seen a pizza in Japan that looked this crazy. It tasted like naan topped with melted cheese and a hint of fruity flavor (and yes, the flowers on top are edible too). Would I recommend this to my friends? Oh, absolutely! If you love cheesy bread then this is the perfect starter for you. The grapefruit drink complimented its tropical taste too. And let me tell you, ordering the ice cream for dessert was a very satisfying way to end this meal. It was a combination of vanilla and raspberry flavors that really hit the spot on a sunny day. After this I had all the energy I needed to set off to my next destination!

Address: 2 Chome-28-24-103 Ameku, Naha, Okinawa 900-0005

LaLa Zorba

Another wonderful restaurant I recommend is LaLa Zorba, which serves ethnic food that is 100% vegan. The shop is owned by a female chef who cooks everything from scratch. I went here as soon as it opened on my second day in Naha and ordered the curry platter which included soy meat curry, rice, vegetables, fruit, and tofu. I could tell all of the food was organic because I felt very clean and healthy after eating it. They also have vegan desserts available for purchase that change daily, though I was too full to eat anything else! I am happy to see that more high quality vegan restaurants have opened here since my initial visit to Okinawa in 2016!

Address: 〒900-0014 Okinawa, Naha, Matsuo, 2 Chome−2−32 2階

Heading to Moon Beach & Toguchi Beach for the Sunset

Moon Beach is a popular resort area near Onna Village that a lot of travelers rave about, so I decided to drive there with a friend for a private photoshoot. Fortunately even if you are not staying at the resort, you can still visit the beach and use the facilities. I was mostly here to catch the aesthetic sunset because I have already seen the beaches in southern Okinawa, and I think the ones to the north are much more beautiful. Though the beach is small and not ideal for swimming or diving, the surrounding scenery is luscious and ideal for photography. We spent around 45 minutes here and decided to drive south to Toguchi Beach after.

Toguchi Beach is rockier and sometimes has low tides during this time of year, but has an amazing arch rock fromation and private areas where you can swim and take photos. The reflection of the clouds on the water was absolutely breathtaking and I had never seen such a beautiful sunset in Okinawa before. I think the scenery here is unrivaled and this was a fantastic place to end the night (though we planned to go barhopping afterwards).

Address: 1203 Maeganeku, Onna, Kunigami District, Okinawa 904-0414

Though we had a car for this trip, you can take a city bus towards Matsuo from central Kokusai Street in Naha to reach the Moon Beach Bus Stop. This trip takes about 1.5 hours and costs 1200 yen but is worth the price.

Moon Beach Sushi

After witnessing arguably one of the best sunsets on the island, we decided to stop at Chinuman for some mouthwatering sushi. This is a wonderful izakaya-styled restaurant with high quality fish that is perfect to relax at with your friends. I ordered a California Roll with a traditional Japanese 10 piece nigiri set, then some extra octopus and eel sushi because I love Okinawan sushi. The fish here hit differently than back in Tokyo. To understand you’ll just have to travel here and try it for yourself! Whatever fish you order here, you really can’t go wrong.

Address: 〒904-0414 Okinawa, Kunigami District, Onna, Maeganeku, 73

Barhopping in Okinawa-shi

Since one of my good photography friends was leaving Japan this week, we decided to go hard by pregaming then barhopping in Okinawa-shi (also known as Okinawa City). This area is more north from Naha and close to the beach resort areas of the central island, but you can still find accommodations here that are cheap. Since I am a lover of fancy cocktails, I decided to order an alcoholic avocado smoothie with a side of sweet azuki beans and a blue cheese Kahlua milk drink at a high-end bar called Bobby’s. Like the cafes I listed earlier, these cocktails were right up my ally because not only were they extremely aesthetic, but the quality was top notch too. We next wandered to an Italian Gyoza restaurant a little ways down the street that had just opened. They had a lot of unique entrees like mozzarella gyoza, Spanish omelettes, and herb fries. By this time we were pretty lit so we just ordered a ton of food and drinks and enjoyed the atmosphere. I can’t stress enough how much I love Okinawan restaurants because the owners here are never afraid to try new things. Italian Gyoza is definitely something that shouldn’t be slept on!

Accommodation

This year I mostly stayed with friends living near Moon Beach, but I highly recommend staying at Hotel Aqua Citta Naha like I did last year because it has free drinks during certain times and a beautiful infinity pool on the top floor. A standard room is around 6000 yen and this hotel is located near Tomari Port so you can reach other islands easily. Naha Airport is also close to this area as well as many bars and clubs. I will be detailing other hotels in my next articles where I visit the Kerama Islands. Please look forward to more island adventures from yours truly!

Chasing Sunsets on Sakurajima, Kagoshima’s Volcanic Island

View of Sakurajima from the Arimura Lava Observatory.

Right before my expedition to Ogawa Falls in the remote city of Kanoya, I decided to make a brief pitstop at the island of Sakurajima and spend the night at a Japanese ryokan by the ocean. Sakurajima is a volcanic island that has been on my bucket list for quite a while, but I was waiting for the perfect time of year to go which is late summer. While I was here I rented a bike and rode around to various viewpoints, took a bus to the Arimura Lava Observatory, and walked around the magma sand beach on the way back to my hot spring resort. The best part was watching the sunset from my private onsen by the sea. I will never forget the beautiful shades of the pink and orange sky that surround the active volcano. The volcano gently erupts ash every day but is safe to view from the marked viewpoints and observatories. Since Sakurajima doesn’t have much of a nightlife at all, you can really focus on appreciating nature when the sky turns dark.

Getting to Sakurajima

From the Kagoshima Ferry Port that is easily accessible by bus from the airport, Sakurajima is just a simple 15 minute ferry ride away. The ferry runs 24 hours and costs only 200 yen per passenger. Please see the ferry timetable for more information.

There are a number of bus tours you can choose from the Sakurajima Tourism Website, but you can also rent bikes and use a combination of public transport to get the most out of your experience. Here is my recommended itinerary for Sakurajima:

Exploring the West Side of the Island by Bike

As soon as I reached the Sakurajima ferry port, I calculated it would be faster to see the attractions on the west side of the island by bike, so I rented a cheap bike from a rental shop near Tsukiyomi Shrine. I decided I would see the shrine first, then bike to the Yogam Nagisa Footbath area so I could soak my feet in the water and gaze at the sparkling sea. The footbaths are completely free to use and are very relaxing for weary travelers. After snapping a few photos, I rode my bike to the Karasujima Observatory which gave me yet another beautiful view of the ocean. I then rode my bike to the “Portrait of a Shout” monument which is definitely worth seeing. This was my favorite piece of art on the island because it was so random but gladly welcomed. Seeing all these things took around 45 mins by bike which is way easier than walking or waiting for a bus, so I would recommend because it lets you get acquainted with the island.

Biking around the entire island is about 36km and is doable in a day, but since some places on the north side are shut due to the pandemic I would not recommend it unless you are dead-set on seeing all of the island by bike. Please note that most bike rental places want their bikes returned by 5pm too.

Taking a Bus to the Arimura Lava Observatory

After returning my bike, I took a local bus from the ferry port to the Arimura Lava Observatory which was very close to the beach and my ryokan. This was my favorite part of the trip because unlike other observatories, the Arimura one has the most walkways and mini tunnels you can walk through with the best view of the volcano. You can also see the ash from the volcano that looks like black sand around this area. This was the most photogenic spot of the island that I discovered and it was so fun seeing the volcano from multiple heights. If you enjoy hiking and are only here on a day trip, definitely come here first because you’ll enjoy it the most!

If you cross the street from the observatory and walk west toward the hotels, you will be able to see Arimura Beach that has black sand stained from the ash. Fortunately the ash is already dry when it lands on the sand and it is safe to walk on. This was my first time seeing a volcanic beach and I was truly amazed!

Address: 952 Arimuracho, Kagoshima, 891-1545

Staying Overnight at Sakurajima Seaside Hotel

While looking at places on the island, I wanted to stay somewhere close to the ocean with a natural hot spring included. Sakurajima Seaside Hotel fit that description perfectly and was in a great location on Arimura Beach so I booked it without hesitation. This hotel has ryokan style rooms with the option of having meals included. It also has public and private onsen naturally heated by the magma of Sakurajima. The best time to use the hot springs is when the sun starts to set because then it won’t be as hot. When I first got in, the water was extremely warm so it took some getting used to. However, the next day my muscles felt completely relaxed so I decided to go in again before checking out. When you get out of the bath you may notice some orange residue on your skin from the natural ingredients in the water but this is extremely healthy for it!

Taking a Bus or Taxi to Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate

In the morning before catching my ferry back to mainland, I decided to take a taxi to the Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate on the east side of the island. My taxi driver was very talkative and gave me the full history on its destruction that was caused by an eruption in 1914. I have never seen a tori submerged in the earth before, so this was yet another incredibly rare sight that is unique to Sakurajima. You can also come here by local bus—I just decided to use a taxi because I was short on time.

I this area there is also the Kurokami Observation Point, but it was closed due to the pandemic. I wasn’t disappointed because my pictures from the Arimura Lava Observatory turned out very well.

Address: 647 Kurokamicho, Kagoshima, 891-1401
Admission: Free

Trying Sakurajima Food

There are a number of restaurants scattered throughout the island, but I opted to get breakfast at my ryokan which included fresh fish, rice, salad, and miso soup. Food on the island is somewhat limited, but a lot of care went into preparing this breakfast and I enjoyed the variety. At the ferry terminal there is a cafe that sells volcanic ash ice cream cones and I can’t recommend them enough! The “volcanic ash” tastes suspiciously like crushed Oreo, but I will live its taste up to your imagination. I would just try whatever food that strikes you fancy here!

Final Thoughts

I am really glad I solo tripped and stayed overnight on Sakurajima because watching the sunset on this island was absolutely breathtaking! The majority of travelers that I have talked to usually day trip here to save time, but I feel very fortunate I had enough time to experience the volcano at night too. The staff at my ryokan were extremely kind and really took care of me. I also enjoyed having a lot of alone time to myself which is something that I don’t always get in Tokyo. Having a car would have been nice, but I managed to spontaneously figure out the public transport system and rent a bike which I am proud of myself for. Overall this was another 10/10 trip to Kyushu and I cannot wait to come back in the future.

This marks the end of my Kyushu article series, but I will be traveling to Kobe and Awaji this weekend and starting my next article series next week! Please look forward to it and thank you for reading as always!

Exploring Amami Island: The Rich Paradise of Goats & Pristine Beaches

A warm welcome from Kurasaki Beach!

After raving in the mountains of Gunma for three days, I realized the end of summer would soon be upon us so the first week of September would be the ideal time to knock of a few places on my Kyushu bucket list—mainly Amami Island, Sakurajima, and the first crater of Mt. Aso. Since I already had a phenomenal vacation in Okinawa just before Golden week, I was craving one more long beach trip before it became too cold to swim. Fortunately for me, I found a number of discount one-way airline tickets and was able to string them together to create the ultimate bargain vacation throughout Kyushu. A number of my friends and coworkers asked me how I did it so I will try to explain my itinerary as thoroughly as possible. If you fly during certain times through Peach and Skymark airlines from Narita airport, you can find discount flights for almost 1/3 of the price all year round in Japan! It just takes some time analyzing Google Flights but really anyone can create the perfect vacation if they put enough heart and research into it.

The dates I chose to travel were 8/30 – 9/5. My completed itinerary was:

Tokyo (NRT Airport) → Amami → Kagoshima → Sakurajima (via ferry) → Kagoshima → Kanoya (for Ogawa Falls) → Fukuoka → Kumamoto → Mt. Aso → Kumamoto → Fukuoka Airport ↺ Tokyo

Since I don’t have an international driver’s license, I relied completely on buses, local trains, taxis, ferries, and even rented bikes too! I spent a lot of time on the road but I listened to music, played my Switch, and did a lot of GoPro editing on my phone too. This was my first time traveling in quite a long time due to the pandemic and the typhoons that hit Japan during Obon season, but I’m happy to say it was another huge success! I learned a lot about the rural life of Kyushu, swam in onsen and oceans, and made many friends along the way (both human and goat). It’s been a while since I last updated Resurface to Reality so I hope you enjoy reading all about my latest Kyushu adventures in this latest article series.

Getting to Amami Island

I chose Amami Island as my first destination because it is one of the most popular remote islands for water activities in Kagoshima. It is not technically part of Okinawa, but it is extremely close to some of its island chains and the weather is almost exactly the same. Amami is a place you go to getaway from the crowds and doesn’t have nearly as many people as Naha, but it does have a bustling downtown shopping area where you can interact freely with the islanders. I spent most of my time swimming at my resort and biking around beaches, but there are a number of wonderful things you can see here!

The easiest way to get to Amami Island is by plane, and fortunately all of the best resorts and beaches are near the airport too! You can also travel by ferry from Kagoshima and Okinawa, but these trips can take up to 11 hours which you could be using to relax during your Kyushu vacation. I departed from Narita Airport around 10am on a Monday and my ticket was only 7040 yen, which beats the long 9000 yen ferry! The plane ride was only 2.5 hours and I slept for over half of it. When I reached the airport, I could already feel the tropical breeze and the bright rays from the sun as soon as I went outside. A free shuttle bus was waiting for me outside too, and driver smiled at me and said “Let’s gooooo!” in English. The adventure was about to begin!

Accommodation: Caretta Resort Amami

While looking for accommodations in Amami, I wanted something on the beach preferably with a pool or a hot tub for the ultimate relaxation. Fortunately I found my ideal hotel match at Caretta Resort! Not only did this hotel have a gigantic pool, inflatables, and a hot tub, but it also had friendly goats and was located directly on Kurasaki Beach. This was the closest resort I found in Japan that resembled Koh Samui, one of my favorite islands in Thailand due to the proximity of the ocean and the huge pool. The hospitality was truly amazing and the people were so kind. There were a bunch of kids in the pool roleplaying Pokemon which really brought me back to my childhood too. The view from inside of the rooms is really beautiful too. If you book far enough in advance, you can get a room for under 10000 which truly is a steal for a resort of this quality. I splurged a bit but treating myself was truly worth it! This hotel has everything you need, including free bike rentals too.

I recommend staying in Amami for at least 3 days like I did so you can fully enjoy the beaches and also choose to go snorkeling, kayaking, or paragliding which I will get into in my next article!

Eating a Heart-shaped Donut at Heart Rock

After checking in at my lovely resort and greeting the goat that lives outside of it, I decided to rent a bike from my hotel and bike to the famous Heart Rock that was just 10 mins away. This heart-shaped pool appears most visible during low tides, but you can see it year-round. It is said to have some kind of healing property so it attracts a number of visitors each day.

Before going to Heart Rock, you can stop at Healthy Island Cafe and buy heart-shaped donuts that come in different flavors and also try goat milk ice cream! I enjoyed how creamy it was plus meeting all of the goats outside that had helped make it. You can purchase other products like goat soap, cheese, and mascots as well. The goat culture on Amami Island is truly amazing and everyone loves them!

I really enjoyed walking through the mini jungle area on the path to the beach and met a stray cat on my way to the rock. A lot of Amami is completely untouched making it the perfect place for adventurers to explore!

Heart Rock Address: 1346-1 Akaogi, Tatsugo, Oshima District, Kagoshima 894-0411

Trying Amami Foods & Sake

Amami Island is famous not only for its goat milk ice cream, but also its seafood and black sugar shochu! Due to the pandemic, a number of restaurants were closed so I just kept calling random ones near the beach until I found out that one named Restaurant AMAnesia was open until 7pm. I got extremely lucky because this restaurant was near a famous hotel and had a huge selection of seafood!

I decided to go with the mini steamed lobster set that came with local island specialties, rice, and vegetables. I also ordered a mini assortment of black sugar shochu. To my surprise it was very strong and not very sweet at all, but I still enjoyed it! After enjoying this delicious meal, I went outside to the beach to enjoy the ocean breeze. Boy this sure beat Tokyo!

AMAnesia Address: 1246-1 Kasaricho Oaza Yoan, Amami, Kagoshima 894-0508

I really enjoyed the privateness of Amami Island this day and reflected on my thoughts. This was an incredible first day with perfect weather and I was very excited for the rest of the week!

In my next article, I will be going into detail about various activities you can do on Amami such as paragliding and kayaking through the mangrove. Please look forward to my next article!

From the Archives: Memories of Fuji Rock 2018

My first time to Fuji Rock at Naeba Ski Resort in 2018 was quite the experience.

Though Japan has an abundant amount of quality music events, Fuji Rock is widely accepted as the best outdoor music festival. Not only does it have rock music, but it also has techno, electronic, and retro music that plays homage to the past. Fuji Rock is held every August at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture. In 2018 I attended the festival for the first time and was blown away by how organized it was. Not only that, but people respected the rules and kept the outdoor area clean. Unlike festivals in America and the party islands of Thailand, there was no trash or wrappers left on the ground. Not to mention the forest and all of the stages were decorated so beautifully!

In this article I will be recounting my experience of Fuji Rock so that others can take my advice on how to prepare. Fuji Rock will be held on Aug 20 – 22nd this year but unfortunately I will be unable to attend. I look back to my experience with fond memories, however, and may decide to go in the future!

Getting to Fuji Rock & Accommodations

From Tokyo Station you can take the Josetsu shinkansen directly to Echigo Yuzawa Station and then take a 500 yen shuttle ride to Fuji Rock or a taxi. The trip is less than two hours and the shinkansen ticket costs 7,000 yen one way which is quite cheaper than traveling to other cities in Japan.

Since the festival lasts for 3 days, you have the choice of buying individual tickets for the day you want to go or a 3 day ticket. Since this was my first time going, I only went for one day and stayed at a net cafe near Niigata Station. The majority of my Japanese friends went for multiple days and chose to camp at the festival though. A one day ticket costs around 19,000 which may seem expensive, but it is worth it for the lineup and overall experience. The ticket to camp at the festival is 3,000 yen for the whole duration of the fest which will save you a lot of money on hotels. There are some accommodations near the ski resort but they are extremely expensive and sell out fast.

If you are unsure of what you want to do, I would recommend buying a one day ticket in advance and seeing how you feel. Though the early bird tickets always sell out on the Fuji Rock website, there is a chance you can still buy one during the time of the festival.

Pregaming at Echigo Yuzawa Station

Echigo Yuzawa Station is famous for its Ponshukan, which is a facility with walls of mini sake vending machines you can sample and actually get pretty buzzed on. The way it works is you are given 5 tokens for 500 yen and can go around and try 5 flavors of sake. I did this twice so I could get a little tipsy and save money on drinks at the festival. There are almost 100 brands that are all produced in Niigata so sampling them will bring you closer to being a true sake connoisseur. People called this “sake heaven” and I can see exactly why because you can taste everything from sweet to strong. However, if sake is not your thing you can buy other alcohol from surrounding souvenir shops or stop at a convenience store too.

I honestly packed pretty light with my purse, a backpack with a change of clothes, and a water bottle. Obviously if you are camping you will have a heavier load but this festival is convenient enough so you can pick up anything you forgot at the station. After I felt prepared enough I waited for the free shuttle to make its rounds. Since I arrived around 2pm because the artist I wanted to see the most was closing the festival, it was very easy to get a seat.

Experiencing the Fuji Rock

Once you get off the bus the entrance to Fuji Rock is pretty much straight ahead. There are seven main stages and tons of small performance areas scattered throughout the woods. Since I was here mainly to see Skrillex and Maximum the Hormone who were playing at the end of the festival, I had a lot of time to kill so I wandered around to every stage that I could find. The woods were absolutely beautiful and although the festival was huge I never felt over-crowded. I passed by Avicii’s fan-made memorial site and paid my respects. I also made some friends at the bar while looking for Dragondola, which is the longest gondola ride in the world that you can use to reach certain stages but I ended up having too much fun with them and stayed by the main stages. If I go back to Fuji Rock again in the future, I’ll be sure to ride it and take pictures! But for the most part, Fuji Rock is extremely laid back and it’s really easy to make friends and enjoy yourself.

In 2018 Skrillex closed the Green Stage which holds up to nearly 50,000 people. I still remember how hilarious his performance was because he opened it with a meme. The music brought back a ton of memories to back when I was in college and first started listening to EDM. I have never seen him in America, but the Japan crowd was extremely lit and respectful at the same time. I sadly missed the chance to see him perform at WOMB in 2017 but I am so happy I had the chance to see him here at Fuji Rock in 2018. It really meant a lot to me.

Here is an old video I took from my IG:

After this amazing performance ended, it started pouring rain so I decided to take a taxi back to the station but damn was this amazing! I really wished that I could have stayed for another day, but I had plans to go to Sadoshima the next day so in the end this was the best itinerary for me.

Best Food

I would say Fuji Rock has the best food vendors out of all fests in Japan due to the sheer variety of stalls and also because the fried tofu topped with avocado I tried was out of this world. I’ve never been able to find it at any other music event I’ve been too and really miss it. There’s also a ton of fried food, sandwiches, and ice cream you can try as well. Cocktails were only around 700 yen making them about the same as price what you’d pay at clubs. Although you are not allowed to bring in your own food or cooking equipment, everything here is fairly priced and there are vegetarian and organic options too.

The weirdest ice cream I’ve ever tried in Japan was salty shrimp ice cream at a souvenir shop outside of the festival called Uonuma. The saltiness balanced out the sweetness and I was impressed with how delicious it was. If you’re looking to kill time on your way back to Tokyo then this is a great place to stop!

Final Impressions

Like every music event I’ve been to in Japan, Fuji Rock left me with a great impression. I loved the openness of the forest, friendliness of the people, and diversity of the music. Not to mention how good the food was. Depending on what future artists they bring out in the future, I think I will consider going again, especially since the shinkansen ticket is so cheap. Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic are definitely my favorite music fests that are unique to Japan and I can’t wait to experience more!

Aesthetic Dining Experiences in Kyoto, Japan Vol. 2

Entering the alternate noodle dimension at Vegan Ramen UZU.

Whenever I travel to a new place, I like trying a combination of the local cuisine and the craziest places that I can find.  In Vol. 1 of my Aesthetic Dining Experiences series, I wrote about unique variations of Kyoto ramen, my top picks of vegan food, and matcha sweets (which includes green tea-flavored ice cream, parfaits, and more).  Fortunately I have discovered even more extradorinaiy restaurants and cafes since since I last published that article!

Here is a list I have compiled of the most unique dining experiences I have had in Kyoto recently, as well as my custom Totoro birthday cake from last year!

Patisserie Lulu

The most original dining experience I have ever had in Kyoto was hands down at Patisserie Lulu on my birthday in October last year. Since this was one of the rare months that Japan was in-between emergency states, domestic travel and alcohol was allowed so I brought my party to Kyoto and it was a smashing success. Patisserie Lulu is famous for its custom cakes with anime characters and I decided to request a pink Totoro rose theme since I love Ghibli and heaps of frosting. The cake turned out better than I could have ever imagined because it was light and fluffy but had a lot of icing. You can request these cakes using their online form and they will give you a price quote for your design. I had originally found them on Instagram and they had a lot of beautiful designs in their gallery.

Here is my cake featured on their official Instagram account:

The caption is hilarious because it says “A Totoro and rose [design] for a foreigner who came to Japan on her birthday.” As if I haven’t have lived here for over 5 years and flew to Japan during a pandemic just to order this cake. I absolutely love it and would easily give it 5 stars. It’s going to be hard to come up with a design that tops this for next year!

Address: 27-10 Uzumasa Goshonouchicho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8157

Cafe attmos.

If you’re looking for super thicc pieces of toast with beautifully crafted toppings, then look no further. Cafe attmos. or “Big Bread Experience” as my friend calls it is a lovely cafe that specializes in large portions of dessert toast with fruit, ice cream, and cream. There is a menu with seasonal food and drinks and I decided to order the apple toast because the shavings were cut to resemble a rose. Believe it or not, this is what I had for breakfast on my birthday before the Totoro cake and I can’t recommend it enough. My friends ordered the other pieces on the menu so I could take photos of them which was very sweet. I look forward to seeing the future designs they come up with because this was the fanciest toast I have ever eaten in my life!

Address: 490 Shimoumacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0873

Vegan Ramen UZU

One of my Kyoto friends on Twitter recommended me Vegan Ramen UZU because it is vegetarian friendly and the food does not contain as many preservatives as regular ramen does. Usually I prefer soba because it is the healthiest form of noodle and goes great paired with wasabi, but every so often I’ll get a craving for a bowl ramen. The dining experience here was truly like no other ramen restaurant because the lights were dimmed and swirling projections were displayed on the wall making it feel like we had entered another dimension. Being here was very relaxing and my vegan tomato ramen was delicious! I also ordered some vegan gyoza to split with my friend and was amazed by the quality. Kyoto actually has a lot of vegan options due to the amount of monks that are around here, but this is definitely the best vegan ramen in town. Yet another delicious birthday dinner for the books!

Address: 146 Umenokicho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-0905

Trentanove

Yet another amazing cafe recommendation I got in my Instagram algorithms was pasta stuffed into a melon. I kid you not, fruit pasta is actually becoming a popular trend in Japan. I loved the little pieces of melon and the flowers they used to decorate it. At first glance it looks like an ice cream dessert but as soon as you stick your fork into it you get noodles. If this isn’t aesthetic food, then I don’t know what is! If you want to try some of the most unique pasta in Japan, make a reservation at Trentanove so they can prepare this exquisite melon for you. The unlikely combinations of taste might take some getting used to but you can easily separate the pasta and the fruit so you can eat them separately. This is definitely a challenge for the brave but I enjoyed it.

Address: 602-0855 Kyoto, Kamigyo Ward, Kamiikesucho, 200

cafe cherish

For those of you that adore vintage cafes with mermaid themed drinks, cafe cherish is the perfect place for you! I enjoyed seeing all of the antiques in here including the fake bird in the bird cage and the sofa chair that looked like it had came from my grandma’s basement. It has an extremely western theme which is why it felt nostalgic for me. I ordered the strawberry milk with whipped cream and chocolate butterfly as well as the mermaid soda. In addition to drinks they also have waffles, salads, and small lunch items like risotto and pizza on the menu. The atmosphere is very unique so I am sure that you will “cherish” your time here!

Address: 4-6 Tojijicho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-0956

Usagi no Nedoko

Have you ever dreamed of eating Final Fantasy crystals? Well now you can. After you’ve killed chaos, hop on over to Usagi no Nedoko to get your Aetheryte fix. This is the most aesthetic parfait that I’ve ever eaten in my life and that’s really saying a lot. The crystals have a gummy texture but the flavor isn’t overly overpowering. They look almost like real crystals under the lights. Additionally the blueberries and ice cream they used were very light on the stomach which I appreciated because I had many other dining plans this day. Overall I give this place a 10/10 because they nailed the Final Fantasy aesthetic but aren’t even affiliated with Square Enix. They also sell crystal jewelry here so they are very authentic.

Address: 604-8432 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Nishinokyo Minamiharamachi, 37

Mushroom Stuffed Bread

On my way back to Tokyo last week I noticed an ordinary bread store right outside of the shinkansen gate. I don’t know what prompted me to go inside, but I guess I was just trying to kill time before the next train and see if they had anything that piqued my taste buds. All of the bread looked pretty standard to me until I noticed one that was shaped like a mushroom. It had little powdered circles on the top to make it look authentic so immediately I wanted to try it. After biting into it I was surprised to find there was some mushroom cream inside of the stem that tasted amazing! The taste reminded me of how truly delicious bread really is and I should go to bakeries more often.

Address: Kyoto Station (before the shinkansen gate)

I cannot remember the name of this bread shop but the next time I go to Kyoto I will take note of it.

Thank you for reading the the 2nd Volume of my Aesthetic Dining in Kyoto Series! If you have any suggestions, please feel to leave them in the comments. I always have my eye on new cafes and restaurants and am sure that there will be plenty more entries in the future~

Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory Cafe at Shibuya Loft

As I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping with my best friend in Shibuya, we accidentally stumbled upon the Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory Cafe on the 2nd floor of Shibuya Loft. I had heard about the new Kingdom Hearts rhythm game that had recently been released, but didn’t realize that there was a new cafe for for it. Additionally, I later read online that the story was told from Kairi’s point of view and featured a new scene at the end that set things up for the next game in the series. Though at first I thought the game sounded like a more theatrical Theatrhythm with KH characters, as someone who has played the series from adolescence and still loved the music I was sold. I bought the game for Switch and made a reservation for the cafe online for the following Monday evening with my friend.

The Kingdom Hearts Cafe in Shibuya Loft is running from December 11th, 2020 – January 11th, 2020, but the featured menu at the Square Enix cafes in Tokyo and Osaka are running until March 12th, 2021. To make a reservation, please see the Cafe Homepage (I highly recommend making a reservation).

The entrance to the Shibuya Loft KH Cafe is adorable and features artwork of the 4 teams and gameplay trailers on several large monitors. To prevent spread of the corona virus, you are asked to sanitize your hands and write down your order at the entrance as well as wear as mask until you are seated. We booked the final slot at 19:20 and were lucky because we almost had the cafe completely to ourselves!

The menu from this cafe has some magical entrees. We ordered Kairi’s Memories of Cream Stew that came with rice in the shape of a paopu fruit and Mickey’s Tuna Sandwich with his little emblem stamped on the bread. There were also rice dishes that bared a resemblance to the Agrabah and Neverland stages, but we decided to focus on the themed character dishes this time. We ordered the Friendship Strawberry Tea that came with a lot of fruit and a plastic cutout of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy and made a toast. Kingdom Hearts food is not only elaborate but also very good! Please see the full menu on the Cafe Homepage.

There are a lot of neat souvenirs available for purchase here, but some of these things were already previously available for purchase in the Square Enix shop. I would mainly recommend coming here to collect the coasters as they will only be available for the duration of the cafe. And most importantly; enjoy the music! All of the remixed songs in the new game sound really amazing!

My only complaint with this cafe is that they didn’t have a large variety of desserts like previous Square Enix Cafe collaborations. They had seasalt ice cream popsicles which are iconic to the series, but I really wished they had a cute music note parfait that I could order too!

For previous reference, here was the seasalt ice cream I had during the KHIII event at Artnia:

The little star-shaped sprinkles really added to the ambience and it was cool to be served ice cream on a mini platter. Definitely high-class service here.

I also ate Cloud’s sword during the FF7R event. Hilarious how this parfait is banana-flavored, of all things:

Though a lot of fans have mixed feelings about the direction that Nomura is taking the KH and FF7R series, both have been a huge part of my life since childhood and I look forward to going to more events for them now that I live in Japan. I am super excited for the next installment in the World Ends with You and hope to go to that cafe too.

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!

A Well-deserved Trip to Ginzan Onsen and the Totoro Tree

It’s been quite a while since my last update due to my new job (which I love) and moving to the center of Tokyo (which took almost an entire month), but Resurface to Reality is back! I plan on making more frequent updates now that I am fully situated with my new life style (more about that later). Life has been extremely kind to me recently which is why I plan to do more writing!

This weekend I finally found some time to travel up north and see two destinations on my bucket list that I’ve wanted to explore for quite some time: Ginzan Onsen & The Totoro Tree. This was my very first time in Yamagata Prefecture and I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the Autumn weather was ideal for hiking. Due to the busyness of the Go To Travel Campaign, it was quite hard to book hotels so I opted for a day trip. One day was enough time for me to see everything that I had plan and also get lost on the way, but I recommend 2 – 3 days here if you have enough time.

Due to their strong Ghlibli resemblance, these are the two main places that I sought out:

The Totoro Tree

As a photographer who has traveled to various real-life anime locations including the Satsuki and Mei House and the Totoro Bus Stop, naturally this tree was high priority on my list of destinations. According to Yamagata Japan, the real name of this tree is “Kosugi no Ohsugi” which means “Giant Cedar Tree of Magarigawa”, but to the locals here it is simply referred to as “The Totoro Tree” because it looks like Totoro when viewed from a distance. At first I thought that perhaps someone had cut the hedges of the tree to look like Totoro, but upon my arrival I realized that it is far too large and remotely located for someone to do that. This tree naturally looks like Totoro and that’s why nature is awesome!

There is a viewing platform on the same road where you can see the tree from afar, but I recommend taking the walking trail adjacent to it so you can see it up close (it takes about 5 mins to reach the base of the tree). I brought my Totoro doll for size comparison. Not many people were there, but it was a hit with the children that had come with their families.

Address

〒999-5206 Yamagata, Mogami District, Sakegawa, Magarigawa, Unnamed Road

I rode from Tokyo Station to Shinjo Station which took 3.5 hours and cost 12,000 yen. Then I took a taxi from the station directly to the tree for around 10,000 yen (expensive, but also not the worst I’ve paid). Unfortunately without a car this area is difficult to access, but I was a woman on a mission so the experience was overall worth it to me. After living in Japan for over 5 years, I realize these are the kind of obscure places I most love to explore.

Ginzan Onsen

After getting tons of pictures of the Totoro Tree, I next made my way to a famous hot springs resort that is said to have influenced the Ghibli classic Spirited Away: Ginzan Onsen. This onsen is nestled in the mountains and features a hiking trail that will take you to a gorge, various shrines, and ruins of a silver ore mine. The traditional ryokan that are lined across the river from one another light up at night and present a very picturesque, movie-like scene. This onsen is most popular during the winter season, but I think it looks gorgeous year round! No matter what time of year you choose to go, you will be presented with beautiful scenery and a charming atmosphere.

I started my adventure out by getting some eggplant soba and soba soft cream from the nearby restaurant Izu no Hana. Pretty much all the restaurants in Ginzanso serve only soba and a few other dishes, but I was looking for something specifically vegetarian so I chose here. I did not make the wrong choice because their portion sizes were huge and the ingredients they used were very fresh. The soba soft serve ice cream is a must-try! The saltiness of it really balanced the otherwise sweet flavor.

After snapping some photos of the beautiful river and the free footbath (which I recommend using at night), I decided to make my way to the south of the town and climb the hiking trails. Some of them go up and give you an aerial view of the town, and some of them descend down toward the ruins of the silver mine. It is best to start before 4pm so it doesn’t get dark on your way back.

Within 5 mins of hiking you will stumble across a beautiful gorge:

This reminds me of Takachiho Gorge which I traveled to during the summer, but it was much smaller in scale. It still looked lovely with the vivid Autumn colors, however!

After about 25 mins of walking, I looped around the trail and discovered the cave to the silver mine ruins. This entrance is quite easy to walk passed so be sure to read the guideposts!

The caves only take around 5 mins to explore, but are definitely worth seeing for their cryptic skull-like design on the inside. What a sharp contrast to the beautiful village that I had visited before!

Overall I spent around an hour on this trail admiring the bright red leaves, wandering and getting lost with an old Japanese couple, and exploring the silver mine ruins. It was quite the fun adventure—one that my heart had yearned for quite a long time!

When I arrived back at the main hot springs village, it had already started getting dark so I relaxed by the footbath and did some night photography. What a long but fulfilling day this was!

Address

Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa, Yamagata

This onsen is easily reachable via bus Oishida Station, which is only 19 mins from the nearest station to the Totoro Tree. The buses from Oishida Station run once per hour, cost 720 yen, and take around 40 mins. The last bus stops at 6:41 after the town starts to get quiet, so be sure to check the time table if you’re day tripping like me.

Final Thoughts

Besides Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, no other hot springs resort comes close to how beautiful Ginzan is. What I liked most is that almost all of the attractions were accessible by foot, and you can take local buses to reach the onsen that were further out. Due to the corona influence, many of the bath houses were closed so I didn’t get to try any besides the free foot bath, but here is a full list for those who are interested.

Though I traveled nearly 8 hours combined with trains and buses, seeing a secluded part of Yamagata’s countryside was worth it because it inspired me to use my GoPro again after months of not using it. She’s back, baby!

As I made my way from Tokyo to Yamagata, various station attendants handed me postcards to commemorate my journey. It felt good to be backpacking again. I will be taking another trip to Kyoto this weekend in celebration of the three day consecutive holiday for the purpose of capturing the red leaves and trying cute cafes. Please look forward to my future (more frequent) updates!