My favorite places to hang in Seoul

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

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

Common Ground

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

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

Lotte World

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

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

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

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

Jogyesa Temple

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

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

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Entrance Fee: Free

Myeongdong

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

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

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

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

Gangnam

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

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

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

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

Itaewon

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

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

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

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

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

Other Interesting Places:

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

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

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

Places to Stay

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

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

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

Dessert Recommendations

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

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

 

The Jeju Chronicles: Last Day on the Island Exploring Beaches, Sex Museums, and the Nexon Computer Museum

After exploring the east and west side of Jeju Island and climbing Mt. Hallasan, I decided to spend my final day on the island relaxing and seeing some of the places that most tours don’t cover (such as the sex museum and private beaches).  Since I don’t have an international license, I had my hostel help book me a private taxi driver.  The average cost of private taxi drivers in Jeju is about $150 USD per day but hiring one is much easier than trying to use the local buses.  The duration of the taxi session is around 9 hours and you can easily see all of the things you want to see without hassle.  Hilariously, all the English-speaking drivers were booked already due to high demand but I was able to book a Japanese one.  Without further hesitation I set off for my fifth and final day on the island and hoped for the best!  Fortunately the weather was on my side.

See Iho Tewoo Beach & Gwakji Beach

Jeju has around eight popular swimming beaches in total, but I chose to travel to the two most photogenic ones.  Iho Tewoo Beach is famous for its two horse-shaped lighthouses.  I wanted to see them in person so this was the very first destination I chose!  Unfortunately it was bit too cold to go swimming, but I just liked being on an empty and relaxing beach.  Apparently this beach is extremely popular during the summer because you can go for boat rides here, but during late April when I went it was extremely peaceful and quiet.  Just what I wanted after all of the exhausting hiking that I did!

I picked up some amazing octopus at a nearby restaurant here.  Raw Korean octopus tastes amazing:

After I had my fill, I decided to head to Gwakji Beach which is much livelier because there are a lot of resorts around it.  None of the resorts on Jeju are particularly fancy, but the cafes sure are.  I decided to try Mônsant which is owned by G-DRAGON purely because of its flawless architectural design.  You can see the ocean through the panes of glass while sipping on delicious coffee.  I ordered a strawberry smoothie and couldn’t believe the view that I was seeing:

I tried to go swimming here, but the beach shore was a bit rocky so I was reluctant.  Jeju’s beaches are more designed for soaking up the atmosphere rather than actually getting soaked.  I didn’t mind though, because Gwakji Beach definitely had a nice vibe.  In addition to posh cafes there were squids being sun-dried and local food stalls around.  I appreciated the diversity of food here.

One hilarious and slightly creepy trend here I saw was having photos of couples and babies printed onto lattes.  I’m usually quite adventurous when it comes to food, but I don’t know if I’d have the courage to drink myself…  This is just too realistic:

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WOW!

Nexon Computer Museum

The next stop was my favorite museum of all time in Korea: The Nexon Computer Museum.  Nexon is the company responsible for creating Maple Story and the longest running commercial graphic MMO in the world: Baram, also known as Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds.  I was really surprised to see that a modest company in Korea had this award; which makes me think that Nexon is seriously underrated so naturally I wanted to learn more.

I featured this museum in my Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums article, so please check it out for the full description!  If you travel all the way to Jeju, you need to come here.  You won’t be disappointed.

Museum of Sex and Health (Jeju Loveland)

Ah yes, the infamous Sex Museum of Korea.  I’ll admit I was a bit embarrassed coming here by myself, but I was on vacation so I figured why the hell not?  Jeju Loveland is an art museum of erotic outdoor sculptures and has an indoor collection of various adult toys.  What’s good is that it promotes a safe approach to sex and only admits entry to adults (honestly I’ve seen enough pedophilia in Japan bookstores and this was a much classier attraction).  “Various romantic and sexual art works are waiting for you.” the official website says.  I liked the ambiguity of the upside-down sculptures submerged in water… But I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.  Definitely see it if it fancies you!

Entrance Fee: $9 USD (not bad)

Jeju Horse Park

Before having my driver drop me off at the airport so I could take my flight back to Seoul, I decided to make one more stop at Jeju Horse Park.  I was wearing the most extra outfit because I was shooting pictures on the beach just before, but once again I figured why not!  I was on vacation and I wanted to ride a horse one last time.  This was the perfect way to end my Jeju Chronicles.  I had successfully accomplished everything that I had planned so this was yet another perfect trip to commemorate.  The park has a really laidback approach and you can choose multiple routes around the mountains and seaside.  I couldn’t use my camera because I was riding, but I had an amazing time!  There was a guide who was keeping close watch on me so I felt safe at all times.  Horseback riding is a great way to see Jeju Island and is relatively cheap so you should try it at least once while you’re here.

Entrance Fee: $10-$20 USD depending on how long you go.

Final Remarks

As this article implies, I had a phenomenal time on Jeju Island and would recommend it to all my friends.  There were a few issues with the language barrier here and there, but island people are some of the friendliest people that you will ever meet.  I really treasured all of my time here.  I was also able to speak Japanese in a few instances and find my way around.  Google Maps aren’t always reliable in South Korea so I would do your research on what attractions you want to see before coming here.  That’s it really.  Once you arrive at Jeju, you’ll find that the island is small enough that you can easily navigate and fit in all the activities you want.  Jeju is by far the most beautiful place in South Korea and you should definitely give it a chance because it has activities for everyone!

The Jeju Chronicles: Venturing Around the West Side

After successfully climbing Korea’s tallest mountain, I decided to take a bus tour around the west side of the island so I could relax and enjoy some of the quirky attractions of Jeju Island.  I booked my tour through Jeju Day Tour because they go to the most places out of all the tour companies and are locally owned.  The price for seeing half the island is only $65 USD which is worth it because it’s cheaper than renting a taxi or car.  Mr. Ko, who personally organizes the tours and is the main guide, speaks very good English and answered all of my questions about the culture here.

The tour is about 9 – 10 hours but includes lunch and plenty of breaks.  Our tour only had about seven people on it which was the just the right amount.  The bus came directly to my hostel at dawn so we could get an early start.  I couldn’t wait to see how my third day on the island was about to unfold!

Mysterious Road

Our first stop was the “Mysterious Road” (also known as “Dokkaebi Road”) which was located at the base of a mountain that connects two major highways.  It was given this name because things that fall on it seem to roll up the hill rather than down.  In other words, the road appears to defy gravity due to an optical illusion of its mountainous surroundings.  Since we came on a slightly rainy day, we could see water droplets coming towards us from the top of the hill and it was supernatural.  The demon head statue that marked the road also added to the ambiance, and it was only our first stop!

Cheonjeyoen Falls

Our next stop was the Cheonjeyoen Falls, which are three of the most beautiful waterfalls in Jeju!  The water from the first waterfall divides into the other two making it a beautiful natural occurrence.  The water from this park eventually flows into the ocean, which is why people call it “The Pond of the Gods”.  It definitely looks like something mythical straight out of a video game.  I was grateful to have my guide explain its origin or else I would have overlooked it.  These are the best waterfalls to see on the island in my opinion.

Mt. Songak

Mt. Songak is a little volcano with 99 peaks.  This was the second volcano I visited after Mt. Hallasan and was a much easier climb!  The summit has the best view of the west side of the island, but unfortunately due to the heavy fog it was difficult to see.  The coast and walk to the temple however were breathtaking.  Even with the fog I could still clearly make them out.  I climbed part of the mountain (which only took a few minutes) then opted to go horseback riding for a small fee.  My horse looked similar to Epona so it was totally worth it.

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The good thing about Jeju is that the fog usually clears quickly.  Since I was here for 5 days and had already climbed the tallest mountain, I was more focused on the experience of hiking rather than taking photos.

Jeju Trickeye Museum

After spending the entire morning submersed in nature, we had a Korean buffet lunch that was included in the tour package and were dropped off at the Jeju Trickeye Museum.  At Trickeye museums you can pose with various paintings that are designed to make it look like you are part of the art.  I had been to the Trickeye Museum in Seoul the previous year so this was quite similar.  However, the Trickeye App that you can download for free on your phone makes photography much more interesting here.  My favorite part was the VR pandas that were created with the app.  This video I took made it look like they had crawled out of the painting.  It was honestly worth the trip.

Soingook Theme Park

I was not expecting to run into Shrek and crew while I was in Korea, but that just goes to show how crazy this island is.  At Soingook Theme Park you can can see replicas of famous architecture around the world juxtaposed to characters from famous films in a humorous display.  I enjoyed seeing Buddha, Shrek, an Angry Birds plane, and some vaporwave all in the same place.  Not to mention a beautiful bridge and lake from god knows where.  I bought some knock-off Kit-Kats called “Twin Kicker” at a convenience store here and they tasted pretty good.  I’m still trying to process everything I saw here!

Osulloc Tea Museum

Osulloc is the largest tea plantation in Korea and is also a museum with delicious sweets.  From Jeju Island, the plants receive the perfect amount of sunlight so they can be processed into high quality tea and shipped around the country.  You can freely wander through the plantation and learn about how tea is made.  I tried the green tea ice cream and chocolate green tea roll which was amazing!  This is one of the best spots to pick up souvenirs on Jeju too.  I would say Korean green tea is just as good as Japanese green tea.

Teddy Bear Museum (Teseum)

Because meeting Shrek wasn’t enough, our final stop was the Teddy Bear Museum (also called “Teseum”) where we went on a “Teddy Bear Safari” to meet stuffed bears from all over the world.  Not gonna lie, the concept seems childish but this was actually a very fun exhibition.  Seeing everything from the anatomy of a teddy bear to their origin made me think back to all the stuffed Beanie Babies I collected as a kid.  I did not realize how much of an impact teddy bears had on the world before I came here.  Why was this on a sub tropical island in Korea?  I have no idea, but it was an interesting concept.

When we got back on the bus, Mr. Ko kindly gave us mini bear keychains as souvenirs from the museum.  I still have mine and think back to this trip very fondly.

After a fulfilling day of nature, green tea, and some of the craziest museums in Jeju, I was taken back to my hostel Skywalker around dinner time.  I chose this hostel because it was close to Mt. Hallasan Park and the dorms were only around $12 per night.  Unfortunately this hostel is now closed, but my other recommendation GreenDay is still open!

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<insert your own Star Wars reference here>

Final Thoughts

This tour was 100% worth it.  The amount of things we were able to see in one day was astonishing.  We had the perfect balance of nature, museums, and silly tourist attractions (which I never would have went to by myself but I enjoyed them).  Basically we saw the entire west part of the island and were free to explore each destination after listening to a brief explanation.  You could try to reach these places with a local Jeju bus, but some spots such as the Mysterious Road can only be accessed by car or via tour bus.  The amount I paid for this tour was about the same as I paid for my bus tour in Okinawa, Japan, so it was pretty fair.  I was happy to have a Jeju local as my guide.  If you book a tour with Jeju Day Tour then be sure to say hello to Mr. Ko for me!

In my next article, I will be exploring the east side of the island with the same tour company (they were that good)!  The west tour runs on even days and we east tour runs on odd days, so you can easily fit them into your schedule.  Thank you for reading!

The Jeju Chronicles: Climbing Mt. Hallasan

After getting a good dose of cycling and an impromptu dance party on Udo Island, I figured I’d spend my 2nd day in Jeju climbing Korea’s tallest mountain: Mt. Hallasan.  It’s actually not just a mountain— it’s an active volcano too!  Fortunately for us, it hasn’t erupted in over 1,000 years and doesn’t spew lava so it’s safe to climb.  Reaching the summit will give you the best view of the island which is why I wanted to take on the challenge.  I’ve climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan which was quite the strenuous hike of 3,776 meters.  Hallasan is still challenging, but is only 1,947 meters and has a lovely forest you can see on your way up.  I found the hike to be pleasant and surprisingly relaxing.

Hallasan National Park is in the center of the main Jeju island and is quite easy to get to from any accommodation.  It only took me around 45 mins via bus from my hostel.  The mountain has four main trails, but only two will take you all the way to the top.  I decided to start at the Seongpanak Trail then take the Gwaneumsa Trail down.  This is the best way to see Hallasan as you can reach the summit and fully experience all the sights on the main trails within 8 – 10 hours.  If you want a shorter hike, you can try Eorimok Trail or Yeongsil Trail which only take 2 hours.  I did not hike them, but from looking at pictures that others have posted I can see that they have similar scenery to the beginning of the main trails.  I never guessed that Korea would have such beautiful mountains, but I was surprised to see how jaw-dropping the views were the further I climbed:

I started climbing around 8:30am and bought a small bottle of Korean Sochu from a convenience store at the base so I could take little shots of it as I climbed up the mountain.  Fortunately my hostel provided free breakfast so with 3 pieces of egg toast I knew I would have the energy to go all the way.  I listened to all of my favorite music while walking through the forest and had a nice little reflection on life.  Here I was in Korea again.  I found out there’s way more to this country than K-pop, cosmetics, and partying in Seoul and Busan.  These violet flora I kept seeing were absolutely beautiful.  Before I knew it, I was walking up the stairs and could vaguely make out the peak.  Of course it looked closer than it actually was, but it was still within my sight.  This was honestly much more peaceful than my Fuji hike because there weren’t nearly as many people.  I could focus on the views and climb with ease in anticipation of climbing my first active volcano.

Initially the temperature was mild so the climb was very easy.  I wasn’t sweating or noticing a huge incline so I didn’t need to stop for many breaks.  As I started seeing signs that indicated the summit was near, the air felt cooler and I noticed there was snow on the ground.  It was then I realized the mistake that I had made—I wasn’t wearing enough layers!!  I was only wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and a waterproof Nike jacket so I didn’t have any heatwear.  Fortunately the cold didn’t bother me due to the adrenaline that was pumping through my veins.  Plus I’ve gone running in the snow in Michigan wearing shorts before, so I suppose this wasn’t the first time I had been exposed to this kind of temperature.  The wind started to make my cheeks turn red, but by that point I had already reached the top.

Seeing this beautiful crater lake Baengnokdam (백록담/白鹿潭) was my reward:

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The lake at the summit of Mt. Hallasan.

I was so happy to not only have climbed Japan’s tallest mountain, but now Korea’s too!! I actually enjoyed this more than Fuji due to it being shorter and having the crater lake at the top. Not to mention that there were far less people. I would recommend climbing both if you are a nature enthusiast traveling through Asia. The feeling of looking down at the island once you’ve reached the top is one of pure victory. I enjoyed experiencing snow on a sub-tropical island even if I was unprepared for it too.

Here is a video of us climbing towards the top:

After snapping a bunch of pictures, I started my descent on the Gwaneumsa Trail. I was still freezing, but fortunately the further I climbed down the faster my body temperature returned to normal. I was high on adrenaline and knew food was waiting for me at the bottom too, so that was my main motivation!

The Gwaneumsa Trail was initially a bit steep to climb down, but provided me with some gorgeous mountain views.  There was also a sign warning us to steer clear of wild boars.  Who would have guessed they were native to Korea!!  I found that getting down took less time than I expected, so I completed the climb in around 8 hours.  Not bad for my first big climb of the year.  I celebrated with some Korean seafood pancakes by a place near the trail entrance.  I tried to use a map to figure out the bus schedule, but unfortunately I didn’t have any service and was informed that buses are really infrequent here.  Despite the language barrier, the store owners were kind enough to call a taxi for me that wasn’t very expensive.  I was very thankful for my experience and also that the weather stayed nice!

After my hike I decided to try a hot spring in Jeju, because why not?  Tapdong Seawater Sauna (which is now sadly closed) was closest to my hotel so I decided to walk there.  Two things about it really amazed me.  The first was that you could go swimming in certain baths.  Usually at Japanese onsen, swimming is forbidden.  However, Jeju has a huge female diving community, so I could see where this makes sense.  The second was that Korean people brought water with them into the sauna.  That is also not allowed in Japan, but with the super hot temperature I could see why people did it.  The culture here was a lot more laid back which I really enjoyed.  The concierge jokingly called me an alcoholic because I was still carrying soju around with me, but I laughed and said it’s because I just climbed Hallasan and I was on vacation.  It was hard to believe that this was only my second day!!

The Jeju Chronicles: Exploring Udo Island

During Golden Week of 2018 I decided to venture to Korea for the 2nd time and explore its most famous beach resort island: Jeju.  This island is extremely unique because not only does it have the best beaches in Korea, but it also has the Nexon Computer Museum with the world’s longest running MMO.  There’s also the tallest mountain in Korea (Mt. Hallasan), a folk village with traditional houses, and a fairly famous sex museum.  As you can see, Jeju has something for everybody because there is a huge diversity of attractions to see.  A lot of people that live close to Korea come here to spend their honeymoons or school vacations, but there are many backpackers like me who travel here too.  In this article series I will be detailing my 5 day stay in Jeju in hopes that other people will decide to come in the future.

Traveling to Jeju

The best way to travel to Jeju is to take a direct flight from Seoul.  Jeju Air has the cheapest flights that range from $30 – $50 USD roundtrip.  The flight only takes about an hour.  Jeju is comparable in Okinawa in Japan, but is much smaller and doesn’t have as many islands you can travel to.  However, traveling here is much cheaper than most islands in Japan and it has a different vibe.  One of the best islands you can visit in Jeju is called Udo which is the very first place I went.

Udo Island Day Trip

Udo Island was my first destination once I reached Jeju Airport.  Fortunately you don’t need to fly here and can instead take a relaxing 15 minute ferry.  The reason I wanted to go to Udo is because it is the perfect cycling destination.  The island was named for its somewhat rectangular shape that looks like cow lying down.  I also chuckled because the name reminded me of U-DO in Xenosaga.  You can see most of the attractions on Udo within 3 – 4 hours via electric bike.  E-bikes can be rented for around $10 per day and are extremely worth it.  This was my very first time riding an e-bike, but fortunately it wasn’t scary!  You can see the ocean from any point in Udo making it a wonderful spot for photography.  Everyone rides slow so they can stop to take pictures.

Since I was starving, I stopped at a local seafood restaurant near the bike rental shop.  I couldn’t speak much Hangul but I was able to place an order.  They whipped me up some spicy crab and muscle stew which tasted amazing.  For dessert, I decided to try the peanut ice cream that Udo is famous for.  They placed two adorable teddy bear crackers on it too.  The salty and sweet combination makes it worthy of all the praise that it gets.  You can find this food literally all over the island and it’s much cheaper than food in Seoul.

Finally feeling full, I decided to make my way down to the beaches.  Gwakji Beach and Hamdeok Beach were my two personal favorites.  Both can be reached via e-bike in less than 30 minutes and are found on the north side.  Exploring these beaches can take up to an hour.  I came here in late April so it was a bit cold to swim but the weather was near perfect.  Korea’s weather is similar to Japan’s but is slightly more mild.

Besides the swimming and biking, there are many other exciting things to do on Udo.  You can go horseback riding for a short time if you talk to someone near the stables.  If you like art, most of the buildings are painted in bright colors and there are murals all over the island.  The food here never disappoints.  The octopus-shaped bread I tried was filled with cheese and absolutely amazing.  Just the  atmosphere of being on a small beach island is awesome too.  I enjoyed walking inside the the giant shells that were near the pier and also petting the store owner’s dogs.  Everyone here is extremely friendly so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier.

On my way back to return my e-bike, I stumbled upon one of the best DJ booth turned ice cream shop ever.  The chef was spinning some fresh island beats as he was whipping up ice cream.  This was an extremely rare vibe that I was not expecting:

The store Udo Prince Story (우도왕자이야기) has both phenomenal food and music. If you come all the way out here, be sure not to miss out. This was the best instant dance party I ran into here and was the perfect way to end my day trip.

After an exciting first day in Udo, I rode the ferry back to the main island where my accommodation “GreenDay” was.  There are a few hotels on Udo, but there is much more selection and nightlife on the main island of Jeju.

I chose GreenDay because I thought the name was hilarious and the dorms are only $15 per night.  I couldn’t pass up staying in this colorful little house:

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Taking a “Holiday” at GreenDay.

GreenDay Address: 251-9 Samdoi-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, South Korea

Udo Access

I took a cheap taxi to Seongsan Port, then a 15 minute ferry to reach the island.  The ferry ticket is only $10 one way.  Please see the Udo Ferry Time Table for reference.

In my next article, I will be talking about some of the quirky museums that I explored.  Please stay tuned for more!

 

Journey to Yakushima: The Real-life Princess Mononoke Forest (Part 2)

After two awe-inspiring hikes through the forest that inspired Princess Mononoke and to Japan’s oldest tree, I decided to spend my final day in Yakushima relaxing at beaches and hot springs.  Though I went on this trip nearly three years ago, I still remember how breathtaking it was to this day.  This island undoubtedly has some of the best nature in Japan because it’s so remote from civilization.  This is the perfect place to reflect on life and also do meditation.  Please see Part 1 of my adventures in Yakushima for reference.

Day 3: Beach and Hotspring Adventures

Since I didn’t rent a car and was backpacking my way around, I decided to book a private tour through Yes Yakushima so I could see more of the island.  The main advantage of doing this is you’ll have an experienced guide to show you around and they can cater the tour to fit your interests.  I chose the Island Tour since I had already had my fill of hiking, but there are many other options available.  What’s amazing is their guides can take you almost anywhere on the island; even to the most difficult mountains that not many people have climbed.  Solo tours start at 27000 yen per person, but the price is worth it for what you get to see.  The money you spend also goes to environmental maintenance.

Distilleries, Beaches, Crabs & Hotsprings

My guide Brian was also from the US, but he married a Japanese native on Yakushima and hiked there for years so his knowledge of the island was vast.  My tour started off with a bang when we visited a Yaksuhima sake distillery and I knocked back a few samples.  Sweet potatoes are very famous here so some breweries use them as a base for sake.  We also drove past some mini farms where you could insert coins into a post box and take vegetables.  The stores are completely unmanned so it shows there is a high level of trust between people on this island.

After eating a vegetarian bento by the beach, we drove to Hirauchi Sea Spa where you can go swimming and also wade in the tidal hot springs.  The best time to visit is during low tide which usually your tour guide can predict.  You can come here during high tide too, but the hot springs will be too deep to enter.  I spent a good 2 hours here swimming and wading in the hot springs.  The hot springs are unisex so you can choose to wear your swimsuit or jump in naked (I wore my swimsuit since I was on a tour).

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Hirauchi Sea Spa during low tide.

While I was walking on the beach, I saw some amazing sea crabs chilling in the rocks:

Here’s an extremely old video I took of them.  Their eyes are over-sized and adorable:

I will never forget how vibrantly blue the water was here.  Out of everywhere in Japan, Iwami and islands in Kyushu like Yakushima have the best beaches.  I also saw Yakushima-todai Lighthouse which is painted white and looks like a small chapel.

After having my fill of swimming, we decided to drive to some waterfalls next.  The following waterfall is the most beautiful waterfall that I’ve seen in Japan:

Ohko Waterfall

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A rainbow is reflected in the emerald pool of Ohko Waterfall.

We arrived at the perfect time of day because I got to see a rainbow reflected in the water of Ohko Waterfall!!  This was such an amazing sight to behold!  Plus there were hardly any other people around so you could only hear the splash of the water.  I sat on the rocks and mediated for a few minutes as cool water droplets splashed my back.  As I was meditating, a piece of bark from a Yaku Cedar tree fell from the cliff and drifted towards me.  Brian carefully picked it up from the water and held onto it.  He informed me that under no circumstances are people of the island allowed to strip bark from trees, but if the bark is removed by natural causes then people are allowed to take it.  Since he said he was skilled in instruments, farming, and other outdoor activities, I figured he would think of the perfect use for it.  He let me hold it and see it up close which was very special to see.  It really is as if the gods were smiling upon us here.

Senpiro Waterfall

Though there were no rainbows here, this was still an amazing waterfall to see.  While Ohko is best viewed from sea level, Senpiro is best viewed from the mountains.  The granite valleys here were quite the sight.  Hiking up to the level where you can see them only takes a few minutes and is way easier than the hike to Jomonsugi.  I am continually impressed by the harmony of land and water you can see on Yakushima!

Gajumaru Banyan Tree

After our waterfall treks, we drove to a mysterious forest in Nakama Village.  At first glance, it looked similar to the Shiratani Unsuikyo which I explored the other day.  However, Brian informed me that this is home of the Gajumaru Banyan Tree—a magical tree that grows by dropping down roots from its limbs into the ground!  The roots can also sprout onto existing trees which give this forest its twisted shape.  Yakushima is unique because a lot of the island is still uninhabited and these trees can grow wild.  Perhaps one day the Gajumaru Banyan Tree limbs will engulf the entire island.  No one knows for sure, but it sure was fun to ponder about what could happen in the future.

At this point the journey was gradually unwinding.  I felt completely satisfied with what I had seen in the three days that I spent here.  On our way back to Miyanoura Pier where I planned to sail back to Kagoshima, we passed by some wild monkeys and a tree that resembles Cthulhu.  The more time you spend here, the more aesthetic things you’ll start to notice:

Final Thoughts

Though this may sound a bit hypocritical, any pictures you see of Yakushima online don’t do it justice.  The island is extremely vast and beautiful and the only way to truly see this is to embark on the long journey and see it for yourself.  That being said, my trip here was absolutely perfect minus not packing enough food during my hikes.  The first two days I spent almost entirely by myself hiking and seeing Japan’s oldest tree.  This was great because it gave me the chance to create my own personal connection with the island.  I didn’t feel lonely because I was on a journey.  The last day I reflected with an experienced guide and spent a lot of time relaxing.  I realized from talking to him there is still so much of Yakushima that is unexplored.  Was three days enough for what I wanted to see?  Definitely.  Would I want to come back in the future and see more?  Also yes!  3-5 days is what I would recommend to most people.  Be sure to respect nature and to also treasure your time here.

More Information:

Journey to Yakushima: The Real-life Princess Mononoke Forest (Part 1)

On my 24th birthday in October nearly two years ago, I decided I travel all the way from Tokyo to Yakushima so I could see the lush island that inspired one of my favorite movies of all time—Princess Mononoke.  This journey took nearly 10 hours and involved a lot of hiking, but it was one of the best experiences of my life.  Yakushima has so much unspoiled nature and is also home of Japan’s oldest recorded tree in history: Jomonsugi.  There are numerous hiking trails and endless adventure to be had here.  In this article I will be retelling the tale of my 3 day stay and also my recommended hiking spots and tours.  I would plan on staying here for 3-5 days if possible so you can fully enjoy the nature!

About Yakushima

 

Yakushima is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Kyushu, Japan.  The island is mostly mountainous with 16 main hiking trails.  Many of them intersect so you can choose the path that best fits what you want to see.  There are mountain huts scattered in the forest that you can stay at for free overnight, but it is possible to complete most hikes within 6 – 12 hours.  Yakushima is close to Okinawa giving it a subtropical climate (in October I could still go swimming).  You can travel here any time of year, but I would recommend avoiding the rainy season (early June-July) as the forest can get flooded.

What’s amazing is that  even today many parts of this island remain unexplored.  Some areas outside of the trails are so steep it is not recommended to climb them without a guide or special equipment.  Fortunately the main trails are marked well enough that you can navigate them without a guide.  Just be sure to bring enough food and be cautious when climbing over rocks, steep areas, and places with low visibility.

*Maps are courtesy of Yakumonkey (a really handy guide for exploring).

Reasons to go:

  • Arguably one of the most beautiful forests to hike through in Japan.
  • If you are a Princess Mononoke fan, exploring Yakushima is a dream come true.
  • You can see rare wildlife (both plants and animals).
  • The freshwater streams are so clean that you can drink out of them.
  • The beaches are wonderful for swimming.
  • This island is extremely remote and still has a lot of things to be discovered.

The downside is that transportation is limited, and if you are not an outdoors person then you may find some of the hikes a bit difficult.  However, people of all ages have completed the hike to Jomonsugi and there are hiking groups available for all experience levels.  You can also choose to hike completely alone without a group like I did.

Here are the main spots that I hiked to:

Day 1: Shiratani Unsuikyo

Shiratani Unsuikyo is a dream-like world full of lush green mosses and some of Japan’s oldest cedars that inspired the setting of Princess Mononoke.  The lead artist of the movie, Oga Kazuo, spent quite a long time here sketching scenes that were used in the film.  You can easily see why this setting was chosen, as it is unspoiled and far from civilization making it the perfect home for creatures of the forest.  The water that runs from the stream here is so fresh that you can re-fill your water bottle with it and drink it while you hike.  I had never been to a place so clean and beautiful in my life, so this was one of the best places to spend my 24th birthday!

Three of the oldest cedar trees here are: Nidaiosugi, Kugurisugi, and Yayoisugi.  Though it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the forest, there are clear signs and markings around to guide you.  Keep your eyes out for deer too!  You’re likely run into other tour groups going around but they are easy to avoid.  This hike is not particularly strenuous; just remember to watch out for rain that makes the stones and moss slippery.

I arrived on a foggy day, so this was the view I got from the highest point of the forest:

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Shiratani Unsuikyo covered in a mysterious blanket of fog.

I was not disappointed by this view because it looked like I was walking through the clouds!  The fog gave the forest an eerie glow and you could still make out all of the main sightseeing points.  Fortunately my other two days here were completely sunny.

Duration: 4-6 hours of hiking
Admission Fee: 500 yen

My Recommendation: There are two main paths you can use to enter, but I recommend entering from the Miyanoura side because there are more frequent buses that lead there and back from the port.  You do not need a guide to hike through this area as it is pretty straightforward.  I came here by myself and did not have a single dull moment.

Day 2: Jomonsugi (Japan’s Oldest Tree)

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Behold, the oldest tree in Japan (around 7,200 years old)!

One of the most magical hikes in Japan is to the oldest tree in this country: The Legendary Jomonsugi.  Upon reaching the tree, you will receive its holy blessing and have explored much of Yakushima’s beauty.  You can actually access a route to Jomonsugi from the Shiratani Unsuikyo, but it is a strenuous hike so I recommend seeing them on separate days.  I enjoyed this hike much more than I did Fuji due to the beautiful cedar scenery.  Jomonsugi is quite massive in size (standing at 83 feet) and is like no other tree I’ve ever seen.  Besides the tree, there are many other aesthetic things to see on your way there:

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Wilson’s Stump: The heart-shaped stump.

The main points of interest on the way there are Wilson’s Stump and the abandoned logging village of Kosugidani.  Wilson’s Stump mysteriously formed a heart shape after the tree was cut down.  It was discovered by Ernest Henry Wilson who was an English botanist that came to Yakushima in the early 1900s.  Little remains of the old village (I thought it was a series of old storehouses when I first saw it), but historically it had a major impact on the development of Yakushima.

The hike starts off very easy.  You walk on what looks like railroad tracks into the forest and go through a few tunnels.  The hike is 22km but doesn’t get steep until you are much deeper in the forest.  I saw some wild mushrooms on the way there.  A tour guide told me that there’s a possibility that magic mushrooms may exist here in the wild though I didn’t try eating any.  The most difficult part is climbing up the narrow trails that lead to Jomonsugi.  Fortunately hiking through the Shiratani Unsuikyo the other day prepared me for that.  I reached Jomonsugi in around 3.5 hours and was stunned by its beauty.  I turned around and saw people of all ages smiling.  We had made the mythical trek!

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As I gazed at Jomonsugi, I was reminded of the World Tree from Tales of Symphonia.

As I gazed at Jomonsugi, I couldn’t help but think about the World Tree from one of my favorite videogames of all time: Tales of Symphonia.  This tree is what keeps the world alive in the game, and I felt a similar power from Jomonsugi.  It is the heart of Yakushima that keeps the forest safe.  Or keeps tourism alive.  Something like that.  I couldn’t think straight because I was so hungry.  Fortunately I had some riceballs prepared for me by my hotel:

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Riceballs from Suimeiso.

On the way down I noticed I was starting to get fatigued and my legs started to hurt.  The last two hours of this hike were the worst.  I run every day and am in shape, but I am not used to these forest hikes as I live in the city.  At one point I started to get spots in my vision, but fortunately I was not in danger of passing out.  I listed to Geofront by Carpainter and focused on climbing down to the rhythm.  I vowed if I survived this then I would someday see this artist in person (which I did a month later).  When I got back to the train track part of the trail, I was able to sit down and rest for a bit.  I think the hike only took me around 7 hours.  It was worth it for everything that I got to experience.

Duration: 6-10 hours of hiking (including travel to the trail head by bus)
Admission Fee: 1000 yen

My Recommendation: Get up as early as you can (preferably around 4am) and take the earliest bus to Arakawa Trail from where you are staying.  Your accommodation can help you as this is the most popular destination in Yakushima.  Most buses will arrive around 6am-7am.  PACK LOTS OF SNACKS!  The bus was full when I returned so I had to wait for the next one back.  I killed time with photo editing and it was alright, but I wish I had prepared more.  Regardless, this is one of the best hikes you’ll find in Japan and is extremely rewarding.  Do it if you get the chance!

Where to Stay: Suimseiso Minshuku

If you came here because of the movie like myself, then staying at Suimeiso Minshuku is your best bet!  This backpackers-styled hostel is only 3500 yen a night, includes some meals and snacks, and has signed Miyazaki drawings that are framed and displayed in the common room.  That is because Miyazaki was actually a former guest here!  The friendly staff are extremely hard-working and will make you feel welcome here.  I had trouble initially figuring out the bus routes, but they took the time to assist me.

Address: 1 Anbo, Yakushima, Kumage District, Kagoshima 891-4311

If tatami rooms are not your style, you can either send an inquiry to one of the Yakushima tour websites or check what’s available on Booking.  There are resorts available, but I would recommend saving that money for a more famous beach area like Okinawa.  When you’re in Yakushima, you’re going to want to be exploring nature as much as possible so staying inside is not ideal.

Food

To avoid the mistake I made of not having enough food while hiking, I HIGHLY recommend placing an order for breakfast and snacks from your accommodation in advance.  Since the majority of people that come to Yakushima are hikers and backpackers, almost all hotels will do this for you.  Tours will usually include a meal too.

After being famished from my hike to Jomonsugi, I found a restaurant called Smiley near my hotel that had delicious sandwiches, soup, ice cream, and cookies shaped like the island.  Now that was a satisfying meal!  There are other small restaurants and convenience stores around the ports too, but usually they are not open in the early morning when it’s recommended to start your hike.  It gets dark on the island around 7pm, so be sure to be careful of time.  Packing snacks is ideal and will save you a lot of time.

Access & Transportation

From Tokyo Haneda Airport, I flew to Kagoshima Airport the night before I sailed to Yakushima.  This cost around 20,000 yen and takes 2 hours.  I stayed at a cheap net cafe called Jiyu Kukan by Kagoshima Port which is fortunately close to the station.

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A stray cat in Kagoshima that decided to follow me around.  Will I become a magical girl now?

In the morning, I bought a roundtrip ferry ticket to Yakushima for 16,600 yen (the return trip must be used within 7 days but I was only staying for 3 days).  There are around 8 ferries that go to Miyanoura Port daily.  You can choose to stay somewhere here, but more backpackers stay in the Anbo Port area (which is where I stayed).

If you have any questions or would like to purchase a ticket in advance, I would recommend checking out Yes Yakushima’s website because they have updated time tables that change per season.  You can also fly here, but I decided to go by boat because I thought it would be more fun.  The ride takes around 2-3 hours.

Once on the island, you can get your accommodation to help you book a taxi or take the buses around.  I decided to go buy bus because it was extremely cheap.  You can rent a car, but some of the roads go deep into the mountains and are a bit dangerous for a driver who is inexperienced.  I would leave it to the bus drivers personally.

In my next article, I will be talking about a private tour that I went on during my final day here exploring beaches and hotsprings around the island.  Please look forward to it!

Exploring an Abandoned Island in Japan: The Infamous Gunkanjima

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the island safe to visit?

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

Booking a Tour

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

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

Access

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

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

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

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

Exploring the Colorful City of Kaohshiung & Cijin Island (Part 1)

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The astrological murals of Formosa Boulevard Station shine brilliantly.

After exploring Taichung for two days and having a lovely day out on Sun Moon Lake, I decided to ride the MRT south and explore Kaohsiung City in southern Taiwan. This city is famous for its art murals, the Tiger Dragon Pagoda, and its ferry terminal that leads to the popular destination Cijin Island.  Historically Kaohsiung was used as a port town during the Qing Dynasty, and much of its culture has been preserved because you can still ride boats and find night markets here.  However, artists have transformed Pier 2 into a gathering spot with murals, pop-up stores, galleries, and cafes.  I rented a bike from my hostel at Legend Hotel Pier 2 for 100 TWD and biked 10 minutes to explore the area.  Pier 2 stretches for about a mile and has an abundance of things to see!

I enjoyed seeing all of the painted dragon murals that reflect the symbol of the town’s prized pagoda, and even the electrical boxes had faces on them!  They had some kind of dinosaur exhibit aimed at children going on as well (this place was very family-friendly).  I laughed at the name of the “CHIN CHIN perfume” place (Google the Japanese meaning of “chin chin” but don’t look at the images).  I truly had a fun time here.  I also loved that there was a park where you could rent kites and roam around.  This place had a more relaxed and open feel than Taipei and was the perfect getaway from the city:

After roaming around here for a while, I decided to buy a ferry ticket to Cijin Island at the ferry terminal.  Cijin Island is only 5 minutes away so it’s a very hassle-free trip and only costs 25 TWD.  What’s also cool is you can bring your bike on-board for free because the boat is huge (you also have the option of bike rental at Cijin).  Cijin is a long rectangular strip, so you can bike the entire island within an hour and 30 minutes.  The main sightseeing spots are the Rainbow Church and the Windmill Park by the beach.  There are also temples and and street food galore so you will never go hungry no matter how far you bike.

Though I had a fun time here, I will issue a word of warning: When I set my purse down to take pictures of the Rainbow Church (which is a series of rainbow pillars actually used in wedding photography), someone opened my wallet and stole all of my cash.  I won’t say how much I lost, but it was a considerable amount.  I reported it to the police station on Cijin Island and they checked the security cameras, but unfortunately they were unable to find the thief.  I acknowledge that this was fully my fault, but at the same time I am sad that this happened.  Previously I had gone swimming and left my personal belongings on the beach in other countries without any occurrences of theft, but now I know I should be a lot more careful.  Fortunately the thief did not steal my credit cards, or else I would be in real trouble.  However, I do not want this incident to reflect badly on Cijin Island or Taiwan.  Taiwan is still what I would consider to be a very safe country, and I hope my articles inspire people to visit it!

Look forward to Part 2 of my Kaohsiung journey where I visit the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas and more of the city!

Grand Adventures in Busan: Daewangam Park, Gamcheon Culture Village, and Jagalchi Market (Part 1)

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Daewangam Park in January–even in the dead of winter it’s a beautiful place.

Though it took me two full years of living in Japan before I wanted to venture off to other Asian countries, I finally made it to Korea in January 2018 after my wild trip to Hong Kong.  Korea is one of the cheapest countries besides Taiwan to fly to from Tokyo, so I found a good bargain through Peach Airlines for less than $200 USD.  I landed in Seoul around 5am, but instead of heading straight for the city, I wanted to check out the countryside and picturesque parks instead.  Since I didn’t have a lot of money back then, I took a bus from Seoul to Busan at 6am which took around 4 hours to reach the central station.  The bus was only $30, so not only did I save a lot of money but I also finally got the chance to catch up on sleep!

Daewangam Park was the very first place in Korea that I had the pleasure of seeing, and my was it a glorious place!  It’s a gorgeous park by the seaside and has a forested area you can walk through near the entrance.  The rocks are carved into very unique shapes and you can walk between them and see the coast by using connected bridges.  It truly feels like you are on an adventure here!  Though it was a bit chilly being here in January, I managed to take a lot of pictures and feel amazing on this hike:

I seriously could not believe how beautiful this place was!  I saw benches scattered across the park so I imagine in the summer that many picnics take place here.  I can’t read any Hangul, but this park was free to enter and easy to navigate.  According to the tourism website that I linked above, the park got its name from a large rock island that looks like a dragon rising up into the sky.  It truly is a mystical place.

This park is located in Ulsan which is a little bit outside of Busan, so I took the Line 5001 bus from Busan Station to get here in one hour.  This was an insane amount of traveling to do in one day, but I am an insane person so it was doable.  I recommend coming here on your second day of staying in Busan so you are well-rested.

After a nice day of hiking and photography, I decided to head to one of the oldest and most famous hotsprings in Busan called Heosimcheong.  With the long flight and day that I had, it was extremely well worth it!  My muscles felt so relaxed after bathing in the hotspring water.

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“The best spa in the world.”

I have been to many hotsprings in Japan which I think are better than anywhere else in the world, but Heosimcheong (also called Hurshimchung) is comparable in quality.  After paying an entrance fee of 7,900 won, you will get a towel and key for your own locker to store your things in.  Similar to the manner in Japanese onsen, you will strip, shower, and enter a gender-segregated hotspring bath and spa.  Heosimcheong has an open air bath, sauna, and cold bath as well.  They also have a hotspring inside a cave which makes it feel kind of like a waterpark.  There were a lot of people here, but I had enough room to fully relax and enjoy myself.

What I really like about jimjilbang (Korean saunas) is that they have neon-colored lights inside.  I felt like I was at a sauna rave and it was a pretty awesome start to my first day in this country.  Except for the fact that I stayed here for too long and missed the train back to my hostel (which was quite far away).  Fortunately, Asia is scattered with places to stay in case these kind of things happen (such as net cafes and love hotels)…  I ended up staying in a love hotel (by myself) right near the spa:

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“Love is two hearts” except if you miss your last train and are staying here alone.

This became a huge joke on my social media, but I actually had a nice stay here.  It was a bit difficult to explain what happened to the staff, but with my luggage and my exasperated expression, I think they figured out what happened so they let me stay and were very accommodating to me.  I ended up oversleeping, but fortunately I did not receive any penalty charges.  What a crazy first day in Korea!!

Part 2 is now published.  I have stayed in Korea for over a month of my life and extremely happy to be able to share my experiences here.