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

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

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

Ashino Park

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

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

Seibi-en

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

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

Takayama Inari Shrine

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

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

Food Picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Aomori Prefecture & Accommodation

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

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

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

Nebuta Museum

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

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

Hirosaki Park at Night

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

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

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

Top Food Picks

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

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

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

Spending a Sunburned Day at Strata Naha

Last night in Naha, gotta do it big!

After successfully freediving on Aka Island and Zamami Island, I sailed back to Naha via ferry for a final day of adventure in the tropical city before returning to Tokyo. I had already seen most of what I wanted here before, but there were a few new places that I wanted to check out. Namely Umikaji Terrace that is conveniently located near the airport, which contains a number of little shops and restaurants, and also a resort with a pool I had never stayed at before called Strata Naha. Since I was sunburned from not wearing a wetsuit the day before, there wasn’t a lot I could do during the day so I took it leisurely. Consider this a guide of what to do in Naha if you are sunburned, or if you are just looking to take the day easy too! And please check out my Naha Cafe Guide if you are looking for more food recommendations.

Exploring Umikaji Terrace

Umikaji Terrace is a oceanfront hodgepodge of bars, shops, and restaurants with patio and outdoor seating. It is conveniently located near Naha Airport and is a great place to watch the sunset in the city while knocking back a drink. I was impressed with the variety of food and desserts here—they had quite the international selection. I was mainly here to try the drop soda at Gallirallus (see below), but I ended up ordering a avocado salmon toast from a Hawaiian eatery nearby. I ended up killing a lot of time here by watching the ocean from the shade. I loved the bright blue design of the tables outside that matched the color of the sea, not to mention all of the Okinawan décor. One thing that really amused me here was meat taiyaki. I had never seen a taiyaki with a weiner in it before but I guess they think of every food crossover in Okinawa. There was also a really interesting ice bar on one of the terraces that I would really like to check out next time I visit. I look forward to seeing what kind of food trends become popular here!

Address: 〒901-0233 Okinawa, Tomigusuku, Senaga, 174−6

Trying Drop Soda at Gallirallus

Here it is—the main event! One of the things I was most looking forward to trying in Okinawa was the ball drop soda because in all of my time trying aesthetic food, I had never seen anything like it before. You can choose from a variety of fruity flavors for the soda base (I chose strawberry), and also decide if you want a scoop of ice cream in the drink or not. The balls in this soda are very unique because they contain edible flowers and pieces of fruits. I thought the strawberry and pineapple balls were the most delicious and was very pleased with the quality of this drink. Compared to tapioca pearls, these flower and fruit balls just pack so much more flavor. If you get the chance, definitely hit Gallirallus up because I haven’t seen any other shop in the world serve drop soda before. You saw it here first.

Accommodation: Strata Naha

Since I am adventurous and enjoy staying in different types of accommodations, I figured this time I would stay in a new resort with a pool so I could relax before my flight the next morning. I found a centrally located resort called Strata Naha with rooms priced around 7000 yen per night online so I decided to try it out. Compared to where I had stayed before at Aqua Citta, this resort was much quieter and I had the pool to myself even though there were other guests around in the garden area. Since I didn’t feel like socializing much, I really enjoyed the atmosphere here, although I would normally recommend Aqua Citta to my friends because it is slightly cheaper and had a better happy hour deal. However, Strata is better for those who want a more private and mature atmosphere. I enjoy both resorts for different reasons and will definitely be back again!

Recommended Food Spots

I wanted to eat something healthy for dinner after swimming so I looked up vegan restaurants that were open at night and found a really nice one called Rakuen Cafe. Rakuen serves a variety of dishes including rice bowls, vegan taco rice, and green smoothies. I really enjoyed my power bowl because it had star fruit in it that reminds me of the paopu fruit from Kingdom Hearts. I also ordered a side of sweet potato fries here because I had never seen fries so purple! They really tasted better than traditional french fries so I was so happy I tried them. Though I had already tried Blue Seal ice cream on multiple trips, there’s a really huge shop with a bright neon sign at night right down the street from Rakuen so I took a picture of it. If you’ve never tried Blue Seal, you definitely need to once in your life because it’s Okinawa’s pride! The final place I recommend for breakfast is Lestel Cafe, because it has delicious banana and honey bread and indoor disco décor. Honestly I dig the disco breakfastcore vibe here and I think more restaurants should embrace it. Naha restaurants and cafes are unmatched in style when it comes to Japan.

Final Thoughts

Despite the sunburn at the end, this was yet another successful trip where I checked off everything that I had planned on my itinerary. Revisiting old places, traveling to new islands and getting better at freediving, and ending my trip at this beautiful resort just made the experience all the more memorable. I plan on coming back to Okinawa in the fall because I have a sponsor here, and I think next time I will visit Ishigaki and Iriomote so I can continue to practice swimming and diving on different islands. Thank you to everyone that has kept up with my 2022 Okinawa article series, because this article is the final one (for now)!

Before I go to America this summer, I have one final place that I want to write about which is Aomori! Please look forward to my Aomori article series which will be in the works very soon!

A Trip to Nara’s Kingyo Museum and Kyoto’s Sakura Parks

Continuing on from my last article detailing my lovely stay in Nara Park with the wild deer, this article will be about my trip to Nara Kingyo Museum and various spots to see sakura in Kyoto.

Nara Kingyo Museum, also known as the “Japanese Aquarium Disco” is a state of the art goldfish exhibition with neon lights, lanterns, a ball pit, and of course pulsing disco music. Disco balls are creatively arranged so they project light off of the fish tanks, making it look like the fish are vibing in tune with the music. There is a giant crystal-shaped tank with a number of goldfish inside as the centerpiece of the museum and mini tanks that surround it where you can see rare kinds of goldfish. This kind of exhibit is right up my ally because I love all things that are aesthetic! The LED displays really captured the 80s look of Japan and I appreciated how they made a shrine dedicated to the goldfish too. I think my favorite part was the fish tank with the backdrop of the Nara deer because it just fit the theme of the city so well. The creative director of this museum really thought of everything because the visuals here are one of a kind.

Compared to Tokyo’s Art Aquarium which is quite similar, Nara Kingyo Museum was actually larger and less crowded. It also had more rooms that you could see with different artistic displays instead of just solely being an aquarium. I would recommend coming here instead of Art Aquarium if you get the chance, but both have undeniably awesome disco fever vibes.

Address: 〒630-8012 Nara, Nijoojiminami, 1 Chome−3−1 ミ・ナーラ 4F
Entry Fee: 1200 (completely worth it)

Arashiyama and Maruyama Park for Sakura

After my lovely morning of disco goldfish fever, I made my way to Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and rented a lace kimono from Rikawafuku to see the sakura in. This year the lace kimono is the #1 popular kimono of the season so I really wanted to try wearing it. Compared to traditional kimono, it felt a bit lighter to move in and came in more plain pastel colors. I think mine matched the colors of the sakura petals perfectly and I loved its soft lace texture so I was very satisfied with my experience. Rental fees start at 5000 yen which is typical for rental kimono. It is recommended that you reserve online in advance because crowds are very heavy during sakura season. I spent a few hours in both Arashiyama’s Kimono Forest and Maruyama Park because they are the liveliest places to see sakura with food stalls galore.

Last year I saw Kyoto’s sakura in full bloom and published two complete guides on it. This year I came to Kyoto for leisure, but please see Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1 and Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 2 for a full list of my recommended places!

Tofukuji Temple

After seeing the sakura in my favorite parks, I decided to explore a famous temple complex renowned for its square architecture called Tofukuji. This type of square architecture in Japanese gardens is just… *chef’s kiss* I’m happy I had the chance to appreciate each and every square while taking shelter from the rain! I definitely felt zen here because looking at the moss and checkered patterns set my mind at ease. I would have to say that besides Byodoin and the temples that have seasonal illuminations, Tofukuji is my favorite temple in Kyoto because of its immaculate layout.

Address: 15 Chome-778 Honmachi, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0981
Entrance Fee: Free to view the temple halls, but 400 yen to see the gardens

Amazing Sweets in Kyoto

Kyoto is full of sweets, teashops, and delicacies and there are always new shops popping up so here’s what I discovered this time. My first recommendation is Amairo Cafe in the heart of Kyoto because they serve delicious circular taiyaki that taste better than those made at food stalls. They come in both red bean and custard flavor so you can choose the level of sweetness that you savor. I also recommend going to Arabica Coffee because their coffee has superior taste. The owner bought a coffee farm in Hawaii and has experience in trading beans around the world so this is some of the best coffee you will drink in Kyoto. The shop is marked by its unique “%” logo in downtown Higashiyama. My next recommendation is the falafel plate at 汽 [ki:] because it’s the most authentic Lebanese food I’ve ever had in my life. I loved the texture of the black pita, the creaminess of the hummus, and how well all of the ingredients on the plated blended together. I can’t recommend this place enough!

My final recommendation is a super popular kakigori (shaved ice) restaurant that I’ve been trying to get into for 2 years called Uso to Boku. Located in a quaint art gallery in Uji, this shop is only accepts reservations on certain days through Instagram and usually fills up instantly. What draws everyone to this shop is the unique design of their bowls that resemble faces of people and animals. The kakigori chef allows customers to select their bowl before making their desserts, making each dining experience here incredibly unique. I decided to choose the koala bowl and get the strawberry whipped cream kakigori (called “Ichigo Ichigo”). Though it looks like a lot of food, it’s mostly comprised of fresh fruit making it a healthy dessert! This was the best kakigori I have ever had in my life, and I will definitely be coming back in the future because seasonal desserts are added to the menu for a limited time each month. If you have the time to go, definitely do it!

Final Thoughts

It feels surreal to have completed both my Fukuoka to Shimane backpacking trip and my Nara one in such a short amount of time, but I did it! I was able to see a wide variety of shrines and historical landmarks, have unique interactions with animals, learn a lot of about the culture of each prefecture I visited, and also meet friends along the way. I am very lucky to have these experiences and will treasure them all of my life. While Nara is great for seeing the deer and Buddhist shrines, Kyoto is better for seeing sakura so I would recommend seeing both if you have the time! I plan on coming back to both again in the future, especially if I have friends that are new to Japan traveling with me because I would really like to show them around.

I know my readers are probably wonder where I’m traveling next, and the answer is Okinawa next weekend!! This will be my third trip to Okinawa and I will be doing some cosplay modeling and practicing free diving on some of the island chains while hopefully recording footage with my GoPro. I am currently in the process of writing my next itinerary, so please look forward to it! I am excited to share my adventure with all of you!

Venturing to Nara to see the Tiger Temple (Chogosonshi-ji) and Tsubosakadera

Tsubosakadera during the beginning of sakura season.

Last week I decided to venture to Nara to see various temples during the beginning of its sakura season and also stay in a cottage surrounded by wild deer. Fortunately the deer of Nara are very friendly creatures who love humans—especially if you buy senbei crackers to feed them. I first visited Nara when I was 19 years old during my study abroad trip and remember how vivid the central area was. Though I traveled to Yoshino and stayed at a ryokan 2 years ago while on a motorcycle trip, this was my first time returning to the central city of Nara in quite a long time. Nara is very close to both Kyoto and Osaka and makes the ideal day trip if you are visiting the Kansai region for a few days. I took some time off work so I could do photography here for two days and it was absolutely lovely, minus being lightly headbutted by deer for more crackers!

In this article series I will be highlighting some of the nicest temples in Nara, talking about my experience staying in the deer park, and also my day trip to Kyoto to see its sakura too.

Getting to Nara

The fastest way to get to Nara from Tokyo is to take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Kyoto, then the local Nara line to Nara Station. This trip takes around 3 hours and costs about 15,000 yen one way.

From Nara Station, there are many local buses and train lines you can take to get around the city. I would recommend staying here 2-3 days to see everything. I stayed in Nara for 2 days on this trip.

The Tiger Temple (Chogosonshi-ji)

The first stop on my Nara itinerary was Chogosonshi-ji, aka the Tiger Temple! Since 2022 is the year of the tiger, this temple has gained a lot of popularity. Chogosonshi-ji is south of central Nara but is definitely worth visiting because it has a huge complex of temples, hiking spots, and lots of interesting places to explore. Upon entering the temple grounds you will see the world’s largest paper mache tiger guarding the entrance! There is also a man selling tiger-shaped manjuu that I definitely recommend you try because they are warm and delicious. You can freely explore the temple at your pace, but I recommend walking through the tiger tunnel, visiting the main hall and looking at the good luck charms (I bought a mini tiger), and hiking to the top of the mountain through all of the tori if you have the energy. Be on the lookout for the striped mailbox as well, because it is right next to a beautiful sakura tree. I spent about 2 hours here and was very impressed with what I saw. Like the frog temple I visited last month, I would say this is one of my favorite temples in Japan because it is very interactive and there is a lot you can do here.

Address: 2280-1 Shigisan, Heguri, Ikoma District, Nara 636-0923
Entrance Fee: 300 yen

Tsubosakadera

The next temple on my list was Tsubosakadera, which is south of the Tiger Temple and extremely popular during sakura season because there are so many sakura trees here. Unfortunately the sakura were not in full bloom when I came, but there were enough of them that I felt satisfied with my visit. Tsubosakadera has not only Japanese but also Indian influences, and a number of the statues here were presented by India thanking the temple for helping people suffering from leprosy (source). I enjoyed hiking around the temple and seeing the giant Buddha from different viewpoints. The white architecture of this temple is truly striking and has a beautiful contrast with the bright pink blossoms. There are various halls you can walk through here too. One of them had a large collection of dolls and there were many statues surrounding the outside area. I spent about an hour here and then decided to head back to central Nara because seeing these two temples will take a lot out of your day. Both were highly worth the experience, especially during the spring season.

Address: 635-0102 Nara, Takaichi District, Takatori, 壷阪3
Entrance Fee: 600 yen

Bonus Food from Osaka

Before coming to Nara, I actually stopped in Osaka the night before to meet friends and eat delicious sweets. At Tokyo Station, one of the bento stands was selling sakura themed bento so I ate that on the way there. I loved the pink sticky rice and the mochi they included with it because it was so sweet and delicious! All of the food in the bento went so well together which is why I love trying seasonal ekiben.

Upon arriving to Osaka, I stopped at season & co in Umeda to eat their flowery bear cheesecake parfait. Not only was it extremely aesthetic, but it was also melt in your mouth goodness. The last place I stopped was daily dose coffee at DD House where I got a creamy latte with my name written on it and a matcha ice cream waffle shaped like a tiger! I love Osaka because it has a lot of creative coffee places that Tokyo doesn’t. If you have time then definitely check these places out because the staff does a really good job managing their cafes and making creative menus.

Thank you for reading the first article of my Nara article series. In my next article, I will be detailing my experience with the deer and the lovely place where I stayed for the night. Please look forward to it!

Exploring Fukuoka’s Frog Temple: Nyoirinji (Kaeru-dera)

Last week I decided to go on a spontaneous backpacking trip starting in Fukuoka and ending in Shimane Prefecture. The purpose of this trip was to explore 2 prefectures I had never seen before–Yamaguchi and Shimane–and also see some shrines, islands, and monuments in other prefectures that I had previously missed or not known about until earlier this year. Since Japan is gradually easing its entry restrictions for international students and business travel, my goal is to knock out as many destinations on my travel list between now and when tourists are allowed in again. When exactly that will be is currently unknown, but as long as covid cases don’t spike again like they did earlier in January, I think it could be possible later this year!

In this article series, I will be talking about some rare and little-known places in the 5 prefectures I visited in under 4 days. This trip went at an extremely fast pace since I had already been to some of these areas before, but it was extremely rewarding because I learned a lot about southern Tohoku and met up with friends along the way.

For information on how to get to Fukuoka from Tokyo and my recommended sightseeing points, please see my previous Fukuoka article from last year. I decided to start in Fukuoka just because there are a lot of discount flights there from Narita Airport, and it was convenient to take the shinkansen from Hakata Station to travel to other places on my list.

When I landed at Fukuoka Airport around noon, my best friend here came to pick me up in her car and we decided to go to Nyoirinji, aka the frog temple, which might be one of the most elaborate temples in the entire prefecture. Upon entering the grounds of this temple, over 5,000 frogs will welcome you!

First of all, I should note that this temple has influences from not only from Japan but other East Asian countries as well. It reminded me of some of the temples I had seen in Thailand and Vietnam long ago because it had a lot of foreign architecture. What I liked about it most was that it was very hands-on and had an amazing atmosphere being nestled in the countryside. You can crawl through and write messages on the metal frogs near the entrance which was very fun and interactive to me. There is also a giant frog that spits bubbles near the main entrance to the temple. How amazing is that!? If you walk through the gift shop and towards the back window, you will see a large variety of frogs from around the world. I spotted more than one Kermit plus a Beanie Baby from my childhood. I was not expecting to reconnect with my past like this, but I am so happy I did because these frogs brought back a lot of memories!

If you exit and keep walking around towards the back of this building, you can go downstairs to an area with neon lighting and hundreds of tiny Shinto statues. I thought this hidden part was so unique. I also recommend walking through the moss garden and up to the pagoda for a stunning view. This shrine truly has a lot for visitors to discover and that’s what makes it a special destination.

Address: 1728 Yokoguma, Ogori, Fukuoka 838-0105

Please note that you can get here by local train/taxi but traveling by car is the most efficient way.

Admission Fee: Free

Special Frogs & Monuments

While walking around the premises of Nyoirinji, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for special frogs and monuments! We spotted 2 Pikachu, a frog holding a 5 yen coin, Kumamon, and some lowkey frogs with their genitalia hanging out. These are just a few of many crazy but awesome things that you can see here!

Meet Nyoirinji’s Cat

When I was looking at pictures of this temple online, I saw this cat come up a lot and was very happy I had the chance to meet him in the flesh! He reminded me a lot of my own cat because he was very charming and cuddly. He seemed to enjoy all of the people coming to pet him at Nyoirinji while he basked in the sunlight. I’m quite envious of his lifestyle!

Fresh Eats in Fukuoka

While heading back to my accommodation, we decided to stop at some delicious shops on the way. Our first stop was at Kaisen Donburi Hanabi in Ropponmatsu, which is a really cool neighborhood just outside of central Fukuoka with a number of small coffee shops and music cafes. At Hanabi we ate mouthwatering seafood rice bowls that were probably the best I’ve ever had in this prefecture. I ordered shrimp topped with salmon roe and egg and couldn’t believe how huge the shrimp were! My friend and I joked that they must massage the shrimp here like they do the cows in Kobe to produce their famous beef!

For dessert we stopped at a CBD cafe called Green Life and had some really sweet CBD smoothies. CBD became really popular in Japan last year when the government restricted alcohol being sold at bars in efforts to stop covid from spreading. I don’t take it often but when I do, I definitely feel a bit more relaxed. The chocolate banana smoothie I had was blended very smoothly and I appreciate the large amount of chocolate sauce they used in their recipe too.

The next morning I stopped at a food truck called MEETS which sells coffee, bread, and delicious dessert waffles shaped like the moon. I absolutely loved the design of my moon waffle because not only did it have caramel, nuts, and chocolate on it, but also an oatmeal cookie! I thought this idea was so creative. On this trip I noticed a number of new food trucks have started popping up around the city and I’m excited to see what other delicious foods and desserts are sold in the future.

Spot the Cherry Blossoms

On my way to Hakata Station the next morning, I saw cherry blossoms blooming at Tochoji Temple! Unfortunately I didn’t have time to check out all of the major cherry blossom viewing spots, but please see Fukuoka Now’s Guide for more information on them.

In my next article, I will be exploring all the major sights of Yamaguchi Prefecture. Please look forward to it!

Flying to the Fisherman’s Town of Kushiro for Birdwatching and Hiking Expeditions (Part 2)

Hiking to the base of Mt. Io where volcanic gases spew from vents.

After a lovely first evening of exploring the central streets of Kushiro and having a whole rental apartment complex to myself, the next I departed on a full day bus tour to all of the major sightseeing points of this area. The White Pirika Bus I selected for this trip runs from January – March and will take you on a journey to see rare species of birds, famous lakes and mountains, and hot springs too! I really recommend this tour because I was able to see everything I wanted and it was cheaper than renting a car. The guides only speak Japanese, but will show you the best spots for birdwatching and hiking so you know exactly where to go without wasting any time. As someone who loves photography and listening to guides to practice Japanese, this was the optimal tour for me. I would advise booking this tour at least a week in advance online because it has limited availability.

The major spots that are covered in this tour are: Tsurumidai (for viewing the cranes), Sunayu (for viewing the swans), Mt. Io, Lake Mashu, and Lake Akan Hot Springs

Afterwards you can request to be dropped of at Kushiro Station, Kushiro Airport, or your accommodation.

If you come during the warmer seasons to Kushiro, you can reserve similar buses on the Akan Bus website, but the swans and cranes rarely appear. I recommend coming here during the winter because you can do and see the most!

Tsurumidai

The very first place we stopped on our tour was Tsurumidai, which is a popular lookout spot for the Japanese Red-crowned Crane (also known as the “Japanese Tanchou”). The Red-crowned Crane is one of the largest East Asian cranes and one of the rarest species of crane in the world. This bird is said to bring good luck and is a prominent symbol in many folklore and legends. It also appears in Japan Airlines’ logo! I enjoyed watching these cranes spread their wings and honk at one another. They seemed completely unbaffled by the presence of so many humans watching them from the other side of the fence. They were a lot bigger than I had initially anticipated, and that made watching them all the more fun. After March they usually migrate to other countries such as Russia and China. I was extremely lucky to catch sight of them this year!

Sunayu

The next stop of this tour was at Sunayu, which is a hot spring that oozes out of the sand for both humans and birds! Sunayu is located on the east side of Lake Kussharo, and is a popular campsite during the warmer months. During the winter, whooper swans flock to the warm waters for comfort and a number of people come to watch them. A few years ago, a group of my Japanese friends came here for photography and one of them created this melodic track called “Whooper Song” that was inspired by the sight of the whooper swan. Since then I wanted to come to Kushiro and see the bird for myself, so I’m extremely grateful I had this opportunity!

Here are more photos I took of the beautiful whooper swans. They truly are serene:

Mt. Io

Our third and perhaps most adventurous stop was at Mt. Io, which is an active volcano in Kushiro. It is famous for erupting sulfur and volcanic gases from its vents, and has a lot of characteristic geological formations. Climbing is prohibited, but you can hike up to the fenced area and get extremely close to the vents. I watched a Japanese couple stick their hands into the fumes and was concerned they were going to get burned, but it is safe to do this at the base! I tried it myself and found that the temperature was comfortably warm; kind of like a steam sauna. You can buy eggs cooked by the steam at the souvenir shop which I highly recommend, because they are healthy and delicious!

Lake Mashu

Our next destination was a brief stop at Lake Mashu, which is a caldera lake formed by an active volcano in Akan Mashu National Park. It has been called “the clearest lake in the world” and is considered Japan’s post beautiful lake. It is also one of the deepest lakes in this country. Visitors are not allowed to go down to the lake, but can view it from multiple observatories. I was thankful to have the tour guide here to point me in the right direction of to where to take the best pictures. Its waters truly were beautiful and reflected the surrounding winter scenery.

Lake Akan Hot Springs (and Lunch)

Our last stop was at Lake Akan Hot Springs where we were given an hour of free time to do whatever we wanted. Here you can choose to ride a banana boat, rent winter sports equipment, go shopping, or bathe in a hot spring bath. If you know me, you know I love hot springs so I naturally went to the nearest one at a hotel adjacent to the bus stop. The entrance fee was only 1000 yen and it included a towel and shampoo. I had the whole outdoor bath to myself so that was a plus! It felt so good to clean up after all the hiking I did this day. I also walked around the hot spring town and looked at the little shops. I enjoyed seeing all of the wood carving places and cafes, but unfortunately not a lot of things were open. I did enjoy how private this area was though; there was hardly anyone here except for our tour group and that was nice!

Right before this stop we were given a delicious bento lunch that contained fish or meat (I chose fish), and I ordered hojicha gelato for dessert. All of the food in Hokkaido is cheap and tastes amazing so you really can’t go wrong with what you eat here!

Final Thoughts

Overall this was one of the best tours I’ve ever been on in Japan because not only did it include lunch and entrance fees to all of the parks, but it also took me to every single place I wanted to see in Kushiro! I had a fantastic time seeing the birds, active volcanoes, and lakes this part of Hokkaido had to offer⁠—not to mention the hot springs! I feel extremely fulfilled to cross yet another dream destination off my list. I would recommend Kushiro to travelers who have already seen all of the major cities of Hokkaido and are looking for something more secluded and unique. I hope to come back to Hokkaido again during the summer for some more photography, because this island has a lot of untouched nature and exciting places to see. I feel so relaxed after getting out of the city for a while too!

Thank you for reading my Kushiro article series. I plan on going to Nara this year to see the cherry blossoms, and possibly Shimane and Yamaguchi too if I have time. Please expect more exciting articles from me!

Flying to the Fisherman’s Town of Kushiro for Birdwatching and Hiking Expeditions (Part 1)

Rare appearance of Whooper Swans at Sunayu in Kushiro, Hokkaido.

Earlier this week I flew to the small fishing village of Kushiro, Hokkaido, to live out my birdwatching dreams and see rare species that are exclusive to Japan and only gather during the early winter months. I have been to Hokkaido 4 times now (three times during the winter and once during the summer), and was happy to return since my last trip to the Lavender Fields of Furano. Kushiro is known for its delicious seafood, beautiful birds, and volcanic mountains with scenic lakes. There are various hot spring towns that surround the bases of the mountains attracting a number of tourists from outside of town each year. You can also partake in winter sports at Lake Akan which has rental gear during this season.

Overall I would describe Kushiro as a secluded getaway with many areas to hike through and enjoy year round. It was a much needed vacation from my crazy city life, and after completing this expedition I feel much more at ease and can think clearly now.

I would recommend Kushiro to those who have already seen the major cities of Hokkaido (such as Sapporo, Hakodate, and Otaru) and are looking for something different. This is definitely more of a remote area, so be prepared to travel a lot! Fortunately I have prepared a cost-efficient itinerary on how to best see Kushiro in two days without a car.

Getting to Kushiro from Tokyo

The best way to get to Kushiro is to fly directly to Kushiro Airport. The average cost of roundtrip tickets from Haneda Airport to Kushiro Airport is around 30,000 yen and takes about 1.5 hours. You can also take the train from Sapporo Station if you’re already in Hokkaido, but it takes over 4 hours and costs around 20,000 yen. Flying will save you a lot of time and stress, so I recommend looking for deals through Peach Aviation.

This time I decided to go with AIRDO Airlines because their flight schedule best fit my work schedule. My flight was very smooth, and my flight attendant noticed I had my Switch and Hisuin Growlithe plush with me so she gave me a free Pokemon postcard! This was truly exceptional service. I also enjoyed flying into the sunset on this trip and seeing all of the vibrant colors:

As you can see from the map, Hokkaido is close to Sakhalin, which is the largest island of Russia. At one time you could travel to Sakhalin by a five-hour ferry from Wakkanai, which is a port town at the tip of Hokkaido. For more information, see this writeup from Time Out Tokyo.

In 2018, there were discussions about the construction of a bridge from Hokkaido to Sakhalin that would connect Japan to Russia. I remember hearing about this in the news and thinking it was an interesting idea at the time, but the construction never happened (maybe for the better). With the way the world news is now, it’s truly shocking to believe that it was ever even a concept. My heart goes out to all of my friends in Europe and I hope for the safety of Ukraine.

Exploring Kushiro’s Main Street: Kita Odori

I arrived to Kushiro airport around 17:00, and took the Airport Limousine bus to the center of the city for 950 yen. The ride took around an hour and I couldn’t see much outside of my window because it was already pitch black. There was snow on the ground, but the temperature of Kushiro in March wasn’t really any different of how Michigan, my home town, is during this time of year. I would definitely recommend bringing warm clothes, a hat, and gloves, though! During summers in Kushiro, the snow completely melts and the temperature is more mild. However, I wanted to come in the winter specifically so I could see the rare types of birds that flock here.

After my bus arrived at Kushiro Station, the first thing I decided to do was eat some delicious seafood donburi which Hokkaido is famous for. I looked up a restaurant called 釧ちゃん食堂 釧路本店 that had phenomenal reviews so I took a 10 minute cab ride there and prepared to chow down. Trust me, I was not disappointed because I bought this huge bowl of fresh fish for only 2200 yen. The crab, sea urchin, and squid tasted so fresh and there were huge slabs of other fish included in this assortment too:

Address: 〒088-0623 Hokkaido, Kushiro District, Kushiro, Kowa, 4−11 2F

Another place where you can get delicious seafood is Kushiro Fisherman’s Wharf MOO which is right near the station, but it closes at 17:00 so be sure to get there early!

After filling my stomach and feeling completely satisfied, I decided to go to hot spring on top of a hotel called Paco Kushiro. This was within walking distance of my accommodation (see further below) and only cost 1000 yen to enter. It had a sauna, multiple spa baths, and an open air bath on the 12th floor that was perhaps the steamiest hot spring I had ever entered due to the cold temperature. I couldn’t take any pictures because it was public, but it greatly relieved my fatigue so I can’t recommend it enough!

When I awoke the next morning, I decided to go on a 4 mile run to get more acquainted with Kita Odori and the surrounding area. I first ran to Itsukushima Shrine, which was about a mile from my hotel. This is one of the biggest shrines in the area and is definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in them. I also passed by Yonemachi Park that had a lighthouse as a famous landmark. On my way back I stumbled upon Grace Church near the station. This is a tourist destination that also serves as a wedding hall, but I have seen many churches in the US so I wasn’t particularly interested in it. There was also a police station that had signs in Russian. The further north you go in Hokkaido, the more of this you will see!

After finishing my run, I decided to take a tour through the White Pirika bus company to see the major sights of Kushiro. I will be detailing and reviewing my experience in my next article!

Accommodation

This time I chose to stay in a brand new apartment complex called Kamuy Rera that is close to Kushiro Station. The average cost of single rooms is 4500 per night, but this is one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed at and I was the only guest there! It was great having an entire lounge to myself, plus all of the rooms were equipped with powerful heaters. In the past, sometimes I’ve made mistakes of staying in guest houses that aren’t insulated very well and have had trouble sleeping. However, I slept like a baby here and was ready for a full day of hiking the next morning. I would recommend staying here because it is centrally located and very quiet.

This concludes my introductory article of “Cool” Kushiro. In my next article, I will be writing in-depth about the unique species of birds in Kushiro and where to find them, plus my recommended hiking areas. Please look forward to my future adventures, because I have a lot planned this year!

Exploring Maebashi: Ikaho & Hatago Onsen

Standing on the stones steps of Ikaho Onsen that overlook the mountains of Gunma!

After a lovely morning of exploring famous temples in Takasaki, we decided to spend the afternoon and evening at some of the most aesthetic onsen in Maebashi; starting with Ikaho Onsen for the scenery. Maebashi is a small town in Gunma where the hit racing series Initial D takes place. I actually had forgotten this, but was highly amused to remember it again as I stumbled upon an Initial D manhole cover while walking to a soba shop. There are actually 7 different designs that you can see if you walk around Ikaho Onsen and Shibukawa Station. “Running in the 90s” and “Night of Fire” played in my head the entire time I was here!

This article will cover my experience at Ikaho Onsen and Akagi Onsen Hatago Chujikan, as well as some of my recommend pitstops along the way. You really can’t go wrong traveling around this peaceful mountainside town!

Ikaho Onsen

Ikaho Onsen is a beautiful hot springs town with stone steps that lead to a breathtaking view of Mt. Akagi in the distance. The main path is lined with little souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants. I noticed a miniature shrine adorned with rubber ducks off to the side and it really sparked joy in my heart. I also noticed a drink place called “Strawberry Bomb” that sold hot strawberry wine and naturally I bought it in a heartbeat. It was the epitome of delicious. I also tried 3 different colors of soba at a restaurant called Ikeya. The most delicious color was the seasonal yuzu one that was bright yellow.

There are a number of hot springs you can bathe in here, but we decided to choose one further up in the mountains. However, the lively and charming atmosphere of Ikaho is completely unmatched. Definitely stop by this place if you have the chance because you will undoubtedly enjoy it. I found it funny how this onsen had its own anime girl mascot too! You can see her printed on souvenirs and vending machines.

Address: 377-0102 Gunma, Shibukawa, Ikahomachi Ikaho, 香湯5-4

Akagi Onsen Hatago Chujikan

Hatago Onsen is nestled in a forest on the path up to Mt. Akagi and is the literal definition of a hot springs paradise. It is highly rated in Gunma due to its private location and gorgeous views. With my room came three different hot springs I could use (two indoor and one outdoor), delicious teishoku meals prepared by the staff, and a huge room that was completely covered by my sponsor. When I arrived I immediately started drinking sake and decided to warm up the indoor onsen attached to my room. It was small, but the steam from it completely cleansed my pores and I felt amazing. This was my first onsen trip in several months and it was top class!

I later wandered to the outdoor onsen before my dinner was served. Not only can you see the stars at night, but there is also a waterfall off in the distance! I couldn’t believe how relaxing this experience was—drinking sake and looking at the stars. But the amazing experience didn’t stop there, because for dinner I had delicious hot pot with salmon and vegetables, grilled river fish, and delicious vegetables. The staff was amazing and accommodated my pescatarian needs so I would give their service 5 stars. After dinner, I waded in the outdoor onsen one last time before drifting off to sleep in my warm futon. When I awoke there was snow on the ground! Though I only stayed here for one night, it was a completely magical experience I will never forget.

I also must add that after over 6 years of living in Japan, I finally tried natto for the first time as part of my breakfast. It wasn’t nearly as putrid as I had imagined, and actually had a nice texture to it. Though I am still skeptical of trying the natto sold at convenience stores and cheaper izakaya, I am so happy that I finally worked up the courage to try it at this resort! I am waiting for my health buff to kick in, as people always tell me that this is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. I was sad to leave this onsen, but I hope to stay at many others during this year!

Address: 2036 Naegashimamachi, Maebashi, 371-0241, Gunma Prefecture

Other Recommendations

Some of my other recommendations that you can see on the ride back home are Mizusawa Kannon Temple, Akagi Shrine, and Maebashi Park. All of these attractions take around 15-30 mins to see and are beyond beautiful. Be sure to try as many strawberry treats as you can!

Final Thoughts

Though I have been to Gunma at least 5 times now and seen it during different seasons, this was the first trip where I truly got the chance to appreciate the scenery, temples, and nature of the onsen. Traveling here in winter was a plus because there was definitely less people. I feel much more relaxed and focused since I got away from the city too. If you come to Gunma, I definitely recommend staying somewhere with the view of the mountains. You can find affordable accommodations in both Ikaho and Takasaki too. My sponsor with very pleased with the itinerary I came up with and we will likely work together again in April! We had delicious Italian food at Pastel Italiana at Takasaki Station to commemorate our first successful trip. I thoroughly enjoyed my authentic salmon roe pasta and cat-shaped bread:

For more of my onsen articles, please check out my Kusatsu and Nagano ones. Please look forward to my next exciting trip, hopefully happening next weekend!

Exploring the Wonders of Takasaki, Gunma: Temple Edition

The Daruma of Shorinzan Darumaji Temple await your visit!

After almost a half-year hiatus, Resurface to Reality is finally back—kicking off the year with a sponsored trip to Gunma Prefecture! At the end of last year I took a 3 month trip to America so I could see my family and friends and explore tropical regions of the country. It was both an awe-inspiring and well needed trip that changed my perspective in many ways, but at the same time I realized I really value my life in Asia and hope to keep expanding my professional life here for the time being. I am aiming to apply for permanent residence in Japan in 2025, and will continue to work in the videogame field as well as with independent sponsors to fund my trips. I will of course be paying for a number of them out of my own pocket as well as I have many places I personally want to photograph; such as Kushiro in Hokkaido which I am traveling to next month.

Even with the current quasi-emergency state in most prefectures, I was fortunately able to plan a safe route around Gunma with a rental car. The quasi-emergency state asks that some restaurants and businesses shorten hours and stop serving alcohol, but fortunately did not hinder any of the original sightseeing I had planned. Since I have already been to Takasaki for music events before and traveled to the famed Kusatsu Onsen, I am quite familiar with how this prefecture is laid out. This trip my aim was to see temples and hot springs that are harder to reach by public transport and fortunately I succeeded. Even if you do not have a car, most of these attractions are available to see by bus if you are patient.

Here is my 2 day recommended itinerary for Takasaki and Ikaho Onsen (I will be writing about Day 2 in a separate article):

Getting to Takasaki from Tokyo

The fastest way from Tokyo to Takasaki, one of the biggest cities of Gunma, is by shinkansen. We rode the Jōetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Takasaki Station which took 50 mins and cost around 5000 yen one way. However, in previous years I have rode the local trains to Takasaki which take over 2 hours but are significantly cheaper (please see my Kusatsu article linked above for reference). Driving from Tokyo to Gunma takes roughly 2 hours as well, but you will definitely encounter more traffic. I personally think riding the shinkansen is the smoothest way there, even if it is a bit pricier because we were able to enjoy delicious ekiben for breakfast (sea urchin and crab bento are pictured)!

From Takasaki, we rented a Toyota car from a rental place adjacent to the station. The reservation process was a breeze and didn’t take long at all. I am not going to go into detail of it since it is not the focus of this article series, but you can see the Toyota Rent a Car website for reference.

Shorinzan Darumaji Temple

My favorite place in all of Gunma is the Shorinzan Darumaji Temple because it goes extremely hard with its daruma aesthetics. Daruma are piled up on each side of the temple in almost a comical arrangement and there is even a vending machine with a daruma print that you can buy drinks from. I see these dolls everywhere around Japan so I’ve actually never contemplated their meaning deeply before I came to this temple, but they are linked with Buddhism and represent values such as concentration, fortune, and luck. Though red is the most common color, they can be painted in a number of artistic ways. In the little daruma museum next to the temple, I saw one painted like the penguin mascot on Suica cards! I also bought a pink daruma from the gift shop that is said to strengthen relationships.

While comparing daruma in Takasaki, you’ll notice that some have their eyes filled in and others don’t completely. That is because when you first purchase a daruma, you are supposed to fill in one eye when you make a wish, and fill the other eye if/when that wish comes true. The daruma are said to help accomplish your goals which is why they are so popular here. Though I am not normally a superstitious person, I will be putting this theory to the test! I will let everyone know if my wish comes true in year 2025… 😉

Entrance Fee: Free
Address: 296 Hanadakamachi, Takasaki, Gunma 370-0868

If you do not have a car, you can take the Shorinzan bus from the station which is insanely cheap and only takes 25 mins.

Byakue Dai-Kannon

This second series of temples features a giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy that is just as iconic to Takasaki as its beloved daruma. Even though it was a completely different vibe, I somehow got flashbacks to my trip to Singapore while I was here because you can go inside the statue and climb to the top just like the Merlion on Sentosa Island. Enshrined in this goddess are 20 buddhas you can pray to as you ascend the stairs. The climb up takes less than 5 mins if you don’t stop, and the surrounding area has other temples you can see. I loved seeing the year of the tiger ema here, and also how it was decorated for Valentine’s Day. There is also a red string that you can wrap around your little finger around so it connects you to the Goddess of Mercy as you pray (this is a permanent feature). The concept behind this place was really well thought out and I enjoyed seeing it. I am curious to see how it is decorated during other times of the year!

Entrance Fee: 300 yen to ascend to the top
Address: 2710-1 Ishiharamachi, Takasaki, Gunma 370-0864

This temple is just a few kilometers from the Daruma temple and can also be reached by bus/taxi if you do not have a car.

Now that I got two of my favorite temples out of the way, I think I will conclude the first part of this article and write about my favorite onsen in the next part. Please look forward to it being published soon! I am so happy to be writing about my travels again!

As a preview, take a look at the real life Mt. Akagi from Initial D (also known as Mt. Haruna IRL):