Floating down Takachiho Gorge: Miyazaki’s Hidden Gem

Nested in the mountains of Miyazaki, Takachiho Gorge has been a dream destination of mine for quite a long time now.  I wanted to go here when I first visited Miyazaki in 2018, but I sadly didn’t have enough time as it requires a 3 hour one-way journey.  However, last weekend I finally achieved my goal of traveling here and the trip was completely worth it!  I did a combination of hiking and row boating through the gorge as well as stay in a traditional ryokan nearby.  There are also shrines and waterfalls you can see around the area.  From pictures Takachiho Gorge looks quite large, but it actually can be seen in 2 – 3 hours.  I will be writing a handy guide for those who are curious about how I solo-traveled here.

Getting to Takachiho

Reaching Takachiho’s bus center from Miyazaki Station takes 2.5 – 3.5 hours depending on when you leave.  Please keep in mind that some buses only run on weekends and you should try to leave between 7am – 9am if you want to maximize your time here.

I woke up around 6:30am and took the Sonic-Nichirin Limited Express to Nobeoka Station, then took the highway bus that heads towards Kumamoto to reach Miyakoh Bus Station in Takachiho.  This costs between 3000 yen – 5000 yen, but they sell 1000 yen bus tickets at the bus center that will save you a lot of money. 

There are a few cheaper routes that combine different buses, but I am pretty sure this route runs every day so I would recommend it to people.  Especially since it combines a train and bus ride so overall you will save time and be comfortable.

Food

Before heading down to the gorge, you’ll probably want to grab some food!  There are a few vending machines and souvenir stores near the entrance, but there are far more options in the heart of the town.  Fortunately you will pass through this area on your way there.  My top recommendation is Cafe Terrace Takachihoya because they have a long and established reputation here.  I ordered vegan keema curry rice with an egg for lunch and their famous tea macchiato topped with whipped cream and a signature cookie for dessert.  This was probably the best meal that I had in Miyazaki because it was really filling!  They also have curry, pancakes, sandwiches, and smoothies on their menu.  If I come back here, I would like to try more!

Exploring Takachiho Gorge

From the bus station, Takachiho Gorge is a 24 min walk or 10 min cab ride.  I chose to walk because I wanted to explore the town first.  On your way to the gorge you will walk by Takachiho Shrine that is partly obscured by the forest.  It fortunately only takes a short hike to reach the alter.  I loved the way the sun reflected off the roof when I arrived:

After a few more minutes of walking, you will be able to make out the row boats sailing down the mouth of the gorge and that’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived!

The best thing about Takachiho Gorge is it’s completely free to explore—the only things that cost money are the aquarium (spelled “aqurum”) and row boat rentals.  The row boat rentals are 3000 yen but are usually cheaper if you have people with you (see prices).  I highly recommend taking the row boats out because they give you a unique view of the gorge that you can’t see from above.  This was my first time ever solo row boating, but I am proud to say that I only crashed twice!  At least I didn’t fall into the water!

I would recommend queuing for a row boat as soon as possible because they often have a 50 min wait time due to their popularity.  While you are killing time, you can explore the hiking trails around the gorge to make the most out of your trip.  You can also sit at the rest area or visit the aquarium.  Once it’s time to board your boat, the staff will give you a life belt and instruct you on how to row.  It’s pretty straightforward and impossible to get lost because the route is clearly marked.  Going from one side to the other usually takes 30-45 mins depending on your rowing ability (I was a bit slower because I was also taking pictures).  There are cute ducks that will fearlessly paddle alongside you.  I enjoyed having them as company!  After around 3 hours, I was satisfied with what I had seen here and made my way back to the town.  I grabbed some chocolate shaved ice and called it a day.  It was fun seeing the aesthetic of Takachiho, though!

In addition to the gorge, you may be interested in the Ameterasu Railway.  You can ride past canyons and also see some illuminations on a classic train.  Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to go as it closes quite early, but if you have extra time in the morning it might be something worth checking out.

Where to Stay

If you wake up early enough, you can explore the gorge and head back to Miyazaki City just in time.  However, that would involve roughly 6 hours of riding a combination of buses and trains so I wouldn’t recommend it.  I planned on flying back to Tokyo the following afternoon so I stayed at Ryokan Yamatoya for the night.  That way I could be comfortable and leave early in the morning.  This ryokan is only 5000 yen per night and is right in the heart of the city so it was the perfect fit for me.  It also has a public bath, but unfortunately it was closed due to the pandemic.  That didn’t stop me from taking a hot bath in my huge room, however!  I also made some green tea and relaxed in the yukata they provided.  Relaxion and reflection.  Another trip itinerary down with 100% completion!!

The next day I took the same route back to Miyazaki Airport and flew back to Tokyo.  I was lucky that the bus center is within walking distance from my hotel.  Despite the pandemic, most of the domestic flights were on time and handled with proper care.  I felt safe the entire time that I was here.  Would I do this again?  Hell yeah!!  But I just got a new job offer so I will be working full time again!  That won’t stop me from continuing to write these articles, however!!

I am currently planning weekend trips to Nagoya and Kamikochi so I will have more content up later this month.  Thank you all for reading and I hope we can travel more soon.

My Homie Totoro: Traveling to the Iconic Bus Stop of Takaharu, Miyazaki

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My Homie Totoro.

After spending a lovely evening in Aoshima chasing sunsets and eating fresh crab, I decided to catch the very first train to Takaharu—a quaint farming town in Miyazaki where the life-size recreation of the Totoro Bus Stop is.  According to Oddity Central, this Totoro statue was built by an elderly couple residing here as a surprise for their grandchildren.  However, its design is so immaculate that it has attracted Totoro fans from all over Japan.  There’s not a whole lot to see in Takaharu as it is mostly a residential area in the mountains, but the backdrop of the mountains and fields behind the bus stop look like they came straight out of a Ghibli movie.  If you are obsessed with rare destinations in Japan like me then you might want to put Takaharu on your bucket list!  The countryside of Kyushu is simply stunning.

Traveling to Takaharu for Totoro

The journey to Takaharu from Miyazaki will take around 2 hours and cost 1500-2500 yen (which is not bad).  From Miyazaki Station, I took Kirishima Limited Express to Miyakonojo Station then transferred to the Kitto Line that took me to Takaharu Station.  You can also take local buses which are usually cheaper.  They will usually drop you off at the same locations depending on what time you leave.  From Takaharu Station, I asked the station attendant to hail me a taxi directly to Totoro.  If you simply say “Totoro” to your taxi driver they will know exactly what you mean.  This is a short drive that will only take 5 mins.  Once you reach Totoro, a warm feeling of nostalgia will wash over you.  Congrats, you have successfully completed your pilgrimage!

I should also note that there is a red umbrella you can rent for 100 yen so you can recreate the famous scene in the rain with Totoro.  Since the money goes directly to the people who built it, it’s a simple way to donate and show thanks!  I took many pictures with it on my GoPro and made some postcard-quality content.  If you come here alone like I did, there will likely be other people here to help you take your picture (or your taxi driver always can).

For information on accommodations in Takaharu, I would recommend checking out Guesthouse Nagata because it is right next to Totoro.  There isn’t much to do in this town as it is pretty residential so I spent another night in Aoshima, but if you have a lot of time in Kyushu you might enjoy staying here.  Getting your picture taken next to Totoro definitely makes the journey worth it!

Since I came here in the morning, I still had 2/3 of the day left to enjoy other activities in Miyazaki.  Here are some other fun things that I recommend doing:

Aoshima Hammock Cafe

Aoshima Hammock is a relatively new and unique experience that I hope more people seek out!  Unlike most hammock cafes in Japan, this place also includes a workshop and hammock rental system for those who are looking to relax in a hammock outside by the ocean.  Their system is relatively cheap and affordable.  If you go outdoors a lot you might consider buying one because they are made of high-quality yarn and come in many beautiful colors.  You can even sign up for a class to knit one yourself.

Since it was scorching hot outside, I decided to buy a drink at the cafe and relax on a hammock indoors (which is free).  However, outside the cafe is a beautiful park and rose garden by the water so I am considering renting a hammock in the future if I come back.  They will teach you how to install the hammock and give you all of the materials and are foreigner-friendly.  It’s a fun opportunity for you to learn how to better enjoy Aoshima life too!

Miyazaki Fruit Parfaits

One of the best things about coming to Kyushu is they have some of the freshest fruit in Japan.  Most notably the ice cream fruit parfaits in Miyazaki are to die for!  My top parfait recommendations are Sakuranbo and Fruit Ohno located near Miyazaki Station.  Even if you don’t like ice cream, they have dragon fruit, fresh strawberries, and melon that you can try without it.  I was thoroughly impressed by the design of these parfaits:

Sun Messe

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The Moai of Miyazaki.

Who would have guessed that Kyushu has Easter Island motifs on it??  Sun Messe is a bizarre tourist attraction where you can take pictures with Moai statues.  Your pictures can actually turn out pretty cool if you take them at the right angle (these were taken in 2018 so I regret not having a better camera).  While we were here, we chatted with two nice guys from Kumamoto who were here on vacation and later went to the beach with them.  What a strange place to socialize, but this place definitely has a powerful aura.

Nearby Sun Messe is the famous Udo Shrine and a beach that you can swim in!  This beach isn’t as pretty as Aoshima in my opinion, but it’s definitely worth checking out while you are here.  The atmosphere is pretty relaxing and you can make out mountains in the distance as you swim towards the horizon.  A great experience overall.

Entrance Fee: 800 yen (worth it for the weirdness here)

Florante Miyazaki

Flower lovers rejoice because there are beautiful flora growing in Miyazaki year-round!  At Florante Miyazaki you can see different types of plants being raised in outdoor gardens and greenhouses next to a beautiful pond in the summer.  I remember seeing citrus oranges being grown here for the first time of my life.  In the winter some facilities are closed but the park creates gorgeous illuminations.  I believe they happen year-round now.  I sadly could only come here during the day due to my busy schedule, but I hope to catch a night show here in the future!

Entrance Fee: 310 yen (very cheap)

Beach BBQs

Since Miyazaki borders the ocean, you can easily find seafood restaurants all over the city and beach fronts.  In 2018 my friend took me to a place where you could order fish and seafood to be grilled right in front of you.  It was such a fun experience trying Miyazaki specialties together!  I encourage you to try the shrimp because it is especially zesty.  You could also buy fish from a fish market and cook it on the beach if you have your own grill.  Not to mention there are sushi and sashimi restaurants galore.  You really can’t go wrong with food here because it’s way cheaper than in Tokyo!

Thank you for reading the 2nd article in my Miyazaki Series!  In my next article, I will be writing about my adventure to yet another rare gem—Takachiho Gorge.  Please look forward to it!

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

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Just restoring my MP.

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

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

Departure

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

Our updated map travel map looked like this:

Mt. Tamaki & Tamakijinja Shrine

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

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

Tamakijinja Shrine

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

Tanize Suspension Bridge

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

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

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

Koyasan

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

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

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Jizo statues protect the souls of children and travelers.

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

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

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

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

Chikurin-in Gumpeon Ryokan

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3 Itinerary: 80% Completion

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

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

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

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Bite the bullet, baby.

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

About the Bike

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

What’s that about a Sponsorship?

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

Departure

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

Ise Shrine: Home of Amaterasu

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

Okage Yokocho

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

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

Iseshima Skyline

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

Camping on Mihama Beach

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

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

Day 1 Itinerary: 100% Completion

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

Pocheon Art Valley & Herb Island in South Korea

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Pocheon Art Valley in South Korea looks out of this world.

After spending an amazing 5 days on Jeju Island, I decided to fly back to Seoul and explore the places that I had overlooked on my first trip to Korea back in 2018.  Pocheon Art Valley and Herb Island caught my eye because they seemed up my alley.  Both places were slightly outside of the city and had a lot of fantastic nature to see with other quirky exhibits.  Every day tour that I’ve taken outside of Seoul has been well-organized and was easier than taking public transportation, so I booked a package that included both of them and strawberry picking for around $60 USD on Klook.  The tour has amazing ratings and gives you enough time to explore both places.  Entrance fees are included as well so it saves you both time and money.

Pocehon Art Valley

I started off my tour by completely going to the wrong station to get picked up my by tour guide.  That’s what happens when you’re jetlagged, can’t read Hangul, and are just ignorant in general from all the traveling you do abroad.  Fortunately I called Klook and my guide waited for me because our tour was only about 5 people.  I apologized to everyone and we made our way to the strawberry farm in a small van.  It was nice being in the Korean countryside.  The people on the tour were all in their twenties so it was easy to make friends with them.  I picked a ton of strawberries because I was starving.  After our baskets were full, we made our way to the art valley!

Pocheon Art Valley is a garnite quarry and geopark that has been transformed into a creative art valley.  In addition to stunning natural scenery you will see sculptures, planted flora, and even live concerts here.  There are arts and crafts workshops you can participate in as well.  I mostly came here for the exploration and aesthetic art aspect.  After our tour guide finished his explanation, we all set off in our own direction.  You can choose to ride the monorail or hike up the valley on your own (it doesn’t take that much time).  I hiked around the valley and saw many amazing sights!  You can see the silhouettes of the mountains once you get near the summit of the climbing area.  This was much easier than climbing Mt. Hallasan like I did the week before.  I had so much fun taking pictures here and can see why so many Korean dramas are filmed here.

After about 90 minutes, we met back at the van and drove to Herb Island.

Herb Island

Herb Island is perhaps one of the funniest memes I’ve come across in Korea (at least I thought it was very amusing).  First of all, it’s not actually an island━it’s a Christmas-themed amusement park with hundreds of Mediterranean herbs planted around it.  Plus it has a mini-zoo, soap-crafting workshop, and lavender ice cream which I highly recommend trying.  Everywhere you look there’s strange visuals.  I loved seeing the jellyfish and heart illuminations alongside the statues of Santa.  Walking through the gardens and the sea of Christmas lights in the summer was surreal.  The bakery with the herb cookies was also amazing.  This is my favorite amusement park in Korea because it’s just so random:

When you get through the sea of lights, you’ll come across a pen with miniature donkeys.  As if this “island” couldn’t get weird enough:

If I ever come back here, I swear to god I am crafting some herb soap.  I’ll also buy some more herb cookies for my friends as souvenirs.  Keep on staying weird, South Korea!

Overall I had a pleasant experience on this tour.  The traffic was heavy due to a public holiday I wasn’t aware so we were late coming back, but that was also my fault for initially being late to the tour.  I would like to re-visit Pocheon when I come back to Korea in the future.  I hope more people decide to come here because it’s the perfect day trip from Seoul!

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:

The Tale of the Monkey Forest and Glaass Lounge in Nagano

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Matsumoto Castle in Nagano, Japan.

Nearly two years ago, I ventured north into the mountainous region of Nagano with two missions to accomplish.  The first was to see the famous hotspring-loving monkeys in Jigokudani.  Though a lot of monkeys in Asia are known to be feisty, the Japanese macaque (also known as snow monkeys) are said to be pretty relaxed.  It’s probably due to the fact that they have their own 24-hour hotspring to themselves.  The second objective was to go to a rare event in Matsumoto called Glaass Lounge.  This party is a gathering of house and techno enthusiasts that goes all night, and on this particular weekend Carpainter and Seimei of Trekkie Trax were to appear.  The stars had aligned for the ultimate weekend and I couldn’t be more excited!

 

Jigokudani Monkey Park

As soon as I arrived to Nagano Station, I went to the ticket office and purchased a day pass for Jigokudani Park.  The park is about an hour bus ride from the station, but you have the chance to see rare scenes of the countryside so it’s not a bad trip.  From the bus stop, the walk to the monkey park is about 30 mins through a lush pine forest.  When you get to the top of a hill in the mountains, you will see dozens of monkeys running through a roped-off area full of hotsprings:

Though you sadly cannot enter the hotsprings with the monkeys, you can get pretty close to them.  Often they will go under the ropes and leisurely mingle with people.  It is advised not to look them directly in the eyes because that is a sign of aggression.  Also there are notices posted not to feed them and to be careful with your bags (a.k.a. common sense).  I would allow yourself at least 1.5 hours to fully enjoy the park.  The monkeys are quite fun to observe and the mountain air feels lovely.

Besides the monkeys, the scenery surrounding the park made it worth the trip.  The mountain backdrop on the lake looked like something straight out of a postcard.  Plus hiking through the forest was an awesome workout and I saw many beautiful rivers along the way.  You can see the Japanese Alps from here too:

Admission Fee: 800 yen to enter the park // 3200 yen for admission to the park and roundtrip bus fare (I recommend this option unless you rent a car)

Although I had fun here, the day I went the monkeys weren’t particularly interesting in bathing even though it was cold out and there was snow on the ground.  Hakodate in Hokkaido has a better monkey onsen that you can see.  The monkeys there seem to love hotsprings more than the monkeys I saw here, but both are worth checking out.

Food

Due to having to catch a train into the city that night, I didn’t have a lot of time to look for places to eat but fortunately Nagano Station had me covered.  I managed to find some amazing kitsune udon (noodles topped with a thin layer of fried tofu), and oyaki (stuffed dumplings).  I was happy to see they had a number of vegetarian options and were very cheap to order individually.  Oyaki are a Nagano specialty so definitely try them if you get the chance!  You can find them literally all over the place in a variety of flavors.

Glaass Lounge

I arrived at Studio SONIC around 11pm when Glaass Lounge had just kicked off.  The club had a simple setup with a DJ booth in the front and a bar to the side, but since it was compact it was easy to socialize with people.  I found my friends immediately and told them the story of the bathing monkeys.  It felt great to experience the music scene of Matsumoto out here in the mountains.  A number of these DJs come to Tokyo events every once in a while too.

Monolith Slip, a duo of two music producers from this area were one of my favorite acts.  They create a lot of rave music and were featured on an earlier Haka Gang x Trekkie Trax compilation:

Besides them, I of course enjoyed seeing Carpainter as the featured guest.  As always, his techno/house mixes are amazing:

This party went on until 5am and was an experience I’ll never forget.  I haven’t been back to Nagano in over 2 years, but if there are more music events like these in the fture then I’ll definitely be tempted!

Address: 2 Chome-5-6 Fukashi, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-0815

Access

From Tokyo Station, take the Hokuriku-Shinkansen to Nagano Station.  This will take 2 hours and costs 8400 yen one way.  From Nagano Station you can take a bus to the monkey forest and the Shinano Limited Express to reach Matsumoto City.  All tickets can be purchased on they day you arrive, but if you are coming during a holiday I would book them in advance.  I would recommend 2 days and 1 night here to see everything.

Since I didn’t have a lot of money at time, I stayed at a net cafe called Carefree Cafe for a few hours after the party.  However, there are a lot of great hotspring resorts and ryokan you can stay in that are better!  Booking usually has some great deals depending on what you are looking for.

 

 

Adventures in Nikko: Waterfalls, Igloos, and Walking in an Edo Wonderland

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The snow on the mountains behind Nikko Station give it a scenic winter look.

Yesterday I wrote about the popular mountainous hotspring getaway Hakone, so today I’m writing about Tokyo’s other most popular day trip: Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. Like Hakone, Nikko is also a famous hotsprings area located in the mountains that has stunning nature, temples, and a lot of parks as well.  Between the two of them, Hakone is my favorite because the hotsprings and museums are easier to reach by bus.  Nikko is more spaced-out than Hakone and some of the hot springs take over two hours via bus to reach.  That is a lot of traveling to do if you’re just coming for the day, but if you really like hiking you may find Nikko more interesting.  Both are worth seeing at least once.

I’ve been to Nikko twice (once in the summer and once in the winter for the snow festival) so I will be detailing my favorite discoveries in this article.  All of these places can be reached via bus from Nikko Station:

Kegon Falls & Toshogu Shrine

Kegon Falls is one of the most gorgeous waterfalls in Tochigi Prefecture.  It was formed by lava that rerouted a river into Lake Chuzenji.  We came here in the dead of winter when the surrounding area was covered by snow and slightly frozen, but the waterfall was still freely falling from the mountains.  I will never forget how beautiful this scenery was.  No matter what time of year you visit you will have an unforgettable view!

In the summer I visited Nikko’s most famous shrine: Toshogu.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a good reason.  This shrine serves as remembrance for Tokugawa Ieyasu who ruled the Tokugawa Shogunate for over 200 years.  This shrine complex consists of several buildings with the main one being adorned in golden architecture that gleams in the sunlight.  The shrines are located in a forested area so visiting each of them is quite a nice hike.  I’m glad that I’ve traveled here during both the summer and winter so I can see the lovely change of scenery.

Kegon Falls has no admission fees, but it costs 550 yen to go to the observation deck (which is worth it in my opinion).

Toshogu Shrine Entrance Fee: 1300 yen

Yuba Udon

Nikko is famous for yuba which is literally tofu skin.  That might not sound very appealing by itself, but it’s quite delicious when paired with or added to other dishes.  I tried Yuba udon with my friend and it tasted amazing!  The soft texture of the yuba paired with the noodles and broth gave the dish a unique texture.  I also tried some yuba slices on the side just so I could fully analyze the taste.  They are not as solid as tofu and are easier to eat.  My favorite tofu of all time is fried tofu or spicy tofu since they have the most flavor.  Yuba is rather flavorless, but it’s good for your health if eaten in small amounts.  We went to the restaurant across from the station called ゆば料理, but you can try it almost anywhere in Nikko.

Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival

Each year in February, Yumoto Onsen has a snow festival in which igloos with ice sculptures are illuminated similar to the Sapporo Snow Festival.  However, since this hotsprings resort is secluded, there are not as many people here and you can fully enjoy the illuminations to your heart’s content.  It was quite a long journey from Tokyo, but my friend and I managed to arrive here and back within a day.  The journey took 3.5 hours one way, but Yumoto Onsen is one of the best hotsprings in Nikko.  After doing some photography here, we used the hotsprings for under 1000 yen.  Similar to Gero Onsen and Kusatsu, you can choose from a large variety of onsen.  Many were available for day trippers like us.  The snow festival is free to see.

Here is a video I took in early 2018 of the igloos.  I hope to take higher quality footage of another illuminated snow festival in the future:

Tobu World Square

Because I’m a fan  of museums and architecture, I had to check out Tobu World Square.  This is a theme park at Kinugawa Onsen (another famous hotspring) that has over 100 scales models of iconic places from around the world.  My personal favorite was the pyramids from Egypt.  If you stand in front of them and take a picture of yourself, it looks like you’re actually in the desert!  The coliseum from Rome is also aestheically pleasing to see.  I loved the mini recreation of the Dragon and Taiwan Pagoda as well.  Now that I’ve been there, it hold much more meaning to me.  The more you walk through the park, the more you want to travel!  Summer is the ideal time to come here in my opinion.

Entrance Fee: 2500 yen (a bit expensive, but this is one of the most interesting museums in Nikko).

Walking in an Edo Wonderland

Since I was already near Kinugawa Onsen where many museums are located, I figured I’d go walking in an Edo Wonderland.  As the name implies, this is an amusement park dedicated to the Edo period of Japan.  If you’ve studied Japanese history, then you’ll know that this was a revolutionary time for the country.  There were samurais, economic growth, and a lot of development across Japan.  Many anime and novels are based off this time period.  Edo Wonderland plays homage to that and gives visitors the chance to step back into that world.  You can visit ninja houses and temples here, dress up in formal Edo clothing, take a boat cruise down the river, and see all sorts of performances.

Since I’ve been living in Japan for while, the most interesting part was simply exploring the Edo town for me.  However, there’s a lot more you can do here!  There is an archery dojo, countless restaurants, and museums where you can get even further lost in time.

Entrance Fee: 4800 yen before 2pm, 4100 after 2pm (it’s best to come in the afternoon as this is quite expensive)

Access

The best way to access Nikko is from Tokyo’s Ueno Station.  At the tourism office, they have often have discounts and deals as Nikko is a popular destination.  From Ueno, you can take the Hibiya Line to Kita-senju Station, then the Tobu Limited Express to reach Tobu-Nikko Station.  This takes approximately 2 hours and costs 3500 yen.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never stayed overnight at Nikko before but it’s something I’d like to try in the future.  Kinugawa Onsen is one of the centrally located and seems like a good option because you can reach the other areas of Tochigi Prefecture quite easily from it.

Exploring Mt. Daisen and the Ghost Town of Yonago

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The ceiling of Enryuin features hundreds of painted yokai by Shigeru Mizuki.

After riding camels in Tottori and swimming in the timeless ocean of Iwami, I set my sights on climbing Mt. Daisen which is about an hour away from Tottori Station.  Daisen-Oki National Park is quite expansive and has beaches, mountains, and the remnants of a volcano that is said to be inhibited by the gods.  There is also a lot of interesting wildlife you can see here such as salamanders and beautiful flora.  I even ran into a herd of cows on my way to the top.  Although I didn’t make it all the way up due to fog and visibility issues, I had the chance to explore some temples buried deep in the forest and bathe in a natural hotspring.  Though it’s quite remote from the major cities of Japan, Daisen is the perfect place for a hiking retreat or those who want to explore places outside of Fuji.  You could spend anywhere from a day to a week hiking around all of the trails here.

Exploring Mt. Daisen

The main trail to Misen Peak takes about 3 hours to climb, making the total climb around 4-6 hours.  I came here on a humid day in August, and unfortunately thick fog covered a lot of the trail so I only climbed for about 1.5 hours.  However, in that time I was able to make it to all of the temples and attractions that this trail is famous for.  I first stopped at the Daisen Farm Home of Milk to gaze at the cows living their peaceful farm life and try some of the famous ice cream here.  It was amazing as expected.  Next, I ventured to the two famous temples here: Daisenji and Enryuin.  Due to the fog I got lost on the way to Enryuin and accidentally walked through someone’s backyard in the forest, but they were thankfully kind enough to point me in the right direction.  I arrived in yokai heaven:

Daisenji is classic Buddhist temple that can only be viewed from the outside, where as Enryuin has an immaculate interior design and is designed for meditation.  Both are worth checking out to see the history and connection between them.  It is said that although yokai are monsters, they are viewed as gods here because they have the power to scare people and drive out their impure desires for the greater good.  At Enryuin, you can lay on your back and meditate by looking at the artwork of yokai painted on the ceiling.  They were drawn by Shigeru Mizuki, who is also the author of the manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro.  The monk here was very nice and welcomed me with kindness.

After having my fill of yokai watching (punny), I decided to seek out some food.  Hinokami Goen Yuin is a really handy place because it has hotsprings, guesthouses, food, and campground access.  I bought a soba set there and also bathed in the hotspring for an hour.  It started raining on the mountain so I came at the ideal time.  It was relaxing to watch the rain fall off the plains of the mountain while I relaxed at a sheltered outdoor hotspring.  This is peak mountain life (/end pun).

For a full list of attractions you can see in Daisen, please see their official website.  Usually the weather here is quite pleasant, but unfortunately I came during a rainy time.  If I come back I definitely want to explore the beaches and more of the volcanoes.

The Ghost Town of Yonago

 

Once the rain cleared, I decided to head to the ghost town of Yonago to see what it had to offer.  Since I prayed at Enryuin and survived the storm, I figured I could get through this.  Yonago is only an hour away from Daisen and is said to have a spiritual influence.  It is also the hometown of previously mentioned manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, so you can find his yokai artwork all over the place by walking around the streets from the station.  Did I see any ghosts here?  Many.  Take a look for yourself:

The design of this town is extremely aesthetic which is why it initially attracted my attention.  Everything from the streetlamps to the outdoor gardens to even the vehicles have some kind of strong yokai influence.  Though these are anime versions he created of the scarier yokai depicted in old Japanese folklore, they have an artistic sense that attract a number of visitors to the town.  I have never watched or read GeGeGe no Kitaro, but I can see why it’s so popular in Japan.  It’s a good way to get younger audiences interested in studying the myths behind these strange creatures.  Now I want to study more too!

I should also note that there is some amazing aesthetic food here including eyeball mochi, yokai oden, and all sorts of spooky sake:

This town is somewhat touristy, but visiting a yokai town is something that not many people can say they’ve done.  I had a lot of fun doing photography here and can gladly say that it was worth my time.  During this trip I learned that ghosts can definitely be your friends.

Access

From Tottori Station, I road the San-In Line to Yonago Station.  This took about one hour and cost 1600 yen.

Daisen has three main points of access.  I came here from a bus from Yonago Station.  Please see the Daisen Guide for more information.  Getting here should only take 40 mins – 1 hour, just be sure to watch the time tables.  You can also take a taxi.

Visiting the Hot Spring Gods at Gero Onsen

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Gero Onsen during peak sakura season.

After making my pilgrimage to the real-life village from Your Name, I decided to take the Hida Express down to Gero Onsen; a popular hot springs town and resort destination in Gifu Prefecture.  I arrived at the perfect time in early April when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and nearly everything in nature looked picturesque.  The town is pretty straightforward to navigate with a river that surrounds a free public outdoor hot spring and several buildings with more hot springs and saunas available for day use.  There are more secluded resorts up in the mountains.  Even if you’re not interested in hot springs, there are still a number of parks and shrines that you can see.  I spent around three hours exploring Gero Onsen and it was very aesthetic day trip.

When I got off at Gero Onsen Station, I first walked to the Funsenchi outdoor hot spring so I could see the beautiful park next to it. This is the best place to view the sakura in Gero making it a wonderful spot for photography.  You can walk across the rocks that surround the hot spring to see the Hida River and mountains too.  Walking across the bridge will give you a great view of the town as well.

Funsenchi is free to use for all visitors as long as you wear a bathing suit but it’s quite small.  If you are here just for the day I recommend the following hot springs:

  • Sachi no Yu: My personal favorite that has an indoor hot tub, waterfall bath, and outdoor hot spring.  Entrance is only 350 yen.
  • Curegarden Open-air Bath: A large collection of outdoor hot springs with amazing views.  I wanted to go here, but it was sadly closed due to the COVID-19.  I will go again if I get the chance.  Entrance is 700 yen but likely worth it.
  • Shirasagi no Yu: This is a western-styled bath with no outdoor hot springs, but reviews say it’s good.  If you go, please tell me how it is.  Entrance is 360 yen.

*For a full list of resorts, please see the official Gero Onsen Guide.

After bathing for an hour at Sachi no Yu and feeling completely refreshed afterward, I decided to visit a temple called Onsenji and pray to the hot spring gods.  This was about a 15 minute walk on an incline but it was extremely fun because I got to see more of the town while listening to all of my favorite music.  When I reached the shrine, the sun was setting and I saw an amazing view of it behind the mountains:

Another thing I love about Gero is all of the frog motifs.  “Gero” is a noise that frogs  make (like ribbit in English) so obviously a frog was the ideal candidate for a mascot here.  I tried the Gero Manjuu from a local sweets shop and it was very delicious.  I also saw frog stuffed animals in a liquor store and frogs painted on the street.  This is truly a Frogger-themed onsen village and it’s kind of awesome.

After spending a good amount of time here, I decided to ride the express train down to Nagoya.  I debated about spending the night here because there are cheap hotels and guest houses, but I opted to go to the city instead so I could spend time doing photo editing at one of my favorite 200 yen bars called Moonwalk.  Gero Onsen is the ideal day trip but there isn’t much to do at night besides more hot springs.  The quality is definitely worth it though!

Access

From Nagoya Station, take the Hida Limited Express to Gero Onsen.  This takes around 2 hours and is 4700 yen one way.  

I combined this with my trip to Hida-Furukawa, so from there it only takes 1 hour and 2900 yen.  If you wake up early enough, you can experience Gero Onsen and the Your Name town in one day.  For me, that was the ideal choice.