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.

My journey to the real-life village from “Your Name”: Hida-Furukawa

Right before Japan declared its widespread emergency state in response to the COVID-19, I took a final trip to a place that has been on my travel list for quite a long time: Hida-Furukawa.  Located in the mountainous region of Gifu, this town is the real-life location of the fictional town “Itomori” in the movie Your Name.  Like its fictional counterpart, it is removed from the city and has a lot of wonderful nature you can explore.  In this post, I will be detailing my experience here and all of the main places captured in the movie.

Please see my photo documentary for detailed side-to-side comparisons with the anime!

The major points of interest are:

  • Hida-Furukawa Station (so you can see the cattle mascot Hida-gyu)
  • Hida City Library
  • Ajidokoro Furukawa (the same restaurant where the characters eat mochi)
  • 旧落合村バス停 (the infamous bus stop)
  • Hie Shrine in Takayama

But there are many other museums and hot springs to see during your trip!

Traveling to Hida-Furukawa Station

I woke up at 6am and rode the shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Toyama Station which took around 2 hours but was a scenic trip.  From there I switched to the Hida Limited Express and traveled 1.5 hours to reach Hida-Furukawa Station—the main location of the movie outside of Tokyo.  The journey takes 3-4 hours and costs around 14,000 yen in total, but is worth it for the amount of things you can see.  Even if you’re not a diehard fan of Your Name, Hida has a rustic charm that you won’t find in other places in Japan.

As soon as I got off, I was greeted by a cute cutout of Hida-gyu.  Hida is famous for its beef so it would make sense that its mascot looks like this:

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Welcome to Hida City!

Dining in Hida

Since I was starving I decided to stop by a local eatery called Fab Cafe Hida.  This restaurant is not in the movie, but it’s definitely worth trying because they have sweet sake chai and delicious salmon sandwiches.  I came here in early April so it was still snowing a bit even though there were some cherry blossoms in bloom.  I was happy to see that they had space heaters scattered throughout their cafe so I could stay warm.

A restaurant that is in the movie however is called Ajidokoro Furukawa, where the characters feast on glutinous mochi.  You’ll know this place when you see it because it has posters of the movie hung up around it.  The staff is extremely friendly and will give you a guestbook to look at and draw in while you wait for your food.  I was amazed by all the detailed drawings that people had sketched inside.  In addition to mochi, there is a lot of Japanese food here that you can order too.  I’m not a huge fan of mochi, but this was exceptionally delicious.  I can see why the place was featured in the movie now!

Hitting the Library and Local Shrines

One of the early scenes in the movie takes place at the Hida City Library which you can easily reach on foot from the station (almost all the major attractions I listed are within walking distance from here).  It’s quite an expansive library with multiple floors, toys and reading circles for children, and a number of classic titles.  This is the biggest library I have ever been to in Japan so I will always remember my experience here.  It brought back the memories I had renting books as a child in the days before ebooks existed.  What a time it is to be alive!

In addition to the library, you can check out the Hida Tourism Center for a free map and also stop by some of the city’s local shrines.  There are three shrines that are said to bring good luck in love if you visit them: Enko-ji, Shinshu-ji, and Honkou-ji.  Every January 15th there is a festival here that celebrates them.  Though the festival had long ended since I arrived here, I still had a lot of fun checking them out!

One of the major shrines in the movie (called Hie pictured above) is actually in Takayama.  Fortunately, Takayama is very easy to reach.  From Hida-Furukawa, you can take the Takayama Line to reach Takayama Station in 30 mins for 290 yen. Hie Shrine is around a 25 min walk from the station and is free to enter (or you can take a taxi).

There’s not much else to see in central Takayama, so I would recommend coming here after you fully finish exploring Hida-Furukawa.

The Infamous Bus Stop

This bus stop is arguably the most difficult place to get to, but is totally worth it for the comparative picture.  It’s literally out in the middle of nowhere—forests and a single vending machine are the only things that surround it.  Only a few number of buses stop here per day making it a real challenge to get here and back (you may be waiting for hours).  The nearest train station is Tsunogawa Station, but since this area is somewhat remote the trains are infrequent too.  But if you come all the way out to Hida, you might as well go for the gold.  I opted to pay a taxi driver 6900 ($60) for a round trip from Hida-Furukawa Station to here and fortunately he cut me a deal.

Inside the bus stop are more sketch books and posters of the movie.  It’s amazing to see how many people have made it out here!

Address: 旧落合村バス停  (If you show this to any taxi driver in Hida, they will know).

Other Points of Interest

While walking through Hida, be sure to look out for the Setogawa Canal!  This street is lined with beautiful buildings and you can also see koi fish swimming around.  It’s extremely picturesque:

There are also a number of sake distilleries you can walk in and see.  I found a sculpture of a life-sized robot near one of the shrines too!  It truly surprised me how much there is to see in this little town.

Though I didn’t have enough time to visit any museums, here is a list of some I’d want to visit in the future:

Final Remarks

Traveling to Hida and Takayama was definitely a great excursion out of the city for me.  I had the chance to relive some of my favorite parts of Your Name and also create my photo documentary so I will forever remember this trip.  However, even if you’re not a fan of the movie you will still enjoy this area if you like exploring rural Japan.  I did this entire trip in one day, but you could easily expand this into a 2-3 day trip if you stay at an onsen resort or ride the Hida express all the way to Nagoya or Osaka.  The local train that runs through Gifu is considerably less expensive than the bullet train.

In my next article I will be writing about Gero Onsen which is between Hida-Furukawa and Nagoya so it makes the perfect side-trip for those who are traveling here.  Please look forward to my future adventures!

The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums I’ve Been to in Asia

Throughout my travels in Asia, I’ve managed to stumble upon some pretty awe-inspiring museums.  I enjoy traditional art as well as hands-on modern exhibits found in galleries around the world today.  My favorite museums are those that combine innovative technology with art and science—shattering perceived ideas and adding a whole other dimension to the viewer’s experience.

I’ve compiled a list of my top 3 favorites museums in Asia that are phenomenal examples of how innovative technology can be used to break the borders of art as we know it (starting from the top):

1. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (Kanazawa, Japan)

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pool’s open

Mana Pool.  What you see here might just be my favorite exhibition in the world.  This image looks like some kind of mirage or frozen frame from a vaporwave music video, but there are actually living, breathing people going about their daily routines under the waters of this pool.  You can even “dive in” and join them—but you can’t jump or use the ladder.  Instead you must reach the underwater zone from another entrance (which can easily be found by following the signs).

This pool was constructed with a limestone deck at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan (shortened to Kanazawa 21).  A thin layer of water is contained in transparent glass giving it the look of a real swimming pool.  However, underneath the glass is an underground room that is completely empty.  From the point of view of those who stand at the surface, you can create the illusion that you are walking underwater by taking a staircase beside the pool.  It truly is a vaporwave dream that has been realized by the power of aesthetics and science.

In addition to the pool, there are various rooms with simulations you can enter.  My personal favorite was “The Killing Machine”.  Photography was not allowed in some areas, so I will leave the contents up to your imagination.  I found some neat aviation and space exhibits when I first visited.  Some exhibits rotate, so please check the Exhibition page for the most recent ones.

This museum is an important part of Kanazawa’s culture because it draws a large number of people to the city.  Its design is very modern but somehow fits in the center of Kanazawa’s historic streets because it has a beautiful outdoor park and is near the Kenrokuen Gardens.  The outside of the museum has free exhibits you can see as well.

Here is my pool-walking video that I took in 2017.  The Swimming Pool is a permanent exhibit that can be seen year round so I hope to return and take better quality videos in the future.

Access

1 Chome-2-1 Hirosaka, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-8509
Entrance Fee: 360 yen for temporary exhibitions (some exhibits are free)

2. Nexon Computer Museum (Jeju, Korea)

Over Golden Week I traveled to the island of Jeju in Korea, but instead of the beaches (which are by far the best in Korea) I was most drawn to the iconic Nexon Computer Museum.  Nexon is the company responsible for creating Maple Story and the longest running commercial graphic MMO in the world: Baram, also known as Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds.  I was really surprised to see that a modest company in Korea had this award; which makes me think that Nexon is seriously underrated so naturally I wanted to learn more.

When I entered the museum, a wall full of lockers shaped like keys greeted me.  Instantly I was impressed with the on-point aesthetics here.  The cafe also had keyboard-shaped waffles, or what you’d call “sticky keys” which was another reason I had to travel all the way out here.

The museum is split into 4 floors; starting with the history of computing, then videogames and educational programs, and finally arcades in the basement!  I felt a strange sense of nostalgia but also was fascinated with some of the original things that Nexon had worked on.  From fantasy MMORPGs to EA Sports, there was quite a repertoire of games you could play here.  They also had collections of old Apple computers and the infamous Nintendo Power Glove on display here.

Here is the Guinness World Record for The Kingdom of the Winds on display which was originally launched in 1996:

Access

3198-8 1100(Cheonbaek)-ro, Nohyeong-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, South Korea
Entrance Fee: ₩8,000

3. Open Air Museum (Hakone, Japan)

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Arguably the best open air vaporwave museum in existence.

While day tripping to Hakone from Tokyo, I discovered the loveliest museum with a stained glass cathedral, Persona-esque sculptures, and even a foot bath outside of the cafe!  The Hakone Open Air Museum is almost entirely outdoors and is close to Mt. Fuji so you have the perfect mountain backdrop for your viewing experience.  Right as I entered I was greeted by a marble head floating in an empty pool that gave me massive リサフランク420 vibes.  There is an indoor Picasso Exhibition Hall as well, but the main draw is the abstract sculptures and mysterious moats on the outskirts:

These sculptures are said to symbolize the balance of harmony and art, but some of them are warped beyond belief and seem to represent a feeling of discord or solitude.  I personally thought they looked a lot like shadows from the Persona series; especially the ones wearing masks.  However you interpret it, you’ll definitely have a good time here.  Especially if you bring some good music.

Here is one of the best shots I captured by climbing up the cathedral with my old camera:

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m o u n t a i n w a v e

Access

1121 Ninotaira, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa 250-0407
Entrance Fee: 1600 yen

Honorable Mentions:

  • Mori Art Museum (Tokyo) – This museum is one of the most frequently visited ones in Japan due of its upscale art and central access.  I visited it once and thought it was nice to see, but the exhibits change frequently so it’s hard for me to gauge it.  There wasn’t a piece that really stood out to me like in other galleries I’ve visited, but it is worth seeing if you’re interested in modern art.
  • Benesse House (Naoshima) – An contemporary art museum on a remote art project island in Shikoku, Japan.  There is a beach nearby that you can go swimming at, and it’s absolutely gorgeous!  I will be writing more about this quirky art island in a future article.
  • teamLab: Everyone is talking about this “borderless” art museum, and it is undoubtedly one of the most high-tech in the world.  I’ve been to both the Planets and the new museum that opened up in Odaiba.  Both have blown me away with how much work was put into the lighting with the interactive exhibits.  It almost feels like you’re living in a neon hologram when you walk through some rooms.  However, due to this museum’s popularity, you can only see some exhibits for a short period of time.  Unfortunately due to the crowds it is sometimes difficult to fully enjoy things here, but it is worth seeing.

*I will be expanding upon these honorable mentions in future articles.  My travel plans have been slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic so I am currently digging through my archive to create more content.

The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun Moon Lake (Part 2)

After visiting the eye-popping Rainbow Village, I decided to take a cheap local bus from Taichung Station to the famous Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan (its name immediately made me think of Pokémon Sun & Moon).  After an hour and a half ride, I was dropped off at Shuishe Pier, which is part of the central hub of Sun Moon Lake.  There are a number of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops that you can browse around, although the real adventure lies elsewhere!  From here you can ride ferries and buy tickets to attractions around the lake.  The ferry will take you to Ita Thao Pier and Xuanguang Pier which both have a number of hiking trails and sightseeing spots to explore.  If you are unsure of what to do, the official Sun Moon Lake website has a number of itineraries available.

Originally I was thinking of going to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village and ropeway (which is a huge amusement park with a waterpark), but due to the mild and foggy January weather, I opted to do some hiking instead.  My favorite viewpoint that I discovered was the Ci-en Padoga built by Chiang Kai-Shek in memory of his mother.  This was about a 40 minute hike through a bamboo forest but was easy to access thanks to the English guideposts.  The ferries depart from pier to pier every half hour, so you can see the majority of sights in one day.  However, if you wish to see the smaller islands and go to the amusement park that I mentioned above, you will definitely need two full days.

Unfortunately due to the fog it was hard for me to capture good footage of the hike I took, but the mountains surrounding the lake were breathtaking and gorgeous.  I would say this was the 2nd most beautiful place that I have been to in Taiwan; the 1st being Taroko Gorge.  I wish I could have spent two full days here, but I was happy with all of the scenery I was able to see in one day.  Getting between the piers only takes around 15 minutes, so you can definitely make the most of your time here if you plan it out.

When you purchase your ferry ticket (mine was only 250 TWD because they thought I was a student), you are given a map with all the major landmarks on them.  If you are a seasoned traveler, I would just follow your instinct and go wherever looks most interesting to you.  The guideposts make it pretty straightforward, and there are always usually hikers around to ask in case you get lost.  Sailing around and feeling like I was in an RPG was honestly the best aspect for me.  It was so nice getting out of the city and into this amazing world of nature:

In my next article, I will be writing about Taiwan’s southern city Kaohsiung and Cijin Island.  Thank you to all those who have kept up with my wild adventures!

An Epic Journey to Taiwan’s Most Beautiful National Park: Taroko Gorge

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GoProing at the Gorge: Taroko Gorge turns out to not be a tourist trap, but instead an unspoiled private paradise for hikers.

After exploring Yehliu Geopark and Jiufen, I hopped on the last train from Taipei’s Main Station and made my way to Hualien, a beautiful town surrounded by nature and the ocean on the east coast of Taiwan.  My main destination here was Taroko National Park, arguably the most beautiful park in the country with its marble cliffs and gorges.  The gorgeous blue color of the water reminded me a lot of the ocean that surrounds the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand.  Though Taroko Gorge is more of a hiking spot than a place to swim, my tour guide allowed us to go swimming at the base of the Shakadang Trail!  Even in January, the water felt surprisingly warm and refreshing.  This place is truly unlike anywhere else in Taiwan and I definitely recommend people visit.

Due to its massive size Taroko is very difficult to cover in a day, but with a lot of online research, I managed to find The Better Taroko Gorge Tour which not only lets you pay in cash, but also accepts solo travelers (most tours to Taroko are extremely expensive and require group reservations).  It is also one of the few tours that includes lunch, so I was extremely fortunate that I chose it or else I would have been starving!  My excellent tour guide, Alan, took our group of seven people through the Swallow Grotto, two suspension bridges, the newly opened Tunnel Of Nine Turns that was previously closed due to an earthquake, and scenic the Bell Tower Padoga.  We unfortunately were unable to hike up to the Eternal Spring Shrine due to road conditions, but we were able to see all of the highlights of the park on this tour in one day.

The tour started early at 7:30am, but we managed to avoid the crowds and I had a lot of time to capture photos and video with my newly purchased GoPro:

Most articles you read online recommend spending 2-3 days in this park if you are a hiking enthusiast, but one was enough for me because I was planning on seeing all of the major cities in Taiwan and also meeting up with friends.  I was extremely satisfied with the challenge of the hike (it really wasn’t hard at all, minus some stairs) and also with all of the shrines I got to see.  I would DEFINITELY recommend coming here with a tour guide, because riding in a van will save you a lot of time on the roads, and the guides know exactly where all the scenic spots here are.  Coming alone is possible, but I think it would take much longer and be difficult to navigate and know which paths are safe to hike on.  This park is not dangerous, but some of the slopes are affected by the weather so you need to be cautious while climbing them.

The Official Taroko Gorge Website has a list of trails that are currently available.  Shakadang Trail, Changchun Trail, Swallow Grotto, and the Tunnel of Nine Turns are the paths I recommend taking (you can see all in a day if you have a car or skilled tour guide).  We managed to see waterfalls and many temples too!  Throughout the park you will see signs that say you need a permit to enter, but we were informed that such permits do not exist–this is just to warn tourists of potentially dangerous areas so the park does not get sued in case of injury.  Enter these parts at your own risk (I hiked through one part, but it was literally nothing but green forest so I turned around as to not lose my way).  In the middle of the day, we had a delicious course lunch at a restaurant in the mountains, and I had the chance to try Taiwanese mochi too:

At the end of the day, our tour guide took us to a nearby beach in Hualien where we could relax after a successful day of sightseeing.  We were all amazed with the creative rock stacks (called cairns) here.  The beach was literally full of them:

At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted and wanted to return to Taipei, so Alan kindly drove me to my hostel (called Cave) to get my luggage, and then back to the main Hualien Station where I could take the train back.  I made an extremely kind friend on this trip who is currently working in Okinawa, so I was very happy with my experience.  Island Life Taiwan is one of the best local guides for Taroko Gorge, and I would happily book them again if I decided to come back here in the future!  The total cost was only 2000 Taiwan Dollars, which is much cheaper than most advertised tour packages.  This was one of the best days that I had in Taiwan, and I will not forget the beautiful unspoiled paradise that is Taroko Gorge!