Exploring Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple: Saihoji

Over the last three days I have been backpacking around Kyoto for the purpose of seeing the sakura in full bloom and capturing them on camera. Having witnessed enough pink petals to last me the rest of the year, on my final day of the trip I decided to take a bus deep into Arashiyama to see the lush green moss garden of Saihoji, also known as “Kokedera”. I have ventured to Arashiyama at least three times in the past to see the bamboo forest and go hiking around Oi River, but I never knew that this place existed until one of my coworkers told me about a mysterious temple that only accepted reservations by postcard. Since I am a curious adventurer, I mailed a paid reply postcard addressed to Saihoji a week before my departure with my requested visiting time and received a written response welcoming me on March 31st, 2021. It is recommended to visit during the summer season when the moss looks its fullest by absorbing the most sunlight and rain, but Saihoji is open year-round to those who make a reservation. I was lucky enough to see the sakura outside of it at full bloom because I came at the end of March!

Getting to Saihoji & Reservation Process

Saihoji is actually quite easy to reach from Kyoto Station. The 73 and 83 buses are almost a straight shot there and take around 55 minutes to reach the Kokedera Bus Stop. The bus only costs 230 yen so I would recommend it over the train route which requires multiple transfers and is more expensive.

You can make a reservation for Saihoji one week ~ one month in advance. Usually they will ask you to enter between 10am to 12pm. If you live in Japan you can buy a paid reply postcard at any post office and mail it directly from there. You can write in either English or Japanese. Please note that garden is sometimes closed during times of the year for maintenance. For detailed instructions on how to fill out your postcard, please see the official admission page. If you live overseas, I recommend mailing it from your accommodation once you arrive to Japan as opposed to going through a foreign booking agency because it may cost double the price.

I found it ironic that the temple has an official Instagram account that updates frequently but still only accepts reservations via postcard. That is Japan in a nutshell for you!

Admission Fee: 3000 yen

This is more expensive than other temples in Japan, but the maintenance of the moss garden takes quite a lot of effort so I would say the money is worth it. This temple is extremely rare so I would recommend it to those who have been to Kyoto before and are looking for a more unique experience. You will also get a postcard and a sheet with kanji you can trace and offer as prayer. Though I am not religious, I enjoyed learning about the customs of Saihoji. I spent about 45 minutes here and was satisfied with what I saw.

Exploring the Moss Garden

Once you enter through Saihoji’s main entrance, you will immediately see the main temple and a small stone garden ahead. After paying your respects to the temple, the gate to the moss garden is simply a stone’s throw away. As you walk around you will discover a beautiful pond, tiny bridges to small islets, and the greenest moss that you have ever seen:

Seeing the reflection of the moss on the pond was my favorite part. Though areas were roped off to preserve the garden, there still was a lot to explore. Apparently Saihoji’s innovative design later influenced the layout of the Ginkakuji so this temple really has a lot going for it.

Here is a short video I took while trekking on the stone path around the moss garden:

I definitely felt relaxed and achieved total zen during this journey, but afterwards I headed back to central Arashiyama for some food because I was starving!

Recommended Food in Arashiyama

Since yuba (tofu skin) is extremely famous in this area, I decided to try to yuba rice set at Saga Tofu Ine. This meal was completely vegan and tasted even better than the yuba that I tried in Nikko! I also stopped by the Miffy Sakura Kitchen for dessert. This place was so popular that only the Danish and sakura cube bread were available when I arrived, but both of them were delicious and the little bunny shape was so adorable. I definitely want to come here outside of sakura season when it is less crowded!

Please look forward to my next two posts on the highlights of sakura season in Kyoto! I still have one more to publish on Nagoya too… It sure feels good to be busy traveling again!

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Kofu & Senga Falls (Part 3)

After spending a beautiful afternoon in Minobu and seeing the iconic Lake Motosu plus other places that are featured in Yuru Camp, I decided I would spend my final day in Yamanashi hiking around waterfalls and trying delicious food with my friends. Yamanashi is a great getaway and each and every experience I had here was memorable. Coming during off-season definitely had its perks because there were less people around and I really became well-acquainted with the area. Seeing Mt. Fuji from so many different angles was awesome too! I made a promise to come back here in the summer and go camping for real because this trip had a real impact on my life. I am extremely grateful that the Yuru Camp anime inspired me to come here and that my friends showed me around too. I would have never discovered all of these amazing places by myself!

For the full story of this article series, please see A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1) & A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Minobu (Part 2).

Shosenkyo & Senga Falls

From Kofu we drove around 30 minutes to Shosenkyo, which is known as one of the most beautiful gorges in Japan. My favorite gorge of all time is still Takachiho in Miyazaki, but this one is quite the sight to behold too. You can tell by the pure color of the water that this park is a treasure. The trails here are very easy to navigate and you can reach one of the two main waterfalls known as the Senga Falls in a pleasant 30 minute hike. As we reached the first waterfall, we noticed a rainbow appear above the rocks where the water was falling and stood in awe until it faded. Because we were having a super lucky day, the we saw a second rainbow appear over the second waterfall too!! If you come here around 2pm and the sun is out, you may be able to see this phenomenon too:

Local Temples & Alien

The summit of Shosenkyo has many notable sightseeing points that should not be missed. The Buddha Statue adorned in colorful papers and the crystal shop with the two friendly cats were some of my favorites. There’s also a bell shrine filled with—you guessed it—bells! The wooden plaques here are also unique because they are shaped like crystals and have the kanji for wish (願) written on them. My friend collects these and this one was one of my favorites in her collection. Did I mention there’s an alien statue with its own hashtag here too? This is a scale replica from Alien Vs. Predator. The people that manage the shops up here sure are interesting people! I was blown away by the uniqueness of it all and had an amazing time hiking. I really hope that this place is featured in Yuru Camp someday.

Recommended Kofu Cafes

On our way to the falls we decided to try a cozy cafe called Camel which has a combination of breakfast and early afternoon entrees making it the ideal place for brunch. I ordered the salmon lunch set which came with bread, yogurt, and salad making it a perfectly balanced meal. They also have amazing coffee here! The white chocolate latte was something I was surprised to find on the menu but it tasted fantastic. It must have been an original blend. After our hike we stopped at a small cafe near Kofu Station called Cafe Moala which is also famous for coffee and its seasonal tarts. We were lucky that strawberries were in season because the strawberry cheesecake tarts were out of this world. Every single meal I had in Yamanashi was baked with tender care and I enjoyed every bite!

Camel Cafe Address: 1832-5 Manriki, Yamanashi, 405-0031
Cafe Moala Address: 400-0031 Yamanashi, Kofu, Marunouchi, 1 Chome−9−8 2F

Final Thoughts & Future Trips

After an extravagant afternoon of hiking, my friends dropped me off at Kofu Station and I rode back to Tokyo with many happy memories and goals in mind for the next trip. By this point I think I’ve made it clear that Yamanashi is worth traveling to just as much as Kyoto and Osaka, so please be sure to add the home of Mt. Fuji in your next trip itinerary! I plan to come back to Yamanashi in the spring to re-shoot some photos during sakura season, and also go camping by Lake Motosu in the summer. I also hope to visit more areas that the currently airing season of Yuru Camp features too!

As for my upcoming trips for the year, Aomori is currently #1 on my list because I want see the sakura festival. It is currently unknown if it will be cancelled due to the pandemic so I am waiting until April to decide. I also want to visit Okinawa again to shoot some cosplay after the 2nd emergency state ends. This trip looks more hopeful. Other than that, I hope to go to Nagoya and Kyoto later this spring to see friends and also keep my eye on music events. This week has brought a lot of hopeful news so I hope things continue to get better. Until then I will continue to watch anime and take small local trips like this to keep myself in high spirits. I thank everyone that has read my articles and wish you all well! ♥

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Minobu (Part 2)

After hiking to all of the major Mt. Fuji viewpoints spending a cozy first night in Fujiyoshida, I woke up at 9am and rode the local trains to meet my friends at Kofu Station for another Yuru Camp-inspired day. In this article I’ll be writing about Minobu, a small city in Yamanashi where the main characters of Yuru Camp go to school and spend their daily lives. Unbeknownst to me, the real life Minobu has replica of Rin’s Vino Classic scooter and many goods from the series available for sale! Even if you are not a fan of the series, there are historic temples and shrines to see in this area as well as beautiful flowers year-round. Seeing this iconic town was definitely a big highlight of the trip for me.

For the first part of this article series, please see A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1).

Getting to Kofu & Minobu

From my hotel in central Fujiyoshida, I walked to Mt. Fuji Station (that’s right—THE Mt. Fuji Station) where I rode the Thomas the Tank Engine-themed Fujikyuko Train to Otsuki Station, then took the Chuo Line to Kofu Station. I really found it hilarious how each local stop on the Fujikyuko Line had its own Thomas mascot and the seats of the train were decoratively designed with all of the characters. Now that is peak aesthetic. This journey took around 2 hours and cost less than 2500 yen. It is also very easy to reach Kofu from Tokyo by taking the Chuo line or booking a bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. However, if you want to see all of Yamanashi then you might want to stop by Fujiyoshida first like I did!

Upon reaching Kofu Station, I met up with my friends and their bright blue car named Aqua, and we decided to get lunch nearby then drive to Minobu! There is a Minobu Line Limited Express that departs from Kofu Station and reaches the city in roughly an hour, but the destinations around Minobu are better accessed by car. However, if you are going on a Yuru Camp-inspired journey like myself and don’t have access to a car, I would recommend hopping on the train because you can see Rin’s scooter right by Minobu Station! The cost of the train is less than 2000 yen and the journey will be unforgettable.

Lunch at Tree -Anthony’s Kitchen-

One of the cafes that I was most looking forward to visiting was a western-themed kitchen called Tree with a skilled chef named Anthony who traveled to Japan from the UK. My friends had previously dined here for their Christmas Anniversary dinner and the pictures of the course they posted looked heavenly! They are also good friends with the owner and seemed to know everyone around us so I appreciated the friendly atmosphere. I was also beyond excited to finally try this delicious place for myself! This restaurant has a number of vegetarian and pescatarian options so I decided to get the falafel plate, though the squid burger looked tempting too. My friends decided on a meat pie with vegetables and spaghetti, and the three of us savored our delicious meals. Totoro definitely enjoyed dining in Yamanashi Prefecture too!

Address: 〒400-0048 Yamanashi, Kofu, Kugawahoncho, 12−3 sora E

Entering Yuru Camp Heaven in Minobu

After having a wonderful meal, we drove an hour to Minobu and stumbled into Yuru Camp heaven. In the car my friend was telling me about the famous Minobu Manjuu that she wanted me to try. When we arrived at Minobu Station, Rin’s Vino scooter was sitting adjacent to that very manjuu/souvenir store that she mentioned!! After taking a dozen pictures of it, we walked into the store and were blinded by Yuru Camp goods. Shima Rin Dango, keychains, plushies, ema, office supplies, curry, and more—everything was Yuru Camp themed. Even the vending machines by the parking lot that we parked at. My biggest flex on this trip was by sweet sake for 100 yen from the Rin vending machine:

After buying a bunch of merchandise (most notably the Shima Rin plush and dango) and greatly stimulating the Yamanashi economy, we decided to walk around the station for a bit and enjoy the scenery. I bought some Minobu Manjuu that this area is famous for and they tasted fresh and delicious. Rin’s famed dango tasted amazing as well. We were happy to see that the plum blossoms were already in bloom so we stopped to take pictures there before driving the local temples and doing some hiking. I was absolutely elated from this experience because I wasn’t expecting to see so much Yuru Camp here! MISSION SUCCESS!!

Exploring Minobu’s Local Temples

Since we had quite a lot to eat, we decided to go hiking to Kuonji Temple on the base of Mt. Minobu and also see a series of shrines around the area. The climb to reach the main temple had quite a lot of stairs and reminded me of the Tiger Temple I visited in Thailand. However, the view at the top of the hill was worth the effort. I had fun wandering around and seeing the flowers that had started to bloom. The color and architecture of each temple had quite a rich variety. Some temples looked worn and had traditional wooden architecture while others had bright colors and looked almost foreign. Even though this area has not yet been featured in the series, it is a colorful place that I would recommend to people coming to Minobu for their Yuru Camp pilgrimages. My friends also informed me that this a great place for seeing sakura!

Lake Motosu

While the sun was setting over Mt. Fuji, we decided it would be a great idea to drive to lake Motosu where Rin and Nadeshiko meet in the very first episode of Yuru Camp! There are famous campsites here that I plan on going to with my friends in the summer. The purpose of this winter trip was to familiarize myself with the area so I could come back and eventually go camping at my favorite areas in the future. I think that this area is definitely the best place because it has a lot of shade and a beautiful view of Fuji. I hope to write more about Lake Motosu in the future and make some more happy memories here!

Dinner & Dessert in Kofu

After seeing the highlights of Yuru Camp in central Yamanashi, we decided to stop at two amazing restaurants on our way back to my friends’ house where I was spending the night. One was a Japanese restaurant called Sakagura-kai that had some of the freshest salmon I had ever tasted and a huge selection of Yamanashi sake. Another was a cake shop called troisieme marche near the Fuji Five Lakes that had creamy cakes that melted in your mouth. The chocolate mousse used in the baking was some of the best I have had in a while. I would happily recommend all of the places that I mentioned in this because the food was phenomenal and they had a lot of selection.

Sakagura-kai Address: 567 Kita, Yamanashi, 405-0041

troisieme marche Address: 682 Kawaguchi, Fujikawaguchiko, Minamitsuru District, Yamanashi 401-0304

Ending the Night at Hottarakashi Onsen

The final destination of the night was Hottarakashi Onsen, featured in Season 1 Episode 5 of Yuru Camp. This hot spring is absolutely heavenly in the winter and has both an indoor and outdoor bath. Unfortunately the baths are public so photography inside is prohibited, but coming here is worth it for the view of the starry sky and city lights below. I think this is the best onsen that I’ve been to besides the resort in Nagano I traveled to earlier this year. My body definitely felt healed after all of the hiking I did this day, and I was ready for another round of drinks and Smash Bros. for when we got home!

Thank you for reading the second part of my Yuru Camp-inspired adventures! The final part will detail some beautiful hiking trails and waterfalls and be published later this week. Please look forward to it~

A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1)

Just west of Tokyo lies the scenic Yamanashi Prefecture—home of Mt. Fuji and its famous amusement park, Fuji-Q Highland, that holds a several world records for its thrilling roller coasters. After climbing the mountain during my first summer in Japan and visiting the theme park a few months later, I thought I had seen everything this prefecture had to offer. However, after watching the comfy camping anime Yuru Camp (localized as “Laid-Back Camp”), I realized that there were many amazing places I had overlooked. Aside from Mt. Fuji, Yamanashi has beautiful campsites by the lake, hiking trails, kind locals, and an abundance of delicious food too!

In the first season of the anime, Shima Rin, the main protagonist of Yuru Camp, explores several campsites around Fujiyoshida on her scooter and meets other interesting characters through her adventures. In later episodes she explores the surrounding prefectures of Nagano and Shizuoka which I have both traveled to for music events so seeing them featured in the anime felt nostalgic. Though she prefers traveling alone, she eventually realizes that group camping can be extremely fun and rewarding. I relate to this feeling in many ways. Through the anime I have learned a lot of random facts about Japan and discovered a number of destinations I would like to travel to which is why it is one of my favorite series. I recommend it to everyone as it is extremely relaxing to watch!

Over the past weekend I decided to plan a three day trip to Yamanashi to see some of the spots mentioned in Yuru Camp and also meet up with some friends that live near Kofu Station. I decided to spend the first day sightseeing in Fujiyoshida solo so I could get acquainted with the area (Shima Rin style), then take the local train to Kofu and see my friends the next two days. This turned out to be a phenomenal idea because I was able to cover a lot of ground with the help of a kind local and my friends who own two cars. Though it is definitely possible to see Yamanashi by local train and bus, having a car is nice to reach the hiking trails and waterfalls.

Getting to Yamanashi (Shimoyoshida Station)

Since Yamanashi is the prefecture directly west of Tokyo, there are a number of ways to travel there by both train and bus. Because I am a pretty spontaneous person, I decided to hop on the local trains around 10am because they are pretty cheap and require no reservation. I rode the Chuo Line to Takao Station, then transferred on the same line to Otsuki Station where I took the Fujikyuko Line to Shimoyoshida Station. This journey took roughly 2 hours and cost under 2400 yen. This is nothing compared to the price of taking the shinkansen to Kyoto or Osaka!

You can also look into booking a bus ticket from Fuji Express or purchase one at the Shinjuku Bus Station if you don’t want to deal with transfers. These are around the same price as the trains but may be cheaper if you book them in advance.

Kofu Station is another popular destination in Yamanashi which I will be covering in my next article. Shimoyoshida Station is closer to the Five Fuji Lakes and Fuji-Q Highland which is why I came here first. It also is a great are for viewing sakura in the spring.

Trying Curry at “Little Robot”

As I usually do my morning workout before I travel anywhere so I can enjoy my food guilt-free, I was quite peckish when I arrived at Shimoyoshida Station. I decided to walk to a vegetarian-friendly curry restaurant called Little Robot that was 8 minutes down the road. Here they have delicious Indian curry sets for both veggie and meat lovers as well as vegan desserts. I tried a vegetable lunch set that had 3 mild curries, lightly fried vegetables, and a healthy portion of yellow rice. The combination of spices here was simply amazing and it gave me the energy I needed for hiking! I also ordered the vegan coconut balls because I was curious what they tasted like. Once again, they were powdered to perfection and you could tell that they were baked with love.

The owner and waitress were super friendly and invited me to a yoga class at their restaurant that night, but unfortunately I did not have time to go. However iff I come back here in the future to see the sakura, I would love to come! Yamanashi people definitely have a reputation for being genuinely friendly which I’ll get into under my next heading…

Chureito Pagoda

Out of all the places in Fujiyoshida, the Chureito Pagoda observation deck is one of the most iconic viewpoints in the city. Unfortunately since I came here in February there were no sakura or red leaves on the tress, but during the late spring and early fall seasons this area is picture perfect. The best thing is regardless of the time of year you can get the perfect view of Fuji up here. The hike is roughly 25 mins from Fujiyoshida Station and is fortunately a leisurely one. This pagoda is located in Arakurayama Sengen Park and has several trails and gardens you can see as well.

As I was setting up my tripod to take pictures, an older Yamanashi local approached me a started a conversation with me. He asked me the usual questions I get daily like where I was from, what I like about Japan, etc., then offered to drive me around the area. Since I saw him talking with other people around me and thought he was trustworthy, I took him up on his offer because there were a number of places that I wanted to see. This wasn’t the first time I hitch-hiked around rural Japan, anyway, and I was down for the adventure.

Kaneyamano Falls

Though Kaneyamano Falls haven’t been featured in Yuru Camp yet, they were still a destination that I really wanted to check out. Luckily they are a simple 15 minute drive from the pagoda and a 3 minute walk from the parking lot. To be honest I was expecting more of a hike to reach them, but they weren’t disappointing in the slightest and I got my hiking in later. Seeing a waterfall during the winter is a beautiful experience. In February there is not as much snow in the Fujiyoshida area, but the tiny patches of it lingering around the falls made it a wonderful spot for photography.

Local Shrines

As most Japanese guides are quite fond of showing tourists their local shrines, I couldn’t turn down my driver’s enthusiastic proposal to see Kitaguchi-hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine and Arayayama Shrine. I was impressed with the beautiful pine forest that lined the entrance to Sengen Shrine. Since we came here on a quiet Friday afternoon there weren’t many people here and we could enjoy our time here in peace. Both of these shrines are close to the falls and are easily reachable by car or local bus.

Lake Yamanaka

I woke up at 6am this morning to watch episode 5 of the currently airing Yuru Camp Season 2 before I departed, and was thrilled to see that they featured Lake Yamanaka near where I booked my hotel. This scenic lake is simply a 10-15 min drive from central Fujiyoshida and is absolutely breathtaking to see. I came in the afternoon and the sun was shining creating a beautiful sparkling effect over the water. This was pure bliss.

Here is a screenshot of Lake Yamanaka the anime which accurately depicts the patches of snow that I saw around the lake:

The anime version of Lake Yamanaka.
The real thing looks almost better than anime.

In the summer I would consider camping here so I could see the beautiful sakura around this area and the Fuji Five Lakes. In the winter I would recommend staying in a hotel or ryokan because the chill is simply too cold. Please see my recommendations at the bottom of this article.

Oshino Hakkai

Oshino Hakkai is a small village with interesting architecture that is just a short 10 minute drive from the aforementioned shrines and lake. It has 8 ponds and of course a clear view of Fuji year-round making it a popular destination. Unfortunately most of the vendors were closed for the winter, but we had fun walking across the bridge and seeing the koi swim in the pond. The roofs of the houses here reminded me of Shirakawago and were fun to see. The building structure in Yamanashi is definitely more exciting than houses found in Saitama or Chiba surrounding Tokyo.

Traveling during the off-season definitely means less is open, but you have the whole place to yourself which is the best!

After doing photography at all of these destinations I was fully satisfied and politely asked to be returned to my hotel. My driver kindly bought me chocolate bread and wine from Family Mart and dropped me off. What an amazing day, and this was only the 1/3 of the entire trip!

Accommodations

There are a number of affordable ryokan and hotels in this area, but if you are a backpacker like me then I definitely recommend staying at a guest house because it has everything you need. I chose Fuji Hostel YOU and got a private twin bedroom all to myself for 3200 yen per night. This guesthouse is located between Fujiyoshida Station and Mt. Fuji Station and has plenty of restaurants and convenience stores around it so it was the perfect choice for me. I would gladly recommend it to all of my friends.

Overall, Fujiyoshida is simply remarkable because you can see Fuji from anywhere you look. You can access Fuji-Q Highland and many beautiful parks and trails while feeling extremely close to the mountain in the heart of Japan. If you are a nature enthusiast then you cannot simply pass this place up. It’s crazy that it’s taken me this long to explore this area, but better late than never. I am happy that anime inspired me to travel here.

In my next article I will be writing about Minobu and Kofu—two areas in Yamanashi that are frequently referenced in Yuru Camp. Please look forward to my continued anime-inspired adventures through Fuji Town!

Living Life the Way it’s Supposed to be Lived (Onsen Trip to Nagano, Japan)

Snow falls gently on Lake Nojiri in Nagano creating a a picturesque winter scene.

Right before the second emergency state for Tokyo and surrounding areas was declared on January 7th, a number of business owners gathered in Nagano Prefecture to discuss what would become of their once booming industry that has rapidly declined this year due to the effect of the corona virus. According to a friend of mine who owns several ski resorts and ryokan in this area, they are currently only at 1/4 capacity this year. Usually Nagano is one of the most popular areas to do winter sports because it is easily accessible by shinkansen and has many hot springs where you can spend the night. It was also where the 1998 Winter Olympics were hosted and is famous for its snow monkeys which normally draw in a number of visitors from around the world each year. According to the Foreign Press Center, Nagano has surpassed Okinawa for having the longest life expectancy in Japan of above 80 years for both men and woman. Seeing the local tourism drop in such a boisterous place is a fatal blow to the nation, but also can’t be helped in this situation.

Though this is a tough time for everyone, currently many people in Nagano are strategizing what they can to keep their businesses alive. My friend who I met through writing articles online invited me to Nagano right before signing the contract to close one of their hotels for a final celebration. This became a two day trip that was completely sponsored and I am very fortunate that I was able to travel here so spontaneously. I previously traveled to Nagano in 2018 and saw the snow monkeys as well as an indie music show in Matsumoto, but I’ve never stayed at a ryokan here. Like the ryokan in Nara that I stayed at during my last sponsored motorcycle trip, this one did not disappoint!

Getting to Nagano

From Tokyo Station, Nagano Station is only 1 hour and 20 mins away and only costs 8340 yen to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen there. This is less hassle than going all the way to Kyoto or Osaka. I was initially worried about traveling here due to heavy snowfall last weekend and almost cancelled my trip, but my friend assured me that the snow was further north by Toyama and my trains from Tokyo would not be affected. I left around 9:30am and made it to Nagano Station by 11:30am. The trip was peaceful because I mostly slept on the train and drank a cup of umeshu from Ueno for a buzz when I woke up. Since I didn’t travel during the New Year’s holiday, this was my first major trip of 2021 and it was sure a memorable one!

Lunch at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Just as I arrived to Nagano Station, my friend was waiting for me in the parking lot with their car. The temperature was definitely chilly but not as cold as I had expected. I was happy to see the vast view of the snowy mountains but was also starving. Fortunately my friend was hungry too so after exchanging quick greetings we drove to Hotel Metropolitan Nagano and had a delicious lunch set at Shinano. I ordered a balance of sashimi, rice, tempura, and vegetables and has some delicious miso soup to warm me up. I loved the decorative dishes and the wine they had on display here. Already I was proud of myself for braving through the snow and making it here because the food was worth it!

Exploring Lake Nojiri

Since our ryokan checkin time was at 15:00, we had around 3 hours to kill. We decided to drive around Lake Nojiri since it was on the way to the onsen. Though the area around Nagano Station was mostly just frosty, we were surprised to see thick layers of snow piling up just 5km away on the forest roads. Fortunately my friend had a lot of experience driving here so it was not a problem. Once we arrived at the lake, we got out of the car to do some photography. There was a beautiful island in the middle of the lake that gleamed in the gentle sunlight. There were also little log cabins in clusters on the edge of the lake. My friend informed me that this area was called “Gaijin Mura” because foreign missionaries have owned property and have lived here for over 100 years. According to Outdoor Japan, they have managed to protect the place from “bubble-era developers” so this is actually a good thing. This area already has a number of resorts so it’s refreshing to see this atmosphere. You can rent cabins here year-round which sounds like an awesome to do in the summer!

I remember a while ago one of my Japanese friends traveled to this area and called it “雪の国” on Twitter. With all of the snow flurries around I can definitely see the reference to “Snow Kingdom” in Mario Odyssey!

Arriving at Onsen Paradise (Yorozuya)

After driving around Lake Nojiri in its entirety, we arrived to our ryokan, Yorozuya, around 15:30 and immediately went to the public outdoor hot springs since they are the largest and have the best scenery. We decided to use the smaller private ones at night after dinner. I had previously looked on Booking and other Japanese sites for ryokan deals, but could have never imagined staying somewhere so beautiful. My friend actually found this deal through a local travel agency in Nagano by going there in person. All of the rooms had their own custom design and were equipped with a kotatsu (which I slept under), yukata, amenities, and premium room service. It had been half a year since I had stayed in one of these room so I was beyond excited. I will be sure to consult with Japanese travel agencies in the future because this was for sure a better place than anywhere I looked at online. I felt fully relaxed and welcome during my stay so I would rate Yorozuya 5 stars.

Address: 〒381-0401 Nagano, Shimotakai District, Yamanochi, Hirao, 3137

Dinner with a Hint of Gold

After fully relaxing at the indoor and outdoor hot springs, we sat down for our dinner at around 18:30. This wasn’t my first time going to an onsen during winter, but seeing the snow fall from sky while the steam rises up from the water was definitely a sight to behold. Plus I already had a decent buzz going on from the sake and apple wine that I ordered for our room so I was in a really good mood!

An immaculate course dinner was served with an explanation before each dish by the kind waitress and I was amazed to find that there were real flakes of gold in my food! I think the seared fish, sashimi, and mushroom hot pot were my favorites but all of these dishes tasted out of this world. Dessert was light fruit and green tea-flavored pudding. Plus another round of nihonshu requested by yours truly! And there was a tiny serve-yourself bar in the basement of the ryokan. What more could you ask for in life? The view of the snowy mountain tops from the window topped it off.

Private Onsen

Since the outdoor bath in our room was frozen due to cold temperatures, the Yorozuya staff graciously offered us a free shuttle service to a nearby onsen where we could use private baths after dinner. There we found a steamy indoor bath filled with apples and an outdoor one decorated with bamboo and an umbrella. Since these baths were completely private, photography was allowed. This was the moment I had been waiting for!!

Final Thoughts

This trip is exactly what I needed to get 2021 off to the right start and set my mind free. I did not travel during the winter holiday because many places were affected by COVID-19 and I wanted to prioritize work and saving money. I have been bummed that I still haven’t been able to travel to the Philippines or Indonesia like I had planned to last year, but this trip reminded me that it’s really important to focus on self-care and that nature can be enjoyed in its simplicity. I graciously thank all of my friends here for taking care of me because I don’t know when it will be safe to visit America again. However, I am very happy with my life now and am also close to reaching one of my major financial goals this month so I plan to continue at this pace for now. I have faith that things will get better with time and that I will be able to meet my friends and family with a smiling face one day again. In the meantime, I’ll be playing FFXIV and giving my all to my current line of work.

What does this mean for the future of small Japanese businesses though? From my personal example I found it interesting that two ryokan were working together to ensure that all facilities were available to their customers. Perhaps these businesses can continue to rely on one another and also local travel agencies to keep their businesses alive. Though I definitely noticed less people here, I did not sense a complete loss of hope. Cuts and sacrifices will need to be made in order to survive these hard times, but as this culture has demonstrated many times, perseverance can go a long way.

Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 1)

Over the recent three-day holiday known as “Labor Thanksgiving Day” in Japan, I decided to venture to Kyoto once more in hopes of capturing the beauty of the red maple leaves on camera. The previous weekend I traveled to Ginzan Onsen and had a lovely experience there, but unfortunately since it is located in the north of Honshu most of the leaves from the red maples had already fallen. Since Kyoto is more to the south, I figured that mid-November would be the ideal time to visit. Fortunately I was able to do a ton of photography with both my new iPhone 12 Pro’s camera and my trusty GoPro Hero too. I also managed to eat at a lot of cute cafes and meet up with some old friends while experiencing the true Autumn essence of Japan. Yet another great adventure for the archive!

Nanzenji Architectural Temple

I departed from Tokyo immediately after my job on Friday via the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to avoid the holiday rush. After spending a quiet night at a guesthouse near Nijo Castle (read further below), I made my way to Nanzenji Temple, one of the most famous Zen temples in Japan that practices Buddhism. I’ve been to numerous temples and shrines in Kyoto already, but what drew me to Nanzenji was its aesthetic brick aqueduct that is frequently used as a photoshoot location for visitors wearing kimonos and weddings. During the Meiji Period it was actually used as part of a canal system from Kyoto to Lake Biwa in Shiga. Now its colors and architecture have weathered and faded making it look like a beautiful backdrop with the surrounding forest looming behind it.

I spent about an hour here doing self-portrait photography then wandered through the large complex of temples and gardens that are around here. I highly recommend visiting Tenjuan Temple because it has both a rock garden and a pond garden that make it look lovely in Autumn. I finally got to see the bright red maple leaves that I was dying to see here! The entrance fee is only 300 yen.

If you are interested in additional sightseeing, Kinkakuji and the Philosopher’s Path are really close to Nanzenji. But after all of this walking, I was hungry so I decided to grab some dessert!

Kotoba no Haoto

Since my next destination was located in the mountains north of central Kyoto, I decided to stop at a cozy bookshop that also serves adorable parfaits called Kotoba no Haoto. They have quite the impressive collection of books from everything from Kyoto guidebooks to cat-themed novels and are very welcoming to guests. I decided to order the seasonal parfait which consisted of a cat crafted out of vanilla ice cream and chocolate shavings and fresh fruit. It tasted even better than what I had imagined and was completely refreshing. I liked this cafe because I didn’t feel rushed here and could peacefully enjoy my dessert. After feeling fulfilled, I made my way to Mt. Hiei with renewed energy.

Address: 12-1 Tenjin Kitamachi, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, 602-0087

Experiencing the Golden Hour at Mt. Hiei

Originally I passed by the base of Mt. Hiei while I was on my way to the famed Rurikoin Temple. This temple is situated in a forest and has a pool of water inside that perfectly reflects the surface of its surroundings. The best time to go is in Autumn when the red maple leaves match the same red color of the interior of the temple. However, unbeknown to me entrance required prior online reservation from the months of October to December and I was not able to enter. Since I had traveled an hour by bus to get here, I decided that I would ride the cable car up Mt. Hiei instead and do some photography in the mountains. Fortunately it was only a 5 minute walk from the queue to Rurikoin so I did not lose much time. This is actually the longest cable car in Japan so I’m happy I went for the experience!

Mt. Hiei actually has both a cable car and a ropeway. To ride both roundtrip it costs around 1800 yen which is a bit expensive but the view is overall worth it. At the top you can see Garden Museum Hiei and also hike to see some temples in the mountains. I loved this museum because it had a lot of beautiful oil paintings that were carefully placed around groups of wild flowers and bushes. There was also a pond and you could see all of the mountains surrounding Kyoto and Shiga. The natural lighting and cool mountain air really added to the experience. If you come this far out it’s definitely worth the ascent because it gives you an entirely new view of Kyoto.

I descended around 4pm which was just in time to catch the golden hour when the sun shines through the trees and gradually begins to set. The path around the base of Mt. Hiei started to gleam with the flicker of lanterns and I felt as if I had been transported to a beautiful red world. Luckily I caught it all on camera. I loved how the Eizan Railway train I took back to the city center was marked with a red leaf too. This entire day went better than how I had originally envisioned it despite the minor setback.

Celebrations at L’Escamoteur

After experiencing the golden hour and feeling satisfied with the photos I had taken for the day, it was finally time for celebration! Coincidently one of my friends from Yamanashi was also in Kyoto and invited me to come to L’escamoteur with her. This bar is near Kawaramachi and is named after the French word for “magician” or “illusionist”. As the name implies the bartenders can whip up some pretty mysterious cocktails here. My friend and I have the same taste so we both ordered chocolate cocktails with brandy first. After kicking back the first round, we next ordered matching Kyoto-themed matcha cocktails that kind of look like おっぱい when placed side by side. We laughed at that and shared stories of our experiences in Kyoto. She also tried to go to Rurikoin Temple and could not get in without a reservation. Small world! We vowed to both see it next year during Autumn.

This bar definitely had the perfect atmosphere for catching up with old friends and I am happy I went here. Next time I would like to try a cocktail with an egg and this mysterious concoction I happened to capture on camera:

Address: 138-9 Saitocho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, 600-8012

Accommodation: Hostel Mundo

Due to the reduced prices of the hotels that are participating in the Go To Travel Campaign, I was able to stay at a backpackers guesthouse called Hostel Mundo for less than 1000 yen for 2 nights. I liked this guesthouse because it was located in a quiet area away from the crowds, but still had easy access to Kawaramachi and Kyoto buses. The rooms had cozy futons and the interior decor made me feel like I was in Thailand, but Hostel Mundo simulates the feeling of staying at a traditional Japanese house. Bike rental is also available and there are many hot springs nearby. Only a few other woman were staying here so I was able to sleep peacefully each night and wake up early for my next adventure. I would recommend this place to most people as it is very affordable and clean.

Thank you for reading Part 1 of my Autumn Adventures in Kyoto! Part 2 is already being drafted so please look forward to reading more from me soon~

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

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

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

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

The Totoro Tree

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

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

Address

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

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

Ginzan Onsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Address

Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa, Yamagata

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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.

The Great Bike Trip Conclusion: From Yoshinoyama to Tokyo (Day 4)

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Yoshinoyama Shrine on a warm summer day.

After finally making it past the rain to our lovely ryokan in Yoshinoyama, we decided to spend the final day of our great bike trip leisurely exploring its hiking trails before heading back to Tokyo.  The summit of Mt. Yoshino is quite easy to reach from the hotel area, only taking around 20 mins of climbing.  From here you can get a great view of Nara and there are a number of old shrines you can visit too.  Obviously the best time of year to visit is during spring when the sakura trees are in bloom, but coming during summer was probably the second best choice.  Staying here made me feel refreshed and closer with nature.  I never would have known about this place have it not been for my driver!  With a positive attitude, we set off to the summit to begin the last day of our grand adventure…

For the introduction and full context of this trip, please see Day 1 (From Tokyo to Ise), Day 2 (From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen), and Day 3 (From Kawayu Onsen to Yoshinoyama).  This article will cover the final day of our great bike trip.

Departure

The 4th day began on August 4th at 7:00am.  I woke up at 6:30 to go for a run around the mountain paths of Yoshinoyama and also wander through the garden in the backyard of our ryokan.  Our original plan was to depart early explore places around Takayama, but since I already did a pilgrimage to the town from Your Name, I wanted to see more of the mountains of Nara.  I have actually only been to Nara during my study abroad trip to Japan in 2013.  Seeing the rare areas by motorbike was a grand opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.  We planned to return to Tokyo at dusk and I was to ride the shinkansen home from Nagoya so my driver’s load would be lighter on the busiest highways.

Our updated map travel map looked like this (of course we were stopping at many places in between the 3 hour ride):

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Chikurin-in Gumpeon Road

One reason I’m happy we took our time at our ryokan is because there’s so much to see around it!  Additionally our reservation included a hearty breakfast that consisted of fish, salad, vegetables, egg, rice, tea and water mochi for dessert.  This set was so filling and delicious:

 

After checking out, we strolled down the road to the summit.  Along the way we saw a restaurant with a Shiba Inu, a workshop labeled “Mad Garage”, and a shrine guarded by tengu statues called Sakuramotobou.  This street is extremely narrow but has a lot of interesting things to see.  Due to the pandemic some stores were closing early, but everyone here was friendly and did their best to make us feel welcome.

 

Yoshinoyama Shrines

The main shrine of Yoshinoyama is called Yoshino Jingu and is located to the north of the hotel area, but there are dozens of others that you can see on the way.  Some of my favorites were Kinpusenji due to its old wooden architecture, and the smaller inner shrines of the because they had variety in their design.  What I liked most about Yoshino Jingu was it was adorned with wind chimes during this time of year:

 

After walking around for a while and soaking up the atmosphere, we decided to pay to have our fortune told… but there was only one fortune remaining!  So we did what two responsible adults would do and shared it.  And in return the fortune rewarded us with the best luck possible!  I really hope this helps me with future trips and job interviews!!

 

Here is a video we took of the wind chimes dancing in the breeze.  Up in the mountains there are few other noises to drown them out so their sound resonates beautifully:

 

When we reached the summit of Mt. Yoshino I had my first encounter with a Japanese Murder Hornet.  I could guess what it was immediately due to its immense size.  My driver confirmed my suspicions and told me to stand still and act as naturally as possible.  Their behavior is quite similar to that of normal bees so it’s best to not run from them as that will make them more defensive.  Fortunately these creatures are not vehement and even then it’s hard to die unless you’re stung by a group of them.  I managed to take one super-zoomed in photo to commemorate my survival:

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The not-so-murderous murder hornet.

After we saw the shrines and took pictures at the summit, we road back towards Tokyo while stopping at some viewpoints in the hills along the way.

Soni Highlands

 

While riding through Nara, we decided to take a pit-stop and try the famous blueberry ice cream made with Hokkaido Milk here.  I was not expecting that much, but the taste was actually creamy and delicious.  Plus seeing the deer/human mascot of this area was hilarious!  My driver thought it was an atrocity though.

Since the Soni Highlands were on our way back, we decided to ride up the plateau and see the pampas grass.  Though there wasn’t much to see at the top, the breeze sure did feel nice.  If we would have had more time and preparation, I would have loved to have a picnic here!

The Sonikogenonsen Okame Hot Spring is conveniently located next to the highlands, so we stopped there on our way back.  Due to being in the hills this onsen is extremely sunny.  What I liked the most is that there were straw hats in the outdoor onsen area you could wear to keep the sun out of your face.  The entrance fee is only 750 yen so it’s a good deal.

Returning Home

 

Feeling completely satisfied by this enthralling experience, I was finally ready to head home.  We drove from Nara to Nagoya where my driver dropped me off on the Meitetsu Line so I could take the shinkansen back to Tokyo.  Since I was sunburned and feeling quite tired, I could sleep off the exhaustion versus ride back on the highway.  This also gave me some time to reflect on trip and made the baggage on the bike lighter (I carried my helmet and clothes back with me) so it was a smart move.  We had succeeded in the great bike trip.  I’ll never forget this feeling for the rest of my life!

Day 4 Itinerary: 80% Completion

Though our original plan changed when we reached Yoshinoyama because decided to explore the mountains more, I’m happy things turned out this way.  Our ryokan stay would have been rushed if we drove to another prefecture so quickly and we would have missed out on the breakfast and lovely hikes that we took.  After getting to know the area of Yoshinoyama, I would really like to come back here during sakura season and see how beautiful it is!  This day was definitely slower-paced compared to the rest, but the hikes gave me a good workout.  4 days of biking was the perfect amount and I was lucky to be accompanied with such an experienced driver.  If you ever have the chance to go motorbiking through Japan (both as a driver or passenger) please do it!  It will open up a whole new world and take you to places that you can’t reach by public transportation.  Many people have been road tripping and camping during the pandemic to avoid public places and it is a much safer way to travel.

Future Opportunities

My sponsor and I both agreed that this trip went extremely well and we would like to plan more in the future.  Though we both normally travel solo, we learned a lot of new things through one another and agreed the trip was more fun together.  For example, they enjoyed guiding me through ancient places like Koyasan and I was grateful for their history lecture and taste in ryokan.  The only con was they don’t nearly enjoy the beach as much as I do, and I don’t like to camp when rain is forecasted.  Fortunately we were able to compromise on these things and got along quite well.  That is a vital skill we need to learn to live a happy life.

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Cheers to a successful trip!

Future Destinations

Some of our potential destinations this year include camping sites in Nagano and Shikoku.  We would also like to travel around Tohoku because I haven’t explored much of it yet.  Our departure date will depend on my work schedule, but I am doing my best to balance work and play!

Please look forward to future road trip articles from me or share your own experience in the comments~

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.