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.

Hitch-hiking my way through Okayama, Japan

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Okayama Castles stands proudly on a summer morning.

Three years ago I decided to go backpacking through Okayama for the main purpose of visiting Washuzan Highland so I could ride the infamous pedal-powered roller coaster of terror through the sky, but I got sideswept into come crazy adventures in the city before I even made it there.  Some of these are too good not to share so I’m writing this story in three separate articles.

It all started while I was walking from Okayama Station to Jiyuu Kuukan, the net cafe where I was staying for the night because I didn’t have much money, when a Japanese guy around my age started talking me up.  Unlike most people I encounter in this type of situation, he wasn’t trying to hit on me (or at least he didn’t make it obvious).  He invited me out for drinks because he was taking the TOEIC [English proficiency exam] soon and wanted to practice his English.  He also noted that it was quite rare to see solo woman travelers here in Okayama, but I get that a lot wherever I travel.  It doesn’t really phase me at all.  I agreed to go out for drinks with him because well, I love drinking!

I didn’t really teach him much English because I don’t consider myself qualified (despite being an English teacher previously), but I did answer his questions and make him feel more confident.  He informed me he worked at a car company nearby in Kurashiki; a place in Okayama that I had planned on visiting.  In return for my English lesson (if you could call it that), he offered to drive me around Okayama since many parts of the prefecture are difficult to reach by just using the trains.  So the next day I hit him up with a series of destinations I had come up with.  Buckle up because this is a crazy ride!

Le Soleil Patisserie

My favorite dessert place in Okayama is hands down Le Soleil.  Their double-layered cheese cake (literally called double cheese cake) is the best cheese cake I’ve ever had in my life.  The whipped cream on top is immense, but not overpowering.  It melts like butter in your mouth.  They have tons of other delicious sweets and pastries available too.  What originally inspired me to come here was banvox’s birthday post:

He originally used to reside in or near Okayama so the chefs of Le Soleil sent him this giant cheese cake.  Since you can’t order this specific cheese cake in Tokyo, I made it a mission to try it here.  The bakery is conveniently on the way to Kurashiki so it’s easy to stop here even if you don’t have a car (though it may be a bit of walk, it’s not too far).

Access

88-3 Nakaobie, Kurashiki, Okayama 710-0013

Kurashiki

Kurashiki is the beautiful canal town of Okayama with a European aesthetic and design.  You can go for canal rides and browse the traditional shops that line the riverbed.  There are beautiful buildings covered with ivy in the Ivy Square and the Ohara Museum, which is the oldest Western art museum in Japan. I didn’t have time to check everything out but I did manage to take some awesome photos.  Being here was extremely relaxing.

While I was here, I convinced my friend try the local dish, takomeshi, with me.  Despite being an Okayama native, he had never tried it before.  This consists of chopped octopus with rice and is very delicious!  I forget the name of the restaurant we went to, but most seafood restaurants will have it or some kind of variation.

Access

Kurashiki Station is only 15 mins and 330 yen from Okayama Station (no car needed).

Yubara Onsen

My friend asked me if I wanted to go to a hotspring, and I said sure, why not!  Yubara Onsen is probably the most unique onsen I’ve been to because it’s outdoors, mix-gender, and open 24/7.  Plus it’s completely free unless you need to rent towels or swimwear.  The hotsprings are remote and secluded enough to where it pretty much has developed its own nudist culture.  Of course you can choose to wear swimwear, but be aware that many people will bathe naked.  Though once you start soaking in the hotspring, you completely forget about the other people and focus on the nature around you.  The backdrop of the mountains and the dam is simply breathtaking.  This was the first time I had ever bathed naked in a mixed hotspring but I felt very safe and welcome.

Access

Yubara Onsen is about an hour away from Okayama City by car, and 2 hours by bus (for 2600 yen one way).  Since the onsen is free, this is not a bad price to pay.

Makido Rainbow Caves

19875428_10212085236757604_8629948251575125813_nAfter a relaxing trip to the onsen, my friend and I decided to end the day with a trip to some psychedelic rainbow caves.  I’m not making this up.  I’ve been to caves all over Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, but I’ve never seen any cave as colorful as the Makido Caves in Okayama.  These look like something straight out of a Final Fantasy game:

They nickname this place the “Dream Palace” for a good reason.  Makido is a limestone cave brought to life with carefully placed illuminated lights.  These lights bring out the colors and beauty of the cave and make it a very fun place to explore.

For those who are looking for a more normal cave experience, Makido has you covered.  You can find a non-illuminated section of the cave by following the main route.  They have an area where you can throw coins into the lake for good luck:

It takes about 30-40 minutes to see everything here.  We walked around the cave twice so we could watch all of the changing illuminations.

Access

2276-2, Toyonagaakouma, Niimi City, Okayama Prefecture

This cave takes about 1.5 hours to reach from Okayama City.  Some of the roads are quite narrow so it takes a lot of concentration to navigate (fortunately I was with an experienced driver).  If you are going by train, you must first take the Hakubi Line to Niima Station then take a bus to get here which takes around 2.5 hours and is 2000 yen.

Final Thoughts

I could not wrap my head around how amazing this day was.  We had managed to see so many things and I felt extremely grateful for this experience.  I owe it all to my friend who drove me around!  Unfortunately I lost contact with him after this trip, but I sincerely am thankful for his kindness and hope he passed his English exam.

Here is a video I took in 2017 on Snapchat to commemorate my hitch-hiking experience.  I remember playing all of my favorite Nakata Yasutaka-produced songs for my driver:

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.

A Ninja Village & Various Amusement Parks Around Nagoya (Part 1)

Earlier this year I wrote about the Floral Oasis amusement park I visited in Aichi Prefecture, so today I’d like to highlight 3 of my other recommended day trips from Nagoya: Legoland, Nagashima Spa Land, and the Ninja Village in Iga.

Nagoya is a seriously underrated city because its central location makes it the ideal place to explore surrounding prefectures.  You can easily access Mie and Gifu by using the JR lines and also can get to Kyoto and Osaka by bus or shinkansen.  There is a lot of nature, hotsprings, and obscure amusement parks that can be found by venturing to the outskirts of Aichi and beyond.  I’ve definitely had my fair share of adventures here.

Legoland Japan Resort

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Everything is awesome.

Legoland Japan is a relatively new theme park that opened in April 2017 making it only 3 years old of today.  I’ve been to many Legolands in the US, but I had never been to a Legoland Amusement Park until August 2017 shortly after this park opened.  Originally this park was criticized for its high admission fee (4600 yen), but from my experience it’s worth the money.  A lot of work went into constructing this park and its intricate attractions.  Unlike other amusement parks in Japan, it’s quite spacious and there was almost no waiting time even for the most popular rides even though we went on a weekend.  As a kid who used to play with Legos and construct anime characters with them, being here in Japan was absolutely surreal.

My favorite attraction was the Submarine because you dive into an underwater ecosystem constructed of Legos and real fish and sharks!  I was impressed to have such a thrilling experience here because it reminded me a lot of Disney Sea.  There is also another attraction you can ride with boats equipped water guns!  Even though this isn’t a water park, it had a lot of attractions that are well-suited for the hot days of summer.  The Lego-shaped fries are also worth trying!  There is also an awesome recreation of the major cities in Japan and Mt. Fuji built with (you guessed it) Legos.  This is undoubtedly the biggest Lego display in Japan:

Though I would rank this as one of the top amusement parks in Japan, the main con of Legoland is that is it is mostly aimed at families—the roller coasters aren’t that thrilling and about half of the rides are designed for kids.  However, after living in Japan longterm I’ve really come to appreciate this place.  Maybe my childhood nostalgia is part of the factor, but I liked the creativity that was put into this park.  The good news is that it has expanded once since I’ve visited, and has the potential to add new attractions in the future (much like a real Lego town).  Coming here was worth it for the aesthetic experience.

Access

455-8605 Aichi, Nagoya, Minato Ward, Kinjofuto, 2 Chome−2−1

Entrance Fee: 4600 yen

Nagashima Spa Land

Nagashima Spa Land is an amusement park combined with a hotspring—the Japanese dream.  Unlike Legoland, it actually has some really thriller rides.  The Steel Dragon 2000 is the longest roller coaster in the world so it’s worth visiting just for that factor!  My biggest issue with amusement parks in Japan is that I feel like they are too small for the large amount of visitors and that the rides are not adrenaline-filled enough.  However, Nagashima Spa Land and Fuji Q Highland impressed me with the intensity of their rides.  There are non-thriller roller coasters and attractions for children here as well.

I spent a lot of time in the hotspring which explains the lack of pictures, but I did come back out for the fireworks show at night.  The park has limited attractions but it’s definitely worth a day trip for the Steel Dragon 2000.  If you combine the amusement portion with a trip to the hotspring, then you can definitely make this a full day experience.  Like Legoland, the waiting times for rides are not so bad.  The downside is a lot of surrounding schools take field trips here, so be sure to avoid Japanese holidays if you come.

Access

333 Nagashimacho Urayasu, Kuwana, Mie 511-1192

Entrance Fee: 4100 yen for unlimited rides / 1600 yen pay per ride (100 yen-300 yen)*

*I honestly recommend paying per ride because likely you will just want to ride the roller coasters.

In my next article I will be talking about the Ninja Village in Iga I visited.  Please see Part 2 next.

Entering Capybara Heaven at Izu Shaboten Zoo (Shizuoka, Japan)

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Capybara freely bathe in an orange-filled hotspring at Izu Shaboten Zoo.

Last weekend on my backpacking journey through Shizuoka prefecture to see Carpainter perform in Hammamatsu, I decided to stop in Izu to see the infamous hotspring-loving capybara of Japan.  Izu Shaboten Zoo is one of the few places in the world where you can get up close with these large adorable rodents and see them bathe in a natural hotspring filled with oranges (which are a specialty of this prefecture).  Native to South America, capybaras are mammals with webbed-feet that are quite well-mannered around humans and other animals.  Like platypuses, capybaras enjoy being both on land and in water with a diet consisting of mostly grass and dried plants.  The ones at Izu Shaboten are easy to approach and very entertaining to watch in the bath!

Exploring Izu Shaboten Zoo

In addition to capybaras, there are also a number of other rare animals housed here including red pandas, kangaroos, unique species of birds, and reptiles.  I’ve been to a lot of zoos in Asia, but I highly recommend this one because it’s less like a zoo and more like a wildlife conservation area.  The natural habitat of each animal is preserved as much as possible and they all seem to be in great health.  Being up close to kangaroos reminded me of my trip to Australia last summer!  This place truly didn’t feel like Japan because other zoos in this country are comparably small in size.

I spent the most time in the Capybara Rainbow Pen (an area separate from the bath) feeding and petting the ones that wanted attention.  You can purchase capybara grass for 200 yen and they will be eternally grateful for your kindness!

Outside from the capyabaras, I enjoyed watching the red panda diligently march on its tree branch.  A Japanese couple beside me describe its movements as “ゴロゴロ” (I love accidentally overhearing people so I am able to learn new words everyday).

Another of my favorite places was the cactus garden, because you can purchase cheap capybara pots and customize your favorite cacti to take home.  Just all of the detail that was put into this attraction amazes me:

You can also take a boat ride around the park because it has a small river that runs through it and leads to other areas, but I chose to explore most of the park on-foot so I could capture more angles with my GoPro.  I would recommend spending at least 3 hours here because there is a lot to see and do━especially if you are a photographer.

Eating a Capybara Burger

At the Gibbon restaurant found near the entrance of the zoo, no one eats alone!!  That’s because there is a huge stuffed capybara sitting at every table to keep you company.  I came here on Valentine’s Day, so this cabybara date made it the most memorable one of my life.  Getting back to the food—the burger was made of fresh bread and was delicious (I customized mine to be vegetarian).  If I had more room for food I would have tried the omelet rice duck because it looked pretty aesthetic from the menu picture.  For a full list of restaurants, please see the official site.

Buying Capybara Souvenirs

My apartment in Tokyo is already full of stuffed animals that friends have won for me, but I could not pass up the chance to buy an adorable stuffed capybara holding an orange here.  I also bought some chocolat baumkuchen (cake) for my friend.  Everything here was extremely well-priced compared to other zoos because I only payed around 1200 yen for the plushie and 800 yen for the cake.  I already want to come back in the summer to buy more capybara merch!  Also, the restaurant signs here made me laugh:

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Mt. Omuro

Right beside the Izu Shaboten Zoo stands Mt. Omuro, which is an inactive volcano you can take a lift up for 700 yen.  Since I decided to go to the ropeway in Atami, I skipped this attraction, but it is worth seeing if you have time.  There are cute little shops you can look at while you’re waiting for the bus too.

Getting to Izu Shaboten Zoo

From Tokyo Station I took the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Atami, then the Ito Line to Ito Station, and finally a local bus to the zoo.  This costs around 5000 yen and takes 2.5 hours.  You can easily do this as a day trip, but I spent 3 days in this prefecture because there are a number of things to see besides the capybara (which I will get into in my next articles).

Entrance to the zoo is 2300 which may seem expensive, but with the diverse number of animals they have here I think the price is fair.

Address

Izu Shaboten Zoo, 1317-13 Futo, Itō, Shizuoka 413-0231

Final Remarks

Izu Shaboten Zoo was by far my best experience with animals in Japan because I got the chance to pet capaybaras in addition to seeing other rare species.  The zoo has a adorable theme with the hotspring and petting zoos which makes it a suitable attraction for all ages.  Since it’s more remote from the major cities of Japan that means it’s less crowded.  If I decide to go again, I will combine this with a trip to Shirahama Beach which is a little further south of here.  I will be writing more about my adventures in Shizuoka Prefecture over the next coming days, so please look forward to them because this is only the beginning!

Seeing in the blue shirt at Kaga Onsen Festival After Party

kagaonOn July 20th, directly after my crazy backpacking trip in Hokkaido, I decided to take a plane from Sapporo to Komatsu airport, where I ventured off to the hot springs town known as Kaga for its yearly music festival.  As a music enthusiast, this was a rare opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up!

About Kaga Onsen Festival

Kaga Music Festival is one of the biggest original music festivals in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, and has a total of 7 stages (some being lounges and some being club stages).  The genre of the festival is mostly electronic, pop, and rock music, though I noticed that there were a number of indie artists that appeared at the after party this year, including one of my favorites from Kyoto City: in the blue shirt.

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in the blue shirt playing a live set at the official Kaga Onsen after party.

Though I was unable to attend the main festival due to time constraints, my experience at the after party made my trip here more than worth it.  If you are looking for a festival that is unique to Japan and isn’t over-crowded like Fuji Rock or Summer Sonic, then this is definitely a solid choice.  Kaga Music Festival has enough variety to keep you interested, but the music lineup doesn’t ever feel overwhelming and you can see almost everything you want.  As an added bonus, there are many hot springs nearby that you can visit on the way home!

Getting to the Venue

To get to Kaga Music Festival, it is recommended to take a bullet train from Tokyo to Kanazawa then take a local train to Kaga Onsen Festival where you can catch a free bus to the main venue.  You can alternatively fly to Komatsu airport and take a local train there like I did.  This is a cheaper option, but the number of flights are limited due to how remote the area is.

Most of the accommodations by Kaga Onsen Station are quite expensive, so I booked a cheap room by the nearby Daishoji Station.  After getting settled, I headed over to the main venue which was called Rurikoh, then walked to the after party located called Mori no Sumika Resort & Spa.  The entrance fee at the door was 3000 yen with one drink.

Attending the After Party

The inside of the venue was absolutely stunning with flattering neon lights, a relatively large indoor stage, and an outdoor pool area you could go swimming in.  The crowd here was mostly Japanese in their early 20s or 30s, but I saw a few foreigners walking outside the area.  After checking out the venue, I immediately grabbed a vodka tonic and went to see the first performing artist.

The first artist was an electronic music producer called Yackle, and I caught their performance right as they were mixing a capsule song into a Nakata Yasutaka song, which was perfect timing because those are two of my personal favorites.  This producer mixes a lot of different genres and makes their own edits so they are extremely fun to watch!  Yackle has recently released an album called Frank Throw which features beautiful vocals and a mix of trap and bass music elements.  This was my first time seeing one of there performances and it was an extremely fun experience.

in the blue shirt played his live set immediately after which consisted of a unique blend of vocal chops and remixes of his own songs, as well as other artists like Pasocom Ongaku Club:

This set was extremely exciting for me, because I haven’t seen in the blue shirt since Large Size in Kyoto which was nearly 5 months ago.  Some of the people that attended that event recognized me here and pulled me to the front of the stage!  I was extremely flattered to see that they remembered me and enjoyed dancing with everyone.

Recollect the Feeling

In April in the blue shirt released his latest album called Recollect the Feeling which is growing to become a respected indie release in the music scene.  With its harmonic and compelling use of electronic samples that are intricately spliced in what appears to be its own language, this album definitely leaves a tremendous impact on the listener. Consisting of both English and Japanese lyrics, each song has an abstract yet nostalgic feel to it using indie electronic and triphop music styles, along with a variety of synths and instruments.  Though some of the songs are short (under 2 minutes), when the album is played as a whole it takes your mind on an unforgettable journey through time.  It’s still too early to say if I like this album more than Sensation of Blueness, but it is a polished release that I truly feel was worth waiting for.

On the latest album, I think “Casual Remark”, “Good Feeling”, and “Bamboo Leaf” are my favorites because they are great to listen to when exploring new places—I feel like I’m completely in my own aesthetic world when I listen to them.  I believe his personal best work is “Cast Off” as it was the first song officially released and has the most consistent composition, but it’s really hard to choose because the album is best listen to as a whole. What’s amazing is most of these songs were played on his sets as WIPs/transitions since 2017 and it’s amazing to see them completed now.

Overall I’m really happy for this artist because they’ve managed to accomplish everything that is most important in album production: they’ve delivered a compelling album with quality merchandise, collaborated and done shows with other artists I really like, uploaded previews and mixes so we know what’s coming, continually have showed their progress, and seemingly created a new record label / collective called The Wonder Laundry.  I’m so happy to have kept up with them through the whole entire release process and see them playing at big festivals now!

Other Recommendations

Of the other performing artists, I also recommend checking out PARKGOLF, Tomggg, and Avec Avec.  All of them have unique electronic styles and are respected performers I have seen at various events in Japan.  I spent the rest of the after party socializing with friends that I met and hanging out by the pool, but here are some of my favorite tracks that I recommend:

I will consider attending the main festival next year if more of my favorite artists continue to make appearances.  I am excited to attend more unique music events similar to Kaga Onsen Festival this summer!

Spirited Away at Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama

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“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”‘
-Zeniba, Spirited Away

Dogo Onsen is the oldest hot spring in Japan and is located in the forested town of Matsuyama, Shikoku. Not only is it a relic of history frequented by many onsen enthusiasts and vacationers, but is also the inspiration of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” movie. Home of Matsuyama Castle, the Botchan Railroad (one of the oldest railroads still running in Japan), and many traditional shops that sell delicious oranges, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported back in time when you arrive at this city!

 

The easiest way to reach this town is to fly from Tokyo to Matsuyama Airport and then take a bus to the central part of town.  From there, you can ride the Botchan Railroad straight to the onsen complex and choose from 3 public baths to enter.  As a day traveler, you have the option of paying an entrance fee to use the bath and shower facilities as well as renting towels and shampoo.  For more information on the fees and opening times, please see the Dogo Onsen Website (English).

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Shikoku island is a very nostalgic place to me because I first started teaching English in Tokushima, the prefecture east of Matsuyama City (Ehime Prefecture) in 2015.  At first I resented living there because I thought the technology was quite primitive compared to Tokyo and it was extremely difficult for me to understand the spoken dialect that that is unique to these cities. However, now I have much more appreciation for these places after living in the city for three years.  I enjoy traveling to Shikoku now because it preserves the original culture and tradition of Japan, and never feels too touristy.  If you use buses, you can actually save a lot of money, plus accommodations, food, and shopping are far cheaper here than other places in Japan.

I recommend visiting the cities of this island if you have been in Japan for a while, because you will likely learn new aspects of the culture that you have not seen on the other islands yet!  I took a day trip here, but you could easily spend 2 full days in this city, or use the JR Shikoku buses to easily bus around the island.  Often you can buy the ticket on the same day, but I would recommend buying it in advance.

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I ended my day with some delicious soumen topped with fish at 五志㐂 (Goshiki) nearby the onsen.  The noodles are slightly different-colored and have an amazing taste!  The also had a slight orange flavor to them, and the meal came as a set for great value.  Yup, I’m definitely getting spirited away now…

I will be writing about my adventure in Kochi, Shikoku in my next post!  Please feel free to ask me any questions you have about traveling around Japan! ♥

A Steamy Weekend Getaway: Takasaki WOAL & Kusatsu Onsen

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As a free-spirited traveler, I go wherever the wind blows me.  Upon returning to Tokyo from Thailand, I learned that my friends at Trekkie Trax were playing a show at an underground club in Takasaki called WOAL, so immediately I started planning my weekend trip there. I had been through this area before on my way to Niigata for Fuji Rock this summer, but have never gotten off to explore the area, so this was definitely on my bucket list.

Takasaki, the city of luck, is located about 2 hours from Tokyo in Gunma prefecture and is known for its dumplings, daruma dolls, and hotsprings.  The easiest way to get there is by the Joetsu Shinkansen, so I took the very last one from Omiya Station equipped with umeshu and Strong Zeroes to pregame for this all night show (that lasted from 10pm – 5am).  I decided I would stay at a net cafe called Link’s Cafe (for the sole fact that I love Zelda) then immediately go to Kusatsu Onsen when I woke up because that was the cheapest move.  Though there are many onsen scattered around Gunma, Kusatsu is by far the most famous and prettiest!

The atmosphere of WOAL was very friendly and inviting.  It was about an 8 minute walk from the station, but very easy to locate.  As I descended the stairs, I was immediately lost in a world of vibrant rotating neon lights and a boastful sound system.  The bar was conveniently located near the entryway, and by chance I met all of Trekkie Trax there as soon as I walked in!  I was so happy I could make it to their first show of the year, which was located outside of Tokyo (a rare event)!

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it’s a spirtual thing. a body thing. a soul thing. A lo-fi image of my favorite DJ from Trekkie Trax: Carpainter playing in Takasaki, Japan.

At the time I arrived, a Gunma native DJ called Amps was playing.  He is a longtime member of Trekkie Trax and I’ve heard him play juke sets in Tokyo before, but due to the chaos of Tokyo clubs, I had never really got to know him before.  It was wonderful to hear him play in his element.  An example of some of his tracks can be found below, or on his Soundcloud:

Each DJ had one hour to play, and it was great because the club wasn’t very crowded so there was a lot of room to dance!  I had a chance to get to talk to each artist, meet some of the Takasaki locals, and also became friends with one of the resident DJs called Momo who kindly bought me a tequila shot.  I liked this event because all of the artists played the music they wanted and didn’t try to please the crowd.  Everyone here came for the music and it was a great atmosphere.

This whole night felt like a dream to me because in the middle of Carpainter’s set, Andrew brought out a tray of tequila shots, Seimei brought out pizza, and Momo and I were dancing at the very front in this sea of neon lights and banging techno music, so it all just felt unreal.  Tokyo club events like this are usually very crowded and sometimes noisy, but I was able to lose myself completely within the music here at WOAL which is why I love traveling for these smaller shows.  The feeling that I felt here, I will never forget!

What’s funny is the vibration caused from the speakers makes the toilet paper in the restroom fall to the floor, and it’s become somewhat of a meme in the Japan music scene online:

Feeling completely mindblown and fulfilled, the next morning I took the local JR train to Naganohara Kusatsuguchi Station, then took a bus to Kusatsu Onsen and was amazed at this beautiful natural hotspring in the middle of the village:

Much like Takasaki, the atmosphere of this town was friendly and very inviting.  Dozens of street vendors were giving free samples of tea, dumplings, and local sake.  Though there was snow on the ground, the steam from the local onsen was enough to keep me farm.  Feeling hungry, I decided to wander around and find some food first.  There are dumpling shops everywhere, so I decided to try the black sesame ones.  I also found an udon shop called Matsumoto, and tried the udon and mushrooms that Kusatsu is very famous for in tempura form:

After feeling full, I wandered to Sainokawara Park and paid 600 yen to go inside the natural hotspring.  The water was very tepid, but it relaxed my muscles and made my body feel amazing.  I highly recommend this onsen for day trippers, because it is very affordable for those who cannot afford an inn.  Additionally, you can feel very in-tune with nature by sitting on the rocks and watching the moon rise.  Witnessing amazing music followed by bathing in an onsen is the perfect feeling!

Scattered throughout the town, there are many free footbaths that you can use!  Additionally, a friend of mine runs a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) called Hotel Miyuki Annex, so I would recommend staying there, because they are local and quite affordable (my friend is Japanese but speaks nearly perfect English).  At night, the town becomes illuminated and beautiful!  Another recommendation I have is coming during winter, because I think the water in other seasons would be too hot for most people otherwise.  I only stayed here for the day, but most people stay here overnight.  Most of the town you can access on foot, and there are an endless amount of hotsprings for you to try!

Before I took one of the final buses back to civilization, I stopped at a local liquor shop.  They had amazing grape liquor as well as amusing sake and award-winning beer, so I picked up a couple souvenirs for my friends.  You really can’t go wrong with the food and drinks here!

I am now back in Tokyo, but I will never forget the vivid memories I have from this trip.  The people of Gunma treated me with extreme kindness, and the views of the mountains, steamy hotsprings, and neon lights are permanently etched within my mind!  I am grateful I had this as my first trip of 2019!