Visiting Ureshino, the Cheerful Hot Spring Town from Zombieland Saga

Private teacup baths at Yuzennoyado Toukai.

After a full day of doing some urban exploring of abandoned onsen and aesthetic museums in Takeo, I decided to take a bus to my onsen resort in Ureshino, Saga for some well-deserved relaxation. I chose to stay in Ureshino due to a friend’s recommendation of a famous local onsen with private teacup baths and a beautiful outdoor garden. Unbeknownst to me at the time I made the booking, Ureshino is featured in episode 4 of Zombieland Saga and also has the real life Cafe Moka that serves up amazing sweets just like in the anime! In this article I will be reviewing my stay in Ureshino and will also compare the real locations to their anime counterparts.

Morning Run in Ureshino

My favorite way to start the day in a new place is to go for a middle-distance run so I can get better acquainted with the area. Usually if there is a river or a shrine that I see on the map, I try to run in that direction so I will find the best scenery. Just mere minutes after crossing Ureshino Bridge I came across this beautiful river with stepping stones and multiple waterfalls. This area is actually featured in the first ending song of Zombieland Saga and is within 1km of the main resort area of Ureshino. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was! It almost felt like I had been spirited away to another world. You can follow this river trail for quite a long time and it will lead to more luscious nature. It’s no wonder why people come here to escape their busy lives.

Cafe Moka

While referencing the Zombieland Saga Wiki for the best nearby locations to visit, I noticed the famous sweets cafe in episode 4 was just 6 mins walking from my resort. What crazy luck was that! Cafe Moka has some of the best parfaits in Saga and also serves Japanese dishes like curry too. With its cozy atmosphere and welcoming staff, I can see why it was popular even before Zombieland Saga was released! Now that the 2nd season is airing, there is a bit of a wait to get in, but fortunately I was able to get a table. The first time I walked in the owner’s younger daughter came out to greet me, but then immediately noticed I was foreign and was at a loss for words—she just blinked at me and stared. I thought that her reaction was one of the best that I have gotten in a while! After traveling all over the world these kinds of things don’t even phase me any more, but I will admit it was funny. The owner sincerely apologized that the cafe was full but I decided to use the hot springs at my resort and come back. The second time I arrived an hour before the cafe closed and was seated, and it proved to be well worth the wait!

Though there were a lot of delicious sweets on the menu, I decided to go with the banana caramel parfait because I love Kyushu bananas. The whole entire time I was here I felt complete euphoria. There were posters and plaques autographed by the voice actors and MAPPA animators as well as figures galore. The owner brought out several notebooks with messages from them as well while I waited! As she served me my parfait, she asked me what zombie girl was my favorite and I had to say Saki.  I’d be friends with all the girls in Zombieland Saga, but Saki has the funniest and most unique personality. She has really interesting taste in everything from fashion to men and would for sure be the best girl to drink with. She always has the best punch lines too!

After spending around an hour here soaking up the full otaku culture, I decided to head back to my resort. The owner handed me the official Zombieland Saga Stamp Rally Map with the custom Cafe Moka stamp on it. Though making it to all of these locations without a car would be difficult, it could be done in approximately 4-5 days and is a good reference for even non-anime fans because it contains the most exciting highlights of Saga:

Official Zombieland Saga Stamp Rally Map

Main Points of Interest in Ureshino from Zombieland Saga

Here are the main points of interest that you can see on foot in Ureshino. All of these locations from Zombieland Saga took less than 15 minutes to see!

It’s absolutely mind-boggling to think that the artists and animators caught so many intricate details of this town, especially the pattern of the stray cats! Additionally I thought the legend of going to Toyotamahime Shrine and touching the white catfish to have beautiful skin was made up as part of the story, but it’s actually true! Visiting the shrine was so much fun and I would have never known about it if it wasn’t for this amazing series. I was happy to discover the foot baths and design of the bridge and resorts in the anime perfectly capture the essence of the real life Ureshino too. The overall atmosphere of Ureshino was very lively despite the pandemic and people were out and about at night wearing yukata. Fortunately Saga has not entered an emergency state so you can enjoy most of the scenery uninterrupted. It has a magic quality that you just simply can’t find in the city, so please visit if you get the chance!

Accommodation

Though there are a lot of wonderful onsen to stay at in Ureshino, I chose Yuzennoyado Toukai thanks to its beautiful teacup bath design. Staying here one night costs around 6000 yen and is well worth the price. The room that I stayed in by myself was spacious, quiet, and very clean. There are two different bathsa large shared one and the private outdoor teacups that you can reserve by calling the lobby. I recommend trying them both because they provide unique experiences that will relax and heal your body. There were ping pong tables in the lobby just like in anime too. It was almost too good to be true! I cherish my experience here because it brought me closer to nature and also gave me the chance to relive scenes from Zombieland Saga.

Thank you for reading about my experience in Ureshino! If you have any questions about Saga, please feel free to ask me. I will be writing one more article about Karatsu in this series. Please look forward to reading it later this weekend!

Urban Exploring in Takeo, Saga

An abandoned onsen exhibition reflecting the results of the Third Impact in Saga, Japan.

After having a fabulous day in Fukuoka exploring local shrines and temples, seeing the sunset on the beach, and relaxing at my onsen hotel, I decided to travel to Saga on the second day of my trip in Kyushu to do some urban exploring. When I was first researching prefectures in Japan years, I didn’t think Saga was that interesting compared to the others because it is extremely rural and is mostly known for its farmland and onsen. However, thanks to the hit anime series known as Zombieland Saga, a number of people have been flocking to Saga to visit real life places from the anime. This has greatly helped the economy of Saga during the pandemic and also brought light to many amazing places that were previously overshadowed. In this article I will be focusing on writing about urban exploring in Takeo Onsen and surrounding museums.

To reach Saga you can either fly to Saga Airport or take a train from Fukuoka like I did. Hakata Station to Takeo Onsen Station is about a one hour trip and costs 3100 yen. Though Saga is rural, I was able to use a combination of local buses, trains, and taxis to get around. Please look forward to reading about my adventure!

Exploring Abandoned Onsen

The first stop on my Saga itinerary was Takeo Onsen, which is small town of hot springs including a museum of abandoned ones making it ideal for urban exploring. This hot spring area is over 1300 years old making it a celebrated part of Saga’s history because many famous people have visited here. The museum is about a 15 minute walk from the station and is free to enter. It was really surreal entering a hot spring without water, but fortunately there were some non-abandoned hot springs nearby that you can relax at for the day. Plus the two story museum and vermillion gate are really worth checking out because they have interesting architecture. This area was actually featured in a manga splash page for Zombieland Saga. Interestingly the convenience stores in this area appear a solid color of brown instead of their original colors. My theory is this occurs because they have already been zombie-fied!

Takeo Shrine

Right down the street from the Takeo Onsen main area is Takeo Shrine! I decided to stop by and pay my respects. The pastel colors of this shrine really surprised me because they are really unusual but very pretty. I was happy to witness architecture of so many colors here!

Minefuyama Rakuen Lantern Exhibit

Despite being a rural part of Kyushi, Saga actually has quite the selection of interesting museums! The one that I was most looking forward to visiting was Mifuneyama Rakuen which you can actually walk to from Takeo Onsen. This museum has multiple rooms with cutting edge LED displays by teamLab and a beautiful outdoor garden as well. The first room that you enter has hundreds of flashing lanterns making it a popular destination for photographers. However, since I came here after Golden Week had already ended, there were hardly any people here at all! I had so much fun shooting here with my tripod. The staff was very lax here and let me set it up without any issue. That is one of the pros of traveling around rural places!

Minefuyama Rakuen Onsen Exhibition

The 2nd floor of Mifuneyama Rakuen had multiple rooms with hot springs and highly aesthetic projections. The room with the protruding pillars from the ground reminded me of a post-apocalyptic scene from Neon Genesis Evangelion and it was awesome! You cannot enter the baths here but walking around was an adventure initself. It felt surreal to be in a familiar scene with this abstract sci-fi theme going on:

Overall this museum takes about an hour to see and is my top pick in Kyushu thanks to all of these animated displays. The cheap entrance fee makes it more than worth it too! Unfortunately I did not have much time to see the outdoor area, but the museum featured in the next section fortunately had a lot of scenery!

Entrance Fee: 800 yen

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町武雄4100

Yoko Museum

My last stop of the day was the Yoko Museum which is about 10 mins of walking from Mifuneyama Rakuen. This museum has a beautiful outdoor garden with a red bridge that takes you across a river with several waterfalls. There are also some terraced crops that slightly resemble the famous rice fields in the western Saga. If you continue to follow the main path you’ll find a lookout point that you can climb up to. The indoor part of the museum has famous pottery, but since I have already been to many museums in Japan I opted for just the outdoor part. During certain times of the year there are illuminations, but there weren’t any going on when I arrived at this time. I explored all of this museum in about 40 mins and was very happy with what I saw. The flowers that bloom in Saga sure are pretty and this garden is arranged beautifully!

Entrance Fee: 600 for the garden only and 1000 for the garden & museum

Address: 843-0022 Saga, Takeo, 武雄町4075-3

Breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen

Before embarking on this long aesthetic journey through Saga, I decided to eat a hearty breakfast at Re Cell Kitchen in Fukuoka near Tenjin Station where I was staying. The restaurant has some of the best organic food on the island. The breakfast set I had with fish, salad, soup, vegetables, and brown rice gave me enough energy for almost the whole entire day. I also tried their strawberry banana yogurt and granola dish for dessert and appreciated the heart-shaped fruit. Before setting off to Saga I highly recommend eating a nutritious meal here! I will be talking more about Saga cuisine in my next two articles.

Address: 810-0021 Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Imaizumi, 1 Chome−1−4 石松ビル1F

Thank you for reading the first part of my Saga article series! In my next article I will be talking about Ureshino, which is a popular hot springs resort area featured in the Zombieland Saga anime. Please look forward to it!

A Flawless Day in Fukuoka

Sunset at Momichi Park in Fukuoka, Japan.

Given the nature of my project-based job plus the economic effects of the pandemic, this Golden Week I found myself with more free time than ever before. After returning to Tokyo from Okinawa and checking my work email, I learned that I had three extra days to kill before I returned to the office. Not wanting to waste this newfound vacation time, I looked at places on my travel destination list and decided that Fukuoka and Saga had the best weather so I spontaneously booked yet another plane ticket to Kyushu from Narita Airport for around 17000 yen. By this time most people had returned to Tokyo from their long holiday so tickets were slightly cheaper than they were the previous week.

I left at 8:45am and landed at FUK Airport (Fukuoka Airport’s brilliant abbreviation) at 10:50am. One of my friends texted me and told me they didn’t know anyone else who travels as much as me and it really is true. I am highly determined to make the most of my life here and explore lesser known regions of Japan so I can better understand the culture of this country. I also love the thrill of going somewhere new and trying delicious food on my journeys so I can recommend it to others. I am happy to say that this trip was another huge success! Fukuoka is a tropical city with beaches, temples, amazing hot pot, and plenty of memes. This was my sixth time going after over 2 years and fortunately there still was a lot to see!

Hedgehog Pastries for Breakfast

My first stop from the airport was a small bakery called Patisserie Pas De Deux which is uber famous for its adorable hedgehog-shaped pastries. They also make custom cakes and and cute cookies that resemble animals. The first morning that I went they were already sold out of their hedgehog pastries so the owner profusely apologized for me and asked if I wanted to reserve one the next day. I filled out a form and was able to try one the following morning as soon as the store opened. Inside of the pastry was custard cream that tasted way better than anything that you could buy in stores so it was definitely worth the wait. I also bought a hedgehog cookie because it was irresistibly cute. If you come here, be sure to arrive in the morning so you have first pick of the pastries!

Address: 2 Chome-1-38 Takamiya, Minami Ward, Fukuoka, 815-0083

FUK Coffee

The second stop on my itinerary was a local coffee shop that was geniusly named FUK Coffee. Not only is the name hilarious but the mango smoothie I had was above the average quality of smoothies that I had tried in Japan. I’ve been to Fukuoka around five times but this was the first time that I had ever seen it. But I had to admit the concept was truly original and unique. Look at these guys, capitalizing on memes! My friend who lives in Kyushu came here to meet me and ordered their latte. We were both giggling at the artistic latte art they used all day. Definitely come here for the laughs—it’s a great way to kill time and meet up with friends since it’s near Tenjin Station. This is also one of the few places in the world where you can say “FUK” and have it be non-offensive.

Address: 3 Chome-21-17 Haruyoshi, Chuo Ward, Fukuoka, 810-0003

Tochoji Temple

After our hilarious meme coffee, my friend drove me to a local temple called Tochoji in central Fukuoka. At first glance I already loved the contrast of the bright red pagoda against the city skyscrapers. Once entering the temple, you can go through a pitch black tunnel underneath large golden Buddha that will lead you to enlightenment. The journey is really fun because you lose all of your senses in the darkness, but you can hold on to the walls to guide yourself. As I emerged I was greeted with bright sunlight arising from the parting clouds, so I definitely felt the after effects! I would happily recommend this temple to all of my friends because even if you’re not religious, exploring it is quite the adventure.

Address: 2-4 Gokushomachi, Hakata Ward, Fukuoka, 812-0037

Atago Shrine

After finding enlightenment, we decided to go to Atago Shrine because it has a great view of the skyline of Fukuoka. The climb to the top only took around 5 mins but there was so much to see! We took pictures of the mountains and the ocean as well as the tall city buildings that really didn’t look so big from up here. Near the shrine is a tea house that serves delicious sweets. I ordered the deluxe mochi set with macha while my friend tried their giant dango. We both couldn’t believe how delicious it was! Outside of the tea house was a forested garden that had smooth green leaves. Once again I was blown away by the architecture of the city—it really did feel limitless!

The best thing about Fukuoka is that even without a car you can take local buses around to see all of these aesthetic shrines. Everything is extremely reachable and you can relax and enjoy your day without being strict with time.

Address: 2 Chome-7-1 Atago, Nishi Ward, Fukuoka, 819-0015

Lunch at Bistro Shirokuma

Continuing the theme of animal-shaped meals, we stopped at Bistro Shirokuma for lunch. Their most famous dish is their Shirokuma Pasta which features creamy Italian carbonara topped with fluffy bear-shaped foamy cheese. It was almost a cheese overload compared to my regular diet but fortunately wasn’t too heavy on the stomach. Since I wasn’t driving, I also ordered a high ball. This restaurant was cheaper compared to ones found in central Tokyo and I was definitely taking advantage of it!

Address: 810-0023 Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Kego, 1 Chome−15−50 アークタウン 2F

Watching the Sunset at Momichi Seaside Park

After saying goodbye to my friend who lives a bit outside of the city, I decided to spend the remainder of my evening at Momichi Seaside Park. Similar to Aoshima in Miyazaki where I traveled to a year ago, this beach is one of the best places to watch the sunset on central Kyushu Island. When I arrived there were a number of people playing volleyball and drinking on the benches near the beach. I was happy to see that even amidst the pandemic that the island culture I loved so much here was still alive. While sipping on some sparkling sake I bought at Bic Camera, I watched the sky turn vivid colors and Fukuoka Tower light up. This was truly the life. I will never grow tired of watching the sunset on the beach in Asia!

Accommodation

In my previous trips to Fukuoka I always stayed with my friends in Hakata, but since they sold their house I decided to try a city hotel with an onsen so I could fully relax This time I stayed at Candeo Hotels Fukuoka Tenjin because it was central to the city and looked like it had amazing facilities. Every time I went to the onsen I had it completely to myself so I was lucky. This hotel is also close to the bars and night club district so the location is pretty amazing too. Rooms are around 4200 yen per night, but you can find way cheaper options around. Some hostels in Fukuoka are less than 1500 yen so I would recommend looking for what suits you best because there are a lot of places to choose from.

Thank you for reading the first article in my new Kyushu series! In my next article I will talk about exploring Saga from the hit anime series Zombieland Saga! Please stay tuned for more updates.

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~

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.

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!

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

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Just restoring my MP.

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

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

Departure

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

Our updated map travel map looked like this:

Mt. Tamaki & Tamakijinja Shrine

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

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

Tamakijinja Shrine

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

Tanize Suspension Bridge

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

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

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

Koyasan

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

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

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Jizo statues protect the souls of children and travelers.

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

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

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

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

Chikurin-in Gumpeon Ryokan

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3 Itinerary: 80% Completion

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

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

The Great Bike Trip: From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen (Day 2)

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Yunomine Onsen – A colorful hotspring where you can cook eggs in the boiling water!

After a peaceful night of camping at the gorgeous Mihama Beach in Mie, we next planned to make our way to some remote World Heritage sites in Wakayama Prefecture.  I had never traveled there before, so I was lucky that my driver was well-acquainted with the area.  If you ever travel to Wakayama, I recommend skipping the city and heading straight for Nachi Falls.  It’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls that I have seen in Japan aside from those in Yakushima and has a bright red pagoda you can climb.  Honestly you could spend the whole day wandering through the forests here, but we decided to divide our time between shrines and hotsprings!

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

Departure

The 2nd day began on August 2nd at 4:30am.  We packed up our campsite at Mihama Beach and decided to choose Nachi Falls as our first destination because it was where I wanted to do photography the most.  We had booked a ryokan in Yoshinoyama for the night which was roughly 5 hours away from our starting point (with breaks in between).  However, we figured that there was a ton of places we could stop at on the way so we wouldn’t get tired.  Unfortunately due to heavy rain we had to take refuge at a river onsen and spend the night there, but we still visited 4/5 of our planned destinations so I was happy with what we accomplished.

Our updated map travel map looked like this.  Fortunately we had already arrived in Wakayama and seen everything we wanted before it rained:

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Nachi Falls

Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall in Japan that falls vertically.  It also has lovely surrounding scenery and a series of Shinto shrines you can visit.  The forest has a mythical feel to it as there are trees, bamboo, and all sorts of plants growing in it.  If you look at Wakayama travel websites, the red pagoda is the image that is featured the most!  That is why I had to come here and see if it was worth the hype.  As most places I put a lot of time and research into, I enjoyed seeing it to its full extent:

Nachi Falls is so huge that you can see it as soon as you enter the World Heritage site.  The first viewpoint is marked with a yellow tori and only takes a few minutes to reach.  However, the best viewpoints are a little further out.  The red three-storied pagoda takes about a 15 minute hike to reach, but you can borrow a walking stick for free to help you climb the stairs (mine looked like a bamboo stick).

This area is completely free to see, but the pagoda costs 300 yen to enter.  The top floor is fenced but has a hole where you can clearly view the waterfall and feel a nice breeze.  You will also receive a piece of paper with a brief history of how it was constructed.  If you climb up the hill next to the pagoda, then you can take the iconic shot of it next the waterfall.  Pure aesthetics, baby!

While Mihama Beach was my favorite destination, this was likely my 2nd favorite.  Nachi Falls is much more pretty than anything that surrounds the major cities in Japan.  Only temples in Kyoto can compare to it, but there are far less people here in Wakayama!

Kumano Sanzan

Kumano Sanzan is another one of the most popular World Heritage sites in Wakayama which consist of a series of shrines.  There are tons of Kumano Shrines located throughout Japan, but the three in Wakayama are said to be the originals, or the “headquarters” as my sponsor calls it.  The three Kumano Shrines (called Kumano Sanzan) are: Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine (by the waterfall we visited), and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine.

Since we had already seen the one by Nachi Falls, we decided to travel to the other two by bike.  Fortunately they only take 15-30 mins and a simple hike to reach.  Kumano Sanzan is actually my sponsor’s favorite series of shrines so that is why it was high on our list of places to go.  He even has a custom sticker of the Kumano’s bird mascot on our bike (which I had hilariously left my swimsuit out to dry on)!

The pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan is extremely relaxing and there is fortunately a lot of shade.  I can see why it is one of the most sought-out journeys in Japan.  If you only have time to see one of them, definitely go to the Grand Shrine in Nachi Falls!

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The origin story.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat at Cafe Alma at the base of the last shrine.  I couldn’t helped but laugh because “Alma” is actually the name of my obscure home town…

Yunomine Onsen

Since we were making perfect time, we decided to ride for 30 mins and stop at a small hotsprings town in the mountains called Yunomine Onsen.  It looks big from the first picture I took, but it’s actually quite small.  It’s comparable to the onsen you’d find in Takasaki or Gifu but still has a lot of unique charm.  Yunomine has a few public baths but mostly consists of private ryokans.  It’s perfect for travelers to stop at for a quick break, however.  After some debate, we decided to try the medicine bath with sulfur water from the natural hotspring.  It’s extremely hot but it’s supposed to relax and heal your muscles.  I lucked out and had a private bath completely to myself for a while!

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Eggscellent.

I spent about an hour in the bath house, and when I got out my driver had bought some eggs for us to boil in the hot water that was flowing through the town.  The eggs tasted absolutely delicious!  Hotspring-boiled food is one of the most unique dining experiences in Japan.

Then the rain hit…

We packed up all of our things and were about to take off when suddenly it started downpouring.  We debated about heading out because we had proper rain gear packed, but since we planned on driving deep into the mountains it wasn’t safe.  My sponsor called the ryokan he had booked and was able to change the reservation to the following day, but we were temporarily at a loss of what to do.

We tried to make a reservation at a guest ryokan in Yunomine, but unfortunately they were on holiday.  The others were extremely expensive.  My phone was dying and I was starving.  The rain started to subside where we were at after 45 mins, but it was predicted to fall heavy in our next destination.  I suggested that we get a hotel so we would be safe for the night versus camping.  Luckily my sponsor was able to find a cheap ryokan near Kawayu Onsen that was just 10 mins away by bike.  This was our lucky break.

Though our plans were delayed, bathing at this river onsen actually turned out to be one of the most fun experiences on this trip and made up for the rain:

Kawayu Onsen

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Kawayu Onsen: A secluded hotspring resort with a river you can bathe in too.

When we reached Kawayu Onsen, the rain had completely stopped and the town was enveloped in a beautiful white mist.  I liked the aura of this place already.  We stayed at Sansuikan Kawayu Matsuya for 7500 yen a night (fortunately paid for by my sponsor) and had a spacious ryokan room.  We ate some cheap Chinese food that was nearby and decided to go for another bath (because that was really all there was to do).  This onsen was ingeniously laid out because the hot bath was surrounded by thick rocks, but you could climb down and swim into the river the cool off.  At one point at I got relaxed that I laid down on my back and almost floated away… Just kidding!  The river is too shallow to do that but it does get deeper of you enter it from outside the hot spring entrance.  My body felt absolutely amazing after this bath and I was ready to take on the next day!

Day 2 Itinerary: 80% Completion

Though the rain delayed us from reaching our final destination, we were still able to go to 4/5 places so it was overall a successful day.  By this point I had completely gotten used to riding on the motorbike and fortunately the hotspring visits restored my HP.  These onsen villages are extremely hard to reach by public transportation, so yet again I had gotten another rare opportunity to see more of rural Japan.  I have many fond memories here in Wakayama and am actually thankful that the rain led us on this path.  If we would have skipped Yunomine and left earlier, we could be stranded on the highway or forest.  Perhaps the gods of Kumano were really looking out for us…

Please stayed tuned for the next 2 days!

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.