A Roadtrip to Aomori: Visiting Ashino Park, Seibi-en, and Takayama Inari Shrine

The sun fades into the clouds on the main path to Takayama Inari Shrine.

After an amazing day of eating delicious food and seeing the sakura in Hirosaki Park, we started out extremely early on our next day of sightseeing in Aomori. Our first destination was Ashino Park, which is Aomori’s other famous sakura park that is roughly 2 hours away from the main part of the city. The illuminated sakura we saw by Hirosaki Castle the previous night were absolutely gorgeous, so we wanted to try seeing them during the day too! We also found out about Seibi-en through a friend, which is the real life location of Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arietty so we decided to head there after. Our final destination for the day was Takayama Inari Shrine, which is a beautiful shrine near the Sea of Japan. This day was long but we were fortunately able to accomplish everything on our itinerary.

Ashino Park

Ashino Park is located south of the central part of Aomori City and is famous for its 1500 cherry blossom trees and “sakura tunnel” that a retro train frequently runs through. Like Hirosaki Park, Ashino was voted as one of the best places in Japan to see the cherry blossoms so we absolutely had to come here even though it was a bit of a trip. The park has a river that snakes through it and you can rent boats from a boathouse to spend time out on the water. There is also a famous suspension bridge that connects the park to a popular camping area in Aomori. Though many of the sakura petals had fallen into the water from the previous harsh weather that week, the park was still stunning to walk through. Fortunately many of the weeping sakura trees were still in bloom and I managed to get a few good shots here!

Entrance Fee: Free
Address: Goshogawara, Aomori 037-0202

Seibi-en

Our next stop was Seibi-en, which is a beautiful house that combines Western and Japanese architecture and has a zen garden, similar to the Umineko Manor I visited last year in Tokyo. The first floor of the house is completely Japanese styled and contains several tatami rooms and a bath. There is a framed picture from The Secret World of Arietty on one of the tables so you can recall the resemblance. The 2nd floor is completely Western styled and was unfortunately closed when we visited, but you can clearly see its distinctive style from outside. The staff will also take you on a tour to a chamber called Gohoden that is completely made out of gold lacquer works of art. As you walk on the stone steps in the garden that lead to a small island, you will also see a small shrine called Seibi Shrine that is connected. The composition of both the house and garden is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and really make me want to watch the movie again so I can see more! This was my favorite place that I saw in Aomori and I would happily recommend to to everyone visiting because it is close to Hirosaki Park and also accessible by train.

Entrance Fee: 430 yen
Address: Ishibayashi-1 Saruka, Hirakawa, Aomori 036-0242

Takayama Inari Shrine

Our last stop of the day was Takayama Inari Shrine, which was located in a pretty remote area next to the Sea of Japan, but it is definitely worth seeing! This shrine is said to represent good harvests and safety at sea. It was also the most beautiful shrine we saw in Aomori due to the bright red tori being surrounded by coastal scenery. It is similar to Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto but not nearly as big or steep of a hike. I enjoyed seeing the ponds, bridges, and beautiful trees that lead to the scenic view on the top of a hill. We arrived at the perfect time because the sun was starting to set and it gave the shrine a beautiful glow. I was awestruck by how aesthetic this shrine was so I also recommend seeing this if you are up for the drive.

Entrance Fee: Free
Address:
Washinosawa-147-1 Ushigatacho, Tsugaru, Aomori 038-3305

Food Picks

For lunch we decided to stop at a curry place that had a lot of vegan options called Michiru. I ordered a 5 curry set with rice, vegetables, and a giant egg and it tasted amazing! The pink fish curry was hands down the best because it packed the most flavor. The other vegetable curries had more of a bland taste but they were healthier than regular curry at least. I appreciated how they used fresh vegetables and organic ingredients here. For dessert I ordered ice cream topped with Aomori’s famous apple jam and my friend ordered organic cheesecake. Both were made with tender care and were the perfect way to end the meal. I’d definitely come back here in the future if I could so I could try more of the seasonal dishes! We also saw the A to Z Memorial Dog on the way to the restaurant because he was located nearby inside of the Former Yoshii Shuzō Brick Warehouse. I will be talking more about his symbolism in my next article.

For dinner we stopped at a teishoku place called Yayori nearby our hotels in the central city of Aomori. As we entered we found out that they normally only sell bento boxes during Golden Week while we were traveling, but since we had came all the way there the chefs made a special menu just for us! I enjoyed the fresh fish and vegetables because they were extremely nourishing. And it was very inexpensive too. I really appreciate how kind the staff was to us here.

Thank you for reading the second article of my Aomori series! The next article will cover various museums and be the final one. Please look forward to hearing about all of the creative modern art we discovered in this rural prefecture!

A Road Trip to Aomori: Visiting the Nebuta Museum and Hirosaki Castle

A Perfect Aesthetic Moment: Sakura petals illuminated under the gates of Hirosaki Caste.

Last weekend I went on a roadtrip to one of my dream destinations during the peak of its cherry blossom season: Aomori Prefecture. Unlike most of Japan, Aomori’s sakura season starts usually from the last weekend of April until the first week of May because it is located up north facing Hokkaido. Aomori’s Hirosaki and Ashino parks are said to be the best places to see the sakura in all of Japan, so as a photographer visiting this prefecture was a huge goal of mine. The hardest challenges of visiting Aomori are timing your visit with the ideal weather and getting around, because the prefecture is quite rural. However, my group decided to bring a car so we could maximize our sightseeing opportunities. Besides its sakura, Aomori is also famous for its delicious apples. This is the first part of a three part article series, so please look forward to reading about my top recommendations here!

Getting to Aomori Prefecture & Accommodation

One way shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Shin Aomori Station are 17000 yen and the trip takes over 4 hours, so it is recommended that you fly to Aomori Airport to save time and money. Roundtrip airline tickets are usually around 30000 yen and you will reach Aomori Airport in just over an hour. However, since I was short on time and was meeting my friends who were staying in central Aomori with a car, I opted for the one way shinkansen ticket then drove 8 hours with them back to Tokyo when we were done sightseeing. It was a long trip, but overall very scenic and cost efficient!

You will definitely want a car to get around Aomori because public transportation is quite limited; especially if you want to see all of the sakura parks because they are spread out. We had originally planned on using some of the sightseeing buses here but were so glad we didn’t because they take a long time to reach places.

Since sakura season is crazy popular and Aomori only has a few hotels in the central area, be prepared to pay extra on accommodations during this time. I paid 15,000 yen for a two night stay at Aomori Route Inn Chuo but it was pleasant because it had a small indoor public bath and I was placed in the 420 room (blaze it). If you come outside of sakura season, then prices will be more reasonable.

Nebuta Museum

The most popular festival in Aomori is the Nebuta Festival, which is held every summer from Aug 2nd – Aug 7th and involves giant colorful floats with characters hand-painted by artists. The floats are carried by volunteers and illuminated by lanterns with dancers and taiko drummers accompanying them during the parade making it quite the spectacle. At the Nebuta Museum in central Aomori, you can see the floats on display all year and also read about the various characters depicted in the floats. If you are coming all the way to Aomori, then you should definitely visit this museum!

Entrance Fee: 600 yen
Address: 1 Chome-1-1 Yasukata, Aomori, 030-0803

Hirosaki Park at Night

Hirosaki Park is renowned as one of the best places to spend sakura season and contains several gardens and Hirosaki Castle within it. During sakura season special lights are placed under the sakura trees so the blossoms look illuminated at night. On the weekend we went, which was April 29th – May 1st, the sakura were predicted to be in full bloom but unfortunately due to heavy rain in the area a few days before, some of the petals had fallen. However, many of the weeping sakura trees (also known as prunus pendula) were in full bloom here so we managed to get a few good shots in. Had it not been for the drizzling rain that night, this park would have been ideal for a picnic!

For better sakura photos, please see my Kyoto article series from last year! We managed to get perfect photos of sakura in full bloom under a full moon.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen
Address: 〒036-8356 Aomori, Hirosaki, Shimoshiroganecho, 1

Top Food Picks

Right as you arrive to Shin Aomori Station and exit through the ticket gate, you will notice multiple gift and souvenir shops at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. I impulse bought an apple macaroon from one of them since I am a macaroon fanatic. As expected, it tasted very fruity and I adored the little apple brand on it! As far as sweets in Aomori go, I also recommend a tiny cake shop called Kashidokoro Kangetsu because it has cream puffs shaped like swans, cakes with dog faces, and tanuki cupcakes that are apple flavored! There are also some anko-filled sweets here that are really delicious. I ordered one shaped like a bamboo shoot and enjoyed both the aesthetic and taste.

For lunch I had a seafood scallop salad crepe at a place called Galetteria Da Sasino in central Aomori. I know that sounds like a weird combination of flavors but it actually tasted amazing! I really love the soft and spongy texture of crepes paired with seafood. For dinner we went to a sushi place called Kuruma Sushi because it was near the castle. I ordered a seafood bowl with the finest fish and mistakenly ordered a bottle of wine instead of a glass because I had a tough time understanding Tsugaru dialect. But I made that bottle last for three days so I got my money’s worth out of it. Just another day in the life!

Thank you for reading the first part of my Aomori article series. In my next article I will be writing about Ashino Park and a special house from a Studio Ghibli film. Please look forward to more!

Staying in a Lodge Surrounded by Wild Deer in Nara Park

A mob of wild deer come to greet me as I exit my lodge.

Continuing on from my expedition to two of Nara’s most aesthetic temples, I next decided to stay at a lodge named Deer Park Inn surrounded by wild deer in Nara Park. Nara Park is not only famous for its temples and lovely scenery, but also its friendly deer who beg visitors for rice crackers (called “shika senbei”). This is a great place to start your morning because there are a number of hiking spots and gardens to visit. You will also see many deer mobs grazing in the grass and waiting for humans to awake so they can feast on their delicious rice crackers. Deer are a sacred animal of Nara because they were once seen as messengers of the gods. For their high social status, these fellows never seem to get enough food! Fortunately you can buy crackers all over Nara for the mere price of 200 yen. Where I’m from in the United States, deer are extremely shy so having them approach me and behave like dogs was quite the experience:

Getting to Nara Park

From Nara Station, you can take the 62 bus to the Todaiji Bus Stop and arrive at the park in 10 mins for 220 yen. You can also take a short and inexpensive taxi ride here too. Nara Park is open 24 hours, but restaurants close early so it is advised you buy snacks from convenience stores if you want to eat at night.

Single rooms at the Deer Park in go for around 4000 yen but you can book a dormitory room with other people for a cheaper price. The advantage of staying in the park versus the city is that you can see the temples and gardens in the morning with fewer people. You can also feed deer from the balcony of your room! I had so much fun waking up and watching them from my window. It was a one of a kind experience that you can only get here in Nara!

Places I recommend checking out in Nara Park are:

  • Ukimudo (a bridge that leads to a gazebo in a pond)
  • Todaiji (a famous temple with a giant golden Buddha statue)
  • Kasuga Taisha (a bright shrine with a deer statue)
  • Kasuga Taisha Manyo Botanical Gardens
  • Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest

Overall I spent about 3 hours in Nara Park before taking a short bus ride back to the main part of the city. All of the places I listed are very accessible and you can easily reach them on foot. Nara Park is free to enter, but some temples and gardens have a 300-700 yen entrance fee. I think the price is worth it because many of these places are historical landmarks that are surrounded by luscious nature. Plus you can interact with as many deer as you like if you carry their favorite food!

Running to Ukimudo

Since Ukimudo is surrounded by a beautiful pond and is in a forest with several sakura trees, this is where I decided to start my morning. Due to the lack of tourists, there have been reports of the deer acting more aggressive toward people for food, but if you open your hands and show them that you are not carrying any rice crackers, they will not attack you. When I went running this morning near Ukimudo, the grazing deer pretty much ignored me after giving me a few curious side glances since I wasn’t carrying any bags or food. However, when I returned with several rice crackers it was a different story! I was circled by groups of deer, and the more aggressive ones would bite at my skirt when I wasn’t feeding them. Fortunately it is easy to run away from them, and they will not trample or bite you. Just be prepared to be lightly head-butted at times and always protect your belongings!

Also, there are signs posted not to feed them any food other than the crackers because it can be harmful to them.

Todaiji and Kasuga Taisha

When I first studied abroad in Japan, I was completely awestruck by the giant golden Buddha statue that I saw at Todaiji Temple in Nara Park. Roughly 9 years later I had the opportunity to see this Buddha again during sakura season, and it took me back to the fond memories I had when I first visited Japan. The street that paves the path to Todaiji is lined with vendors, food stalls, and souvenir shops full of good luck charms and stuffed deer mascots so it’s quite enthralling when you first visit. Another thing I love is how the deer just make this part of the city their own—they have learned to live in harmony with humans and nature. Nara certainly wouldn’t be the same without their sacred messengers, and the people here have come to love them.

Kasuga Taisha is just a short walk from Todaiji. It’s not as impressive as the giant halls of Buddha but it’s worth checking out for the beautiful forest and gardens that surround it. The flowers naturally change year round which make it feel like a magical place. Be sure to lookout for sakura trees too, as they are scattered throughout these temple grounds.

Sakura Season is also Deer Mating Season

I didn’t realize this before, but sakura season in Nara is actually during the mating season of the deer. That explains why some of the bigger deer were trying to bite my skirt—it all makes sense now! In all seriousness, please be on the lookout for aggressive deer. There are many kind Japanese shop owners and also rangers in Nara Park that will help you if the deer come too close for comfort. One Japanese vendor helped me by clapping their hands firmly near the deer to catch their attention. This is a safe way to keep them from attacking you. For the most part, most deer are friendly and know that even when you run out of food, other visitors will eventually come to feed them more. They obviously won natural selection!

Top Food Recommendations

Like its surrounding cities Kyoto and Osaka, Nara is also full of delicious food! Stop by for deer macarons at OVER MACARON before heading to the park. They have a large selection of flavors including chocolate, strawberry cheesecake, and creme brulee. If you like Japanese desserts, you can also get strawberry daifuku with deer-shaped cookies in them Daibutsu Ichigo. This shop is also located near the entrance of the park and is impossible to miss because it always draws a crowd. For breakfast, I highly recommend Mizuya Chaya which is located inside of Nara Park. This is a teahouse that serves wonderful beverages, desserts. and breakfast sets. I ordered rice porridge that had a beautiful floral design in it, and it tasted amazing! My final recommendation is a vegan restaurant named KURURU located slightly outside of the park where I had creamy mushroom vegan pasta. Once again, I was blown away by the taste and it really filled me up! Whatever local eatery you visit here will surely satisfy you.

For those who are interested, I made a reel of my video footage here. My next article will be the final of this series, and will focus on a trippy aquarium I found in Nara City and some more highlights of Kyoto’s sakura season. Thank you to all who have kept up with my crazy journeys! I am excited to announce my next trip very soon!

Exploring Ogawa Falls and Kanoya City in Kagoshima

Ogawa Falls in Kanoya, Kagoshima.

While looking for destinations I wanted to travel to in Kagoshima after Amami Island, the two that stood out to me the most were Ogawa Falls and Sakurajima. Ogawa Falls are located remotely in a forest in the city of Kanoya, directly southeast of Sakurajima. Getting to Kanoya is a challenge because there are no trains that run through the city—you have to either take a bus from Kagoshima Airport or rent a car to get here. I opted to take the bus which was around 1.5 hours and 2100 yen. Though the city of Kanoya is quite rural, it is considered a nice town to stay in and has a number of delicious restaurants, shrines, and beautiful nature spots. I enjoyed my time here because it was very quiet and relaxing.

Here are my top recommendations that you can do over the span of two days!

Jintoku Inari Shrine

My first stop was Jintoku Inari Shrine, which I ran to from my hostel in the morning. This is a small shrine but has over 100 red gates and many fox deity statues. I also enjoyed seeing the fox-shaped ema with people’s wishes written on them too! When I arrived here at 9am (which is the opening time), I was the only person here which was quite relaxing. I really enjoyed the privacy of this shrine and felt at peace here.

Address: 1771-4 Shineicho, Kanoya, Kagoshima 893-0063
Admission: Free

Ogawa Falls

Ogawa Falls is a remote waterfall located south of Kanoya City with beautiful shades of water and rock formations. It takes about 45 mins to reach by car. I had my hostel call a taxi here and back because there is no other way to reach it by public transport. It’s really a shame that there’s not a local bus from Kanoya City that goes here, but I suppose there are not enough travelers that come to the city to justify the cause. The taxi here cost around 8000 yen one way which is quite expensive, but trust me the views were extremely worth the price! The hike to the falls is roughly 20 mins on pretty even terrain and there is a viewing deck with 2 floors you can stand on to see them. This place really didn’t feel like Japan because it looked more like a destination from Thailand or the Philippines. However, this truly shows how beautiful places in Kagoshima can be and I really encourage more people to make the journey here!

Additionally, there is a lovely cafe called aqua base by the parking lot where you can try fresh juice and sweet potato flavored monkey-shaped pastries. It truly was a dream come true for an aesthetic food lover so I bought their earrings of the pastry too! I will never forget my time here because it was truly unique and once again, I was the only person here which made it special!

Address: 5876-2 Tashirokawahara, 錦江町 Kimotsuki District, Kagoshima 893-2402
Admission: Free

Take Bakery and Cafe

While looking for pescatarian-friendly places in the area, Take Bakery and Cafe was one of the very first that popped up so I figured I would check it out. For breakfast before I went to Ogawa Falls, I decided to try their salmon and cream cheese bagel with a soy latte. It gave me just the energy I needed to hike through the falls and was delicious so I would highly recommend it. Since I was curious about their salads, I came back here for lunch after my trek since their bread and cheese was so amazing. I also started day drinking while I waited for my bus back to the airport and I can’t recommend their local wine enough! They recognized me from this morning and generously thanked me for coming twice. I would have gladly come for dinner too had I stayed another night here!

Address: 5-5 Kitadacho, Kanoya, Kagoshima 893-0007

Accommodation

Since my stay here was very short and I spent a good chunk of money on my resort in Amami, I opted to stay in Hotel & Hostel Haru. Rooms are around 2000 yen per night and I was the only person staying in my dormitory so it was a comfortable stay. Not only were the rooms extremely clean, the staff was very friendly and gave me free sake and helped me call my taxi to Ogawa Falls too. I was lucky to have found such a nice place in a remote city! In my opinion 2 days is all you need to see the highlights of Kanoya.

Another fun point of interest close to this hostel is Wadaiseki Park which has a statue of a kappa. I enjoyed being friends with him during my time here and we really vibed. Look forward to reading about Sakurajima in my next article!

Luscious Beaches and Juicy Bananas at Miyakojima, Okinawa

Sunayama Beach at sunset at Miyakojima.

After I had my fill of the mainland of Okinawa staying at the Sanrio Resort and wandering through aesthetic neon paradise in Naha, I decided to fly to Miyakojima for the purpose of exploring luscious beaches and going scuba diving. Flights from Naha to Miyakojima cost just over 10000 yen roundtrip and take around 50 minutes to reach the airport. Since this island is extremely remote and located closer to Taiwan than the main islands of Japan, I think the price is extremely worth it. You can also take ferries to this island, but since the previous two days had a gale advisory I didn’t want to risk it being cancelled. Fortunately my flight was extremely smooth and I had an entire row all to myself! I was welcomed to Miyako with sunny weather and was able to explore the entire area around Painagama Beach where my resort was located. Miyako is relatively small in size and you can travel coast to coast from one end of the island to the other in just over an hour by car. Renting bikes to reach beaches is also very common.

Here are some of the best places that you can explore on the north side of the island near the airport. I will be covering over parts of the island in my future articles!

Miyako Shrine & Kamamamine Park

While waiting to checkin to my hotel, I decided to see some of the local attractions on foot. My first destination was Miyako Shrine, which is just a short 15 minute taxi ride from the airport. The shrine is small and humble but I enjoyed visiting it while feeling the ocean breeze. The colors of the roof are unique to Ryukyuan architecture and it felt like the perfect place to begin my journey! I next walked to Kamamamine Park which was right down the road and is famous for its giant shisa playground. You can climb into the shisa’s mouth and also slide down from the top of its back. I saw kids climbing on top of its head too. I was already loving the vibe of this island because it felt extremely open and free.

Address: Shimozato Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0013
Entrance Fee: Free

Sunayama Beach

After checking into my resort, I decided to rent an ebike from the staff and bike to Sunayama Beach (accommodation details are listed at the end of this article). From the main resort strip, Sunayama Beach is about 25 mins biking. What I liked about this beach is it’s not clearly visible from the entrance—you have to climb over a sand dune to see the ocean which makes it extremely hype. Fortunately it’s just a short hike and once you see the emerald color of the waves, then the realization that you’ve arrived in paradise finally hits you! I am so happy that this was the very first beach that I visited in Miyako because it’s truly gorgeous and matched the color of my nails.

Sunayama Beach was actually quite small but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. The arch rock on the beach is famous so I took a lot of pictures around it and then jumped in the water for a nice dip. The end of April is actually a great time to go swimming in Okinawa because the sun isn’t as harsh. I really wished there were hotels on this beach so I could wake up and go swimming here, but at the same time I liked the remote and private feel it had.

Yamatouga Ruins

The Yamatouga Ruins have stunning stone architecture reminiscent of ancient times and are a historic landmark of Miyakojima. I loved exploring the lush forested area and seeing the ivory that covered the walls. This is a cool place that I actually stumbled upon during one of my morning runs. It takes about 5 mins of walking from the entrance to reach the Yamato Well that still stores water. It’s amazing to see all of the architecture on this island because it really has been preserved well throughout time.

Address: Nishinakasone-353-1 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0006

Top Dessert Picks

Unfortunately due to the pandemic a number of restaurants were closed here so I ate simple meals at my hotel, but the dessert game on this island was extremely strong. Here are my top dessert pics near the main resort area! I will be writing about other food options in my future articles.

Banana & Cake Monte Doll

While searching for dessert places, I stumbled across Monte Doll and immediately fell in love with their smiling banana peel mascot. Before this trip I went to the gym nearly three times a week so I could become strong and flex next to it. I didn’t want to let banana senpai down. The curse of trying Okinawan bananas is they are so ripe you will never want to eat the regular ones outside of the island again! I got the banana smoothie with coconut bits and the banana cream cake and both were to die for. If you come to Miyakojima, please visit this place! They all of the banana souvenirs that you could dream of too.

Address: Nishizato-7-2 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0000

Blue Booth

After all the swimming I did this day, I treated myself to two different flavors of ice cream at Painagama Blue Booth near my resort. The first I tried was sweet potato, and the second I tried was caramel brownie. I appreciated how they included sweet potato chips and banana chips in their toppings because that’s definitely something that you don’t see every day! The atmosphere of this restaurant is extremely relaxing because they have little hammock seats as well as indoor and outdoor seating. In addition to ice cream, you can order hot dogs here too! They definitely have the perfect menu for a long day at the beach.

Address: Shimozato-247-2 Hirara, Miyakojima, Okinawa 906-0013

Accommodation

After looking at a few properties on the main resort strip of Painagama Beach, I decided to settle with Hotel Locus because it was new and had a cute outdoor pool. The cheapest rooms are around 7000 yen per night but the hotel is easily accessible from Miyako Airport, has a bicycle rental service, and wonderful amenities. There is also a rooftop where you can watch the sun set every night on the harbor. I was very impressed with my two night stay here and would recommend it to my friends because it really has everything you need.

Thank you for reading the 3rd article in my Okinawa series. In my next articles I will be talking about scuba diving and exploring Ibaru Island on Miyakojima.

Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 2: The Philosopher’s Path, Maruyama Park, and Arashiyama

After a spending a full day of hiking around Uji and seeing the once in a lifetime view of a full moon and fully blooming sakura at Toji, I was ready to start my final day hitting the last few aesthetic destinations on my list! Please see Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1: Byodoin, Go River, and Toji Temple for the first part of this article series. This article expands my recommended sakura viewing spots and also lists my favorite food and travel accommodations for the spring season.

Kyoto is a place that’s full of adventure and serene nature no matter where you go, but here are the places that I wouldn’t miss out on in late March:

Philosopher’s Path

If you are looking to experience some of the best scenery in Kyoto, then your best bet is to start at the Philosopher’s Path. The main path itself is actually not that long but it is lined with beautiful canals and sakura trees galore. The branching paths will lead you to many historic temples, traditional restaurants, and other exciting sights. One major point of interest is the Kaege Incline which is an old hill with railroad tracks that are now no longer in use making it the perfect spot for photography.

I recommend arriving before 10am or else you will run into tourists and wedding photography if you come during the afternoon like I did, but the experience here was definitely unforgettable! Everyone here stared in awe at the sakura petals that gently fell from the trees and drifted into the canals. I felt completely relaxed among the smiling people around me. I rented a kimono and took some of my best pictures in this area. For more information on kimono rental, please see my Yumeyukata Article.

If you keep walking down the Philosopher’s Path, you eventually will hit Nanzenji which I visited in the fall and also Ginkakuji. There are plenty of places in between those two temples you can explore too.

Admission Fee: Free
Access: There are a number of stations and bus stops that you can access this path from, but I would recommend taking the Keihan-Keishin train line to Kaege Station so you can start at the Kaege Incline and work your way up!

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park is undoubtedly one of the most famous parks in central Kyoto. It has beautiful sakura, a picturesque pond, several temples, and amazing food stalls. I spent my 27th birthday drinking sake here and I will never forget the blissful experience. This time the same place that I bought sake at in October was selling sakura champagne so of course I had to indulge–they sure know how to make money here! Anyway, the major draw here in the spring is the sakura illumination at night. There is a zen garden with a projection of koi fish that look like they are swimming when you first walk in through the main entrance. The stairs near the hall of Chion-in have a neon pink flower projection spread across them that slowly changes color. The lights are creatively placed beneath the sakura to create an eloquent pink and white gradient that bring out the highlights of the petals. You can also stand in front of some of the lighting to have sakura images projected onto yourself. Technology sure is amazing! I was also very impressed to see a temple completely illuminated in blue where a sermon was in progress. I was surged with energy from all of these beautiful colors and would highly recommend coming to Maruyama both during the day and at night because you’ll never know what you’ll find here!

Admission Fee: 1000 yen
Access: Walkable from Gion Station and anywhere near Kawaramachi

Arashiyama

The final destination on my sakura itinerary was Arashiyama! Here I visited the Moss Temple in the morning, ran into Goddess Madoka in the streets, and then went hiking in Nakanoshima Park to see a beautiful view of the Oi River and mountain sakura trees. The climb to reach the lookout point takes roughly 20 minutes and is very leisurely compared to the hiking I did earlier in the day. One sight in Arashiyama I always enjoy seeing is Daihikaku Senkoji Temple because it is very colorful and looks extremely remote up in the mountains surrounded by trees. You can climb up to it by crossing the river and hiking for approximately 40 minutes. The view from the window is incredible, especially in the fall. Besides the park, I would recommend checking out the area around Tenryuji because there is a dragon mural and a lot of beautiful sakura there too. There are also onsen and cafes all around Arashiyama so it is very easy to relax here. I am happy to have ended my trip in such a beautiful place!

Admission Fee: Free for the park, but most temples have an average price of 500 yen to enter. However, you can always stand outside of the temples and take pictures of them like I did!
Access: From Kyoto Station, take the San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. This takes roughly 12 minutes and costs 240 yen. Most things you can reach by foot here.

Food

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without sampling aesthetic food. I have been to many restaurants and cafes here, but these are my top recommendations from this trip:

  • Veg Out: This is a cozy vegan place near the Kawaramachi River that serves up amazing Buddha Bowls! These meals are monk diet-friendly and contain the perfect balance of vegetables and grain. Mine tasted a lot like vegan taco rice and I ordered some fig and coconut chips to go. This meal gave me the exactly amount of energy I needed and I am so grateful that I visited here!
  • Salon de Royal: This is a chocolate shop that my friend recommended to me that is also near the river. It has delicious teas and wine and features an original chocolate that is shaped like the Eiffel Tower specked in gold! I also noticed they were selling chocolate high heels here for 3000 yen. I definitely enjoyed the vibe of this place because it had an outdoor deck and would come back in the future for more delicious candy. I even took a sakura tart to go!
  • Arashiyama Street Food: Fancy yourself some traditional taiyaki stuffed with bacon and eggs? How about a yuba tofu flavored donut or ice cream? They even have Miffy bread here too! I cannot wait to see what ridiculous street food they have next time I come!

More more recommendations, please see my Aesthetic Kyoto Food Series.

Accommodation

In previous times I’ve always stayed at guest houses or capsule hotels, but since my favorite capsule and spa is permanently shut now I opted for lush business hotel near the Kawaramachi River called OYO. The cheapest single room is roughly 3000 yen per night and it came with everything I needed for my adventure. The staff was friendly, the location was grand, and there was free coffee and tea too. Unfortunately I did not take any photos of the room because I ran out of time, but the ones displayed on Booking are pretty accurate. I would definitely stay here again, but I am also open to trying other options down the river because you never know what’s out there! I like staying in slightly different places each time because with a change of environment often comes newfound inspiration.

Final Thoughts

Despite the pandemic, this was the best and most intense sakura season that I have ever experienced. Last year when the pandemic hit, many parks were closed in major cities so I spent my time exploring new areas in Nagoya. While those areas were beautiful, they weren’t nearly as festive as Kyoto. I woke up at 7am almost every morning to hit every major spot, ate a large variety of food, and ended both nights with beautiful illuminations. By the end of the third day I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the shinkansen to Tokyo, but that is a sign of a trip well spent. For all my life I will never forget the sight of the full moon and fully blooming sakura!

I would like to come back to Kyoto next month to explore Uji more and also go to a cosplay event by acosta. And next year I have already decided that I want to spend sakura season in Nara with the deer!

My next upcoming trip is to Okinawa at the end of the month, and I am very excited to publish my itinerary! Thank you for all the positive comments on my recent posts and photos–I will continue to do my best to inspire people to travel in Japan once the effects of Covid become more diminished!

Aesthetic Food Finds in Nagoya Vol. 3 ft. Meijo Park

A trip to Nagoya is never complete without trying all of the delicious food available.  This aesthetic food adventure takes us to many dessert cafes and restaurants that have just re-opened after the emergency state ended.  We also drank at Meijo Park near Nagoya Castle which is one of the chillest spots I’ve found in this city with awesome scenery.  All of the places I visited this weekend have a lovely atmosphere and I can’t recommend them enough!

I’ll be expanding this list as I find more places, but feel free to suggest any you recommend in the comments!  Please see Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 for reference.

Amelie Cafe

When I first saw the pink refrigerator door that serves as the entrance to this cafe, I was already enamored by its aesthetic.  Amelia Cafe, located on the 3rd floor of the PARCO building in Sakae, has a large range of fulfilling dishes and beautiful desserts.  I ordered the vegetable and seafood salad while my boyfriend ordered the massive curry that had a volcano of cheese fondue in it.  I had never seen such a wild combination but it tasted amazing!!  We also ordered the strawberry and Orea milk bottles topped with whipped cream and chocolate to go along with our orders.  At that point we were already feeling full, but we couldn’t leave without defeating the final boss: The Rainbow Cake Pudding Parfait.  It surprisingly had a light texture so we finished it off in now time.  Hungry protagonist unite!  Next time I come here, I would really like to try the waffles and tiramisu coffee drinks.  The portions are huge but the food is actually quite cheap.  This is a good place to eat with groups and also the ideal date spot.  I’m really lucky that my boyfriend found this place!

Holland

img_6780
Tom Nook ain’t got nothing on these cupcakes.

Around the time that Animal Crossing for Switch was released, these guys popped up in my recommended desserts feed on Instagram.  Though I don’t play the game because I value my free time, who could pass up the chance to try tanuki cupcakes!?  Holland is western-themed desserts and confectionery shop near Kanayama Station in Nagoya.  They sell individual sweets and customized cakes for a pretty affordable price.  The tanuki cupcakes come in strawberry and chocolate flavors.  They had both a wafer and cake-like texture underneath the frosting.  Honestly they hit the spot after traveling over 2 hours here from Tokyo.  I am excited to see what other fun cupcakes they design in the future!

Cafe One

Cafe One in central Sakae delivers breakfast of the champions with it’s signature nekopan.  Or should I say breakfast of the champio-nyans?  Whatever you want to call it, it’s mouthwatering and delicious.  I had ice cream milk coffee that was decorated to look like a cat with a mustache and a cookie tail on the side.  I instantly felt energized after consuming all that ice cream and sugar.  My boyfriend ordered neko melonpan that had no face but was thicc and tasted amazing.  I ordered the nekopan with almond eyes that was covered in peanut butter and marshmallow toppings with chocolate whiskers.  Honestly is was a bit overwhelming but was also some of the best bread I had ever tasted.  There are many flavors of nekopan available here so I’d love to try more in the future!

Dean & Deluca Deli

img_7109
Nothing says a balanced diet like nekopan and freshly chopped salad.

After consuming all of that sugar, we walked around for a while and decided we should eat something healthy for lunch.  Not too far from Cafe One is the Dean & Deluca Deli where you can order sandwiches and fresh salad for a healthy meal.  They offer juices, desserts, and takeout options here as well.  I decided to get the vegetable salad with avocado, grilled pumpkin, potato, lettuce, quinoa, and carrots.  It was a good balance to what I ate for breakfast and gave me a lot of energy for the rest of the day.  My boyfriend had the chicken sandwich and said it had his stamp of approval too.  This place is win-win for both vegetarians and people who like meat because it has a number of options.

Poket

Poket is a Hawaiin restaurant that just moved to the bottom floor of ASTIR Hotel in Sakae.  They are relatively new but have a really vibrant and welcoming atmosphere.  Poke Bowls are the specialty here which you can order with salad or rice as your base.  I customized my bowl to include sauteed octopus and vegetables.  For dessert, I decided to try their one of a kind “banana soft” which is vanilla ice cream that is carefully placed inside of a fresh banana.  The result is extremely photogenic and Instagrammable.  Bananas sure have evolved a lot!  The drink menu has Japanese drinks, Hawaiin beers, and pineapple sours.  I definitely felt like we were in a tropical place even though we are currently in the middle of the rainy season in Japan.  I would definitely come back here again to try more variety of of Poke and see what other crazy desserts they come up with!

杏ZU

For once I wasn’t the one that found this restaurant—full credit goes to my boyfriend for taking us here.  杏ZU specializes in vegan Chinese food but has a non-vegan menu too.  I decided to ordered the vegetables boiled with yuba tofu (vegan option).  I also tried some Chinese wine on the rocks.  It was bitter but tasted just right paired with the food.  My boyfriend got a chicken dish that was served in a delicious rice cracker.  What makes this place stand out from other Chinese restaurants is the seasoning they use in their cooking.  I tasted a hint of lemon in mine and it was very healthy because they didn’t use any butter in it.  I would really like to come back here and try some shrimp dishes in the future.  This place will be on my watch list.

Iceland Market

This mysterious restaurant popped up in my Instagram feed one day and got me thinking… just what is an Icelandic Market doing in Nagoya!?  I looked at their menu and decided I would try their bread bowl with shrimp soup.  The other choices were tomato curry and Nagoya spice because that’s totally what people eat in Iceland.  Though not completely authentic, this was the best bread bowl that I’ve ever had in Japan!  My boyfriend had a hot dog wrapped in bacon which he said was pretty good.  This restaurant is about 40 mins from Nagoya Station and is quite small, but it’s worth checking out if you’re looking for something different.  I definitely enjoyed the theme.

Meijo Park

Situated next to Nagoya Castle, Meijo Park is one of the ideal places to drink or have a picnic.  Unlike other parks and gardens in Nagoya, it doesn’t have an entrance fee and is open 24 hours.  It feels like something out of an RPG because it has a giant windmill that looks like it holds secrets, a sundial that could possibly turn back time, and comically huge sunflowers everywhere.  Not to mention the adorable stray cats.  You could definitely use this place in a game map.  Anyway, my boyfriend and I spent 2 hours drinking here before Final Fantasy VII trivia night at Critical Hit.  We also tried the new Blue Hawaii donut at Lyrical Coffee Donut which was better than their matcha series.  I later came back here to watch the sunset and see the moon before I left for Tokyo.  This place has a wonderful aesthetic because all of the trees block the city lights.

That’s all the aesthetic food finds for this week.  I’ll have more to write about when I visit Nagoya again later this month!  Thank you for reading.

Yet Another Perfect Weekend in Nagoya

 

img_6591-1
In the Heart of Nagoya: The silhouettes of the mountains gently fade into the sunset.

As I’ve noted countless times before, Nagoya is one of the most underrated cities in Japan.  It is here that I first attended the World Cosplay Summit back in 2017, went to Legoland and Nagashima Spa Land, and also met my first boyfriend at a gaming bar (which is a legendary story I’ll save for later).  Though Osaka and Kyoto undoubtedly overshadow this city with their hotspring getaways and large amusement parks like Universal Studios, Nagoya has a cozy atmosphere that can’t be beat.  There are far less tourists here but still a lot of interesting things to see.  As much as I love living in Tokyo, I often find it hard to relax so I try to escape to Nagoya at least twice a month.  Every time I travel here, I discover something completely new and amazing.  Be it a cafe, park, or meeting a new friend—I’m always left with fond memories on my way home.

I’ll be noting some of my recent discoveries in this article.  Please see Aesthetic Food Finds in Nagoya for my recommended foods.

Yamazaki River

I had planned on flying to Aomori Prefecture earlier this year because it was ranked as the best place to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, but the festival was sadly cancelled due to the COVID-19.  Fortunately my boyfriend took me to a semi-secluded area in Nagoya where the Yamazaki River runs through and you can see a perfect view of the cherry blossoms in this prefecture.  Since the branches hang over the river, the petals gently fall into the water creating that dream-like Japan aesthetic you see in anime or printed on postcards.  The sakura donut I picked up at Lyrical Coffee Donut only added to the already perfect scenery.  Fortunately we could come here and still practice social distancing while enjoying the best season in Japan.  It was a small moment of peace amidst the chaos around the world that I’ll never forget.

On our way back, we stumbled upon a very interesting restaurant called “Not Curry“.  The menu consisted of some sort of soup pairing with rice.  What interesting advertising!  Also, the internet pointed out that my shadow looked like Isabelle from Animal Crossing when I uploaded it to social media.  I haven’t played the game due to wanting to devote my free time to research and writing, but who would have thought!  All sorts of magical things were happening here.

Yamazaki River Access

2 Chome Murakamicho, Mizuho Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 467-0008

Tsurumai “Pokeball” Park

This park became a meme in Nagoya due to it’s circular Pokeball-like shape and the fact that it’s a Pokemon Go hotspot.  Besides Shiratori Park, Tsurumai is one of the most beautiful parks in Nagoya.  I loved seeing the beautiful European-esque fountain, life-sized bird cages and gardens, and railings shaped like birds.  Not to mention there was tall grass where you could seemingly hunt Pokemon.  I imagine this is a popular photoshoot location for Pokemon cosplayers during World Cosplay Summit.

Our favorite activity here was live-Tweeting turtles.  We sat by the pond and watched in awe as a turtle from underwater swam up to join its friend on the rock.  Being a turtle and living in complete ignorance of the COVID crisis must be blissful.

Tsurumai Park Access

1 Chome-1 Tsurumai, Showa Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 466-0064

In my next article, I will be exploring more aesthetic food finds in Nagoya.  Please stay tuned for more updates~

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

DCIM100GOPROG0020070.JPG
GoProing at the Gorge: Taroko Gorge turns out to not be a tourist trap, but instead an unspoiled private paradise for hikers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Adventures in Busan: Daewangam Park, Gamcheon Culture Village, and Jagalchi Market (Part 1)

26196309_10213436362614906_5023691586293453657_n
Daewangam Park in January–even in the dead of winter it’s a beautiful place.

Though it took me two full years of living in Japan before I wanted to venture off to other Asian countries, I finally made it to Korea in January 2018 after my wild trip to Hong Kong.  Korea is one of the cheapest countries besides Taiwan to fly to from Tokyo, so I found a good bargain through Peach Airlines for less than $200 USD.  I landed in Seoul around 5am, but instead of heading straight for the city, I wanted to check out the countryside and picturesque parks instead.  Since I didn’t have a lot of money back then, I took a bus from Seoul to Busan at 6am which took around 4 hours to reach the central station.  The bus was only $30, so not only did I save a lot of money but I also finally got the chance to catch up on sleep!

Daewangam Park was the very first place in Korea that I had the pleasure of seeing, and my was it a glorious place!  It’s a gorgeous park by the seaside and has a forested area you can walk through near the entrance.  The rocks are carved into very unique shapes and you can walk between them and see the coast by using connected bridges.  It truly feels like you are on an adventure here!  Though it was a bit chilly being here in January, I managed to take a lot of pictures and feel amazing on this hike:

I seriously could not believe how beautiful this place was!  I saw benches scattered across the park so I imagine in the summer that many picnics take place here.  I can’t read any Hangul, but this park was free to enter and easy to navigate.  According to the tourism website that I linked above, the park got its name from a large rock island that looks like a dragon rising up into the sky.  It truly is a mystical place.

This park is located in Ulsan which is a little bit outside of Busan, so I took the Line 5001 bus from Busan Station to get here in one hour.  This was an insane amount of traveling to do in one day, but I am an insane person so it was doable.  I recommend coming here on your second day of staying in Busan so you are well-rested.

After a nice day of hiking and photography, I decided to head to one of the oldest and most famous hotsprings in Busan called Heosimcheong.  With the long flight and day that I had, it was extremely well worth it!  My muscles felt so relaxed after bathing in the hotspring water.

26230068_10213479878742782_3997989155133667650_n
“The best spa in the world.”

I have been to many hotsprings in Japan which I think are better than anywhere else in the world, but Heosimcheong (also called Hurshimchung) is comparable in quality.  After paying an entrance fee of 7,900 won, you will get a towel and key for your own locker to store your things in.  Similar to the manner in Japanese onsen, you will strip, shower, and enter a gender-segregated hotspring bath and spa.  Heosimcheong has an open air bath, sauna, and cold bath as well.  They also have a hotspring inside a cave which makes it feel kind of like a waterpark.  There were a lot of people here, but I had enough room to fully relax and enjoy myself.

What I really like about jimjilbang (Korean saunas) is that they have neon-colored lights inside.  I felt like I was at a sauna rave and it was a pretty awesome start to my first day in this country.  Except for the fact that I stayed here for too long and missed the train back to my hostel (which was quite far away).  Fortunately, Asia is scattered with places to stay in case these kind of things happen (such as net cafes and love hotels)…  I ended up staying in a love hotel (by myself) right near the spa:

26195318_10213438100458351_5708233811600585387_n
“Love is two hearts” except if you miss your last train and are staying here alone.

This became a huge joke on my social media, but I actually had a nice stay here.  It was a bit difficult to explain what happened to the staff, but with my luggage and my exasperated expression, I think they figured out what happened so they let me stay and were very accommodating to me.  I ended up oversleeping, but fortunately I did not receive any penalty charges.  What a crazy first day in Korea!!

Part 2 is now published.  I have stayed in Korea for over a month of my life and extremely happy to be able to share my experiences here.