Exploring Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple: Saihoji

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

Getting to Saihoji & Reservation Process

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

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

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

Admission Fee: 3000 yen

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

Exploring the Moss Garden

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

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

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

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

Recommended Food in Arashiyama

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

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

Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 1)

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

Nanzenji Architectural Temple

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

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

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

Kotoba no Haoto

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

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

Experiencing the Golden Hour at Mt. Hiei

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

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

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

Celebrations at L’Escamoteur

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

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

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

Accommodation: Hostel Mundo

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

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

Kanazawa: The City of Gold and Miraculous Wonder

People always ask me what my favorite place to visit outside of Tokyo is—and though it’s extremely hard to for me to choose because there’s simply so many—one of my favorite destinations of all time is Kanazawa.  Kanazawa is the capital city of Ishikawa prefecture and is known for its famous seafood market, historical buildings including samurai houses, and brilliant gold architecture.  It has a rustic charm that is similar to Kyoto, but is far less touristy and is surrounded by the beautiful sea.

Kanazawa is also the birthplace of famous musical artist Nakata Yasutaka (producer of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, capsule, and Perfume), who created his own indie music festival called OTONOKO that was held once a year from 2016-2018 (it currently if unknown when it will be held again).  The festival attracted around 200-300 people and created a close community of music lovers that had traveled from all over Japan.  It’s one of the best music festivals I’ve ever been to in Japan because it features both the experienced artists of ASOBISYSTEM and the new and upcoming talents too.  I was happy to share this experience with many friends I had met at his previous music events held in Tokyo and other cities as well as explore the famous capital that is his hometown.  There is so much to do in Kanazawa outside of the festival too!

Here’s a list I’ve compiled of all of my favorite places in Kanazawa.  You can easily spend 3 full days doing things here:

Kanazawa Castle & Kenrokuen

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Kanazawa Castle is one of my all-time favorite castles in Japan and is located right next to the famous Japanese garden Kenrokuen.  This castle is massive compared to other ones I’ve visited and you can tell a lot of detail was put its re-construction after in caught on fire in the 1600s.  I first came here in the winter when a light layer of snow had piled on top of the castle’s roof and it was extremely aesthetic.  I was glad that it was one of the first places I had visited because it’s a huge part of the city’s history.

Strolling through Kenrokuen and listening to all of my favorite music was also a huge pleasure.  It’s considered one of Japan’s “three most beautiful landscape gardens” and is the best garden of Kanazawa so you should definitely check it out if you’re here.

The castle is free to enter, and Kenrokuen’s admission is 320 yen.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

I recently wrote an article on the The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums I’ve Been to in Asia, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is my top pick.

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

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

The entrance fee is 360 yen for temporary exhibitions (some exhibits are free).

Golden Ice Cream & Sake

Since Kanazawa is the city of gold, you can find all sorts of golden souvenirs here.  The golden ice cream is by far the most famous (and delicious too).  At a confectionery shop called Hakuichi, you can savor the best gold-leaf ice cream in Japan.  I went during October one year and they added an edible ghost topping too!  The gold sake is also something I bought back for home.  It tastes just like any other sake but the gold flakes inside make it look like a glittery snow globe.  My friends joke that I have eaten more gold than anyone they know, and that very well may be true.

Omicho Fish Market

The Omicho Fish Market is where you’ll find some of the freshest seafood in mainland Japan.  Kanazawa is most famous for crab, but you can find almost any other kind of fish imaginable.  My personal favorites were Kaisen Maruhidon (rice bowls with mountains of seafood on top) and the tiny servings of sea urchin sold in the stalls outside.  Most restaurants will gladly customize your orders for you and there are amazing sushi restaurants here as well.

One of my favorite memories was when Nakata Yasutaka’s first solo album Digital Native was announced the night before the festival, so my friend and I split a crab then ordered a pitcher of sangria from a restaurant below the station in celebration.  A waiter peeled a fresh avacado for us too, but I don’t actually remember what we ordered in last photo…  That just goes to show how much fun I had here!

Higashi Chaya District

The Higashi Chaya District of Kanazawa is where some of the traditional teahouses and upscale ryokan are located so it’s one of the prettiest parts of the city.  There are also cafes, souvenir shops, and a lot of interesting architecture here.  It’s a lot similar to Kyoto’s Gion district but the crowds are more evenly distributed.  I love the winding streets and also the liveliness here.  Everything seems like it was built to perfection.

I highly recommend checking out the Nomura Clan Samurai Home here because it has unique artifacts and a beautiful home garden.  The Godburger is also a nice meme.  Although haven’t eaten there yet, it’s definitely on my bucket list.

Piano of Memories (思い出ピアノ)

As I was walking underneath Kanazawa Station, I noticed a really interesting exhibit.  Here sat an ordinary piano that anyone could walk up to and play but it had an interesting concept.  People could upload videos with the hashtag “sharepiano” for others to listen to online.  I uploaded this video I took to Twitter and the pianist actually found it and was happy I captured this moment!

Kanazawa is a popular destination for both foreign and domestic tourists, but it’s spread out enough so that things like this can be heard and appreciated.

Hotsprings, Hotels, & Other Recommendations

When I first came to Kanazawa, I didn’t have a lot of money so I decided to stay at a hostel called Good Neighbors Hostel (now called Off) near the station for around 2500 yen a night.  The 2nd time I stayed at Neighbors Inn (owned by the same people) for around the same price.  Both were extremely memorable times.

The first time I met a Perfume fan from Hong Kong who had awesome stickers of all the idols on his laptop.  We became good friends during the duration of the festival and the hostel had a Death Note-inspired “Guest Note” that we wrote in (fortunately no one died).  The second time the hostel had a ball pit so I took hilarious photos of myself pregaming in it.  I always have the best time staying in this city no matter where I am.

If hostels aren’t your style, you can find a variety of cheap hotels on websites like Booking.  Additionally, if you are looking for a day hot spring I recommend Terume Kanazawa.  The admission fee is only 1100 yen.

The official after party for the festival was held at an event space called Double with two floors (one bar floor and one music floor).  It is here where the strong gather and continue to party until down.  In 2018 I managed to meet Nakata-san before he left and get me T-shirt signed.  It was on my birthday weekend so it made it extremely special:

Here is a shot of the after-party I recorded in 2018.  It truly was a time to be alive and I hope to go again if it resumes in the future:

Access

From Tokyo Station, take the Hokuriku-Shinkansen towards Kanazawa.  This takes approximately 3 hours and costs 15,000 yen one way.  Nakata Yasutaka actually designed the shinkansen departure melody for this train so it’s extremely special!

You can also fly to Komatsu Airport and take a bus to Kanazawa Station which may be cheaper unless you have the JR Rail Pass.

If you are interested in other day trips from Kanazawa, please see my Shirakawago article.

Falling Down the Capybara Hole at Izu Granpal Park (Shizuoka, Japan)

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Granpal Park is the perfect Capybara Onsen after party.

On my way back to Atami after meeting the friendly capybara at Izu Shaboten Zoo, I couldn’t help but notice an advertisement on the train with a picture of illuminated capybara in a garden full of LED lights (much like the photo I took above).  I was completely captivated by the image.  What was this magical place with LSD visuals and sparkling wonder doing in rural Japan?  Being the spontaneous adventurer that I am, I had to investigate!

With a quick Google search, I discovered that it was Izu Granbel Park, located adjacent to the capybara zoo I went to earlier that day.  Fortunately the park was open until 9:30pm, so it made the perfect after party location for my trip.  I immediately got off at the closest station and rode the Ito train line to Futo Station.  On the way I bought a mini bottle of wine from the nearby Family Mart and walked 20 minutes to the park (because illuminations are way more fun to watch with alcohol).

What’s hilarious is that Google Maps directs you to the back entrance of the park (which was closed when I reached it) so I had to jump a small fence to get inside.  However, my efforts of navigating a dark and solemn back road to reach my destination would be rewarded with a brilliant lightshow over a global atmosphere of twinkling bulbs:

I had definitely fell down the capybara hole and landed in some strange wonderland.  When I walked through the back entrance, I was greeted by giant neon candies and an endless field of glowing flowers as far as the eye could see.  Upon descending a hill in that area, a sea of radiant fish and a luminous backdrop of Mt. Fuji greeted me (only in Japan).  When I turned to walk up towards the front entrance, I stumbled upon a garden of lollipops with capybara and red pandas frolicking in them.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There was a photo opportunity here with literally every step.  This felt like something that I had made up in a dream because it was so bright and beautiful!

This was the best illumination I had ever seen in Japan.  Previously I had visited Aichi’s Floral Oasis, but this park’s lightshows were much more elaborate.  In addition to the global atmosphere of lights, they also had a mini zoo with gerbils and other small animals.  In the summer there is a waterpark and various rides open too.  Besides the LED (LSD?) capybaras, my favorite attractions were the Tunnel of Dreams and the unexpected dinosaur exhibit.  There’s also a glowing pirate ship and pirates restaurant that is dog-friendly.  If I had a dog, I would definitely bring them here!

This park really expanded my mind and put me in a good mood, so I would recommend it to everyone that visits Shizuoka!  You’ll find that the illuminations outside of the city are much more fun to see, plus this is probably the only place in the world where you can see real capybaras bathe at hotsprings during the day and illuminated ones at night.  A real fantasy come alive.

Address and Admission Price

Address: 1090 Futo, Itō, Shizuoka 413-0231

Entrance to the park is only 1300 yen (much cheaper than what I’ve paid to enter other illuminated parks).

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Capybara bathe in Devilman: Crybaby.

If you are interested in reading more about capybara bathing in hotsprings, please see my Izu Shaboten Zoo article.