Scuba Diving and Exploring the Pumpkin Limestone Cave in Miyakojima

Halloween came early this year in Miyakojima.

After spending a pleasant first day on Miyakojima exploring local shrines, biking to Sunayama Beach, and stumbling across old ruins, it was time to get to the main event—scuba diving with turtles. And more importantly, trying out my underwater camera equipment that I bought for my GoPro Hero 7 last year. I had originally planned to scuba dive with turtles in Cebu last March but my trip to the Philippines got cancelled due to the pandemic. I still have the ticket and still plan on going after I get vaccinated, but I imagine it’s going to be quite a long time until I can safely enter. Luckily with its pristine coral beaches, Miyakojima is one of the best places to go scuba diving in Japan so I finally got the chance to go here!

This article will detail my scuba diving experience at Shigira Beach and Boraga Beach as recommended by my instructor.

Scuba Diving at Shigira Beach

Before coming to the island, I decided to reserve a tour package from Klook that included both scuba diving with turtles and exploring the pumpkin limestone cave. Though I brought some of my own scuba gear, I really wanted to go with a local who knew the island well so I could learn the most about it. The combined tour cost 13500 yen which is much more expensive than doing similar activities in Thailand of the Philippines, but for what I saw the price was worth it. My tour started at 9:30 at Shigira Beach which was just a 30 min taxi ride from my hotel. From there I met up with my instructor who took me to the best scuba spot based on the weather conditions. The tour was entirely in Japanese but fortunately easy for me to understand.

The major bummer is that no turtles appeared, however. It might have been due to the gale advisory that swept Japan just a day before, but you would think with the lack of tourists that more wildlife would be around! Looking on the bright side, I did get to see a bunch of clown fish up close. And I also learned how to swim and use the correct settings on my camera to take quality photos. The reefs were absolutely beautiful and once again I felt like I was in the Little Mermaid World of Kingdom Hearts. Though I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to see the turtles here, I vow to meet them once I can safely travel to Cebu!

Exploring the Pumpkin Limestone Cave

While researching destinations I wanted to travel to in Miyakojima, the pumpkin limestone cave was #1 on my list. As soon as I saw the pictures of it online I knew I needed to see it with my own eyes. I mean where else in the world can you see something like this? After a short break my instructor kindly drove me to Boraga Beach where the cave was located. This is just roughly 15 mins from Shigira Beach where the turtles apparently reside. I was surprised to find that the water was extremely shallow and rocky so we were given special boots to wear as to not hurt our feet. The entrance to the cave is about a 15 min walk over rocks, but the gorgeous blue shades of the water made it fun. Once you reach the entrance of the cave, there is a gap of emerald water that you can swim through to go inside. How cool is that?

I was unaware this is actually a religious place, so we were asked to pray before entering. Though I am not religious, I am honored to have received the pumpkin god’s blessings. The inside of the cave is extremely dark so we were given flashlights so we could see where we were going. You can see the beautiful pumpkin shape as soon as you enter the cave and it looked almost ethereal from where I was swimming. My instructor guided me to a ledge where I could start climbing to the top. Though parts were a bit slippery, it was overall easy to reach the highest point where water was dripping down from stalactites. My instructor told me to sit down underneath them so the cool water droplets would hit my skin, and it really did feel relaxing! The inside of the cave was warm so the mini shower was much appreciated. There was also mud here that you could smear on your face for smooth skin. I saw mud masks in the souvenir shops before and was happy that I had the chance to experience the real thing. The mud here really does make your skin look smoother after you wash it off!

It took us roughly 20 mins to fully explore the cave, but my instructor stopped to give me some pretty interesting lectures. Here is a video of me jumping off the highest ledge of the pumpkin cave taken by my instructor. The gap was extremely narrow and a bit scary so you can hear me scream! But rest assured, this is a safe tour and I was wearing a life jacket and helmet so everything was fine. Even if you’re afraid of heights, this really isn’t that bad:

Nature & Soba

In between going to the two beaches, my instructor dropped me off at a delicious soba place called Maruyoshi Shokudo. Not only were the noodles cheap here, but the staff was amazing. They made me a custom fish and veggie bowl since I’m pescatarian and I topped it with some light curry powder to give it the perfect zest. Miyako soba is extremely famous and after eating here I can see exactly why it is true. I also explored some gardens nearby and discovered some beautiful butterflies and flora. Nature is also impressive here because everything gets a lot of sunlight. It was so fun to see all of the wildlife up close!

Chasing Sunsets

The tour ended around 3pm and my instructor drove me back to my hotel so I had just enough time to shower off, grab some food, and start chasing sunsets! The first and last two pictures were taken at morning and night at Painagama Beach near my resort. The middle picture was taken at Shigira Beach right before I left. As I grabbed some shochu from the convenience store across the road, I was surprised to see that a number of locals were gathered around playing instruments, drinking, and watching the sunset on a Tuesday night. But this is just Okinawan culture plain and simple. Though I am addicted to the city due to the endless opportunities it offers, island life is truly the life for me. I love being on the beach because I feel the happiest there.

This was my last night in Miyakojima and I think it was extremely well spent! I have one last article of my Okinawa series to publish, then I will be spontaneously traveling to Kyushu at the end of this week to finish Golden Week with a bang. Thank you all for reading and supporting my dream!

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.

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!

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 2)

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Yet another beautiful sunset on Phu Quoc Island.

In my last article I talked about my expedition of Long Beach on Phu Quoc Island, but in this article I will talk about some of the other places that I ventured to outside of my hut!  I would recommend staying at least 3 full days on this island because between the beaches and the central town, there’s a lot of neat things to see.  I spent my mornings swimming on the beach and evenings chasing sunsets.  It was truly the best 25th birthday I could have imagined!

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The inside of a mini Cao Dai Temple in Duong Dong Town.

Since I wanted to see as much as possible on the island, I booked a day tour of the north and south sides of the island through Viet Fun Travel.  This is a completely private tour run by Phu Quoc locals, so it’s very high-rated and you can customize it to your liking.  I asked that they please take me to the Ridgeback Dog Farm because I wanted to feed the Phu Quoc dogs.  They happily complied with my request and created a custom itinerary for me.

Unfortunately because I was by myself this tour cost $195 USD which is very expensive, but since there are not many ways of transportation on Phu Quoc Island it was worth the money.  If you bring more people with you the price will drastically decrease.  Since these islanders don’t always make a lot during the low season, I didn’t feel regret spending this much for a quality tour.  It was fun and I got to experience so much!  My tour guide was very nice too.

Here are the places that we stopped at.  This tour lasted about 10 hours and included hotel pickup:

 

  • Pearl Farm & Fish Sauce Factory
  • Truc Lam Ho Quoc Meditation
  • Sao Beach
  • Coconut Tree Prison
  • Phu Quoc Ridgeback Dog Farm
  • Nguyen Trung Truc Temple
  • Passing Cape Ganh Dau
  • Vung Bau Beach & Ong Lang Beach

Our first stop was the pearl farm and the fish sauce factory.  Fish sauce is Phu Quoc’s most famous food and is exported all over the country.  I got to see how it was fermented in giant barrels which was pretty neat.  The “pearl farm” was a museum of pearls mostly geared towards selling them, but I didn’t mind seeing it for a short amount of time.  The pearls were so gorgeous.  If only I could afford them!  My tour guide bought me a sugar cane drink to sip on during the drive.  It was super sweet and full of sugar as the name implies.  There was also some mysterious green seaweed-like vegetable we tried.

The temples we saw on this tour were really beautiful too (unfortunately my photography skills from 2018 do not do them justice).  Truc Lam Ho Quoc Meditation has a beautiful garden you can see when you reach the top.  I enjoyed seeing the Choco-Pies that were placed in front of the deity at Nguyen Trung Truc Temple too.  If I ever become a deity, I hope people place Choco-Pies in front of me too.

 

We next stopped at the Coconut Tree Prison that was built by French Colonists to imprison Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War.  Many tortures were performed here such as caging humans and burning off their flesh.  I didn’t take many photos because it was grotesque, but you can Google it for yourself and see just how horrible it was.  I was grateful for the personal tour because I never knew that there was a prison here!  Most people that visit Vietnam only get to see the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, as the Coconut Tree Prison is quite remote.

After that gruesome reminder of Vietnamese history was over, we stopped for my birthday lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant.  Everything was on the house~  Cheers to turning 25 on Phu Quoc!!

At the restaurant we ate octopus, fried rice with blue crab, and I tried snails for the very first time!  The snails kind of taste like sautéed mushrooms but are chewy.  I recommend trying them at least once if you get the chance.  The flavor is actually quite enjoyable.  The best part about this restaurant was definitely the atmosphere.  Even though I was a tourist, I felt at home here.

We rode briefly through the central town of Duong Dong so our driver could get gas.  This is the largest town on the island just north of my island hut.  There is a seafood market and many temples and pagodas you can see.  We stopped briefly to see a Cao Dai temple before continuing our tour so I could rest for a bit.  If I ever some back to Phu Quoc, I would like to stay in this town for just one night to see what it’s like!

Next we stopped at the Phu Quoc Ridgeback Dog Farm so I could feed the dogs.  For some reason this was one of the most anticipated stops for me!  Phu Quoc dogs are some of the rarest and most expensive breeds in the world.  They are extremely independent and love roaming the beaches.  During the high seasons you can watch them race through courses and place bets on them.  Since I was here in October, I could only pet and feed them, but that was fine by me.  They were absolutely adorable:

My tour guide was extremely kind and gave me an extra bag of food.  He knew pretty much everyone on the island so people were always giving us souvenirs.  After I had fed every dog on the farm (and I mean EVERY dog), we decided to hit the southern Sao beaches.  I didn’t take a lot of pictures because I was swimming, but it was extremely surreal to see cows grazing out here:

While I was swimming my tour guide told me I could stay out here as long as I liked because he was practicing meditation with an mp3.  I stayed until sunset and got to soak up a lot of sun.  Everyone that is native to this island practices spirituality, but they never try to force their beliefs upon you.  I really enjoyed every single moment here even though my time was short.

I would recommend this tour to fellow adventurers because it truly takes you everywhere.  I was exhausted by the end of my trip and was thankful I could rest in my hut.  My next article will be the last of my Vietnam series!  Thank you to all that have read up to this point.

Floating down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

After hiking around Black Virgin Mountain & Cao Dai Temple, I decided it might be nice to go out on the water for a day.  Mekong River Delta, home to a maze of rivers, swamps, and floating markets, is the perfect place to go boating and experience an agricultural community.  This river starts in the Himalayas and flows through four other surrounding countries before reaching Vietnam.  The murky brown color of the water comes from the soil it washes up so the river itself is actually quite clean.  A majority of Vietnam’s rice and fish is transported to other areas from Mekong Delta, so it’s vital to the country’s economics.  Not to mention its jungle-like aesthetic makes it the perfect place to go on an adventure!

Mekong Delta can easily be reached from Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s cheapest to go on a tour.  I booked a group tour through Get Your Guide for around $28 and found it to be quite helpful.  I got to explore parts of the jungle, eat delicious Vietnamese food, and see some of the smaller islands.  One is even named after a unicorn!  I was fortunate that the other people on my tour were kind and welcoming.  I met one woman from Colombia that introduced me to her sons that were around my age (mid-twenties).  We all awkwardly laughed.  No vacation is complete without awkward random encounters!

Sailing on the Mekong Delta was amazing.  The weather was humid but fortunately there was a cool breeze.  No matter which direction you look there is a lot to see:

I highly recommend buying a nón lá (leaf hat) from the market during your trip.  Initially I thought that wearing one of these as a tourist would be embarrassing, but the hats are ideal for the weather here.  During warm days they can shield your entire face from the sun, and during rainy days the droplets will slide off  them keeping you completely dry.

After a while of sailing we stopped at Ben Tre, the capital of one of the largest provinces in the Mekong Delta, and got to explore some of the beautiful scenery on foot.  There was a tiny wildlife preserve with crocodiles, porcupine-like creatures, and other exotic animals.  A woman came with a colony of bees and showed us how honey was made (fortunately the bees didn’t seem hostile).  We also learned how coconuts were used to make desserts and got to try some coconut jelly!  It was so delicious.

Besides boats,the main form of transportation around the muddy banks of the Mekong Delta is by horse.  Although a lot of residents of Vietnam own motorbikes, they seem to be quite challenging to ride around here.  That is another reason why I recommend booking a tour.  Though it can take days to see the entire Mekong Delta here, just a day trip was enough for me.

I said it once but I’ll say it again: Vietnamese Cuisine tastes amazing and severely underrated.  For lunch we had a buffet that included elephant ear fish (see top picture), shrimp, omelette, rice, crackers, fresh fruit, and coconut jelly.  This kind of meal is simple but very filling.  Since I don’t eat meat, I informed the chef and they were able to accommodate my request.  If you’re looking for a fancier dinner, you can always order one back in Ho Chi Minh City!

I visited a similar place to Mekong Delta in Cambodia last year called Kampong Pluk.  It also has a floating economy, amazing fish, and many similarities to Vietnam.  I recommend checking out both because their cultures are slightly different.  I can’t pick a favorite because both of them were an entirely unique experience.

Here are some other things I recommend checking out in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Notre Dame Cathedral – A historic church with beautiful architecture.
  • Ho Chi Minh City Hall – An iconic landmark of the city,
  • Cafe ZONE 69 – I found this place during my morning run and thought it was hilarious.  I have no idea if it still exists or not, but it’s in the heart of the city.
  • Ho Chi Minh Opera House – I sadly didn’t have enough time to go, but I’d love to see a show here in the future.
  • Jade Emperor Pagoda – One of the prettiest temples in town.

I only stayed 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City, but that was enough for me because I got to see and experience a lot of different things.  In my next article, I will be talking about my experience in Hanoi and how it differs from this city.  As always, please stay tuned for more updates!

 

Exploring Black Virgin Mountain, Cao Dai Temple, and the Cu Chi Tunnels

After having some unique dining experiences in Ho Chi Minh, I decided to get out of the city and explore Black Virgin Mountain and the Cao Dai Temples on my 2nd day in Vietnam.  These are two very historic places in the southern part that I highly recommend checking out.  I booked a private tour through Get Your Guide because I wanted to hit as many destinations as possible and some are very difficult to reach alone.  This journey also brought me to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a massive underground network around the country.  Seeing remnants of the Vietnam War was surreal and a memory that I’ll always carry with me.

The tour was a little over $100 which is pricier than most I’ve gone on, but my guide was excellent and matched my pace.  This price also included the entrance fee to all of the places I was going to.  I prefer spending my days outside of the city learning about history and culture while spending my nights at the local bars so I have a complete experience abroad.  I was able to see and learn a lot in the time that I had which I am grateful for.

Black Virgin Mountain

The tour started at 7am and I was picked up directly from my hotel by my friendly tour guide.  She was a Vietnamese student who spoke polished English and was very skilled at conversation.  I was lucky to have met her!  We boarded a small van and made our way to Black Virgin Mountain, an inactive volcano in the south of Vietnam.  What makes this mountain so famous is its legend that has been passed down for generations.

As we boarded the cable car to the peak of the mountain, my guide told me the full story.  The Legend of the Black Virgin actually has two variations.  In one version she falls in deeply in love with a Khmer soldier.  When he is drafted to war, she jumps off the mountain out of heart break and agony.  In another version, she jumps off the mountain to protect her virginity when she is forced into an arranged marriage.  In both versions, she is a lady with black skin who is highly devoted to Buddhism and purity.  The legend is quite sad, but her faith and unyielding spirit is admirable.  There are many altars where you can leave offerings in her memory.

When we got off the cable car we reached a market area and a series of temples.  The cable car doesn’t take you all the way to the top, but you can easily reach the pagoda within 15 minutes of climbing.  According to other travelers, the mountain takes around 6 hours to climb to the top and back.  I am happy I rode the cable car because this was only my 2nd day here and I had a lot planned.  Perhaps in the future I will attempt to climb a Vietnamese mountain!

It was fascinating seeing the design of the temples here because they were painted in extremely bright colors.  They are similar to those in Thailand and Cambodia since they are bordering countries.  The fresh fruit being sold at the market also tasted amazing!  I also grabbed a bowl of Pho because it was cheap and the perfect food for exploring Vietnam.  I also noticed some scorpion wine at a gift shop but I didn’t buy it.

My guide took me to a temple where you first pray and make a wish, then pick up 3 splinters of wood and drop them on the ground to determine your fate.  If they all face the same way, then your wish will come true.  I was fortunately able to make my wish come true on the very first try (you get 3 tries total).  If you fail, it is highly implied that you can climb the mountain on another day and try again.

I’m not allowed to tell anyone my wish, but it has to do with traveling and connecting my aesthetic tastes with my career.  Maybe starting this website was part of the prophecy…

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The Wood Splinters of Fate.

After I finished paying my respects, I Mario Karted down the mountain.  It was honestly the perfect way to end my trip to Black Virgin Mountain because my body was surging with adrenaline!

Cao Dai Temples

Our next stop was Cao Dai Temple that sits not far from the base of the mountain.  It is famous for its beautiful architecture and the articulate painting of the sky in its main hall.  This is hands down the most impressive temple that I saw while I was backpacking through Vietnam, so please check it out if you get the chance!

Caodaism is a mysterious religion that was founded in Vietnam in 1926, so it is fairly recent.  The majority of Vietnamese people are non-religious or follow the teachings of Buddhism, but this religion is gradually gaining followers even in western countries.  Cao Dai means “high tower” and is represented by the divine eye.  Cao Dai blends Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam.  The worshippers wear white robes and perform several chants at the temple every day:

There is a scene from the movie Ghost in the Shell: Innocence that looks like it was influenced by Cao Dai Temple:

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Though I’m not religious, being here made me feel very alive.  It’s amazing to think about how much this religion has caught on!

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are perhaps the most iconic attraction around Ho Chi Minh City because they were utilized in the Vietnam War.  Fortunately we came late in the afternoon when not as many people were here.  The cool thing about this museum is that it’s almost entirely outdoors and encased in a green forest.  The tunnels have been widened so they’re easier for tourists to get through.  I enjoyed see all the trap doors and hideaways hidden in foliage.  There is also a large tank and shooting range you can check out.  This museum doesn’t highlight the horrors of the war so much like the Hoa Lo Prison (which I’ll get into later).  The Cu Chi Tunnels show a more strategic approach to how the Vietnam War was originally fought.  I was surprised to know that there were a number of woman soldiers involved as well.

Overall, this was an amazing tour that lasted the whole day.  I couldn’t believe that this was only my 2nd day here and that there were many more ahead!  Look forward to the rest of my adventures~

The best things to do on your first trip to Kyoto (Part 1)

Over the past few months I’ve explored the rural northern parts of Kyoto including the fishing town of Ine and the beautiful beach of Amanohashidate, but in this post I’d like to highlight the main tourist spots from my earlier archives just for reference.

I first visited Kyoto in 2013 during my study abroad trip in Japan, and returned in late 2015 for a visit during my epic job search.  I now visit Kyoto 3-4 times per year for music events (mainly at Metro) and also for eating aesthetic food.

The longer I live in Japan, the more I come to appreciate this peaceful city.  From nearly anywhere in Kyoto you can see the mountains and be reminded of the beautiful terrain this country has.  As the former capital of Japan, Kyoto has almost everything you could want in a place to live; shopping centers, street food, temples filled with years history, and a variety of night clubs.  Not to mention Nintendo HQ!  Though Tokyo has the most opportunity for foreigners, I often fantasize about what my life would be like if I lived here.  It definitely would be an exciting one~

Here are my recommendations on things to see during your first trip to Kyoto:

The Golden Pavilion

Out of all the building structures I’ve seen in Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is by far the most breathtaking.  Built overtop a pond, you can see it shining elegantly with its gold leaf coating during any time of the year.  I first came here in Autumn when it shone with a beautiful contrast to the leaves that were turning a bright shade of red.  The best time to come is during the golden hour (5pm) because the lighting is optimal and you can see a perfect reflection of it on the water.  Though you are not allowed to enter the pavilion, you can still admire its impressive design from afar.  I learned from the pamphlet I was given the gold lacquer is thought to dispel and purify pollution and negative thoughts.  Being here definitely put my mind at ease and I think it’s somewhere that everyone should visit at least once.  I have never seen any other place that’s as gold as this besides the Golden Buddha in Nara.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Line to Kita-Oji Station then Bus 205 to the Kinkakuji Bus Stop.  This costs 490 yen and takes 30 mins.

Entrance Fee: 400 yen

Fushimi Inari

The best way I can think to describe Fushimi Inari is “a shrine of shrines”.  If you want to experience one of the biggest shrine networks surrounded by nature in Japan, then all travel guides will point you here.  Similar to the Golden Pavilion (but much more red in color), there is really no place quite like here.  You will be stunned by the thousands of red torii gates and trails that lead to the summit of Mt. Inari.  The climb takes about 2.5 hours to reach from the base.  You will notice that there are many fox statues here which are said to be the messengers of the shrine.  Though this place is a tourist hotspot, I definitely recommend it.  If you are looking for a less crowded shrine, you can try going to Daigoji in Kyoto too because it is similarly red and historical.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Nara Line to Inari Station.  This only takes 5 mins and costs 150 yen.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen

Nintendo HQ

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Where it all began.

Before I came to Japan most of my time was spent gaming or watching anime. I have some of my best adolescent memories and have met many friends through Nintendo games and events. So coming here—to the main HQ building of Nintendo in Kyoto—was surreal to me.  Of course you’re not allowed to enter, but you can walk by the building and are free to take pictures.  There is not much else to see in this district, but this building is definitely worth seeing if you’re a Nintendo fan.

Access

From Shiokoji Takakura bus stop near Kyoto Station, you can take Bus 205 to Kyoto Shiyakushomae and walk 3 mins there.  You can also take a cheap taxi or rent bikes to get here.

Address: 11-1 Kamitoba Hokodatecho, Minami Ward, Kyoto, 601-8501

In Part 2 of this article I will be talking more about the touristy things I did in Kyoto when I first moved to Japan.  Often people look down upon tourism, but it is essential to the economy of most Asian countries and also has been valuable in my understanding of the culture here.  You should never feel ashamed for being a tourist.

A Lovely Day Trip to Kyoto’s Heart-shaped Temple: Shojuin

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A look through the heart-shaped window at Shojuin Temple in Ujitawara, Kyoto.

Immortal HeartI’ve been to Kyoto many times in many different seasons, but this month was the first time I’ve ever been to the remotely located heart-shaped temple called Shojuin in Ujitawara.  Amidst the fear of the corona virus, I was worried this temple may be closed like many other facilities in Japan, but I was fortunate to travel during a time when it was still open.  Located in a rural area accessible by bus from Uji Station, you will find that the view through the window is well worth the trip.  Even though I visited during the winter, I managed to take a lot of quality photos and learn about its history with only a few other Japanese tourists around me.

I arrived to the temple around 2pm when I predicted there would be optimal sunlight.  The weather was raining on and off but due to the way Shojuin is constructed, the light always falls through the heart-shaped window.  The temple consists of a few small building complexes but everything can easily be seen within 40 minutes.  Tea and a light snack are provided with the entrance fee as well as an explanation of the history as the inome window.  The word “inome” refers to a heart shape motif commonly found in Japanese temples and Buddhism.  The definition literally means “eye of the wild boar” in Japanese (which is said to be heart-shaped so it makes sense in theory).  It could also refer to the lime trees with heart-shaped leaves that are closely associated with Buddhism.  I have uploaded the English explanation I was given for reference if anyone wishes to investigate it further.

The inome window is also nicknamed the “Window of Happiness” making it the ideal place to pray for peace and love.  Though I do not consider myself a religious person, coming to this temple was a truly bright experience to me.  In addition to the window, there are also over 160 art tiles on the ceiling painted in brilliant colors.  While I was taking pictures, it started snowing for a brief period through the window.  This was my first time all year seeing snow in Japan, so it is a special moment I’ll never forget:

Though I was only here for around an hour and a half, I feel like I had the chance to witness this temple during all four seasons.  During my time here it rained, snowed, turned overcast, then sunlight came out right before it closed.  It was amazing!  The people around me couldn’t believe it either.  Just like my Quest to the Tower of the Sun, this also felt like an experience pulled straight from a video game.  I highly recommend this temple to everyone visiting Kyoto, because it’s not nearly as touristy or crowded as the Golden Pavilion or Kiyomizu-dera.

During the summer there is a wind chime festival here as well.  Please check the official Kyoto Tourism website for more information.

Access

294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862
Entrance Fee: 400 yen (includes tea and sweets)

Directions: From Kyoto Station, ride the Nara Line to Obaku Station, then ride the Uji Line to Uji Station.  From Uji Station, take the Keihan Bus to Ichumae Bus Stop.  Please note that Google Maps will suggest you to take a taxi to Shojuin Temple from this point, which I did on the way there for 2000 yen, but there is a “community bus” (which actually a small white van) that I missed which is free.  On the way back, I walked with some friendly Japanese girls from Hyogo to the free bus stop.  The bus stop looks like a shack that belongs to someone’s backyard because Uji is very rural, but we managed to find it with teamwork.  Keep your eyes out for the iconic heart-shaped bus stop that leads you to the magical heart-shaped temple (this is the best travel advice I’ve given anyone):

A Quest to The Tower of the Sun (Osaka, Japan)

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The Tower of the Sun stands proudly in Osaka representing the evolution of life.

Over the weekend while attending a unique club-turned-campsite event at Club Daphnia, I decided to stop by the Tower of the Sun (太陽の塔) because it’s one of the few attractions in Osaka that I haven’t been to yet.  The Tower of Sun is located in Osaka’s Expo ’70 Commemorative Park among flower gardens, museums, and other recreational facilities.  There’s even a “Dream Pond” with pedal boats (much like Tokyo’s Ueno Park) and a foot bath you can use.  This area is truly a unique place and feels like it’s part of an RPG map with the Tower as a dungeon surrounded by fields of flowers.  It’s also far away enough from the city that you can leisurely relax here, but you can easily access it by riding the Osaka Monorail.

The tower itself is 70m tall and was designed by the artist Taro Okamoto for the 1970 Japan World Exposition.  The design was a hit success and attracted millions of visitors so it still stands in the exact same place today.  According to the Official ’70 Expo Website, the three faces of the tower each represent a different phase of life:

The “Golden Mask” located at its top, which shines and suggests the future, the “Face of the Sun” on its front, which represents the present, and the “Black Sun” on its back, which symbolizes the past.

From the front it looks like it only has two faces, but if you walk around to the rear of the tower you can see the black face of the past and enter the museum. Unfortunately due to the effect of the corona virus, the museum was temporarily closed.  However, the gift shops and cafes were still open and there was a lot of sightseeing for me to do in the park.  There is a 4th face within the tower as well as intricate sculptures demonstrating the evolution of life (from the dinosaur age until the present) so I hope to come back to see it in the future when it’s open.

This tower has become somewhat of a meme in Japanese society due to its unique design.  I’ve seen a number of people cosplay it on Halloween and apparently it has somewhat of a cult-like following.  Some Japanese people around me were describing it as “scary-looking” but it just looks like something out of a NieR game to me.  I honestly think what it symbolizes is truly wondrous and I’m happy that they kept it as the mascot of the Expo park.  The souvenirs they sold at the gift shop were hilarious too!  You could buy anything from $100 action figures and plush dolls to $5 dollar keychains.  I liked the design of the T-shirt too.  I bought a keychain because I thought it was very cute.

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Friendly Tower of the Sun takoyaki man.

On my way back I saw a takoyaki store that had Tower of the Sun action figures next to it.  As I was taking a picture, the man gave me a thumbs up sign.  I really love Osaka and am excited to write all about my adventures here!  Despite the fear of the virus, life in Osaka seems to be carrying on as normal which is relieving.

Access

1-1 Senribanpakukoen, Suita, Osaka 565-0826
Entrance Fee: 250 yen (the cheapest I have paid to enter a tourist attraction in a while)