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!

A Well-deserved Trip to Ginzan Onsen and the Totoro Tree

It’s been quite a while since my last update due to my new job (which I love) and moving to the center of Tokyo (which took almost an entire month), but Resurface to Reality is back! I plan on making more frequent updates now that I am fully situated with my new life style (more about that later). Life has been extremely kind to me recently which is why I plan to do more writing!

This weekend I finally found some time to travel up north and see two destinations on my bucket list that I’ve wanted to explore for quite some time: Ginzan Onsen & The Totoro Tree. This was my very first time in Yamagata Prefecture and I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the Autumn weather was ideal for hiking. Due to the busyness of the Go To Travel Campaign, it was quite hard to book hotels so I opted for a day trip. One day was enough time for me to see everything that I had plan and also get lost on the way, but I recommend 2 – 3 days here if you have enough time.

Due to their strong Ghlibli resemblance, these are the two main places that I sought out:

The Totoro Tree

As a photographer who has traveled to various real-life anime locations including the Satsuki and Mei House and the Totoro Bus Stop, naturally this tree was high priority on my list of destinations. According to Yamagata Japan, the real name of this tree is “Kosugi no Ohsugi” which means “Giant Cedar Tree of Magarigawa”, but to the locals here it is simply referred to as “The Totoro Tree” because it looks like Totoro when viewed from a distance. At first I thought that perhaps someone had cut the hedges of the tree to look like Totoro, but upon my arrival I realized that it is far too large and remotely located for someone to do that. This tree naturally looks like Totoro and that’s why nature is awesome!

There is a viewing platform on the same road where you can see the tree from afar, but I recommend taking the walking trail adjacent to it so you can see it up close (it takes about 5 mins to reach the base of the tree). I brought my Totoro doll for size comparison. Not many people were there, but it was a hit with the children that had come with their families.

Address

〒999-5206 Yamagata, Mogami District, Sakegawa, Magarigawa, Unnamed Road

I rode from Tokyo Station to Shinjo Station which took 3.5 hours and cost 12,000 yen. Then I took a taxi from the station directly to the tree for around 10,000 yen (expensive, but also not the worst I’ve paid). Unfortunately without a car this area is difficult to access, but I was a woman on a mission so the experience was overall worth it to me. After living in Japan for over 5 years, I realize these are the kind of obscure places I most love to explore.

Ginzan Onsen

After getting tons of pictures of the Totoro Tree, I next made my way to a famous hot springs resort that is said to have influenced the Ghibli classic Spirited Away: Ginzan Onsen. This onsen is nestled in the mountains and features a hiking trail that will take you to a gorge, various shrines, and ruins of a silver ore mine. The traditional ryokan that are lined across the river from one another light up at night and present a very picturesque, movie-like scene. This onsen is most popular during the winter season, but I think it looks gorgeous year round! No matter what time of year you choose to go, you will be presented with beautiful scenery and a charming atmosphere.

I started my adventure out by getting some eggplant soba and soba soft cream from the nearby restaurant Izu no Hana. Pretty much all the restaurants in Ginzanso serve only soba and a few other dishes, but I was looking for something specifically vegetarian so I chose here. I did not make the wrong choice because their portion sizes were huge and the ingredients they used were very fresh. The soba soft serve ice cream is a must-try! The saltiness of it really balanced the otherwise sweet flavor.

After snapping some photos of the beautiful river and the free footbath (which I recommend using at night), I decided to make my way to the south of the town and climb the hiking trails. Some of them go up and give you an aerial view of the town, and some of them descend down toward the ruins of the silver mine. It is best to start before 4pm so it doesn’t get dark on your way back.

Within 5 mins of hiking you will stumble across a beautiful gorge:

This reminds me of Takachiho Gorge which I traveled to during the summer, but it was much smaller in scale. It still looked lovely with the vivid Autumn colors, however!

After about 25 mins of walking, I looped around the trail and discovered the cave to the silver mine ruins. This entrance is quite easy to walk passed so be sure to read the guideposts!

The caves only take around 5 mins to explore, but are definitely worth seeing for their cryptic skull-like design on the inside. What a sharp contrast to the beautiful village that I had visited before!

Overall I spent around an hour on this trail admiring the bright red leaves, wandering and getting lost with an old Japanese couple, and exploring the silver mine ruins. It was quite the fun adventure—one that my heart had yearned for quite a long time!

When I arrived back at the main hot springs village, it had already started getting dark so I relaxed by the footbath and did some night photography. What a long but fulfilling day this was!

Address

Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa, Yamagata

This onsen is easily reachable via bus Oishida Station, which is only 19 mins from the nearest station to the Totoro Tree. The buses from Oishida Station run once per hour, cost 720 yen, and take around 40 mins. The last bus stops at 6:41 after the town starts to get quiet, so be sure to check the time table if you’re day tripping like me.

Final Thoughts

Besides Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, no other hot springs resort comes close to how beautiful Ginzan is. What I liked most is that almost all of the attractions were accessible by foot, and you can take local buses to reach the onsen that were further out. Due to the corona influence, many of the bath houses were closed so I didn’t get to try any besides the free foot bath, but here is a full list for those who are interested.

Though I traveled nearly 8 hours combined with trains and buses, seeing a secluded part of Yamagata’s countryside was worth it because it inspired me to use my GoPro again after months of not using it. She’s back, baby!

As I made my way from Tokyo to Yamagata, various station attendants handed me postcards to commemorate my journey. It felt good to be backpacking again. I will be taking another trip to Kyoto this weekend in celebration of the three day consecutive holiday for the purpose of capturing the red leaves and trying cute cafes. Please look forward to my future (more frequent) updates!

Visiting Shirakawago: A Traditional Japanese Village (Real-life Hinamizawa)

On my trip back home from Kaga Onsen Festival, I decided to stop at a traditional Japanese village called Shirakawago (白川郷) located in the mountainous Gifu Prefecture.  This village is extremely historic because it consists of traditional farmhouses that are over 250 years with the handwork of Japanese architecture that has been honed for many generations.  Visitors are free to explore and enter some of the houses for a small entrance fee, and there are several restaurants as well.  Remote from any major metropolis, this village is also the location of the fictional mystery/horror series Higurashi no naku koro ni called Hinamizawa.

“A flower raised in a greenhouse is still beautiful, even though it knows no adversity. But a flower growing in the field that has braved wind, rain, cold, and heat possesses something more than just beauty.” – Rena Ryuugu, Higurashi no naku koro ni

Since I was close to Kanazawa Station, I was fortunate to take only a two hour bus ride directly here.  From Tokyo, this village can take around 4-5 hours to reach depending on the train schedule (some trains only run once per hour).  The village gets dark at night, so most places close around 6pm-7pm for safety.  There is lodging available for those who wish to stay overnight, though I only stayed for around 3 hours which was plenty for me.

My biggest recommendation in Shirakawago is the Gasshozukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum.  When you first get off the bus stop, the majority of shops you see are all aimed at tourists and only have souvenirs.  However, the outdoor museum is about a 15 minute walk away from this area and contains all preserved houses and a beautiful creek.  There are a total of 26 buildings you can see here, and the Jin Homura Art Museum is nearby so stop by for an inside look at some of his hand-painted works!

For lunch, I stopped by the Soba Dojo and had some delicious handmade buckwheat noodles–probably the best I had ever tasted!  I also tried some pumpkin bread from a bakery nearby, which wasn’t very sweet but was very wholesome made with all natural ingredients grown on the farm.  There are a number of places that serve traditional Japanese food in addition to soba.

Another place of interest is the nearby shrine, better known as Furude Shrine in Higurashi.  You can see the school and bridge from the anime as well.  The resemblance of the building structures is truly uncanny so those who have enjoyed the series, though the overall atmosphere of the village is very pleasant and welcoming!

On my way back, I decided to enter the Kanda and Wada houses, because they are two of the most famous.  Inside of the houses, you can climb all the way to the top, see the tools that they used in the past (you may see the inspiration for Rena’s hatchet design), and also enjoy some complimentary tea.

The last place I recommend is the Shirakawago Observatory, which is just a short hike up the hill next to the bus stop.  You can see the most amazing view of the village from this point (captured in the first image).

Unlike the eerie sensation the village gives off in the series, the actual Shirakawago is not haunted or fearsome.  It’s actually a great place to relax and take a great from the city, and the people are very friendly too.  All of the tourists that make the journey here are usually interested in history, so I’d rate this as a very good tourist attraction overall.

My Favorite Noodles: Sweet Potato Cream Soba

In the trendy Ebisu neighborhood of Tokyo lies a famous soba noodle restaurant called Shodai (初代) that specializes in some pretty unique dishes. On a cold night in December, I decided to try it and thus discovered my favorite dish: Sweet Potato Cream Soba. Though sweet potato cream may seem like an unlikely soba topping, the cream actually adds a lot of delicious flavor and texture to the broth.  You can’t even really taste the potato–it truly just tastes like a light fluffy whipped topping, but isn’t even that sweet.  When it melts in the broth to coat the thick soba noodles, it truly creates an exquisite taste! Some cheap soba broths aren’t that tasty, but this is definitely one you want to try!

Whenever I walk outside this restaurant, it is usually very crowded so it is recommended to make a reservation in advance.  However, if you are by yourself then it may be possible to walk in and find available seating without reservation.  There are many soba and traditional Japanese dishes available for you to order, as well as sake!

So far Shodai is the only restaurant where I have seen this dish available, but is likely there are more soba restaurants that use similar culinary techniques!  I hope to try them out in the future.

BRAINFOOD

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Because eating balanced meals is essential to living a healthy lifestyle,
Remember to eat foods that are good for your brain.
Almost all food you consume has at least some nutritional value or health benefits.
In fact, despite what recent diet trends tell you,
Not all carbohydrates are bad.
Food comes in many different forms–some you may not expect!
Of course, soba (as pictures above) is one of my favorites.
Otherwise, what the most important lesson here is:
Don’t forget to feed your brain.