Adventures in Nikko: Waterfalls, Igloos, and Walking in an Edo Wonderland

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The snow on the mountains behind Nikko Station give it a scenic winter look.

Yesterday I wrote about the popular mountainous hotspring getaway Hakone, so today I’m writing about Tokyo’s other most popular day trip: Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. Like Hakone, Nikko is also a famous hotsprings area located in the mountains that has stunning nature, temples, and a lot of parks as well.  Between the two of them, Hakone is my favorite because the hotsprings and museums are easier to reach by bus.  Nikko is more spaced-out than Hakone and some of the hot springs take over two hours via bus to reach.  That is a lot of traveling to do if you’re just coming for the day, but if you really like hiking you may find Nikko more interesting.  Both are worth seeing at least once.

I’ve been to Nikko twice (once in the summer and once in the winter for the snow festival) so I will be detailing my favorite discoveries in this article.  All of these places can be reached via bus from Nikko Station:

Kegon Falls & Toshogu Shrine

Kegon Falls is one of the most gorgeous waterfalls in Tochigi Prefecture.  It was formed by lava that rerouted a river into Lake Chuzenji.  We came here in the dead of winter when the surrounding area was covered by snow and slightly frozen, but the waterfall was still freely falling from the mountains.  I will never forget how beautiful this scenery was.  No matter what time of year you visit you will have an unforgettable view!

In the summer I visited Nikko’s most famous shrine: Toshogu.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a good reason.  This shrine serves as remembrance for Tokugawa Ieyasu who ruled the Tokugawa Shogunate for over 200 years.  This shrine complex consists of several buildings with the main one being adorned in golden architecture that gleams in the sunlight.  The shrines are located in a forested area so visiting each of them is quite a nice hike.  I’m glad that I’ve traveled here during both the summer and winter so I can see the lovely change of scenery.

Kegon Falls has no admission fees, but it costs 550 yen to go to the observation deck (which is worth it in my opinion).

Toshogu Shrine Entrance Fee: 1300 yen

Yuba Udon

Nikko is famous for yuba which is literally tofu skin.  That might not sound very appealing by itself, but it’s quite delicious when paired with or added to other dishes.  I tried Yuba udon with my friend and it tasted amazing!  The soft texture of the yuba paired with the noodles and broth gave the dish a unique texture.  I also tried some yuba slices on the side just so I could fully analyze the taste.  They are not as solid as tofu and are easier to eat.  My favorite tofu of all time is fried tofu or spicy tofu since they have the most flavor.  Yuba is rather flavorless, but it’s good for your health if eaten in small amounts.  We went to the restaurant across from the station called ゆば料理, but you can try it almost anywhere in Nikko.

Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival

Each year in February, Yumoto Onsen has a snow festival in which igloos with ice sculptures are illuminated similar to the Sapporo Snow Festival.  However, since this hotsprings resort is secluded, there are not as many people here and you can fully enjoy the illuminations to your heart’s content.  It was quite a long journey from Tokyo, but my friend and I managed to arrive here and back within a day.  The journey took 3.5 hours one way, but Yumoto Onsen is one of the best hotsprings in Nikko.  After doing some photography here, we used the hotsprings for under 1000 yen.  Similar to Gero Onsen and Kusatsu, you can choose from a large variety of onsen.  Many were available for day trippers like us.  The snow festival is free to see.

Here is a video I took in early 2018 of the igloos.  I hope to take higher quality footage of another illuminated snow festival in the future:

Tobu World Square

Because I’m a fan  of museums and architecture, I had to check out Tobu World Square.  This is a theme park at Kinugawa Onsen (another famous hotspring) that has over 100 scales models of iconic places from around the world.  My personal favorite was the pyramids from Egypt.  If you stand in front of them and take a picture of yourself, it looks like you’re actually in the desert!  The coliseum from Rome is also aestheically pleasing to see.  I loved the mini recreation of the Dragon and Taiwan Pagoda as well.  Now that I’ve been there, it hold much more meaning to me.  The more you walk through the park, the more you want to travel!  Summer is the ideal time to come here in my opinion.

Entrance Fee: 2500 yen (a bit expensive, but this is one of the most interesting museums in Nikko).

Walking in an Edo Wonderland

Since I was already near Kinugawa Onsen where many museums are located, I figured I’d go walking in an Edo Wonderland.  As the name implies, this is an amusement park dedicated to the Edo period of Japan.  If you’ve studied Japanese history, then you’ll know that this was a revolutionary time for the country.  There were samurais, economic growth, and a lot of development across Japan.  Many anime and novels are based off this time period.  Edo Wonderland plays homage to that and gives visitors the chance to step back into that world.  You can visit ninja houses and temples here, dress up in formal Edo clothing, take a boat cruise down the river, and see all sorts of performances.

Since I’ve been living in Japan for while, the most interesting part was simply exploring the Edo town for me.  However, there’s a lot more you can do here!  There is an archery dojo, countless restaurants, and museums where you can get even further lost in time.

Entrance Fee: 4800 yen before 2pm, 4100 after 2pm (it’s best to come in the afternoon as this is quite expensive)

Access

The best way to access Nikko is from Tokyo’s Ueno Station.  At the tourism office, they have often have discounts and deals as Nikko is a popular destination.  From Ueno, you can take the Hibiya Line to Kita-senju Station, then the Tobu Limited Express to reach Tobu-Nikko Station.  This takes approximately 2 hours and costs 3500 yen.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never stayed overnight at Nikko before but it’s something I’d like to try in the future.  Kinugawa Onsen is one of the centrally located and seems like a good option because you can reach the other areas of Tochigi Prefecture quite easily from it.

Naoshima, Japan’s Avant-garde Island of Art

Welcome to Naoshima—Japan’s obscure avant-garde island full of art museums, beaches, and outdoor sculptures.  Since I am a lover of all things aesthetic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go here while I was traveling through Okayama.  This island is very small but has a lot to see.  It’s well-known among art enthusiasts and travelers that like to go off the beaten path.  The most iconic piece of art you’ll find is the giant yellow pumpkin at the pier designed by Yayoi Kusama, but there’s an artistic sense all around here.  Even if you’re not a huge fan of art, it’s really fun to go cycling and swimming here because it’s quite secluded from the rest of Japan.  This island is actually part of Shikoku though you can access it from Honshu too.  I’ll be detailing my full experience in this article!

Getting around Naoshima

From the net cafe I was staying overnight at (Jiyuu Kuukan), I walked to Okayama Station and rode the Seto-Ohashi Line to Chayamachi Station, then took the Uno Line to Uno Station for 50 mins total.  From Uno Station, I walked to the nearby port and rode a ferry for 30 mins to Naoshima island.  These ferries are frequent and leave almost every hour (see time table here).  It was a very fun ride and the weather was perfect too!

I rented a bike for 500 yen/day because cycling is the best way to see all of Naoshima.  The whole island takes about 2.5 hours total to cycle around and is pretty easy to navigate because it’s circular.  However, it’s easy to spend a whole day here because there are so many museums to see.  There are many hostels and resorts you can stay overnight at too.  I didn’t stay overnight here, but I really want to next time!

I started my trip by riding my bike to Gotanji Bathing Beach where the giant yellow pumpkin is.  I spent around an hour here swimming and seeing all of the Picasso-esque statues that line the beach area.  I met a mix of both Japanese and international travelers who were very friendly.  There was a giant raft in the middle of the swimming area where I actually took a nap on!  That’s how relaxing it is here~

After feeling refreshed from the ocean, I decided to make my way around to the major museums.  Some are free to enter but others have admission fees.  I would research them beforehand budget around 3000 – 6000 yen depending on what you want to see.

Exploring the Museums

The main museums worth seeing on the island are:

  • Benesse House – Museum by the beach with indoor and outdoor exhibits.  They combine their hotel with the “coexistence of nature, art and architecture” and are responsible for many projects on the island.
  • Chichu Art Museum – An ambient museum built mostly underground.  The natural light plays a huge role in seeing the artwork here.
  • Lee Ufan Museum – A contemporary art museum consisting of stones and two-dimensional paintings.  His art has a tranquil feeling when paired with the seaside viewpoint.
  • Ando Museum – A traditional wooden house that uses creative architecture to contrast light and shadow and the past from the present.
  • Teshima Art Museum – This is a famous art museum located on the nearby Teshima Island that resembles a water droplet and is perfect for photography.
  • Art House Projects – A series of small houses with a variety of different art from different artists.  For a full list, please see the Benesse Art Project Site.

*Please note that photography is not allowed at all museums, but is okay outside most places.

One of the most interesting things I saw was the light-up ‘Live & Die’ piece at Benesse House (pictured in the very top photos).  The words on the boards all have different associations with life and death.  While the lights faded, a Japanese man walked up and spread his arms out, as if embracing the words it had projected.  It was one of the coolest reactions I have ever witnessed at an art museum in my life.  I also saw a graveyard outside of the Lee Ufan museum.  Its juxtaposition with the art made me think more on the concept of life and death.  I did a lot of reflecting this day and it was very good for my mental heath.  That’s why I’m planning to come back here in the summer again and see all the spots that I missed!

Food & Drinks

There are restaurants, bakeries, and cafes all over the island so you can easily find a place that catches your interest.  I had cold soba noodles and matcha bread with anko for lunch at a place called Aisunao.  It was all homemade food and tasted amazing!  When I got back to Okayama, I drank a drink that smiled back at a Tiki Bar.  You seriously can find great selection here wherever you look!

Bathing in a Artsy Bath

Before I took the ferry back, I decided to bathe at the artsy bath called I♥湯 (I love you).  The outside of the bath house has an aesthetic mosaic design that looks like no other bath house in Japan.  The indoor area has equally beautiful architecture.  It was a great way to end the trip.  The entrance fee is only 660 yen.

Exploring other Islands

One regret I have is that I didn’t look into exploring the two smaller art islands you can access from Naoshima: Inujima & Teshima.  Both islands can be reached from Naoshima in less than 20 mins.  Benesse has a nice two-day itinerary where you can see all the major works of the three islands.  I will be going back hopefully later this year to see the small things that I missed!

Access

I mentioned the route that I took above, but there are multiple ways to get to Naoshima.  Please see the Benesse site for more information.

If you are interested in reading more of my art articles, please see my Yayoi Kusama and Innovative Art Museums in Asia articles!

The Tale of the Floating Noodles (Kyoto)

Last August during the Mountain Day holiday weekend, I ventured to the riverside village of Kibune in Kyoto to try their legendary floating noodles.  These somen noodles are very unique because they float down a bamboo shoot directly to your table and are chilled to cool you down during summer season.  It’s definitely a dining experience worth having if you enjoy Japanese food!  In this article I will be highlighting my summer experience in Kyoto and will hopefully inspire more people to travel here.

*For reference, Mountain Day is a relatively new national holiday that was announced in 2014.  It honors the mountainous terrains of this country and most Japanese companies give this day as paid holiday (making it a three day weekend most years).  It occurs August 11th.  Be aware that this weekend is usually travel-heavy, but you can still see and do a lot if you plan your trip accordingly.

Floating Noodles at Hirobun (in Kibune)

Kibune is a popular resort destination that attracts large numbers of Japanese couples and families each year (which I didn’t realize beforehand), but is also home of the famous Hirobun restaurant that serves floating somen noodles from a bamboo shoot.  As the noodles float to your seat, you can stealthily grab with your chopsticks and eat them with soy sauce.  Though people make it out to be a challenge, it’s actually not that difficult and the restaurant staff will adjust the speed if they see you are having trouble.  The last batch of noodles is marked pink so you know when your course is over.  We paid around 2000 yen for a noodle course with dessert and enjoyed the experience thoroughly.

The main con of this was the three hour wait time…  Unfortunately this activity is so popular in the summer that it attracts hundreds of people per day and there are limited seats at the floating somen table.  There is no reservation system, so you must show up in person to write your name on a wait list in order of who arrived first.  We arrived around 12pm and already there were many people ahead of us.  However, the plus side is that there are so many things to see in Kibune that you can easily leave and come back when it is close to your turn.

While we waited, we walked around the river, tried some ice cream from a local confectionery, and hiked by the Kibune Shrine Okumiya so we could test our luck.  There is also the nearby Kurumadera Temple and hotspring that you can visit to kill time.  If you think about it, three hours in nature really goes by quickly.  It would be a lot more mundane if we had to wait that long for a restaurant in the city.  At first I hesitated about waiting, but now I’m so happy that I did because I got to experience pretty much everything Kibune has to offer.

Getting to Kibune

From Kyoto Station, take the Nara Line Rapid Miyakoji to Tofukuji Station, then the Keihan Main Line Semi-Express to Demachiyanagi Station Station, then the Eizan Main Line Local to Kibuneguchi Station.  From here you can take a local bus to the shrine.  Though it involves a few transfers, the journey only takes about 1.5 hours and costs 1020 yen making it the perfect day trip from Kyoto.

If you are looking for more travel recommendations in Kyoto, please check my Arashiyama, Amanohashidate, and Aesthetic Dining Experiences in Kyoto articles!

Sweet Twist: A Vintage Ice Cream Store in Shimokitazawa

Trying unique and adorable ice cream stores scattered across Asia has become a huge hobby of mine. As I was thrift shopping for clothes in Shimokitazawa (which has much better selection than the overcrowded Harajuku), I stumbled upon Sweet Twist–a vintage ice cream store selling a variety of soft cream, gelato, and crepes with customizable toppings.

Like most sweets stores in central Tokyo, the store is tiny, but the bright pink exterior and colorful signs advertising a variety of desserts seemed extremely inviting.  Not to mention the fluffy mascot that’s printed on all of the cups is the epitome of cute!

I decided to try the strawberry topped soft cream first. Like the name implies, the ice cream is extremely light tasting and sweet. The strawberry topping tasted much like strawberry chocolate so I really enjoyed the taste. Since the portion size I ordered was small (I regret not doing the 2 scoop option), I decided to try the raspberry gelato as well. They have a variety of flavors like green tea, coconut, chocolate fruits, etc. and you can choose extra toppings for just 50 yen. I liked the ice cream slightly better due to its sweetness, but I imagine everything here is really good!

The interior design with the neon pink flamingo and framed photos of Audrey Hepburn and other nostalgic icons was also a pleasant experience to take in. This neighbor hood has a lot of vintage shops that you should definitely check out if you have the chance.  I will definitely be back here in the future to try more delicious flavor combinations!

A Reflective Day at Sky Mirror Beach (Malaysia)

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Feeling enchanted at Sky Mirror Beach, Kuala Selangor.

In Malaysia, there is a magical beach that will display a perfect image of your reflection in the water during certain times of the day due to the low tide.  Kuala Selangor Beach, better known as Sky Mirror Beach, is a natural phenomena that attracts many creative photographers and those who wish to see this rare occurrence.

Though the official website states that you can only see this twice a month during the full moon and new moon phases, you can actually see it daily with the assistance of lighting.  At times the beach is completely submerged underwater and appears uncharted, which is why it is required that you book a tour to go to Sky Mirror Beach.  The beach is quite remote and requires a speedboat trip to reach it, but once there you can take in all of its rare beauty!

I booked my tour through Veltra, and I found the tour to be overall satisfactory.  Though I road the speedboat with a group of people, I had my own private driver to the pier that was included in the price.  He picked me up right from my hostel and got me there early so I could relax for a bit.  Once arriving at the beach, they will also help you take pictures with optimal lighting.  I brought my portable tripod, but they had light boxes set up on the beach already.  You are free to walk around and explore the beach on your own too.  Though it’s not really ideal for swimming, there are a lot of interesting sea snails and tiny crabs you can see (and they’re harmless).

Overall, most tour packages are about $100 to see this beach, but I think the experience is worth it.  The trip includes snacks, water, and transportation to an extremely rare area of the country from central Kaula Lumpur, so I think it’s justified.  I’m not sure where else in the world I can see a magical beach like this, so I’m happy that I took this opportunity!

Exploring the Remote Beaches of Mersing (Malaysia)

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Chasing after Malaysian skies in my Orient shirt.

During my aesthetic adventures in Singapore, I decided to take a side trip to Malaysia via bus and see some of its beautiful remote beaches.  This meant waking up before 6:30am and riding a 6 hour bus from central Singapore to Mersing, but the experience I had made it worth it!  The bus was air-conditioned, and getting through customs early in the morning meant we didn’t have to wait as long.  Singapore’s Sentosa Island has a number of gorgeous beaches, but the ones in Mersing have the essence of unspoiled beauty.

I decided to book a $28 bus through Easy Book online to get to Mersing, Malaysia, and then took a private boat tour through Let’s Go Island Tours for 450 Ringgit to see the islands.  This price was actually a bit cheaper than what I paid for private boat tours in Thailand, and includes some of the same activities like scuba diving and sightseeing.  If you get to Mersing early enough, you can take a group boat tour for a much cheaper price.  Since I was going to central Malaysia later that night and didn’t have a lot of time, I opted for a private tour.

The private boat I rode was only myself and the captain, so it was quite the adventure!  A light storm was approaching so the waves made the boat a bit rocky, but the captain expertly navigated the waters.  Our first destination was Lang Tengah Island, where I stopped for Pina Coladas and got to see the Batu Batu Resort area.  It was quite beautiful, but the beachfront was actually very small and the weather conditions made it difficult for swimming.  However, I still enjoyed walking around and seeing the beach huts and palm trees.  I even saw a baby lizard!

After spending about an hour here, the captain took me to another beach at Besar Island behind the resort area that was completely private.  It looked like something out of a movie or anime, and I had it all to myself!

Swimming here was definitely the experience of a lifetime.  You can see in the third picture that the sky is dark because the storm was approaching, but I fortunately had over 2 hours to swim and explore this beach.  The tour was extremely laid back and I could choose where I wanted to be.  I was so happy to spend some time alone (besides the captain) on this island!

The interesting thing about Mersing is boats don’t always leave exactly on time; the boat companies all pay close attention to the tide and then set the departure time.  Due to this factor, I would recommend staying 2-3 days on these islands so you have enough time to see them.  I was able to see a lot on my private tour, but I wished I could have additionally seen Tioman or Rawa Island, which are extremely popular to stay at.

When it started to rain, we headed back to the Mersing Harbor where I waited for my bus to Kuala Lumpur.  This was yet another 6 hours bus ride that I booked through RedBus for $15, but I ended up having it all to myself!  I don’t recommend booking 2 buses in one day because it’s a lot of travel and it’s nicer to stay on an island in Mersing, but I was on a tight schedule.  If I come back here again, I will be sure to take more time in this area.

In the end, the driver dropped me off right at my hostel and I got to see a lot of Malaysia!  We went from the border of Singapore, all the way up to Kuala Lumpur.  The scenery went from monkeys on the side of the road to bright flashing lights in the center of the city.  It felt great to be in a foreign world once again!

Backpacking through Canal City (Otaru, Japan)

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I’ve never been to Hokkaido in the summer, but since it’s the only main island of Japan where I haven’t gone swimming yet, I figured I’d explore one of the port towns over the weekend.  The advantage to coming to this island in the summer is there is a lot of flower farms in bloom, the weather is near perfect, and there’s tons of fresh ice cream everywhere!  Well, actually there’s ice cream here year-round since Hokkaido is known for its dairy, but this is the optimum weather for it.

I took a discount flight through Jetstar by booking it a few months in advance from Tokyo to New Chitose Airport, then took the express train from there to reach Otaru.  Otaru is a historic port town with amazing seafood and ice cream.  Almost all of the major attractions are within walking distance from the main station, and it has a very bubbly shopping street.  There are a number of landmarks and famous buildings, as well as the relaxing stroll down canal street!

I started my trip with a stop at Popura Farm Otaru to try their famous melon bowl ice cream.  It did not disappoint.  With newfound energy I wandered to the canal street for some photography.  It truly looks like something out of a Venetian movie!  They offer boat rides here, but since I was trying to steer away from crowds, I opted not to go.  Being in this pleasant weather was sure relaxing though.

Next I traveled to the shopping street right down the road and saw some interesting shops!  You could buy almost anything here: crab buns, green tea, music boxes, sushi, Sniw Miku goods, art, and more.  They also had Peanuts and Hello Kitty themed  restaurants.  What a happening place.  My favorite shop here was LeTAO, because they were giving amazing free samples of cheese cake and cookies here.  Shops on this street close around 7pm, so be sure to come early so you can see everything.

At the end of this street was a very unique music box museum!  They had adorable sushi cake music boxes for sale, as well as the Orpheus music box you could see (not for sale), which is one of the oldest and most famous in Japan.  Although the first floor was a bit of a tourist trap with nothing but souvenirs on the tables, the upper floors had a lot of rare music boxes and were exciting to see.  This museum is very small but has a homey feel.

Afterwards I decided it was time to go to the beach!  The weather was perfect and I was in an elevated mood that comes with traveling to a new place.  I grabbed my swimsuit and took a local bus to to Higashi Otaru Beach, which was one of the closest swimming beaches to Otaru Station.  From the photos and reviews on Google Maps, it looked like quite the promising place for a swim.  However, I was quite disappointed its overall condition and how small the swimming area was.

This beach is right next to the railroad tracks, so you need to walk a long distance down the side of a highway to get to an area where it’s safe to cross.  When I finally got there I noticed the sand was very rough, and there was litter on the beach.  I tried to go swimming but I couldn’t get far–there were a lot of rocks and it just didn’t live up to my previous expectations for it.  Instead, I decided to make up for it by drinking two mini bottles of wine that I had stored in my backpack and relaxed for a while.  This was the first time that I’ve been disappointed by a beach in Japan, but I wasn’t about to let it ruin my trip.  I found a rock to sit on and gazed at the beautiful horizon while I rested.  From this point of view, it looked like a stunning beach:

Not wanting to accept disappointment, I decided to make my way back to the central city and find a hotspring.  Except I was slightly buzzed and couldn’t find the bus stop.  I decided to walk on the side of the highway until I found a taxi.  But I was on the wrong side of the road.  How to cross… That’s when the free shuttle to Otaru Kourakuen miraculously arrived and stopped for me.  I decided that’s where I was going next!  Adorable otters greeted me at the door, and a dip in the hot springs was exactly what I needed to regain my spirit.  I was back again!  Back from disappointment.

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I owe my life to this hotspring.

Afterwards, it was getting to be dusk so I decided to make my way back to the center of the city and grab dinner.  I decided on a seafood place near the melon ice cream restaurant and ordered some delicious crab leg avocado sushi.  If you’re going to try seafood, Hokkaido is the place to do it!

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It looks American!

Feeling extremely satisfied I decided to make my way back to Sapporo where I was staying, just because it has cheaper guesthouse options.  I had a very good time here in Otaru though!  After living in Tokyo for over three years, I am always glad to spend my time in the scenic countryside.