My Homie Totoro: Traveling to the Iconic Bus Stop of Takaharu, Miyazaki

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My Homie Totoro.

After spending a lovely evening in Aoshima chasing sunsets and eating fresh crab, I decided to catch the very first train to Takaharu—a quaint farming town in Miyazaki where the life-size recreation of the Totoro Bus Stop is.  According to Oddity Central, this Totoro statue was built by an elderly couple residing here as a surprise for their grandchildren.  However, its design is so immaculate that it has attracted Totoro fans from all over Japan.  There’s not a whole lot to see in Takaharu as it is mostly a residential area in the mountains, but the backdrop of the mountains and fields behind the bus stop look like they came straight out of a Ghibli movie.  If you are obsessed with rare destinations in Japan like me then you might want to put Takaharu on your bucket list!  The countryside of Kyushu is simply stunning.

Traveling to Takaharu for Totoro

The journey to Takaharu from Miyazaki will take around 2 hours and cost 1500-2500 yen (which is not bad).  From Miyazaki Station, I took Kirishima Limited Express to Miyakonojo Station then transferred to the Kitto Line that took me to Takaharu Station.  You can also take local buses which are usually cheaper.  They will usually drop you off at the same locations depending on what time you leave.  From Takaharu Station, I asked the station attendant to hail me a taxi directly to Totoro.  If you simply say “Totoro” to your taxi driver they will know exactly what you mean.  This is a short drive that will only take 5 mins.  Once you reach Totoro, a warm feeling of nostalgia will wash over you.  Congrats, you have successfully completed your pilgrimage!

I should also note that there is a red umbrella you can rent for 100 yen so you can recreate the famous scene in the rain with Totoro.  Since the money goes directly to the people who built it, it’s a simple way to donate and show thanks!  I took many pictures with it on my GoPro and made some postcard-quality content.  If you come here alone like I did, there will likely be other people here to help you take your picture (or your taxi driver always can).

For information on accommodations in Takaharu, I would recommend checking out Guesthouse Nagata because it is right next to Totoro.  There isn’t much to do in this town as it is pretty residential so I spent another night in Aoshima, but if you have a lot of time in Kyushu you might enjoy staying here.  Getting your picture taken next to Totoro definitely makes the journey worth it!

Since I came here in the morning, I still had 2/3 of the day left to enjoy other activities in Miyazaki.  Here are some other fun things that I recommend doing:

Aoshima Hammock Cafe

Aoshima Hammock is a relatively new and unique experience that I hope more people seek out!  Unlike most hammock cafes in Japan, this place also includes a workshop and hammock rental system for those who are looking to relax in a hammock outside by the ocean.  Their system is relatively cheap and affordable.  If you go outdoors a lot you might consider buying one because they are made of high-quality yarn and come in many beautiful colors.  You can even sign up for a class to knit one yourself.

Since it was scorching hot outside, I decided to buy a drink at the cafe and relax on a hammock indoors (which is free).  However, outside the cafe is a beautiful park and rose garden by the water so I am considering renting a hammock in the future if I come back.  They will teach you how to install the hammock and give you all of the materials and are foreigner-friendly.  It’s a fun opportunity for you to learn how to better enjoy Aoshima life too!

Miyazaki Fruit Parfaits

One of the best things about coming to Kyushu is they have some of the freshest fruit in Japan.  Most notably the ice cream fruit parfaits in Miyazaki are to die for!  My top parfait recommendations are Sakuranbo and Fruit Ohno located near Miyazaki Station.  Even if you don’t like ice cream, they have dragon fruit, fresh strawberries, and melon that you can try without it.  I was thoroughly impressed by the design of these parfaits:

Sun Messe

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The Moai of Miyazaki.

Who would have guessed that Kyushu has Easter Island motifs on it??  Sun Messe is a bizarre tourist attraction where you can take pictures with Moai statues.  Your pictures can actually turn out pretty cool if you take them at the right angle (these were taken in 2018 so I regret not having a better camera).  While we were here, we chatted with two nice guys from Kumamoto who were here on vacation and later went to the beach with them.  What a strange place to socialize, but this place definitely has a powerful aura.

Nearby Sun Messe is the famous Udo Shrine and a beach that you can swim in!  This beach isn’t as pretty as Aoshima in my opinion, but it’s definitely worth checking out while you are here.  The atmosphere is pretty relaxing and you can make out mountains in the distance as you swim towards the horizon.  A great experience overall.

Entrance Fee: 800 yen (worth it for the weirdness here)

Florante Miyazaki

Flower lovers rejoice because there are beautiful flora growing in Miyazaki year-round!  At Florante Miyazaki you can see different types of plants being raised in outdoor gardens and greenhouses next to a beautiful pond in the summer.  I remember seeing citrus oranges being grown here for the first time of my life.  In the winter some facilities are closed but the park creates gorgeous illuminations.  I believe they happen year-round now.  I sadly could only come here during the day due to my busy schedule, but I hope to catch a night show here in the future!

Entrance Fee: 310 yen (very cheap)

Beach BBQs

Since Miyazaki borders the ocean, you can easily find seafood restaurants all over the city and beach fronts.  In 2018 my friend took me to a place where you could order fish and seafood to be grilled right in front of you.  It was such a fun experience trying Miyazaki specialties together!  I encourage you to try the shrimp because it is especially zesty.  You could also buy fish from a fish market and cook it on the beach if you have your own grill.  Not to mention there are sushi and sashimi restaurants galore.  You really can’t go wrong with food here because it’s way cheaper than in Tokyo!

Thank you for reading the 2nd article in my Miyazaki Series!  In my next article, I will be writing about my adventure to yet another rare gem—Takachiho Gorge.  Please look forward to it!

Exploring Miyazaki & Aoshima Island at Sunset

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Aoshima Beach at sunset.

Since I couldn’t travel to the Philippines, Indonesia, or New Zealand this summer, I decided to take a trip to Kyushu Island—also known as the tropics of Japan.  I’ve been to Kyushu around 6 times (most notably for my Yakushima Birthday Adventure), but this time my goal was to explore hard-to-reach destinations in Miyazaki Prefecture.  Kyushu is most famous for Fukuoka and Okinawa, but Miyazaki is just as beautiful as those places and has some extremely rare gems like Takachiho Gorge.  Surprisingly some Japanese people don’t even know about Takachiho because it’s so remote.  If you like swimming and outdoor adventures, then Miyazaki is the place for you!

My plan was stay for 4 days and travel to the following destinations:

Narita Airport (Tokyo) ⇛ Miyazaki Airport (Kyushu) ⇛ Aoshima Island ⇛ Takaharu City (for Totoro Bus Stop) ⇛ Aoshima Island (for rest) ⇛ Takachiho Gorge ↺ Tokyo

I previously went to Miyazaki in 2018 and paid nearly 50000 yen for my plane ticket because I was traveling during a holiday.  This is sadly the average price of non-discount airlines and is more expensive than international travel to surrounding Asian countries.  However, this time I only paid 12000 yen through combining one-way Jetstar and Peach Aviation flights.  A huge difference!  I will admit that I was a bit nervous traveling here during the pandemic, but this is one of my last summer vacations before I start working full time again.  Both airlines took great lengths to ensure our safety and enforced social distancing more than the trains in the city so I was grateful.  Kyushu can also be reached by train, but it takes 6-9 hours by shinkansen and is usually more expensive than airfare.  I recommend flying to save time and also to feel more comfortable.

Aoshima Beach

I boarded my plane mid-afternoon at Narita Airport and had a smooth 2 hour flight directly to Miyazaki Airport.  All I brought with me was my Totoro purse and backpack so check-in was no problem.  Once I arrived, I could already feel the ocean breeze from outside so I instantly felt relaxed.  There is a cheap bus that runs from the airport to Aoshima Beach, but since I was chasing sunsets I hailed a taxi there.  I arrived just in time to watch the sun set and get some swimming in.  I also pounded down 2 glasses of wine while wearing a fake Gucci shirt I bought in Osaka.  It felt great to be back again!

Aoshima is a fantastic beach because it’s connected to a tiny island by a bridge you can walk over.  On the island you will find a shrine, some unique rock formations called the Devil’s Washboard, random bars, and infinite palm trees.  You can see the whole island in 15 mins or less but I decided to go swimming here even after the main beach had closed.  After it started getting dark, I decided to walk back and relax at Aoshima Park. This area has a variety of restaurants and bars and usually stays open until 8pm-10pm depending on the day.  There is a free alkaline shower you can use here as well!

Dinner

For dinner, I decided to try the famous Aoshima Crab Bowl for 3000 yen.  It came with a whole rainbow of sashimi with it too:

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Face Hugger

10/10.  After feeling fulfilled, I decided to head back to my guest house and get some sleep.  I was venturing all the way to the legendary Totoro Bus Stop the next day, after all.  The party had just begun.

Where to Stay

The two best options for backpackers to stay at in Aoshima are Hooju Guest House and Fisherman’s Beach Side Hostel.  Both are 2100 yen per night and are located right on the beach.  They are extremely simple and have limited amenities, but are perfect for those who are planning on doing outdoor activities for most of their stay.  I felt extremely welcome during my time here and the other people in my dorm were respectful.  There is also bike rental available which saved me a lot of time!

As far as onsen go, I recommend the day hot spring at Grantia Hotel in Aoshima.  It has an indoor and outdoor onsen, sauna, and only costs 850 yen to enter.  A perfect way to unwind after the beach!

Alternatively you could stay near Miyazaki Station if you are planning to visit other cities in Kyushu.  Aoshima is about a 45min bus ride away from the city center so you won’t be on the beach, but you will be close to it.  No matter which location you choose, there’s a lot to see and do!

Bonus

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The opposite of the Majora’s Mask Moon.

One thing I loved about Miyzaki Airport is that all of the clocks resemble smiling suns.  The polar opposite of the Majora’s Mask Moon!  Miyazaki Airport is one of the happiest airports that you’ll visit.  The only thing that comes close is the Koh Samui Airport in Thailand with its beautiful outdoor garden.

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My dream house.

When I first visited Miyazaki in 2018, I stayed with two of my friends in their town house near Miyazaki Station.  This was very convenient for taking transportation and I got to know so much of the city thanks to their guidance.  While I was out running, I remember passing by this stunning pink house in their neighborhood.  The bright color and gorgeous design of the windows were extremely eye-catching.  Plus it looked extremely spacious.  That got me thinking…  If I ever get over my “party every weekend” phase, I might enjoy living in a house like this near the beach.  It’s really hard to predict the future at this point because Tokyo has the most financial opportunities for me, but it’s fun to fantasize about.  Where is your dream house?

Thank you for reading the first article of my Miyazaki Series!  I will be talking about visiting the famous Totoro Bus Stop in my next article.  Please stay tuned for more.

 

The Great Bike Trip: From Tokyo to Ise (Day 1)

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Bite the bullet, baby.

Thanks to all of my crazy adventures around Asia and the 200+ articles I’ve published here on Resurface to Reality, I finally got an offer for a sponsored motorbike trip around the Kansai region of Japan (meaning all expenses were covered). The trip lasted for a span of 4 days and we road to many places including shrines, beaches, and mountain paths that are impossible to access by car or other vehicles. Granted I wasn’t the one driving due to not possessing a full Japanese driver’s license, but I was in charge of doing photography and video as well as preparing our camp. Even though I rode on the back of the bike it was still one of the most thrilling and exciting experiences of my life. I loved the feel of the wind in my hair and the clear view of the mountainous landscape and rivers as opposed to looking at them through a foggy train window.  Yeah, this is the life!

About the Bike

The bike model we rode on was a BMW F900XR that had extremely powerful capabilities.  It can carry a lot of weight and has high long distance performance.  I rode with an experienced driver who I had previously met before and trusted. They also were a fan of Ghost in the Shell and loved obscure places in Japan so naturally we got along well. Usually we both prefer traveling alone, but for the sake of trying something new we agreed to go on this trip together. It was amazing to have such an experienced guide with me so I could learn more about the history of the places that we were visiting. If for whatever reason our itinerary failed (which fortunately it did not), I had the option to return home via train. That’s one of the best parts of living in Japan━for the most part the road and train system is impeccable.

What’s that about a Sponsorship?

I want to iterate that there’s really no big secret to getting sponsored. This opportunity was presented to me without me seeking it. I’m just extremely passionate about travel and am always sharing my experiences with others (on this website and in real life; drunkenly at bars too).  I prefer to waste no time and have no hesitations when I travel somewhere new. Naturally that draws me to other people who have similar interests. If you are interested in travel and have the time, then I encourage you to go for it and keep a detailed log of your journeys. You will thank yourself later and also have stories for ages.  I am lucky that my sponsor offered me the option to go on future trips like this because I took the chance and succeeded!

Departure

The 4 day journey began on August 1st and I departed Tokyo at 6am. We had practiced riding on highways in Tokyo a few times and I was pretty comfortable with the feeling of it. However, I decided to ride the shinkansen to Nagoya Station and meet my driver at Kinjofuto Harbor so we could ensure a smoother trip. Morning traffic on the highways can be a bit rough so this way the load would be lighter and my driver wouldn’t have to take as many breaks. Kinjofuto Harbor is hilariously located next to Lego Land (which I visited exactly 3 years ago), and has easy access to the country roads.  We met up around 9:30am (exactly as planned), I put on my helmet and gear, and then we rode to our first destination: Ise Shrine.  This trip took approximately 3 hours with breaks in between.

Ise Shrine: Home of Amaterasu

Ise Shrine, known as “Japan’s most sacred shrine” actually consists of two shrines: The Inner & Outer Shrine.  These shrines were built over 2000 years ago and are said to house the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu.  If you’ve played the Shin Megami Tensei series, you already know that this goddess is a big deal.  The outer shrine is easy to access and has areas were you can pray and buy good luck charms.  I bought a pink one that looks like a magatama for hopes of safe travel.  As you walk further into the forested area, you will come across a large wooden bridge that will lead you to the inner shrine.  Photography is strictly prohibited here, but you can take photos from the bottom of the stairs.  Reaching the inner shrine is like reaching the origin of Japan.  This sanctuary is built out of sacred wood and is a cherished relic of this country.   I would highly recommend coming here if you ever get the chance because I definitely felt enlightened here.  For Japanese people and believers of the Shinto Gods, this is the holy ground.

Okage Yokocho

After visiting Japan’s most sacred shrine, we walked through the old-school street reminiscent to ancient times called Okage Yokocho.  Here you can get your fortune told (I got moderate luck), buy all sorts of souvenirs, and try some delicious seafood!  The oyster on a stick coated with soy sauce I tried was amazing.  There were also cute stray cats basking in the sunlight and wind chimes adorned on some of the buildings.  Though it was somewhat touristy, if definitely had an atmosphere of its own.

For lunch I had an amazing seafood ricebowl from the very first restaurant we walked passed because I was starving.  You kind find udon, unagi, and sushi places all over this street but this was my all time favorite.  You can’t beat the freshness of this shrimp:

Iseshima Skyline

After eating we rode for around 40 minutes and drove up a large hill to see Iseshima Skyline.  You can only access this viewpoint by vehicle because the incline is quite steep and the road is around 16km.  I have a video of us driving here that I will upload when I finish editing.  This skyline is famous because on a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji!  I am happy that I traveled here by bike so I could experience it.  My video doesn’t do it justice.

Camping on Mihama Beach

Mihama Beach was hands down my favorite part of the trip!  We rode about 2.5 hours to reach here and arrived right before sunset so I could go swimming and do photography.  The sunset was breathtaking and looked like something you’d see in Southeast Asia.  Not to mention the beach was so remote that hardly anyone was there—just the way I like it.  The people I did run into were very friendly and asked me where I was from and the usual.  I wish I would have talked to them more but I was so focused on the aesthetics that it was hard for me to do anything but swim and frolic on the beach.  I was supposed to go the the Philippines and Bali this year, but due to the pandemic my trips were cancelled.  Mihama Beach is likely the closest I will get to being in a tropical paradise this year so I will forever travel my experience here.

My driver set up camp while I was swimming (that was super nice of them).  It was a simple tent that fit two sleeping bags.  I was pretty exhausted by that point, so I fell asleep immediately and barely remember “camping”.  However, our campsite was gorgeous because it was right in front of the beach.  I’m happy that this could be my first camping experience in Japan.

Day 1 Itinerary: 100% Completion

Though this was my first full day riding a motorbike and it was pretty intense, we successfully went to every destination we planned.  The rainy season had just ended and it was extremely humid, but other than that it was a perfect ride.  My legs were a bit sore from riding but I got a lot of exercise in so I was fine.  I am so grateful for all the rare things I was able to see.  The next few days had their itineraries slightly altered due to rain, but the setback led us to see other amazing things.  Please stay tuned for the next 3 days!

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 3)

After going on a grand tour of Phu Quoc Island on the day of my birthday, I decided to spend my final day in Vietnam going to Hon Thom Sun World amusement park.  To reach this amusement park, you must go to the south end of the island by taxi and ride the world’s longest cable car to another island.  You will pass over a cluster of fishing markets on your way there so it really is worth it for the view.  I remember the ocean looked so beautiful from above.  I’m really grateful I got the chance to swim in it when I landed!

As soon as I entered the park I noticed I was starving, so I ordered some vegan spring rolls, a seafood noodle dish, and a strawberry smoothie.  I was surprised at how big the serving sizes were!  There are restaurants all over the place so you’ll never go hungry:

Next I decided it was time to explore the park.  I’ll admit that my main reason for coming here was to ride the cable car.  I didn’t put much research into what attractions there were, but I figured I’d go and have fun no matter what.  I looked at a local guidepost for direction, except there was only one destination on it:

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There is only one direction!! ONE!

I thought this was some kind of joke until I looked on Inspirock and realized others had run into this same situation:

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So okay, Trao Beach it was!  At least I could ride a air-conditioned van there from the park for free.  Since it was October, there wasn’t many people there so I could relax and enjoy it all I wanted.  It was essentially a private beach.  This was one of the scenarios where it was not about the destination, but they journey.  I had a lot of nice time thinking to myself and listening to all my favorite music.  The tiki statues and chairs made out of tires that I saw here also added to the ambiance:

Even though there wasn’t a lot to see at Sun World, being on a remote tropical island was more fun than being stuck in the city.  What’s interesting is that some pictures of the park online show a water park, but it only seems to be open during certain seasons.  There was no mention of it when I went in 2018 so I wonder if it’s under renovation.  I saw all sorts of construction going on in the main pavilion near the restaurant I was eating at.  I would guess that there is some plan to expand this park because it is in a beautiful area that has a lot of nature.  It really could become something amazing!

Is it worth it?

The cost for the cable car ticket is around $15 USD (roundtrip) and entrance to the park is around $25 USD.  This actually isn’t that bad for a day on an island in Vietnam, but you could definitely go cheaper.  If you have an extra day to kill this excursion is great because of the unique cable car view—especially if you have a camera.  However, there may be only one destination available when you reach the island… you won’t know until you get there!

Upon further research, I noticed there is another amusement park called Sun World Ba Na Hills in Vietnam with the same logo (so they must be owned by the same company).  Search engines are likely confusing them in English.  Perhaps Phu Quoc’s Sun World (the one I visited) is going to be designed as a miniature version of the larger one.  Who knows?  I hope to return to Vietnam and visit the other, larger, park when it’s safe so I can expand this article!

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.

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 1)

When people think of tropical destinations in Asia, Vietnam usually isn’t high on the list.  Most people in Japan flock to Okinawa, Thailand, Philippines, Guam, or even the Gold Coast in Australia for vacation.  I wanted to experience something different so I decided to fly to Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam from Hanoi and stay in a beach hut on my 25th birthday in 2018.  This was one of my first times staying on a remote island alone, but it was completely safe and turned out to be one of the best birthdays of my life!

I stayed on Phu Quoc for four days and three nights and managed to learn a lot about the island culture of Vietnam.  Being here is completely different than from being in the city which is truly eye-opening.  In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh you’ll get a lot of stares and attention from the locals, but here you’ll find complete and total privacy:

Getting to Phu Quoc

A roundtrip flight from Hanoi to Phu Quoc only costs $65 through VietJet and takes two hours so it is quite cheap and easy to plan out.  I’ve researched other islands in Vietnam such as Cat Ba, but Phu Quoc is by far the most beautiful.  Long Beach is the best place to stay on the island because it has a lot of restaurants and you can see the best view of the sunset.  The beach looks pretty 24/7, but swimming in the ocean and watching the sky turn that lovely mixture of pink, blue, and red makes it feel as if you are living inside of a painting:

The island hut I stayed at was called Viet Than Resort.  I chose this resort because I liked the design of the thatched huts and it was only around $35 per night.  Plus it was right on the beach and had a swimming pool too!  I came during the off-season in October, but I still had a lot of fun here because the weather was perfect.  I spent my entire first day here exploring Long Beach and going swimming.  It was definitely the relaxation that I needed after several days of trekking through the populated cities.

Cuisine on Phu Quoc is cheap, healthy, and extremely satisfying.  I tried a restaurant near my hotel and ordered seafood ramen and an omelette.  After hours of swimming, this was exactly what I needed!

Another perk of staying here is you’ll often run into Phu Quoc dogs.  An islander informed me that these dogs are friendly towards people but completely independent.  They’ll let people wash and feed them, but they spend most of their time frolicking on the beaches.  I wish I were a Phu Quoc dog!

Unlike places in Thailand and Bali, Phu Quoc is NOT a party island.  It does have a lot of bars and places to socialize, but you won’t find any recreational drugs here.  I really wish that there were more islands in Japan like this.  I went to Okinawa for my first birthday in Japan and had fun, but it does not have a lot of beach huts and the best beaches require renting a car or riding a infrequent bus to reach.  I liked Phu Quoc because everything was accessible, and if I needed to get somewhere I could use Grab or ask my hotel to call a cheap taxi service.  This would honestly not be a bad place to retire.

In my next article, I’ll be talking about my island tour and how I rode a cable car to Sun World!  Thank you all for reading my Vietnam article series!  Though this happened almost 2 years ago, this island is still a very popular resort destination and a place that I would recommend to all my friends.  It’s really easy to have fun here no matter what your budget is.

The Jeju Chronicles: Last Day on the Island Exploring Beaches, Sex Museums, and the Nexon Computer Museum

After exploring the east and west side of Jeju Island and climbing Mt. Hallasan, I decided to spend my final day on the island relaxing and seeing some of the places that most tours don’t cover (such as the sex museum and private beaches).  Since I don’t have an international license, I had my hostel help book me a private taxi driver.  The average cost of private taxi drivers in Jeju is about $150 USD per day but hiring one is much easier than trying to use the local buses.  The duration of the taxi session is around 9 hours and you can easily see all of the things you want to see without hassle.  Hilariously, all the English-speaking drivers were booked already due to high demand but I was able to book a Japanese one.  Without further hesitation I set off for my fifth and final day on the island and hoped for the best!  Fortunately the weather was on my side.

See Iho Tewoo Beach & Gwakji Beach

Jeju has around eight popular swimming beaches in total, but I chose to travel to the two most photogenic ones.  Iho Tewoo Beach is famous for its two horse-shaped lighthouses.  I wanted to see them in person so this was the very first destination I chose!  Unfortunately it was bit too cold to go swimming, but I just liked being on an empty and relaxing beach.  Apparently this beach is extremely popular during the summer because you can go for boat rides here, but during late April when I went it was extremely peaceful and quiet.  Just what I wanted after all of the exhausting hiking that I did!

I picked up some amazing octopus at a nearby restaurant here.  Raw Korean octopus tastes amazing:

After I had my fill, I decided to head to Gwakji Beach which is much livelier because there are a lot of resorts around it.  None of the resorts on Jeju are particularly fancy, but the cafes sure are.  I decided to try Mônsant which is owned by G-DRAGON purely because of its flawless architectural design.  You can see the ocean through the panes of glass while sipping on delicious coffee.  I ordered a strawberry smoothie and couldn’t believe the view that I was seeing:

I tried to go swimming here, but the beach shore was a bit rocky so I was reluctant.  Jeju’s beaches are more designed for soaking up the atmosphere rather than actually getting soaked.  I didn’t mind though, because Gwakji Beach definitely had a nice vibe.  In addition to posh cafes there were squids being sun-dried and local food stalls around.  I appreciated the diversity of food here.

One hilarious and slightly creepy trend here I saw was having photos of couples and babies printed onto lattes.  I’m usually quite adventurous when it comes to food, but I don’t know if I’d have the courage to drink myself…  This is just too realistic:

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WOW!

Nexon Computer Museum

The next stop was my favorite museum of all time in Korea: The Nexon Computer Museum.  Nexon is the company responsible for creating Maple Story and the longest running commercial graphic MMO in the world: Baram, also known as Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds.  I was really surprised to see that a modest company in Korea had this award; which makes me think that Nexon is seriously underrated so naturally I wanted to learn more.

I featured this museum in my Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums article, so please check it out for the full description!  If you travel all the way to Jeju, you need to come here.  You won’t be disappointed.

Museum of Sex and Health (Jeju Loveland)

Ah yes, the infamous Sex Museum of Korea.  I’ll admit I was a bit embarrassed coming here by myself, but I was on vacation so I figured why the hell not?  Jeju Loveland is an art museum of erotic outdoor sculptures and has an indoor collection of various adult toys.  What’s good is that it promotes a safe approach to sex and only admits entry to adults (honestly I’ve seen enough pedophilia in Japan bookstores and this was a much classier attraction).  “Various romantic and sexual art works are waiting for you.” the official website says.  I liked the ambiguity of the upside-down sculptures submerged in water… But I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.  Definitely see it if it fancies you!

Entrance Fee: $9 USD (not bad)

Jeju Horse Park

Before having my driver drop me off at the airport so I could take my flight back to Seoul, I decided to make one more stop at Jeju Horse Park.  I was wearing the most extra outfit because I was shooting pictures on the beach just before, but once again I figured why not!  I was on vacation and I wanted to ride a horse one last time.  This was the perfect way to end my Jeju Chronicles.  I had successfully accomplished everything that I had planned so this was yet another perfect trip to commemorate.  The park has a really laidback approach and you can choose multiple routes around the mountains and seaside.  I couldn’t use my camera because I was riding, but I had an amazing time!  There was a guide who was keeping close watch on me so I felt safe at all times.  Horseback riding is a great way to see Jeju Island and is relatively cheap so you should try it at least once while you’re here.

Entrance Fee: $10-$20 USD depending on how long you go.

Final Remarks

As this article implies, I had a phenomenal time on Jeju Island and would recommend it to all my friends.  There were a few issues with the language barrier here and there, but island people are some of the friendliest people that you will ever meet.  I really treasured all of my time here.  I was also able to speak Japanese in a few instances and find my way around.  Google Maps aren’t always reliable in South Korea so I would do your research on what attractions you want to see before coming here.  That’s it really.  Once you arrive at Jeju, you’ll find that the island is small enough that you can easily navigate and fit in all the activities you want.  Jeju is by far the most beautiful place in South Korea and you should definitely give it a chance because it has activities for everyone!

The Jeju Chronicles: Climbing Mt. Hallasan

After getting a good dose of cycling and an impromptu dance party on Udo Island, I figured I’d spend my 2nd day in Jeju climbing Korea’s tallest mountain: Mt. Hallasan.  It’s actually not just a mountain— it’s an active volcano too!  Fortunately for us, it hasn’t erupted in over 1,000 years and doesn’t spew lava so it’s safe to climb.  Reaching the summit will give you the best view of the island which is why I wanted to take on the challenge.  I’ve climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan which was quite the strenuous hike of 3,776 meters.  Hallasan is still challenging, but is only 1,947 meters and has a lovely forest you can see on your way up.  I found the hike to be pleasant and surprisingly relaxing.

Hallasan National Park is in the center of the main Jeju island and is quite easy to get to from any accommodation.  It only took me around 45 mins via bus from my hostel.  The mountain has four main trails, but only two will take you all the way to the top.  I decided to start at the Seongpanak Trail then take the Gwaneumsa Trail down.  This is the best way to see Hallasan as you can reach the summit and fully experience all the sights on the main trails within 8 – 10 hours.  If you want a shorter hike, you can try Eorimok Trail or Yeongsil Trail which only take 2 hours.  I did not hike them, but from looking at pictures that others have posted I can see that they have similar scenery to the beginning of the main trails.  I never guessed that Korea would have such beautiful mountains, but I was surprised to see how jaw-dropping the views were the further I climbed:

I started climbing around 8:30am and bought a small bottle of Korean Sochu from a convenience store at the base so I could take little shots of it as I climbed up the mountain.  Fortunately my hostel provided free breakfast so with 3 pieces of egg toast I knew I would have the energy to go all the way.  I listened to all of my favorite music while walking through the forest and had a nice little reflection on life.  Here I was in Korea again.  I found out there’s way more to this country than K-pop, cosmetics, and partying in Seoul and Busan.  These violet flora I kept seeing were absolutely beautiful.  Before I knew it, I was walking up the stairs and could vaguely make out the peak.  Of course it looked closer than it actually was, but it was still within my sight.  This was honestly much more peaceful than my Fuji hike because there weren’t nearly as many people.  I could focus on the views and climb with ease in anticipation of climbing my first active volcano.

Initially the temperature was mild so the climb was very easy.  I wasn’t sweating or noticing a huge incline so I didn’t need to stop for many breaks.  As I started seeing signs that indicated the summit was near, the air felt cooler and I noticed there was snow on the ground.  It was then I realized the mistake that I had made—I wasn’t wearing enough layers!!  I was only wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and a waterproof Nike jacket so I didn’t have any heatwear.  Fortunately the cold didn’t bother me due to the adrenaline that was pumping through my veins.  Plus I’ve gone running in the snow in Michigan wearing shorts before, so I suppose this wasn’t the first time I had been exposed to this kind of temperature.  The wind started to make my cheeks turn red, but by that point I had already reached the top.

Seeing this beautiful crater lake Baengnokdam (백록담/白鹿潭) was my reward:

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The lake at the summit of Mt. Hallasan.

I was so happy to not only have climbed Japan’s tallest mountain, but now Korea’s too!! I actually enjoyed this more than Fuji due to it being shorter and having the crater lake at the top. Not to mention that there were far less people. I would recommend climbing both if you are a nature enthusiast traveling through Asia. The feeling of looking down at the island once you’ve reached the top is one of pure victory. I enjoyed experiencing snow on a sub-tropical island even if I was unprepared for it too.

Here is a video of us climbing towards the top:

After snapping a bunch of pictures, I started my descent on the Gwaneumsa Trail. I was still freezing, but fortunately the further I climbed down the faster my body temperature returned to normal. I was high on adrenaline and knew food was waiting for me at the bottom too, so that was my main motivation!

The Gwaneumsa Trail was initially a bit steep to climb down, but provided me with some gorgeous mountain views.  There was also a sign warning us to steer clear of wild boars.  Who would have guessed they were native to Korea!!  I found that getting down took less time than I expected, so I completed the climb in around 8 hours.  Not bad for my first big climb of the year.  I celebrated with some Korean seafood pancakes by a place near the trail entrance.  I tried to use a map to figure out the bus schedule, but unfortunately I didn’t have any service and was informed that buses are really infrequent here.  Despite the language barrier, the store owners were kind enough to call a taxi for me that wasn’t very expensive.  I was very thankful for my experience and also that the weather stayed nice!

After my hike I decided to try a hot spring in Jeju, because why not?  Tapdong Seawater Sauna (which is now sadly closed) was closest to my hotel so I decided to walk there.  Two things about it really amazed me.  The first was that you could go swimming in certain baths.  Usually at Japanese onsen, swimming is forbidden.  However, Jeju has a huge female diving community, so I could see where this makes sense.  The second was that Korean people brought water with them into the sauna.  That is also not allowed in Japan, but with the super hot temperature I could see why people did it.  The culture here was a lot more laid back which I really enjoyed.  The concierge jokingly called me an alcoholic because I was still carrying soju around with me, but I laughed and said it’s because I just climbed Hallasan and I was on vacation.  It was hard to believe that this was only my second day!!

The Jeju Chronicles: Exploring Udo Island

During Golden Week of 2018 I decided to venture to Korea for the 2nd time and explore its most famous beach resort island: Jeju.  This island is extremely unique because not only does it have the best beaches in Korea, but it also has the Nexon Computer Museum with the world’s longest running MMO.  There’s also the tallest mountain in Korea (Mt. Hallasan), a folk village with traditional houses, and a fairly famous sex museum.  As you can see, Jeju has something for everybody because there is a huge diversity of attractions to see.  A lot of people that live close to Korea come here to spend their honeymoons or school vacations, but there are many backpackers like me who travel here too.  In this article series I will be detailing my 5 day stay in Jeju in hopes that other people will decide to come in the future.

Traveling to Jeju

The best way to travel to Jeju is to take a direct flight from Seoul.  Jeju Air has the cheapest flights that range from $30 – $50 USD roundtrip.  The flight only takes about an hour.  Jeju is comparable in Okinawa in Japan, but is much smaller and doesn’t have as many islands you can travel to.  However, traveling here is much cheaper than most islands in Japan and it has a different vibe.  One of the best islands you can visit in Jeju is called Udo which is the very first place I went.

Udo Island Day Trip

Udo Island was my first destination once I reached Jeju Airport.  Fortunately you don’t need to fly here and can instead take a relaxing 15 minute ferry.  The reason I wanted to go to Udo is because it is the perfect cycling destination.  The island was named for its somewhat rectangular shape that looks like cow lying down.  I also chuckled because the name reminded me of U-DO in Xenosaga.  You can see most of the attractions on Udo within 3 – 4 hours via electric bike.  E-bikes can be rented for around $10 per day and are extremely worth it.  This was my very first time riding an e-bike, but fortunately it wasn’t scary!  You can see the ocean from any point in Udo making it a wonderful spot for photography.  Everyone rides slow so they can stop to take pictures.

Since I was starving, I stopped at a local seafood restaurant near the bike rental shop.  I couldn’t speak much Hangul but I was able to place an order.  They whipped me up some spicy crab and muscle stew which tasted amazing.  For dessert, I decided to try the peanut ice cream that Udo is famous for.  They placed two adorable teddy bear crackers on it too.  The salty and sweet combination makes it worthy of all the praise that it gets.  You can find this food literally all over the island and it’s much cheaper than food in Seoul.

Finally feeling full, I decided to make my way down to the beaches.  Gwakji Beach and Hamdeok Beach were my two personal favorites.  Both can be reached via e-bike in less than 30 minutes and are found on the north side.  Exploring these beaches can take up to an hour.  I came here in late April so it was a bit cold to swim but the weather was near perfect.  Korea’s weather is similar to Japan’s but is slightly more mild.

Besides the swimming and biking, there are many other exciting things to do on Udo.  You can go horseback riding for a short time if you talk to someone near the stables.  If you like art, most of the buildings are painted in bright colors and there are murals all over the island.  The food here never disappoints.  The octopus-shaped bread I tried was filled with cheese and absolutely amazing.  Just the  atmosphere of being on a small beach island is awesome too.  I enjoyed walking inside the the giant shells that were near the pier and also petting the store owner’s dogs.  Everyone here is extremely friendly so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier.

On my way back to return my e-bike, I stumbled upon one of the best DJ booth turned ice cream shop ever.  The chef was spinning some fresh island beats as he was whipping up ice cream.  This was an extremely rare vibe that I was not expecting:

The store Udo Prince Story (우도왕자이야기) has both phenomenal food and music. If you come all the way out here, be sure not to miss out. This was the best instant dance party I ran into here and was the perfect way to end my day trip.

After an exciting first day in Udo, I rode the ferry back to the main island where my accommodation “GreenDay” was.  There are a few hotels on Udo, but there is much more selection and nightlife on the main island of Jeju.

I chose GreenDay because I thought the name was hilarious and the dorms are only $15 per night.  I couldn’t pass up staying in this colorful little house:

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Taking a “Holiday” at GreenDay.

GreenDay Address: 251-9 Samdoi-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, South Korea

Udo Access

I took a cheap taxi to Seongsan Port, then a 15 minute ferry to reach the island.  The ferry ticket is only $10 one way.  Please see the Udo Ferry Time Table for reference.

In my next article, I will be talking about some of the quirky museums that I explored.  Please stay tuned for more!

 

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!