Having a Tea Party at the Umineko Manor (Kyu-Furukawa Gardens)

Another destination that’s been on my bucket list for quite a while is the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens located in western Tokyo, and last month on one of my days off I finally had the chance to visit! These gardens are very famous for their Western meets Japanese design, and the guest house from Umineko no naku koro ni was actually inspired by the manor that acts a as a centerpiece here. You can walk through the interior of the manor and order tea for an extra cost which was extremely worth it. I really felt like I was Beatrice sitting outside on the balcony and gazing upon everyone that walked by!

If this is in Tokyo then you’re probably wondering why it took so long for me to go, but the gardens have been completely closed for over half a year due to the pandemic. From June 4st, 2021, Kyu-Furukawa Gardens have officially re-opened and now everyone can visit! They are limiting the number of visitors but you can reserve a ticket on e-tix for free. I reserved mine three days before and was able to enter without any problem.

Here is a real life to anime comparison of the Western-styled manor I took with my tripod (click to enlarge the images):

To my knowledge the rooms of the manor are occasionally rented out for meetings because I accidentally walked in on one while I was exploring the interior! But without a doubt the main draw is the rose garden outside of the manor and the traditional Japanese garden in the back. Both of these gardens have a lot of rare flowers and I even saw hydrangeas while they were in season. I can see why ryukishi07 chose this location as inspiration for his visual novel series because it is very beautiful and feels like it has an air of mystery to it.

Access

Kyu-Furukawa Gardens are easily accessible by taking the Yamanote Line to Komagome Station and walking 10 minutes. You can walk around the gardens in 1-2 hours depending on if you explore the inside of the manor or not.

Address: 1 Chome-27-39 Nishigahara, Kita City, Tokyo 114-0024

Garden Entrance Fee: 150 yen
Manor Entrance Fee: 400 yen
Tea Set Fee: 500 yen~

Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1: Byodoin, Go River, and Toji Temple

Earlier I wrote about my visit to Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple in Arashiyama, so today I will be writing about all of the best places to view the sakura in Kyoto! The best time of year to go is during the last week of March because the trees will be in full bloom and you can see them with their anime-like aesthetic. There is nothing more beautiful than watching the delicate petals be carried away in the breeze, especially if you are by a river or pond. Numerous sakura trees are planted around Kyoto so their distinctive pink petals are nearly impossible to miss, but I will cover my top three recommended spots in Part 1 of this article series. I recommend staying in Kyoto for at least three days so you don’t miss out on this festive season! Some of these views require precise timing and are a once in a lifetime chance to see, especially if you live outside of Japan.

Byodoin

Known for its tea room and gorgeous gardens, Byodoin is undoubtedly one of the best temples to enjoy a stroll around in Uji! It is quite easy to reach from Kyoto Station and only only takes around 35 minutes via the Nara Line. The petals that lined the paths to the main temple nearly made my heart melt. I brought my Totoro plush with me and took some pictures with him in the trees while listening to Nujabes (I frequently use my stuffed animals as markers when I am doing photography with a timer). The wait time to enter the main hall was roughly an hour so I decided to skip it this time, but honestly walking around the pond and doing photography was fulfilling enough for me. Not to mention some of the street food I saw here was hilarious! The matcha takoyaki and the green yakisoba are definitely on my aesthetic food list next time I come back here which will hopefully be soon if there is a music event here.

Entrance Fee: 600 yen (completely worth it)

Another place I recommend checking out in Uji is the heart-shaped temple that I visited last year!

Go River

After browsing various geotags on Instagram to see the most florescent sakura parks, I stumbled across the highly aesthetic Go River near Chusojima Station. This river has boat rides where you can float across a trail of sakura petals that have fallen into the water. When all of the petals have fallen off the trees, the water looks quite pink! I arrived here during the time when they were still on the trees, but the atmosphere of the place was incredible. Not many people were here on the weekday that I visited and I could get a lot of neat photos by walking across the bridges. Some of these branches were quite low to the ground so it was relaxing to lay down underneath them. I lived the true sakura picnic life here!

Park Admission Fee: Free
Boat Rental Fee: 1400 yen*

*Please note that tickets require advance purchase at the terminal on the side of the river.

Toji Temple

Undoubtedly the most spectacular illumination I have ever seen in Kyoto is the Toji Temple Sakura Illumination. When I arrived at 8pm on Monday, there was a full moon and fully blooming sakura which made it look like a wonderland buried within pink petals. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience and I am so happy that I entered at the perfect time of the season! The colors of these sakura and the clear reflection of the pagoda reflected in the water are still clearly etched in my memory. I felt full of energy and truly inspired by this miraculous site and would recommend it to everyone! You will truly feel like you have entered another world.

Admission Fee: 1000 yen (insanely cheap for this high quality view)

The Kiyomizudera Temple Illumination is also worth seeing, but I recommend going in fall because there are less sakura trees there.

High Tea at The Thousand Kyoto

This tea room is actually where my adventure began and I can’t recommend it enough! The Thousand Kyoto is around 8 mins walking from Kyoto Station and their seasonal tea set gave me all the energy I needed to go hiking around the aforementioned sakura parks. The set started with a cup of freshly made green tea and then was served with some delicious scones with strawberry jam. Next up was an assortment of chocolate, strawberry, and matcha cakes with quiche and tiny sandwiches. I thought that the cup they placed on the second tier was tea so I tried to drink it, but it was actually pudding!! They also had chocolate that looks like Nezuko’s muzzle from Demon Slayer, and I think that was my favorite sweet included in the set. I regret not taking more pictures with it, but at the same time I was hungry from going boxing in the morning before I left Tokyo. I had properly earned the right to eat these sweets and I was going to enjoy every last bite. After I was finished with all three tiers, they brought out a strawberry ice cream dessert as the final boss!! I washed it down with some spicy apple tea. No need for lunch or dinner that day, this was definitely breakfast fit for a queen.

High Tea Price with Unlimited Tea: 5000 yen (expensive but worth it for the high quality assortment of desserts and tea)

Final Thoughts

I was completely exhausted by the end of the day, but my heart and mind felt extremely full of all the beautiful sights that I have seen! Even if you can’t make it to all of these destinations, I would start with your favorite park, leisurely enjoy some wonderful food, then end your night at Toji Temple for an unforgettable experience. I will be publishing the second part of this article with my next top recommended sakura locations, so please look forward to it!

Exploring the Freezing Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam

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During my birthday in October of 2018, I made the decision to take a week-long tropical vacation to Vietnam—baby’s first trip to a Communist country.  It has taken me nearly 2 years to find time the proper time to write about it, but take my word that this next article series will be worth the wait.  We will be exploring some of the craziest places and seeing how Communism shaped the culture here.  Going to Vietnam changed my life and is yet another adventure I’ll never forget.  In fact, people don’t talk about this country nearly enough!!

Why Vietnam?  

It all started during my first week Tokyo when I went clubbing in Roppongi (when it was still good) and met one of my best friends who is half Japanese and half Vietnamese.  She likes drinking and dancing as much as I do so naturally we hit it off.  One night while we were having dinner she couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful the beaches in Vietnam were.  Since I had already been to Okinawa (I still need to write about this) and Yakushima for my previous birthdays which are considered some of the most beautiful getaways in Japan, I decided it was time to get out of the country and see these renowned beaches for myself.

I researched and found that Phu Quoc is known as the most beautiful island in Vietnam.  Ho Chi Minh is the cheapest place to fly to from Tokyo likely because it is a large international business hub.  I paid around $400 USD through Vietnam Airlines for a roundtrip flight.  I decided that I wanted to see Hanoi too because that is where my friend is from, so I came up with an itinerary that looked like this:

Tokyo ⇒ Ho Chi Minh ⇒ Hanoi ⇒ Phu Quoc ⇒ Pineapple Island ⇒ Ho Chi Minh ↻ Tokyo

Though this only hits the major areas, I booked some private tours to remote temples that I will mentioning in this series.

Getting a Visa in Vietnam

Since Vietnam is a Communist country, tourists will need to apply for a visa BEFORE they arrive.  Unlike other countries, applying for a visa upon arrival is usually not permitted.  I chose to purchase one online through Vietnam e-Visa, which is a legitimate and trustworthy service that you can safely submit your documents to.  Your visa will last 1-3 months and usually costs around $25 (there is sadly no way to avoid this fee).  You can also apply directly at the Vietnamese Embassy in your country.  For my lifestyle, it was much easier to apply online and I received approval within 3 days.  Easy.

ICE Coffee

After arriving at Ho Chi Minh Airport and successfully passing through customs with my e-Visa (fortunately it was an easy process that didn’t require much time), I hired a taxi and drove to the very first destination on my list: ICE Coffee.  This is one of the most unique coffee shops in Vietnam that has a deep-frozen room full of furniture and sculptures made of ice plus an adorable Husky you can pet!  I was lucky because I came in the afternoon when no one else was there.  I ordered a simple strawberry milk drink and began my journey through the frozen lands of Ho Chi Minh (fortunately winter jackets can be borrowed at the entrance with no extra cost).  To my surprise there was a bed that you could take a nap in too.  Exactly what I needed after my long flight!

I loved the design of this place because it had an avant-garde ice cave feeling to it.  The neon lights that reflected off the ice ornaments added a really cool city pop (cave pop?) aesthetic:

I had previously thought about staying in an ice hotel in either China or Hokkaido, but now that I’ve been here and taken plenty of pictures I really don’t feel the need.  This is the perfect place to chill with your friends and plan your trip around the city (or by yourself like me).  The temperature is quite cold, but the blankets on top of the ice furniture will keep you warm.  The hot drinks definitely help too!

Access

262 Bùi Viện, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

When I exited Winters and headed back towards Summers (pardon the Earthbound joke), it started downpouring rain.  That’s when I saw a familiar character’s face just up ahead—it was none other than Donkey Kong!  Not wanting to get drenched in the rain or awkwardly re-enter the coffee shop I just left, I ran towards the mysterious DK shop.  Whatever this place was, it had to be good.  Unbeknownst to me, it was another tea and coffee shop called Aroma Tea!  While I waited for the rain to subside, I decided to order the weirdest drink on the menu: Cream Cheese Tea.  The best part was that DK was smiling proudly on my cup:

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DK AROMA TEA IS HERE!

It was surprisingly sweet and easy to drink.  Obviously a lot of sugar and milk was added to create a satisfactory flavor.  Exactly what I needed after my strawberry milk, right?

I spent some time here planning out the rest of my day.  Fortunately the rain was only expected to last for 3 hours and I could still go out at night.  Because the traffic was starting to get heavy, I kindly asked the staff to assist me with calling a taxi because I couldn’t flag one down.  I severely underestimated the craziness rush hour here.  The majority of people in Vietnam ride motorbikes and it’s extremely hard to cross the road until you get the hang of it.  Most drivers will slow down when you start to walk across, but some remain driving at full speed until they’re right beside you!

Another thing to watch out for is the exhaust from all of the bikes.  I noticed it in my lungs immediately when I went for a run the next day.  Though I don’t have asthma, it was harder for me to breathe than usual.  Luckily I had planned various excursions outside of the city so I wasn’t breathing it in all the time.

When the taxi arrived, I had them drop me off at my hotel so I could check in and put my suitcase away.  After that, it was time to get changed into fancy clothes and party!

Dining in Ho Chi Minh (Nha Hang Ngon)

Even after sipping on all of those sugary drinks, my hunger was still unsatisfied.  I hadn’t eaten anything all day so I decided to dine at a beautiful restaurant called Nha Hang Ngon.  This place has all sorts of Vietnamese cuisine you can try with a gorgeous interior decor.  The menu is in English and has pictures of the dishes so it’s the perfect place to try things so you know what you like.  I ordered coconut shrimp, chili crab, and coconut ice cream while dining in the garden area.  The food and service was amazing!  Plus the rain had subsided so I was in a happy mood.  Who wouldn’t be when they’re eating here?

Even upscale restaurants in Vietnam are extremely affordable.  I only paid around $30 USD for all of this and it was very fulfilling.  Next it was time to hit the clubs!

Clubbing at Apocalypse Now

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I had a list of clubs written down, and Apocalypse Now was at the top of the list because of its iconic name…  In no time was drunk and ready to take on the apocalypse.  The club had no entrance fee and I immediately made friends with several Vietnamese girls who invited me to their table (probably due to my extremely blonde hair at the time).  They spoke simple English and we danced to better-than-what-you’d-expect remixes of popular EDM songs.  The club’s interior was very beautiful and had red lanterns.  I wish I would have taken more pictures, but I was too focused on having a good time and sipping on Coronas.

Though my time here was short because I had a huge itinerary, I still stay in touch with the girls I met through social media.  I enjoy seeing them travel around Vietnam because it inspires me to come back!

Clubbing in Ho Chi Minh is safe because there are always officers in uniform around keeping watch.  However, they don’t act like bouncers do.  They simply observe and ensure that no suspicious people try to sell drugs or anything.  Drugs are quite rare in this country so you shouldn’t have to worry about getting your drink spiked.  It is always a good idea to keep your eye on it, however.

Accommodation

I stayed at a private room in Blue River Hotel for $20 per night.  It was quiet, clean, and located near most of the attractions that I wanted to see so it was perfect for me.  With a little more money, you could likely stay in an upscale hotel with a spa and more luxurious amenities!  I was on a budget so I wasn’t able to stay in the nicer hotels, but I plan on checking them out in my next trip!

As far as transportation goes, I recommend using Grab app so you don’t get scammed.  The price is automatically calculated by distance so you don’t have to worry about dodgy people.  I’d like to believe that most people are honest, but I was scammed by an old taxi driver who hid the meter with a piece of cloth.  I can’t remember how much I lost, but it was likely the equivalent of $50 USD and I had no way to determine the correct amount.  I reluctantly paid and got out.  Vietnamese people are not rude or dangerous, but they will try to take advantage of tourists.  Please be careful while traveling here.

In my next series of articles, I will be writing about the rest of my adventures around Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, and Phu Quoc Island.  Please stay tuned for more!