Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 2: The Philosopher’s Path, Maruyama Park, and Arashiyama

After a spending a full day of hiking around Uji and seeing the once in a lifetime view of a full moon and fully blooming sakura at Toji, I was ready to start my final day hitting the last few aesthetic destinations on my list! Please see Kyoto Sakura Highlights Part 1: Byodoin, Go River, and Toji Temple for the first part of this article series. This article expands my recommended sakura viewing spots and also lists my favorite food and travel accommodations for the spring season.

Kyoto is a place that’s full of adventure and serene nature no matter where you go, but here are the places that I wouldn’t miss out on in late March:

Philosopher’s Path

If you are looking to experience some of the best scenery in Kyoto, then your best bet is to start at the Philosopher’s Path. The main path itself is actually not that long but it is lined with beautiful canals and sakura trees galore. The branching paths will lead you to many historic temples, traditional restaurants, and other exciting sights. One major point of interest is the Kaege Incline which is an old hill with railroad tracks that are now no longer in use making it the perfect spot for photography.

I recommend arriving before 10am or else you will run into tourists and wedding photography if you come during the afternoon like I did, but the experience here was definitely unforgettable! Everyone here stared in awe at the sakura petals that gently fell from the trees and drifted into the canals. I felt completely relaxed among the smiling people around me. I rented a kimono and took some of my best pictures in this area. For more information on kimono rental, please see my Yumeyukata Article.

If you keep walking down the Philosopher’s Path, you eventually will hit Nanzenji which I visited in the fall and also Ginkakuji. There are plenty of places in between those two temples you can explore too.

Admission Fee: Free
Access: There are a number of stations and bus stops that you can access this path from, but I would recommend taking the Keihan-Keishin train line to Kaege Station so you can start at the Kaege Incline and work your way up!

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park is undoubtedly one of the most famous parks in central Kyoto. It has beautiful sakura, a picturesque pond, several temples, and amazing food stalls. I spent my 27th birthday drinking sake here and I will never forget the blissful experience. This time the same place that I bought sake at in October was selling sakura champagne so of course I had to indulge–they sure know how to make money here! Anyway, the major draw here in the spring is the sakura illumination at night. There is a zen garden with a projection of koi fish that look like they are swimming when you first walk in through the main entrance. The stairs near the hall of Chion-in have a neon pink flower projection spread across them that slowly changes color. The lights are creatively placed beneath the sakura to create an eloquent pink and white gradient that bring out the highlights of the petals. You can also stand in front of some of the lighting to have sakura images projected onto yourself. Technology sure is amazing! I was also very impressed to see a temple completely illuminated in blue where a sermon was in progress. I was surged with energy from all of these beautiful colors and would highly recommend coming to Maruyama both during the day and at night because you’ll never know what you’ll find here!

Admission Fee: 1000 yen
Access: Walkable from Gion Station and anywhere near Kawaramachi

Arashiyama

The final destination on my sakura itinerary was Arashiyama! Here I visited the Moss Temple in the morning, ran into Goddess Madoka in the streets, and then went hiking in Nakanoshima Park to see a beautiful view of the Oi River and mountain sakura trees. The climb to reach the lookout point takes roughly 20 minutes and is very leisurely compared to the hiking I did earlier in the day. One sight in Arashiyama I always enjoy seeing is Daihikaku Senkoji Temple because it is very colorful and looks extremely remote up in the mountains surrounded by trees. You can climb up to it by crossing the river and hiking for approximately 40 minutes. The view from the window is incredible, especially in the fall. Besides the park, I would recommend checking out the area around Tenryuji because there is a dragon mural and a lot of beautiful sakura there too. There are also onsen and cafes all around Arashiyama so it is very easy to relax here. I am happy to have ended my trip in such a beautiful place!

Admission Fee: Free for the park, but most temples have an average price of 500 yen to enter. However, you can always stand outside of the temples and take pictures of them like I did!
Access: From Kyoto Station, take the San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. This takes roughly 12 minutes and costs 240 yen. Most things you can reach by foot here.

Food

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without sampling aesthetic food. I have been to many restaurants and cafes here, but these are my top recommendations from this trip:

  • Veg Out: This is a cozy vegan place near the Kawaramachi River that serves up amazing Buddha Bowls! These meals are monk diet-friendly and contain the perfect balance of vegetables and grain. Mine tasted a lot like vegan taco rice and I ordered some fig and coconut chips to go. This meal gave me the exactly amount of energy I needed and I am so grateful that I visited here!
  • Salon de Royal: This is a chocolate shop that my friend recommended to me that is also near the river. It has delicious teas and wine and features an original chocolate that is shaped like the Eiffel Tower specked in gold! I also noticed they were selling chocolate high heels here for 3000 yen. I definitely enjoyed the vibe of this place because it had an outdoor deck and would come back in the future for more delicious candy. I even took a sakura tart to go!
  • Arashiyama Street Food: Fancy yourself some traditional taiyaki stuffed with bacon and eggs? How about a yuba tofu flavored donut or ice cream? They even have Miffy bread here too! I cannot wait to see what ridiculous street food they have next time I come!

More more recommendations, please see my Aesthetic Kyoto Food Series.

Accommodation

In previous times I’ve always stayed at guest houses or capsule hotels, but since my favorite capsule and spa is permanently shut now I opted for lush business hotel near the Kawaramachi River called OYO. The cheapest single room is roughly 3000 yen per night and it came with everything I needed for my adventure. The staff was friendly, the location was grand, and there was free coffee and tea too. Unfortunately I did not take any photos of the room because I ran out of time, but the ones displayed on Booking are pretty accurate. I would definitely stay here again, but I am also open to trying other options down the river because you never know what’s out there! I like staying in slightly different places each time because with a change of environment often comes newfound inspiration.

Final Thoughts

Despite the pandemic, this was the best and most intense sakura season that I have ever experienced. Last year when the pandemic hit, many parks were closed in major cities so I spent my time exploring new areas in Nagoya. While those areas were beautiful, they weren’t nearly as festive as Kyoto. I woke up at 7am almost every morning to hit every major spot, ate a large variety of food, and ended both nights with beautiful illuminations. By the end of the third day I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the shinkansen to Tokyo, but that is a sign of a trip well spent. For all my life I will never forget the sight of the full moon and fully blooming sakura!

I would like to come back to Kyoto next month to explore Uji more and also go to a cosplay event by acosta. And next year I have already decided that I want to spend sakura season in Nara with the deer!

My next upcoming trip is to Okinawa at the end of the month, and I am very excited to publish my itinerary! Thank you for all the positive comments on my recent posts and photos–I will continue to do my best to inspire people to travel in Japan once the effects of Covid become more diminished!

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 Kyoto’s Sacred Moss Temple: Saihoji

Over the last three days I have been backpacking around Kyoto for the purpose of seeing the sakura in full bloom and capturing them on camera. Having witnessed enough pink petals to last me the rest of the year, on my final day of the trip I decided to take a bus deep into Arashiyama to see the lush green moss garden of Saihoji, also known as “Kokedera”. I have ventured to Arashiyama at least three times in the past to see the bamboo forest and go hiking around Oi River, but I never knew that this place existed until one of my coworkers told me about a mysterious temple that only accepted reservations by postcard. Since I am a curious adventurer, I mailed a paid reply postcard addressed to Saihoji a week before my departure with my requested visiting time and received a written response welcoming me on March 31st, 2021. It is recommended to visit during the summer season when the moss looks its fullest by absorbing the most sunlight and rain, but Saihoji is open year-round to those who make a reservation. I was lucky enough to see the sakura outside of it at full bloom because I came at the end of March!

Getting to Saihoji & Reservation Process

Saihoji is actually quite easy to reach from Kyoto Station. The 73 and 83 buses are almost a straight shot there and take around 55 minutes to reach the Kokedera Bus Stop. The bus only costs 230 yen so I would recommend it over the train route which requires multiple transfers and is more expensive.

You can make a reservation for Saihoji one week ~ one month in advance. Usually they will ask you to enter between 10am to 12pm. If you live in Japan you can buy a paid reply postcard at any post office and mail it directly from there. You can write in either English or Japanese. Please note that garden is sometimes closed during times of the year for maintenance. For detailed instructions on how to fill out your postcard, please see the official admission page. If you live overseas, I recommend mailing it from your accommodation once you arrive to Japan as opposed to going through a foreign booking agency because it may cost double the price.

I found it ironic that the temple has an official Instagram account that updates frequently but still only accepts reservations via postcard. That is Japan in a nutshell for you!

Admission Fee: 3000 yen

This is more expensive than other temples in Japan, but the maintenance of the moss garden takes quite a lot of effort so I would say the money is worth it. This temple is extremely rare so I would recommend it to those who have been to Kyoto before and are looking for a more unique experience. You will also get a postcard and a sheet with kanji you can trace and offer as prayer. Though I am not religious, I enjoyed learning about the customs of Saihoji. I spent about 45 minutes here and was satisfied with what I saw.

Exploring the Moss Garden

Once you enter through Saihoji’s main entrance, you will immediately see the main temple and a small stone garden ahead. After paying your respects to the temple, the gate to the moss garden is simply a stone’s throw away. As you walk around you will discover a beautiful pond, tiny bridges to small islets, and the greenest moss that you have ever seen:

Seeing the reflection of the moss on the pond was my favorite part. Though areas were roped off to preserve the garden, there still was a lot to explore. Apparently Saihoji’s innovative design later influenced the layout of the Ginkakuji so this temple really has a lot going for it.

Here is a short video I took while trekking on the stone path around the moss garden:

I definitely felt relaxed and achieved total zen during this journey, but afterwards I headed back to central Arashiyama for some food because I was starving!

Recommended Food in Arashiyama

Since yuba (tofu skin) is extremely famous in this area, I decided to try to yuba rice set at Saga Tofu Ine. This meal was completely vegan and tasted even better than the yuba that I tried in Nikko! I also stopped by the Miffy Sakura Kitchen for dessert. This place was so popular that only the Danish and sakura cube bread were available when I arrived, but both of them were delicious and the little bunny shape was so adorable. I definitely want to come here outside of sakura season when it is less crowded!

Please look forward to my next two posts on the highlights of sakura season in Kyoto! I still have one more to publish on Nagoya too… It sure feels good to be busy traveling again!

Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 2)

After my fantastic first day of exploring architectural shrines, climbing a part of Mt. Hiei, photographing the vibrant red maple leaves, and trying delicious parfaits and cocktails, I woke up early and set out for my second day in Kyoto! The goal of today was to see as many shrines as possible and also experience the indie music scene while eating delicious food along the way. Fortunately I was able to accomplish all of that and and learn more about one of my most favorite cities in Japan. There is truly always adventure to be had here!

Please see Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 1) for the first part of this article series.

Kiyomizudera Autumn Illumination

The highlight of my Autumn Adventures in Kyoto was seeing the beautiful illuminations at Kiyomizudera and surrounding temples. This temple is beautiful year-round, but fall is when its colors truly come to life. As you climb the steps you can see an awesome view of Mt. Otowa and Kyoto Tower in the distance that are partially obscured by the bright red leaves. There are light bulbs carefully placed beneath the maple trees so you can clearly make out the colors. The best place to take pictures is at the stage of Kiyomizudera which was built over 1000 years ago and has been the center of many kabuki shows and performances. In old times there was a legend that said if you jumped off this 4-story building and survived, your wish would be granted. Now you can simply make an offering at the shrine for your wish to be granted, and from my personal experience, sometimes wishes do come true!

After walking around the series of shrines and pagodas here, I also visited Kodaiji so I could see the dragon illumination. This temple has a zen garden and a picturesque pond so it is also another key spot for photography. If you continue to walk through the streets of Kiyumizudera, this temple is extremely easy to reach referencing the guideposts around the area. There are also food and souvenir shops galore so the atmosphere here is never dull!

Teori Zushi

While looking up unique dining options in Kyoto online, I came across teori zushi—which means “hand-woven sushi” at a restaurant called awomb. This healthy meal set is served with sushi rice and seasonal hand-picked fruits and vegetables so you can create your own customized maki rolls. The toppings are placed in a beautiful way that looks like art and you can use a fine-tipped brush to carefully apply soy sauce to your rolls. My personal favorites were the pumpkin and egg toppings because they were so light and delicious. Although some of these combinations may seem strange at first glance, you can season everything in a way that fits your own personal tastes so eating teori zushi is very fun! I would highly recommend this restaurant to people who love sushi and are looking for a new experience because this set gives you a way to experiment with flavor. I also ordered the sweet sake set so I could enjoy it with my meal.

awomb requires reservations in advance, but you can easily book a seat on their English website. The price for this meal set was around 3000 yen and the quality was well worth it. Please note their are two branches in Karasu and Nishikiyamachi so you can choose the location that’s most convenient for you. Overall this is the most delicious sushi I’ve tried in Kyoto!

Unique Kyoto Desserts

Though Kyoto has no shortage of mouth-watering food, two of my favorite desserts I tried on this trip was a flamingo egg waffle and dango topped with ice cream.

I first tried an egg waffle when I was in Hong Kong in 2017, but I had never seen one that looked like a flamingo before! You can try this delicious raspberry-flavored egg waffle with edible flowers at a teahouse called 京花果茶 圓-en-. The best part was honestly the the sweet cream they hid inside the waffle. I would gladly come back here and try another flavor if it was available! There is also flower tea available here for tea enthusiasts.

After I ate my teori sushi, I walked to Japanese Ice Ouca to try their famous “mitrashi dango”. You can choose between white or green dango and then select your favorite flavor of ice cream to go on top. I chose white dango with vanilla ice cream because I thought it would taste good with the sweet soy glaze and it did! This is such a simple concept (literally a scoop of ice cream on dango) but this is the first dessert place that I’ve seen it offered. I highly recommend trying it because it melts in your mouth and has the perfect combination of sweetness.

Both of these places are located in central Kyoto so they are pretty easy to access by bus or train. I look forward to the new dessert spots that pop up next time I visit!

“Pyramid” @ West Harlem

Whenever I travel to a different city in Japan, I try to immerse myself in the nightlife unique to that location as much as possible. West Harlem has become a reputable club in Kyoto that a number of my music friends have talked about. On the night I decided to check it out, the Kyoto-born label known as No Collar 4 Kicks (NC4K) was throwing their monthly event called “Pyramid”. This is a house, soul, and R&B free-for-all that starts at 10pm and goes on into the early hours of the morning. After doing all that sightseeing and photography I was ready to get my drink on.

As soon as I entered the club I was greeted by my friend 芽田ぱに子 who is a singer and trackmaker that moved to Kyoto to pursue her dream of music. I met her previously at a music workshop that was held in Kyoto the previous year. Though she was not performing tonight, it was great to see so many artists hanging out in one space and supporting one another. I also ran into two of my DJ friends who also came from Tokyo for the holiday weekend, any many rounds of drinks ensued. Within the first hour of my time here at West Harlem I felt extremely welcome!

The first DJ up was Lomax, also known as Magochi. Not only is he a talented DJ but he also makes delicious tacos under the name “Magobell”. Another artist from NC4K I really like is Stones Taro, who is the boss of the label and produces a lot of old school house music. My favorite song on NC4K is “New Old School” which they both made together. I heard it first when they performed at Batica in Tokyo in 2019:

This event was really cool because the DJs experimented with a lot of vinyl and the crowd had no idea what song was coming up next but almost everyone was on their feet dancing. At one point during the night I had a vodka tonic in one hand and a taco in the other while vibing to the beat so this event gets a solid 10/10 from me. Because I was dancing so, I didn’t take a lot of videos but here is a noteworthy one that shows the general atmosphere of West Harlem. Please check this venue out if you get the chance. Whatever night you go you’re sure to have a good time:

Final Thoughts

With the perfect mix of sightseeing, food, and music this day really couldn’t have been better. Whenever I first wake up in Kyoto, I always run to the Kawaramachi River from my hotel and skip across the turtle-shaped rocks while reflecting on life and preparing for the day ahead. Not only is this an exhilarating workout, but it also helps me get prepared for the day ahead. My music of choice while running here is in the blue shirt because he is also well-known in Kyoto and his music captures the essence of the city. I look forward to the next time I can travel here for another event!

In my next article I will be writing about the Evangelion sword exhibition I went to at Toei Animation amusement park. I will hopefully have more time to write this month because my projects are gradually slowing down. Please look forward to it!

Autumn Adventures in Kyoto (Part 1)

Over the recent three-day holiday known as “Labor Thanksgiving Day” in Japan, I decided to venture to Kyoto once more in hopes of capturing the beauty of the red maple leaves on camera. The previous weekend I traveled to Ginzan Onsen and had a lovely experience there, but unfortunately since it is located in the north of Honshu most of the leaves from the red maples had already fallen. Since Kyoto is more to the south, I figured that mid-November would be the ideal time to visit. Fortunately I was able to do a ton of photography with both my new iPhone 12 Pro’s camera and my trusty GoPro Hero too. I also managed to eat at a lot of cute cafes and meet up with some old friends while experiencing the true Autumn essence of Japan. Yet another great adventure for the archive!

Nanzenji Architectural Temple

I departed from Tokyo immediately after my job on Friday via the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to avoid the holiday rush. After spending a quiet night at a guesthouse near Nijo Castle (read further below), I made my way to Nanzenji Temple, one of the most famous Zen temples in Japan that practices Buddhism. I’ve been to numerous temples and shrines in Kyoto already, but what drew me to Nanzenji was its aesthetic brick aqueduct that is frequently used as a photoshoot location for visitors wearing kimonos and weddings. During the Meiji Period it was actually used as part of a canal system from Kyoto to Lake Biwa in Shiga. Now its colors and architecture have weathered and faded making it look like a beautiful backdrop with the surrounding forest looming behind it.

I spent about an hour here doing self-portrait photography then wandered through the large complex of temples and gardens that are around here. I highly recommend visiting Tenjuan Temple because it has both a rock garden and a pond garden that make it look lovely in Autumn. I finally got to see the bright red maple leaves that I was dying to see here! The entrance fee is only 300 yen.

If you are interested in additional sightseeing, Kinkakuji and the Philosopher’s Path are really close to Nanzenji. But after all of this walking, I was hungry so I decided to grab some dessert!

Kotoba no Haoto

Since my next destination was located in the mountains north of central Kyoto, I decided to stop at a cozy bookshop that also serves adorable parfaits called Kotoba no Haoto. They have quite the impressive collection of books from everything from Kyoto guidebooks to cat-themed novels and are very welcoming to guests. I decided to order the seasonal parfait which consisted of a cat crafted out of vanilla ice cream and chocolate shavings and fresh fruit. It tasted even better than what I had imagined and was completely refreshing. I liked this cafe because I didn’t feel rushed here and could peacefully enjoy my dessert. After feeling fulfilled, I made my way to Mt. Hiei with renewed energy.

Address: 12-1 Tenjin Kitamachi, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, 602-0087

Experiencing the Golden Hour at Mt. Hiei

Originally I passed by the base of Mt. Hiei while I was on my way to the famed Rurikoin Temple. This temple is situated in a forest and has a pool of water inside that perfectly reflects the surface of its surroundings. The best time to go is in Autumn when the red maple leaves match the same red color of the interior of the temple. However, unbeknown to me entrance required prior online reservation from the months of October to December and I was not able to enter. Since I had traveled an hour by bus to get here, I decided that I would ride the cable car up Mt. Hiei instead and do some photography in the mountains. Fortunately it was only a 5 minute walk from the queue to Rurikoin so I did not lose much time. This is actually the longest cable car in Japan so I’m happy I went for the experience!

Mt. Hiei actually has both a cable car and a ropeway. To ride both roundtrip it costs around 1800 yen which is a bit expensive but the view is overall worth it. At the top you can see Garden Museum Hiei and also hike to see some temples in the mountains. I loved this museum because it had a lot of beautiful oil paintings that were carefully placed around groups of wild flowers and bushes. There was also a pond and you could see all of the mountains surrounding Kyoto and Shiga. The natural lighting and cool mountain air really added to the experience. If you come this far out it’s definitely worth the ascent because it gives you an entirely new view of Kyoto.

I descended around 4pm which was just in time to catch the golden hour when the sun shines through the trees and gradually begins to set. The path around the base of Mt. Hiei started to gleam with the flicker of lanterns and I felt as if I had been transported to a beautiful red world. Luckily I caught it all on camera. I loved how the Eizan Railway train I took back to the city center was marked with a red leaf too. This entire day went better than how I had originally envisioned it despite the minor setback.

Celebrations at L’Escamoteur

After experiencing the golden hour and feeling satisfied with the photos I had taken for the day, it was finally time for celebration! Coincidently one of my friends from Yamanashi was also in Kyoto and invited me to come to L’escamoteur with her. This bar is near Kawaramachi and is named after the French word for “magician” or “illusionist”. As the name implies the bartenders can whip up some pretty mysterious cocktails here. My friend and I have the same taste so we both ordered chocolate cocktails with brandy first. After kicking back the first round, we next ordered matching Kyoto-themed matcha cocktails that kind of look like おっぱい when placed side by side. We laughed at that and shared stories of our experiences in Kyoto. She also tried to go to Rurikoin Temple and could not get in without a reservation. Small world! We vowed to both see it next year during Autumn.

This bar definitely had the perfect atmosphere for catching up with old friends and I am happy I went here. Next time I would like to try a cocktail with an egg and this mysterious concoction I happened to capture on camera:

Address: 138-9 Saitocho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, 600-8012

Accommodation: Hostel Mundo

Due to the reduced prices of the hotels that are participating in the Go To Travel Campaign, I was able to stay at a backpackers guesthouse called Hostel Mundo for less than 1000 yen for 2 nights. I liked this guesthouse because it was located in a quiet area away from the crowds, but still had easy access to Kawaramachi and Kyoto buses. The rooms had cozy futons and the interior decor made me feel like I was in Thailand, but Hostel Mundo simulates the feeling of staying at a traditional Japanese house. Bike rental is also available and there are many hot springs nearby. Only a few other woman were staying here so I was able to sleep peacefully each night and wake up early for my next adventure. I would recommend this place to most people as it is very affordable and clean.

Thank you for reading Part 1 of my Autumn Adventures in Kyoto! Part 2 is already being drafted so please look forward to reading more from me soon~

Super Aesthetic Adventures in Osaka (Day 2)

After exploring the Kaiyukan Aquarium and meeting a fire bender on our first day in Osaka, we decided to take our second day at a more leisurely pace.  Or so we thought.  Despite all the drinking we did the night before, we surprisingly weren’t hungover so it was somewhat of a miracle.  Craving Mediterranean and Halal food, I found a Michelen Star restaurant called Ali’s Kitchen right near our hotel.  They have a large assortment of Pakistani and Arabic food that we heartily feasted on.

I ordered the Arabic salad and the Baba Ganoush that tasted like nothing I had ever eaten before.  It was clear that a lot of special ingredients were used in this style of cooking to give it such an amazing taste.  Plus it was extremely healthy too!  My boyfriend ordered the keema curry and I could tell by the look on his face that he thoroughly enjoyed it too.  This restaurant definitely deserves 5 stars:

Feeling satisfied, we decided to walk around American Street (also called Ame Mura) to see some of the latest Osaka streetwear and colorful architecture.  Honestly, the aesthetics here were off the chart.  Some of my favorite things that we found was a coffee shop called W/O Stand with a fake vending machine door, a shoe brand called “Dr. ASSY”, colorful fashion and logos, random shrines, and a giant mall with jungle-like foliage called Big Step.  I snagged an ASICS jacket for half-off here and they had neon bathrooms too!  Plus free table hockey!  The highlight was when my boyfriend lost the game by ricocheting the puck off my side and directly into his goal.  Good times.

We then decided to explore the “Kyoto of Osaka” and see Mizukake Fudo, a beautiful Buddhist statue that has been covered in moss.  This temple is very small but is surrounded by a lot of unique restaurants and bars.  The path is connected by Dotonbori’s central streets but it has more of a Gion feel to it.  While we were here a small ceremony was going on.  Monks were humming and chanting prayers.  We left a donation to show thanks and then quietly made our way to our next destination.

My boyfriend decided we should first see Denden Town (the central otaku hub), and then proceed to the old arcades in Shinsekai.  I remember going to a maid cafe in Denden Town years ago while I was interviewing for jobs in Osaka.  However, I don’t think I had ever seen Shinsekai before because usually I stay in Dotonbori (for sake of parties).  Fortunately the two areas are close enough that you can easily walk between them on foot.  I was so happy to experience Shinsekai because it preserves the old 80s feel of Japan with its smokey Mahjong parlors and 50 yen arcades.  The claw machines here are absolutely hilarious too.

We played Street Fighter and Time Crisis 3 here for a long while and walked around the illuminated streets.  There were less people around due to the pandemic but this place still had a lot of charm.  I could see Tsutenkaku Tower here and snap some really good pictures.  I would really like to come back here and try some sushi in the future!  Maybe even spend a night here too!

As we were walking back up Dotonbori to go to the famous hammock cafe called Revarti, we came across a completely random, unannounced matsuri here.  Gotta love the Osaka life.

Sadly to our dismay the hammock cafe’s hours had been drastically changed due to the pandemic.  Instead of staying open until midnight, they now only stay open until 5pm.  Closing at happy hour should be a crime but I vow to come back here some day when they are open.  We decided to initiate our backup plan which was the 200 yen bar called Moonwalk and drink cheaply to our heart’s content.  The entrance fee is 500 yen, but every drink you order after that is only 200 so you can drink like a sultan.  They have all sorts of liqueur that you can experiment with too.  My personal favorites are the Dalgona Coffee made with Kahlua and the ice cream grasshopper.  Each drink has stats like a Jojo character so you can strategically plan out how shit-faced you’re going to get:

After about an hour of this we were tipsy and ready for the next destination.  Our friend who owns the best gaming bar in Osaka, Space Station, invited us out and we drank more coffee drinks and an original cocktail called “Ecco the Dolphin”.  We then plopped in the most Australian Bomberman (Bomberman 3) and also played some Nidhogg.  I enjoyed looking out the Slime-tinted windows and into the night.  The design of this bar is iconic.

After chatting for a good while, we were invited to a music party at Sound Garden.  The genre was supposed to be house and techno so I was totally down.  The best part about this bar was it had a super comfy couch with a pillow that said “Fuck Tokyo. I [heart] Osaka”.  We sat on the couch and laughed about this for a good while.  It’s really true.

I was talking about music in Michigan and right as I mentioned Eminem, the DJ started playing “Sing for the Moment“.  That was our cue to get up and dance.  I was completely lost in the moment and let go of my fears and anxiety.  I can’t believe how amazing this trip had turned out!  Though our initial plans had slightly derailed, I was so happy that we were here together.  A sensation of euphoria came over me and after a while I wanted to wander by the river outside.  The music ended around 3am and we decided to make our way there.  There was a light rain in the air but it felt fantastic on our skin after dancing that long.  The river in Dotonbori had the most beautiful reflections that night:

As the sun rose we cuddled and listened to “P.S. You Rock My World” by Eels.  There were kids blasting EDM under the bridge and their playlist accidentally shuffled to “Last Christmas”.  It kind of felt like Christmas in July, in a way.  I really didn’t want for that night to end but eventually we drifted off to sleep.  What happens in Osaka stays in Osaka.

We left a few hours later at 11:30am via the Willer Express Bus and headed back to Nagoya.  However, we couldn’t leave without first picking up a souvenir:

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Takoyaki-flavored Pringles. The best parts of American and Japanese culture combined.

This was hands down the best trip to Osaka that I have ever had.  There was never really a dull moment—all of it was a highlight reel.  I hope to travel again with my boyfriend to Kyoto in the fall and hopefully make another trip back here.  Thank you all for reading up to this point!  Since we are currently unable internationally, this is the best alternative we could have asked for.

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.

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

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

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

Black Virgin Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wood Splinters of Fate.

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

Cao Dai Temples

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

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

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

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

Cu Chi Tunnels

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

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

My favorite places to hang in Seoul

Since I’ve finished my Jeju Island article series, I’m going to write about some of my favorite places to hang out in Seoul next.  It’s hard to structure this article because there are literally so many cool areas of the city!  My two favorite districts in Seoul are by far Itaewon and Gangnam.  Both have extremely different vibes but are perfect for a night out depending on what my mood is.  Itaewon is friendliest and most international while Gangnam is the fanciest district is Seoul.  Even though I can’t speak Hangul, I never have trouble making friends in this city.  Spontaneously getting invited to a bachelor’s party while staying here was one of the coolest things that have ever happened to me in a foreign country.  I’ve been to Korea three times and hope to visit again when international travel is possible again.

Without further ado, here are the most fun places that I’ve discovered:

Common Ground

Common Ground is an urban mall that was built out of containers and is really fun to explore.  Unlike other malls, there’s not a huge mob of annoying shoppers here because those type of people usually go to the fancier malls in the center of the city.  Common Ground features small designer stores and also has restaurants and live music.  A lot of stores here import brands too.  No matter what your price range is, you can usually find something that fits your taste here.  I actually didn’t buy much but I had fun doing photography with the winter illuminations outside.  There was also a statue of an astronaut outside and some replicas of Roman statues inside the main building when I visited.  How aesthetic!

While I was walking around here, a Korean student came up to me and interviewed me for a university project.  Since I didn’t have a strict itinerary during my first trip, I happily participated.  She asked me various questions about my country and also gave me some Korean snacks.  Though it was a simple project, I was happy that I could help out.  Common Ground is close to many universities so it’s great for socializing and meeting people!

Lotte World

Lotte World is one of the most famous amusement parks in Korea.  In fact, it’s the largest indoor theme park in the world—which is why I had to go!  It’s located in the massive Lotte Mall that has hundreds of shops and food from all around the world.  If you are looking for top tier shopping in Seoul, then this is the place.  I came after the start of the new year so the park had a winter theme.  Fortunately it wasn’t very crowded and I could ride all of the rides that I wanted!  There are carousels, roller coasters, haunted houses, and my personal favorite: The Balloon Ride.  You can see the entire indoor park and mall from the top which makes it an amazing experience.

Even though Lotte World is owned by Lotte Co. Ltd., there are actually a lot of parallels between it and Disney Land.  For example, the outside of Lotte World resembles the Disney World Castle.  It also has a beautiful lake that you can view by walking across a bridge that leads to the artificially created “Magic Island” which is a lot like Disney Sea.  Despite these similarities, the attractions are quite different and the entrance to Lotte World is considerably cheaper.  If you like one park, you’ll probably like the other too.

I would recommend checking out Lotte World as opposed to other amusement parks because you can come here in any kind of weather thanks to the indoor park area.

Entrance Fee: 32$ for adults (cheaper than most amusement parks in Japan so it’s overall worth it)

Jogyesa Temple

The Jogyesa Temple in Insadong, Seoul is probably my favorite temple of all time in Korea.  I first came here during the Lotus Festival in April and many bright hand-crafted paper ornaments were hung around the entire complex.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!  Jogyesa is actually the center of Buddhism in Korea and many rituals and ceremonies are held here.  There are private prayer rooms as well as places that you can make public offerings.  The Chinese Scholar Tree was planted on the temple grounds because it is said to convert negative energy into positive energy and happiness.  Though I’m not particularly religious, I definitely felt in high spirits here.  Please check this place out if you ever get the chance.  The monks are very friendly and welcoming.

I enjoyed seeing the English pack of M&Ms being used as an offering when I went:

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Entrance Fee: Free

Myeongdong

Myeongdong is essentially the Shibuya/Harajuku of Seoul.  You can come here at any time of day and find something fun to do.  It has street food, hilarious fashion (“say no to kids, drugs”), recreational parks, and cafes galore.  The street and night markets have knock-off Gucci and Supreme which you can score for a low price.  I enjoyed eating octopus and drinking sochu while I walked through all the streets and alleyways.

Some of my favorite places I found around Myeongdong Station were:

  • Artbox – An adorable mall with art supplies, cosmetics, and accessories.  It reminded me of the LINE Friends store in Japan but had way more variety.
  • Stylenada 3CE – A pool-themed shopping mall and cafe with beautiful pink decor.  It has amazing desserts!
  • Bbongsin – An amazing restaurant with cold noodles and calzones.  Some of the best Korean food I’ve ever had!
  • Milky Bee – An ice cream shop with flower-shape gelato.
  • Happy Pills – Candy prescriptions.

Myeongdong has bars that stay open late, but not much of a club scene.  Continue reading to see my recommendations for clubs:

Gangnam

Ever since the song “Gangnam Style” became a hit song, I feel like this district doesn’t really need an introduction but I’ll give it a go anyway.  Gangnam is the most upscale district in Seoul but you can enjoy the nightlife here with almost any budget.  In addition to some of the most reputable clubs, it has secluded parks you can walk through by the river side and amazing cafes.  Gangnam itself is pretty spread out so people don’t normally drink in the streets like in Itaewon.  It’s classy and has a club area as well as a quiet upscale residential district as well.

My first memory of Gangnam was meeting up with some of my old college friends here and going to Octagon, where we got invited to VIP tables and drank champagne.  If you’re a girl then it’s really easy to meet people that will buy you drinks here.  The crowds and sound system are pretty insane too.  I honestly got too lit my first time here so I’d really like to come back and just focus on the music next time.

Last year I decided to get my eye bags removed at JK Plastic in Gangnam.  I had sunken eyelids that were caused by genetics so the veins under my skin would show and create permanent eye bags.  I always looked tired and wanted to fix the issue so I opted for eye surgery.  I chose JK Plastic because they are one of the highest-rated clinics in Korea and speak English.  It took about a week of downtime in Korea and then six weeks of recovery at home, but the skin beneath my eyelids has been fully restored now!  When I woke up from surgery I nearly cried because they did such an amazing job and I could already see the results despite having a swollen face.  During my down time I played visual novels and also watched a lot of anime.  It wasn’t so bad—just make sure you have enough time off to take care of yourself!

Plastic surgeons in Korea are the best in the world.  The advantage of going here is that if you’re a tourist you can get a tax refund from the surgery when you go to the airport.  I would not recommend plastic surgery in Japan because my friends have said the surgeons here are not as experienced or friendly.  I would recommend doing research, scheduling an online consultation with a clinic you like, and seeing what options fit you best.  I may write a full article on this at a later time!

Itaewon

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The inside of Fountain, one of my favorite watering holes in Itaewon.

Itaewon is my favorite place to start my night out in Seoul.  I have so many fond memories here.  It caters to the late-night international crowd and has small, condensed streets as well as beautiful murals that decorate the walls.  You can sit at an outdoor bar or go drinking in the street and easily meet people (both tourists and Korean nationals).  You can find pretty much any type of restaurant or dessert shop here too.  It has the feel of a college town but is much more upscale and classy.  Usually I spend my first night going to various clubs and bars then wake up and soak in Itaewon Land Spa.

My favorite club here is called Cakeshop because it features a lot of independent producers from both Seoul and other countries plus it has a great vibe.  It originally caught my eye because Carpainter did a set here in 2015 (unfortunately I was in America at the time or I would have gone).  The club is small enough with one DJ booth and bar that it’s easy to converse with people and enjoy the music.  I have made a number of friends here that I still stay in touch with.  The entry fee usually isn’t more than $25.

Besides Cakeshop, Fountain is a great place to check out.  The first floor is huge dance floor that’s always usually packed and the upper floors have tables and arcades for bigger groups.  The music here is usually western EDM which disinterests me, but the atmosphere of the club is impressive.  I have never paid any entrance fee when I have gone in.  What I remember of Club Awesome was awesome too!

Next time I’m here I really want to check out a club called Pumpkin.  If it’s actually Halloween-themed like its outer decor implies then I’m in.

Other Interesting Places:

  • Hongdae – Hongdae is a popular spot for college students and those who love K-pop music clubs.  I came here to visit the ADERerror store and also to do some shopping.  I didn’t like it as much as Itaewon or Gangnam due to my music taste, but I highly recommend you spend a night exploring here and see what you think.

    I found an amazing “Magical Item Shop” called Creamy DD with tons of Sailor Moon and other magical girl accessories here.  It’s easy to spot the sign if you walk down the main road:

  • Ihwa Mural Village – Since I went to Busan and saw Gamcheon I skipped this village, but if you are looking for beautiful murals and art to see then please check this place out!  I want to go here in the future.
  • Secret Garden – A scenic area around Changdeokgung Palace that I recommend checking out if you have the time.  It is one of the most beautiful gardens in Seoul!
  • Nami Island – A scenic island near Seoul where many K-dramas are filmed.  Click the link to read my full article on it!

Places to Stay

As a backpacker, I favor cheap hostels but the majority of accommodations in Korea are less expensive than in Japan.  You can likely find a nice hotel for $45 USD or less too.

Here are some of the places that I stayed at and enjoyed in Korea.  I booked them close in proximity to the clubs I was interested in checking out:

  • Guesthouse Yacht (Itaewon) – A very inexpensive apartment-style dorm in the heart of Itaewon.  This is my go-to place if I’m spending the night there because it’s safe, quiet, and conveniently located.
  • Kimchee Guesthouse (Gangnam) – A guest house near Gangnam City Office that has private and dorm rooms.  I stayed here during my eye surgery recovery period and it was perfect because my room had a shower inside it.  This is the cheapest you will get in the fanciest part of the city, I assure you.
  • Neo Seoul Guesthouse – I wanted to try staying in Hongdae for a night, so I chose this place because of the cool name.  It was cheap and I could easily access the airport limousine the next day so I recommend it for its convenience (Itaewon and Gangnam are a bit further away).

Dessert Recommendations

Please see Desserts that will make your heart melt in Seoul Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

This will be the last article about Korea that I write until my next trip!  Since I live in Japan, I can sometimes find cheap round-trip flights for under $150 so I come here usually once a year for a week long vacation.  Usually new restaurants and venues open, plus cosmetics and beauty clinics are really cheap here so I always have something to look forward to.  Until next time, Seoul!

 

Hakone: Journey to the Real-life Tokyo-3

If you’ve ever looked up day trips from Tokyo on the internet, Hakone will be one of the most prominent results.  With it being the real-life location of Tokyo-3 from Evangelion and having many hotsprings, temples, and a great view of Mt. Fuji, that status is well-deserved.  It’s also home to one of my favorite museums in Japan which has sculptures that resemble vaporwave visuals called the Hakone Open Air Museum.  You should also try swimming in the famous red wine onsen at Yunessan to smooth your skin.  Wherever you go you’re bound to discover something interesting here because the nature is vast.

I’ve been to Hakone five times by myself and also with friends so I’ve seen all its major attractions.  Here are some of the coolest things that I’ve found:

Eva-Ya: The Evangelion Goods Store

As you exit the station and begin your wonderful journey here, one of the first things you’ll come across is Eva-ya; Hakone’s own original Evangelion Store.  Here you will find a number of goods from the anime including water bottles based off the characters’ designs, food with the NERV logo on it, and a life-sized Rei Ayanami.  Asuka fans don’t fret because she has plenty of merchandise too!  One of my best purchases here was Misato’s cross-shaped necklace (not pictured).  I also enjoyed the Unit 01-colored ice cream.  Of course you can visit the official Evangelion stores in Tokyo too, but this is the one located where the anime takes places and has slightly different merchandise.

Owakudani

Owakudani is Hakone’s volcanic crater that has sulfur vents and hotsprings making it a beautiful mountain getaway.  The sulfide causes the rocks to gain their lovely red hue.  In order to reach Owakudani, you must take a cable car ride from Hakone Ropeway.  There are black eggs sold here that are said to increase your lifespan.  I bought a four-pack of them and thought they were very delicious!  Only time will tell if their effect is really long-lasting.  Unfortunately due to the danger of the volcanic gas some of the hiking trails have been roped off here, but watching the plumes of smoke form from the main viewpoint is an amazing sight.  This crater is definitely worth seeing!

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the pirate ship fee included too).

 

Yunessan

Yunessan is my favorite onsen in all of Hakone because of its famous red wine onsen you can bathe in among many other unique hotsprings and pools.  This is a mixed-gender hotspring so swimsuits are required in most areas unless you rent a private onsen or pay to enter the gender-segregated bath called Mori no Yu.  The plus side is that you can enjoy Yunessan with all of your friends!  Last time I went they had coffee, sake, and pearl-water baths too.  Some of the baths rotate while others are permanent additions.  The outdoor area has water slides, a mystical cave that you can explore, and various hot springs positioned so you can get a clear view of the mountains.  This is always the most relaxing part of my trip.  During certain times they serve free glasses of red wine too so be sure not to miss out!

Entrance Fee: 2,900 (a bit expensive, but worth it for the variety here)

Outdoor Museums

I’ve already mentioned that the Hakone Open Air Museum is by far my favorite museum here (see my article The Top 3 Most Innovative Art & Technology Museums for more information), but I also want to point out beautiful Hakone Venetian Glass Museum.  This forest of glass has beautiful Venetian-inspired designs and adornments like nowhere else I’ve ever seen.  Outside you can find trees and a bridge intricately decorated with glass ornaments as well as a miniature pond.  Inside there are many hand-crafted glass sculptures and jewels as well.  I was very impressed with the aesthetic here:

The Okada Art Museum is also worth checking out.  Though I don’t have any recent pictures, they have many beautiful sculptures in the mountains and footbaths you can use too.  There are some traditional Japanese handcrafts and artifacts displayed too.

Entrance Fees: Varies on the museum, but I would research beforehand and budget 3000 – 5000 yen depending on what you want to see.  Keep in mind these are some of the best museums outside of Tokyo and have that awesome mountain view!

Hakone Shrine & Pirate Ship Tours at Lake Ashi

A trip to Hakone isn’t complete without seeing Lake Ashi and the famous Hakone Shrine along the shores.  I first saw it in the winter when snow was on the ground, but the summer is the ideal time to go if you want to experience the lake.  My friend and I decided to buy the tickets to ride the pirate ship and drank a bottle of Captain Morgan on it in true spirit.  The ship was very spacious and we could feel the gentle breeze of the lake while staring at the view of Mt. Fuji in the distance.  It was exhilarating—an experience like nowhere else in Japan!  I think the only other place where you can ride a pirate ship quite like this is at Tokyo Disney, but you don’t have the awesome mountain backdrop that you do here.

Cable Car Fee: See discounts on the Hakone website (I recommend getting the one with the cable car fee included too).

Access

From Shinjuku Station, you can take the Romancecar Express to reach Hakone-Yumoto Station in 1.5 hours for 2300 yen.

Once reaching the station, all of the places I listed can be reached via bus within an hour, but I would allow yourself 6-8 hours here at least.  It took multiple trips in both the summer and the winter for me to see everything here, but you could probably see these things in approximately 2 days.

If you decide to stay here overnight, Hakone Japan has some good choices.  I plan to stay at a ryokan in the future and will write about my experience.