The Great Bike Trip: From Kawayu Onsen to Yoshinoyama (Day 3)

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Just restoring my MP.

Having survived the harsh sun and rain of the first two days, we next set off for our motorbike adventure deep in the mountains of Nara Prefecture!  On the way there we decided to stop at the famous cemetery in Koyasan and also make our way to some viewpoints so we could experiment with skyline photography.  I had a lot of fun testing out the Canon EOS M I was lent for this trip and it turned out to be quite the relaxing day.  Though some of the parts of the mountain were steep, they were overall smooth and easy to ride on.  The main motivation for riding here was the luxury ryokan awaiting us upon completion of this trail.  This trip was going by so fast that I couldn’t believe it was halfway over…

For the introduction and full context of this trip, please see Day 1 (From Tokyo to Ise) and Day 2 (From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen).

Departure

The 3rd day began on August 3rd at 6:30am.  I took one last dip in the river onsen before we departed because it was the perfect way to start the day.  We definitely got our money’s worth at Kawayu Ryokan!  Our original plan was to go to Awaji Island on this day but due to the rain our itinerary changed.  Tonight our final destination was a ryokan designed by a famous architect in the mountains of Nara (Yoshinoyama) which took approximately 4 hours to reach (with breaks included).  We decided to spend more time in Wakayama and see some extremely rare sites that are only accessible by vehicle while making our way through the deep mountain paths.

Our updated map travel map looked like this:

Mt. Tamaki & Tamakijinja Shrine

Our first destination was a viewpoint on Mt. Tamaki that was approximately 45 mins away from Kawayu Onsen.  It conveniently had a free parking lot for motorbikes since it’s located next to Tamakijinja Shrine.  The sun had already rose so we stood here and took pictures of the clouds cascading over the mountains.  The cedar trees in the forest were beautiful too!  They brought back fond memories that I had hiking through Yakushima.  How nostalgic.

We next walked 15 minutes to the World Heritage Site of Tamakijinja Shrine.  The area was partially shaded by foliage so it was an easy hike.  The morning breeze felt lovely too.

Tamakijinja Shrine

Tamakijinja Shrine is small in size but is located in one of the most beautiful areas of the mountain.  The cedar trees that surround it are estimated to be about 3000 years old.  If you ever get the chance to visit this area of Nara, I highly recommend this forest!  I would have never even known about it if it wasn’t for my experienced driver.

Tanize Suspension Bridge

Tanize Suspension Bridge is located near Mt. Tamaki and is one of the longest suspension bridges in Japan.  It connects the villages of Uenochi and Tanize and has a gorgeous pale blue river underneath it.  My driver thought I would appreciate the photo op so we stopped here to take a break.  The bridge was extremely stable and safe to walk across.  I didn’t get much of a thrill from it but I did love looking at the river below.  The construction that went into this is quite impressive.

Other than the bridge, there’s really not a lot to do here.  But I did try some strange-looking sushi wrapped in cabbage because that’s apparently the specialty here.  It was vegetarian-friendly and quite healthy.  The taste was a bit different than what I was used to but it gave me the energy I needed to power through the rest of this day:

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You really need to try cabbage sushi at least once in your life.

Koyasan

Our next stop was Koyasan (also known as Mt. Koya), which is a quaint little town in Nara filled with temples and one of Japan’s most famous cemeteries: Okunoin.  The mausoleum here is where is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, lies in eternal meditation.  He is one of the most prominent figures in religious history making this area a sacred pilgrimage site.  In addition to him, many monks and feudal lords have been buried here.  You’ll also find some interesting looking tombstones dedicated to animals and science figures.  There are numerous bridges that you can cross to reach the mausoleum which make the journey interesting.  I also noticed that the leaves on the trees here were already turning red even though August had just began!

This is a place that I would not normally choose to go by myself because I am not religious or that well-versed in history, but my driver guided me through it which made the experience a lot more enriching.  A curious thing that I noticed here was that many statues were wearing red bibs.  I asked my driver why, and he didn’t know off the top of his head so we both researched it while we were resting.

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Jizo statues protect the souls of children and travelers.

According to Tadaima Japan, these statues are called Jizo and have two main roles:

“Their main role is to protect children. They also protect the souls of children who passed away and unborn babies. […] The other main role of Jizo is to protect the travelers, which is why you will often find Jizo statues on the side of the roads.”

I’ve seen these statues before in other areas of Japan, but I never understood the true symbolism until now.  It makes sense that parents would want to wish a safe journey to their children in the afterlife by praying to Jizo.  I’ve also encountered some in my mountain hikes and am glad that they are watching over me.  Koyasan is a really great place to learn more about these kinds of subjects if you are interested.

After cooling off at the rest center here, we took a 2 hour ride towards Yoshinoyama to reach our final destination for the day:

Chikurin-in Gumpeon Ryokan

Our final destination was the famous Chikurin-in Gumpeon ryokan in Yoshinoyama.  This ryokan was originally a temple that housed high-ranking monks who appraised the mountain.  The former Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, has even stayed here!  Now it servers as a famous hotspring resort that is open to the public but much of the original architecture has been preserved.  A famous ikebana artist designed the garden outside and you can tell that a lot of articulate work was put into the aesthetic here.  Due to the pandemic, there was only one other guest staying at the time so we got upgraded to a family room for free.  That is literally the best hospitality we could have asked for.  It really was an honor staying here!

Here is a video tour of our upgraded family room.  This is hands-down the most fancy resort that I have every stayed at and I am eternally grateful to my sponsor for the trip:

Since the sun was going down and we were starving, we grabbed a healthy meal from a restaurant across the street.  The roads of Yoshinoyama are extremely narrow but you can easily find food and drinks near wherever you are staying.  Just be careful because some places close around 6pm.  This area designed for relaxing at your hotspring and is remote from the city so I recommend staying here overnight.  You will thank yourself later.

This was a seasonal food set that consisted of vegetables, soup, tofu, salad, tempura and rice.  It was so healthy and delicious.  You can find a lot of these meals in Yoshinoyama!

At this point we were exhausted and headed off to bed in our family-size ryokan, but I will be writing more about this area in my next and final article of this series!

Day 3 Itinerary: 80% Completion

It’s hard to score our completion due to us completely skipping over Awaji Island, but in hindsight I’m happy we did.  This was a full day that was packed with activity so I give us another 80%.  This gave us more time to explore the mountains of Nara and area around our famed ryokan.  Had we gone to Awaji, we would have missed out on seeing the shrines and learning about the history of Koyasan.  The best thing is that we agreed to go to Awaji on another trip over dinner so we wouldn’t be rushed with our activities.  That is the perfect compromise!

I will be writing my final article tomorrow as soon as I wake up.  Thank you to everyone that has been reading and supporting me!  There are many more adventures to come.

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!

Hitch-hiking my way through Okayama, Japan

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Okayama Castles stands proudly on a summer morning.

Three years ago I decided to go backpacking through Okayama for the main purpose of visiting Washuzan Highland so I could ride the infamous pedal-powered roller coaster of terror through the sky, but I got sideswept into come crazy adventures in the city before I even made it there.  Some of these are too good not to share so I’m writing this story in three separate articles.

It all started while I was walking from Okayama Station to Jiyuu Kuukan, the net cafe where I was staying for the night because I didn’t have much money, when a Japanese guy around my age started talking me up.  Unlike most people I encounter in this type of situation, he wasn’t trying to hit on me (or at least he didn’t make it obvious).  He invited me out for drinks because he was taking the TOEIC [English proficiency exam] soon and wanted to practice his English.  He also noted that it was quite rare to see solo woman travelers here in Okayama, but I get that a lot wherever I travel.  It doesn’t really phase me at all.  I agreed to go out for drinks with him because well, I love drinking!

I didn’t really teach him much English because I don’t consider myself qualified (despite being an English teacher previously), but I did answer his questions and make him feel more confident.  He informed me he worked at a car company nearby in Kurashiki; a place in Okayama that I had planned on visiting.  In return for my English lesson (if you could call it that), he offered to drive me around Okayama since many parts of the prefecture are difficult to reach by just using the trains.  So the next day I hit him up with a series of destinations I had come up with.  Buckle up because this is a crazy ride!

Le Soleil Patisserie

My favorite dessert place in Okayama is hands down Le Soleil.  Their double-layered cheese cake (literally called double cheese cake) is the best cheese cake I’ve ever had in my life.  The whipped cream on top is immense, but not overpowering.  It melts like butter in your mouth.  They have tons of other delicious sweets and pastries available too.  What originally inspired me to come here was banvox’s birthday post:

He originally used to reside in or near Okayama so the chefs of Le Soleil sent him this giant cheese cake.  Since you can’t order this specific cheese cake in Tokyo, I made it a mission to try it here.  The bakery is conveniently on the way to Kurashiki so it’s easy to stop here even if you don’t have a car (though it may be a bit of walk, it’s not too far).

Access

88-3 Nakaobie, Kurashiki, Okayama 710-0013

Kurashiki

Kurashiki is the beautiful canal town of Okayama with a European aesthetic and design.  You can go for canal rides and browse the traditional shops that line the riverbed.  There are beautiful buildings covered with ivy in the Ivy Square and the Ohara Museum, which is the oldest Western art museum in Japan. I didn’t have time to check everything out but I did manage to take some awesome photos.  Being here was extremely relaxing.

While I was here, I convinced my friend try the local dish, takomeshi, with me.  Despite being an Okayama native, he had never tried it before.  This consists of chopped octopus with rice and is very delicious!  I forget the name of the restaurant we went to, but most seafood restaurants will have it or some kind of variation.

Access

Kurashiki Station is only 15 mins and 330 yen from Okayama Station (no car needed).

Yubara Onsen

My friend asked me if I wanted to go to a hotspring, and I said sure, why not!  Yubara Onsen is probably the most unique onsen I’ve been to because it’s outdoors, mix-gender, and open 24/7.  Plus it’s completely free unless you need to rent towels or swimwear.  The hotsprings are remote and secluded enough to where it pretty much has developed its own nudist culture.  Of course you can choose to wear swimwear, but be aware that many people will bathe naked.  Though once you start soaking in the hotspring, you completely forget about the other people and focus on the nature around you.  The backdrop of the mountains and the dam is simply breathtaking.  This was the first time I had ever bathed naked in a mixed hotspring but I felt very safe and welcome.

Access

Yubara Onsen is about an hour away from Okayama City by car, and 2 hours by bus (for 2600 yen one way).  Since the onsen is free, this is not a bad price to pay.

Makido Rainbow Caves

19875428_10212085236757604_8629948251575125813_nAfter a relaxing trip to the onsen, my friend and I decided to end the day with a trip to some psychedelic rainbow caves.  I’m not making this up.  I’ve been to caves all over Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, but I’ve never seen any cave as colorful as the Makido Caves in Okayama.  These look like something straight out of a Final Fantasy game:

They nickname this place the “Dream Palace” for a good reason.  Makido is a limestone cave brought to life with carefully placed illuminated lights.  These lights bring out the colors and beauty of the cave and make it a very fun place to explore.

For those who are looking for a more normal cave experience, Makido has you covered.  You can find a non-illuminated section of the cave by following the main route.  They have an area where you can throw coins into the lake for good luck:

It takes about 30-40 minutes to see everything here.  We walked around the cave twice so we could watch all of the changing illuminations.

Access

2276-2, Toyonagaakouma, Niimi City, Okayama Prefecture

This cave takes about 1.5 hours to reach from Okayama City.  Some of the roads are quite narrow so it takes a lot of concentration to navigate (fortunately I was with an experienced driver).  If you are going by train, you must first take the Hakubi Line to Niima Station then take a bus to get here which takes around 2.5 hours and is 2000 yen.

Final Thoughts

I could not wrap my head around how amazing this day was.  We had managed to see so many things and I felt extremely grateful for this experience.  I owe it all to my friend who drove me around!  Unfortunately I lost contact with him after this trip, but I sincerely am thankful for his kindness and hope he passed his English exam.

Here is a video I took in 2017 on Snapchat to commemorate my hitch-hiking experience.  I remember playing all of my favorite Nakata Yasutaka-produced songs for my driver:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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