Exploring Karatsu on the Night of the Olympic Torch Relay

Terrarium at Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori

After spending a lovely evening in my teacup-shaped bath in Ureshino and visiting the cafe featured in Zombieland Saga, I set off for Karatsu which is another featured area from the series. Karatsu is famous for its terraced rice fields and was also one of the locations for the 2021 Olympic Torch Relay. By pure coincidence I just happened to be there on the final day of the relay in Saga on May 9th. Though I didn’t have time to watch it due to my returning flight departing that night to Tokyo, I was happy to see Saga during one of liveliest times. Saga previously had the reputation of being one of the most boring prefectures in Japan, but Zombieland Saga and the relay have changed that. I was able to see so many sights in such a short time so I was overall very satisfied with my trip.

Without further ado, here are my top recommendations in Karatsu:

Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori

Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori is a nature park in the mountains with beautiful flora and an observatory with reflective surfaces where you can take aesthetic pictures. I was very impressed to see trees whose leaves had already turned red here at the start of summer! There are also nature trails that lead you through lush forests and take you to the top of the mountain. The best part about this place is that it’s open year round so you can see the scenery during every season!

Previously I had tried to go to a similar temple in Kyoto called Rurikoin, but it is only open during certain times of the year and requires reservation. Kankyo Geijitsu no Mori is just as beautiful and has no closing time, so I would recommend this place instead.

Getting here was a bit of a challenge as I had to ride to Kyuragi Station from Saga Station on a local train that only comes once or twice per hour and call 3 different taxi companies to take me here, but I can proudly say that my effort was worth it! Show Taxi kindly picked me up from the station and drove me back when I had finished sightseeing without any difficulty. This is one of the best places to do photography in Karatsu and due to its remote location, it is not very crowded either.

Address: 667 Kyuragimachi Hirano, Karatsu, Saga 849-3131

Terraced Rice Fields

One of the best places to view the sunset in Karatsu is at the terraced rice fields of Terraced Rice Fields of Hamanoura because they are usually filled up with water in the summer and have a dramatic backdrop of the sea. The patterns are gorgeous here and almost remind me of scenery in Bali! These are way more interesting than the usual rice fields you find in prefectures just outside of Tokyo, so they were high on my list of things to see. Due to the Olympic Torch Relay taking place in this area, there were a lot of people here but I managed to snap some amazing photos and bask in their beauty.

Once again, these rice fields are a bit remote so I rode the train to Karatsu Station and hailed a cab outside of it. I as extremely fortunate that my driver was familiar with Zombieland Saga and offered to take me around to all of the famous places from the anime. He also informed me that since so many fans of the anime have been coming to Saga lately that the economy here is in quite good shape. This is not the first time that I’ve heard otaku are saving Japan’s economy, and I am very happy to be part of the movement!

Address: Hamanoura, Genkai, Higashimatsuura District, Saga 847-1433

Zombieland Saga Mansion

On the way back to the station, my driver took me to the official mansion from Zombieland Saga! This building was previously the Karatsu City Museum of History and Folklore but closed in 2003. Further back in history, it was also the former Mitsubishi branch of Saga explaining its beautiful western design. Though you can’t go inside of it, you can admire it from afar. If you look at the windows, you may see some familiar zombie idols looking back at you! Nearby this mansion is Ohori Park which you will also recognize from the series. If I had more time I would have gone to Karatsu Castle too, but I am happy enough that I got the chance to see Franchouchou HQ up close! Karatsu Station currently has Zombieland Saga flags and cutouts to welcome tourists, so I felt very at home here.

Saga Rebellion

Episodes 8 and 9 of Zombieland Saga Revenge focus on Yugiri’s past during the Meiji Era of Japan. In this era Saga was seized and became a part of Nagasaki triggering the Saga Rebellion of 1874. After finally being liberated from her job as a high ranking courtesan, Yugiri meets a young man who is determined to restore Saga’s status as an independent prefecture. Watching these episodes really moved me because I learned that the spirit of the people of Saga is unyielding and indigenous. They could have surrendered but they fought for their independence and that is why Saga is its own prefecture separate from Nagasaki today. When I studied the Meiji Era in college, Saga was never once mentioned so I was delighted to learn about this from one of my favorite anime and research it on my own. I hope this series continues to shed light on lesser known facts about history so I can continue to learn about them!

Organic Lunch at Ohisama

While waiting for the infrequent local trains in Saga, I decided to try an organic food restaurant called Ohisama near the castle. This building not only has an amazing kitchen but is also connected to a small store that sells organic food. I happily indulged in their lunch set that was completely vegetarian. Saga cuisine has a ton of flavor and is really out of this world! Everything on my plate was extremely delicious and came with healthy brown rice and miso soup. Yet again I was excited to have eaten such a wholesome meal made with tender care.

Address: 2 Chome-5-30 Tafuse, Saga, 840-0823

Heading Back to the Airport

The most beautiful train ride ever from Karatsu Station to Fukuoka Airport!

Though I really wished I could have stayed to watch the Olympic Torch Relay, I had a flight to catch in Fukuoka and work the next day so I had my driver drop me off at Karatsu station and took the rapid train to the airport. I was about to play my Switch to pass time when I was blinded by an emerging light from the opposite window. This was the most beautiful train ride I had ever experienced because there was so much sunlight and I could sea the ocean and forests of Saga. It felt like I was warping through time and was truly an unforgettable experience—the perfect way to end this trip!

Overall I had an amazing time visiting Fukuoka and Saga over the span of 3 days and am still mindblown by all of the things that I had saw. Although at first I thought Saga was extremely boring compared to the other prefectures in Kyushu, the journey greatly changed my way of thinking and I have Zombieland Saga to thank for that. The history of Saga is extremely rich and I get fired up just thinking about the Saga Rebellion. I am happy that they fought for their independence and won, else this trip would have never been possible!

I hope to come back to Kyushu this summer to see Kagoshima and the volcanic island Sakurajima. It is also a dream of mine to see a rocket launch from Tanegashima, so I am positive I will be back in Kyushi in the future. Thank you for keeping up with my adventures. I will be writing more soon!

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~

Getting Invited to a Bachelor’s Party then traveling to Korea’s DMZ on the Day When Peace was Declared Between North Korea and South Korea [A True Story]

Apr. 27th, 2018 – I’ll never forget the day when I was strolling through Itaewon on my way to the club when I ran into a group of Korean guys who were pouring beer in plastic cups and passing them out to random people on the street.  Not wanting to be rude, I happily accepted one and drank it with them.  I noticed one of the guys in their group was dressed up in body armor made of cardboard and duct tape while the others playfully gave him commands.  Since this was only my 2nd time in Korea, I wasn’t sure if this was something normal or a special occasion.  Fortunately some of guys spoke English and informed me what was going on—this was a bachelor’s party.  A very casual and spontaneous one, apparently.  And I was invited!  Lucky me~

Since I left America when I was 21 years old, I never had the chance to partake in any wedding parties since I wasn’t old enough to drink.  Not many of my friends were mature enough to get married at that age either.  Who would have guessed that my first time attending one would be in Korea with a bunch of guys I just met?  I had booked a tour to the DMZ the next day, but I figured I could drink and relax for a few hours since it was my first night in town.  And this would historically be a night to remember, because the very next day North Korea and South Korea agree to end war.  But we wouldn’t know that until the next day…

After hanging out on the street and making conversation with random people, we moved to Awesome Lounge where they had reserved a VIP table.  I had been to a number of bars and clubs in Itaewon before, but this was my very first time here.  Everyone was extremely friendly and I was honestly having the time of my life.  Perhaps too much fun.  I remember drinking 1/3 of a bottle of champagne, pole dancing near the side of the VIP area, and losing my pocket wifi out of my purse which later cost me $60.  Fortunately I woke up with my wallet and passport the next day though.  The club was loud and dark enough so it was the perfect atmosphere to get belligerently intoxicated.  South Korea is a very safe country so you really don’t have to worry as long as you can make it back to your hotel.  I vaguely remember us going somewhere to get sashimi after the club.  It was one of the largest sashimi platters that I had ever seen in my life and man it was amazing!  I was happy that I took a picture so I could remember it.

After we finished eating it was near 2am so we happily parted ways.  I made sure to thank them for the most lit night in Itaewon ever and wish the cardboard armor guy good luck in his future marriage.  If this was just the bachelor’s party, I could only imagine how crazy the wedding party was going to be.

I drunkenly walked back to my hostel called Guesthouse Yacht.  Not only is it insanely cheap, but it’s on a hill just over the main street with all the bars and pubs.  The perfection combo.

Apr. 28th, 2018 – I woke up hungover but in an extremely elevated mood.  I couldn’t believe how crazy my first night out had started.  I was missing my pocket wifi, but I figured all the crazy memories from the previous night were more than worth it.  I had successfully attended my first bachelor’s party (even though I was a girl) and lived to tell the tale.  How often do you get to live out experiences like that?

Anyway, it was time to resurface to reality.  I had booked a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Klook for $45.  This tour will take you to the borders of North and South Korea, and you can climb through a tunnel to technically be inside the North Korean border.  You can only come here if you book a tour as entry into North Korea is extremely restricted and there is a checkpoint in Paju.  However, the tours are completely safe and you will be with an English-speaking guide at all times.  Learning about the Cold War and seeing the Four Infiltration Tunnels (that were dug between the borders for a surprise attack) is a rare experience and I was grateful I got the chance to climb through them.  The views of North Korea that you can see from the DMZ border are surreal.

My tour group was one of the first to visit after peace was made between the North and the South.  I had only figured this out shortly before my tour bus came to pick me up as the news was announced early this day.  I had planned this trip during my Golden Week vacation a month in advance and had no idea this was happening.  Everyone was in extremely high spirits and it was a great time to be in Korea!

img_1101
One of the most peaceful days at the DMZ in history.

Here are some pictures I took of North Korea.  It was neat to see it with my own eyes.  With all of the stories of it circulating online you often don’t know what to believe.  It looks like there’s an extremely forested area nearby from the border.  You wouldn’t even guess that it was North Korea at first:

North Korea is apparently famous for its chocolate soybean candy.  Or at least that’s what they want you to think.  I tried some at the souvenir shop and it wasn’t my favorite chocolate, but it definitely had a unique taste to it:

Here is a picture of my location within the border to prove I was in North Korea.  What’s ironic is North Korea supports Google Maps but South Korea doesn’t.  How crazy is that?

b13c9ca4-9784-4c53-be4f-008231eef577
Inside North Korea, baby!

Next we visited Dorasan Station (which leads to the capital of North Korea):

Dorasan Station connects the railway between North and South Korea.  It is located within the DMZ and has been out of use for years, but serves as a symbol of hope that unification may be possible in the future.  You can walk inside it and take pictures, but even though peace was made it will be quite a while before civilians can use it.  Apparently goods are transferred through it now, but limited information in English is available.

I was very moved by this tour.  Though North Korea has a dangerous reputation, I don’t want to believe that all of its people are bad.  I met one Australian girl on my Herb Island Tour later who said she had volunteered there.  I can’t remember the details of what she did, but she spent about a week there learning about the culture.  Since I am American, I know it is dangerous (and likely still impossible) for me to go, but when it becomes more safe I would really like to do a volunteer program there.  I hope in the future it continues to open its borders, as South Korea is a wonderful country that I hold dearly in my heart.

 

The Jeju Chronicles: Venturing Around the East Side

In my last article I wrote about fully exploring the west side of Jeju Island.  This included riding a horse on a volcanic crater, trekking through Cheonjeyoen Falls, going to some hilarious theme parks, and more awesome activities.  In this article I will be writing about exploring the east side of the island with the same tour guide: Jeju Day Tour.  The East Course runs on odd-numbered days and is the same price as the West Course—roughly $65 USD.  The duration of the tour is 9 – 10 hours but includes lunch and plenty of breaks.  The tour group was also under 10 people which was great too.

As I mentioned before, the local buses only stop at certain places so having a tour guide for thorough exploration of Jeju is ideal.  Especially if you don’t speak any Hangul like me!  I was once again very satisfied with the high quality of Jeju Day Tour because it’s run by a local guide named Mr. Ko and his courses stop at the most places on the island.  With a heart wistful of adventure, I set off for my 4th day on the island!

Manjanggul Lava Tube

 

Our very first stop was the Manjanggul Lava Tube which is one of the longest lava tubes in the world and is also a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.  It was formed when lava flowed towards the sea and has a cave you can explore.  The cave only takes a couple of minutes to see, but examining all rock formations and detail inside is very interesting.  There are also bat colonies that live in here, but fortunately we didn’t run into any!

Maze Land

 

Maze Land is a self-explanatory theme park with the world’s longest stone maze that is just over 5km.  Look at Jeju, setting those world records!  There are three mazes in total you can challenge here—two of them intersect with a combination of stone and hedge walls.  Most mazes can be completed in 8 – 24 minutes.  This was one of the most relaxing parts of the tour because I was able to walk around the beautiful hedges and listen to music.  Parts of it felt more like a large garden than a maze!  The most hilarious part was watching Korean children climb the walls and give their friends instructions on how to get out.  Fortunately the walls weren’t very steep.  I will admit I got lost a few times though!

Seongsan Ilchulbong

 

Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak”, is one of the best lookout points on the island…  But of course the day I went it was submerged in fog!  The peak was formed by hydro-volcanic eruptions so it has a very unique shape.  If you click on the 2nd picture, you can vaguely make out the beautiful coast of Jeju.  The climb to the top only takes around 25 mins and you can use the wooden stairs.  Fortunately I already had climbed Mt. Hallasan and got clear pictures of the crater lake at the top.  If you run into fog during your tour, I would recommend going to Mt. Hallasan by yourself on a sunny day for a better chance!

Seopjikoji

 

 

From 1410 to 1914, Seongeup was a small village that played a big role in the cultural history and development of Jeju Island.  The village is located at the foot of Halla Mountain and has since turned into somewhat of an open air museum.  Here you can see the huts that people lived in, fortress ruins, stone monuments, and a lot of other interesting things that have made up the history of Jeju.  Outside of museums in Seoul, this was the first time I had the chance to see the history of Korea up close.

Eco Land

ecotake1
All aboard the Eco Train!

The last stop was at a train-themed amusement park in the forest called Eco Land!  Not going to lie—I was completely exhausted by this point.  After 4 action-packed days of hiking and being exposed to an entirely new culture, I could feel my body craving rest.  Eco Land was a great place to relax though because you can literally ride the train around five different stations without getting off.  Or you can be super active and get off and explore at each station.  Within the forest there are multiple gardens, a lake with a cave and various attractions, and also animals you can see!  This was the only part of the tour that felt a bit rushed, but it was also likely due to my lack of energy.  Even though I was tired, being in the forest was a great way to end this tour.

Final Remarks

What another amazing day!  I enjoyed this tour almost the same as I did the west side of the island and would recommend it to all my friends that are traveling through Jeju.  The East Course seemed to have more nature activities, but that was completely fine by me.  Even if you don’t like hiking, you can choose to go horseback riding or try local food at the stops.  Jeju is so beautiful and has so much to see that it’s extremely hard to get bored here.

My next article will be the last of the Jeju Cronichles.  I will be writing about how I hired a private taxi to go to the few places that weren’t covered by the tour.  Though it’s been two years since I’ve been here, this island still is extremely special to me.  Thank you for reading.

A Ninja Village & Various Amusement Parks Around Nagoya (Part 2)

35671619_10214706414525410_2460049755527446528_n
View from Iga Ueno Castle overlooking the city of ninjas.

Yesterday I talked about visiting Legoland Japan and Nagashima Spa Land in Part 1, so today I’d like to talk about my expedition to the Ninja Village of Iga.  Though the historic practice of Ninjutsu is now considered a dead art, this village houses a large museum showcasing its origin.  There are also ninja shows performed by professional actors, shops and shrines, and a large castle you can enter.  Since this village is very remote, the number of tourists is usually lower than other attractions in Kansai.  Iga is located in Mie Prefecture but the whole city can be seen during a day trip from Nagoya or Osaka.

Riding the train from Iga-Kambe Station to Iga-Ueno Station is a one-of-a-kind experience because the train artwork was done by Reiji Matsumoto, most famous for Galaxy Express 999.  There are also ninjas poised to attack inside the train car, so you are best off practicing your defense techniques beforehand (jokes aside, the short ride through the mountainous terrain in this two-car train is incredible).

When you get off at Iga Ueno Station, you have the option to rent bikes or walk.  You can see the major points of attraction within 3 – 4 hours on foot, so I would just recommend walking.  You can pick up a map at the tourism center next to the station so navigating the city is self-explanatory.  I started my trip by eating some some ninja udon at a noodle place called Kyuan (I greatly appreciated the shape of the toppings) then headed to Iga Ueno Castle so I could get a nice view of the entire village:

After doing some photography, I made my way to the gates of the ninja museum.  There are ninja shows almost every hour that you can see for 400 yen.  Unfortunately they are not allowed to be recorded, but they are worth seeing if you come all the way out here.  I enjoyed seeing the cute tiger mascot of Iga and some of the weapons that ninjas used in ancient times.  There is some English guidance so you can read about the history of the city at your leisure.  The village museum is designed for all ages and there are some really interesting artifacts there.  There are also handmade ninja charms you can buy.

Is it worth it?

Iga is roughly 2.5 hours from Nagoya and is quite a long day compared to the other attractions I mentioned in the first part of my article.  The city itself is quite small and can be seen within 4 hours.  Some of the attractions seem a bit gimmicky, but like most rural places I’ve visited I still enjoyed my time here.  As someone who lives in one of the busiest cities in the world, I have great appreciation for places like this.  Much of the now-abandoned ninja culture has been preserved here, so this is a rare chance to see it if you are interested in the history of Japan.  Not to mention Iga is a peaceful place with friendly people so your time will be valued here.

If you are interested in reading about the history of the Iga Ninja online before you go, please check the Koka Ninja House website.

Access

117 Uenomarunouchi, Iga, Mie 518-0873

From Kintetsu Nagoya Station, take the Kintetsu Limited Express to Nabari Station, then transfer to the same express going to Iga-Kambe Station.  From there you can ride the special ninja train to Iga Ueno Station and get off to reach the ninja village.  This costs 4210 yen one way and takes 2.5 hours, but was overall worth it in my opinion.

Admission Fee: 500 yen