The best things to do on your first trip to Kyoto (Part 1)

Over the past few months I’ve explored the rural northern parts of Kyoto including the fishing town of Ine and the beautiful beach of Amanohashidate, but in this post I’d like to highlight the main tourist spots from my earlier archives just for reference.

I first visited Kyoto in 2013 during my study abroad trip in Japan, and returned in late 2015 for a visit during my epic job search.  I now visit Kyoto 3-4 times per year for music events (mainly at Metro) and also for eating aesthetic food.

The longer I live in Japan, the more I come to appreciate this peaceful city.  From nearly anywhere in Kyoto you can see the mountains and be reminded of the beautiful terrain this country has.  As the former capital of Japan, Kyoto has almost everything you could want in a place to live; shopping centers, street food, temples filled with years history, and a variety of night clubs.  Not to mention Nintendo HQ!  Though Tokyo has the most opportunity for foreigners, I often fantasize about what my life would be like if I lived here.  It definitely would be an exciting one~

Here are my recommendations on things to see during your first trip to Kyoto:

The Golden Pavilion

Out of all the building structures I’ve seen in Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is by far the most breathtaking.  Built overtop a pond, you can see it shining elegantly with its gold leaf coating during any time of the year.  I first came here in Autumn when it shone with a beautiful contrast to the leaves that were turning a bright shade of red.  The best time to come is during the golden hour (5pm) because the lighting is optimal and you can see a perfect reflection of it on the water.  Though you are not allowed to enter the pavilion, you can still admire its impressive design from afar.  I learned from the pamphlet I was given the gold lacquer is thought to dispel and purify pollution and negative thoughts.  Being here definitely put my mind at ease and I think it’s somewhere that everyone should visit at least once.  I have never seen any other place that’s as gold as this besides the Golden Buddha in Nara.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Line to Kita-Oji Station then Bus 205 to the Kinkakuji Bus Stop.  This costs 490 yen and takes 30 mins.

Entrance Fee: 400 yen

Fushimi Inari

The best way I can think to describe Fushimi Inari is “a shrine of shrines”.  If you want to experience one of the biggest shrine networks surrounded by nature in Japan, then all travel guides will point you here.  Similar to the Golden Pavilion (but much more red in color), there is really no place quite like here.  You will be stunned by the thousands of red torii gates and trails that lead to the summit of Mt. Inari.  The climb takes about 2.5 hours to reach from the base.  You will notice that there are many fox statues here which are said to be the messengers of the shrine.  Though this place is a tourist hotspot, I definitely recommend it.  If you are looking for a less crowded shrine, you can try going to Daigoji in Kyoto too because it is similarly red and historical.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Nara Line to Inari Station.  This only takes 5 mins and costs 150 yen.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen

Nintendo HQ

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Where it all began.

Before I came to Japan most of my time was spent gaming or watching anime. I have some of my best adolescent memories and have met many friends through Nintendo games and events. So coming here—to the main HQ building of Nintendo in Kyoto—was surreal to me.  Of course you’re not allowed to enter, but you can walk by the building and are free to take pictures.  There is not much else to see in this district, but this building is definitely worth seeing if you’re a Nintendo fan.

Access

From Shiokoji Takakura bus stop near Kyoto Station, you can take Bus 205 to Kyoto Shiyakushomae and walk 3 mins there.  You can also take a cheap taxi or rent bikes to get here.

Address: 11-1 Kamitoba Hokodatecho, Minami Ward, Kyoto, 601-8501

In Part 2 of this article I will be talking more about the touristy things I did in Kyoto when I first moved to Japan.  Often people look down upon tourism, but it is essential to the economy of most Asian countries and also has been valuable in my understanding of the culture here.  You should never feel ashamed for being a tourist.

The Tale of the Floating Noodles (Kyoto)

Last August during the Mountain Day holiday weekend, I ventured to the riverside village of Kibune in Kyoto to try their legendary floating noodles.  These somen noodles are very unique because they float down a bamboo shoot directly to your table and are chilled to cool you down during summer season.  It’s definitely a dining experience worth having if you enjoy Japanese food!  In this article I will be highlighting my summer experience in Kyoto and will hopefully inspire more people to travel here.

*For reference, Mountain Day is a relatively new national holiday that was announced in 2014.  It honors the mountainous terrains of this country and most Japanese companies give this day as paid holiday (making it a three day weekend most years).  It occurs August 11th.  Be aware that this weekend is usually travel-heavy, but you can still see and do a lot if you plan your trip accordingly.

Floating Noodles at Hirobun (in Kibune)

Kibune is a popular resort destination that attracts large numbers of Japanese couples and families each year (which I didn’t realize beforehand), but is also home of the famous Hirobun restaurant that serves floating somen noodles from a bamboo shoot.  As the noodles float to your seat, you can stealthily grab with your chopsticks and eat them with soy sauce.  Though people make it out to be a challenge, it’s actually not that difficult and the restaurant staff will adjust the speed if they see you are having trouble.  The last batch of noodles is marked pink so you know when your course is over.  We paid around 2000 yen for a noodle course with dessert and enjoyed the experience thoroughly.

The main con of this was the three hour wait time…  Unfortunately this activity is so popular in the summer that it attracts hundreds of people per day and there are limited seats at the floating somen table.  There is no reservation system, so you must show up in person to write your name on a wait list in order of who arrived first.  We arrived around 12pm and already there were many people ahead of us.  However, the plus side is that there are so many things to see in Kibune that you can easily leave and come back when it is close to your turn.

While we waited, we walked around the river, tried some ice cream from a local confectionery, and hiked by the Kibune Shrine Okumiya so we could test our luck.  There is also the nearby Kurumadera Temple and hotspring that you can visit to kill time.  If you think about it, three hours in nature really goes by quickly.  It would be a lot more mundane if we had to wait that long for a restaurant in the city.  At first I hesitated about waiting, but now I’m so happy that I did because I got to experience pretty much everything Kibune has to offer.

Getting to Kibune

From Kyoto Station, take the Nara Line Rapid Miyakoji to Tofukuji Station, then the Keihan Main Line Semi-Express to Demachiyanagi Station Station, then the Eizan Main Line Local to Kibuneguchi Station.  From here you can take a local bus to the shrine.  Though it involves a few transfers, the journey only takes about 1.5 hours and costs 1020 yen making it the perfect day trip from Kyoto.

If you are looking for more travel recommendations in Kyoto, please check my Arashiyama, Amanohashidate, and Aesthetic Dining Experiences in Kyoto articles!

A Lovely Day Trip to Kyoto’s Heart-shaped Temple: Shojuin

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A look through the heart-shaped window at Shojuin Temple in Ujitawara, Kyoto.

Immortal HeartI’ve been to Kyoto many times in many different seasons, but this month was the first time I’ve ever been to the remotely located heart-shaped temple called Shojuin in Ujitawara.  Amidst the fear of the corona virus, I was worried this temple may be closed like many other facilities in Japan, but I was fortunate to travel during a time when it was still open.  Located in a rural area accessible by bus from Uji Station, you will find that the view through the window is well worth the trip.  Even though I visited during the winter, I managed to take a lot of quality photos and learn about its history with only a few other Japanese tourists around me.

I arrived to the temple around 2pm when I predicted there would be optimal sunlight.  The weather was raining on and off but due to the way Shojuin is constructed, the light always falls through the heart-shaped window.  The temple consists of a few small building complexes but everything can easily be seen within 40 minutes.  Tea and a light snack are provided with the entrance fee as well as an explanation of the history as the inome window.  The word “inome” refers to a heart shape motif commonly found in Japanese temples and Buddhism.  The definition literally means “eye of the wild boar” in Japanese (which is said to be heart-shaped so it makes sense in theory).  It could also refer to the lime trees with heart-shaped leaves that are closely associated with Buddhism.  I have uploaded the English explanation I was given for reference if anyone wishes to investigate it further.

The inome window is also nicknamed the “Window of Happiness” making it the ideal place to pray for peace and love.  Though I do not consider myself a religious person, coming to this temple was a truly bright experience to me.  In addition to the window, there are also over 160 art tiles on the ceiling painted in brilliant colors.  While I was taking pictures, it started snowing for a brief period through the window.  This was my first time all year seeing snow in Japan, so it is a special moment I’ll never forget:

Though I was only here for around an hour and a half, I feel like I had the chance to witness this temple during all four seasons.  During my time here it rained, snowed, turned overcast, then sunlight came out right before it closed.  It was amazing!  The people around me couldn’t believe it either.  Just like my Quest to the Tower of the Sun, this also felt like an experience pulled straight from a video game.  I highly recommend this temple to everyone visiting Kyoto, because it’s not nearly as touristy or crowded as the Golden Pavilion or Kiyomizu-dera.

During the summer there is a wind chime festival here as well.  Please check the official Kyoto Tourism website for more information.

Access

294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862
Entrance Fee: 400 yen (includes tea and sweets)

Directions: From Kyoto Station, ride the Nara Line to Obaku Station, then ride the Uji Line to Uji Station.  From Uji Station, take the Keihan Bus to Ichumae Bus Stop.  Please note that Google Maps will suggest you to take a taxi to Shojuin Temple from this point, which I did on the way there for 2000 yen, but there is a “community bus” (which actually a small white van) that I missed which is free.  On the way back, I walked with some friendly Japanese girls from Hyogo to the free bus stop.  The bus stop looks like a shack that belongs to someone’s backyard because Uji is very rural, but we managed to find it with teamwork.  Keep your eyes out for the iconic heart-shaped bus stop that leads you to the magical heart-shaped temple (this is the best travel advice I’ve given anyone):

Exploring the Coastal City of Atami (Shizuoka, Japan)

After seeing the capybara zoo and the capybara illuminations of Izu, I decided to make my way to the coastal city of Atami and do some exploring around the beach and local area.  I chose to stay at this district during my backpacking trip through Shizuoka because it is centrally located and has a lot of nice seafood restaurants and floral parks you can visit.  My accommodation was at Megumi Guesthouse because it has an onsen and was only 3500 yen per night when I booked it.  Not bad at all!

Here are some of my favorite discoveries that I found during my two-day stay in Atami:

Idematsu Sun Beach

One of the best things about Atami is that the beach is only 5 minutes walking from the station!  When I woke up and went for my morning run, this was the very first place that I visited.  It was very serene and quiet, which is rare for a beach near the city.  Despite it being February, the temperature was extremely mild too.  It almost felt like a private beach to me.  In the summer, Atami holds a fireworks festival that many people attend.  I would like to come back during that time and see how the atmosphere changes!

BonBon Berry House & Maruya Terrace

If you love strawberries… well you’re absolutely going to love BonBon Berry!  This confectionery is full of fruits and desserts of high quality.  I first tried the original strawberry stick with manjuu and a small piece of strawberry cake.  It was so delicious, I came back the following day to try more~  I next ordered the strawberry shu cream that looks like a giant glazed strawberry but is actually a giant creampuff.  I traveled here in February, yet the strawberries were so fresh I felt like it was summer!

For lunch I decided to stop at Maruya Terrace near the central shopping street.  This restaurant will let you choose your favorite fish from the seafood store across the street and grill it for you on a seasoned sandwich.  I chose their famous mackerel sandwhich:

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This is one of the best fish sandwiches I have ever eaten!!

I couldn’t believe this sandwich was only 700 yen!  Seafood in Hokkaido and Kanazawa are much more expensive.  Atami is definitely one of the cheapest places to eat quality fish and I would like to try many kinds in the future!

Atami Ropeway & Kinomiya Shrine

Atami Ropeway definitely gives you access to one of the best views in the city!  For only 600 yen (roundtrip), you can take a cable car to the top of a mountain and see the city and surrounding seaside area.  As expected, the view was breathtaking~  I was happy that I brought my GoPro here.

Next I walked to the nearby Kinomiya Shrine because it’s one of the most famous in Atami.  I loved the green foilage and the leaves that were made into the shape of a heart:

If you’re looking for a hotspring, I recommend going to the nearby Nikkoutei Ooyu.  It is only around 1000 yen to go for the day and has a beautiful view of the surrounding nature.

Atami Plum Garden & Akao Herb and Rose Garden

Though February is usually not the prime season for flowers, I decided to check these gardens out anyway since I was in the area.  I was surprised to find beautiful buds when I first went running through the Atami Plum Garden.  According to the official website, this area has the fastest blooming plums in Japan:

This garden is divided into several areas; they have a Japanese garden, a Korean garden, an art museum, and dozens of plum trees that you can photograph pretty much year round.  I was surprised to find a miniature cave and waterfall here too.  This is much prettier than a lot of gardens that I’ve been to so I’m happy I came.  The entrance fee is only 300 yen.

Finally, I went to Akao Herb and Rose Garden, which actually is a garden up in the mountains!  From the bus stop, a free van will take you to the top (or you can choose to walk to the entrance).  When this garden is in full bloom, it truly looks like heaven.  Unfortunately I could not capture many flowers in bloom, but I got an awesome picture of me in my Orient T-Shirt on the swing.  I did manage to capture the photo below:

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February flowers of Akao Herb and Rose Garden.

What I liked about this garden is that there were hammocks and benches where you could relax and see the seaside.  In addition to the swing, they also had a trampoline!  There were many fragrances you could try for free as well.  This was one of the best views I have ever seen from a flower park, and I regret that I could not take more pictures of the roses.  All the more reason to come back here in the summer!

Entrance here is only 1000 yen.

Final Remarks

 

I love Atami because everything you need is either walking distance or just a short bus ride away: the ocean, mountain, hotsprings, restaurants, and beautiful gardens.  It’s very easy to relax and find inner peace here.  In addition to the capybaras, I loved the nature and food.  I’m so glad I discovered yet another floral beach paradise in Asia and I recommend that everyone else come and experience it for themselves.

Getting to Atami

From Tokyo Station, take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen towards Shin Osaka.  Atami Station is only 37 minutes away, which is closer than getting from one end of Tokyo to the other!  The cost is 4300 yen which is about the same as going to Nikko or Hakone.  It’s definitely worth the cost.

Exploring the Colorful City of Kaohshiung & Cijin Island (Part 2)

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View from atop the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

After fully exploring Pier 2 and Cijin Island, I decided to spend my 2nd day in Kaohsiung seeing some of the major landmarks.  Since I rented a bike for 24 hours, I biked 8 km from where I was staying at the pier to reach the famed Dragon and Tiger Pagodas.  It was a little scary biking on the highway for the first time in Taiwan, but I managed to survive and catch some neat sights on the way there.  The pagodas are surrounded by a lotus pond and are seven stories high, so visiting them is quite the experience.  Once you climb all the stairs, you will get the perfect view of the Zuoying District of the city:

The symbolism of the dragon and tiger is a bit ambiguous, but they both represent a balance of power although they have contrasting characteristics.  According to Shaozhi, in Chinese culture dragons are said to control water and have great strength, whereas tigers symbolize righteousness and harmony.  I was amazed at how both entrances were designed to fit their appearances.  Here is some footage I took from atop the Dragon Pagoda:

According to a sign outside, if you walk through the dragon’s mouth and walk out the tiger’s, it is said to bring good luck.  So that’s exactly what I did!  It still has yet to come, but it’s only the beginning of the year.  Inside you will find illustrations of various Buddhist and Taoist characters:

Surrounding the pagodas are other temples and Buddhist statues that you can easily reach on foot.  I didn’t stop to see them all, but you could easily spend a few hours in this district of the city seeing them all.  People are very laid-back and friendly too.

Next, I biked to Formosa Boulevard Station so I could see its famous murals.  From what I read online, it’s one of the most beautiful stations in Taiwan.  It did not fall short of my expectations:

The Dome of Light within the station is the largest glass work in the world and was designed by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata.  I was amazed by how beautiful it was!  Various astrological figures are depicted in this glass (some human-like and some creature-like), as well as very intriguing patterns.  To me it looks like a galaxy riddled with the mysteries of our origin:

Another amazing part of Kaohsiung City is its hyper-realistic dog ice cream:

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I made a separate post on Aesthetic Food Finds in Taiwan, so please check it out if you are interested!  This is my last article in my Taiwan series, but I will be writing a bonus article on the nightlife I experienced here.

From what I’ve experienced, most cities in Taiwan only require 2-3 days of time to see all the major sightseeing spots.  I spent around 5 days total in Taipei doing day trips and other activities, but 2 days of full activity worked for me in all the other areas I visited.  I hope that everyone can visit this beautiful country and have the same wonderful adventures that I did!

The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun Moon Lake (Part 2)

After visiting the eye-popping Rainbow Village, I decided to take a cheap local bus from Taichung Station to the famous Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan (its name immediately made me think of Pokémon Sun & Moon).  After an hour and a half ride, I was dropped off at Shuishe Pier, which is part of the central hub of Sun Moon Lake.  There are a number of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops that you can browse around, although the real adventure lies elsewhere!  From here you can ride ferries and buy tickets to attractions around the lake.  The ferry will take you to Ita Thao Pier and Xuanguang Pier which both have a number of hiking trails and sightseeing spots to explore.  If you are unsure of what to do, the official Sun Moon Lake website has a number of itineraries available.

Originally I was thinking of going to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village and ropeway (which is a huge amusement park with a waterpark), but due to the mild and foggy January weather, I opted to do some hiking instead.  My favorite viewpoint that I discovered was the Ci-en Padoga built by Chiang Kai-Shek in memory of his mother.  This was about a 40 minute hike through a bamboo forest but was easy to access thanks to the English guideposts.  The ferries depart from pier to pier every half hour, so you can see the majority of sights in one day.  However, if you wish to see the smaller islands and go to the amusement park that I mentioned above, you will definitely need two full days.

Unfortunately due to the fog it was hard for me to capture good footage of the hike I took, but the mountains surrounding the lake were breathtaking and gorgeous.  I would say this was the 2nd most beautiful place that I have been to in Taiwan; the 1st being Taroko Gorge.  I wish I could have spent two full days here, but I was happy with all of the scenery I was able to see in one day.  Getting between the piers only takes around 15 minutes, so you can definitely make the most of your time here if you plan it out.

When you purchase your ferry ticket (mine was only 250 TWD because they thought I was a student), you are given a map with all the major landmarks on them.  If you are a seasoned traveler, I would just follow your instinct and go wherever looks most interesting to you.  The guideposts make it pretty straightforward, and there are always usually hikers around to ask in case you get lost.  Sailing around and feeling like I was in an RPG was honestly the best aspect for me.  It was so nice getting out of the city and into this amazing world of nature:

In my next article, I will be writing about Taiwan’s southern city Kaohsiung and Cijin Island.  Thank you to all those who have kept up with my wild adventures!

The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun and Moon Lake (Part 1)

 

Wanting experience life outside of Taipei, I researched other cities in Taiwan that would fit my adventurous spirit.  Taichung, Taiwan’s 2nd most populous city, caught my interest right away because of its Rainbow Village and picturesque Sun and Moon Lake which are both accessible by bus from the central station.

Rainbow Village

The bright and beautiful colors of this village immediately caught my eye–plus I was curious to know the origin of how it became so psychedelic–so I wanted this place to be my first destination in Taichung.  I took the MRT from Taipei to reach Taichung Station within 2 hours, then I took a local bus to reach Rainbow Village within 15 minutes.  I was greeted by these crazy-colored murals painted on a neighborhood of cozy houses.  The village was a bit smaller than what I had expected, but there were literally so many things to see here!

This village was designated as a home for refugees that fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, but was sadly planned to be demolished after the war ended.  Not wanting to see his home destroyed, Huang Yong-Fu (who was drafted for the war but still resided in the village), started painting the entire village in rainbow colors in hopes that it would be preserved.  Though not many other refugees were living there at the time, his artwork was noticed by nearby university students and they formed a petition to keep the 11 houses intact.  Fortunately it was successful, and the village has become a popular tourist attraction for everyone to enjoy and learn about the history of the war.  Yong-Fu is nicknamed the “Rainbow Grandpa” of the village, and his murals will always be an important part of Taichung’s history.

This village is literally a photographer’s paradise!  I was really happy to capture a lot of quality footage on my GoPro even though there were a lot of people around.  The murals seem to have cultural influences from all around the world.  There are a number of animals and humans depicted in them with interesting symbols so your interpretation of them completely depends on you.

After spending a good hour here, I decided to take a taxi back to Loosha Hotel where I was staying for the night (I chose it because it was cheap and centrally located).  Taichung can be done as a day trip, but I would recommend staying here 2-3 days if you can see everything.  I will be covering the famous Sun and Moon Lake in my next article this week!  Thank you for reading.