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.

The Great Bike Trip: From Mihama Beach to Kawayu Onsen (Day 2)

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Yunomine Onsen – A colorful hotspring where you can cook eggs in the boiling water!

After a peaceful night of camping at the gorgeous Mihama Beach in Mie, we next planned to make our way to some remote World Heritage sites in Wakayama Prefecture.  I had never traveled there before, so I was lucky that my driver was well-acquainted with the area.  If you ever travel to Wakayama, I recommend skipping the city and heading straight for Nachi Falls.  It’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls that I have seen in Japan aside from those in Yakushima and has a bright red pagoda you can climb.  Honestly you could spend the whole day wandering through the forests here, but we decided to divide our time between shrines and hotsprings!

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

Departure

The 2nd day began on August 2nd at 4:30am.  We packed up our campsite at Mihama Beach and decided to choose Nachi Falls as our first destination because it was where I wanted to do photography the most.  We had booked a ryokan in Yoshinoyama for the night which was roughly 5 hours away from our starting point (with breaks in between).  However, we figured that there was a ton of places we could stop at on the way so we wouldn’t get tired.  Unfortunately due to heavy rain we had to take refuge at a river onsen and spend the night there, but we still visited 4/5 of our planned destinations so I was happy with what we accomplished.

Our updated map travel map looked like this.  Fortunately we had already arrived in Wakayama and seen everything we wanted before it rained:

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Nachi Falls

Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall in Japan that falls vertically.  It also has lovely surrounding scenery and a series of Shinto shrines you can visit.  The forest has a mythical feel to it as there are trees, bamboo, and all sorts of plants growing in it.  If you look at Wakayama travel websites, the red pagoda is the image that is featured the most!  That is why I had to come here and see if it was worth the hype.  As most places I put a lot of time and research into, I enjoyed seeing it to its full extent:

Nachi Falls is so huge that you can see it as soon as you enter the World Heritage site.  The first viewpoint is marked with a yellow tori and only takes a few minutes to reach.  However, the best viewpoints are a little further out.  The red three-storied pagoda takes about a 15 minute hike to reach, but you can borrow a walking stick for free to help you climb the stairs (mine looked like a bamboo stick).

This area is completely free to see, but the pagoda costs 300 yen to enter.  The top floor is fenced but has a hole where you can clearly view the waterfall and feel a nice breeze.  You will also receive a piece of paper with a brief history of how it was constructed.  If you climb up the hill next to the pagoda, then you can take the iconic shot of it next the waterfall.  Pure aesthetics, baby!

While Mihama Beach was my favorite destination, this was likely my 2nd favorite.  Nachi Falls is much more pretty than anything that surrounds the major cities in Japan.  Only temples in Kyoto can compare to it, but there are far less people here in Wakayama!

Kumano Sanzan

Kumano Sanzan is another one of the most popular World Heritage sites in Wakayama which consist of a series of shrines.  There are tons of Kumano Shrines located throughout Japan, but the three in Wakayama are said to be the originals, or the “headquarters” as my sponsor calls it.  The three Kumano Shrines (called Kumano Sanzan) are: Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine (by the waterfall we visited), and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine.

Since we had already seen the one by Nachi Falls, we decided to travel to the other two by bike.  Fortunately they only take 15-30 mins and a simple hike to reach.  Kumano Sanzan is actually my sponsor’s favorite series of shrines so that is why it was high on our list of places to go.  He even has a custom sticker of the Kumano’s bird mascot on our bike (which I had hilariously left my swimsuit out to dry on)!

The pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan is extremely relaxing and there is fortunately a lot of shade.  I can see why it is one of the most sought-out journeys in Japan.  If you only have time to see one of them, definitely go to the Grand Shrine in Nachi Falls!

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The origin story.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat at Cafe Alma at the base of the last shrine.  I couldn’t helped but laugh because “Alma” is actually the name of my obscure home town…

Yunomine Onsen

Since we were making perfect time, we decided to ride for 30 mins and stop at a small hotsprings town in the mountains called Yunomine Onsen.  It looks big from the first picture I took, but it’s actually quite small.  It’s comparable to the onsen you’d find in Takasaki or Gifu but still has a lot of unique charm.  Yunomine has a few public baths but mostly consists of private ryokans.  It’s perfect for travelers to stop at for a quick break, however.  After some debate, we decided to try the medicine bath with sulfur water from the natural hotspring.  It’s extremely hot but it’s supposed to relax and heal your muscles.  I lucked out and had a private bath completely to myself for a while!

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Eggscellent.

I spent about an hour in the bath house, and when I got out my driver had bought some eggs for us to boil in the hot water that was flowing through the town.  The eggs tasted absolutely delicious!  Hotspring-boiled food is one of the most unique dining experiences in Japan.

Then the rain hit…

We packed up all of our things and were about to take off when suddenly it started downpouring.  We debated about heading out because we had proper rain gear packed, but since we planned on driving deep into the mountains it wasn’t safe.  My sponsor called the ryokan he had booked and was able to change the reservation to the following day, but we were temporarily at a loss of what to do.

We tried to make a reservation at a guest ryokan in Yunomine, but unfortunately they were on holiday.  The others were extremely expensive.  My phone was dying and I was starving.  The rain started to subside where we were at after 45 mins, but it was predicted to fall heavy in our next destination.  I suggested that we get a hotel so we would be safe for the night versus camping.  Luckily my sponsor was able to find a cheap ryokan near Kawayu Onsen that was just 10 mins away by bike.  This was our lucky break.

Though our plans were delayed, bathing at this river onsen actually turned out to be one of the most fun experiences on this trip and made up for the rain:

Kawayu Onsen

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Kawayu Onsen: A secluded hotspring resort with a river you can bathe in too.

When we reached Kawayu Onsen, the rain had completely stopped and the town was enveloped in a beautiful white mist.  I liked the aura of this place already.  We stayed at Sansuikan Kawayu Matsuya for 7500 yen a night (fortunately paid for by my sponsor) and had a spacious ryokan room.  We ate some cheap Chinese food that was nearby and decided to go for another bath (because that was really all there was to do).  This onsen was ingeniously laid out because the hot bath was surrounded by thick rocks, but you could climb down and swim into the river the cool off.  At one point at I got relaxed that I laid down on my back and almost floated away… Just kidding!  The river is too shallow to do that but it does get deeper of you enter it from outside the hot spring entrance.  My body felt absolutely amazing after this bath and I was ready to take on the next day!

Day 2 Itinerary: 80% Completion

Though the rain delayed us from reaching our final destination, we were still able to go to 4/5 places so it was overall a successful day.  By this point I had completely gotten used to riding on the motorbike and fortunately the hotspring visits restored my HP.  These onsen villages are extremely hard to reach by public transportation, so yet again I had gotten another rare opportunity to see more of rural Japan.  I have many fond memories here in Wakayama and am actually thankful that the rain led us on this path.  If we would have skipped Yunomine and left earlier, we could be stranded on the highway or forest.  Perhaps the gods of Kumano were really looking out for us…

Please stayed tuned for the next 2 days!

The Great Bike Trip: From Tokyo to Ise (Day 1)

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Bite the bullet, baby.

Thanks to all of my crazy adventures around Asia and the 200+ articles I’ve published here on Resurface to Reality, I finally got an offer for a sponsored motorbike trip around the Kansai region of Japan (meaning all expenses were covered). The trip lasted for a span of 4 days and we road to many places including shrines, beaches, and mountain paths that are impossible to access by car or other vehicles. Granted I wasn’t the one driving due to not possessing a full Japanese driver’s license, but I was in charge of doing photography and video as well as preparing our camp. Even though I rode on the back of the bike it was still one of the most thrilling and exciting experiences of my life. I loved the feel of the wind in my hair and the clear view of the mountainous landscape and rivers as opposed to looking at them through a foggy train window.  Yeah, this is the life!

About the Bike

The bike model we rode on was a BMW F900XR that had extremely powerful capabilities.  It can carry a lot of weight and has high long distance performance.  I rode with an experienced driver who I had previously met before and trusted. They also were a fan of Ghost in the Shell and loved obscure places in Japan so naturally we got along well. Usually we both prefer traveling alone, but for the sake of trying something new we agreed to go on this trip together. It was amazing to have such an experienced guide with me so I could learn more about the history of the places that we were visiting. If for whatever reason our itinerary failed (which fortunately it did not), I had the option to return home via train. That’s one of the best parts of living in Japan━for the most part the road and train system is impeccable.

What’s that about a Sponsorship?

I want to iterate that there’s really no big secret to getting sponsored. This opportunity was presented to me without me seeking it. I’m just extremely passionate about travel and am always sharing my experiences with others (on this website and in real life; drunkenly at bars too).  I prefer to waste no time and have no hesitations when I travel somewhere new. Naturally that draws me to other people who have similar interests. If you are interested in travel and have the time, then I encourage you to go for it and keep a detailed log of your journeys. You will thank yourself later and also have stories for ages.  I am lucky that my sponsor offered me the option to go on future trips like this because I took the chance and succeeded!

Departure

The 4 day journey began on August 1st and I departed Tokyo at 6am. We had practiced riding on highways in Tokyo a few times and I was pretty comfortable with the feeling of it. However, I decided to ride the shinkansen to Nagoya Station and meet my driver at Kinjofuto Harbor so we could ensure a smoother trip. Morning traffic on the highways can be a bit rough so this way the load would be lighter and my driver wouldn’t have to take as many breaks. Kinjofuto Harbor is hilariously located next to Lego Land (which I visited exactly 3 years ago), and has easy access to the country roads.  We met up around 9:30am (exactly as planned), I put on my helmet and gear, and then we rode to our first destination: Ise Shrine.  This trip took approximately 3 hours with breaks in between.

Ise Shrine: Home of Amaterasu

Ise Shrine, known as “Japan’s most sacred shrine” actually consists of two shrines: The Inner & Outer Shrine.  These shrines were built over 2000 years ago and are said to house the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu.  If you’ve played the Shin Megami Tensei series, you already know that this goddess is a big deal.  The outer shrine is easy to access and has areas were you can pray and buy good luck charms.  I bought a pink one that looks like a magatama for hopes of safe travel.  As you walk further into the forested area, you will come across a large wooden bridge that will lead you to the inner shrine.  Photography is strictly prohibited here, but you can take photos from the bottom of the stairs.  Reaching the inner shrine is like reaching the origin of Japan.  This sanctuary is built out of sacred wood and is a cherished relic of this country.   I would highly recommend coming here if you ever get the chance because I definitely felt enlightened here.  For Japanese people and believers of the Shinto Gods, this is the holy ground.

Okage Yokocho

After visiting Japan’s most sacred shrine, we walked through the old-school street reminiscent to ancient times called Okage Yokocho.  Here you can get your fortune told (I got moderate luck), buy all sorts of souvenirs, and try some delicious seafood!  The oyster on a stick coated with soy sauce I tried was amazing.  There were also cute stray cats basking in the sunlight and wind chimes adorned on some of the buildings.  Though it was somewhat touristy, if definitely had an atmosphere of its own.

For lunch I had an amazing seafood ricebowl from the very first restaurant we walked passed because I was starving.  You kind find udon, unagi, and sushi places all over this street but this was my all time favorite.  You can’t beat the freshness of this shrimp:

Iseshima Skyline

After eating we rode for around 40 minutes and drove up a large hill to see Iseshima Skyline.  You can only access this viewpoint by vehicle because the incline is quite steep and the road is around 16km.  I have a video of us driving here that I will upload when I finish editing.  This skyline is famous because on a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji!  I am happy that I traveled here by bike so I could experience it.  My video doesn’t do it justice.

Camping on Mihama Beach

Mihama Beach was hands down my favorite part of the trip!  We rode about 2.5 hours to reach here and arrived right before sunset so I could go swimming and do photography.  The sunset was breathtaking and looked like something you’d see in Southeast Asia.  Not to mention the beach was so remote that hardly anyone was there—just the way I like it.  The people I did run into were very friendly and asked me where I was from and the usual.  I wish I would have talked to them more but I was so focused on the aesthetics that it was hard for me to do anything but swim and frolic on the beach.  I was supposed to go the the Philippines and Bali this year, but due to the pandemic my trips were cancelled.  Mihama Beach is likely the closest I will get to being in a tropical paradise this year so I will forever travel my experience here.

My driver set up camp while I was swimming (that was super nice of them).  It was a simple tent that fit two sleeping bags.  I was pretty exhausted by that point, so I fell asleep immediately and barely remember “camping”.  However, our campsite was gorgeous because it was right in front of the beach.  I’m happy that this could be my first camping experience in Japan.

Day 1 Itinerary: 100% Completion

Though this was my first full day riding a motorbike and it was pretty intense, we successfully went to every destination we planned.  The rainy season had just ended and it was extremely humid, but other than that it was a perfect ride.  My legs were a bit sore from riding but I got a lot of exercise in so I was fine.  I am so grateful for all the rare things I was able to see.  The next few days had their itineraries slightly altered due to rain, but the setback led us to see other amazing things.  Please stay tuned for the next 3 days!

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.

Super Aesthetic Adventures in Osaka (Day 1)

For the duration of the 4 day consecutive summer holiday known as “Marine Day” in Japan, my boyfriend and I decided to take our very first trip together to bustling city of Osaka!  We chose this destination because it’s much more laid-back than Tokyo and there is a myriad of things to do and see here.  You can walk by the river and sip on a Strong Zero while being right in the heart of the city where there’s never a dull moment.  I’ve traveled to Osaka about 10 times (mainly for music events), but I still haven’t seen it all.  This time I was most excited to see the Kaiyukan Aquarium and go to the old school arcades with my boyfriend who is a fighting game fanatic.  Along the way we discovered so many delicious restaurants and made heartfelt memories that I’ll never forget.

We departed from Nagoya via the Willer Express Bus at 8:30am.  This was a good move because it was cheaper than the shinkansen and we could peacefully sleep on it.  We arrived to the Umeda Sky Building (in central Osaka) around 11:30 where we walked to La Tartine for coffee and some sweets.  I found this cafe through my Instragram algorithms and wanted to try the dog macaroon because it reminded me of Pasocom Ongaku Club’s mascot.  I also tried a cookie with a beach design that tasted amazing.  All of the desserts were intricately made here.  Incidentally, we also got a free coffee jelly as a gift for discovering this cafe through Instagram.  How nice♫~

Next we made our way towards our hotel in Shinsaibashi and decided to get some okonomiyaki for lunch at Hanahana since it was nearby.  Not only was this place absolutely delicious, but it was dirt cheap too.  I ordered shrimp okonomiyaki and my boyfriend got a mix of pork and seafood in his.  It was such a satisfying meal:

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Okonomiyaki: The staple Osaka meal.

Since our hotel wasn’t quite ready to check in to, we dropped off our stuff and headed straight to Kaiyukan Aquarium which I had never been to before!  This is one of the most famous aquariums in Japan so I figured it would be the perfect date spot.  Unfortunately since it was a holiday,  a lot of other people had the same idea so we had to wait an hour to enter.  Luckily it was worth the wait.  I had been to Japan’s largest aquarium in Okinawa years ago, but I hadn’t been to another one in ages so this was refreshing.  In addition to colorful schools of fish, smiling stingrays, and the “Silence Brand” crab, they also had capybara which is my favorite animal there too!  My boyfriend most enjoyed the waddle of penguins (yes, a group of penguins is actually called a “waddle”):

We were very impressed with the large variety of sea creatures here!  I also loved seeing the “Keep distance” penguin sign, though it was an impossible challenge for the over-excited Japanese children here.  I also liked the message that said “all things are connected” at the end.  It really had me thinking for a while.  By the time we finished seeing all of the exhibits here, we were exhausted.  This aquarium is quite huge compared to other underwater exhibits in Japan.

Admission Fee: 2,550 yen (worth in in my opinion)

Not wanting to miss out on every food opportunity that life presented us, we stopped for ramen and ice cream.  The two main food groups.  I bought a capybara souvenir at the aquarium so I could forever remember this moment.  This isn’t the first time this has happened.  My boyfriend chose to eat ramen at Zundoya which has a branch in Osaka.  He said it was some of the best that he’s had in a while.  I tried the Pokemon ice cream flavors at Bakin Robbins, but unfortunately they didn’t live up to the hype.  I give them a 6/10 because they taste like sugary melted soda.  They would be much more satisfying if they contained vodka.  Fortunately that’s what we had next…

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Drinking the galaxy at Mixology Bar Factory & Gear.

Yet another bar that ended up in my Instagram algorithms was called Mixology Bar Factory & Gear.  And boy, it did not disappoint.  It was here that we met a fire bender and drank magical cocktails from the galaxy.  My boyfriend also ordered a Tuxedo Mask-esque drink and another drink that was wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer.  I ordered the “Little Planet” (pictured above) and a mysterious pineapple drink with a bubble that you can pop.  Watching the video is easier than explaining it.  This is peak aesthetic:

The taste of all of these drinks can be described as “works of art” but this Tweet sums our experience up the best:

If you have time, please check this bar out!  The average cost of drinks is 1300 yen but I promise that you won’t be disappointed.  There’s also some “Viagra Liqueur” (the opposite of whiskey dick) for those who are feeling adventurous.  We will remember this bar for the rest of our lives.

Where to Stay

Normally I stay at Asahi Capsule Hotel when I’m alone since it’s one of the cheapest places in Osaka, but since I came here with someone special I wanted to stay somewhere a bit nicer.

This time I chose Felice Hotel because it was only 5000 yen per night for 2 people.  This was within walking distance of Dotonbori and all of the bars we wanted to go to so it was the perfect choice.  Our bed was huge and extremely comfy.  There is also a public onsen bath and a rooftop bar that you can visit.  I would honestly love to stay here again!

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 3)

After going on a grand tour of Phu Quoc Island on the day of my birthday, I decided to spend my final day in Vietnam going to Hon Thom Sun World amusement park.  To reach this amusement park, you must go to the south end of the island by taxi and ride the world’s longest cable car to another island.  You will pass over a cluster of fishing markets on your way there so it really is worth it for the view.  I remember the ocean looked so beautiful from above.  I’m really grateful I got the chance to swim in it when I landed!

As soon as I entered the park I noticed I was starving, so I ordered some vegan spring rolls, a seafood noodle dish, and a strawberry smoothie.  I was surprised at how big the serving sizes were!  There are restaurants all over the place so you’ll never go hungry:

Next I decided it was time to explore the park.  I’ll admit that my main reason for coming here was to ride the cable car.  I didn’t put much research into what attractions there were, but I figured I’d go and have fun no matter what.  I looked at a local guidepost for direction, except there was only one destination on it:

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There is only one direction!! ONE!

I thought this was some kind of joke until I looked on Inspirock and realized others had run into this same situation:

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So okay, Trao Beach it was!  At least I could ride a air-conditioned van there from the park for free.  Since it was October, there wasn’t many people there so I could relax and enjoy it all I wanted.  It was essentially a private beach.  This was one of the scenarios where it was not about the destination, but they journey.  I had a lot of nice time thinking to myself and listening to all my favorite music.  The tiki statues and chairs made out of tires that I saw here also added to the ambiance:

Even though there wasn’t a lot to see at Sun World, being on a remote tropical island was more fun than being stuck in the city.  What’s interesting is that some pictures of the park online show a water park, but it only seems to be open during certain seasons.  There was no mention of it when I went in 2018 so I wonder if it’s under renovation.  I saw all sorts of construction going on in the main pavilion near the restaurant I was eating at.  I would guess that there is some plan to expand this park because it is in a beautiful area that has a lot of nature.  It really could become something amazing!

Is it worth it?

The cost for the cable car ticket is around $15 USD (roundtrip) and entrance to the park is around $25 USD.  This actually isn’t that bad for a day on an island in Vietnam, but you could definitely go cheaper.  If you have an extra day to kill this excursion is great because of the unique cable car view—especially if you have a camera.  However, there may be only one destination available when you reach the island… you won’t know until you get there!

Upon further research, I noticed there is another amusement park called Sun World Ba Na Hills in Vietnam with the same logo (so they must be owned by the same company).  Search engines are likely confusing them in English.  Perhaps Phu Quoc’s Sun World (the one I visited) is going to be designed as a miniature version of the larger one.  Who knows?  I hope to return to Vietnam and visit the other, larger, park when it’s safe so I can expand this article!

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.

Spending my 25th Birthday at a Hut in Vietnam (Part 1)

When people think of tropical destinations in Asia, Vietnam usually isn’t high on the list.  Most people in Japan flock to Okinawa, Thailand, Philippines, Guam, or even the Gold Coast in Australia for vacation.  I wanted to experience something different so I decided to fly to Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam from Hanoi and stay in a beach hut on my 25th birthday in 2018.  This was one of my first times staying on a remote island alone, but it was completely safe and turned out to be one of the best birthdays of my life!

I stayed on Phu Quoc for four days and three nights and managed to learn a lot about the island culture of Vietnam.  Being here is completely different than from being in the city which is truly eye-opening.  In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh you’ll get a lot of stares and attention from the locals, but here you’ll find complete and total privacy:

Getting to Phu Quoc

A roundtrip flight from Hanoi to Phu Quoc only costs $65 through VietJet and takes two hours so it is quite cheap and easy to plan out.  I’ve researched other islands in Vietnam such as Cat Ba, but Phu Quoc is by far the most beautiful.  Long Beach is the best place to stay on the island because it has a lot of restaurants and you can see the best view of the sunset.  The beach looks pretty 24/7, but swimming in the ocean and watching the sky turn that lovely mixture of pink, blue, and red makes it feel as if you are living inside of a painting:

The island hut I stayed at was called Viet Than Resort.  I chose this resort because I liked the design of the thatched huts and it was only around $35 per night.  Plus it was right on the beach and had a swimming pool too!  I came during the off-season in October, but I still had a lot of fun here because the weather was perfect.  I spent my entire first day here exploring Long Beach and going swimming.  It was definitely the relaxation that I needed after several days of trekking through the populated cities.

Cuisine on Phu Quoc is cheap, healthy, and extremely satisfying.  I tried a restaurant near my hotel and ordered seafood ramen and an omelette.  After hours of swimming, this was exactly what I needed!

Another perk of staying here is you’ll often run into Phu Quoc dogs.  An islander informed me that these dogs are friendly towards people but completely independent.  They’ll let people wash and feed them, but they spend most of their time frolicking on the beaches.  I wish I were a Phu Quoc dog!

Unlike places in Thailand and Bali, Phu Quoc is NOT a party island.  It does have a lot of bars and places to socialize, but you won’t find any recreational drugs here.  I really wish that there were more islands in Japan like this.  I went to Okinawa for my first birthday in Japan and had fun, but it does not have a lot of beach huts and the best beaches require renting a car or riding a infrequent bus to reach.  I liked Phu Quoc because everything was accessible, and if I needed to get somewhere I could use Grab or ask my hotel to call a cheap taxi service.  This would honestly not be a bad place to retire.

In my next article, I’ll be talking about my island tour and how I rode a cable car to Sun World!  Thank you all for reading my Vietnam article series!  Though this happened almost 2 years ago, this island is still a very popular resort destination and a place that I would recommend to all my friends.  It’s really easy to have fun here no matter what your budget is.

Exploring Hanoi City: A Tropical, Colorful, Communist Tokyo (Part 2)

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Hanoi — my favorite city in Vietnam!

Since I published my introduction of Hanoi yesterday, I’m now going to be detailing my experience here in tropical, colorful, Communist Tokyo!  I only stayed in Hanoi for 2 days because I spent most of my time in Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc Island, but it actually ended up being my favorite city in Vietnam.  Hanoi is super condensed and has a lot to see, so backpackers will rejoice at how easy and fun it is to explore.  I made a lot of friends here that I hope to see again during my future trips!

Hanoi VS Ho Chi Minh

The biggest decision that first time travelers to Vietnam will make is what city they want to see the most.  All of my Vietnamese friends in Japan recommended Hanoi because they think it’s prettier, but Ho Chi Minh is cheaper to fly to from most Asian countries so I started there.  I researched both cities thoroughly and couldn’t pick a favorite so I decided I’d see them both!  Fortunately roundtrip flights between the two cities are only $40 dollars, so you can easily see them both during your trip to Vietnam.

Reasons to go to Hanoi:

  • The streets are condensed making it easy to get around on foot.  Ho Chi Minh has a lot more traffic and you need to take a taxi or motorbike to get to some places.
  • You can access the emerald waters of Halong Bay from Hanoi.  Halong Bay usually takes 2-3 days to fully experience but is one of the prettiest areas of the country.
  • I found it much more easy to make friends here.  Ho Chi Minh is more spread out so meeting people outside of clubs was difficult.
  • There are more parks and nature around Hanoi.  You can also reach Sapa, a beautiful mountain village with terraces, from here.

Reasons to go to Ho Chi Minh

  • HCM is a huge international business hub which is why flights into this city are less expensive.  If you have an international driver’s license and are not afraid of motorbiking through huge crowds, you might save money here.
  • Though HCM isn’t near any beaches or beautiful waters, Mekong Delta is definitely worth seeing.
  • HCM has a lot of international cuisine and upscale restaurants.  I ate some of the best food I had in Vietnam here.
  • If you are a history buff, you will enjoy seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels here!

I recommend a minimum of 3 days and 3 nights in each city if possible.

Main Points of Interest

Here are the main points of interest I explored in Hanoi.  For food recommendations, please check out my Aesthetic Food Finds article!

  • Hỏa Lò Prison – One of the most historic prisons used during the Vietnam War.  Tickets are around $10.  
  • Ngoc Son Temple – A beautiful white temple located on Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi.
  • Chua Tran Quoc – A pagoda on an islet in central Vietnam.  I walked here from my hotel and reached it in 30 minutes.  On the way there you can see beautiful parks!
  • Cat Ba Island – A beautiful island in Halong Bay.  I did not visit it because I went to Phu Quoc Island instead, but I would love to go in the future!
  • Water Puppet Shows – Vietnam is famous for its water puppet shows and my biggest regret is that I didn’t book a ticket in advance to see one.  I recommend using a website like GetYourGuide to buy one before your trip because they will deliver it directly to your hotel.
  • The Obama Combo – You can eat at the same bun cha restaurant as Obama did and order the Obama Combo in Hanoi!

Honestly the highlights of Hanoi were just wandering around the streets and seeing the culture here.  This was my first time traveling to a tropical Asian country so it truly felt like an adventure to me.  I loved going for morning runs and watching people do yoga in the park.  I bargained for a scarf at the Đồng Xuân Market and ate a lot of fresh fruit.    Seeing all the different markets influenced by the doi moi policy was eye-opening.  This is what I imagined Tokyo would be like if it hadn’t radically reformed after World War II.

However, aside from a few people most residents I encountered in Hanoi seemed truly happy.  This made me happy as well!

The Toilet Club

Have you ever dreamed of throwing a Communist party in a toilet?  Because at the Toilet Club (formerly known as the IP Club) you totally can!  This is where I spent my last night in Hanoi before flying off to the tropical island of Phu Quoc for my 25th birthday.  I chose this club because of its meme-worthy name, but the variety of music the DJs spin here is pretty decent.  They have regular house and trance nights along with an international selection of artists.  You can expect to see a lot of foreigners here, but it’s still a high-class club.  Worth the experience in my opinion.

I can’t even remember what I drank here, but I remember coming here on a Monday night so the entrance was free.  I met a bunch of backpackers from Australia and we exchanged travel stories.  I had so much fun dancing!  The club closed around 1am so I ordered a motorbike through Grab back to my hostel because that’s what was most convenient.  It was my first time ever riding on the back of a motorcycle, but fortunately I didn’t fall off!  What a way to end my night in Hanoi.

Accommodation

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HANOI GOLDEN -HOTEL-

Most accommodations in Hanoi are extremely inexpensive, so I decided to book a private room in the center of the city at Hanoi Golden Hotel for $20 per night.  The neon sign outside of the hotel makes it look like the entrance to a brothel, but the rooms were extremely clean and the service was outstanding.  They upgraded me to a family room for free because they had extra rooms available which was awesome.  The staff called me beautiful (in a respectful way) even though I had been walking for hours and my hair was super frizzy.  I couldn’t help but smile even though I know that flattery is cheap.  I definitely felt good vibes during my entire stay here.

What I liked about Hanoi was that there was no strange cultural or language barrier here like there is in Japan, so temporarily escaping that was nice.  Though I could never live longterm in Vietnam because I’d get tired of all the attention and vendors chasing me down, I do see myself vacationing here.  The main advantage is that travel in Vietnam is much cheaper than in Thailand or Japan.  Just be sure to watch out for taxi meter scams!  And learning how to bargain at markets will also be helpful to you.  I’ve learned through trial and error, plus a lot of negotiation (while sometimes buzzed).

Another strong point is people have a lot less in Vietnam but seem happier.  Woman seem more liberated too.  There’s a lot that you can learn by observing the life style of people here.  In my next article, I will be writing about my experience staying in Phu Quoc Island.  Please anticipate it, because Phu Quoc is my favorite part of Vietnam!

Exploring Hanoi City: A Tropical, Colorful, Communist Tokyo (Part 1)

Since I’ve lived in Japan for over 4 years now, I often wonder what the country would be like if it hadn’t radically reconstructed after the destruction caused by World War II.  Of course the US military including General MacArthur was responsible for political and social reforms in Japan, and eventually the economy stabilized, but what if the country had been left to ruin and was forced rebuild itself from scratch like Cambodia?  I believe it is thanks to the hard work of Japanese people and the influence of the pre-existing constitutional monarchy that Japan was able to modernize itself.  Whether you agree with Japanese politics or not, the way this island country restored itself is incredible.

Then I look at countries like Vietnam who also went to war against the US but are controlled by a Communist government.  While I was in Hanoi I visited the Hỏa Lò Prison and learned about the history of the Vietnam War.  Unlike what happened during World War II, the North Vietnam military still wanted to overtake the South.  Let’s take a look at what happened in Vietnam after Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords…

“By the early 1980s, Vietnam’s government was coming to realize that communism would not provide a miracle cure for rapidly modernizing the country and growing its economy.” Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam, pp. 398-99

Since Communism is clearly flawed, a new market reform called “Doi Moi” was introduced to the country.  This type of market revolves around supply and demand.  This means sometimes people receive more than others, but essentially the work you put forth will eventually pay you back.  Thanks to the farmers and exporters, Vietnam was able to gradually rebuild its economy.  Additionally this type of reform helped Vietnamese citizens fight poverty:

“At the end of the war, 70 percent of the people in Vietnam were living below the official poverty line. Today, that number is estimated to be less than 20 percent.”
Asia Pacific Curriculum

As of right now, many people in Japan are beginning to live on the verge of poverty, and work motivation lower than most developed countries around the world.  Though they make less income on average, you’ll notice that citizens in Vietnam have a much more positive outlook on life.  And it’s not just due to cultural differences.  You have to stop and think, why is this?

In my next article, I will be highlighting some of the places I visited in Hanoi including the prison and exploring these ideas now.  Thank you all for reading!