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

img_8131
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:

img_8314

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!

img_8124
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!

525561e4-d098-4034-b61b-1d60993d4de5
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

img_8313
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 Jeju Chronicles: Venturing Around the West Side

After successfully climbing Korea’s tallest mountain, I decided to take a bus tour around the west side of the island so I could relax and enjoy some of the quirky attractions of Jeju Island.  I booked my tour through Jeju Day Tour because they go to the most places out of all the tour companies and are locally owned.  The price for seeing half the island is only $65 USD which is worth it because it’s cheaper than renting a taxi or car.  Mr. Ko, who personally organizes the tours and is the main guide, speaks very good English and answered all of my questions about the culture here.

The tour is about 9 – 10 hours but includes lunch and plenty of breaks.  Our tour only had about seven people on it which was the just the right amount.  The bus came directly to my hostel at dawn so we could get an early start.  I couldn’t wait to see how my third day on the island was about to unfold!

Mysterious Road

Our first stop was the “Mysterious Road” (also known as “Dokkaebi Road”) which was located at the base of a mountain that connects two major highways.  It was given this name because things that fall on it seem to roll up the hill rather than down.  In other words, the road appears to defy gravity due to an optical illusion of its mountainous surroundings.  Since we came on a slightly rainy day, we could see water droplets coming towards us from the top of the hill and it was supernatural.  The demon head statue that marked the road also added to the ambiance, and it was only our first stop!

Cheonjeyoen Falls

Our next stop was the Cheonjeyoen Falls, which are three of the most beautiful waterfalls in Jeju!  The water from the first waterfall divides into the other two making it a beautiful natural occurrence.  The water from this park eventually flows into the ocean, which is why people call it “The Pond of the Gods”.  It definitely looks like something mythical straight out of a video game.  I was grateful to have my guide explain its origin or else I would have overlooked it.  These are the best waterfalls to see on the island in my opinion.

Mt. Songak

Mt. Songak is a little volcano with 99 peaks.  This was the second volcano I visited after Mt. Hallasan and was a much easier climb!  The summit has the best view of the west side of the island, but unfortunately due to the heavy fog it was difficult to see.  The coast and walk to the temple however were breathtaking.  Even with the fog I could still clearly make them out.  I climbed part of the mountain (which only took a few minutes) then opted to go horseback riding for a small fee.  My horse looked similar to Epona so it was totally worth it.

jeju-horse-and-seongsan-ilchulbong-douglas-macdonald

The good thing about Jeju is that the fog usually clears quickly.  Since I was here for 5 days and had already climbed the tallest mountain, I was more focused on the experience of hiking rather than taking photos.

Jeju Trickeye Museum

After spending the entire morning submersed in nature, we had a Korean buffet lunch that was included in the tour package and were dropped off at the Jeju Trickeye Museum.  At Trickeye museums you can pose with various paintings that are designed to make it look like you are part of the art.  I had been to the Trickeye Museum in Seoul the previous year so this was quite similar.  However, the Trickeye App that you can download for free on your phone makes photography much more interesting here.  My favorite part was the VR pandas that were created with the app.  This video I took made it look like they had crawled out of the painting.  It was honestly worth the trip.

Soingook Theme Park

I was not expecting to run into Shrek and crew while I was in Korea, but that just goes to show how crazy this island is.  At Soingook Theme Park you can can see replicas of famous architecture around the world juxtaposed to characters from famous films in a humorous display.  I enjoyed seeing Buddha, Shrek, an Angry Birds plane, and some vaporwave all in the same place.  Not to mention a beautiful bridge and lake from god knows where.  I bought some knock-off Kit-Kats called “Twin Kicker” at a convenience store here and they tasted pretty good.  I’m still trying to process everything I saw here!

Osulloc Tea Museum

Osulloc is the largest tea plantation in Korea and is also a museum with delicious sweets.  From Jeju Island, the plants receive the perfect amount of sunlight so they can be processed into high quality tea and shipped around the country.  You can freely wander through the plantation and learn about how tea is made.  I tried the green tea ice cream and chocolate green tea roll which was amazing!  This is one of the best spots to pick up souvenirs on Jeju too.  I would say Korean green tea is just as good as Japanese green tea.

Teddy Bear Museum (Teseum)

Because meeting Shrek wasn’t enough, our final stop was the Teddy Bear Museum (also called “Teseum”) where we went on a “Teddy Bear Safari” to meet stuffed bears from all over the world.  Not gonna lie, the concept seems childish but this was actually a very fun exhibition.  Seeing everything from the anatomy of a teddy bear to their origin made me think back to all the stuffed Beanie Babies I collected as a kid.  I did not realize how much of an impact teddy bears had on the world before I came here.  Why was this on a sub tropical island in Korea?  I have no idea, but it was an interesting concept.

When we got back on the bus, Mr. Ko kindly gave us mini bear keychains as souvenirs from the museum.  I still have mine and think back to this trip very fondly.

After a fulfilling day of nature, green tea, and some of the craziest museums in Jeju, I was taken back to my hostel Skywalker around dinner time.  I chose this hostel because it was close to Mt. Hallasan Park and the dorms were only around $12 per night.  Unfortunately this hostel is now closed, but my other recommendation GreenDay is still open!

img_1524
<insert your own Star Wars reference here>

Final Thoughts

This tour was 100% worth it.  The amount of things we were able to see in one day was astonishing.  We had the perfect balance of nature, museums, and silly tourist attractions (which I never would have went to by myself but I enjoyed them).  Basically we saw the entire west part of the island and were free to explore each destination after listening to a brief explanation.  You could try to reach these places with a local Jeju bus, but some spots such as the Mysterious Road can only be accessed by car or via tour bus.  The amount I paid for this tour was about the same as I paid for my bus tour in Okinawa, Japan, so it was pretty fair.  I was happy to have a Jeju local as my guide.  If you book a tour with Jeju Day Tour then be sure to say hello to Mr. Ko for me!

In my next article, I will be exploring the east side of the island with the same tour company (they were that good)!  The west tour runs on even days and we east tour runs on odd days, so you can easily fit them into your schedule.  Thank you for reading!

Journey to Yakushima: The Real-life Princess Mononoke Forest (Part 2)

After two awe-inspiring hikes through the forest that inspired Princess Mononoke and to Japan’s oldest tree, I decided to spend my final day in Yakushima relaxing at beaches and hot springs.  Though I went on this trip nearly three years ago, I still remember how breathtaking it was to this day.  This island undoubtedly has some of the best nature in Japan because it’s so remote from civilization.  This is the perfect place to reflect on life and also do meditation.  Please see Part 1 of my adventures in Yakushima for reference.

Day 3: Beach and Hotspring Adventures

Since I didn’t rent a car and was backpacking my way around, I decided to book a private tour through Yes Yakushima so I could see more of the island.  The main advantage of doing this is you’ll have an experienced guide to show you around and they can cater the tour to fit your interests.  I chose the Island Tour since I had already had my fill of hiking, but there are many other options available.  What’s amazing is their guides can take you almost anywhere on the island; even to the most difficult mountains that not many people have climbed.  Solo tours start at 27000 yen per person, but the price is worth it for what you get to see.  The money you spend also goes to environmental maintenance.

Distilleries, Beaches, Crabs & Hotsprings

My guide Brian was also from the US, but he married a Japanese native on Yakushima and hiked there for years so his knowledge of the island was vast.  My tour started off with a bang when we visited a Yaksuhima sake distillery and I knocked back a few samples.  Sweet potatoes are very famous here so some breweries use them as a base for sake.  We also drove past some mini farms where you could insert coins into a post box and take vegetables.  The stores are completely unmanned so it shows there is a high level of trust between people on this island.

After eating a vegetarian bento by the beach, we drove to Hirauchi Sea Spa where you can go swimming and also wade in the tidal hot springs.  The best time to visit is during low tide which usually your tour guide can predict.  You can come here during high tide too, but the hot springs will be too deep to enter.  I spent a good 2 hours here swimming and wading in the hot springs.  The hot springs are unisex so you can choose to wear your swimsuit or jump in naked (I wore my swimsuit since I was on a tour).

IMG_5018
Hirauchi Sea Spa during low tide.

While I was walking on the beach, I saw some amazing sea crabs chilling in the rocks:

Here’s an extremely old video I took of them.  Their eyes are over-sized and adorable:

I will never forget how vibrantly blue the water was here.  Out of everywhere in Japan, Iwami and islands in Kyushu like Yakushima have the best beaches.  I also saw Yakushima-todai Lighthouse which is painted white and looks like a small chapel.

After having my fill of swimming, we decided to drive to some waterfalls next.  The following waterfall is the most beautiful waterfall that I’ve seen in Japan:

Ohko Waterfall

22366302_10212759965825409_5246968459206308628_n
A rainbow is reflected in the emerald pool of Ohko Waterfall.

We arrived at the perfect time of day because I got to see a rainbow reflected in the water of Ohko Waterfall!!  This was such an amazing sight to behold!  Plus there were hardly any other people around so you could only hear the splash of the water.  I sat on the rocks and mediated for a few minutes as cool water droplets splashed my back.  As I was meditating, a piece of bark from a Yaku Cedar tree fell from the cliff and drifted towards me.  Brian carefully picked it up from the water and held onto it.  He informed me that under no circumstances are people of the island allowed to strip bark from trees, but if the bark is removed by natural causes then people are allowed to take it.  Since he said he was skilled in instruments, farming, and other outdoor activities, I figured he would think of the perfect use for it.  He let me hold it and see it up close which was very special to see.  It really is as if the gods were smiling upon us here.

Senpiro Waterfall

Though there were no rainbows here, this was still an amazing waterfall to see.  While Ohko is best viewed from sea level, Senpiro is best viewed from the mountains.  The granite valleys here were quite the sight.  Hiking up to the level where you can see them only takes a few minutes and is way easier than the hike to Jomonsugi.  I am continually impressed by the harmony of land and water you can see on Yakushima!

Gajumaru Banyan Tree

After our waterfall treks, we drove to a mysterious forest in Nakama Village.  At first glance, it looked similar to the Shiratani Unsuikyo which I explored the other day.  However, Brian informed me that this is home of the Gajumaru Banyan Tree—a magical tree that grows by dropping down roots from its limbs into the ground!  The roots can also sprout onto existing trees which give this forest its twisted shape.  Yakushima is unique because a lot of the island is still uninhabited and these trees can grow wild.  Perhaps one day the Gajumaru Banyan Tree limbs will engulf the entire island.  No one knows for sure, but it sure was fun to ponder about what could happen in the future.

At this point the journey was gradually unwinding.  I felt completely satisfied with what I had seen in the three days that I spent here.  On our way back to Miyanoura Pier where I planned to sail back to Kagoshima, we passed by some wild monkeys and a tree that resembles Cthulhu.  The more time you spend here, the more aesthetic things you’ll start to notice:

Final Thoughts

Though this may sound a bit hypocritical, any pictures you see of Yakushima online don’t do it justice.  The island is extremely vast and beautiful and the only way to truly see this is to embark on the long journey and see it for yourself.  That being said, my trip here was absolutely perfect minus not packing enough food during my hikes.  The first two days I spent almost entirely by myself hiking and seeing Japan’s oldest tree.  This was great because it gave me the chance to create my own personal connection with the island.  I didn’t feel lonely because I was on a journey.  The last day I reflected with an experienced guide and spent a lot of time relaxing.  I realized from talking to him there is still so much of Yakushima that is unexplored.  Was three days enough for what I wanted to see?  Definitely.  Would I want to come back in the future and see more?  Also yes!  3-5 days is what I would recommend to most people.  Be sure to respect nature and to also treasure your time here.

More Information:

Adventures in Nikko: Waterfalls, Igloos, and Walking in an Edo Wonderland

27750607_10213770949059358_4463311580879202149_n
The snow on the mountains behind Nikko Station give it a scenic winter look.

Yesterday I wrote about the popular mountainous hotspring getaway Hakone, so today I’m writing about Tokyo’s other most popular day trip: Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. Like Hakone, Nikko is also a famous hotsprings area located in the mountains that has stunning nature, temples, and a lot of parks as well.  Between the two of them, Hakone is my favorite because the hotsprings and museums are easier to reach by bus.  Nikko is more spaced-out than Hakone and some of the hot springs take over two hours via bus to reach.  That is a lot of traveling to do if you’re just coming for the day, but if you really like hiking you may find Nikko more interesting.  Both are worth seeing at least once.

I’ve been to Nikko twice (once in the summer and once in the winter for the snow festival) so I will be detailing my favorite discoveries in this article.  All of these places can be reached via bus from Nikko Station:

Kegon Falls & Toshogu Shrine

Kegon Falls is one of the most gorgeous waterfalls in Tochigi Prefecture.  It was formed by lava that rerouted a river into Lake Chuzenji.  We came here in the dead of winter when the surrounding area was covered by snow and slightly frozen, but the waterfall was still freely falling from the mountains.  I will never forget how beautiful this scenery was.  No matter what time of year you visit you will have an unforgettable view!

In the summer I visited Nikko’s most famous shrine: Toshogu.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a good reason.  This shrine serves as remembrance for Tokugawa Ieyasu who ruled the Tokugawa Shogunate for over 200 years.  This shrine complex consists of several buildings with the main one being adorned in golden architecture that gleams in the sunlight.  The shrines are located in a forested area so visiting each of them is quite a nice hike.  I’m glad that I’ve traveled here during both the summer and winter so I can see the lovely change of scenery.

Kegon Falls has no admission fees, but it costs 550 yen to go to the observation deck (which is worth it in my opinion).

Toshogu Shrine Entrance Fee: 1300 yen

Yuba Udon

Nikko is famous for yuba which is literally tofu skin.  That might not sound very appealing by itself, but it’s quite delicious when paired with or added to other dishes.  I tried Yuba udon with my friend and it tasted amazing!  The soft texture of the yuba paired with the noodles and broth gave the dish a unique texture.  I also tried some yuba slices on the side just so I could fully analyze the taste.  They are not as solid as tofu and are easier to eat.  My favorite tofu of all time is fried tofu or spicy tofu since they have the most flavor.  Yuba is rather flavorless, but it’s good for your health if eaten in small amounts.  We went to the restaurant across from the station called ゆば料理, but you can try it almost anywhere in Nikko.

Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival

Each year in February, Yumoto Onsen has a snow festival in which igloos with ice sculptures are illuminated similar to the Sapporo Snow Festival.  However, since this hotsprings resort is secluded, there are not as many people here and you can fully enjoy the illuminations to your heart’s content.  It was quite a long journey from Tokyo, but my friend and I managed to arrive here and back within a day.  The journey took 3.5 hours one way, but Yumoto Onsen is one of the best hotsprings in Nikko.  After doing some photography here, we used the hotsprings for under 1000 yen.  Similar to Gero Onsen and Kusatsu, you can choose from a large variety of onsen.  Many were available for day trippers like us.  The snow festival is free to see.

Here is a video I took in early 2018 of the igloos.  I hope to take higher quality footage of another illuminated snow festival in the future:

Tobu World Square

Because I’m a fan  of museums and architecture, I had to check out Tobu World Square.  This is a theme park at Kinugawa Onsen (another famous hotspring) that has over 100 scales models of iconic places from around the world.  My personal favorite was the pyramids from Egypt.  If you stand in front of them and take a picture of yourself, it looks like you’re actually in the desert!  The coliseum from Rome is also aestheically pleasing to see.  I loved the mini recreation of the Dragon and Taiwan Pagoda as well.  Now that I’ve been there, it hold much more meaning to me.  The more you walk through the park, the more you want to travel!  Summer is the ideal time to come here in my opinion.

Entrance Fee: 2500 yen (a bit expensive, but this is one of the most interesting museums in Nikko).

Walking in an Edo Wonderland

Since I was already near Kinugawa Onsen where many museums are located, I figured I’d go walking in an Edo Wonderland.  As the name implies, this is an amusement park dedicated to the Edo period of Japan.  If you’ve studied Japanese history, then you’ll know that this was a revolutionary time for the country.  There were samurais, economic growth, and a lot of development across Japan.  Many anime and novels are based off this time period.  Edo Wonderland plays homage to that and gives visitors the chance to step back into that world.  You can visit ninja houses and temples here, dress up in formal Edo clothing, take a boat cruise down the river, and see all sorts of performances.

Since I’ve been living in Japan for while, the most interesting part was simply exploring the Edo town for me.  However, there’s a lot more you can do here!  There is an archery dojo, countless restaurants, and museums where you can get even further lost in time.

Entrance Fee: 4800 yen before 2pm, 4100 after 2pm (it’s best to come in the afternoon as this is quite expensive)

Access

The best way to access Nikko is from Tokyo’s Ueno Station.  At the tourism office, they have often have discounts and deals as Nikko is a popular destination.  From Ueno, you can take the Hibiya Line to Kita-senju Station, then the Tobu Limited Express to reach Tobu-Nikko Station.  This takes approximately 2 hours and costs 3500 yen.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never stayed overnight at Nikko before but it’s something I’d like to try in the future.  Kinugawa Onsen is one of the centrally located and seems like a good option because you can reach the other areas of Tochigi Prefecture quite easily from it.

Houtong: Home of the Cat Village and Taiwan’s Tastiest Pineapple Cakes

After hiking Elephant Mountain and paying a visit to Laomei Reef, I decided it was time to travel to Houtong━a village in Taiwan renowned for its high population of cats.  Similar to the origin of the rabbit island I visited last month in Japan, this was originally an old mining town that has attracted hundreds of cats (the former was a nuclear testing ground that is now overrun by rabbits).  Fortunately there are a number of residents, volunteers, and tourists that look after these cats every day.  If you are an feline lover, this is simply a day trip that cannot be passed up in Taiwan.

Getting to Houtong from Taipei is quite easy; from Songshan Station you can take a cheap 40 minute train directly to Houtong Station.  When you get off at the station, you will notice there are two exits; one goes up into the hillside of the village where most of the cats lounge around and play, and the other leads to the roadside with nearby souvenir shops and restaurants.  If you are eager to see the cats like I was, I would recommend taking the stairs to the hillside first.  In fact, you may even see some furry friends lounging around in the station!

There are a number of things about this village that really charmed me.  First of all, I loved how the cats acted like they owned the place.  They weren’t afraid of humans at all and some of them were actually very friendly despite having to put up with us invading their space every day.  I also loved the Neko Atsume cookies and pineapple cakes they were selling here.  The shops had so many free samples that I tried every flavor (the chocolate pawprint-shaped pineapple cakes happened to be my favorite).  I was informed by the shop owner that apparently these are the most delicious cakes in Taiwan, so I decided to bring back some souvenirs for my roommate and friends in Japan.  They definitely had the cutest shape out of all of the pineapple cakes that I had seen here!

I also enjoyed the simple decor of the village.  You could tell that the volunteers put effort into making helpful signs and guides for tourists as well.  These adorable cat-like ornaments were hung in the station:

It really doesn’t take that long to explore the village; I spent about an hour and a half doing photography and exploring the shops.  However, cat-watching is definitely something that you could spend all day doing.  You can purchase food for them at any of the shops or cafes (I stopped by one to order a vodka latte for myself so I could warm up).  I enjoyed watching this kitty run across the souvenir table:

Houtong truly reminded me of a mountain town in Japan because it was peaceful and had the same kind of atmosphere.  Other than the cats, there is a river and a number of temples that you can see nearby.  It is considered to be rural but the trains run here pretty frequently.  On the way back to Taipei, I decided to stop by the Golden Waterfall that you can reach by bus from the nearby Ruifang Station.  You could also combine this with a trip to the Jiufen lantern town if you want!

Unfortunately it was pitch dark when I reached the Golden Waterfall, but this is the best picture I managed to take:

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0269.JPG
The Golden Waterfall at dusk.

Afterwards, I decided to go back and relax at my hotel.  This is trip is a great way to see the countryside east of Taipei and also see the unforgettable village run by cats.  Since Jiufen inspired Spirited Away, I can’t help but wonder if Houtong inspired The Cat Returns