The Most Colorful Temple in Kyoto: Yasaka Koshindo

Before heading to Nanoboro Festa, a famous underground music festival during my trip to Kyoto, I decided to rent a yukata (casual summer kimono) and do some sightseeing in the Gion district.  Historically, this area was one of the most famous for its tea houses and traditional sweets, upscale lodging for visitors, and the extremely aesthetic Yasaka Temple that attracts a lot of people with its brilliant colors.

Yasaka Temple is dedicated to the three wise monkeys and a guardian warrior known as Shomen Kongo.  The colorful cloth balls that are attached to it are called “kukurizaru” which are talismans that provide good luck by taking away greed and impure desires.  Like ema and other talismans in Japan, you are able to purchase one at the gate if you would like to make a wish or prayer, but there is no fee to enter the area where the temple is.

Back in the day, many geiko (who are similar to geisha, but are known more as “woman of art”) resided in this area.  Nowadays there are many bars and restaurants as well as hotels for travelers, but much of Gion’s history has been preserved and it is a very relaxing are to visit.  You can see beautiful parks, temples, a river, and bamboo growing around Gion Station, so it is definitely worth checking out.

For those who are interested in renting a kimono, I rented one for 4000 yen from Kyoto Kashin in Gion.  This is actually a very good price because it includes hairstyling, accessories, and shoes as well.  At first I was a bit nervous about wearing one because I am a foreigner in Japan and it is not native to my culture, but I realized they are very flattering and fun to dress up in when you are seeing temples in Japan.  I encourage everyone to try it at least once~

Ine: A Beautiful Fishing Village in Northern Kyoto

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A native Ine bird freeloads on my fishing boat.

When people think of Kyoto, they usually think of the historic temples, people clad in colorful kimonos, and the Arashiyama bamboo forest.  All of these are wonderful aspects of visiting the city, but there is actually a lot more places explore!  In the far north lies a beautiful fishing village called Ine which welcomes visitors.  Ine is extremely important to the history of Kyoto because it is where rice-growing was introduced from China, and it also shows how people traditionally lived by the sea.  This culture has been preserved since its establishment and is truly magnificent to see.

There are a number of boathouses called funaya that are available for visitors to stay in, but they require reservation at least 2 months in advance.  The advantage to staying in one is that you will have a meal plan and can relax while seeing and an amazing view of the ocean.  You can also rent fishing equipment quite easily.  I wanted to watch the weather to ensure it was a sunny day when I arrived, so I opted to just take a day trip here.

I’ve been to Kyoto numerous times, but this is the first time that I’ve ever gone this far north!  From Kyoto Station, you can take the JR Line to Miyazu, then reach Ine by bus in approximately 3 hours.  The trip is very long, but the scenery you see along the way is a great way to pass the time.

The reason I wanted to come to Ine is because it reminds me of Terazzi, a town in one of my favorite PS1 games called Tales of Destiny.  Tales of Destiny is an amazing game because it takes the player through forests, castles, harbors, and even to Utopian societies in outer space.  Namco utilized the Linear Motion Battle System in the game so you really feel compelled by the battles and the areas you travel through are quite memorable.  Though I first played it nearly 10 years ago, I still remember how the towns felt like real places.

Terazzi always stood out to me because it is this beautiful, Venetian-like city but has boat houses almost exactly like those in Ine.  Terazzi and Ine are both have a number of residents living in them, but also feel a bit isolated at times.  In the game, you must navigate through a maze of waterways to find the entrance to the castle, much like how walking around the boathouses is here (although sadly there is no castle).  I can see a clear resemblance of how many port towns in games are inspired by real places like Ine.  It feels surreal when you finally experience them in real life!

Going back to reality, when I arrived at Ine, I decided to take a few pictures by the harbor and walk alongside the ocean.  There are a few houses you can enter and see the boats up-close in.  I went to the tourism office, and they were able to arrange a boat tour for me and a few other people for only 1000 yen.  The boat trip was really fun because you get to learn about the history of Ine, and they also give you bird food so you can feed the local birds!  They really aren’t afraid of people and flew close to the boat.  I was able to capture some amazing photos:

Besides fishing and being on the ocean, you can also walk around and see a few local shrines.  There are restaurants and cafes open during certain times as well where you can try the local cuisine and a lot of seafood.  I stayed here for about 3 hours, and that was more than enough to see everything I wanted.

If you are an adventurous traveler who has already seen most of Kyoto and likes being near the ocean, I would recommend this trip to you!  Please note that this area is quite remote, but easy to navigate on foot.  Just be careful to watch the bus timetable when you get off, and you’ll be absolutely fine.

Amanohashidate: An Eerily Beautiful Beach in Northern Kyoto

Over the weekend I had a wonderful trip to obscure fishing villages, islands, and beaches in northern Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture.  One of my favorite places that I discovered was this sandbar in Miyazu called Amanohashidate (try saying that three times fast)!

Amanohashidate is a 3 hour train ride from Kyoto Station with four different transfers, but its scenic atmosphere and remote location make it the ideal getaway for hotspring vacations or even just day trips away from the city.  Due to my bus itinerary, I arrived here around 7pm just as dusk fell.  I wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk across the entire sandbar this late at night, but surprisingly it’s open 24 hours, which is often rare for public beaches in Japan.

When I reached the southern tip of the sandbar (which is just a short walk from the station), the beach was illuminated with backlights in stark contrast to what it would normally look like during the day and some serene music was playing from a speaker.  It was like being at a rave, but with calming music.  I felt as if I was an alien that had landed on another planet!

Though I’ve been to many wild beach parties in Thailand, my stroll on Amanohashidate was something I’d had yet to experience.  I’ve never seen such a thin and beautiful beach lit up like this.  In the middle of the sandbar is a shrine, and there are lookout points on both ends of it.  It takes about an hour to cross the sandbar by foot, but bike rental is available during the day.  I was extremely tired from all of the travel, but during this trek I felt rejuvenated by soaking my feet in the water.

I’d recommend for most people to visit Amanohashidate during the day so you can ride the cable car, but unfortunately I did not have time to do this.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience I had here, and would recommend it to people who have already been to Kyoto and Osaka and are looking for something different.  Walking across a sandbar is definitely a unique experience for most people traveling in Japan!

Before I went back to central Kyoto, I decided to try a course meal at a restaurant near the station called 310 Amanohashidate Japanese Table.  Since I do not eat meat, I requested a fish and vegetable course a received avocado, salad, tofu, sashimi, and some delicious grilled fish and rice:

If you have the time, please consider exploring northern Kyoto.  You will find less tourists and a lot more culture here!

A Reflective Day at Sky Mirror Beach (Malaysia)

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Feeling enchanted at Sky Mirror Beach, Kuala Selangor.

In Malaysia, there is a magical beach that will display a perfect image of your reflection in the water during certain times of the day due to the low tide.  Kuala Selangor Beach, better known as Sky Mirror Beach, is a natural phenomena that attracts many creative photographers and those who wish to see this rare occurrence.

Though the official website states that you can only see this twice a month during the full moon and new moon phases, you can actually see it daily with the assistance of lighting.  At times the beach is completely submerged underwater and appears uncharted, which is why it is required that you book a tour to go to Sky Mirror Beach.  The beach is quite remote and requires a speedboat trip to reach it, but once there you can take in all of its rare beauty!

I booked my tour through Veltra, and I found the tour to be overall satisfactory.  Though I road the speedboat with a group of people, I had my own private driver to the pier that was included in the price.  He picked me up right from my hostel and got me there early so I could relax for a bit.  Once arriving at the beach, they will also help you take pictures with optimal lighting.  I brought my portable tripod, but they had light boxes set up on the beach already.  You are free to walk around and explore the beach on your own too.  Though it’s not really ideal for swimming, there are a lot of interesting sea snails and tiny crabs you can see (and they’re harmless).

Overall, most tour packages are about $100 to see this beach, but I think the experience is worth it.  The trip includes snacks, water, and transportation to an extremely rare area of the country from central Kaula Lumpur, so I think it’s justified.  I’m not sure where else in the world I can see a magical beach like this, so I’m happy that I took this opportunity!

Staying at a Backpacker’s Penthouse in Malaysia

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Ever heard of infinity pools?  Though the sleek concept involving cityscapes and a seemingly endless body of water is popular in some countries, coming from Tokyo, it was a brand new experience for me.  After exploring some remote beaches in Mersing and near Singapore, I took a 6 hour bus ride to Malaysia’s bustling metropolis; Kaula Lumpur, and stayed in a penthouse with other backpackers for the duration of my trip.  During this time I connected with other people from around the world that I’ll never forget.

After browsing a few places online, I settled on Sky Society, a backpacker’s penthouse boasting both a high quality stay and a stunning rooftop infinity pool.  I figured I’d have to try staying in a penthouse at least once in my life, and with dorm prices going as low as $15 per night, who could complain?

My stay there was incredible.  The Regalia Tower in which Sky Society is located has high security making you feel safe at all times, and it feels like a homestay because the hosts take extremely good care of you.  There’s free breakfast every morning, plus they have clean private showers.  Despite staying in the cheapest dorm room, everyone was quiet and respectful of one another.  However, I was able to socialize with other backpackers out on the balcony even after midnight and that’s where I met some of my best friends on this trip.  No matter how social you want to be, you can have a great time here.  Did I mention the pool?

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View from my penthouse room in Sky Society.

That just shows the basic swimming pool.  Here’s the grand infinity pool on the top floor:

It was a bit narrow, but the breathtaking view made up for it.  You can see all of the most iconic buildings, including the Petronas Towers, from this pool.  The number of people up here was just right too.  There’s a minibar, though I recommend pregaming in your room first like I did.  Overall, this is an experience that I think everyone should have.  I will be writing about exploring the city of Kuala Lumpur next.

Exploring the Remote Beaches of Mersing (Malaysia)

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Chasing after Malaysian skies in my Orient shirt.

During my aesthetic adventures in Singapore, I decided to take a side trip to Malaysia via bus and see some of its beautiful remote beaches.  This meant waking up before 6:30am and riding a 6 hour bus from central Singapore to Mersing, but the experience I had made it worth it!  The bus was air-conditioned, and getting through customs early in the morning meant we didn’t have to wait as long.  Singapore’s Sentosa Island has a number of gorgeous beaches, but the ones in Mersing have the essence of unspoiled beauty.

I decided to book a $28 bus through Easy Book online to get to Mersing, Malaysia, and then took a private boat tour through Let’s Go Island Tours for 450 Ringgit to see the islands.  This price was actually a bit cheaper than what I paid for private boat tours in Thailand, and includes some of the same activities like scuba diving and sightseeing.  If you get to Mersing early enough, you can take a group boat tour for a much cheaper price.  Since I was going to central Malaysia later that night and didn’t have a lot of time, I opted for a private tour.

The private boat I rode was only myself and the captain, so it was quite the adventure!  A light storm was approaching so the waves made the boat a bit rocky, but the captain expertly navigated the waters.  Our first destination was Lang Tengah Island, where I stopped for Pina Coladas and got to see the Batu Batu Resort area.  It was quite beautiful, but the beachfront was actually very small and the weather conditions made it difficult for swimming.  However, I still enjoyed walking around and seeing the beach huts and palm trees.  I even saw a baby lizard!

After spending about an hour here, the captain took me to another beach at Besar Island behind the resort area that was completely private.  It looked like something out of a movie or anime, and I had it all to myself!

Swimming here was definitely the experience of a lifetime.  You can see in the third picture that the sky is dark because the storm was approaching, but I fortunately had over 2 hours to swim and explore this beach.  The tour was extremely laid back and I could choose where I wanted to be.  I was so happy to spend some time alone (besides the captain) on this island!

The interesting thing about Mersing is boats don’t always leave exactly on time; the boat companies all pay close attention to the tide and then set the departure time.  Due to this factor, I would recommend staying 2-3 days on these islands so you have enough time to see them.  I was able to see a lot on my private tour, but I wished I could have additionally seen Tioman or Rawa Island, which are extremely popular to stay at.

When it started to rain, we headed back to the Mersing Harbor where I waited for my bus to Kuala Lumpur.  This was yet another 6 hours bus ride that I booked through RedBus for $15, but I ended up having it all to myself!  I don’t recommend booking 2 buses in one day because it’s a lot of travel and it’s nicer to stay on an island in Mersing, but I was on a tight schedule.  If I come back here again, I will be sure to take more time in this area.

In the end, the driver dropped me off right at my hostel and I got to see a lot of Malaysia!  We went from the border of Singapore, all the way up to Kuala Lumpur.  The scenery went from monkeys on the side of the road to bright flashing lights in the center of the city.  It felt great to be in a foreign world once again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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