Exploring Hikone: A Castle Town with a Mythical Island and Fierce Cat Samurai

Over the weekend I made the amazing discovery that samurai cats are real!  About an hour east from Kyoto lies a quiet castle town called Hikone with the adorable samurai cat mascot you see here: Hikonyan.  Hikone is in Shiga Prefecture and borders Lake Biwa, one of the most famous lakes in Japan due to its lovely scenery.  I decided to start my trip by taking a ferry from Nagahama Port, which is just a few stops north of Hikone Station on the JR Tokaido-Sanyo line, and visit the mythical island in the middle of the lake called Chikubushima.  See the ferry schedule for reference–a roundtrip ferry ticket is around 3000 yen.

Chikubushima is known as the “Island of the Gods” and is said to be imbued with magical powers.  Though I am not a religious person, I appreciate going on journeys like this because it gives me the chance to see rare parts of the world!  You can walk around the whole entire island within 30 mins and see shrines, a beautiful view of the lake, and also try some local cuisine at the cafes (though the selection is very limited).

The main point of interest here is visiting Hogonji Temple and making a wish with a daruma doll.  Daruma Dolls are a special kind of talisman here that you can write your wish on a slip of paper and put it inside the doll for good luck.  The Japanese people at the shrine were extremely kind and helped me do this.  Though this island was tinier than I expected, it was a very nice way to start my trip!

After the pleasant ferry ride back (which only takes 30 mins), I then decided to go directly to Hikone Castle to see the Hikonyan Show!  During this time, the fiercely adorable samurai cat will come out before the castle gates to greet his visitors.  Hikonyan is treated as a celebrity by Japanese people.  I was surprised to see a line of people with cameras out waiting to see him, but he is definitely worth the hype!  He appears every day and you can see the timetables here.

In addition to Hikonyan, you can walk through the Hikone Castle, see the Genkyu-en Gardens, and also visit the Yume Kyōbashi Castle Road that has shops and souvenirs.  I visited all of these places by foot from Hikone Station, but you can also take buses around the city!  By 6pm, I was exhausted from all the travel so I decided to go back to my capsule hotel in Kyoto.  Hikone makes for the perfect day trip from Kyoto because it is easy to access and full of history.

Temple Hopping through Bangkok on New Year’s Eve

49484249_10216043111421997_2140049712445652992_n

On my very first day in Bangkok, I decided to go on a temple hopping adventure via boat since the roads were traffic heavy due to the New Year’s season.  Though I’ve traveled to many temples in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, I’d say the ones in Thailand are the most beautiful due to their unique architecture, sometimes even featuring a neon backdrop in addition to intricate patterns.  This was my first time being in a tropical country during the winter season, and I definitely prefer the warmer weather because it’s easier to travel in!

For boat tours, I definitely recommend choosing one from Get Your Guide because their prices are way cheaper than what the locals will give you.  I chose to go to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun and see the Golden Buddha there.  The Grand Palace was once home to the Kings of Siam, who were the previous monarchs of Thailand.  It is now a place where ceremonies are held.  The other temples have famous architecture, and are a must-see for those who are in Thailand.  They are very easy to access and are not far from the city center.

I thought the Golden Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho was unique because he had ancient scriptures inscribed on the bottom of his feet.  This temple is supposedly said to be where the Thai Massage was first put into practice, and is one of the oldest in Thailand.  This Buddha is also the largest in Thailand!  It represents him during his last mortal moments before his entry into Nirvana and is a sacred place.

I’m not particularly a religious person—I believe that you should see yourself as your own god and express your gratitude to the people you love the most instead of a higher power or entity, but I definitely felt a sense of peace and happiness while I was here. I studied Buddhism in college to get my Japanese degree, and I agree with many of the teachings.  The feeling you get when you plan a long trip to a temple and reach your destination is also very inspiring, and I hope to visit many more in the future.

Adopting a Stray Cat in Japan

img_2002

Note: This is a post from my previous website.  I have decided to re-publish it in hopes of helping other foreigners with pet adoption in Japan!

After settling in Tokyo, I promised myself that I would achieve my life-long goal of adopting a stray animal.  Roughly 3 weeks after accepting an IT job in Tokyo, I decided to adopt this little guy through a wonderful resource called Japan Cat Network (JCN).  Japan has an abundance of stray cats; some of which are seeking domestication.  JCN is an international Facebook group where people from all over the country post cat adoption ads, and also share stories of their own pets for others to discuss.

Feeling welcome, I posted an ad saying I was looking to adopt a sociable stray and eventually I was contacted by a person from Chiba who said they had the perfect cat for me.  After several exchanges and ensuring that my landlord and housemates were okay with keeping an animal, I made the decision to take him into our sharehouse.  I decided to call him “Leo” after my favorite Fire Emblem Awakening character.

Leo is the perfect cat for me.  He can take care of himself yet is always open towards human affection such as kissing, petting, snuggling, and hugging.  According to his previous caretaker, he used to wander through the neighborhoods of Chiba meowing and trying to get in other peoples’ homes.  Unfortunately his caretaker could not adopt him, so she had her daughter contact me in regards to adopting him.  At first, I was a bit afraid that Leo would have trouble adjusting to the house since he had always been an outdoor cat.  However, he adjusted to our home quite well!

img_2067 (1)

When I first brought him indoors, he was very docile and tried to hide underneath the steps of our entrance.  Within an hour he came out, and when I brought him to my room (as pictured above), he instantly took to the blankets!  He loved rubbing his paws in my bedspread and was able to cuddle next to my Neko Atsume plush.  After I petted him for a while and he rubbed his scent on me, we became instant best friends.  Now Leo will wait for me to get back from work and meow at me to welcome me home!

To those who want a pet but don’t necessarily have the money or time to fill out the paperwork, I definitely recommend adopting one.  All you need to adopt a pet is their original papers from their previous caretaker or shelter.  With proper time and care, you can form a wonderful bond with them just like any other pet.  I am very fortunate that Leo doesn’t bite at all and acts like he’s been a house pet his entire life.  The only negative behaviors he demonstrates are scratching at the walls to stretch and trying to run outside when the door is open, but this is normal cat behavior that can be corrected.  Now that he has adjusted to the house, I let him out from time to time because he always knows to come back.

I am so happy that I have a pet to keep me company in a foreign country.  He has helped me through homesickness and depression, and even when I have a bad day I always look forward to coming home to him.  Words can’t describe how much he has made me a happier person.  I have decided to take him wherever I go, even if I have to bribe a yakuza to help me sneak him out of the country.  I will always love Leo for life!  Though the vet doesn’t know his true age, they suspect he is around 4-7 by the wear on his teeth.  I plan to give him a happy, and relaxing life for years to come!

Further Notes: I published the blog approximately three years ago on my website (as you can see, my writing style has changed a bit), but it still holds true.  I have now moved into a private apartment, and Leo is very happy here.  He has not been outside at all in over 2 years, but he is quite happy laying on my bed and watching the birds from the window.  Fortunately there is a lot of natural sunlight here, and I have learned all of his favorite cat food brands by now, so I believe he is living a good life.

If you have any questions on pet adoption, feel free to ask me in the comments below.  I wrote this blog to demonstrate how easy it is to adopt an animal, and also to show that doing so can make them extremely grateful!

This is the Future: Shinjuku VR Zone Analysis & Review

Welcome to the VR World

VR

Since the beginning of my early childhood, I had always dreamed of escaping reality and entering a virtual world.  Not because I had a bad life (because I actually had a really good life), but because I was heavily influenced by anime and games as a kid and wanted to live in a fully interactive world where I could freely express myself.  My fascination with VR started when I first watched Digimon as a kid, then later grew as I became engrossed with Yu-Gi-Oh! (specifically season 3) and Sword Art Online.  When I entered college, I had the opportunity to test VR games with an Oculus Rift through my university’s gaming program, and even got to try some indie VR games at Tokyo Game Show last year!  Just recently in 2017 the Shinjuku VR Zone has opened in Tokyo as an experimental VR gaming arcade and playground for the public to try out, so naturally I had to go and visit!  Currently boasting 15 different immersive activities and an interactive VR exhibition by Tokyo Art City, this zone is growing at a rapid rate and was definitely worth the trip!

The System

I came here early Saturday morning with my friend visiting from America who is also a huge nerd like myself.  We purchased 4 different colored tickets online (each for a different selection of games) so we could ensure that we got in.  Tickets are available at the door, but some attractions are so popular that you may not be guaranteed entry so I recommend booking in advance online.  You can buy tickets in sets of 4 (for 4,400 yen) and also individually (for around 1,200 each).  After showing our tickets at the door, we were welcomed in by friendly staff and decided to explore the area!  At the center of the building we saw a hologram projected on the wall and a giant glowing VR tree structure  looking like it was radiating powerful energy.  This was such a fitting atmosphere–I already felt like I was the hero of a sci-fi series!

Immersive Horror Room

After staring in awe at all of the cutting-edge decorations, we made our way to our first game, which was the Immersive Horror Room (IHR), just because we wanted to be thoroughly spooked before we had to wait in line for the more popular attractions.  IHR was overall the best way to start our VR experience because the wait for short and the game was extremely entertaining and high quality.  The aesthetic was very Silent Hill-esque and some parts of it actually made me scream out loud.  Fortunately, I was not the only one!

While sitting down with VR helmets, you and your partner control characters in a wheelchair and navigate through a haunted house full of wicked obstacles and enemies that try to kill you.  It was a bit hard to get used to at first, but you could use a flashlight to choose different directions so the gameplay was easy to learn.  At one point, I triggered an alarm and was blindfolded and captured by the enemy.  Once I regained my vision, I was strapped to the floor and couldn’t move my character was twisted figured surrounded me and other victims.  I watched them murder characters around me one by one with gruesome weapons and was truly terrified that I was next.  Luckily my friend was able to solve a puzzle and save me just in the nick of time!  The game has multiple scenarios, and you can see and talk to your partner through a headset.  Though we won the game, it had a “To be continued…” screen at the end implying that it might be developed into a “real” full-length game someday.  I really hope that it is because it was a lot of fun and it was truly immersive making me feel a lot of terror, suspense and excitement!  I would rather pay for this than go to a horror movie any day.

Evangelion: Throne of Souls

Next, we decided to go to the Evangelion Throne of Souls attraction, because who doesn’t want to pilot a giant robot!?  Since I was 14 (the same age as the pilots) I’ve wanted to volunteer myself at NERV HQ, so I am happy that nearly after 10 years later I can finally achieve my dream!  This VR attraction was extremely personalized and you could choose to pilot Unit 00, 01, or 03, and see a launch sequence that made you feel like you were in midair!  After launching, you need to stealthily navigate through Tokyo-3 and pick up weapons along the way to destroy the AT field of a giant Sachiel with your partner co-op style.  The simulation was amazing because when you looked down at yourself, you were wearing a plug suit, and piloting the Eva felt a bit narrow and clunky just like its frame implies.  It felt genuine–like nothing else I have ever experienced before.  My only complaint is that there weren’t multiple stages and the simulation was so short.  In the future I really hope they give you the option to pay more to continue, because I definitely would!

VR Mario Kart

Next we made our way to everyone’s favorite attraction–VR Mario Kart.  The wait for this was nearly an hour, but there were places to sit while waiting in line (unlike Tokyo Disney and Universal) so the wait was actually quite pleasant.  The game was complete with 4 different players going against one another!  They let you choose your character (Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, or Peach), and I of course chose Princess Peach!  The game sequence begins with the 4 of you lined up at the starting point, and all of you can communicate through the headset!  Then 2 popular villains show up, and you must all race them to the finish!  Along the way you can pick up and throw turtle shells, whack other players with hammers, and also throw bombs at one another!  Fortunately blue shell VR technology has not been developed yet (and for the sake of friendship, it hopefully never will).  The game was very fun and had a lot of obstacles that balanced out who stayed in first.  You could not customize your car so everyone plays on equal ground.  Being launched in the air and flying through the sky was my favorite part!  I came in 3rd but I had a wonderful time and was glowing after the experience.  I highly recommend doing this one, because before a long-term VR world like SAO and Accel World is developed, this is a once in a lifetime experience.

Panic Cube

The last attraction that we did was one called Panic Cube which is a non-VR activity where you are locked in a prison cell and must solve puzzles on a giant touch screen while handcuffed or else a giant balloon will pop and you will meet your end!  We were specifically asked not to publish any hints about this game online by the staff so I will respect their policy, but one thing I recommend is not sharing the cuffs with your partner.  We did this thinking it would make the game easier, but it did not!  We sadly lost in the simulation, but it was still a fun way to die.

Final Thoughts

After finally processing this mind-blowing experience, I am eternally thankful for my trip here. To those who truly interested in VR and have the money, I highly recommend it because currently this is one of the most cutting-edge public areas where you can have a hands-on VR experience.  However, unfortunately the long wait lines and ticket purchasing policy ruin some of the momentum, so if you are just looking to spend the day at an arcade playing with a friend then I would recommend going to something like a Taito game center instead.  I really liked how clean the place was as well.  They make all players wear a face mask before putting on the VR helmet and also thoroughly wipe down the controls before the next players get in (hence the long wait).  It is reassuring to know that the facility is well-maintained and treated with respect so it was last long! It is clear that this is a very experimental project and a lot of the games they have are still in development, but it is drawing a crowd and gradually expanding!  Being one of the first to try it out truly made me feel like a hero.

Because I know that my money is going to a good cause, I will likely return in the future.  I would really like to try the Gundam, Dragonball, and VR rock climbing games next time.  I have high hopes that they will develop more angels for me to fight and more courses in Mario Kart that I can go back and triumph over.  From 8bit to virtual reality, I will always appreciate the glorious gaming world that has forever influenced my life.