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.

Hello Kitty Desserts at EGG & SPUMA

A diner and dessert restaurant called EGG & SPUMA located in the Shinjuku Lumine building serves up some of the most delicious Sanrio collaboration items you’ve ever laid eyes on.  They serve a lot of comfort food like omelettes, risotto, and pancakes on their menu that changes with new featured items each season.  Cocktails and sweet drinks are also available.

I ordered Hello Kitty pancakes topped with apples slices, custard, and whipped cream.  They melted like butter in my mouth and had an extremely soft texture!  I also tried pink lemonade topped with a Hello Kitty donut.  Thought it was an extremely unlikely combination, it was amazing!  The donut was extremely thick and completely covered in strawberry frosting.  The lemonade size was noticeably large compared to most drinks here.  I wanted to try more, but felt extremely full after this!

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the quality of food here for it being part of a theme cafe.  Be sure to try their seasonal pancakes if you ever get the chance to stop by!

A Relaxing Day and Vivid Night in Koh Lanta, Thailand

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A night to remember at the Mushroom Bar Paint Party in Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta is one of my favorite places in Thailand due to its exotic nature and vivid nightlife featuring parties with fire acrobatics and neon lights.  The island is small enough that you can pretty much see all the major destinations in three days, but the beaches stretch on for miles and there are many bars so you could spend quite a long time here and never get bored.  There are less tourists on this island because there are no airports here, but you will run into a lot of adventurous backpackers and it’s really easy to make friends during evening events.

The best way to come to Koh Lanta is by taking a 3 hour ferry from Phuket or other surrounding islands (I booked my ticket online in advance through 12go).  I stayed at Pinky Bungalow Resort, and booked my own private bungalow for less than $25 per night by going through Booking instead of their official website.  My bungalow was right on the beach and it also had a pool with a lot of delicious restaurants nearby!

Outside of my bungalow were a lot of stray cats!  One kitten was a tuxedo cat that reminded me of my own cat, Leo.  The staff of Pinky Bungalows were really friendly and helped me call a taxi to get around.  You can also use apps like Grab (which is similar to Lyft and Uber in the US), or rent a motorbike.

One of my favorite restaurants was called Happy Veggie, near the Koh Lanta Animal Welfare Center.  Here I had a delicious vegan burger with a black sesame bun, and an acai yogurt smoothie bowl for dessert.  It was absolutely delicious and the fruit was some of the freshest that I have ever had.

I spent the majority of the day swimming on the beach next to my bungalow, and also taking photographs of the surrounding nature.  As I was on my way to my hotel via taxi, I noticed a sign for a neon paint party at Mushroom Bar.  After looking it up, I found that it was right across the street from my bungalow so I went over around 7pm to check it out!

I was in for a wild night as lanterns illuminated the beach overhead and neon paint glowed with messages left behind from previous backpackers who had came here.  I ordered a blue vodka cocktail and was informed that the party wouldn’t start until 10pm so I decided to lay in a hammock and catch up with my messages.

When I went up for my 2nd drink, I noticed there was a special drink menu with happy shakes and joints for sale, so I curiously decided to order the happy shake.  The bartender confirmed that my order was correct, then he blended the strange concoction for me and I sipped on it for a while as people finally started coming to the party.

As the night went on, the breeze felt cooler, the colors danced and flickered with the music, and before I knew it, I was dancing on the beach with these travelers from Britian, and free tequila shots were given out at the bar.  The music was a nice blend of house and techno, which felt perfect for the mood.  A lot of travelers in their mid twenties showed up and it was joyful talking to all of them.  The colors from the surrounding bars all blurred together to create this beautiful glow, and I felt a sense of excitement, awe, and wonder.  I felt exactly like the dog I captured in the photo below:

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A dog from the Koh Lanta Animal Welfare Center frolics outside of the Mushroom Bar.

As if they appeared out of nowhere, around midnight a group of trained acrobatics came to the beach and put on a grand fire show.  Apparently these happen almost every night, or whenever one of the beach bars has its weekly party:

Around 3am I finally felt tired so I went back to my bungalow and fell asleep.  Though the taste of the happy shake wasn’t that appetizing, I would recommend it to those who are looking to enjoy the beach in a new way.  Just one is good enough to feel the happiness that most people seek, and the people at the bar seem to take good care of you.

The next morning was met with a beautiful afterglow as I prepared to tour the islands surrounding Koh Lanta.  I tried some delicious fried squid and bananas soaked in tapioca milk at a restaurant nearby with a newfound sense of determination and wonder for my future travels!

Volunteering at the Koh Lanta Animal Welfare Center (Thailand)

Koh Lanta is an exotic and tropical island located in the Krabi Province of Thailand.  It is somewhat secluded and is a popular backpacking and resort destination due to its relaxed nature and beautiful wildlife.  One of the key points of interest on my 2nd trip to Thailand was doing some volunteer work, so I decided to volunteer at the Lanta Animal Welfare Center!

The Lanta Animal Welfare Center is a non-profit charity that saves animals from injuries and abuse, and then aims to release them back into the wild where they were found or to give them to proper homes.  Due to the location of Koh Lanta being far away from the mainland of Thailand, this is sometimes difficult so they are accepting both volunteers and donations.  Anyone visiting Thailand can come here and help out.  There is no cost for doing so (though donations are encouraged), so all it costs is your time!

Below is a video of the main are of the center that I captured:

A typical visit to the center usually starts out with a tour so you can become acquainted with some of the animals and hear their stories.  For example; according the the official website a dog was injured by a coconut falling from a tree and lost the use of his back legs.  Fortunately nurses were able to cure the spinal injury that he suffered from, and now he can walk again!

The founder of this Welfare Center was able to fund it by cooking at a restaurant for many years and using the profits to build the cages and medical areas within it. As of now, approximately 15,000 animals have been sterilized and saved thanks to the help and support of volunteers.  They also have mobile clinics where workers are sent to other parts of Thailand to treat animals that can’t make the way here, and also for the purpose of sterilization and vaccination.  Unfortunately the Thailand government does not give any aid to animals, so workers here are trying to spread awareness and hopefully receive some funding in the future.

After the tour, you are free to walk around Kitty City and pet the cats, or take a dog out on a walk!  I took a puppy named Hailey around the beach and went running with her.  There is also a Kitty Cafe where I bought a delicious cupcake.  All money spent here goes towards maintaining the center, and the food here is very delicious.

For those who are interested in working here, Job Opportunities are sometimes listed on the website, but it is easiest to come in-person and start volunteering first.  If you are interested in donating, please see the Donation Page.  I hope that more backpackers decide to stop here, because it really is rewarding and meaningful to everyone. ♥

Adopting a Stray Cat in Japan

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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!

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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!