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Traditional Soba at Yamatoan on Mount Yoshino in Nara (Yoshinoyama)

Yoshinoyama (吉野山 or Mount Yoshino) in Nara prefecture is mainly famous for it’s beautiful cherry tree blossoms in the spring. However, I was in the area in the summer as part of another trip, and Google Maps led us to a wonderful soba shop, Yamatoan.

Inaka Soba at Soba restaurant Yamatoan on Mt. Yoshino
Inaka Soba set at Yamatoan (circa. 2020)

The staff are very friendly. Maybe it’s because we went on off-season and they weren’t very busy, but they took some extra time to tell us the difference in “inaka soba” (country-style old-fashioned soba) and regular soba. They also serve “soba yu” at the end of your meal, which the left over warm water that is left over from when the soba noodles were prepared. You’re meant to pour this warm broth into your soba dipping sauce (tsuyu) and drink it like tea.

The shop also had a big jambe drum from Mali… The staff told us that he used to play in a drum circle. I’m saying staff, but, he actually might be the owner, or manager, not sure. The shop also sells high-end hemp backpacks from Nepal. It’s that kind of natural place with a hipster vibe.

Soba restaurant Yamatoan
Yamatoan on Mount Yoshino in Nara (Yoshinoyama)

We cheated and came to Yamatoan by car. If you decide to walk up the mountain to get here, you’ll be sure to work up an appetite and you’ll enjoy passing by the other rustic shops along the way.

Good times! Good food! If you’re in the area be sure to check it out, might be fun.

Soba restaurant Yamatoan
They also have a soba-making workshop!

Links:

Yamatoan Official Website

Nara Sightseeing – Yamatoan

Address: 2296, Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara Pref.

A Visit to Awajishima Circa 2004

In 2002 I took a trip from Osaka to Awajishima. The trip was awesome and was suggested by a reader of my blog at the time. I was lucky enough to be hosted by an exchange student friend who was living on Awajishima, so I had a local host of sorts. The trip was a few hours one way. First we took a train to Sannomiya, and then grabbed a long distance bus for about an hour and a half. The last stop on the bus is a town called Fukura, which is where my friend was living. I’m not sure if that’s still the best way to get there, so check the Awajishima Access link below to plan your trip.

A picture of one of Awajishima's famous whirlpools
One of Awajishima’s famous whirlpools called Uzuoshi うず潮

We arrived late Friday night so we would have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy. Due to the unbelievable whirlwind of activities that we did on Saturday, I think I can say that we did almost all of the main attractions that Awajishima has to offer. Here’s a summary of our tour.

#1 Nushima (Nu Island)

Nushima (沼島) is a small island about a 10 minute ferry ride from Nandan-cho, Nada. Nushima has a famous rock called Kamitate Gami Iwa 上立神岩。

Kamitate Gamiiwa Rock
Kamitate Gamiiwa Rock 上立神岩

It also has this cool area with hundreds of continuous Torii gates. Sort of like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto but with fewer tourists and a different style of torii gate. Apparently they give luck to the many fishermen in the area.

Torii Gates on Awajishima
Torii Gates on Awajishima

Also, here’s some trivia. Apparently in Nushima there is a story that explains how the island, and the rest of Japan were created. When god was creating Japan, he jabbed a sword into the earth. When he was pulling up the sword some of the stuff that was clinging to it dripped off. That first drip is Nushima. Kamitate Gami Iwa is the spot where the sword stuck. The other drips were Awajishima and the rest of Japan… So Nushima came first. Apparently there is a similar story in Awajishima with the names reversed. The ferry’s don’t leave Nushima back to Awajishima so often, so be sure to track the schedule carefully. If not, you might have to run up and down the hills of the island at break neck speeds to avoid screwing up the rest of your day. Then your muscles will be sore… Not that… it… happened to us or anything… Ha Ha Ha!(恥)

#2 Awajishima Monkey Center (モンキーセンター)

After Nushima we went to Awajishima Monkey Center. Awajishima Monkey Center was probably the second most famous thing in Awajishima next to the Uzushio (渦潮) at the time.

Awajishima Monkey Center
Awajishima Monkey Center (2004)

The monkey center was nice because the monkeys were just kind of walking around freely. There is a designated spot for feeding where the customers go behind a fence and give them peanuts. This is so the monkeys understand that random people are only going to give them food when they are behind the fence so they don’t ask for food other times.

Monkeys at Awajishima Monkey Center
Monkeys at Awajishima Monkey Center

#3 Nazo no Paradise (ナゾのパラダイス)

Nazo no Paradise is this erotic museum with other random mystery stuff like UFOs. It was freakin’ strange. Apparently the place tries to remain reasonably legit by keeping old school Japanese erotic prints. You know what I mean. They also though had strange statues…

Statue from Nazo no Paradise
Statue from Nazo no Paradise

#4 Awaji Ningyou Jyoururi (人形浄瑠璃)

That Kanji is difficult. It wouldn’t even come up on my cell phone on first try.

Awajishima Doll
Awajishima Doll

These dolls are famous and the performance is an art. It takes three people to control one doll. The right arm and head are controlled by one person, the left arm by another, and the feet by the last person. The doll’s hands can move, eyes can blink, head can turn, and all of the arm joints move freely.

During the performance there were two Japanese ladies on the side, one playing the shamisen, and one singing and reading the lyrics. It’s amazing how they all work together to bring the dolls to life. Pictures were not allowed during the performance. The men controlling the dolls wore all black and black hoods as to not distract from the action of the dolls. 

#5 Awaji Farm Park England Hill (England no Oka, イングランドの丘)

Farm park was a sort of nature and farm inspired theme park. There is something similar in Osaka called Mother Farm. Check their website for some of the possible activities. I wouldn’t recommend a trip to Awajishima just to visit Farm Park, but if you’re already in Awajishima and have kids it can be a nice healthy diversion.

On our final day we went to do shiohigari, which is “clamming.” You go down to the beach when the tide is back, and dig for clams. Then you take them home and eat them up. Fun for the whole family!

Shiohigari in Awaji
Clamming on Awajishima
Shiohigari in Awaji
Clamming on Awajishima – BYOB (Bring your Own Bucket)

充実した一日だった。

Links around the web

Isuien Garden in Nara – Don’t skip it

The area around Toudaiji and the Deer Park in Nara is constantly packed. If you’re looking for something that is less crowded, don’t skip the beautiful Isuien Gardens.

Isui-en Garden
Isuien Garden

One creative feature in Isuien Gardens is their use of stones tied with rope to indicate areas that guests should not enter. This is great. The stones are aesthetically pleasing, blend in with nature and the parks scenery, and are still easy to spot.

Isui-en Garden Stone
Stones tied with rope indicate no-go zones for visitors.
Isui-en Garden Stone
Beauty stone STOPS YOU IN YOUR TRACKS
Isui-en Garden Stone and Path
Beautiful Scenery at Isuien Garden

Isuen Garden is a short walk from Kintetsu Nara station. You can easily do the garden, Todaiji, and the nearby famous deer park in the same afternoon or morning.

There is also a nice little tea house in the garden where you can take of your shoes, sit on tatami, and enjoy some tea and traditional Japanese sweets (or soft cream).

Visiting Isuien shocked me into really feeling like I was “in Japan” again. It’s amazing how much the environment can change once you enter the garden grounds. As there were hardly any tourists when we went, it was quiet, free of any litter, and seemed that everything was in place. We were there in the morning and could hear what sounded like a bullfrog, and there were small bugs suspending themselves on top of the pond. Really a great environment. If you’re in Nara, don’t miss it!

Links:

Isuien Garden [Wikipedia]

Japan Guide: Isuien [Japan-Guide.com]

Official Isuien Garden Website [English / Japanese]

Chusonji in Iwate Prefecture

I had the opportunity to visit Chusonji in Iwate Prefecture winter 2017.

You can read a lot about Chusonji online, and I recommend that you do. If you’re looking for an impressive Japanese temple to visit that is far enough off the beaten path that it isn’t crowded with tourists, this is a great choice. Chusonji and the entire town of Hiraizumi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so quality signs in English abound.

Iwate prefecture is up north at least three hours from Tokyo by train. Many visitors chose to fly. A visit is difficult to recommend for a first visit to Japan, but if you’ve been before and are looking for something different I would recommend taking a look.

I happened to be in town in December, so it was freezing cold and covered in snow. Here are some of the photos that I took. Note, some of the most famous locations do not allow photography, so these shots are not representative of the entire site.

Chusonji Temple Grounds
Chusonji Temple Grounds in December
Chusonji Temple Grounds
That water is cold…
Chusonji Temple Grounds
Tourist with umbrella for the snow at Chusonji
Chusonji Temple Grounds
Chusonji Temple Grounds

Links:

Tom Bihn Aeronaut Review

I purchased a Tom Bihn Aeronaut in ballistic nylon way back in October 2013 and it’s still my favorite carry-on bag to travel with. It’s going strong and looking great.

This is not a cheap bag. Tom Bihn doesn’t make cheap products in any sense of the word. I paid almost $400.00 USD for this set up including all the optional accessories. It has been totally worth it. I cannot believe this bag is more than six years old now. I have traveled with this bag along with one additional small carry-on (no check-in luggage) on countless domestic trips in Japan, and internationally to Malaysia, Singapore, Hawaii, Germany, Czech Republic, Georgia (Tbilisi), and India… the list goes on and on.

As for accessories, in addition to the Aeronaut itself, I got two Aeronaut side compartment-sized packing cubes, a Packing Cube Backpack, and a Snake Charmer.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut being carried by only one backpack strap by a porter in Varanasi, India.
My Tom Bihn Aeronaut being carried by a porter in Varanasi, India, by one backpack strap. (2014)

I’ve flown on some small planes, and I think I have only needed to check in my Aeronaut twice. Once because I boarded so late that all the space in the overhead compartments was already taken, and once because the overhead compartments were so narrow, and the bag was so full, that it wouldn’t fit. I once got asked to weigh the carry on at the check-in counter (it was over the carry-on weight limit), but some sweet talking and shuffling of items got me through that ordeal.

The desire to not check in bags and only travel with the Aeronaut and one small carry on has made me a better packer, and has saved me tons of time in airports.

I would even argue that it has saved me some money as I’m less likely to buy random trinkets on my travels as I know they’ll just become extra luggage that I’ll need to carry back. I have gotten into the habit of packing a super thin Samsonite collapsable foldable duffel bag that I’ll take out and use to check excess stuff on my return trip if it comes to that.

When I pack the Aeronaut for a work trip I’m usually set up like this:

  • Two to three work shirts and slacks in the packing cube backpack which goes in the main compartment,
  • Work shoes in a side compartment,
  • Underwear and socks in the other side compartment,
  • A few t-shirts where they can fit,
  • Toiletries and electronics chargers and adapters go in separate sides of the Snake Charmer and that goes in the main compartment,
  • Side pockets for passports, flight itineraries, and schedules.

If I need a blazer I’ll try to wear it on the plane with my casual outfit to prevent wrinkling. If I’ll need a suit, I try to wear the suit on the outbound trip and smash it back into the main compartment on the return trip.

When I pack for leisure travel it’s basically the same, but the nature of casual clothes means I can be more flexible in how I sort my stuff — it’s much easier. If I bring an extra pair of sandals for the beach I’ll put those in one of the side compartments.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut cozy in a Japanese inn.
Tom Bihn Aeronaut cozy in a Japanese inn. (2014)

Here are some of the reasons why I like this bag so much:

The soft shell of the bag allows it to easily slide into most airplane overhead compartments, especially if the main bag compartment isn’t stuffed too full.

The bag hardware is top notch — I’ve never had a broken zipper. The bag material has hardly shown any wear and tear. The straps are still solidly attached.

It looks presentable enough (even after 6+ years) that I do not hesitate to bring it into the office or other work situations when I am traveling. I do not feel like I need a more formal looking travel bag. And this one is green! It would be even more passable in black.

The Packing Cube backpack has been great. I put my clothes inside of it when I’m traveling, and after I arrive at my destination it becomes a very simple day bag, shopping bag, or beach bag. The Dyneema material is ultralight, and like all of my Tom Bihn products, I’ve never had any problems with the hardware, even after seven years of use.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut fits into a Japanese coin locker.
Tom Bihn Aeronaut fits right into a small Japanese coin locker. (2014)

Things to know:

When the Aeronaut bag is full, it can be very heavy. Probably too heavy to carry using just the shoulder strap for long periods of time. Luckily it converts into a backpack. Also, let’s learn to pack lighter.

I strongly recommend buying the packing cubes for the side compartments. I can’t imagine using this bag without them.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut (purchased 2013)
Aeronaut, Packing Cube Backpack, Snake Charmer

The design of the bag has changed slightly since 2013, check the website link below for details on how the new model is laid out.

Here’s what my nearly empty bag looks like today.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut (purchased 2013)
Tom Bihn Aeronaut (Purchased 2013)

That’s all for now. Maybe I’ll do a future post detailing my packing strategies and travel tips with this bag. What else would you like to know? Until then, check it out, it might be fun!

Links:

Mid-day Visit to Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto on a Weekday

On Thursday, March 12, I went to Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto just before lunch to see if I could enjoy a day there without crowds. Fushimi Inari has become one of the most crowded tourist destinations in Kyoto so the thought of a visit off peak season was appealing. I expected crowds to be low because it was a weekday, and also, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fushimi Inari Station
Fushimi Inari Station at around 11 am on Thursday morning March 12, 2020.

Fushimi Inari was certainly less crowded than usual, but there were definitely lots of tourists there. I wouldn’t recommend planning a trip anywhere with large crowds while the danger of Corona Virus is an issue, but if you’re already on your way to Japan and committed to going anyway this is what to expect.

Fushimi Inari Shopping Street
The shopping area near the station. Still tourists, but not crazy crowded.

I did see a couple of tour groups, including one with a tour guide with a lead flag and everything. The ten plus seemingly western tourists were all wearing the same style mask, which makes me think that the tour company provided them. Otherwise I noticed the usual groups of tourists, with the notable absence of Mandarin-speaking groups.

We arrived at Fushimi Inari station at about 11am, had lunch at a nice western cafe called Vermillion, and then started our way up Mt. Inari. I was with an elementary school kid and we made it to the top at at about 1:15 pm. After a bit of wandering and shopping we were ready to leave and at the train station at about 2:30 pm. So, If you’ve got 3-4 hours you can easily make it to the top of the mountain and back.

Fushimi Inari Torii Gates
Not exactly a empty… Though it did thin out the higher we got up the mountain.
Fushimi Inari Torii Gates
Midway up it was pretty easy to keep some distance between the next group of tourists.
Fushimi Inari Torii Gates
I was able to get some shots with no people around, but not near the bottom of the mountain.

If you’re thinking about traveling to Japan sometime soon and are wondering how the Corona Virus (COVID-19) or other local circumstances might affect your trip, I recommend checking out the following websites for information:

Fushimi Inari Fox Statue
One of the many fox statues at Fushimi Inari
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Imakumano Kannonji Temple in Kyoto

I decided to visit Imakumano Kannonji after looking for a place in Kyoto that wouldn’t be crowded with tourists. Imakumano delivered. There was hardly anyone around when we visited in February 2020, perhaps the Corona Virus had something to do with it, but it is so out of the way I expect that it never sees large crowds. The site is large and it’s a good walk to see everything if you don’t use a taxi. A great site to visit on a good-weather day when you want to avoid the crowds but still see something special.

The complex is large and there are several sites to visit. One of them is Kaikoji Temple.

The largest standing wooden Buddha statue is located in Kaiko-ji Temple, which is on the way to Imakumano, and is worth the visit. At 5.4 meters tall, it was quite impressive. Photos of the inside are not allowed so you’ll have to take my word for it. They also have an audio presentation that will explain the site in English.

Kaikoji Temple Explanation

This is probably not the most efficient trip plan, but we visited Imakumanoji Kannonji after a visit to Sanjusangendo. It was about a 20 minute walk from one site to the the other and we stopped for lunch in between. I was with an elementary school kid who can only enjoy about two cultural sites a day, so this was our original plan.

Walk from Sanjusangendo to Imakumano Kannonji Temple, click for Google Maps Link
Imakumano Kannon near Kaikoji Temple
Near Kaikoji Temple
Imakumano Kannonji Entrance
After a long walk you can find the entrance to Imakumano Kannonji
Imakumano Kannon
The most photographed vantage point of the main building.
Imakumano Kannonji

I’m sure this area is even more beautiful in the fall when the leaves have changed.

If you’re looking for a Kyoto site to visit that is somewhat off the beaten path, consider a visit!

Links:

Imakumano Kannonji Temple – This YouTube video will give you an idea of the site

Amanohashidate

In 2004 I took a trip to Amanohashidate (天橋立) with some friends. Amanohashidate is in Kyoto. It is considered one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. The big three “scenic spots” in Japan or, “Nihon Sankei”(日本三景) are, Matsushima (松島)in Sendai, Itsukushima or Miyajima (厳島) in Hiroshima, and here, Amanohashidate.

Amanohashidate Welcome Sign

I asked a Japanese friend if he really thought it was one of the most beautiful places in Japan, and he could only shrug. I thought it was pretty nice… I have also been to Miyajima, which is also interesting with the Torii gate in the water.

Amanohashidate Sunrise
Amanohashidate Sunrise

We started our trip from Osaka extremely early, leaving in the middle of the night and driving all the way there. We arrived in time to see the sunrise.

This area is most famous for the view you can get of the land bridge while looking between your legs in a bent-over rear-in-the-air fashion… Check the picture.

People come from far and wide to bend over backwards from the specially designated view points to get a glimpse of this land bridge upside down. A friend of mine even turned her 2004 cell phone upside down and took a picture. (You could take the picture regularly and show your friends the phone upside down right??) Anyway… Not to be outdone… Behold.

Amanohashidate Upsidedown
Amanohashidate Through the Legs

This bending over backwards is called “matanozoki”. “Mata” 股 meaning “thigh” or… “crotch”, and “nozoki” meaning look. You can even buy some Matanozoki goods if you feel like it…

Amanohashidate Poster 2004

Go visit! It might be fun!

Naoshima, Japan’s Art Island

If you’ve been to Japan a few times and are looking for a new destination, or if you’re just way into art and handmade items, I highly recommend Naoshima, sometimes referred to as Japan’s art island.

I went to Naoshima in 2005. Looking back at my notes from that visit, I notice that I wrote that the entire island had only one cafe, called Cafe Maruya. It looks like Cafe Maruya’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2012.

I’m sure there are literally dozens of cafe’s on Naoshima now. Dozens!

If you plan to visit Naoshima, I’d recommend at least staying for two days. There’s a lot to see and it’s a long trip.

Here’s a solid Naoshima video from Nov 2019.

Here’s some photos I took during my 2005 visit to Naoshima.

Naoshima Art 2005 Pumpkin 2
One of the famous Naoshima Pumpkins
Naoshima Art 2005 Pumpkin 4
Naoshima Art 2005 3
An art installation on Naoshima in 2005
Naoshima Art 2005 2
An art installation on Naoshima in 2005 (Looks like ice stairs.)
Naoshima Port 2005
Naoshima 2005 (Probably the main harbor.)

If you’ve been to Naoshima recently, I would love to hear how things have changed!

How to get to Naoshima:
https://www.jrailpass.com/blog/naoshima-travel-guide

TripAdvisor:
https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g1121428-d1397411-Reviews-Naoshima-Naoshima_cho_Kagawa_gun_Kagawa_Prefecture_Shikoku.html

Sunamushi Onsen in Kagoshima Prefecture

In Kagoshima (and maybe other places as well) you’ll find Sunamushi Onsens. So what are sunamushi onsen? First, let’s review regular onsen. As you probably know, regular onsens are hot springs where you get naked and step into a naturally hot bath with a bunch of other naked folk, usually of the same gender. Or, if you’re lucky, you can get a private room and get in with only your girlfriend. 貸し切り!Sunamushi Onsen is similar, except there is no water, you don’t get naked, it’s not especially fun if you get in with your girlfriend, and it’s not exactly “hot” — more like, toasty. Read the warning signs!

Sunamushi in Kagoshima
About to be buried neck high in hot sand.

You change into a simple yukata and no underwear before getting into to the sand pit. Once you’re ready, the ladies working at the location will dig you a shallow grave. Then you climb in, and they proceed to shovel sand all over your body, except your face.

At first the feeling of being buried by a buncha people with shovels freaked me out. But, I think that only happens to me. Once you are buried, you realize first that sand is heavy. Then you’ll notice that this sand is hot! The most popular place to have this wonderful experience is in Ibusuki.

Kagoshima is also famous for Sakurajima, a volcano… Basically right in the middle of the city. This volcano is still active, and as recently as the 1980s the city was covered in ash most of the time because of it’s frequent spurts. The region is active so it has many natural onsen, and thus, this really hot sand.

I did this way back in 2005. It felt great!

Ibusuki Poster found in 2005