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Kisaichi in Osaka – Hike to Kurondo Pond

If you’re looking for a low-key place to get some nature in the Osaka area you might consider a visit to Kisaichi to hike up to Kurondo Pond. The hike from Kisaichi Station to Kurondo Pond is about 1.5 hours. I hiked it with a seven year old and it took about 2 hours each way.

Kurondo Lake
Kurondo Lake (pond?) your destination

To get to the place we started at Kisaichi station, you can take the Keihan Line from Hirakata.

Getting to Kisaichi
Hirakata to Kisaichi, 210 yen (2020)

Once you get going you’ll find many helpful signs pointing the way to the pond, and others pointing the way back to the station. It’s easy to find your way even if you do not read Japanese. Just in case, Kurondo Pond is written くろんど池。

Signs to Kurondo Lake
Many of the signs are written in English
Trail to Kurondo Lake
Part of the trail between Kisaichi and Kurondo Pond

The hike itself was great. It’s got some hills, some stairs, and you’re often near water. It’s got a bit of gravel road, some dirt paths, and sometimes you’ll be climbing over rocks and stepping around tree roots. To be honest, I did the hike in flat Adidas because that’s all I had, but I saw many Japanese in hiking gear with backpacks and poles. I should add that my seven year old indoor kid made it and only complained four of five times, so it’s not actually that demanding — though you will be tired at the end. If you’re prone to get the munchies, pack a snack and bring some water.

We went in early summer and saw a ton of neat bugs. Caterpillars?

Insect near Kisaichi
Bugs! I guess it’s a caterpillar. There were a lot of them.

When you finally make it to Kurondo Pond you’ll find a few restaurants, and of course the pond.

Kurondo Lake
Kurondo Pond!

You can pay to ride a row boat or one of those pedal-driven swan boats. Many families with kids and couples are often out on the pond enjoying the peaceful waters. You can also buy some fish food and feed the large koi that hang out near the pier.

Koi in Kurondo Lake
Koi in Kurondo Pond

One protip. One shop near the pond sells honey collected locally from Ikoma in Nara. At time of writing it was 2000 yen per bottle, so it’s not cheap, but it is delicious. You can also buy this Ikoma honey online.

Ikoma Honey
Delicious honey collected in Ikoma

There is actually a very famous suspension bridge called Hoshi no Buranko in the area that is the reason that most people visit Kisaichi. However, when we visited it was still closed due to coronavirus concerns. We’ll have to get there next time! A local helpfully pointed us to Kurondo Pond upon learning that we were disappointed that the bridge was closed.

Map of Kisaichi Area

Get out there and get some fresh air! Might be fun!

River near Kisaichi

Some relevant links!

Kansai Scene: https://www.kansaiscene.com/2014/08/relax-refresh-explore/

Kurondo Area Website: http://kurondoso.jp/

Hoshi no Buranko: http://osaka-midori.jp/mori/hoshida/hoshinoburanko.html

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Gion Festival in Kyoto circa 2005

Summer 2005, I went to Gion Festival 祇園祭り in Kyoto.

Gion Matsuri 2005

Gion is one of the largest festivals held in Kansai. It is one of the three largest and most important festivals in Japan. Normally held in July, it is a treasured annual event that completely consumes all activity in downtown Kyoto.

Some Japanese phrases to describe Gion Matsuri could be…

人だらけ。 “hito darake” “nothing but freakin people everywhere”
満員電車状態。 “manindensha jyoutai” “freakin’ like a rush-hour train”
めっちゃ暑いねん。”meccya atsuinen” “It’s freakin’ hot”

I joke, it’s an amazing experience and if possible, I would recommend everyone at try to attend once if you can manage.

Gion Matsuri 2005 - A crowded float
Gion Festival 2005

Giant two-story, two-ton floats carrying dozens of people in festival wear are wheeled around the streets — manually dragged by what must be 40 men. At one of the most exciting moments of the festival they heave the float to turn their fixed-axel heavy wooden wheels across the pavement. It is truly a sight to see!

Gion Matsuri 2005 - float full view

They even float by McDonalds… For an… Ice Cream Float. [joke.]

Gion Matsuri 2005 rolls by McDonalds
Gion Festival 2005 – Floating by McDonalds

Visit Kyoto in the summer and check out Gion Festival if you can! More details can be found at Yasaka Shrine’s official site.

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Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka

I finally made it to Sumiyoshi Taisha after years of visiting Osaka. It was never on my radar as it’s a bit out of the way from the city center, but now that I’ve been there I wish I had gone sooner.

A friend of mine recently moved to the Sumiyoshi Taisha neighborhood, which was my excuse for finally visiting.

Sumiyoshi Taisha is the main shrine of all the Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. On new years and during festivals the shrine attracts huge crowds. I would love to check it out at that time some day.

There is an iconic taiko bashi bridge that is steep and round. Taiko is Japanese for a round Japanese-style drum, and the bridge is shaped like that, hence the name. The bridge is one of the most memorable locations on the grounds. Grab a photo.

住吉大社 : GFDL,Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.1 Japan License
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
The grounds are quite large and spacious. Great place to take a walk or wander around.
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Omamori at Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Omamori (Good luck charms) left at the temple for luck
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka

The legend behind the good luck omamori here is unique. You try to find power stones yourself from inside of this stone fence. The stones actually have characters written on them in calligraphy ink. Once you have found a set of three stones with the characters 5 五, large 大, and power 力 (godairiki) written on them, you can bring them and purchase the omamori sack to put them in. Then you hang it up for good luck. Finally, you’re supposed to then write characters on stones yourself, and toss them back in for others to find. Pay it forward!

Sumiyoshi Taisha is on the way to Kansai International Airport. Maybe you can swing by as a last stop on a visit to the Kansai area! Enjoy!

Links:

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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