Shimanami Kaido: Day One

I haven’t posted about my final months in Japan mainly because of a combination of finishing grad school, getting a new job, and being lazy.  However, even after all this time, I want to record all of my fondest memories in the country (that is mainly why this blog was created). So let’s start catching up.

It’s been a year since I went on the Shimanami Kaido and I still think about that journey every once in awhile.  For those who are unaware, the Shimanami Kaido is a 70 km cycling path connecting the islands of Shikoku and the mainland Honshu through bridges.  The path itself has a designated cycling route the entire way so you won’t be fighting with cars as you traverse the roads; the route are also labeled properly (with a big blue line o) so it’s basically impossible getting lost as long as you are following it.  Since you are island-hopping with bikes, the sea will always be in your view, presenting wonderful scenery throughout the entire way.  I was really hesitant based on the length of the ride but it was my final year in Japan and I wanted to do at least one more adventure before heading back.  I convinced my friend who was visiting at the time to go and another friend who had done only a portion of it to go during the spring, the most ideal time to go.  Instead of choosing to do the entire route in a day, we opted to do it in two since we weren’t the most athletic bunch.

There are a couple of places one can start the Shimanami Kaido, mainly Onomichi (the Honshuu side) or Imabari (the Shikoku side).  Since we were coming from the east, it made sense to start from Onomichi and once we were done, hitch a bus back to our starting point.  We arrived in Onomichi at night by train and ate a nice meal at a local restaurant and slept early to start our first day.  The weather was looking cloudy with a chance to rain so we wanted to make sure we would get there before it started.

Luckily the rain had stopped by the time we had gotten our bikes and were waiting for the ferry to take us to the first island.  Another advantage of Onomichi is that the bike rental area is right where you begin the path.  There are a variety of bikes available but the cheapest one would be the mamachari bicicyle.  Mamacharis are essentially the station wagon of bikes that you see many people in Japan use in their everyday life.  Good for running errands and maybe a small grocery trip but for a 70 km ride?  Maybe not the greatest choice.  However, they come with a decent-sized basket on the front and knowing my back would be dead if I had my backpack on me the entire trip, I went with it.

My mamachari bike for the trip. I remember when I showed this to my students they gave me a “Really?” look.

After we got our bikes, we were on our way.  Our goal for the day was to reach Setoda, which was almost the halfway point of the journey. The forecast was rain in the late afternoon so we needed to get there before then.

The map layout you are presented with on the way out.

Checking the port out while we wait for the ferry.

Even though it was a cloudy day out, the ride was so scenic and gorgeous.  Just having the sea by your side the entire way and watching the small towns, boats, and bridges pass by made the trip really enjoyable.

In terms of difficulty, I would say it wasn’t too bad until you would approach a bridge to cross to the next island.  The Shiminami Kaido has you cross over six bridges throughout your time there and while crossing the bridge itself is a fun experience, getting up there is a pain in the ass.  To get onto most bridges, one has to go up some heavily inclined roads that include a lot of hairpins.  For the inexperienced cycler (aka us), this kills your legs and really wears you out.  It’s not recommended to get off because it’s even harder to start pedaling from scratch.  Of course, if you got a decent bike with a lot of gears, you can get through it.

Right after going up some slopes.

Under the bridge, in a specialized cycling road.

Crossing the bridge was always the fun part of the trip.

Throughout our ride, we had to take various pit stops just to take a break, refuel on water or grab a snack.  Luckily, Japan always seems to have a convenience store nearby so finding one was never an issue.  My advice is to bring lots of water, as you’ll need to hydrate yourself a lot while you cycle.  Also, make sure you pack as light as you can!  While the mamachari wasn’t the greatest ride in the world, I was able to stuff my backpack in the front which made my life a lot easier.  I just packed the bare minimum: change of clothes, snacks and water, camera, a charger and my 3DS.

After crossing several bridges, we were getting a bit tired.  We had finally hit Setoda though!  We heard there was a nice ice cream stop called Setoda Dolce before reaching our inn so we made sure to stop by and get some rest and delicious ice cream before heading out.  It was totally worth it.

Delicious.

Gotta beat that rain…

On the way to the inn, the rain had finally begun.  Luckily, it didn’t take too long to get to our destination after getting our ice cream.  We decided to dry everything off and just relax until we went out to go look for some lunch.  Unfortunately the rain was pretty bad at this point so we couldn’t’ wander around too much unless you wanted to get soaked.  The weather basically grounded us for the entire day and the small town closed everything fairly early.  In the end, we simply cycled back to the last convenience store we saw for dinner and called it a night.  Cycling at night around Setoda was a bit eerie and mysterious because there were next to no street lamps, so we had to rely on the lights on our bicycles.  The other islands surrounding us appeared as black blobs and the sky was a dark purple; the only sound that accompanied the darkness was the crash of the waves hitting the island.  Cycling through this strange yet peaceful scenery struck me as one of my favorite memories of the trip.  After getting some junk food, we called it a night.  The real fun began tomorrow.

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Shikoku

In February I was invited to visit Shikoku, a small island in the south that contains four prefectures.  I haven’t explored much of Shikoku so I gladly went along.  Because another friend was planning on tagging along, we played the trip very much by ear, something I’m honestly not used to.

Our first stop was Ehime Prefecture.  We went there because Peach (a very cheap airline) had flights in the area. Ehime is famous for their mikans, one of my favorite fruits in Japan.  It’s so well known that one of their mascots is Michan, a bear that looks like a mikan. Like most prefectural mascots, he was plastered everywhere.

A cute little mascot if I say so myself.

A cute little mascot if I say so myself.

Our first day in Ehime involved biking around and visiting Matsuyama Castle.  I forgot how much I enjoyed riding a bike around places.

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Visiting castles never gets old.

Next up was Dogo Onsen.  The bathhouse in Spirited Away  was based on it; it’s sort of funny that I have been visiting sites related to that movie accidentally.  I’m not a big onsen person but I enjoyed my time there. I guess that says something for a hot springs that has been around for over 1000 years.

Dogo Onsen.

Dogo Onsen.

Kitty visiting a shrine area.

Kitty visiting a shrine area.

This had just about every local delicacy in Ehime.

This had just about every local delicacy in Ehime.

After a nice dip in the onsen and eating some of the delicacies, I had to head back early because I still had grad school stuff to do.  One thing I have had to get used to is balancing traveling and homework, something that I will be doing until I leave the country. :\ Our friend was still up in the air so rather than just waiting for him, we decided to go to Kochi for our last day and a half.

The next day was pretty mediocre, due to the unforgiving weather.  We took a bus to Kochi because it was cheaper and more reliable than trains.  Oddly enough, Shikoku isn’t very friendly towards trains and you are better off taking the local public transportation there.  When we arrived to Kochi, it was downpouring.  Getting to the hotel in itself was a trek.  After dropping our stuff off, we checked out Kochi Castle.  The rain had stopped a little by then and I was hoping it would last.

Here we go...

Here we go…

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I was wrong though.  After getting out of Kochi Castle, the downpour continued.  By the time we got to dining area, I was completely soaked.  This killed my mood a lot so we decided to kill time and grabbed some dinner.  There are various restaurants but I highly recommend checking out the Hirome Ichiba, a market/dining area rolled up into one.  It’s basically a giant food court with many food stalls and restaurants that also has markets selling all sorts of ingredients.  When it comes to seating though, for most places you just have to grab what you ordered and try to find a place to sit. As a result, the atmosphere was cozy.  The Kochi locals were very friendly and we ended up chatting with a few of them.  My favorite dish in Kochi ended up be katsuo tataki.  I could’ve eaten that all day.

Hirome Ichiba, was a great dining experience.  Note: I took this the next day, hence the sun.

Hirome Ichiba, was a great dining experience. Note: I took this the next day, hence the sun.

Inside.  Finding a seat can be rough.

Inside. Finding a seat can be rough.

Katsuo tataki was amazing.

Katsuo tataki was amazing.

 

Despite killing a lot of time, it was still pouring heavily.  After stopping for a drink at a bar, I decided to call it quits (I was tired of being in soaked clothes for half a day) and head back while my friend continued his evening.  I ended up blow-drying my clothes and finishing up more grad school homework until it was time to crash.

Our last day in Kochi was greeted by excellent weather.  Even though it was February, it felt like spring.  Because it was Sunday, we decided to check out the farmer’s market by the city.  Every Sunday there is a huge farmer’s market that spans several blocks and contains at least a hundred stalls.

The farmer's market.

The farmer’s market.

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One thing I noticed was that these stalls were very family-oriented.  Almost every one of them had a high school/junior high school student helping out their parents, which I thought was very cool.  A couple of high school girls even stopped us and tried their best to pitch their wares to us in English.  It was cute.

After visiting the farmer’s market, we had time to visit the Chikurin-ji Temple, one of the temples included in the 88 temple pilgrimage.  It was a lovely temple, I had memories of Mt. Koya while I was walking around it.

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By the temple was a great overview of the city as well.

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Unfortunately we had to head back early because our plane was flying out of Ehime Prefecutre, a 2-hour bus ride away!  We finally met our friend who had just arrived to Ehime when we returned.  A very laid-back hostel owner, he shrugged off missing us and was planning on staying a few days later than us.  He told us the very least he could do was drop us off at the airport.  I was a little bummed out that he couldn’t come with because I could tell he was a cool guy just by the short conversation we had on the ride over there.

Although the time was short, I enjoyed Shikoku and wish I had more time to explore more stuff.   Even with the crappy weather in the middle of it, it was a nice little mini trip.  I need to see as much as I can of Japan before I leave!

Soni Kogen

As usual, grad school has been consuming my life so I haven’t had much time to update this recently.  Don’t worry though, I have plenty of things to write about which I plan to post whenever I have free time.  Things like this!

Last November I decided to go to Soni Kogen with a friend.  Soni Kogen is a huge field in Nara filled with pampas grass surrounded by hills and mountains.  Late fall is the time to visit it due to the pampas grass being out in full force.

Getting there is a big pain though if you don’t drive.  If you are in that situation, I recommend getting up as early as possible and making your way to the station because there are about only 2 or 3 buses that go to the fields in a day. So basically if you miss the bus, you are going to be waiting a long time for the next one.  Not to mention the last bus back is around 4!

We got there really early so we had plenty of time to walk around the fields and climb some hills.  It was cloudy but really beautiful.  If you are a sucker for scenery, I’d recommend it!

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Karatsu and the Karatsu Kunichi

I would’ve posted this earlier but my computer has been crapping out on me.  Somehow, it’s alive again but who knows when it’ll die (for real) next time?  Needless to say, I have been backing stuff up first then worrying about blogging later. Anyways.

After watching the morning races in the Saga International Balloon Festival (SIBF), we headed to Karatsu.  Karatsu is a small town in Saga that is famous for its yearly danjiri-like event called the Karatsu Kunichi.  Children and adults carry floats throughout the day and night while there are festival activities around the area.  This festival runs around the same time as the SIBF so were able to catch both.

The commute to Karatsu was nice and peaceful.

The commute to Karatsu was nice and peaceful.

We were lucky in that the festival was just starting when we arrived at the station so we managed to get good spots to see the entire run.

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Afterwards we wandered around Karatsu and visited Karatsu Castle.  For such an unknown castle, it was really nice!  It was right by the sea too which gave a wonderful view from the top.

Karatsu Castle.

Karatsu Castle.

The view from the top is really nice.

The view from the top is really nice.

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If you’re ever in Saga around the SIBF, try to stop by in Karatsu. It’s a nice little town with a great festival.

The Saga International Balloon Fiesta

The day after Halloween, my friend and I headed to Kyushu, the southern region of Japan.  Our destination was Saga, a prefecture that is not really known for much.  However, there was one annual event that Saga was famous for—the International Balloon Fiesta.   The festival celebrates hot air balloons by having races with participating countries from all over the world as well as featuring other activities.

Fun fact:  Reading this chapter of Yotsuba&! Inspired me to look for this event.

Fun fact:  Reading this chapter of Yotsuba&! Inspired me to look for this event.

The International Balloon Fiesta (aka SIBF) is held every year for a few days around Halloween until early November.  I wanted to go ever since I heard about it but Halloween had always prevented me from trying.  However, this being my final year in Japan, I had to check it out before I left the country.

We decided to stay in Fukuoka, which was a little over an hour away from Saga.  Apparently Saga does not have many hotel opportunities as well as activities but Fukuoka was another matter.   Plus my friend knew a local from there which was happy to show us great restaurants around the area.  How could I refuse?  Talking to his friend was amusing because she was a former Osakan elementary school teacher and hearing how different Fukuoka students were from Osaka (mainly being super polite and not blunt) amazed me.  Thanks to her we had a great first evening.

Yatais, or food stands, are night-exclusive, mobile eateries that offer delicious food.

Yatais, or food stands, are night-exclusive, mobile eateries that offer delicious food.

Fukuoka has a great park.  Wandering around during sundown was actually one of the best parts of the trip there.

Fukuoka has a great park. Wandering around during sundown was actually one of the best parts of the trip there.

 

 There is also great ramen in the area.  Fukuoka is famous for its tonkotsu ramen.

There is also great ramen in the area.  Fukuoka is famous for its tonkotsu ramen.

The following day we decided to take it easy and head to the SIBF in the afternoon to check out the races.  It was a beautiful day out but a little windy.  This would later bite us in the ass.  The grounds were similar to a summer festival, complete with food stands, games and even a bazaar of some type.

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Viewing grounds.

Viewing grounds.

Finally it was time for the race to start.  Unfortunately, the wind wasn’t letting up which led the races to be cancelled, leaving us only one more opportunity to see it before we went back to Osaka.  What time was that exactly?  The next morning, at around 7:45 AM.  Because Saga was an hour and a half away from Fukuoka, that meant we had to get up at around 5:30 and be out the door by 6ish.  I wasn’t looking forward to it but at least the first day at the SIBF wasn’t a bust.  We caught the balloon light-up show at night, which was a fun watch.  As soon as it ended we quickly headed back to Fukuoka to prepare for the long day tomorrow.

Night show.  The announcer kept commanding everyone to light up the balloons with " Burners…ooon!"

Night show. The announcer kept commanding everyone to light up the balloons with ” Burners…ooon!”

It really felt magical when I stepped out of the train and was welcomed by tons of hot air balloons flying in the air, next to the rising sun.  The pictures I took have nothing on what it was like in real life.  All the hype I had created in my mind and the pains it took to get there so early were completely worth it.

As soon as I saw balloons from the train, I started snapping photos.

As soon as I saw balloons from the train, I started snapping photos.

Our early ride to the grounds.  I love me some trains.

Our early ride to the grounds. I love me some trains.

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If you like hot air balloons at all, I would highly recommend going to SIBF. Apparently they are going to extend the festival by at least a week in the near future because it’s rather common for races to get cancelled; it looks like the 2016 SIBF will run from 10/28 through 11/6!  This makes it a lot easier for those who may have a tight schedule around that time.  I really wish I could check it out again but at least I got to see it once.

My trip wasn’t over yet though!  Saga had a few more interesting things to check out but that will be for another time.

Off to the next destination!

Off to the next destination!

One Last Halloween

Happy New Year!  Now let’s talk about Halloween.

2015 marked the final Halloween I would be celebrating in Osaka.  As usual, I was pretty clueless in what to be until the last minute.  I was “inspired” by seeing an amusing cosplay photo of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, aka the “ALIENS meme guy”.  It was fairly simple to do and it had the humor I liked so I went with it.

If you don’t know this meme, then you’re probably less nerdy than I am.

If you don’t know this meme, then you’re probably less nerdy than I am.

This year Halloween landed on a Saturday which meant that craziness was to be had. And boy did it.  As usual, my friends and I decided to hit up the club where a lot of my expat friends were hanging out at.  I was surprised to see the club was completely packed to the point where I could not move at all.  Because my costume had a sign that was very easy to fall off and it was extremely hot, I did not stay for very long.  Still, for the very brief time I was there, I had fun and was surprised at the amount of love I got for my outfit.  Some people were demanding pictures from me over some of my friends who had more exquisite costumes.  It was very fun to see the amount of joy I gave to people by posing for their photos.  I guess I can see why people like to cosplay.

Aliens.

Aliens.

After our brief visit to the club, we headed to Triangle Park (the place where everyone hangs out if you aren’t clubbing) was packed to the point where I thought I hadn’t changed places at all.  It was pure insanity.  It’s amazing to see Halloween’s popularity explode throughout the years I have been here.  You could barely move through anything but that still didn’t stop me from having fun. Once again, I was getting stopped every once in awhile for a photo.  The person who took the prize though was my friend who was dressed up as Buddy Jesus.  He was stopped literally every five minutes to get a photo from someone.

Buddy Jesus.

Buddy Jesus.

This was just a small fraction of the people who were actually there.

This was just a small fraction of the people who were actually there.

I spent the rest of the night in Triangle Park.   It was so packed that I kept running into new people and costumes.  Here are some photos of my favorites.

It was only fitting to run into actual aliens.

It was only fitting to run into actual aliens.

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SO MANY KIKIS.

SO MANY KIKIS.

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My favorite costume of the year.  A whole gang of people dressed up as stations from my local subway line, the Midosuji!

My favorite costume of the year. A whole gang of people dressed up as stations from my local subway line, the Midosuji!

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Ran into this crossdresser who fittingly asked my friend, “Are you the prince I have been waiting for?”

Since I was going on a trip literally the day after, I decided to book a reservation at a capsule hotel because I was going to need some sleep to function the next day.  However I didn’t want to leave early so it came down to me crashing in the city.  It was also my first experience staying at a capsule hotel and the results were interesting.  Not the most comfortable place in the world but because it’s so cheap, I couldn’t complain.  Plus staying in a capsule hotel was something I had to do before I left Japan!

My capsule.  After staying out until 3 AM or so, it felt great to sleep on

My capsule.  After staying out until 3 AM or so, it felt great to sleep on

The layout was quite interesting.

The layout was quite interesting.

I would say I am pretty satisfied with my final Halloween in Japan.  I’m definitely going to miss it and I don’t think I’m really going to celebrate it to the levels people do it here.  It’s just not the same back home.  Maybe if I’m lucky, I will be able to experience it again sometime in the future.

Our last Halloween group photo of my close friends.  It’s crazy to believe that after five years, we will be out going our separate ways in the summer.

Our last Halloween group photo of my close friends.  It’s crazy to believe that after five years, we will be out going our separate ways in the summer.

Silver Week: Naoshima

A couple days after my trip to Mt. Rokko, I planned my day trip to Naoshima.  Naoshima is an island famous for its art museums and outdoor exhibitions in Kagawa Prefecture, which is quite a ways away from Osaka. Using the Shinkansen, it takes about a couple of hours to get there from my place but I opted not to use it because I figured as long as I wake up super early, I could get there for cheaper.  As a result, it took me a whopping 4 hours to reach Naoshima, so I ended up getting there around 11:30.  I didn’t mind the time it took because I love riding the train, especially when I’m traveling.  There’s just this feeling of freedom and enjoying the unique scenery each area has as you gaze out the window.

As weird as it sounds, riding the train is one of my favorite parts when it comes to traveling.

As weird as it sounds, riding the train is one of my favorite parts when it comes to traveling.

When I finally arrived in Uno Port, I was lucky to be able to catch a ferry to Naoshima almost immediately.  The thing with Naoshima is that the ferry time is very sporadic, especially towards the evening; if you miss one time, odds are you will be waiting for awhile for the next ferry.  It’s essential to plan your trip around the ferry times if you are doing a day trip; you really can’t afford to miss one if you want to get the most out of the island.

The ferry ride itself was wonderful.  The weather was sunny and around the 80s, I couldn’t have asked for better conditions.  Feeling the sun rays while the cool sea breeze blew in our direction as we passed through several islands was something else.

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When we docked at Naoshima, I had a quick lunch and started making my way around the island.  The main things to check out in Naoshima are the Benesse Museum, the Chichu Art Museum, and the art house projects, a project in which certain houses in a neighborhood were redesigned to be an art exhibit.  All three things are spread out throughout the island so one has to plan out their route if they want to see everything.   Luckily the island itself is quite small, you can get around rather easily, especially if you are on a bike.  Otherwise, you can walk or catch a bus, but the buses don’t come as often as you would want to. The art house project caught my attention so I decided to check it out first.

In total, there are six houses that have their own art exhibit inside.  Without realizing it, I went to Minamidera first and was given a ticket and told to come at the allotted time.  This gave me about an hour to kill so I tried my best to hit all of the other places before then.

I first wandered in Kadoya, which looked like an ordinary Japanese house.  When I stepped inside though, it was completely black except for this pond inside a giant room.  In the water where a plethora of colored LED number counters going from 1 to 10 at different rates.  The work was called “Sea of Time ’98” and it ended up being my favorite place in the island.  Unfortunately, no pictures where allowed.

Unfortunately I don’t have many “art” pictures because of this but the neighborhood itself was gorgeous.

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Minamidera was strange mainly because my Japanese isn’t fluent so I could barely understand what the guide was telling us.  We were instructed that the house itself was pitch black so we had to cling onto the walls and make our way into a giant room.  I ended up getting lost until the tour guide annoyingly dragged me back into the line.  Geez, sorry man.

Anyways, we were instructed to sit on the benches provided in the room.  Keep in mind it is completely dark inside, so it felt very strange, I almost felt like I had died if the others weren’t talking to each other.  After a few minutes, a faint light in front of us appeared.  We were encouraged to walk slowly towards it and touch the space where the light was.  Here is when the tour guide said something I didn’t understand and it blew everyone’s mind.  Thanks to this blog entry, I later found out that the light was there all along, it didn’t simply magically appear. A neat trick and the message was interesting after reading the blog but at the time I was frustrated for not “getting it”.

Having to stay in one area for awhile sort of cut my schedule so I had to make a decision whether to visit the Bennesse House or the Chichu Art Museum.  I had heard good things about the former so I went with that.  The road leading to it was amazing; viewing the sea and the nature alongside it as well as the famous pumpkin designed by Yayoi Kusama was an experience in itself.  I wish I could’ve enjoyed it longer but I had to hustle.

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The famous pumpkin in the flesh.

The Benesse House turned out to be a big disappointment.  I’m sure certain art lovers love it but it has the kind of art that I really can’t relate to.  For me, it felt like the kind of stuff you would see a pair of art critics looking at a blank canvas while saying “Fascinating.”  At least the surroundings of the museum were pretty.  I flipped a coin and I had lost the toss.  Oh well.  Cutting my losses, I decided to head back towards the port and catch the ferry home.  It was already 5 PM at that point and staying any longer would result arriving back home really late.  The worst part was that even though I took the Shinkansen back to Osaka, it was Silver Week and I didn’t have a reserved ticket so I ended up standing in a crowded hallway for the entire trip back.  Note to self: do not underestimate travel seasons in Japan.

Overall, I loved the atmosphere of Naoshima.  You have to remember that despite it being an island famous for its art exhibits, it is an inhabited island so people are going on with their daily lives while a bunch of visitors are viewing the art, it’s an interesting combination.   While there were tourists, it was small enough that the place didn’t feel like a giant tourist trap.  I think that’s why I really enjoyed Naoshima in general, it wasn’t packed with people or with souvenir stores, it was just its own place.  Also the town itself is really small, traditional and laidback; I felt like I had traveled back in time.  There were no tall buildings, loud pachinko parlors or huge billboards, it was just streets filled with traditional houses.

Looking back, I would have rather stayed the night than make it a day trip–unless you plan everything perfectly, odds are you will miss something.  Plus Naoshima is a place that should enjoy at your own pace and not in a rush.  One thing is for sure is that I didn’t want to leave the beautiful island.  It was a great escape, even if it was for a short time.  I think I will have to stop by again before I leave Japan.

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The best place to relax and forget about everything, just for a little while.

The best place to relax and forget about everything, just for a little while.