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!

Taiwan: Jiufen and Keelung

While I was out on my own in Taipei, my friend contacted and let me know that a friend of his wanted to show us around Jiufen and Keelung.  This was great news because Jiufen was my top destination for this trip but I was a little concerned about getting around since it’s out in the mountains and I wasn’t too sure how to get there.

We met with Chi early in the morning the next day and took a bus to Jiufen.  I was a little worried because the weather was showing that it was going to rain the entire day.  Chi reassured me though that it almost always rains in Jiufen and it’s “not really as bad as you think”.  She was right, despite the rain, it wasn’t too bad so I wouldn’t let that stop you if wanted to go there.

Our first stop was the Gold Museum. Other than being known for being an inspired location from “Spirited Away”, Jiufen was known to be a gold mining city back in the day.  The museum itself was pretty interesting and had a lot of cool displays.

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A preview of what’s to come.

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The designs in the museum were really nice.

When we got out, it had begun to rain again.  However, I didn’t mind it because the clouds and mist the rain brought out gave Jiufen a mysterious atmosphere.  By the time we got to the top of the area, it gave this feeling that we were above the clouds, in some mysterious land surrounded by mountains.  I took tons of photos, the ever-changing clouds made it feel like I was in a new area every time.

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Jiufen is also well-known for its teahouses.  While it was a little expensive, I felt that chatting and drinking tea while looking at the great view from the window would be a great way to pass the time.  It was worth every penny; just relaxing and watching the sky has become one of my favorite travel memories.

Wee, teahouses.

Wee, teahouses.

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After we rested, we checked out the rest of Jiufen, which is an area that has lots of tiny knickknack shops, souvenirs and food.  It’s pretty crowded so you will be fighting crowds trying to get in to places.   If you like shopping and eating, you will enjoy it here but I was pretty much done after eating a few things to eat.  There is a lot of stuff but I hate being in crowded places.

Finally we decided to head to Keelung.  We were supposed to go to another area but because we had relaxed in Jiufen for so long, we wouldn’t have enough time .  I didn’t mind.  We continued our day by visiting the famous Keelung market and getting bullied by Chi and her friend to eat some stinky tofu, a local delicacy.  Honestly, it tasted normal and because my nose is usually stuffy, the smell wasn’t bothering me much.  Needless to say, the two were bored at my reaction.

Keelung night market.

Keelung night market.

The port is nice too.

The port is nice too.

After hanging around and eating, it was time to head back to Taipei.  We finally parted ways with Chi and I was a little sad; she was great to hang around with and was very helpful in showing us places most people wouldn’t be aware of.  Taiwanese people are so friendly!  I could see what my friends who had visited Taiwan before were talking about after today.

Jiufen was definitely the highlight of my trip to Taiwan.  Although it is crowded and will probably take you most of the day to explore, it is worth it.  Don’t let the rain drive you away either.

Thanks for a great trip guys!

Thanks for a great trip guys!

Taiwan: Taipei

Winter break was one of the rare moments where I was actually on break. Because of grad school, even though I might get some time off of work, grad school classes will still be in session, leaving me to study throughout the days.  Last winter break though, I was completely free from both work and school.  As usual, a lot of people left the country, leaving me wondering what to do.  Remembering that my friend invited me to let him stay with him in Taiwan whenever, I quickly planned a trip to Taiwan.

I flew into Taipei on New Year’s Eve.  I was a little nervous at first because A) this was my first international trip alone and B) I was meeting my friend at his house, which meant I had to travel for 1.5 hours relying on just myself.  Getting to his place was surprisingly smooth though, and the train staff was extremely helpful.

As soon as I met up with my friend, we were off to see the festivities in Taipei.  Taipei 101, the country’s famed skyscraper/observation tower has fireworks launching from the top when the New Year rolls in.  My friend suggested that we watch it from a local park due to it the amount of people that would be in the building’s area.  The park itself was interesting—people were grilling and launching their own fireworks while there was an outside event which basically was a club under a bridge.  I chatted with a lot of Taiwanese people and random people throughout the night.  It’s been awhile since I encountered people who were so friendly and outgoing.  This was to be a reoccurring theme throughout the trip.

The following day I suggested we go to Elephant Mountain, a “mountain” (but really, just a long set of stairs) that is right outside Taipei 101 and gives a view of the entire city.  While walked towards the mountain, I couldn’t help but enjoy the spring-like weather in December as well as the palm trees scattered throughout the parks.  I don’t know why, but it reminded me a lot of Peru, my home country.

The climb itself wasn’t too hard, just time-consuming and crowded.  We headed up around sunset to get the best view.  It was the right decision.  I could’ve been up there forever.

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Afterwards my friend showed me the various night markets around the city.  Night markets were definitely one of my favorite moments of the trip.  There is just an abundance of different kinds of food everywhere and it’s cheap.  We ate there just about every evening.  One of my favorites was chunks of blowtorched meat.

During the trip I had a day to myself.  I basically went to all the famous spots in Taipei.  Getting around is really easy because of their awesome subway system.  Also, every station has free Wi-Fi and charging stations.  Stuff like this really blew my mind because even though I was on my own, it was really easy to navigate around thanks to these things.

One of my first stops was The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.  Apparently every hour there is a changing of the guard which is very detailed to the point.  I stuck around to take a video:

 

Outside was nice too:

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A closeup of the statue.

I caught some other landmarks along the way:

Temples here are really beautiful.

Temples here are really beautiful.

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While I was walking by, I noticed there was another ceremony of raising the flag down so I stopped by to have a look:

Next time I’ll talk about my unforgettable visit to Jiufen.

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!