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It's Snow! Looking Back on my Winter Travels

At the end of 2023 I turned 30. I didn't have an existential crisis like some of my friends, who recognize that we are not in the same position as our parents' generation when they were our age. However, I do hope that this new decade comes with lots of growth and learning. For my 30th, I had been planning on a big solo trip throughout Asia, however, things changed. In December, I let my boss know that I would not be re-contracting for a fourth year in Japan. There are several reasons behind this decision, that right now I don't feel like diving into, but one of the main reasons is related to mental health and my overall happiness. Living abroad can be wonderful for so many reasons, but it can also be terribly isolating.


With all that being said, I am making the most of my last few months here. My current contract goes through the end of July. So, for my last winter break in Japan, I decided to embark on quite an ambitious trip to mainland Japan with my partner. Of course it started out with me having a cold, him arriving to Japan with a cold, and then me getting better only to catch his cold later on. Luckily, we spent one week in Miyazaki before heading to Honshu (the mainland), which gave us some time to recover.


Before I recount the adventures we had in Honshu, I would like to start off by noting some of the experiences we had in Miyazaki. These were not mentioned in my entry about Miyazaki. My partner landed in Miyazaki in the evening of December 23rd. The next day was really the only day we were able to do some exploring in Miyazaki (because the other days we were both pretty miserable/I had work). We started by visiting Heiwadai Park. This park was built in 1939 and at the center sits "Peace Tower" which was built in 1940. It was constructed with stones that were sent from countries throughout Asia and stands at 118 feet tall. The tower has become a well-known symbol for Miyazaki Prefecture, however, there is also a lot of controversy tied to it. Many people believe that it symbolizes uniting Asia during an imperialistic era. So, even decades later, residents often still debate it's existence.

Peace Tower at Heiwadai Park

After that, we visited a few shrines. My partner and I decided to collect goshuin as a way of documenting our journey through Japan. Goshuin are seals that are given out by most well known shrines throughout Japan. The seals are often red stamps with calligraphy drawn by the priest or shrine staff. Each shrine has a different seal, there are also sometimes special seasonal stamps you can buy throughout the year.

An example of goshuin from Yutoku Inari Shrine in Saga Prefecture

The first shrine we visited was Aoshima Shrine. Aoshima Shrine is probably the most visited shrine in Miyazaki Prefecture. It gets a lot of attention because it is on a small island and has a lot of palm trees (a staple of Miyazaki prefecture). The torii gate at the front is large. It is also near the ocean and a huge rock formation creating a beautiful contrast in colors and texture, especially during sunrise and sunset. The rock formation is referred to as the "devil's washboard". It has straight layers that look like waves or a traditional washboard (which is how it got it's name). It is a famous shrine for love and marriage, because of this, many traditional Japanese weddings are held here.

Walking the Stairs Down to Udo Shrine

The next shrine we went to was Udo Shrine. The road to get to Udo Shrine is

Rabbit Statues at a Fertility Shrine

terrifying because it is so narrow. I was grateful that I was following a line of cars in (and not leading it). It was my first time visiting this shrine. Udo Shrine was built inside of a cave. On the outside of the cave, there is a rock with a hole that you can try to throw undama (small ceramic balls) into. It is believed that if you make the undama into the hole that you will receive good luck. Men have to throw with their left hand, and women with their right. It is a shrine for fertility, couples, and newlyweds.

Udo Shrine: The Shrine in a Cave

A Wild Horse in Cape Toi, Miyazaki

We also ended up driving down the rest of the coast to visit Cape Toi, which I had mentioned in my previous blog about Miyazaki Prefecture. It is an area with wild horses. By the end of the day, we had walked close to 20,000 steps. My partner was completely exhausted, especially with his cold and jetlag. It was his first glimpse into just how big our winter trip was going to be, and I believe, although excited, he was a little nervous on what was to come.

My Last KFC Christmas Dinner in Japan, 2023

The following day was Christmas. It was his worst sick day and I had to work in the morning. Regardless of these hurdles, we of course had to enjoy a traditional Japanese Christmas meal: Kentucky Fried Chicken and Christmas cake. We got the set meal which came with chicken, fries, and a shrimp pasta (which we both disliked). The set also comes with a commemorative plate. On top of the KFC, I also made some sides and got some fresh strawberries. However, both of us had small appetites so we barely ate anything. I don't even think we touched the Christmas cake before leaving on our trip to Honshu (which is such a disappoint. If you go to Japan for Christmas you absolutely have to order a Christmas cake in advance, they are soooooo good!)

Some of the Christmas Illuminations in my City

The last few days we spent in my city consisted of work, visiting a couple more places/shrines, going to some local restaurants (including the fanciest restaurant in town: SLF) and spending an evening with one of my close friends (a co-teacher at one of my Junior High Schools) and her family. She made us the most incredible spread with different types of Japanese food for my partner to try. Including Miyazaki's specialty: chicken nanban. To this day, my partner says that his favorite meal in Japan was the homemade meal we had that evening.

One of our Last Days in Miyazaki!
Robot Receptionist

Then we flew to Tokyo on December 29th. We stayed at a hotel with some robots for staff in the Asakusa area. Although it was the worst quality bed I have experienced in a Japanese hotel (which is saying a lot because most hotel beds are underwhelming in Japan), the hotel was away from all the hustle and bustle which was nice. It was also located next to a train station which was super convenient.


Our first full day there we took the shinkansen (bullet train) down to Yokohama. Can you tell I am not much of a Tokyo girlie? As soon as I get to Tokyo, I am always trying to find ways to avoid the crowds. However, December 30th was the first day of winter vacation in Japan for many workers, so that, on top of the normal level of tourists, created crowds everywhere.

Inside the Ramen Museum, Yokohama

In Yokohama we started off by visiting the Ramen Museum. Even though we stopped there first, it was still crazy busy. We did decide to wait in line to make our own ramen (which I obviously ate, but my partner took his home as a souvenir), but we couldn't be bothered to wait in line for the actual ramen shops (lines pictured above).


Just like each prefecture has a specialty dish, most prefectures have a specialty ramen. For example, Miyazaki is known for tomato ramen. The most popular ramen in Kyushu is Tonkotsu Ramen (pork based ramen) which is from Fukouka. Fukouka is especially famous for ramen because it is home to the famous ramen restaurant chain "Ichiran". Ichiran is an introverts paradise. You order on a ticket machine outside, find a secluded seat inside, then they will give you your order and close the blinds for full privacy. The first one opened in the mid sixties and has since grown to several locations around Japan as well as locations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Brooklyn, New York.

Taoist Temple in Yokohama, Kuan Ti Miao

Then we visited China Town. The China Town in Nagasaki (which I have visited twice) is the oldest one in Japan. However, the one in Yokohama is the biggest China Town in Japan and the temple is quite beautiful. But, just like the Ramen Museum, we found ourselves stuck in a massive crowd. So we ended up not doing much in the area. We began heading towards our next destination when we spotted a mini pig cafe where we could pet, hold, and feed the pigs. This was my partner's favorite part about the whole trip. He often still brings it up and the pigs absolutely loved him. He probably could've stayed in there all day.

Piglet at a Pig Café, Yokohama

Finally we made it to the big Gundam Statue. I had no idea what Gundam was when I first came to Japan. It is an anime military science fiction series. While I

Moving Gundam Statue, Yokohama

have never actually seen the series, I have collected a few action figures from the various stores around Japan. There are a couple other large Gundam Statues in Japan, but the one in Yokohama was the biggest and moved the most. This particular statue was not built to be a permanent attraction. Mainly because the cost to maintain such a large robot was too expensive. They were first set to close the attraction down March 31, 2022, but postponed it to March 31, 2023 due to COVID. Then once the borders opened back up and more domestic travel was happening it became such a popular destination that they kept it open until March 31, 2024. I am so happy I made it before it closed down permanently this year. It was fun to see and it was located in the harbor of Yokohama City which was so beautiful, especially during sunset.

Close up of the Gundam Statue

Hanging out in Diagon Alley

The following day was New Year's Eve. New Year's is the biggest holiday in Japan and during the first few days of the year most things are closed. It's hard to find anything to do for those first few days of the year. So if you are thinking of traveling to Japan in January, I would suggest going no earlier than January 3rd or 4th. With that being said, we did have plans to visit Warner Brother's The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour. For Harry Potter fans, this tour was totally worth it. It is unbelievable, and overwhelming at times, how many items they displayed from the films. Depending on what you decide to do, it could be a half a day experience. We were there for quite some time, but didn't stop to wait in line for the various activities or pictures. There is also a restaurant about midway through the tour. We did stop to get food, dessert, and of course butterbeer! Afterwards we went back to the hotel to rest so that we could both stay up until midnight, we're both getting to the point where staying up until midnight is difficult!

A replica of Hogwarts Castle and the School Grounds Inside "The Making of Harry Potter"

For our New Year's Eve event we went on a night cruise in the Tokyo Bay. I was hoping that we would be able to see fireworks all over the city when the clock struck midnight, but we ended up seeing nothing! It was still a blast. The cruise itself included dinner both nomihodai and tabehodai (all you can drink and all you can eat). Dinner included many dishes that were a mixture of Japanese food and some food geared towards foreigners. They also served soba, which is a common food eaten in the new year because it's long, thin noodles symbolize longevity. The dessert was my favorite, it was a variety of bite sized cakes. Afterwards we enjoyed the views, live band, and rang in the new year with a champagne kanpai (toast/cheers).


On January first we managed to find an eyewear store that was open. This was something that was way overdo because I was beginning to squint all the time. In Japan, you don't have to go to the optometrist to get a new prescription. So the test itself is free, you just have to pay for the glasses (which are also cheaper in Japan). So if you are traveling in Japan definitely stop by any eyewear store to get your updated prescription and tax free glasses! Even though I just got my eyes tested in January, I will probably go again right before I leave to get another pair of glasses and a new pair of sunglasses.


The main story on January 1 had nothing to do with my partner or me, but instead with the Noto Peninsula earthquake. At 4:10p.m. on New Year's Day, a 7.5 earthquake hit Ishikawa prefecture located in Honshu (again, the main island). As of April 23, 2024 there have been a confirmed number of 245 people who died, three people are still missing. There were 1,296 others who were injured from the earthquake across six different prefectures. At the time of the incident, there was an estimated 26,000 people in emergency shelters, and 75,000 houses without running water and/or electricity. It is reported that around 60,614 houses were damaged or destroyed, some JETs' homes were also affected. There are some pictures from the earthquake in an article from the Atlantic here. If you feel so inclined, Ishikawa Prefecture and the affected areas will be collecting donations through December 27, 2024.


Donations through credit card:


Donations through bank transfer:

  • Ishikawa Prefecture (translate to English, scroll down to Frequently Asked Questions 1 for transfer information)

Donations through Paypal:


My partner and I were about 300km from the earthquake and did not experience any shaking. In fact, we initially heard about the earthquake from his boss who anxiously checked in with us to make sure we were okay. All trains and public transportation were suspended or delayed for a few hours in the area, but by the following morning most forms of transportation were running. On the second we went to our next destination by shinkansen: Nagano, which happens to be in the same direction as Ishikawa (northwest from Tokyo).

Yamanochi, Nagano

In Nagano the main thing I wanted to see were the world famous snow monkeys. They are located in a small town in northern Nagano called Yamanochi. This area was such a nice shift from Tokyo, not as crowded, a fun small town experience, and there was snow! In every direction there were beautiful views. It was the first time I had stayed in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel with futon mattresses and tatami floors). I was in love with the ryokan, it was cute and I thought the futons were the comfiest bedding I had experienced in Japan. My partner, on the other hand, did not enjoy floor sleeping (whatever he says, I know he secretly enjoyed the ryokan experience too!).

A Mother Macaque and Her Baby

The following morning we took the first bus to get to snow monkey park in order to beat the crowds. To get there you have to walk up a very snowy and icy mountain, which was brutal. We got there way before anyone else, so we got to enjoy the monkeys and their early morning shenanigans. By the time we finished, so many people had walked up the path, and additionally due to the morning sunlight, the top layer of snow had melted leaving behind only ice. Both of us were visibly uncomfortable as we slid our way down the mountain. When we thought the worst of it was over, we stopped at ENZA Café for food and coffee. I remember ordering fish and chips because it is not something that you find often in Japan. After finishing our meal, we discovered that the iciest part of the walk back was right outside the café! I let my partner lead the way as I stood back holding onto the railing and watching. He ended up going the opposite way (uphill) to try to avoid the ice patch. I watched others slipping, sliding, and sometimes falling down to find the easiest path down. Additionally, this area happened to be a parking lot so there were loads of moving cars. Once I let go of that railing I had to keep a watchful eye on the ground as I carefully made my way across the treacherous icy path. I happily waited at the bottom while my partner was still figuring out his own way down. Both of us made it out without falling. It was very clear that we both grew up in sunny California.

Macaque Searches for Bugs

The next day, January fourth, we made our way down to Nagoya City in Aichi prefecture. Before leaving Nagano, we stopped at Matsumoto Castle (1594) in Matsumoto City. The castle is one of Japan's oldest remaining castles alongside Kumamoto (1607) and Himeji (1609). In addition to it's age, Matsumoto castle stands out because of it's black walls.


Castles that are more traveled to in Japan, like Osaka Castle, often have normal stairs. However the older, smaller, and lesser known castles often have narrow, steep, and basically ladders for stairs. I still get nervous about them, it's especially scary since many of these castles require you to take take off your shoes. So, you have to climb these stairs in either socks or indoor slippers that are difficult to keep on your feet. I did not warn my partner about the stairs in castles, because I figured he would be too nervous to go in if he knew. I also didn't want to prematurely make him nervous in case this castle had regular stairs, however, Matsumoto castle had the old style stairs. While we were inside, I reminded him we didn't have to go all the way to the top if he felt uncomfortable. However, once he was inside, that was it, he was determined to make his way through the castle. Once we were finished and outside of the castle, his adrenaline came rushing out and he was relieved that we made it. He'll gladly tell you about how much he dislikes castle stairs if you ask.

Matsumoto Castle

We also found this super cute pink shrine where I stopped to give an offering and take some pictures, of course!

The Mysterious Pink Shrine. If anyone knows anything about this, please send me a message!

By the time we reached Nagoya it was night time.


Bright and early the next morning we took the first shinkansen to Kyoto. I figured that Nagoya was so far west, it would be crazy not to include Kyoto on our Honshu trip! It also happened to be the best day to visit the area. It was the first or second day that most workers in Japan had to return to work. We started out by visiting Kiyomizu-dera a well known temple in Kyoto that is over 1,200 years old. It is located about halfway up Mount Otowa and honors a diety of mercy and compassion. Because of it's location, it has stunning views of Kyoto City in the background. It would be especially beautiful in early spring with the cherry blossoms or in the fall with the red maple leaves. However, spring and fall are the most popular times to travel to Kyoto, so you will be fighting big crowds.

Kiyomizu-dera and Kyoto City in the Background

The Gion district was next on our itinerary, I wanted my partner to see the Yasaka Pagoda, but we also ended up doing some shopping at the shops nearby for omiyage (souvenirs). Afterwards, we walked to a very populated shrine that I cannot remember the name of. During the first few days of the year, many people visit shrines to wish for good luck in the new year. So, as you can imagine, shrines across the country are very busy. With that being said, there are also many shrines that offer special goshuin. Before heading into the shrine, we ate some street food, and got some black coffee ice cream that turned our tongues black!

Early Morning Shadows in Kyoto Streets
Behind the Scenes

Ginkakuji or Higashiyama Jisho-ji

We then visited Ginkakuji temple (the Silver Pavilion) which was originally built in 1482 as a retirement villa at the base of the Kitayama Mountains. A 2km stone pathway known as "The Philosopher's Path" begins at Ginkakuji. It follows a canal lined with cherry blossoms in the spring and fireflies in the summer. Then we visited my favorite temple: Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion). Kinkakuji was originally built in 1397. It is probably Kyoto's most well known temple because the building is completely covered with gold leaf. They definitely try to capitalize off of it's gold color, and you can buy several gold goods. For example, we each bought sake made from a local brewery that had gold flakes as well as some ice cream that had some gold flakes on top. I know what you're thinking, two ice creams in one day? Yes, absolutely eat all of the ice cream that you can while you are in Japan. It's so subtle compared to ice cream in America.

Kinkakuji

Our last stop of the day was Arishiyama, which is famous for it's bamboo grove. There is also a monkey park over there, but we were unable to make it in time because it closed at 4p.m. This was by far the most populated area we had been to that day, but it was still fun to see the bamboo. While we were there, we ran into some locals who told us about a similar and less populated bamboo grove further up the mountain. However, by that point we were exhausted and ready to head back to Nagoya. So, that's when we returned to the train station and hopped on the shinkansen.

My favorite meal at CoCo Ichi: Curry with crab cakes, egg and spinach. Spice level 2 kudasai!

Once we made it back to Nagoya, we stopped at CoCoICHI for dinner. CoCo is a famous chain restaurant that serves a variety of Japanese curries. You can choose your toppings, spice level, and amount of rice. It has been one of my comfort foods since living in Japan and I will miss it dearly. My partner is now also a fan, and since returning back to the U.S. he discovered that there are several locations in southern California. So I guess I finally have an excuse to visit southern California in the future. January 5th was the furthest we walked over our entire two week vacation, we walked just under 30,000 steps in Kyoto!

Miniland in Legoland, Nagoya

The next day we went to Legoland and an aquarium. The coolest thing about Legoland was "miniland" a replica of all major cities throughout Japan made out of legos. I could have stayed in that area for hours, discovering all of the hidden gems, taking pictures, and recognizing the areas I have visited throughout my time in Japan. It was also fun for my partner to see all of the areas he had been to as well! One area that stood out to me, which I hadn't visited yet, was Hiroshima. I simply thought that I would not be able to make it out there with only a few months left in Japan and several trips already booked. However, there was a three day weekend in February that I didn't have any plans for yet... The second best part of Legoland was that we got to create miniature versions of ourselves!




For our final day in Nagoya we rented a car. It was my first time renting a car in Japan and it was surprisingly easy. If you visit Japan and you go somewhere that's not the mainland, (i.e. Kyushu, Shikoku, Okinawa, etc.) it is beneficial to rent a car. It is a lot cheaper to rent a car in Japan than America and people generally drive safer and slower. All you need to do is get an international driver's permit, which you can buy for $20 from a local AAA. It was also my first time driving on the mainland, and oh my god, the toll roads are way more expensive in Honshu!

Nagoya Castle

Anyway, we started our day with a visit to Nagoya Castle (1612). To my partner's relief, the main building was closed for renovations and is not set to open again until 2028, so no stairs! The castle is quite beautiful. It has white walls with a green roof and golden shachihoko (a mythical creature with the body of a killer whale as well as characteristics from tigers and fish) at the very top. In some ways it looks similar to the famous Osaka Castle.

Gokuku Shrine, Nagoya

Next we walked over to Aichi Prefecture Gokoku Shrine. This was one of the coolest shrines we visited on our trip because it was white, cream, and gold! Also, it seemed secluded from everything, so we got to really take in the atmosphere just the two of us. At the same time, they still had many stalls out for the new year and special goshuin stamps.


After that we made our way to Ghibli Park (which is the main thing I was looking forward to in Aichi!). Ghibli Park is a theme park based off of Studio Ghibli movies. The park was originally due to be open in 2020, but was postponed because of COVID, it finally opened in November of 2022. Tickets have to be purchased in advance for this park. At the time when I was purchasing tickets, there was no English website. It was so challenging for me to actually get the tickets in the first place (something that should have been the first red flag). Once we got there, the park itself was difficult to navigate with limited signage, and when we did find signs they were in Japanese only. I will say, in most areas of Japan (including my small city) English is the secondary language on signs. While we were there, a lot of things were still under construction and closed, which left a lot of open area in the park with nothing, and sent a high level of traffic to only one area of the park. Which made it so that the experience wasn't enjoyable. There are also several areas where you can't take pictures, but again, there was no signage, instead I got reprimanded for having my camera out. By that point, I was no longer interested in guessing where I could or couldn't take pictures and just stopped trying altogether.

Yubaba from Spirited Away

Whenever people ask me for suggestions on things to do in Japan, I try to give them as much information as I can to make them feel comfortable to explore and find things on their own. I always let them know that whatever they decide to do in Japan, they will have a blast. My experience traveling in Japan has been overwhelmingly positive. Ghibli Park is the first thing that I suggest people skip... but knowing Japan, they just need a couple years to fix all the loose ends and I am sure that it will be a fun park in the future as they continue to build it. It seems as though the park opened before it was ready. I regretted renting a car just to get out there, since there aren't many public transportation options that go out to the park (hopefully they will work on that as well).

Somewhere in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Finally, we returned our rental car and then took the shinkansen back to Tokyo. It was our last night together before his flight back to America. We went to Shinjuku where we ate at Shogun Burger, which I might've mentioned in my last entry about Tokyo, but it's too good not to bring up again! It is a restaurant with wagyu burgers and it's by far the best burger I have tried in Japan. After our meal, we went to Don Quijote, a super popular store amongst tourists. It is similar to Target in that it has a little bit of everything at a reasonable price. The Don Quijote locations in and around Shinjuku are absolutely packed, I would avoid them if you can and go to ones further from the touristy areas.


The following day we said our goodbyes. It was extremely difficult after spending two weeks together. It was the most quality time we had had together in quite some time. We did so much on this trip, that it also felt like a whirlwind to some extent, but our time in Japan was so rewarding and fulfilling. We also hope to visit Japan again in the future!


One final thing I forgot to add when I was originally writing this entry. In Japan one of the common fountain drinks is melon soda. It's bright green and was first introduced on the market in the fifties. It doesn't really taste like melon, though, to me it tastes more like bubble gum or cotton candy. My partner became obsessed with the Fanta brand melon soda while he was here and was constantly looking for it in the vending machines, restaurants, and conbinis (convenience stores). Since returning, he has not found a way to get his hands on Fanta melon soda. Has anyone else had this dilemma and found a solution? How would you describe the melon soda flavor?





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