A Rainy Day in Yakushima (Part 2)

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If you ask the locals about the weather, you’ll hear that in Yakushima it rains 35 days a month. This is only partly a joke. Yakushima is one of the wettest parts of Japan, and this near constant rain is what keeps the forests so lusciously green.

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A shrine at the top of Hirauchi Onsen

Having attended college in Tacoma, Washington, Annin and I were sure we could handle the rain. We’d been outdoors in the rain plenty of times before! With such similar scenery to the Pacific Northwest, we assumed the rain in Yakushima would be just like the rain in Washington.

We were wrong.

While the near-constant state of rain is similar to the PNW, Yakushima definitely gets more rain at any given time. In fact, Seattle gets roughly 36 inches of rain a year. Yakushima gets a whopping 176 inches. Needless to say, we were a bit taken aback when we woke up to heavy rain and quickly cancelled our hiking plans.

Luckily, renting a car provided us with lots of flexibility to change our plans, and we mapped out a course to drive around the island in search of waterfalls and hot springs.

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Ohko no Taki

First up was Ohko no Taki, probably the best known, but also the furthest away. Yakushima is about 200 square miles, but the only roads are along the perimeter. The center of the island is almost entirely mountainous. You can’t quite circle the island (there’s a stretch of nature preserve on the Western coast we were told not to drive on), but if you could it would probably take about two hours. Surprisingly, many of the waterfalls on Yakushima are easily accessible from the main road, and most are clearly marked.

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We walked around Ohko no Taki a bit and then got back into the car. Our main aim for the day was to time everything out so we could visit Hirauchi Onsen, an ocean hot springs that was only accessible during low tide. We still had a bit of time to kill, so we stopped by the Tsukazaki tide pools, which would have been lovely if they hadn’t been covered in washed up garbage. The picture above was taken with the trash just out of sight, but it really was sad. Clearly all of it had washed ashore from mainland Japan, since the people on Yakushima do a really good job of keeping everything else clean. It was a reminder that all of the amazing natural beauty on the island needs constant maintenance and protection. We didn’t stick around the beach for long, and quickly made our way to the onsen.

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Hirauchi Onsen

I’ve mentioned onsen and onsen etiquette in previous posts, but what I have failed to mention is that most onsen are separated by gender. Most, but not all. Hirauchi Onsen is a mixed gender hot spring, which neither Annin nor I had much experience with. In fact, Annin had never been to a mixed onsen (or “konyoku“) before, and I had been only once, sort of by accident. The general rule at a konyoku is that women wrap themselves in a towel, and men usually have a small towel as well (though, in typically gendered  fashion, they don’t really have to). We were totally game for this onsen, but realized too late that our towels were a bit small. After a bit of frantic googling to see if full sized towels were an absolute necessity, we were relieved to read they were only a suggestion. After a long discussion and a fair amount of nerves on my part, we decided that we’d never see any of the people at the onsen again, and we were just going to go for it!

IMG_8779Once we’d reached the Onsen I had second thoughts. There were no changing areas, just a slightly lowered rock that provided a tiny bit of cover. We stood on the path debating yet again, when an older woman who was already in the water started calling us over. She was super cheerful and said the water was lovely, we should come on in. That was the push I needed, and so we made our way down to the water.

It took some awkward maneuvering, but we were able to cover ourselves enough to feel ok walking into the water. The old woman was thrilled to learn we could speak some Japanese, and spent the next half hour chatting with us. It turns out that she lived on the island and came to this onsen every day, but women coming to this onsen was pretty rare. Mostly tourists come to take a picture of the ocean, but are too nervous to get in themselves. I can understand that, especially if you’re not used to onsen culture in Japan, but I can honestly say that this was one of the best experiences on our trip. We had such a fun time chatting with the locals, and it was such a beautiful, unique experience. But next time, I’m bringing a full sized towel.

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Senpiro Falls

After our soak in the hot springs we made our way into the town of Anbo for lunch at a tea house, and then it was back to waterfall hunting. The roads became slightly more confusing on the way to Senpiro Falls, but the view was definitely worth it.

The final waterfall of the day was Touroki Falls, which is the only waterfall in Japan that falls directly into the ocean. This one took a little bit of a walk to get to, but luckily by then the rain had cleared a bit.

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Touroki Falls

With our waterfall search complete, we decided that we needed to clean up a bit. The ocean hot springs had been fun, but I can’t say as I felt particularly clean afterward. So we found yet another hot spring, Onoaida Onsen, this one separated as usual. Turns out Onoaida is known for its super hot water. I could only last about a minute and a half in the water, but after using the showers I felt much better.

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The hostel had two cats! That orange one is much friendlier than he looks.

At the end of the day we went back to the hostel for dinner with the other guests. We ate nabe (hot pot) and flying fish sashimi, a Yakushima specialty. The dinner was a bit awkward, but fun, and afterward we stayed up chatting with a few of the other guests about travel and the cultural differences between Japan and America. It really pushed my Japanese to the limit, but I had a good time.

After a while I headed to bed and slept like a log after a fun, full day.

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The friendliest hostel owner on Yakushima!

A Thirsty Waterfall Hike and Some Magical Watermelon Juice – Day 2 in Taiwan

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When planning our trip to Taiwan, Annin and I were both set on getting out of the city for at least a day. Taiwan being a fairly small place, it’s known mostly for its major city, Taipei. And while we were interested in exploring the city, we had also heard some pretty great things about the Taiwanese countryside. If you travel just an hour outside of the city, you have easy access to some gorgeous mountain hiking and beautiful coastline rock formations. After a bit of research Annin found a particularly appealing waterfall hike, and so on Friday morning we set out for Sandiaoling.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

Our day began with a bit of a frantic scramble for both train tickets and breakfast. While the subway system is super efficient with a train every few minutes, getting outside of the city requires a bit more planning, and the Taiwan Railway website isn’t super intuitive. We tried speaking with someone at our hostel, but unfortunately by the time we asked, the English speaking staff had already gone home. In any case, we eventually pinpointed what we hoped was the correct train, and made our way to the station early in the morning. We bought our tickets, and had half an hour to find food before our train left.

While Annin did a lot of the research into where we would go, the job of finding out what to eat fell to me. I had read about a bagel shop near the main train station and since we were already there, I was determined to find it. Bagels are a rare treat when you live in Asia, and these ones looked pretty promising. A few things I didn’t account for were 1) the fact that, as we had discovered the day before, google maps is not the most accurate in Taiwan, and 2) once we actually found the place, it took them a good 20 minutes to make my cream cheese and lox sandwich. Not great when we were short on time! They handed us our bagels just in time for us to run back to the train, and oh man they smelled so good. Sadly, eating on public transportation is sort of looked down on, so we didn’t actually get to eat them for an hour and a half. It was pretty rough.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

In any case, we took two trains: Taipei Main Station to Ruifeng, then Ruifeng to Sandiaoling. The trains were really crowded, but only one other group got off at our station, and they seemed to have done so by mistake. We took a few minutes at the station to eat our bagels, which were just as delicious as I’d hoped, and set off to find the waterfall hike.

The hike we chose, Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike, is a bit off the beaten path. Most tourists opt for the much easier Shi Fen Waterfall, which is sometimes called the “Niagara Falls of Taiwan.” That hike is much shorter, and closer to a train station. But we were looking for a challenge, and were delighted to find that there was almost nobody on the trail, whereas the whole crowd on our train was likely headed to Shi Fen.. We probably ran into a total of 10 people over the course of 3 hours or so.

The trail took us through a lush tropical forest, over two rope bridges, up a particularly steep set of stairs, and past three lovely waterfalls. I think that the water was a bit low due to the time of year, but we still thought the falls were beautiful, and the surrounding forest was spectacular. I would highly recommend the hike to anyone visiting Taiwan.

But as beautiful and peaceful as the hike was, it was also incredibly hot and humid. We really underestimated the weather, and neither of us packed quite enough water. By the tail end of the trail we were pretty thirsty, and a bit worried about finding drinks. While Taipei has a convenience store on every corner, the hike was really in the middle of nowhere. From the trailhead we had seen a sleepy little town, but nothing that resembled a store from the outside. Once we made our way off the trail and into town, it didn’t look very promising, and I was feeling more than a bit dehydrated. Just as I was starting to worry, we stumbled across a hotel with some tables set outside. The owner was chatting with someone, and we tried to ask about water. Of course, we don’t speak Mandarin, and she definitely didn’t speak English, but holding up the empty water bottles seemed to get the message across. She said something and brought us two bottles of homemade watermelon juice, which was close enough for us. Now, I’m not usually a watermelon fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything as good as this watermelon juice. It was pure heaven, and the woman was clearly pleased we liked it so much. Once we’d paid for the juice she brought out a kettle and refilled our water bottles for free. We left with quenched thirsts and a serious appreciation for her kindness.IMG_7535

As we walked back to the train, we decided that rather than continue on to Jiu Feng, a nearby village, we would head back into the city to change and have a chill evening. We were exhausted and more than a little sweaty after the hot hike. And the universe seemed to approve of our choice, since right as we made the decision the sky opened up and let out a tropical downpour. Now we really wanted to change, and so we took the train back into Taipei.IMG_7433

The rest of our evening was centered around food. We sought out a famous beef noodle soup restaurant and followed that with a long-anticipated treat – mango shaved ice. It’s just as tasty as it looks, being made up of mostly condensed milk and fruit, and a pat of panna cotta on top. Fabulous!

IMG_7434After eating we stopped by Longshan Temple, an old confucian temple near our hostel. It was a beautiful place, but what really struck me was the number of people out playing Pokemon Go. I haven’t played the game myself, and don’t really plan on playing, but it seemed such a shame to me that in such a beautiful and culturally important place, people were all staring at their phones. But I suppose to each his or her own.

We rounded out the evening with another trip to The 58 Bar and called it a night. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good day.

Dalat, Day 2

On the second day of our trip to Dalat we had decided to ride a cable car into the mountains, see some waterfalls, and then take a tour of local farms in the afternoon. But before all of that, we started our day with breakfast at the homestay.

Breakfast at the hostel was a do-it-yourself type deal, with omelet supplies readily available, and plenty of bread and Dalat strawberry jam. We came down a bit late so most of the guests had already left. This meant we got to spend the morning with one of the house residents, an older woman who spoke no English and had no intention of letting that stop her from having full conversations with the guests. She would speak to us in Vietnamese with plenty of gestures and expressions, and we would do the same in English. She was by far our favorite person at the homestay, with a huge personality and a lot to say.

Coffee beans laid out to dry
Coffee beans laid out to dry

After breakfast we took a taxi to the base of the cable car, where we took in a lovely view of the city, and came across sheets of coffee beans, drying in the sun. After snapping a few pictures and wondering who the beans belonged to, we made our way to the cable car and rode up with an Israeli guy who told us all about his travels. The views were lovely, and I was really enjoying being in the mountains after months of life in the delta.

The city of Da Lat
The city of Da Lat

At the top of the cable car we found our way to the monastery, which was nice enough. Mostly we wandered through the gardens, watched other tourists (mostly Russians), and enjoyed a nice, sunny day.

Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery
Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery

After walking through the monastery we decided to walk to the waterfall, which we were told was about 2 kilometers (roughly 1.2 miles) away, and definitely within walking distance.

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Now, I should say that in Vietnam, if you ask for walking directions almost anywhere, even just a few blocks away, people think it’s weird. People pretty much take their bikes or motos everywhere. So, when the woman at the monastery assured us the walk was short, we believed her. Turns out we shouldn’t have, since the walk was way longer than we had anticipated. But after about an hour of walking, with a few pit stops for dried fruit and fresh persimmons, we found the waterfall.

Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall
Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall

The first thing we noticed is that we had to pay to see the waterfall, which was a bit strange, but we accepted it and went in. Once inside the gate, at the top of a hill, we saw a sign for a “roller coaster” that could take us down the hill to the waterfall. Lisa and Annin were really excited about it, so I set aside my fear of roller coasters and decided to give it a try – it was more of a toboggan slide than a roller coaster, and I was put in charge of the break. The ride was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. Annin and I were screaming the whole way, but I used the break every time we passed a “break!” sign, which was probably a good idea – some of the turns really made me think we might fly off the rails (though that probably would never happen…. right?).

Toboggan on the way back up - no screaming this time.
Toboggan on the way back up – no screaming this time.

But anyway, we all made it safely to the bottom, where we admired a very nice waterfall. Before we went up to the waterfall, we saw that there was yet another cable car, and since we had bought tickets for every other type of transport that day, we figured it was probably best to ride this as well. The ride was super short, and it took us to a smaller waterfall. There was nowhere to go, but there was a glass elevator built into the rock, and for another fee we could ride the elevator down. We all decided this sounded a bit absurd, and we rode back to the main waterfall.

Pretty!
Pretty!

As we were looking at the big waterfall, we noticed a man dressed as a monkey wandering around. We weren’t sure exactly why he was there, but Annin went to go take a picture with him. He promptly turned around when she walked up to him for a picture, which we assumed meant he wanted us to pay for the photo (though he never said anything, or did anything to suggest we pay). We went ahead and took pictures with his back turned, and right after the photo below was taken, he angrily shoved Annin away. While we were standing next to the drop off for the waterfall on slippery rocks. She was totally fine, but we were a bit shocked.

Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin
Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin

Since everyone was alright we laughed it off and took the “roller coaster” back up the hill, since it had a suspension deal that pulled us back up. We headed back to town and had lunch by the lake.

IMG_2611 In the afternoon we went back to the homestay and the owner lead us on a walk through the neighboring farms. The terrain was a bit treacherous, and another guest who was walking with us slipped and fell down a hill leading to the strawberry plants. He was alright, but after that we were all very cautious.

Strawberry fields forever
Strawberry fields forever
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills

We walked through fields of flowers, stawberries, broccoli, and countless other plants that I have since forgotten. We walked around for over an hour and the scenery was lovely. At the end of the tour we watched the sun set over the farms and went back to the homestay to cook dinner.

Dinner at the homestay
Dinner at the homestay