Almost three years ago I hiked the Kumano Kodo trail, one of Japan’s holy pilgrimages and only one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world. I wrote about my experience here, but I did not follow through on my promise to write a guide.
Three years ago it was extremely difficult for me to find a blog post that detailed an itinerary on how to do the most frequented trail (Nakahechi) on the Kumano Kodo. I spent hours researching and I guessed on so many items. Even with my Japanese skills, planning this trip was tough.read more
I recently read an article about a tea specialist and her new tea franchise in an airline magazine. While these kind of articles are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, there was one comment from the tea-master that jumped out of the page at me:
“Every cup of tea evokes a memory, a feeling, a connection to something from your past.”
I couldn’t help but think just how true this statement was, as I reflected on my favorite types of tea and how they are linked to a particular moment in my past:
Whenever I drink Genmai-cha, all I can think about is Japan. The flavor is unique and difficult to describe–it’s earthy, but has a flowery and light finishing taste–like buckwheat, hay and dandelions combined. After steeped, the tea turns the water a light yellow color, almost like a chrysanthemum flower. It feels like the working man’s tea, the commoner’s tea, a tea that refreshes in both the summer and winter.
I had just arrived in Japan the day before. My senses were in overdrive as I took in the foreign surroundings. I kneeled on a tatami floor and looked around my host-grandparent’s old, wooden home: paper sliding doors (shoji) opened up to a Japanese garden outside. A wind-chime sang in the breeze. The humidity was oppressive, and I could feel sweat rolling down my neck. The grandma turned on a nearby fan that whizzed back and forth in an effort to cool the room. My host grandma and grandpa sat across from me and smiled, speaking quickly and fluently, forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese. My head was dizzy with culture shock and language comprehension, but I did my best and did what any guest would do: nod and smile.
Like a Japanese person, I picked up the small Japanese tea cup from the saucer with both hands, blew on it softly and sipped it gently without noise. I had green and black tea in America–but I immediately knew this tea was something else.
“What name is this tea?” I asked in broken Japanese.
The grandma giggled, “genmai-cha. Do you like it? Hold on.”
She stood up, ran to the kitchen and returned with a pouch of tea for me. I insisted it was unnecessary to give me a bag of tea, but she shoved the tea pouch in my hand with a smile.
Pu-Er Cha 普洱茶
Pu-Er Cha is a high-end tea grown exclusively in China’s Yunnan region. Although it’s somewhat easy to find low-quality pu-er tea in the states, wheels of high-grade pu-er tea are only available in China and sell for hundreds of dollars. Among all teas, pu-er is extremely unique in taste and almost resembles coffee in its bitterness and color. When I crumble pu-er tea in my hands, I feel like I’m crumbling soil of the Earth. It smells like trees, soil, dirt. It’s an Earthy tea with a rich, bitter flavor.
I had a sanctuary in Shanghai, and it was a teahouse called Da Ke Tang. The building is from the roaring 20s of Shanghai’s heyday and is a mix of French architecture with Chinese decorations. The teahouse is incredibly high-end, with a chandelier in the reception room and the sitting room itself covered in gold mirrors and finely crafted wooden tables. Old Shanghai jazz music plays here, and women in qipaos (slim Chinese dresses) stand at the bar mixing and serving tea.
Booths lined the floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out into the teahouse’s gardens. After being seated, the qipao server would place nuts, an ashtray and a menu for the customers. Although the menu was 10 pages long, there was only one item served:
Even writing this hurts, cause I miss that damn place so much. My Shanghai friends and I would simply sit, drink pu-er, and talk for hours. There were times we would sit in silence, hold our teacups, and stare around the room in amazement. It was a place that could only be in Shanghai–a memory I could only make in that city. I sometimes spent $30 on high-end pu-er there, but it was worth it. The server would add pot after pot of water and we would talk the hours away until our tea became too diluted to continue.
Oolong Tea 乌龙茶
I think we all know what Oolong tea tastes like. To me, it’s the quintessential tea of Asia. No matter where you go in Asia, it’s fairly easy to find a cup of Oolong somewhere, somehow.
I often drank Oolong tea in Japan, and it tasted just as it looked: slightly bitter with a strong barley taste. I wasn’t a huge fan of the tea in Japan (I much preferred Genmai-Cha), but in China that changed. For some reason, Oolong tasted different no matter where I went in China–although the smell stayed the same.
We had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant only a few feet away from my new apartment. Jenny squealed in delight when she saw that they had gong-fu-cha (kung fu tea).
“That’s like… a real thing?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow. “I thought it was only made for those cheesy Hong Kong kung fu flicks.”
“Of course it is!” she laughed. “It’s quite a show. Do you want to order it?”
The server came out with a tray that held three extremely small cups of tea (no larger than my thumb) and a matching clay teapot. As soon as he set the tray down, he began to flip the teapot around his hand, flip the tea cups up and down below at lightning speed—and all while pouring tea. I wouldn’t call it an amazing show; but rather, a waste of perfectly good tea (he literally spilled it everywhere).
“The tea spilled everywhere!” I exclaimed. “What a waste!”
Z laughed, “that’s how we pour tea in China, Mary. It goes all over the place.”
With the smell of oolong all around us, I took one of those tiny teacups and took a shot. “Well, douse me with another shot of Oolong!”
Irish & English Breakfast
I was never a fan of English Breakfast tea. It’s too bitter, and putting milk and sugar in my tea weirded me out (call me an Asian tea traditionalist).
Yet when I went to Ireland, I drank the stuff like crazy. Every morning our bed and breakfast hostess would ask if we wanted coffee or tea, and I would copy the locals and order tea. There was something satisfying and comfortable about drinking a cup of slightly sweetened Irish Breakfast tea on a cold and crisp Irish morning. The locals often served us ‘Barry’s Irish Tea’ and, as a result, I bought a few boxes to take home to America.
Now when I’m home and brew a cup of Barry’s, I add some sugar and cream and take a deep breath of the tea’s rich, black aroma. When I close my eyes I instantly recall the rolling hills of Ireland and those peaceful Irish mornings.
I originally had no plans to visit Japan in 2017…. but when we saw plane tickets from Los Angeles to Kyushu, Japan for only $600 round trip, my husband and I thought:
Dude. We’re goin’ to Kyushu.
When I told my Japanese friend Tohko that we were going to be in Japan, she said she would meet us in Kyushu on one condition:
We go to Yakushima.
Yakushima? Where and what is it?
It’s the greenest and wettest place in the country, receiving more rainfall than any other location in Japan. On top of that, the island has a strong reputation for being a spiritual and mystical retreat, and rightly so–it did, after all serve as the inspiration for the animated film “Princess Mononoke.”
I always told myself that, someday, I just had to go to Yakushima (similar to my desire to go to Kumano Kodo). Not only is Princess Mononoke my favorite Studio Ghbili movie, but when I googled Yakushima and looked at the images, the greenery blew me away.
But first, we gotta get one thing straight: Yakushima is not an easy side-trip. It’s far away. Really far away.
To be honest, I thought the inconvenience of going to Yakushima wasn’t worth it–but then again, I really wanted to see Tohko.
In the end, I’m glad Tohko nudged lazy Mary to go to Yakushima. It was my favorite part of Kyushu–and here’s why:
Where to Go
Cedarland (Yakisuki Land) 屋久杉ランド
When the tourism office told us to go to Cedarland, Tohko and I were super skeptical. It sounded like a corny, cedar-themed amusement park for kids.
But don’t let the name fool you. It’s a protected natural park–and it’s stunning.
To say Cedarland was lush and green is an understatement. It’s a rainforest. There’s moss and growth everywhere. The water is clear, transparent and fresh. It’s extremely wet. We were constantly slipping around on muddied trails (in fact, I even fell in a mud pit!), but that added to the adventure of it.
The main trail is well maintained, but if you venture off into the lesser-traveled routes you’ll find trails in disrepair. While it’s exciting to go off road, travelers should exercise caution: its extremely slippery and one wrong step will send you sliding down a muddy hillside. Be careful!
Seaside Hot Springs (Yudomari Onsen)
Japan loves hot springs, so it’s not surprising that people are willing to strip down naked in public to hop into a seaside thermal bath.
That’s exactly what we did at Yudomari Onsen. I have to admit, even I was self-conscious about the teeny-tiny two foot bamboo wall that attempted to separate the male and female hot springs. Although the water was lukewarm, it was an experience–who else can say they bathed in a seaside hot spring watching the sunset?
So, we saw a lot of epic waterfalls–and trust me, there are a lot of majestic waterfalls all over the island. You can’t go wrong.
Close to Ohko falls were some stunning beaches. Be sure to randomly make pit stops along your Yakushima journey–if it looks pretty, then make a stop!
I highly recommend Senpiro waterfall. It’s a quick stop and the observation deck not only provides the perfect photo opportunity of the gigantic waterfall, but also gives you a stunning 360 view of the villages and surrounding island.
Plus, there’s picnic tables up there. If I were you, I’d bring some bento boxes and have lunch up there. No better way to do it.
Where to Stay?
If you’re staying in Yakushima, I just have one word for you: Minshuku.
As I wrote in my Kumano Kodo post, minshukus are my absolute favorite type of lodgings in Japan. They’re basically the Japanese version of a British B&B. You can also think of them as as a more intimate ryokan.
Tohko reserved a room for us at a minshuku called Shiki no Yado….. and wow. I cannot recommend this place enough.
Not only is Shiki no Yado located beneath a dormant volcano, but the rooms are spacious; wooden, and clean. Plus, the staff speaks great English.
The Japanese family running the minshuku are wholesome and kind. The wife told us she’s originally from Yakushima, but went to Tokyo for about 15 years to work until she said–enough. Now she’s living the simple life, running a b&b in rural Yakushima… and I can see the appeal.
Where to Eat
Minshuku meals are the best. THE BEST. At Shiki no Yado the owners not only prepared the meals fresh from scratch everyday, but they used locally sourced ingredients from their own farm (!!!). This food was legit farm to table–and at a stellar price.
Iso no Kaori
Tohko’s friend also recommended a place called “Iso no Kaori.” It’s a tiny teishoku (set-meal) establishment on the side of the highway that loops around Yakushima. It’s fresh food at great prices. Definitely worth a visit.
Yakushima Travel Tips
Watch the Weather: Yakushima weather is unpredictable–ensure that you avoid the rainy season when going to Yakushima. We were unable to go to Yakushima’s most famous site (Jomon Sugi) because of the heavy rains. Keep this in mind.
How Long Should I Stay? We were only here for two days and one night. While we were able to have an enjoyable vacation, I would say three days and two nights would be an ideal time frame. If you’re looking for a place to relax for a long stretch of time, this would also be a good destination.
What to Bring? Pack good hiking gear and water resistant clothes! I would also bring an extra pair of shoes in case you trip and fall in the mud, like I did.
Get a Kyushu Rail Pass: If you’re going to have an extended trip in Kyushu ONLY, I recommend getting the Kyushu rail pass. It’s like the nationwide JR rail pass, but only for Kyushu. It’s an all you can ride, 5-day pass for about 180 USD.
My fiancee was dying to write a post about travel, and the both of us just couldn’t get memories of our trip to Japan out of our heads (and trust me, Japan tends to do that to people), so he offered to write a great piece on Japan. Unlike me, my fiancee has yet to live or study in Japan, so it has been fascinating to read his account of discovering Japan through the eyes of a tourist. Enjoy! (PS, if you enjoy my fiancee’s writing take a look at his finance blog, Millennial Lifehacker).
Mary has already written a fabulous article on Japan, but aside from the one week that we spent together there, I also wandered across part of the country with my parents while she acted as a tour guide for some other friends. Here are some things that I noted. Apologies in advance as I am not nearly as captivating a writer as Mary.
1. There are so many Chinese in Japan
Yeah, I know, Mary made this observation already, I know, but I still could not get over it. Seriously, everywhere you go in Japan has tons of stealth Chinese people. One particularly memorable encounter was at the hotel. After we checked in, there was a maid who came by with extra sheets and to do some supplemental cleaning. She was Chinese! I guess Chinese maids are the equivalent to Hispanic maids in southern California; they’re everywhere! Apparently they all have the same story as well. They moved to Japan after China started to open up but was still kind of poor (think most of the 1990s). They usually worked in low skill employment but stayed on even as China became wealthy because they got used to the environment and made their circle of friends.
In high school, I worked at the only Chinese restaurant in my very humble town called “Hunan Village.” I neither knew what, or where, Hunan was at the time.
Fast forward six years later, and I meet the inspiration for my foray into China: a man named Chen. Through our friendship, he inspired me to not only self-study Mandarin in Japan, but also to study abroad in Beijing and later take the plunge and move to Shanghai. Honestly, without Chen, China wouldn’t even be a part of my life.
Chen is from Hunan.
For years, Chen has been urging me to see his homeland, so when I told him I was going back to China this summer, he and his wife invited me to go–and I did. I finally made it to Hunan province, the hometown of the infamous Mao Ze Dong, the land of hot peppers and spices, a province full of minority tribes and ripe with national parks.
The trip was a wake up call for me. Chen’s father father lived in a crumbling, concrete apartment building from communist-era China, covered in mold and black decay. Despite all of the wealth in Shanghai and the coastal cities, it was then I realized that although China has managed to lift 250 million people out of poverty, most of its citizens still live in staggeringly poor conditions.
Chen’s family was more than generous. They invited me into their home, prepared the best Chinese food of my life, and made many toasts to my travels.
After visiting his family, Chen encouraged me to see Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO world heritage site and the pride of his home province. Although he was unable to accompany me, I was able to persuade J to escape from Shanghai and follow me to the countryside.
And by far, Zhangjiajie was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had in China.
Zhangjiajie is a city located in northern Hunan province and is a five hour bus ride from the capital city of Changsha. The national park Wulingyuan within Zhangjiajie City was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992. The first city here dates back to 221 B.C.–so yes, this place is really, really old. Zhangjiajie is also home to one of China’s minority tribe which, unfortunately, also means it’s the poorest region in Hunan.
Most know Zhangjiajie as the inspiration for the movie Avatar, and it’s easy to see the similarities. Zhangjiajie is a natural playground of rock formations. Like fingers reaching up to touch the heavens, the jagged, quart-size sandstone columns hidden in the ephemeral mist of this rural piece of China makes for a mystical landscape indeed. Some of these columns are almost 600 feet (200 meters) high!
The Good: Must See, Jaw Dropping Views
The scenery at Zhangjiajie was, simply, the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. Yes, this place is “touristy,” but like the Grand Canyon or the Notre Dame in Paris, it still doesn’t fail to impress. Compared to other places in China, it wasn’t even that bad. Hawkers didn’t harass me at every turn and corner and I was able to enjoy nature without someone trying to sell me something every five minutes (which happens everywhere else in China, trust me).
Highlights included Jinximen, a path at the base of the sandstone formations that runs alongside the bubbling brooks and rivers. Although there were some slight showers while J and I hiked the trail, it was a blessing in disguise because we were awarded with the mist factor. A touch of mist, the mountains above, the rivers rushing by us–my god, it was perfect.
The view from the top of the glass elevator was excellent.
Another must see view was tian guan tai (天观台）, a fairly empty (yes!) viewing spot where J and I sat on a rock, dropped our backpacks, and stared at this magnificent view in utter silence for almost fifteen minutes. We were very impressed.
My favorite hike was, without a doubt, the aptly named “10 mile painting.” From the peak of tian guan tai down to Wulingyuan City, this long ass strenuous descent down into the City is hard on the legs, but easy on the eyes. Every time J and I rounded a corner we had to whip out our cameras. Every step led us into a new landscape, a fresh perspective, a beautiful painting. The most photogenic hike ever.read more
J and I were descending one of China’s greatest treasures: the National Park of Zhangjiajie.
Every corner we rounded presented us with a new jaw-dropping landscape of carved sandstone valleys poking through a sea of lush green trees. J and I took a deep breath, inhaled the clean air of the countryside and lost ourselves in the sea of clouds swirling in between the mountains.
That is, until Avicii arrived. You know, the Swedish DJ. The Chinese tourist who came bouncing down the trail behind us was blasting him full volume from his iPhone speaker.
Now, I have nothing against Avicii, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of music I imagine when hiking down one of China’s most treasured valleys. This Chinese tourist didn’t stop his playlist at Avicii–oh no–we heard Calvin Harris, Rihanna, some Selena Gomez and even Justin Bieber.
After 20 minutes, J lost it.
“Excuse me,” she walked up to him and spoke to him in near perfect Chinese.
“Your music is not appropriate for the scenery and it’s causing a disturbance to myself and the other travelers. I think you should shut off that crap and appreciate the beauty of your country around you.”
His jaw dropped.
He shut off his music.
J pierced into his dumbfounded eyes.
He stepped back and cried,
“wow, your Chinese is AMAZING!”
While he totally missed the point, we were able to hike the rest of the mountain without club music. At least, for a little while.
This was only one of many delightful “habits” we faced when hiking with fellow Chinese travelers.
When hiking with Chinese tourists in China, one is bound to put up with enjoy one of these five lovely habits: 1. Shouting and Screaming. Without end.
Chinese people scream and shout on mountains. That’s just how it is. One scream prompts another scream and pretty soon the whole mountain sounds like a banshee.
I’ve lived in China for five years total and I still can’t figure out why they have to shout their lungs out on a mountaintop.
Maybe they get a kick out of the echo it makes. Maybe they feel like they’re on top of the world and want everyone to know it. Maybe they’re tired and want to vent their frustrations.
Either way, it drives me crazy. J and I were greeted to these lovely echoes and screams on almost every trail in Zhangjiajie, and we wondered what would happen if someone ACTUALLY screamed for help on the mountain.
Oh well. 2. Boombox on the Mountain
Chinese people love to blast music on their iphone speakers. J and I did not hike Zhangjiajie in the silent serenity of nature—oh no. We had the Frozen song “let it go” as the OST to one of our treks, Avicii on another (as mentioned above), and of course Taylor Swift and other American pop hits following us on almost every trail.
Whenever I’ve gone hiking in China someone is always bound to be blasting music. If you’re climbing a mountain in China, get ready for some noise. 3. Smoking. Everywhere.
Is it just me, or is China the only place in the world where national parks have multiple designated smoking spots on almost every trail?
I was alarmed at the number of people smoking AND hiking (actually, I was kind of impressed). J and I were constantly waving away the stench of smoke and stepping over cigarette butts that people casually tossed onto the national park grounds.
One man was even smoking ON THE BUS. J stormed up to him and commanded that he immediately stop smoking, or she was going to give him the smack down.
He put out his cigarette. 4. Littering
China has more garbage cans readily available than any other country I’ve been in—yet the littering problem is enormous.
J and I saw a middle-aged Chinese woman throw an empty yogurt bottle into this lake.
Seriously? I know that the previous generation wasn’t trained in social graces, but this is a bit much. I feel like it’s common sense not to poison or litter an area as beautiful as this.
J and I saw so much garbage scattered throughout all of the national parks, our hearts were broken by the end of the journey. I really hope the younger Chinese are more respectful of the environment and learns to preserve these natural treasures for future generations to come. 5. Loud, loud, loud voices
J was paces ahead of me. I couldn’t catch up. I was weaving through the tourists, wondering why J was in such a rush to reach the end of the trail. The nature around us was lush and gorgeous, yet she was on a mad dash to reach the finish line. When I finally sprinted ahead to catch up with her, I asked.
“Are you worried about time?”
“No, sorry Mary,” J sighed.
“I just can’t stand the ayis (old ladies) behind us shouting and blabbering.”
It was then I realized that we were surrounded by screaming (yes, screaming) and shouting middle aged ladies talking about god-knows-what. It was difficult to hear myself think. If I wasn’t surrounded by screaming old ladies, then I was being blasted by the megaphone of a tour guide addressing a herd of tourists. Totally took the tranquility out of nature.
Luckily Zhangjiajie wasn’t too crowded, so our fast pace helped us outrun the tour group where we were able to find (some) peace and quiet. 6. Spitting
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure most of us who have been in China know about the spitting–but I still can’t get used to it.
J had a front row view of an older man swirl a loogie in his mouth, accumulate foam, then hurl the yellow blob onto the floor with a deep throated snort. She almost threw up her lunch in response. 7. Shoving
J and I were about to board the public bus, and like good foreigners we tried to queue.
Three older women literally pushed a mother and two children to the ground to grab the last three seats on the bus. Screaming and shouting ensued, but in the end, the three older women got on the bus and the mother and her two children were left in the dust of the bus that sped away.
Basically, to get anywhere in China, you have to shove. I hate being shoved and I hate shoving, but it’s survival of the fittest here. Very tiring.
As I observed the habits of the local tourists, I had an epiphany:
Chinese people really dislike silence.
China is a society that values 热闹 (re nao), which literally means hot noise. The definition of ‘re nao’ is loud, energetic, vibrant, vivacious… it’s the noise of peopled gathered together, talking enthusiastically, eating, being alive to the fullest. It’s a trait of the Chinese I love, but it’s also a double-edged sword. During the holidays and at parties, being re nao is awesome, good fun–but it can also grate your nerves when you’re looking to relax. Anywhere.
Chinese people scream on mountains, shout at each other, talk in loud voices and constantly eat and snack (and thus litter) because that’s their idea of a good time. Keeping the spirit of “re nao,” even outside of the home, is a natural trait of the Chinese.
It’s been a few years since I’ve lived or traveled in China, and to be honest the seven traits above wore me out on my most recent journey… especially the pushing, shoving, and loud voices. It was hard to find a moment of peace almost anywhere (even in one of China’s most beautiful national parks during low season), and to be honest it was quite exhausting.
So next time you’re traveling in China, mentally prepare yourself for the above. It will happen, but how you handle it is up to you. I suggest learning a few phrases in Chinese (like stop smoking or please be quiet) and do what J did. Many Chinese don’t know what they’re doing is a nuisance to others, and when told to stop they usually do.
Despite the above, traveling Zhangjiajie was totally worth it and, though I was worn to the bone, I have no regrets.
No pain (spitting, shoving, smoking, littering), no gain (gazing upon this).
Have you had any experience with Chinese tourists? Do you have any habits to add to the above?
How in God’s Name did I hear about this virtually unknown trail, the Kumano Kodo?
Well, I first stumbled upon this off-the-beaten-path pilgrimage when I worked for the Japanese government and found this photo on a pamphlet:
Something about it captivated me. Maybe it was the bizarre costume/pilgrimage outfit that is so ancient, even my knowledge from four years of Japanese language and culture classes left me in the dark. Perhaps the fact that it was one of only two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world appealed to me, and I was dying to check ‘pilgrimage’ off the bucket list.
Either way, I knew my next trip to Japan would definitely have Kumano Kodo in the itinerary.
Two years later….
I was planning a trip to Japan and the brochure came back to mind. I spent hours, no, perhaps weeks planning Kumano Kodo because it was very hard to find information online. I was hoping I would stumble on some travel blog that would give me advice on how to do Kumano Kodo, but instead all I could find was this Australian travel company that offers Kumano Kodo tours for 8,000 dollars. Madness. (And trust me, you do NOT need 8 grand to do this hike).
After a one-hour train ride from Osaka and a bus ride from the city of Kii-Tanabe, we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. Rice fields and mountains as far as the eye can see. No other sign of humanity.
We blindly walked into the forest and, from the look of the trees, I knew I just stumbled into that brochure I picked up two years ago from the sheer amount of cedars in every direction. We definitely made it on the trail.
The Japanese countryside is truly a treasure. Whenever I step into these fairy tail villages nestled in the hillsides, I’m struck with such adoration and envy of the Japanese people. Kumano Kodo is filled with communities speckled into the picturesque countryside alongside rice paddies and filled with houses that probably haven’t changed much since the first pilgrims passed through here in 700 BC. The locals farm, plant rice, drink barley tea in the hot afternoon sun, laugh, gossip and, quite frankly, enjoy life and make me jealous.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just live the simple life? I thought, as I stared out into to the cascade of mountains blanketed in trees. What if I could wake up to this everyday? Forget about getting a job, moving up the corporate ladder and achieving fame—I just need these trees, this fresh air, nature and a small community. Now that’s the life.
A Tough Hike, But With Damn Fine Dining
Kumano Kodo was brutal. Basically, we hiked from the east end of Wakayama Prefecture to the west end of it. This 25 plus mile hike through the Kii Mountain Range is not for the faint of heart! We hiked 8 hours, non-stop, for three days straight… and it hurt. Oh god, did it hurt.
Japanese hospitality and service also didn’t fail to impress me on our humble pilgrimage. Instead of camping we lodged at minshuku, which are small bed and breakfast type joints run by the locals to accommodate pilgrimage hikers. The service blew me away and often times went above and beyond what I receive at many 4-5 star hotels. The old couples running the minshuku asked us what time we wanted breakfast and dinner so they could make it fresh. They provided maps in English and drove us to nearby trailheads. The boisterous grandma sent us out the door with a handful of chocolate and a big smile on her face.
And the food. Oh my god. The local minshuku owners cooked up fresh fish caught the day of, served us vegetables from their own garden and rice harvested from their fields. I ate like a king.
When I reached the end of the pilgrimage and exited the forest of eternal cedars, I felt like I had discovered another part of Japan and, really, a new part of myself. In Shinto tradition, I walked up to the Hongu shrine altar, threw in a coin, bowed, clapped twice and bowed again.
Although I’m not religious (raised Catholic, but I’m a terrible one), there is something about the Shinto religion that makes me feel at peace with the world. To believe in Shinto means to worship nature and the land of Japan itself. Just as monks and emperors had done for thousands of years past, I ventured into Japan’s holy land and stood at the same place they did so long ago to offer my prayers and gratitude. I was keeping the tradition alive.
I visited all three of the holy Kumano Sanzan Shrines that mark the end of the pilgrimage, with Nachi Taisha, the big, red-lacquered one with the jaw-dropping 133-meter tall waterfall backdrop, being my personal favorite.
As I hiked the Kumano Kodo and visited the shrines, I felt a deep respect for the Japanese people. Despite the industrial revolution and the change that modern age brings, the Kumano region and the traditions they practice are still just as intact as they were thousands of years ago. The island on the Kumano River that Amaterasu (the Zeus of Shintoism) supposedly stepped on to create the world, is still so holy no one has been allowed on it EVER. The fire festival, the boat festival, and all festivals in honor of the gods are still performed by the local Kumano community on an annual basis.
I’ve been a lot of places in Japan (Nagano, Niigata, Hiroshima, Takamatsu—I mean, the list goes on and on), but Kumano Kodo really hit me in an unexpected way. Julia Roberts may go to Bali (and hey, maybe my younger self too) for her Eat, Pray, Love moment; but instead, perhaps, those lost souls should go through Kumano Kodo for answers to all of life’s hard questions. Nothing makes you more grounded than walking a silent trail filled with cedars, bubbling brooks, bright green moss, a sea of mountains—and the Japanese gods watching over you.
Boyfriend and I voted Kumano Kodo the best destination of our Japan trip. It’s peaceful, genuine, filled with stunning nature and almost void of tourists—what more can you ask for?
The Kumano Board of Tourism does an EXCELLENT job of giving advice to prospective travelers, as well as assists foreigners in booking local minshuku accommodations (filling in for that language barrier, god bless!). Even with their help, though, I had a difficult time planning the trip and will write a ‘how-to’ post later for the very small sliver of people that plan on doing this epic hike.
Also, if you’re keen to learn more about Shintoism, check out Buri-chan’s original manga adaptation of the Kojiki! It’s AMAZING! The Kojiki is the oldest text in Japanese history, supposedly written in 600 BC, and is the creation story of Japan itself—Greek god style.
I stepped off the train platform at Takamatsu station, awash in nostalgia. Five years ago I found myself at this very same bus and train station housed in the city’s harbor. I was struck first by the smell of crisp and raw ocean air washing over me. The brilliant blue sky reflected the ocean surrounding the island. Unlike the streets of Tokyo, the people here walked at a slower pace, a smile on their face, with a peaceful calm floating over the city.
I was so grateful to return to one of Japan’s most charming small cities: Takamatsu.
I headed toward the exit to the station, my heart giddy with excitement. I was meeting an old college friend here, a fellow Japanese language nerd and traveler who, unlike me, decided to stay in Japan while I moved to China. He has lived in Takamatsu for 7 years now, and although I had been here before, I wanted to catch up with him and see more of a city that has managed to capture his heart for almost a decade.
It was hard to miss my friend at the train station; on top of his 6 foot stature and bright red hair, he was the only foreigner on the premises. After he gave me a bear hug, he clapped me on the back and said: “let me show you my city… and get you a beer.”
Takawhere? What’s Shikoku?
Shikoku is Japan’s second largest island (next to Hokkaido), and surprisingly, the 50th largest island in the world. The name Shikoku (四国) literally means “four countries,” but it actually stands for the four provinces in the prefecture: Ehime, Kagawa, Kochi and Tokushima. Takamatsu is in Kagawa.
Shikoku was always known as the “rough and tough” back lands of Japan. Until this previous decade, getting to Shikoku meant riding a dinky fishing boat for three hours to reach shore. Now, with three bridges connecting Honshu (the main island) to Shikoku, it’s easy to get to Shikoku by bus or train from Osaka.
Takamatsu City is the capital of Kagawa province and the largest city in Shikoku. When I say large, I mean there are only 400,000 people living there. Still, the city is big enough to have your everyday amenities, yet manages to keep that local, small-town coziness. Takamatsu also has more sunshine than anywhere else in Japan, and although it does get cold in the winter, it never snows here.
After my arrival at the train station (and I mean right after), D took us to the city’s most famous tourist attraction: Ritsurin Park, one of Japan’s top three gardens.
I won’t bore you with writing about it, just look at the photos:
Even five years ago, the park was still just as beautiful:
Although we dashed through the park, one could easily spend an entire afternoon here. The seasons also matter in this park, with spring bringing cherry blossoms and autumn displaying a palette of harvest colors.
Shikoku, particularly Takamatsu, is famous for Udon (thick noodles made of flour). Udon is known as “the working man’s” food, so paying an exorbitant amount of money for udon is kind of ridiculous (don’t pay more than 10 bucks for a bowl!). Going to any one of these places is sure to be delicious.
After the garden and udon, my friend nudged me for a night of karaoke.
After two years in Japan and three in China, my karaoke skills have me grabbing me the microphone and singing cheesy U.S./UK songs like no other (Bon Jovi, anyone?). My friend D, with seven years under his belt, is hardcore. He has a karaoke memo book and sings like a champ. With a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a microphone in the other, we sang the night away.
Ogre Island (Onishima)
The next morning I was hungover to hell (note to self: you are too old for whiskey). Despite the headache, I told myself that I was 21 again, dragged myself out of bed, splashed cold water on my face and grabbed a cup of coffee to face the day.
Shikoku is surrounded by tons of tiny islands, which basically means it’s never boring. You could spend an entire day–or week–just island hopping alone. Some islands, like Naoshima, have so much to see that you might even need to spend the night there!
Our first stop of the day was ogre island (onishima 鬼島) which, legend has it, was occupied by ogres/demons way back in ancient Japan. The island makes an appearance in the Japanese fairy tale Momotaro, which is the equivalent of King Arthur or Davey Crockett. The caves here were hideaways for pirates later on, but now houses a bunch of modern art and cheesy demon statues.
Oh yes, every three years the Shikoku islands host an art festival called the Setouchi Triennale, where artists display their contemporary art creations across the different islands. Like so:
My favorite part of the island, though, was the view. The Seto inlet is truly stunning.
Cat Island (Aoshima)
We’ve all heard about the cat islands in Japan–you know, uninhabited islands run amok with cats? I never thought I would actually go to one, but when D said that was the next island on our stop, I was pretty excited.
I was expecting this, but when we got to the island we saw this:
We had to go hunting for the cats. I don’t know if it was the heat, if it was nap time, or the throngs of tourists scared all the cats away–but in the end, it wasn’t as cat infested as the youtube videos led me to believe. Still, we spotted a few litters of kitties lying about. Most of them were very ragged and worn, mostly because it’s a cat-eat-cat world on the island. With only 4 people living here (and over 200 cats), it’s hard to take care of every single animal. In fact, there were signs that said “please do not feed the cats, because if they populate then we just can’t handle taking care of them.” Kind of cruel, but that’s life.
Although cat island was lacking in, well, cats, it was still a charming and worthwhile visit. It was a glimpse into what old Japan looks like. Exploring the island was like setting foot in time 100 years ago, to rice paper doors and tiled roofs and into the life of a small fishing community that disappeared during the rise of industry. It’s an intact piece of a Japan that is slowly fading away with an aging population and a downtrodden economy. It’s sad, but beautiful… it symbolizes the transience of things. Mono no aware.
Goodbye Takamatsu, You Were My Favorite of the Bunch
I went to a ton of places in Japan this time around, and I have to say that Takamatsu was my favorite (or a close second to Kumano Kodo, which I’ll write about later!).
Unlike Tokyo and Kyoto, there are no throngs of tourists here. In fact, you’ll most likely be the only foreigners around. The people here are the nicest I’ve met in all of Japan, and even if they don’t speak English they will proactively help you with directions or guidance. This city by the sea has a local charm that makes it feel like home.
“I can see why you’ve been here for 7 years,” I said to D.
“Sometimes I think maybe I should go back to the states,” he said to me. “Maybe I’ve been here too long.”
“Don’t do it,” I looked him in the eye, then looked back to the sea from our boat. “I used to wonder why and how you could stay here for so long, but after living around the world and coming back here I now realize why you can’t leave. This is a special place…. the kind of place I’ve been looking for my whole life. Don’t let it go.”
If I could move to Takamatsu, I probably would. It’s that good.
Train: From Tokyo to Takamatsu, it’s a quite the ride– about 5 hours, to be exact. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, I do recommend taking this route. Take the bullet train from Tokyo to Okayama, then take the Marine Skyliner to Takamatsu–and that’s it. Easy eh? Use google maps or Hyperdia if in doubt!
Plane: With JAL or ANA, you can pay a set $100 fee to buy a flight anywhere in Japan upon landing in the country, with proof of your Japan ticket (and it can be with any airline). You could use this route to fly to Takamatsu from Tokyo, a one hour journey.
If flying from China, Spring Airlines has some pretty damn cheap flights into Takamatsu airport from Shanghai (you can get a ticket for 50-70 bucks!). If you’re in Asia and looking for a short holiday, then I recommend Takamatsu 100 times over. Less tourists, less money, and more fun!
Unlike Tokyo and Kyoto, Shikoku does not have a wealth of airbnb housing (this was the only leg of my trip where I didn’t stay at an airbnb).
I stayed in a single room in a hostel called Traditional Apartment. It’s a cozy place with an English speaking owner, a hip bar and lobby, but very aged and worn rooms. The rooms are traditional tatami style (get ready to sleep on the floor!), but they do come equipped with private kitchen and toilet. Shower is shared.
Business hotels in Shikoku, like Dormy Inn, are also quite affordable and in the downtown area. The rooms are smaller, but you’ll get your own private room/bath/toilet and free breakfast.
The Japan Rail Pass doesn’t work here, since it’s not JR lines, so you’ll have to pay your way for tickets (1-2 dollars for one way tickets around the city). Shikoku is quite accessible by foot, so if you stay near the train station or downtown, you probably won’t even need the train.
You can even rent a bike at the train stationread more
Ah, March. The prelude to Spring. The light at the end of a long winter tunnel.
Or in Japan, it’s the start of one of the most prized occasions of the year:
Cherry Blossom Season.
Whatever high expectation you have for watching cherry blossoms in Japan (or better known as ‘hanami,‘ which literally means ‘watch flowers’ 花見), Japan will not disappoint on this front. It’s a magical experience.
While many tourists envision their hanami experience like an anime opening (think wind blowing in your hair as sakura petals brush past your skin), the reality may differ somewhat. To get the kind of hanami experience you’re dreaming of, it involves more than hopping on a plane and finding a sakura tree–it will take a whole ‘lotta planning.
For optimal hanami-ing, make sure you plan and prepare well.
Time Your Hanami Accordingly
As the famous Japanese poet Basho said:
“Very brief –
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.
From among the peach trees
the first cherry blossoms.”
While it’s a beautiful haiku, we have to remember the key words in here: very brief.
The sakura only bloom for 1-2 weeks. This means that you only have a 2 week window to fly into Japan and view these fleeting beauties. It’s no surprise that the sakura are always alluded to in Japanese poetry as a symbol of transience–because these flowers disappear, and they do it fast.
The sakura bloom at different times across the country, starting from the bottom (Kyushu and Kyoto blooms as early as the first week of March) and ending at the top (blooms are sighted in the first week of May in Hokkaido).
Lucky for us, the Japanese prepare a Sakura bloom forecast every year to help better plan our hanami activities. The forecast for 2016 is already up and you can find it here on Japan’s official travel homepage.
2. Choose a Cherry Tree Park
There’s a bazillion Cherry Blossom viewing spots across Japan, (really, look at this long list), but most people will usually flock to Tokyo and Kyoto to hanami.
One of the most popular destinations in Tokyo is Ueno Park near Ueno Station, which has long walkways of over 1,200 sakura trees as well as food stalls and other activities going on throughout the day.
One of them is in my home prefecture of Niigata at Takeda castle. I wrote a post last year about how seeing the cherry blossoms in Niigata isn’t only less crowded and more beautiful, but it can save you money on expensive lodgings and help introduce travelers to the “real” Japan hidden beneath Tokyo and Kyoto.
Didn’t think you could view sakura at night, did you? Did you know that there’s even a word for this activity?
Yozakura, or viewing the cherry blossoms at night, is a must. I didn’t even know this was a thing until I moved to Japan and realized that sakura night viewing is just as beautiful, or in some cases even more enchanting, than the daytime counterpart.
One of the up-sides to yozakura is the drop in crowds and the serenity of the evening. The cool night breeze, the moonlight draping over the fresh cherry blossoms and the stars shining in the sky will give you the ultimate Japan experience (plus, the food stalls aren’t as crowded, woo-hoo!).
Space is limited under those sakura trees, and punches will be thrown for that prime real estate.
To snag a rare patch of grass (or better yet, send a friend to go and hold your spot) head out early with a large tarp and a few foldable chairs. Whatever area your tarp (and chairs) cover is yours for the day, so as long as one person is out there with a tarp in hand, you should be safe.
Finding a quiet patch of grass near a sakura tree in Tokyo and Kyoto are extra difficult to secure, so plan accordingly to make your picnic under the blossoms a reality.
5. Sit, Eat and Get Drunk
The first time I viewed the cherry blossoms, I wasn’t blown away by the pure beauty of the flowers alone.
No, my culture shock came with just how piss drunk all the Japanese people around me were.
When you walk through a seemingly serene park of cherry blossoms, be aware of the drunks underneath the trees. Teenagers, salarymen, family members–you name it, and they’re probably knocking a few shots of sake back while enjoying the sakura. Whether the Japanese are excited about the cherry blossoms, elated at the return of Spring or just looking for an excuse to get hammered, they really know how to get sloshed and have a good time when they hanami.
The Japanese love to picnic underneath the sakura. In addition to drinking copious amounts of alcohol, they will also bring bento boxes and snacks to last the entire day while they gaze at the flowers. It’s a fun-filled day to bring friends, get some food (sometimes even set up BBQ), crack open a beer and enjoy perfect weather with the perfect flower. And who knows, maybe if you’re lucky enough a drunk hanami group might invite you into their group for some free food (and booze!).
If you’re in Japan and looking to hanami, follow the five steps above and you’re sure to have an unforgettable sakura experience!
Chances are, most travelers never heard of Nagano. Some people know it as that place in Japan that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics–but other than that, Nagano, unfortunately, still remains widely unknown.
Nagano is one of Japan’s larger prefectures located in the Shinshu region directly west of Tokyo (about a one hour bullet train ride away). It is one of the most mountainous regions in Japan and is known for its snow, great peaks and amazing forests.
Nagano is special to me, because it’s the first place I ever went to in Japan. I did a one month study abroad program here, and it was nothing less than magical. The mountains, the food, and most of all the kind hearts of the people in the countryside are what made me fall in love with this place–and convinced me to come back.
Since my first trip to Japan, I’ve been to countless prefectures and cities in the country–yet Nagano still remains my favorite. It has charm. It has tradition. It has nature. It’s the best prefecture to visit because of its close proximity to Tokyo and countless sights.
This is why you should go to Nagano:
1. Matsumoto City (and castle)
Matsumoto City is located in southeast Nagano and is the second largest city in the prefecture. It’s not only famous for the Shinano river which runs throughout the city and for being the home-base of the Seiko watch… it’s also famous for this:
Japan’s most authentic and intact castle: Matsumoto-jo.
Smack center in the middle of the city is this masterpiece. This is one of the few castles in Japan which was not destroyed by wars or fires. It’s almost exactly the same as it was 400 years ago. Built in the karasu-jo (crow castle) style, this castle design is in stark contrast to its counterpart Himeji Castle (in hakuro-jo style, white egret) in Himeji city way down south.
With a cheap ticket (10 USD or less if I remember), you can enter the castle and climb up the crazy, steep stairs used to keep intruders out.
The castle gardens are also the best place to watch the sunset, go for a romantic stroll, or perhaps even catch a festival.
Kamikochi is one of Japan’s national parks and a UNESCO world heritage site. Only a quick one hour bus ride away from Matsumoto City is an immensely green forest covered in trees that reach up to the heavens.
At the top of Kamikochi is a shinto shrine, where you can wish for safe travels, a long and healthy life, or to pass the college entrance exams (by far the most popular request of Shinto temples in Japan).
I’ve been to this national park three times and let me tell you: it never gets old.
It feels like walking into a fairy tale.
3. Nagano City (Zenkoji)
Ah, Nagano City. You can’t go through the prefecture without stopping through its capital city, right?
The main highlight of Nagano City is Zenkoji Temple, one of the few remaining pilgrimage sites left in Japan, rumored to hold the first Buddha statue ever brought to the country.
I’ve seen a lot of temples in Japan: and trust me, Zenkoji does not disappoint.
You can also go through the underground sanctuary beneath the temple for a tour in the dark. Guests are supposed to feel their way around the passage through the guiding light of Buddha–but mainly, it’s dark and and somewhat creepy. Still, an experience nevertheless.
Nagano City is also a lovely, medium-sized city that is much more manageable than crazy and crowded Tokyo. It has a slew of bars, restaurants, and good food that are very friendly and open to foreigners. Nagano is also known for its apples and wasabi, so don’t forget to pick up your apple themed omiyage (souvenir) before leaving.
Just in time for the holidays.
Karuizawa is a trendy, hip mountain town located on the western most edge of Nagano prefecture (closest to Tokyo). It’s famous for its western churches (one of the first built in the region), which is where many Japanese couples dream of tying the knot. These two churches are: St. John Paul the Baptist’s church and the modern stone wall church built into the side of a mountain.
Karuizawa is mainly a place for the rich to buy a cool mountain retreat to escape the unbearable heat of Tokyo summers. Yet despite its high-profile, short-term tenants, the place has managed to retain its small town charm. A quick stroll down main street and you’ll find dozens of local shops selling local Nagano fashion, organically harvested honey, and furniture stores run by local artists.
While Japan doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, Karuizawa is one of the few places in Japan where the Christmas spirit felt authentic. Christmas lights, cold weather and snow? Yes please.
5. Hot Springs and Soba
In Japan, the best hot springs (or onsen) are located in the middle of nowhere–and lucky for you, Nagano prefecture is in the middle of nowhere.
A short ride away from Kamikochi is Jigokudani, a snow monkey park where, yes, you can actually bathe with the monkeys. This is actually horrifically dangerous (I have done it–eye contact with a monkey could result in multiple flesh wounds and the loss of an eyeball), so I recommend taking photos of the monkeys from afar and not bathing with them.
The most famous hot spring (without monkeys) is Nozawa onsen located near Nozawa Ski Resort in the middle of nowhere (aka, Nozawa village in Nagano). It’s a great place to relax, soak in some natural mineral waters, and sip some hot sake as you enjoy a snowy winter day in the comforts of a bath.
But honestly, there’s an onsen almost anywhere in Nagano. Whether you’re in Nagano city or Matsumoto City, there is usually one hot spring a short bus or train ride away.
In Togakuchi, a mountain village located one hour away from Nagano City, is a soba school. Nagano is famous for its zaru-soba, or buckwheat noodles. You cannot leave Nagano without sampling its cold/hot buckwheat noodles alongside some crisp and flaky tempura. Hell, at Togakushi Tonkururin, a famous soba restaurant, you can learn how to make soba AND eat it all in one go.
The Spirit of Japan
After wandering around Matsumoto Castle, I returned to the garden entrance to find the 65th annual Obon festival dance in full motion.
The beat of the taiko drum. The chanting of the dancers singing the familiar festival songs that reverberate across Japan throughout summer. The red and white striped lanterns. The familiar “yokosoi” dance for summer festivals, where men and women in kimonos and yukatas flick their hands up, dip down and twirl around in perfect unity and precision. The humid summer air. The smell of yakisoba (fried noodles) wafting up from the food stalls nearby. The gathered community. People laughing.
I felt it. This is Japan. What it means to be Japanese.
A small slice of Japanese life in the countryside. In Nagano. The heart of Japan.
Where, when, and how?
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, definitely stop by Nagano! It’s easy to tack onto any Japan trip because of its close proximity to Tokyo. If you’re a skiier or snowboarder, it’s a must.
If you’re planning a trip, the official Nagano website is the best place to get tips. They’ll give you advice on how to get where.
Also, the best website/app to look up train directions in Japan is Hyperdia and Google Maps. Japan is a super easy country to navigate, and almost ANYWHERE is accessible by train (even Kamikochi and other extremely remote national parks)!
And of course, use Airbnb and hostels when you can, since accommodation is usually the most expensive thing in Japan. Matsumoto has a slew of great Japanese B&Bs!