Hiking Zhangjiajie in Hunan: A Must See in China

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Hunan.

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.

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Chen and I from six years ago when we traveled to Korea

Chen is from Hunan.

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Chen with his AWESOME WIFE!

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.

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Believe it or not, this is supposed to be Mao Ze Dong. Gotta love that wind blowing in his hair.

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.

Outside of Chen's father's home
Outside of Chen’s father’s home

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.

This is why I love China.
This is why I love China.

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.

Zhangjiawha?

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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

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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).

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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.

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The view from the top of the glass elevator was excellent.

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J: Oh shit! 600 foot elevator in China?! I’m totally a goner…!!
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…or maybe not 😉

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.

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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

Hiking in China: 7 Habits of the Modern Day Chinese Traveler

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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.

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Imagine the echos this view makes

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

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Imagine this view to Avici’s “Titanium” song. Fitting, no?

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.

Emilien ETIENNE [ - THE SMOKER - ] via photopin (license)
Emilien ETIENNE [ – THE SMOKER – ] via photopin (license)

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

Jonathan Kos-Read Trash via photopin (license)
Jonathan Kos-Read Trash via photopin (license)

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.

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When the lake resembles a mirror, that means don’t throw garbage in it

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

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This was a loud photo. Trust me.

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

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J and I were about to board the public bus, and like good foreigners we tried to queue.

Bad idea.

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.

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This is the kind of ‘re nao’ I like

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.

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Find inner peace, like this butterfly

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).
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Have you had any experience with Chinese tourists? Do you have any habits to add to the above?

Hiking Japan’s Holy Pilgrimage, Kumano Kodo

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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:

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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.

The trailhead
The trail head

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.

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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.

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Like a painting
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Rural towns still holding on strong
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An Onsen village

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.

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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.

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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.

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Our humble room at the minshuku–tatami mats and futons

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.

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Fresh fish roasting in the pit
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Exquisite Japanese presentation
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Rice ball lunch packed by the couple

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.

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This tori gate signals the end of a grueling, grueling hike
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I paid my respects here as the priests inside conducted a ceremony

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.

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The tori gate to Nachi Shrine
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The symbol of Kumano Kodo.. the crow
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No biggie, it’s just an 800 year old Shinto tree

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.

Epic or what?
Epic or what?
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The shrine of eternal flame below the almighty waterfall

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.

The Holy island of Amaterasu that no one has EVER stepped on
The Holy island of Amaterasu that no one has EVER stepped on

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.

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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?

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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.

Cat Island, Gardens and Udon in Takamatsu, Shikoku

Visit Takamatsu Tourism

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.

Harbor near the train station, the first platform you'll see coming off
Harbor near the train station, the first platform you’ll see coming off
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Me five years ago… oh, how Japanese I dressed

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?

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The brown island blob at the bottom is 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.

By Willhsmit at en.wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Compared to the main island and other cities (such as Kyoto and Tokyo), Shikoku doesn’t get much tourism; but perhaps, this is a blessing in disguise.  This island is truly an undiscovered gem.  Shikoku has the famous art island Naoshima, Dogo Onsen (hot spring) the oldest hot spring in Japan; the traditional homes and villages of Tokushima prefecture hidden in the mountains and an 88 stop pilgrimage that encircles the whole island… and that’s just scratching the surface.

Downtown Takamatsu
Downtown Takamatsu

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.

Ritsurin Park

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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:

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This is not D, but my best friend who came with me on the trip
This is not D, but my best friend who came with me on the trip

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Even five years ago, the park was still just as beautiful:

This was from five years ago
This was from five years ago
Wisteria blooming at Ritsurin Park
Wisteria blooming at Ritsurin Park–again, me 5 years ago

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.

Udon

Curry Udon... with beer, of course
Curry Udon… with beer, of course

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)

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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.

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Cheesy demon/ogre statues yes!

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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:

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Yes people, this is art
Modern Art. I just don't get it, but it spices up the scenery.
Modern Art. I just don’t get it, but it spices up the scenery.
Uhh?
Uhh?

My favorite part of the island, though, was the view. The Seto inlet is truly stunning.

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Green green green!
The Beaches on Onishima
The Beaches on Onishima
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There’s Takamatsu City in the distance

Cat Island (Aoshima)

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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:

Uhhhh where are the cats?
Uhhhh where are the cats?

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.

Kitties hiding in the bushes!
Kitties hiding in the bushes!

Surprisingly, however, when Aoshima sent a plea to the world for cat food to help the cat population, their request was filled in a matter of days.  See, the world does love cats!

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.

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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.

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“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.

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Travel Tips!

Getting There

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!

Bus: Hourly buses from Osaka can get you to Takamatsu in a jiffy (1-2 hours)!

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!

Accommodations

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.

Getting Around

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 station read more

5 Steps to Hanami (View Cherry Blossoms) in Japan

Spring has Sprung!
Spring has Sprung!

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.

  1.  Time Your Hanami Accordingly
Some of these buds still need to bloom
Some of these buds still need to bloom

As the famous Japanese poet Basho said:

“Very brief –
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.

From among the peach trees
blooming everywhere,
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

All of the Sakura in Ueno
All of the Sakura in Ueno

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.

However, I’m an advocate for going off the beaten path.  In fact, many of the best hanami locations aren’t even in Tokyo or Kyoto!

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.

The most popular park to hanami (according to a survey of Japanese citizens) is the Meguro River Park in Tokyo.  I won’t lie–it does look very pretty.

3. Night or Day Sakura?  Or Both?

Takeda Castle at Night
Takeda Castle at Night

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!).

For some great spots on yozakura, my hometown of Niigata takes the top spot and this list introduces a variety of nighttime blossoms across the country.

4. Stake Your Spot

Lay down that blue tarp!
Lay down that blue tarp!

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

sakura food stalls

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!).

Intoxicated Mary underneath the blossoms
Just don’t drink as much as Mary here….

If you’re in Japan and looking to hanami, follow the five steps above and you’re sure to have an unforgettable sakura experience!

Visiting Japan? 5 Reasons You Should Go to Nagano

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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's right in the middle!
Nagano’s right in the middle!

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.

Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle! In Matsumoto City

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)

Downtown Matsumoto City

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:

Nagano - Matsumoto2

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.

matsumotoclose

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.

2.  Kamikochi

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.

Nagano - Kamikochi

Nagano - Kamikochi4

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).

Nagano - Kamikochi1

I’ve been to this national park three times and let me tell you: it never gets old.

Nagano - Kamikochi2

It feels like walking into a fairy tale.

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3. Nagano City (Zenkoji)

Ah, Nagano City.  You can’t go through the prefecture without stopping through its capital city, right?

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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.

nagano - zenkoji

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.

4. Karuizawa nagano - karuizawa

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.

Nagano - Stone Wall Church
Image Credit

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.

Nagano - Karuizawa2

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.

Celebrating Christmas in Karuizawa
Celebrating Christmas in Karuizawa

5.  Hot Springs and Soba

 Image Credit
Image Credit

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.

Nagano - Monkeys
Image Credit

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.

Nagano - soba

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

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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.

Nagano - Matsumoto

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!

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