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How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail

How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail

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

Going to Kyushu, Japan? Why Visiting Yakushima is Worth it

Going to Kyushu, Japan? Why Visiting Yakushima is Worth it

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.

Wayyyyy down there!

Even within Kyushu (the bottom island), getting to Yakushima is no easy feat.  You’ll not only have to take a 3+ hour bullet train from Fukuoka City to Kagoshima, but then you’ll have to ride a 2 hour speedboat from Kagoshima to Yakushima.   Once there, it is possible to get around by bus or scooter, but I recommend renting a car. 

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.

Yakisugi Land
Starting to see the Princess Mononoke resemblance?
Yakisugi Land Sennensugi
Thousand year-old-cedar… no big deal
SOOOO GREEEEN
I bet this is so pretty in the fall!
The Ruby Ronin is green… you know, to blend in with the surroundings
Untamed wilderness

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)

Yudomari Onsen
Not a bad view for a bath
The onsen itself

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?

If you want to bathe in more, ahem, private quarters–then here’s a list of all the onsens in Yakushima.  Kyushu is a hot spring lover’s heaven, and Yakushima is no exception.

Waterfalls and More

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.

Ohko Waterfall
Ohko Waterfall
Impressed with Ohko

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!

Yakushima ocean
Random road stop
Yakushima’s pretty all around, so we made random pit stops–at places like the above

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.

Senpiro Waterfall Yakushima
Senpiro Waterfall
Senpiro Waterfall in Yakushima
View of Yakushima from the Vantage Point at Senpiro Waterfall

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.

Shiki No Yado Yakushima
Beneath a dormant volcano!
Shiki no yado sunrise yakushima
Sunrise at Shiki no Yado

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

Your Minshuku

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.

Shiki no Yado Yakushima Food
Look at that spread!
Mmmm… caught-the-morning-of sushi
Minshuku breakfast: the REAL breakfast of champions

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.

Iso no Kaori Yakushima
Here it is!
While I got a sushi meal, Richard’s friend got a fried fish here… trust me, it tasted better than it looks
Yakushima Craft Brew
And believe it or not… there’s even a craft brewery on the island. The place was just starting out, but still… quite good!

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.
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    Discovering Japan through the Eyes of a Tourist

    Discovering Japan through the Eyes of a Tourist

    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

    Can you tell who is Chinese?

    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.

    read more

    My Boyfriend’s First Impression of Japan

    My Boyfriend’s First Impression of Japan

    japan temple

    After two months of silence:  I’m finally back on U.S. soil.

    After suffering through China’s excruciating internet (wow, did it get WAAAY worse in the last two years, and hats off to fellow expats still suffering through it), I am finally able to wordpress and Google photos freely (and thus update this little blog).

    I traveled extensively for six weeks throughout China and Japan–and believe me, I have A LOT to write about.  I’m very excited to get some posts out in the upcoming days and weeks.  It was great to be a nomad traveler again, donning a backpack and whizzing from place to place for days on end. read more

    Visiting Japan? 5 Reasons You Should Go to Nagano

    Visiting Japan? 5 Reasons You Should Go to Nagano

    VisitNaganoBlogCover

    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.

    Nagano - Kamikochi3

    3. Nagano City (Zenkoji)

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

    Nagano - Zenkoji1

    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

    Nagano - Matsumoto1

    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!

    The Best Fall Foliage in Japan

    The Best Fall Foliage in Japan

    Lookit dem trees!
    Lookit dem trees!

    Winter is Coming

    November whizzed by in the blink of an eye, and it’s already the third day of December.  It may be a little too late to talk about fall foliage in Japan, but after seeing all the amazing fall photos posted by my friends in Japan on Facebook, I just had to get in on the action.

    I’d also like to mention that seeing fall foliage in Japan was, quite frankly, one of the highlights of my life.  There are some things that are best done in Japan, such as eating fresh sushi or viewing cherry blossoms, and I have to say seeing the fall leaves should rank at the top of that list.

    In my opinion, the best time to go to Japan is not during the spring to see cherry blossoms; but rather, during the fall when leaves are painted blood red, sunset orange and a golden yellow.  There is nothing else like in the world.  It should be on everyone’s bucket list.

    Although it may be too late to visit these spots this year, I wanted to introduce my favorite spots for viewing the fall foliage of Japan.

    First Off, Where Not To Go

    Looks like some people might just spill out...
    Looks like some people might just spill out…

    Kyoto is regarded as one of the best spots to see fall foliage…

    …that is, if you like to be sandwiched between a sea of people.

    While the fall leaves in Kyoto do turn spectacular colors and the backdrop of some of Japan’s most famous temples create some picture perfect photos, I  think the crowds (and prices) make it more of a hassle than a hidden treasure.

    In other words, avoid Kyoto and try going somewhere else.

    Try somewhere like…

    The Hokuriku/Alps Area

    Wee, Niigata!
    Wee, Niigata!

    I know, I rant about Niigata on here more than I should, but I truly feel it is an under appreciated prefecture and deserves more attention.

    I saw fall foliage in Kyoto, Nagano, Himeji, Toyama–and none of the colors there even came close to what I witnessed in Nagaoka city in Niigata prefecture.

    Reach to the sky
    Reach to the sky
    Didn't think trees could turn this red, right?
    Didn’t think trees could turn this red, right?
    Amazing.
    Amazing.

    Most of the Hokuriku area in Japan has some stunning fall foliage scenes, with Niigata as a local favorite of mine.  Nearby Nagano prefecture has Kamikochi national park, which blends fall hues and mountain landscapes beautifully together to give you some truly stunning scenery.

    But my absolute, favorite place for fall foliage in Japan?

    Kurobe Valley in Toyama Prefecture

    The famous bridge that brings you into the valley
    The famous bridge that brings you into the valley

    This place is what fairy tales are made of.  The red bridge connects the outside world of Japan into the inner valleys of Kurobe, a true tribute to nature and a sanctuary of trees, bubbling brooks and towering mountains.

     

    Feast your eyes on this
    Feast your eyes on this

    While the leaf colors here don’t dazzle as much as Niigata, the overall landscape composition is mind blowing.  The translucent water, powdered snow sprinkled on top of the mountains like sugar on a cake, and the rain of golden leaves as they retreat into their winter slumber are all symbols of Japan’s changing seasons.

     

    Kurobe valley is a MUST.
    Kurobe valley is a MUST.

    This vacation was also quite memorable because I went with my favorite teachers at the time.  Although I suffered immensely from loneliness when I lived in the countryside of Japan, there were a few teachers that reached out to me as more than just a foreigner in distress or a lonely gaijin: They saw me as a friend.

     

    The 6th grade teacher, school nurse and vice-principal
    The 6th grade teacher, school nurse and vice-principal

    The vice-principal was one of the few Japanese teachers that talked to me not as “that American teacher,” but just as Mary.  Halfway through his term as vice-principal, he left the school due to an “illness.”  When I asked him about it during this trip, he went into detail about the overwhelming pressures of Japanese society and how he was crumbling under the system, mentally.   He was one of the few, and brave, Japanese men I met that put his health–and his family’s–above his job.  I was touched that he opened up to me about such a sensitive topic, and talked to me as a friend rather than a foreigner in a strange land.

     

    Hokairo!
    Hokairo!

    Anyway, Kurobe Valley can only be accessed via the train that runs on the red bridge above.  The train is very old school, which means no heating and–yes–no windows.  This gives better access to the views outside, but definitely makes the ride a wee bit drafty (thus the vice-principal and I up there are holding Japan’s archaic heating method, the hot pad hokairo).

     

    Even in the dead cold, it's an open-air train
    Even in the dead cold, it’s an open-air train

    This wasn’t the last trip I went on with the above trio.  We also explored various parks in Toyama and Nagano, toured the Christmas lights in Karuizawa Japan, and had countless dinners together.  Even today, the memory of them remain deep in my heart.  I hope somehow, someway, I can see them again.

    I know, too much reminiscing.

    While the leaves aren’t as crimson as Niigata, the impeccable outline of the maple leaves in Toyama (momiji) and its cascade of fall hues will leave you in awe of Japan’s beauty.

    Colors of Kurobe
    Colors of Kurobe
    Momiji Outline
    Momiji Outline

    In Japan, the seasons bring more than just a change of weather.   The food, the scenery, the customs and even everyday life changes according to the time of the year.

    To me, fall in Japan was the end to the relenting humidity of summer.  Fall was a draft of fresh air that painted the trees in warm colors of harvest.  Fall meant that it was time to bring the kotatsu (heated table) out from the closet and prepped for use.  Fall i sthe season to munch on Japan’s juicy tangerines (mikan) after sipping on an ice-cold, autumn flavored Asahi beer.  Fall meant it was time to dust off the sweaters, the mittens, the scarves and bring out the coat for the upcoming winter.

    Going across the famous bridge
    Going across the famous bridge

    Whether you’re going to Kurobe Valley in Toyama prefecture or simply exploring a small park full of trees in Tokyo, fall foliage needs in Japan is a definite must on any traveler’s list.

    And with the yen hitting record lows (180 JPY to the  dollar!) now has never been a better time to go.

    Come and see for yourself
    Come and see for yourself

    Although my relationship with Japan is complicated, there is no doubt in my heart that I love that country–with fall being my personal favorite.