Higashiyama Walking Course in Takayama



Since my ryokan was located near the former site of Takayama Castle (Shiroyama Park), I was able to enjoy a tranquil stroll along the Higashiyama Walking Course before I left the city. Unlike the busy city centre, I hardly saw anyone as I walked past various temples and shrines, as well as woodland and cemetery. It is about three and a half kilometres starting from Ryuunji Temple to Shiroyama Park. The route reminded me of the Philospher’s Path in Kyoto, but it is much quieter and perhaps less pictureque. Nonetheless, this area was the highlight of my stay in Takayama, and I thoroughly enjoyed the nature and calmness. It was a perfect end to my short stay in Takayama.






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Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (last day)



Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku in Koguchi


After having a big Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku, I was ready for my last hike of the pilgrimage trail. Mr Nakazawa warned me about the first stretch of the hike, which requires a steep climb of 800 metres in elevation over 5km. This section of the trail is called Dogirizaka meaning ‘body breaking slope’. Mr Nakazawa smiled and told me that he had done it a few times, as shown in the photos on his wall.


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The most challenging section of the trail is Dogirizaka. The famous poet Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) stated in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is”.


Out of all the days, the last day was the day when I encountered the most hikers. Oddly, the supposedly most difficult section seemed to attract more hikers than the rest. Early in the morning, I saw a couple having an argument while hiking up the woods; the husband stormed off (carrying nothing), and his wife (who was carrying a handbag) had to chase after him! It was a bizarre scene. Not long after that, I ran into the couple from San Francisco again and we decided to hike together. We all felt that carrying our own rucksacks while walking the pilgrimage trail was important to us… it would have been much easier to have our rucksacks forwarded to the next destination, but it would completely miss the point and notion of the pilgrimage.

We learned that the Dogirizaka section is tough because the rock staircases appear to be endless, and at times very steep and slippery. Since I have previously suffered from a knee injury, my poles helped me enormously throughout this trail.


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Finally, we survived the toughest section and reached the Echizen-toge pass. Yet it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing from then on, because there were still several descends and climbs from one mountain to another. However, we all felt that having companions made the journey easier… mostly because we were having some interesting conversations and were distracted from the walking.

At the Jizo-jaya teahouse remains, we met another group of hikers and had lunch here altogether. Since our water supply was low, we were thrilled to see a vending machine here. Normally, vending machines are conspicuous in Japan, but on this trail, they are rare and are considered as precious commodities. Like the one I saw yesterday, the one at the teahouse remains had ran out of water as well, so we had to opt for other drinks. After lunch, we carried on with the awareness that we were at the last stretch of the trail.




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Nachi Kogen Park
A pleasant surprise awaited us at the vast and picturesque Nachi Kogen Park, which at the time was full of cherry trees! We saw an ultra long slide and got very excited. We decided to try and slide down, but it was very difficult with the old rollers and ended up using our hands to move down the slide. Luckily, the view from the top of the slide was stunning because of the cherry trees and mountain backdrop, so it made up for the slow motion down the slide. Two Japanese guys saw us struggling and gave a cardboard to my American companion behind me. Thus, he was sliding down very quickly while I was struggling in front of him and worrying that he was going to crash into me… We all had a laugh in the end, especially because it was all quite unexpected, and not long before we reached our destination.




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Nachi-no-Otaki and Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine


When we finally got a glimpse of the Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall while descending from Mount Nachi, and we were all over the moon. Yet the first thing we did when we arrived at the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine was to rush into a shop with an ice-cream sign outside! We felt that we deserved some reward for the hard work, and the delicious plum ice cream did the trick for us.

After our treat, we walked around the Shinto Nachi Taisha Shrine and the Buddhist Seiganto-ji Temple (the two structures used to be connected but were separated in the Meiji era). The temple is reputed to be the oldest structure in Kumano and said to have been founded in the fourth century by an Indian monk who also founded the Fudarakusan Temple .

The location was the Grand shrine offers a fantastic view of Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi-no-Otaki (133 meters high and 13 meters wide), which has long been a site of religious significance in Japan. The worship of the nature and kami (meaning superior to the human condition) is at the heart of Shintoism, hence the waterfall became a place of worship or pilgrimage site.

It felt odd to see tourists roaming around at this site, since I barely saw more than 20 people over the last few days. I spent more time with trees than humans during my pilgrimage trail, and despite the challenges, I found the experience extremely meditative and gratifying. Being able to walk the ancient trails where pilgrims have passed through for over a thousand years was a privilege, and I would never forget this amazing journey.


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After wandering around the site of the Shrine, it was time for the American couple and I to say goodbye. We exchanged contacts and then parted our ways. My journey would have been quite different without them, and I was glad that we were able to complete the trail together.






I waited for the last bus that headed towards Nachi-Katsuura, a fishing port where I spent my last night before leaving the region by train. Nachi-Katsuura has the highest catch of tuna in Japan, and its morning tuna market is a local attraction. It is also known for its onsens, and I splashed out on my last night of the trail at Manseiro Ryokan, located right across from the pier.






The seafoof banquet at Manseiro Ryokan


The building of the ryokan is rather old and the decor is modest and dated, but the highlight here is its meals. After three days of hiking, I think the spectacular kaiseki-style seafood dinner was a great way to end my journey. The star of the meal was of course, tuna, and apart from eating it raw, it was also served as sukiyaki (usually beef is used). The food just kept coming, even the waiter was laughing because I looked stunned whenever he brought more dishes over.




After the never-ending meal, I rested a little before taking the free ferry (10 mins ride) across to the neighboring Hotel Urashima, where it is famous for its Bokido onsen cave bath overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Hotel Urashima is a massive and touristy resort with numerous souvenir shops, karaoke bars, and game centers, and I was quite shocked when I arrived in my onsen yukata. Nonetheless, I managed to find my way in the labyrinth of hallways with colour coded lines on the floor.

Unlike the chaotic lobby and hallways, the natural hot spring bath in a cave by the ocean is very tranquil. Not only you can hear the waves beating against the rocks, you can also feel the sea breeze and look up at the moon and stars while soaking in a hot spring bath. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and I absolutely loved it. Even though all my aches was melting away, I was also feeling exhausted from my 8-hour hike, so I didn’t stay that long in the cave. All I could think of was ‘bed’ after the soak.



Another big breakfast…


Public foot onsen



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After another big but healthy Japanese breakfast the next morning, I ventured over to the tuna market. Although I had missed the early morning auction (I was in need of sleep), I was still curious to see where most of the tuna in Japan originated from. Luckily, there was still some actions to be seen… and I managed to take some photos from the observation deck of auction’s aftermath.

After a short stroll around the quiet town, I bought a fish bento and some seafood snacks for my train ride to kyoto. My five-day journey in the Wakayama region had been sublime and extraordinary, and what struck me most was the largely unspoilt nature along the Kumano Kodo trail. This part of my trip revealed the beauty of Japan that is usually depicted in nature-related documentaries, and I am sure my Shinrin-yoku/forest bathing time was beneficial to my physical and mental health.



The view from the train


Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (Day 1)



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After a restful night at the lovely Happiness Chikatsuyu, I was feeling mentally prepared for my pilgrimage walk. According to the map, the distance from Chikatusuyu to Hongu Taisha-mae is about 25 km/15.5 miles with an elevation of 650 meters at the highest point of the route. On paper, it doesn’t sound too difficult, but in fact, my first day turned out to be the most challenging day of the entire trail. This was partly due to the exceptionally warm weather. It was the last day of March, and I had brought along my fleece, waterproofs, hat, scarf, etc.; what I did not expect was sunny blue sky with temperature reaching up to 25/6 degrees, and I ended up sweating throughout the day.

I walked to the village around 8 to have breakfast at the same cafe that delivered my dinner the previous night, and I had to order a takeaway bento as there are no other food/ convenient stores nearby to buy my lunch. My plan was to take the 9am bus that would take me up the hill to save some energy, however, after waiting for about 15 minutes, the bus still hadn’t arrived (in fact, it never it), hence I decided not to waste more time and started walking.


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Bottom right: Nonaka-no-Shimizu Spring is one of the 100 famous waters of Japan


Hiking over 200 meters in elevation up to Mt. Takao was arduous because the sun was right on top of me. It was not even 11am yet, and my back was soaked because of the rucksack. Even though I am an avid and experienced walker, the heat was making me slight wary about the rest of the day.




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I walked past Nonaka where there are a row of minshukus (family-run bed and breakfasts) that overlook the mountains nearby. Since the accommodations along the trail are limited, it is best to book in advanced esp. during the high seasons.






I tried not to stop much and kept at a constant pace, but it got much tougher during the 4 km detour due to a typhoon damage in 2011. This section includes a steep hike over the Iwagami-toge pass (650 meters elevation), then descends to the Jagata Jizo. My foldable walking poles worked wonders during the descend, and I was glad that I bought them for this hike. Nonetheless, I had to stop and rest occasionally during the uphill section, and I felt as if my rucksack was getting heavier as I hiked upwards.


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After passing through Yukawa-oji, there is another steep climb upwards towards Mikoshi-toge Pass, where there is a rest area with toilets. By the time I reached Mikoshi-toge Pass, it was already 2:30pm, and I was feeling hot, tired, and starving. Here, I ran into the Japanese couple i met earlier in the day, and they were having their break and lunch as well. My simple bento consisted of three Onigiri, some fish sticks and a section of a banana. I could have eaten more, but at least the rice was quite filling, which was what I needed.



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Funatama Shrine and Inohana Oji


After the break, I continued on and there was more descend through an unpaved woodland path. Eventually when I left the woodland, there was a flat section (usually the flat part doesn’t last long) where some lovely cherry trees were starting to blossom.

Not long after, I walked past the Funatama Shrine which enshrines the god of ships dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). And further down from the Shrine is Inohana Oji; in kanji, the term ‘Inohana’ means a pig’s nose, and apparently, it originated from the topography of the area which is supposed to resemble a wild boar’s nose. Hmm…

Throughout the trail, there are stamps available at various spots where hikers could stamp onto their stamp book. I did not managed to pick up a stamp book at Kii-Tanabe, so I stamped onto my free map, which probably wasn’t ideal. Yet seeing a new stamp on each page did provide me with a slight sense of progress and a bit of excitement.






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Hosshinmon oji


By around 4pm (after hiking for seven hours), I finally arrived at Hosshinmon oji, one of the most important sites on the trail. It is known as the “gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment”, and passing through the gate is a transformational rite marking the initiatory death and rebirth in the Pure Land paradise.

From here, I still had about three more hours to walk until I reach the destination, Hongu Taisha-mae. I saw a warning sign reminding hikers that the sun would set around 6pm, and so I decided to walk towards the bus stop to try and catch the next bus. At the bus stop, I saw the Japanese couple from earlier and we waited patiently for some time, but the bus didn’t show up (again!). It was only later that we found out the bus at 4:30pm only runs in spring/ summer, and we had already missed the last bus, which was at 2:30pm! Luckily, they managed to call a taxi (apparently, it is the only one in the area) to pick us up from the bus stop…





During the taxi ride, I found out that the couple was from Tokyo and it was also their first hike at Kumano Kodo. They found the trail more challenging than they had anticipated, and decided not to continue on.

After about 20-30 minutes’ ride through the mountains, I finally arrived at my destination: Pension Ashitanomori, a Western-style guest house at Kawayu Onsen. The couple and I split the taxi fare and they carried on towards Wataze Onsen, another onsen district nearby.



Kawayu Onsen


There are three onsen districts in Hongu, and I chose to stay in the historic Kawayu Onsen because of the Oto River and its natural hot spring. There are a row of lodgings along the river, and apart from the pre-dug hot springs at the gravel river bed, guests can also dig their own onsen if they wish to do so.





Pension Ashitanomori at Kawayu Onsen


I felt a sense of relief after arriving at the pension. Although I didn’t complete the route today, I was grateful that I managed to get a ride to the lodging before sunset. Hiking alone in the dark through the woodland would have been too dangerous, and it was not a risk worth taking. The trail was undoubtedly more strenuous than I had expected, and according to my iphone, I had walked over 37000 steps in a day! Rather than feeling regretful, I felt like I had achieved something remarkable, and I rewarded myself by soaking in the private indoor onsen, followed by a visit to the outdoor onsen after dinner (wearing clothing provided by the hotel because I didn’t have any swimming costume). This was probably the best onsen experience I have ever had because not only I was there alone, it was also full moon and the sky was very clear. I could feel the aches and pains from the day melting away as I was soaking in the hot spring while gazing at the stars and moon. It was pure bliss, and I couldn’t have been happier after a long day’s hike.


Art, nature & permaculture in Fujino



Most foreigners who visit Japan tend to stick to big cities or well-known onsen/resorts, and they rarely travel to the rural parts of Japan. On this trip, I completely fell in love with Japan’s rural countryside. The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage was a highlight, but I also loved Fujino, a rural town (with population of just over 10,000) located in the northern edge of Kanagawa Prefecture and about 1.5 hour outside of Tokyo. Officially, the town name doesn’t exist anymore after it was merged into Sagamihara city (it became Midori Ward in 2010), but locals still fondly call the area Fujino. Surrounded by mountains and tea plantations, the numerous hiking trails are big attractions for hikers who live in Tokyo due to its proximity and beautiful scenery. On a clear day, you can even see Mount Fuji (which we did one day) up on the hill.


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Actually Fujino is not near Mount Fuji, its name means wild wisteria town. As soon as you step out of the railway station, you would see a ‘love letter’ art installation – an envelope sealed with a heart held by 2 hands – midway up on a mountain opposite the station that welcomes visitors.

So what differs Fujino from other rural towns in Japan? First of all, it is the first official Transition Town in Japan, and the 100th in the world. The world’s first Transition Town was initiated in 2005 by Transition Network founder and permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins in Totnes in Devon (see my earlier blog entry here). The Transition Town Movement is an international network of grassroots groups that aim to increase self-sufficiency through applying permaculture principles to reduce the potential effects of peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability.

Hence, Fujino is considered a hub for sustainable communities that use local resources, farming, traditions and culture to increase self-sufficiency and tackle peak oil and climate change.




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fujino flowers


Besides permaculture, the area has also been attracting artists for decades. During the times of WWII, some sixty of Tokyo’s most prominent artists (including Tsuguharu Foujita, Toshio Nakanishi, and Genichiro Inokuma) evacuated to this village, with the goal of building a ‘city of artists’ here. Since the 1970s a number of foreign artists, artisans and craftsmen have also moved here.

Although Fujino never became a world-renown ‘art city’, a ‘Fujino Furusato Art Village Plan’ was launched in 1986 to promote it as an art dwelling community. In 1995, a multi-purpose art centre called Fujino Workshop for Art was built. It has a 300-seat concert hall, rehearsal studios, craft-making studios and accommodations. The venue provides workshops in pottery, woodworking, and natural dyeing for local children, adults and visitors.


fujino The Kumano Shinto Shrine

fujino The Kumano Shinto Shrine

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fujino The Kumano Shinto Shrine

fujino The Kumano Shinto Shrine

After doing the Kumano Kudo pilgrimage in Wakayama, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Kumano Shinto Shrine up in the mountains


Soon it was followed by the opening of the Fujino Art Village, an art and craft market where local artisans and craftsmen sell their work in 9 individual huts. The village is not massive, but it is a good spot to find one-of-a-kind handmade crafts and designs and support local artisans. You can find glassware, woodwork, leather goods, ceramics, and home accessories here.


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Fujino art village


At the art village, you can also enjoy lunch at an organic cafe/restaurant. From Fri to Sun, the cafe becomes a pizzeria serving stone oven pizzas with organic produce made by potter, Touhei Nakamura (also a friend of Bryan). In addition to the standard pizzas, he also serves some unconventional ones with an Asian twist, and they are super delicious with very thin base and crunchy crust.


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Touhei pizza

Touhei pizza


While staying with Bryan, we had the opportunity to meet his artisan friends who live locally. One of them is a basket maker and his basketry works are incredibly beautiful and intricate.


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Bryan also took us to visit a potter who lives in a very secluded place… we had to walk downhill along a trail off a road for about 15 minutes in order to reach his home studio at the bottom of the valley.

While the potter normally sells his pottery through a gallery, we got to buy his very reasonably-priced work from him directly, and needless to say, we were all more than happy to part with our cash in exchange for some exquisite handcrafted pottery.






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A secluded potter at his home studio


Last but not least, we also visited a secluded art gallery and cafe called Studio Fujino founded by graphic designer/art director, Yuko Higashikawa. After working in Milan on exhibition planning for some time, she returned to Japan to pursue a slow life. Her galley is surrouned by nature, and its secluded location means you are very likely to miss it if you are led by a local. (N.B. Unfortunately, I learned that the gallery closed its doors two months after our visit, but I hope it will revive in a different form in the future).


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Studio Fujino


After spending 10 days being surrounded by nature, it was hard to leave this place behind. My only wish is that I can return again in the near future.





Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (Day 2)





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Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine


Since I missed the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine yesterday, I decided to visit the shrine before starting my walk today as it is one of the most three important shrines on the pilgrimage route, as well as the head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan.

Originally located at Oyunohara, a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers, a severe flood destroyed many of the shrine buildings in 1889. The salvaged remains of three pavilions (out of five) were rebuilt at their present site. The entrance to Oyunohara is marked by the largest Torii shrine gate in the world (33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide). It is a formalized gateway that designates the entrance to a sacred area, and signifies the division of the secular and the spiritual worlds.

After a brief visit, I took the bus to Ukegawa where the second day of the journey began.


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Unlike the day before the route from Ukegawa to Koguchi is shorter and less strenuous, and the distance is about 13km. After a hike up Mt. Nyohozan, there is a rewarding panoramic view of the 3600 peaks in Kumano at the impressive Hyakken-gura look out.




Hyakken-gura look out


Here, I bumped into a couple I met continuously since yesterday and we started chatting for the first time. I found out that they were from San Francisco, and they had flown over for a week just to do this trail. Interestingly, we all thought the previous day’s hike was extremely challenging; they also couldn’t complete it on time and ended up getting a lift from a French couple. Since we were all heading towards Koguchi, I ended up running into them throughout the day at various spots.




A solar-powered toilet


It was another clear and rather hot day, but the trail was gentler with less steep climbs and descends, and so I was able to take a more relaxing pace today.



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Sainokawara Jizo


When traveling in rural Japan, I would often come across a carved stone statue of a person wearing a red apron/bib. The couple from the US and I were curious and wanted to know more because they are conspicuous along the pilgrimage route.

It turns out that this is the statue of Jizo Bosatsu (or Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in Sanskrit), also known as the earth bearer, and he is full of awesomeness, compassion and fortitude. He is the protector of travelers and children, which explains his presence along the route. Jizo also takes care of the souls of unborn children and those who die at a young age. Red bibs were said to have been worn by children in earlier times, hence Jizo is often seen wearing a red bib.



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Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains and my special pre-ordered bento


Aside from the statue of Jizo, teahouse remains are common sights along the pilgrimage route. When the trail was in its heyday, there were abundant teahouses providing tea and resting places (some even offered lodgings) for pilgrims.

At the Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains, I was looking forward to the special bento that I had pre-ordered online. After reading all the rave reviews, I splashed out and paid 1150 yen (just under £8) for this beautifully arranged and packaged bento. And it didn’t disappoint – it tasted as good as it looked. (N.B. the bentos I had yesterday was only 300 yen, so 1150 yen is considerably higher than the average).



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Arriving at Koguchi… Bottom: Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie, a hostel/campsite converted from an old school


For some time, I had read news and accounts on the issue of depopulation in rural Japan, but it didn’t hit me until I came to this region. After spending one night at the sleepy Chikatsuyu, I spent another night at the even ‘sleepier’ Koguchi, where there are only two lodgings available for hikers. One of them is a hostel converted from an old school that offers 11 rooms, and the other one is Minshuku Momofuku, a small guesthouse with two rooms.



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Like Chikatsuyu, I didn’t see a soul as I walked through the slightly eerie village. I came across a average-sized shop, so I went in… it seems to be the only shop in the village which sells food (mostly dry or frozen), drinks, clothing and accessories, stationery, hardware, etc. It is like a convenient store that is stuck in a time warp.





Minshuku Momofuku


I arrived at Minshuku Momofuku at around four, and was greeted by Mr. Nakazawa, who speaks sufficient English to communicate. I was told that I was the only guest at their house, so I got to enjoy the place to myself. I was quite blown away by the amount of food at dinner – it was the best dinner I have had since Saizen-in at Koyasan. Apparently, the most challenging hike was yet to come, so I felt justified to indulge before the hardship began.


From Koyasan to Kumano Kodo

When I was planning my Japan trip, I came across an article about the ancient pilgrimage trail, Kumano Kodo, in the Wakayama region. Despite numerous visits to Japan over the years, I have never heard of this trail before. I became interested and started researching about the trail. Unlike the famous pilgramge route, Camino de Santiago in Spain, Kumano Kodo comprises several routes and walkers can be flexible with the days and distances. The most popular route is the Nakahechi route which starts from Kii-Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii Peninsula and traverses east into the mountains towards the other side of the Peninsula. Since the 10th century, the Nakahechi route had been extensively used by the imperial family on pilgrimage from Kyoto. Since this was my first multi-day trail, I thought I should stick with the more popular route.


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Although there are some sample itineraries on the official Kumano Kodo tourism website, I decided to make some alterations; meanwhile, I still used their free reservation services for accommodations and bento boxes. Instead of using the rather pricey daily luggage transfer service, I forwarded my luggage in Osaka to my next desination after the pilgrimage trail.

Before my trip, I bought a pair of foldable walking sticks and a foldable rucksack big enough to carry essentials and clothing for 5 nights. Like the protagonist in the film ‘Wild’, I was constantly packing and repacking to make sure that I wasn’t carrying too much. Yet later I acknowledge that I had still taken too much unnecessary stuff, like a book that I never got to read (too exhausted), accessories such as scarf and hat (too warm), and a heavy camera… minimalising is never as easy as we think.




Due to the traveling period (low season), the route from Koyasan to Kii-Tanabe (the beginning of the trail) was a not a straight-forward one despite that they are not that far apart by distance. I ended up taking 3 buses and 2 trains, which took over 6 hours of traveling time! Luckily, the stunning scenery along the coast made the journey more interesting.

When I arrived at Kii-Tanabe, I had to rush over to the Tourist office to get a copy of the route maps as I would have to depend on it a lot over the next few days. Since I spent almost 1/2 day traveling, it meant that I didn’t have time to walk to my destination, hence I took a bus and headed to my lodging at Chikatsuyu village.



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The starting point of the trail: Kii-Tanabe


My original plan was to stay in Takahara village, a ridge-top village that offers a panoramic view of the mountains in the surrounding area, but all the lodgings there were full when I tried to book, so I had to skip the first part of the trail and start from Chikatsuyu village. With only a few choices in the village, I decided to rent a cottage owned by a lovely Ms. Muya (according to the official reservation website) who named the cottage: Happiness Chikatsuyu.





Chikatsuyu village


Not only I was the only person who got off the bus at Chikatsuyu, I did not encounter anyone during my 15 minutes’ walk towards the cottage. I went to pick up the keys from the neighbour and he kindly showed me around the cottage and suggested that I take a bus up the hill tomorrow and start the trail at the top of the hill.


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The cottage is way better than the photos on the website. In fact, I understood immediately why it has been named ‘Happiness’. Honestly, I could feel the love and positive energy at this cottage. The spacious and bright cottage is not over-furnished, and has three exquisite kimonos hanging around the house. Yet more ‘happiness’ could be found outside in the garden.





The cottage is located on the top of a hillock overlooking the Hiki-gawa River. I felt incredibly blissful sitting inside the gazebo surrounded by the beautiful and tranquil environment.

Since there are no restaurants nearby, I had to pre-order dinner, which was delivered by a friendly lady who runs a small cafe in the village. It was a simple bento dinner, but enjoyable nonetheless especially because I was able to savour it in the garden.



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After dinner (which was only around 7pm), I decided to stroll into the village to see if there is a grocery shop or convenient store for my lunch tomorrow. Again, I did not see anyone along the route, nor did I see any food shop nor convenient store. There is a derelict petrol station and surprisingly, a wonderful bric-a-brac shop that sells vintage items and ceramics. I went into the shop but again, I didn’t see anyone… suddenly, I felt like I was in a surreal film where everyone in the village has vanished! Where is everyone?








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Although I have read a lot about the issues of urbanisation and rural depopulation in Japan, I have never seen it in real life until this trip. Chikatsuyu is only one of many. Walking back, I felt a bit sad that people would rather live in congested, polluted, expensive and high density concrete jungles than villages surrounded by natural beauty. And yet Japan is not alone – this is happening all over the world.

After I got back, I had to prepare for the big day ahead and was slightly anxious because the first day would be the longest day out of the three, with approx. 8 hours of walking time. I would need to reach my destination before sunset, but I could save some time and energy by taking a bus up the hill from the village in the morning.

I thought I had planned everything quite well, but as we all know, life rarely turns out the way we plan it…



A glorious walk through Windsor Great Park



January has been a stressful month for me, and even my regular meditation practice could not prevent me from developing some skin allergy as a result of stress. I feel that many city dwellers often struggle to maintain a work/play/rest balance, and despite the best effort, stress seems to affect many of us from time to time.

Over the years, I found that nature is the best antidote to stress. No matter how anxious, unhappy or stressful I feel, simply immersing myself in nature would somehow transform my negative state/mindset into a positive one. Sometimes it feels like magic.

Yet sunny days in winters are hard to come by, and when it’s cold, grey, wet and miserable outside, I would rather stay in and turn into a couch potato. But then one day I received an email notification from one of my walking groups going for a 9-mile walk through Windsor Great Park the next day (which was forecast to be sunny), I signed up for it immediately.




windsor great park  windsor great park



On the day I learned that quite a few people on the walk had signed up at the last minute as well. Perhaps the REAL attraction of this walk was the sun rather than the park itself. I think we all made the right decision because despite the cold, it was a beautiful day.

This Grade I listed historical park covers over 4,800 acres of land, and it contains an 18th century man-made Virginia Water lake, as well as a cascade. Walking along the lakeside was pleasant and calming on a sunny day. Meanwhile, I couldn’t stop noticing and admiring the colossal and ancient trees all around me. They are magnificent.



tree  tree

tree  tree





After treading through some muddy part, we reached one of the highlights of the walk – the Snow hill. On the top of the hill stands The Copper Horse, a statue of George III on horseback, which looked particularly monumental against the blue sky. Here, we enjoyed a spectacular panoramic view of the area, including the 2.64-mile long tree-lined Long Walk with Windsor Castle at the far end, and high-rise in London on the right.


windsor great park


img_7309  img_7316



It turned out that The Long Walk is really a ‘long walk’! We were all exhausted by the time we reached the gate of Windsor Castle. Designed by Charles II, 1,652 elm trees were planted to create this landscape inspired by his previous stay at the Versailles. Over the years Elms have been replaced by Oak, Horse Chestnut and London Plane trees. Later in 1710, Queen Anne requested a road to be constructed down the centre of the tree lined avenue for coaches. And it is still used by the royal carriages annually as part of the route from Windsor Castle to the Ascot Races.


windsor  windsor





After spending the beautiful day walking in nature, all the stress and anxiety that I was experiencing the day before simply faded away. I felt extremely content and calm on my way back to London. Can nature combat stress? The answer is definitely ‘yes’.

Interestingly, I came across an article from the New York Times on how nature can change our brains and our mental health, which explains what I experience walking in nature is proven to be true and effective.


Christmas in London

regents street christmas lights

Regent Street’s Christmas lights


Apparently, the British are the most Christmas-obsessed people in the world, according to the results of a recent research. This doesn’t seem to surprise me judging from shoppers’ behaviour before Christmas. However, there is also a large population of people here who, under different circumstances, do not have families to celebrate with. Hence, Christmas can be quite daunting for those who don’t share the festive mood or joy.

This year, a group of Network Rail workers organised an alcohol-free four-course Christmas meal for 200 homeless people at the normally commuter-packed concourse inside Euston Station. Perhaps more cities should follow suit so that the homeless could share the festive spirit for just even a day.


st paul's cathedral

christmas lights tate britain

christmas lights tate britain  christmas lights tate britain

christmas lights

2nd & 3rd row: Playful ‘Home for Christmas’ art installations by English artist Alan Kane at Tate Britain; last row: love the Christmas decorations outside of this house in Clerkenwell!


Since I started the business 6 years ago, the few weeks running up to Christmas had been extremely hectic and stressful. I would either get sick or be exhausted by the time Christmas arrives, so the word ‘Christmas’ has a completely different meaning for me and those of use who work in hospitality or retail-related businesses. I have also learnt that traveling around this period is a nightmare – especially if you are taking any kind of public transport – so I try to avoid it at all costs. When I went to meet up with my mother in Paris for Christmas last year, I caught the stomach flu bug after Christmas and ended up vomiting several times on Eurostar on my way back to London. Yes, it was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Luckily, I have some friends in London who also don’t have their families around, so I spent this period catching up with those whom I haven’t seen for some time. With 5 festive meals in one week, it was probably a shock to my poor stomach, but at the same time, thoroughly enjoyable.


chilli cool

the wells  the wells

the wells  afternoon tea 

Festive indulgence – Top: pre-Christmas Sichuan dinner at Chilli cool; 2nd & 3rd left: Boxing day lunch at Hampstead’s gastro pub The Wells; 3rd right: Festive afternoon tea with a free bottle of prosecco at the May Fair Hotel


And on Christmas day, I had arranged to meet up with my American friend in central London for an Indian Christmas lunch, which I considered to be quite unusual. The truth is that I couldn’t find a restaurant/pub that wasn’t overcharging on the day i.e. £75 or more for a so-called festive menu that didn’t appeal to me at all; and since there was no transport on the day, I had to find a place where we could both reach (I was on foot and she was cycling).

Days before Christmas, we were anxiously checking the weather forecast to see if it would pour or snow, but luckily, the weather turned out to be quite mild though a bit grey (unlike the blue sky on Boxing day). The walk from my home to the restaurant took about 75 mins because I opted for a scenic route via Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park; on route, I crossed paths with joggers and many independent tourists who were wandering and enjoying a much quieter London. Interestingly, I also walked past Euston station where I saw some homeless people and volunteers outside preparing for the Christmas meal event.


primrose hill

primrose hill

Regents park  euston



Walking through Primrose hill, Regent’s park and Euston


Both my friend and I were very satisfied and pleased with the service, value and food quality at Salaam Namaste, and we spent a pleasant few hours savouring our tasty three-course Christmas lunch. I had so much food that I didn’t even bother having dinner in the evening. Fortunately, the walk back home helped me to burn some calories…


Salaam Namaste  Salaam Namaste

Salaam Namaste  festive chocolate wreath

The 3-course Christmas lunch & a chocolate wreath – a gift from my friend


After I parted with my friend, I decided to take a different route back via Kings Cross and the canal. The roads were almost empty and there were very few people and traffic around the usually busy St Pancras Station. The city was surprisingly peaceful, and at the same time, quite surreal.

From Camley street, I crossed the Somers Town Bridge for the first time (I didn’t even know about it before the day), which was opened in the summer. This lightweight and sleek steel bridge is designed by Moxon Architects, and it links Camley Street with the Gasholder Park. In the summer, this area would be quite busy, but on Christmas day, there were only a handful of people strolling around at a leisurely pace.


British library  kings cross

kings cross canal

kings cross canal

somers town

somers town



street art  street art





After walking along the canal for about 20 mins, I finally reached Camden town, where the canal ends. And what caught my attention here was the post-modern futuristic style architecture on the opposite side of the canal. This is the Camden Sainsburys and housing designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners in the late 1980s, apparently it was influenced by car manufacturing techniques. How interesting.


street art camden

street art camden

street art camden

street art camden  street art camden

street art camden







The best part of my journey was to walk through an empty Camden Town! I have never seen Camden so quiet before, and so I took the opportunity to explore the area’s vibrant street art.

Although I felt quite tired after the walk, I really enjoyed walking through London without the crowds and traffic. It enabled me to explore and see things that I might have missed normally, and best of all, it made me feel less guilty for indulging so much throughout this festive period.




hampstead  dog

Boxing day lunch and walking in Hampstead heath


After years of constantly aiming to spend Christmas elsewhere, I found staying in London for Christmas this year to be a pleasant and restful. Sometimes, the grass is not always greener on the other side, and maybe this is something I finally got to understand lately.


waterloo place




Live tango performance and dancing at the Southbank centre during the festive period



The Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden



Ahead of winter, I wanted to take advantage of the mild autumn weather before the cold sets in. After an awe-inspiring trip to Dungeness, I was ready for another mini adventure, and I chose to visit The Hannah Peschar sculpture garden in Surrey before it closed for the winter season.

I have never heard of this garden until recently, and the images I saw online intrigued me immensely. I thought a few miles walk via the public footpath from Ockley station would be quite straight forward, but I was wrong – the first part through the woods was fine, then I got lost in the open field and somehow went off track.








I eventually ended up at The Cricketers Arms, a Grade II listed traditional pub circa 1450 in Ockley. I love the large inglenook fireplace and oak beams, and decided to have lunch here. The friendly staff gave me some directions towards the garden before I set off again.




By the time I reached the office of the sculpture garden, I was already feeling a bit tired. The friendly curator Vikki was surprised to learn that I walked all the way from the station (I guess not many visitors would do that) and offered to give me a lift back before my train’s departure time. Her warmth and kindness immediately made me feel that this garden is not an ordinary one.


 hannah Peschar sculpture park


hannah peschar


This special garden used to be part of a large estate, laid out between 1915 and 1920. Later it was split up and sold in several lots, and the garden fell into decline after the estate was sold. In 1983, art curator Hannah Peschar bought the ten-acre land, which included a grade II listed 15th Century cottage and a large water and rock garden. The garden was subsequently redesigned and replanted by her husband, the award-winning landscape designer Anthony Paul, who introduced many large-leaved plants in bold groups, tall grasses and created 3 new ponds. Over the past 30+ years, the garden has grown from a handful of sculptures to over 200 pieces exhibited every year, featuring artists from the U.K. and Europe.


hannah peschar

hannah Peschar sculpture park  hannah Peschar sculpture park



Later, I learnt from Vikki that her mentor Hannah Peschar decided to step back from her role two years ago, and now the garden is run and curated by her and Anthony Paul. Though Peschar still resides in the lovely ancient cottage, and her husband also has a landscape design office within the garden.




hannah Peschar sculpture park  hannah Peschar sculpture park


Unlike the Yorkshire sculpture park, most of the art works here are available for sale and all visitors are given a map with the list of work and prices upon arrival. The vast array of work varies from figurative to highly abstract, using both traditional and innovative materials. All the sculptures here are placed heedfully so that they would blend harmoniously with nature and other works within the garden.

The garden looked beautiful in spite of the drizzly and misty weather; I particularly love seeing the sculptures against the autumn colours. And I secretly congratulated myself for wearing the correct footwear for a change.




hannah Peschar sculpture park  autumn leaves



Since there were not many visitors during my weekday visit, I was able to enjoy the tranquility that the garden has to offer. The garden is enchanting because you never know what you would encounter as you walk along the trail. There are hidden surprises as the landscape changes; and during the few hours walking in the garden, I felt excited, inspired, intrigued, and contemplative.


hannah Peschar sculpture park  hannah Peschar sculpture park


hannah Peschar sculpture park  hannah Peschar sculpture park


hannah Peschar sculpture park  hannah Peschar sculpture park


Unlike the National trust or English Heritage properties, there is no cafe, picnic area nor souvenir shop here, so it feels somewhat less commercial. When almost every airport in the world has become more like a shopping mall nowadays, I found it a relief to not see a shop/cafe here (although I am sure some people would disagree with me).







When i finished the tour around the garden, Vikki said she would close the garden earlier as it was a quiet day, and we had an interesting chat about art and design as she drove me to the train station. Enviously, I told her that she is lucky to be working in such a wonderful and peaceful environment, and she agreed. She said that the garden looks different in every season and she recommends that I return again next spring/summer.

And yes, I definitely will return again – I can’t wait to see the garden in bloom!


Note: The garden will reopen on 1st April 2018.


Kew gardens in autumn

kew gardens

The grade II Listed Temple of Bellona was built by Sir William Chambers in 1760


The last time I visited Kew Gardens was some years back in the summer when a friend was visiting the UK. We took a boat from Westminster all the way to Kew, and we had a lovely day out. I have not been back since, partly because of the high entrance fee; though after starting a botanical illustration course a few weeks ago, I was keen to return to the gardens to see the new Japanese botanical illustration exhibition and the Marianne North gallery.

Coincidentally, I mentioned this to a new friend, and I subsequently found out that not only she lives in Kew but is also a member of the gardens. Thanks to her – who knows the gardens like the back of her hand – I was able to visit the garden twice in a month to see the exhibition, the gallery, the new hive installation and most importantly, the autumn foliage. And I thoroughly enjoyed spending time at the gardens.


the hive

the hive  the hive

The Hive installation


We first visited the Hive, a new open-air structure, inspired by scientific research into the health of bees. Designed by UK based artist Wolfgang Buttress, the multi-sensory installation is made from thousands of pieces of aluminium which create a lattice effect. Inside the structure, it is fitted with speakers and hundreds of LED lights that respond to the real-time activity of bees in a beehive at Kew. The sound and light intensity within the space changes as the energy levels in the real beehive surge, and visitors can feel the vibration while they stand inside.


kew gardens

kew gardens

kew gardens

kew gardens

kew gardens

kew gardens

The Pagoda and Japanese landscape


When we made our first visit, the colours of the trees had yet to turn, which was slightly disappointing. However, we did see the brilliant Flora Japonica exhibition (until March 2017), which showcases Japanese native flora portraayed by 36 of the most eminent contemporary Japanese botanical artists, and historic drawings and paintings by some of Japan’s most revered botanists and artists such as Dr Tomitaro Makino, Sessai Hattori and Chikusai Kato.


kew gardens

kew gardens  kew gardens

kew gardens

kew gardens  kew gardens

kew gardens

Top three rows: The lake and the Palladian Bridge


Another reason why I wanted to visit Kew was to see the Marianne North Gallery. I recently watched a documentary on the amazing and inspiring botanical artist who traveled around the world to paint plants in the late 19th century. As a single Victorian woman, it must have been a tremendous task to travel solo and documented all the rare and foreign species that were largely unknown to the UK at the time.

The Marianne North gallery was inaugurated in 1882, after Marianne had spent a year arranging her paintings inside the building. After a £1.8 million restoration project, the gallery reopened in 2009 featuring 833 paintings and depicting more than 900 species of plants. If you have not visited this gallery before, I urge you to go because it is simply astounding and fantastic.


treetop kew gardens

treetop kew gardens  treetop kew gardens

treetop kew gardens

Treetop walkway


Most of the photos here were taken on our second visit – when the leaves finally changed colours. The gardens were looking beautiful and one of the highlights of the day was to walk up to the Treetop walkway to watch the sunset and enjoy the spectacular view from the top.


Palm House kew garden

Palm House kew garden  Palm House kew garden  kew gardens

The Palm house


A quotation from the English nature writer Richard Jefferies described Kew Gardens as “a great green book, whose broad pages are illuminated with flowers, lying open at the feet of Londoners.”

As Londoners, we are very lucky to have this gem in the city, and it is certainly a place for all ages and for all seasons.