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.


Japan’s sacred mountain – Koyasan


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Danjo Garan Temple complex


For a long time, I have been wanting to visit Mount Koya or Koyansan, a sacred mountain in the Wakayama region. It is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism ( a Chinese-influenced esoteric sect), introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Located in the lush Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, the monastic site has 117 temples and 52 of them offer temple lodgings or Shukubo to the public.

Unfortunately, the scenic cable car was out of service for a few months due to a disruptive typhoon last winter, so I had to take a train from Osaka, followed by two bus rides to reach the mountain. Yet the fine weather upon arrival made it all worthwhile. Sunny blue sky was not what I had expected ( I think I was misled by all the misty and snowy photos online), but I could hardly complain about this!

After much online research, I decided to spend the night at Saizen-in, a small temple with 24 guest rooms and a rock garden created by Mirei Shigemori, a notable modern garden and landscape designer.





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I have stayed at a temple in Kyoto before, but the self-catering accommodation was located in a new building within the grounds, so I didn’t feel like I was staying at a temple at all. At Saizen-in, the Japanese-style tatami rooms have modern amenities like a flatscreen TV (which I was surprised to see), wifi, a safe and an under-table heater for my feet (which i loved). And like most Japanese-style accommodations, the toilets (very clean) and bath are shared among the same sex.

After checking in, I left the temple and headed towards the town centre to grab some lunch, followed by a visit to the Kongobuji temple. The organic vegetarian set lunch at Bon On Shya Cafe and art gallery was delicious and satisfying, and I especially loved the strong coffee and tofu cheesecake.


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Top row: Bon On Shya cafe and gallery


Originally constructed in 1593 and rebuilt in 1861, Kongobuji temple is head temple of Shingon Buddhism, hence the temple is Koyasan’s main tourist attraction. The temple contains many nature-inspired sliding screen doors painted by the famous painted Kano Tanyu (1602-1674) from the Kyoto Kano school. The temple’s Banryutei Rock Garden is the largest rock garden in Japan. Built in 1984, its large rocks from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.







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Kongobuji temple and its rock garden


Besides Kongobuji temple, the most popular attraction at Koyasan is undoubtedly Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most prestigious cemetery. It is the resting place of the founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi, and more than 200,000 Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. There are regular night tours of the cemetery, but I think it would be too creepy, so I wasn’t too keen on this idea.

What struck me most as I walked through the 2km-long cemetery was the ancient cedar trees. I think these tress help to make the place less eerie. Apart from monks, many historically important figures are also buried here, and you can tell by their massive tombstones. The path leads towards Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum, located behind Torodo Hall, which is filled with 10,000 lanterns. This is a pilgrimage site, so phones/photos are strictly forbidden.


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Okunoin cemetery


Everything was within my expectations until I strolled towards the newer looking part of the cemetery… I first spotted a tombstone for the Panasonic Corp, followed by a coffee cup and saucer-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. Yet the most bizarre one has to be a rocket for the aerospace firm, Shin Meiwa Kogyo. Is this most sought-after cemetery in Japan? Definitely. If you were a ‘nobody’ in this lifetime, then getting a spot here would probably elevate you to a ‘somebody’. It seems like status still matters in the afterlife!


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After the long hours spent strolling around the cemetery, I took a bus back to Saizen-in before dinner time. The delicate and seasonal vegetarian/vegan dinner was served inside my room, and it was served by a friendly monk/lay person (not entirely sure if he is a monk because he worn non-monk clothing and doesn’t have a shaved head) who could speak quite good English. I asked him about the famous rock garden, and he told me that the room that faces the garden is occupied and so it is not available for viewing. However, he said he could try to arrange for me to see it after breakfast the next morning when the guests have checked out.



Vegetarian dinner at Saizen-in


The following morning, I got up early to attend the morning prayer and sutra chanting. I have been practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and studying mostly Zen Buddhism for the last few years, but I am not familiar with Shingon Buddhism and their rituals, so the session was a new experience for me. I also followed other Japanese guests and queued up to offer incense, which is considered a standard Buddhist tradition that takes place in many parts of Asia.






After breakfast, I went to see the friendly monk/lay person from last night and he told me to follow him. It turned out that a group of Japanese women have booked the garden room, but they gave him permission to let me in and admire the gardens! The three gardens were planted by Mirei Shigemori in the Showa period, and it is designated as a registered monument of the country in 2010. Each garden represents a rich “Koyasan” of water, and the flow of water is tied in three gardens.

After we left the room, he led me upstairs to show me a different view of the garden, then he ook out his phone and enthusiastically shared with me photos that he has taken during different seasons. I felt very moved by his kind gesture.



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The rock gardens designed by Mirei Shigemori


Before leaving the mountain, I went out for a short stroll to enjoy another day of blue sky and warm temperature. It was a serene morning with few visitors and cars – it was a huge contrast from Osaka where I had stayed earlier. I felt great and was a bit sad to leave this behind.



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After checking out, I wanted to ask the receptionist if I could see the monk/lay person before I leave, and luckily, he was just walking down the corridor. I thanked him for everything and we chatted a little before I headed off. I don’t think my stay would have been the same if I didn’t encounter him. I probably would have enjoyed it anyway, but I think it was his hospitality that made the stay even more memorable.




A perfect spring day in Nara


Sunny and warm afternoon at Nara park


My trip began in Osaka, though I barely spent any time there except for the evenings. My good friend has recently moved to Sendai (we originally met in London) flew over to Osaka to meet me before I continued on with my journey. And I suggested that we take the train and spend the day in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan (before Kyoto).

Yet we started off the morning getting lost at the confusing and maze-like Osaka train station (just like Shinjuku and Tokyo stations), and it took us some time to find the right track and train to go Nara, which is about 45 mins to one hour away depending on the trains.




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It was a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle of Osaka. Even though Nara is also popular with tourists, it is much more relaxing, probably due to the expansive Nara park in the middle of the city. Most of the famous temples like Todai-ji Temple and Kasuga-Taisha Shrine are located within the park, so it is easy to spend a full day wandering around the park, which was exactly what we did.



Lunch was Kamameshi, a traditional aromatic cooked-in-an-iron-pot rice and vegetables with seafood or meat.


The park is huge and has over 1000 hungry and aggressive deer roaming around for food. These deer would do anything to get food, including bowing (they are Japanese after all)! The warning signs in the park are hilarious and quite acurate (see below).


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deers nara




Todai-ji Temple

Todai-ji Temple


During our visit, we were blessed with sunny and warm weather, accompanied by the beginning of the cherry blossom season. Although they are not fully bloom yet, it was still lovely to see rows of cherry trees around the park.



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Matcha dessert at Mizuya Chaya


Kasuga-Taisha Shrine


Kasuga-Taisha Shrine




Kofuku-ji Temple

Kofuku-ji Temple


At the end of the day, we completely lost track of time… although we were exhausted from all the walking, we couldn’t believe that the sun was about to set, and that we had to return to Osaka. We both thought it was a perfect day – a relaxing day in a picturesque setting, I mean what more can you ask for?


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Osaka’s Dotonbori


The transition from tranquil Nara to hectic Dotonbori in Osaka was almost too overwhelming for me. I did not enjoy being in central Osaka at all. Yet I knew this would soon pass because I would be heading off to Koyasan, Japan’s sacred mountain on the next day…


Tomigaya: All you need is a dog in Tokyo!


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Dogs in strollers


When you think of dog-loving cities, most likely you are going to think of Paris, but on the other side of the world, Tokyo is now the ‘Paris of the East’ (in terms of their obessions with their pets or dogs).

Tomigaya is an area in Shibuya, located on the southwest of Yoyogi park, that has become a ‘hip’ place for locals and foreigners alike. Perhaps it is due to its low-key neighbourhood feel, and its interesting mix of independent shops and eateries, but it certainly feels less commerical and touristy than Harajuku, which is on the southeast side of the park. And you know the area must be cool when there is a Monocle shop here!

Walking around the area on a Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that dogs have literally become the new LV bags in Tokyo (there was a time when the LV monogram bag was carried by 90% of the women here)! Some of them were even being pushed around in strollers like babies, which I thought was quite bizarre to say the least.


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Tomigaya dog  Tomigaya dog

Tomigaya dog

Tomigaya dog  Tomigaya dog


According to Nikkei, the market for pet products and services is growing robustly in Japan even as the number of pets falls. Over the eight years through March 2016, the market for pet products and services in Japan grew nearly 10% to 1.47 trillion yen ($13.2 billion), according to Yano Research Institute in Tokyo.

In a country where the population is aging rapidly, and birth rate falling to a record low, perhaps it is not surprising to see people here turning their focus onto pets or animals. After all, dog is man’s best friend, and you can affirm this belief in Tokyo.





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monocle tokyo

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The eclectic mix of independent shops here include Monocle and Norwegian Icons (bottom row)


Aside from dog-spotting and the Monocle shop, you can find a variety of shops here including Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers (which I have written about previously) and Norwegian Icons that is dedicated to mid-century (1940 to 1975) Norwegian designs and furniture. I often think that Scandinavian and Japanese furniture designs share a great deal in common, hence I believe that Norwegian designs would not look out of place in a Tokyo home.


camelback tokyo

camelback coffee  camelback sandwich

fuglen tokyo

shibuya cheese stand



This area is also full of cool cafes and eateries, and Camelback sandwich & expresso is probably the most popular takeout counter here. There are only a few benches outside, and usually there is a long queue here (mostly foreigners), so be prepared to wait for some artisanal sandwich and coffee. Hayato Naruse is a trained sushi chef, and his signature sushi-style tamagoyaki omelet sandwichi is the bestseller here. Was it worth the 20-minute wait? Yes, it was delicious and so was the coffee.

If you prefer to sit down while you eat and drink, you can visit the nearby Fuglen, a coffee shop and bar with vintage decor that is originally from Oslo, and now a huge hit in Tokyo.

Shibuya Cheese Stand is another popular eatery here where you can taste freshly made cheese like mozzarella and ricotta made in Hokkaido, the northmost island famous for its diary produce.


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So books


The best thing about Tokyo is that often you would stumble upon some unique/wonderful shops while rambling in different neighbourhoods. And this was how I came across So books, located on a quiet street not far from Yoyogi Hachiman station. It is a small bookshop that specialises in rare photography books (new and secondhand), with also some art, design and craft books. The friendly owner Ikuo Ogasawara speaks very good English, and he was surprised to learn that I had simply stumbled upon the shop. I bought a few books that were easy to carry – I would have bought more if I didn’t have to travel further on. Luckily, the owner told me that they have an online shop and ship internationally (not many Japanese shops like to ship overseas), so it is great news for photgraphy book fans out there.


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hinine note

hinine note

Hinine note


Hinine note was the shop that I was seeking in the area after reading about it before my trip. It took a bit of effort to find it (with the help of google map), but it paid off. This is a stationery shop where you can customise and create your own notebooks. You can choose the size you want, the paper style, cover designs and binding methods. There is a wide selection of designs/colours to choose from, and everything is made on the spot. Not only you can enjoy using your one-of-a-kind notebook, it would help to reduce waste too. Love it.






I think this is an interesting neighbourhood that is not just full of trendy and established shops (which I tend to avoid), and I definitely would want to return and explore further.


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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fujino  nature fujino


spider web


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.




fujino flowers

fujino flowers

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

fujino  fujino

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.


fujino art village  fujino art village


tsumugu fujino art village  tsumugu fujino art village



fujino art village  fujino art village


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.


fujino art village

Touhei pizza  fujino art village

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.


basketry  basketry




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.






img_1851  dsc_0916





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).


 studio fujino studio fujino   studio fujino

studio fujino

 studio fujino

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.





Bruno Taut’s only architecture in Japan: Kyu Hyuga Bettei



After traveling through the Kansai and Chubu regions during the first half of the trip, I finally reached the Kanto region, where I spent time the rest of stay in Tokyo and Kanagawa. From Tokyo, I took a train to the well-known hot spring seaside resort, Atami, which is less than an hour from the city.

My first stop was a lesser-known but important cultural property, Kyu Hyuga Bettei; it is in fact the only architecture designed by the prolific German Bauhaus architect, Bruno Taut (1880-1938). I did not know of the villa’s existence until I was doing some research on where to visit in Atami, and I had to book a slot via an online form through Atami City Hall prior to my visit (N.B. the villa is only open in the weekends and public holidays). It was lucky that I made the trip because the villa is now going through a major restoration works, and it will not reopen to the public until 2022.


atami  atami



Hidden up on the cliff of Kasugacho not far from Atami train station, Kyu-Hyuga-Bettei is a 2-storey villa that belonged to a successful businessman Rihee Hyuga (1874-1939). The building was built between 1934-6 by Japanese architect, Jin Watanabe (1887-1973), known for the Wako Building in Ginza and the The National Museum of Art in Ueno.

The villa was built on a slope with the main entrance on the top floor, and a garden overlooking the Sagami Bay. In 1936, Hyuga commissioned Bruno Taut (who had to flee Germany due to the Nazis) to design the basement of the villa. The project was a collaboration between Taut and architects Tetsuro Yoshida, Kahei Sasaki, and Mihara Yoshiyuki (Taut’s only Japanese student).


Kyu Hyuga Bettei

Kyu Hyuga Bettei


On the day of my visit, I was the only non-Japanese visitor and was only given some English information on paper, while the Japanese enjoyed a more detailed guided tour. Nonetheless, it was still worth the visit as the annex is a true masterpiece that combines nature, Japanese and Western elements together harmoniously. Consisted of three rooms (no photography is allowed inside the building), Taut named the rooms: Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

The first room (Beethoven) is a bright parlour surrounded by bamboo and paulownia; the second is a western room (Mozart) featuring red walls, a rasied platform with stairs and views of the ocean; and the last room is a Japanese twelve-mat tatami room (Bach), with a raised four-and-a-half-mat raised platform, and a five-and-a-half-mat room behind it.

The furniture and furnishings in the rooms are detailed and beautifully designed, and as I walked through the rooms, I could feel a sense of tranquility. Unfortunately, Hyuga only enjoyed this annex for a few years (he died here in 1939), but to die in such a tranquil setting perhaps was not a bad way to go.


Kyu Hyuga Bettei


Taut also died two years after he left Japan to accept a Professor position in Istanbul. Hence, this villa was the only architecture that he built in Japan during his short stay there. It is one of a kind, and it epitomises the best qualities of Japanese and Modernist architecture. Hopefully, the restoration works will enchance the beauty of the villa and let this masterful design shine even more.



Spring in Kanazawa




After days of traveling to and from various small towns and villages, I finally arrived at a big city – Kanazawa – the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. Before my visit, I had heard that it is a historical and picturesque city which has been nicknamed ‘Little Kyoto’. Although like Kyoto, the city escaped air raids during WWII and has preserved many historic architecture; it does not remind me of Kyoto at all.

During the Edo Period, Kanazawa Castle was the headquarter’s of the Maeda Clan, the second most powerful feudal clan after the Tokugawa. Hence Kanazawa is also known as the ‘samurai city’ with a samurai district at the foot of the castle where many samurai residences used to live.

Now the city is still seen as an important city in its region, and with the new shinkansen line opened in 2015 that connects the city to Tokyo in less than 3 hours, it is attracting more tourists from overseas and within Japan.


kanazawa castle


kanazawa  kanazawa




One thing that struck me when I arrived was the sightings of many Western expats here, which was quite unexpected. And after experiencing amazing hospitality for days, I did experience some unfriendly service here (perhaps I was just unlucky), which did slightly spoil my stay.





kanazawa  kanazawa 



Kanazawa Castle Park is a large park in the city centre, and you can enjoy a pleasant stroll here. While I was walking through the park, I also saw a few Japanese couples taking wedding photographs here, so I guess it is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The castle was the headquarters of Kaga Domain, ruled by the Maeda clan for 14 generations from the Sengoku period until the Meiji Restoration in 1871. Like most ancient buildings in Japan, the castle was burnt down several times, and now the surviving structures include the Ishikawa Gate from 1788, the Sanjukken Nagaya and the Tsurumaru Storehouse all of which are designed Important Cultural Properties. Since the castle’s keep no longer exists, it did feel a bit like walking around a ‘film set’ in a samurai film.


Kanazawa Castle


Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle Park


One of the most popular attractions in Kanazawa is the Myoryuji Temple (aka the Ninja temple) built in 1643. It is so popular that visitors are urged to reserve for their daily tours in advance through their phone (no emails) reservation system. Tours are conducted in Japanese, but there are written guides for foreign visitors. Unlike its name suggests, the temple was not home to the ninjas, but it served as a secret military outpost for the Maeda lords.

The building is constructed with a complicated network of corridors and staircases, traps, secret rooms and escape routes. From the outside it appears to be a two story building, but there are actually four stories with 23 rooms, 29 staircases and a lookout tower.

Despite the troublesome reservation system ( I got my hotel to call the day before), it is still worth visiting this ingenious temple. There are some very inventive and eye-opening ideas and creations, so it is not to be missed.


Myoryuji Temple ninja temple

Myoryuji Temple ninja temple

ninja temple

Myoryuji Temple (also known as the Ninja temple)


Another main attraction is the The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art designed by SANAA (Sejima and Nishikawa Architects and Associates) in 2004. The minimalist circular building is located within a park with some outdoor sculptures scattered around it.

There were two temporary exhibitions at the time of my visit but they were charged separately, which I thought was rather steep, so I picked only one of them. The most photographed art work here (the only work that can be photographed inside the museum) must be Leandro Erlich‘s ‘Swimming Pool’ (only accessible with a paid ticket) – a deceptive looking ‘pool’ where people appear to be underwater. It is probably the most memorable work at this rather small and average art museum. Personally, I think the architecture outweighs the contents, which is a bit of a shame.



The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

Colour activity house Olafur ELIASSON

Colour activity house Olafur ELIASSON

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art  leandro erlich swimming pool 

leandro erlich swimming pool  leandro erlich swimming pool

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and its art works include Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Colour activity house’ and Leandro Erlich’s ‘Swimming Pool’


One lesser-known attraction is the Yanagi Sori Design Memorial, which is affiliated with Kanazawa College of Art that houses the celebrated industrial designer’s designs and furniture.

Yanagi Sori (1915 – 2011) was an influential Japanese designer who founded the mingei movement that promoted Japanese folk crafts and the beauty of everyday objects. He was also known for his simple, organic and functional designs. His iconic Butterfly stool, which was designed in 1954 after visiting Charles and Ray Eames, was chosen as part of MOMA’s permanent display, and it is still being produced today.


yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial  yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial  yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial


Yanagi taught at Kanazawa College of Art for almost 50 years, and after his death, his design studio donated 7,000 of his designs, products, and materials to Kanazawa College of Art, which gave birth to this free memorial space.

This is not a major tourist attraction (I only saw one other Japanese visitor during my visit), yet it is worth a visit if you are interested in beautiful Japanese designs.


yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial

yanagi sori design memorial

Yanagi Sori Design Memorial


If you love markets and seafood, then Omicho Market will be seen as ‘heaven’. There are about 200 shops and stalls, as well as restaurants and sushi bars focusing on seafood. You can have breakfast, lunch and dinner here (which I did), and I could have eaten more if I had a bigger stomach. I love wandering around food markets and it was fascinating to see the variety of seafood available here. If only London’s markets offer 1/4 of the stuff I saw here, I would be visiting the markets daily!


Omicho Market  Omicho Market sushi

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

Omicho Market and the amazing seafood


To be continued…


Echizen Washi Village

the JR Johana Line

the JR Johana Line

Belles montagnes et mer  the JR Johana Line

The JR Johana Line in Toyama and the poster for the Belles montagnes et mer sightseeing train


When foreign visitors think of Japanese railway, the first thing they think of is likely to be the sleek Bullet train/ Shinkansen. As much as I appreciate them, I have a particular soft spot for the slower retro 2-carriage local trains that go through small village stations. These trains and stations are old-school and delightful, and often carrying very few passengers. In Toyama prefecture, I took the JR Johana line which originally started in 1897 by the Chūetsu Railway, but now it is run by JR West. Although the journey was not long, it was lovely nonetheless, and it made me want to take more local train journeys around Japan in the future.



Japanese train  ekiben

Japanese train station poster

Top two rows: Shinkansen & ekiben for the journey; Bottom row: poster warning passengers not to text while walking at the train stations (we need them in every country!)


Another thing I love about rail travel in Japan is the amazing ekiben (station box lunch) that are sold at the train stations. Usually these lunch boxes consist of local produce and specialties that are unique to that region, and so every station would offer something different.

Even more surprising was when I encountered a contemporary craft gallery inside a train station… during my transit at the Takaoka station, I came across Monono-Fu Gallery, where they exhibit and sell exquisite crafts that are made locally. I even noticed the Honeycomb tin basket from our shop; it was good to be able to locate its origin in person. Aside from metal works, the region also produces wood products, washi paper goods and ceramics etc – it is a fantastic idea to promote the local crafts and perhaps more stations should follow suit.


gallery monono-fu  gallery monono-fu

gallery monono-fu

gallery monono-fu

gallery monono-fu

Locally-made crafts are promoted and sold at the Monono-Fu Gallery inside the Takaoka train station


Although Mino is famous for its washi paper (due to its status as the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage), it is Echizen in the Fukui Prefecture that has the highest production of washi paper in Japan. The history of washi paper-making in this region dates back to 1500 years ago, and currently there are 70 washi industries in Echizen, mostly family-run businesses, employing around 500 people in the Imadate area called Goka, which includes five villages of the town, Oizu, Iwamoto, Shinzaike, Sadatomo and Otaki. These villages have been producing Japanese paper since 6th century and constitute “Echizen Washi no Sato“. Every spring, there is a Kami festival in Washi-no-Sato that celebrates the paper goddess, Kawa-Kami Gozen and the two local gods at the Okamoto Otaki Shrine.

After learning about the Echizen washi village in Takefu (a small town which is part of the Echizen City), I went online to find out more and on how to reach it. However, I learnt that getting there is no easy task without a car, and I could not find any accommodation nearby either. Eventually I contacted Katz, a local photographer whose contact is on the official website and he kindly assisted me with the accommodation and travel itinerary.





A miserable day in Takefu


Aside from washi paper, Takefu is also known for its 700-year old knife-making industry and its knife village. I was rather unlucky when I arrived at Takefu, because the scheduled bus didn’t show up at the train station (the third time during my trip), and I had to contact Katz for assistance. Then it was raining cats and dogs by the time I reached the washi village and it didn’t stop until the next morning.

Unlike most of the cities/ towns I visited previously, I saw no foreign tourists, shops, cafes, restaurants nor pedestrians as I was walked towards the washi village. All I saw were residential houses, warehouses, factories and small agricultural fields – it felt very suburban. This town is unlike any towns that I have visited before, and it was quite a shock for me as I was expecting to see a charming town like Arimatsu or Mino. Yet this is the other side of Japan, a side that perhaps not many tourists get to see.


echizen washi village

Paper & Culture Museum echizen washi village

Paper & Culture Museum echizen washi village

Paper & Culture Museum


There are several buildings in the Washi Village, and one of them is the Paper & Culture Museum. The museum displays ancient documents showing the history and origins of Echizen Japanese paper, but there is little English explanation (probably because there are few foreign visitors here). I think this museum is less interesting than the other two venues in the village, and I didn’t linger for too long. However, there is a washi paper library at the back that displays a variety of washi paper samples, which is worth seeing.


Papyrus House echizen washi village

echizen washi village Papyrus House

echizen washi village  echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village  echizen washi village

Washi paper-making workshop at the Papyrus House


At the Papyrus House, there is a paper souvenir shop and an area where visitors can try out some washi paper-making which lasts about 20 minutes. I decided to have a go at it and did manage to make a few pieces to bring home.


echizen washi village

echizen washi village

A washi paper and stationery shop in the washi village


Out of three venues, my favourite was the Udatsu Paper & Craft Museum. Unlike the two other new buildings, this museum is situated inside a former paper maker’s house from the Edo period (1748) , which was later dismantled and reconstructed on this site.

The most fascinating part of the museum is that visitors can watch the process of washi paper making by paper artisans using traditional tools. Unfortunately, I had missed the last session of the Japanese traditional papermaking workshop, but being the only visitor there, I was able to watch the artisan closely while she was working.


echizen washi village Udatsu Paper & Craft Museum

echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village  echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village  echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village

Udatsu Paper & Craft Museum


There is also an exhibition hall upstairs that showcase washi paper works from the region. I had a relaxing time here, and was especially grateful to the kind lady who gave me an umbrella to take away as it was chucking it down outside.


echizen washi village

echizen washi village  echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village

echizen washi village

Udatsu Paper & Craft Museum


After the museums closed, I had to wait around for the heavy rain to ease slightly before walking back to the minshuku, which was fairly basic with few amenities ( not even wifi). I didn’t see other guests and I thought the place was not very clean, but since I was only there for one night, I just turned a blind eye to it. When I tried to locate restaurants nearby for dinner with google map, there were few and far between, hence I decided to wander around to see what I could find.

Eventually I found a soba restaurant that had a ‘closed’ sign hanging outside, even though it was supposed to be opened until 9pm. I walked up to the door to try my luck, and it turned out that the restaurant was indeed opened! The soba restaurant is run by an elderly couple, and aside from a young male customer, there was no one else around. I sat down and picked one a set meal from the Japanese menu, which I have to say was one of the best meals I have had throughout the trip. It was so simple, and yet so delicious. I thought the tempura was even better than the ones I had at the expensive Tenichi Ginza Honten with my friend in Tokyo a few years back. The homemade soba noodles tasted great, too. I thought it was ironic that I randomly walked into an almost empty restaurant in the suburbs and had a surprisingly satisfying meal. Perhaps the food tasted better because I was tired, cold and wet; or because i had no expectations. Anyway, that meal did make me feel happy at the end of a rather miserable day.


echizen washi village

A heartwarming dinner was what I needed on a cold and rainy night


The next morning, I went to say goodbye to Katz, and he said he was hoping to take me to some washi paper studios in Echizen if I had spent more time there. I was grateful for his generosity but at the same time felt quite disappointed with my stay (I think the heavy rain didn’t help either). I am sure that one day was not enough, and there must be many interesting washi paper studios in the area that are worth visiting. Since this area is not a touristy region, it probably requires more research and planning beforehand, so perhaps it does deserve a second visit in the future.