Scottish Highlands: Ullapool



This summer, I spent two weeks staying in Ullapool, a small picturesque port on the shores of Loch Broom with around 1,500 inhabitants up in the Scottish Highlands. Before this trip, I have never travelled anywhere beyond Inverness in the Highlands. Since Ullapool cannot be reached by rail, I had to take a bus from Inverness, which took about 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Although it is only a village, it draws many tourists as it serves as the gateway to the Western Isles. Large ferries and cruise ships can be seen at the port, and tourists can be seen embarking and disembarking all through summer. The village is also known as the centre for the arts and music, with several music festivals taking place here throughout the year.







Due to the peak season, I initially struggled to find accommodation for longer stay. After spending one week in a rental house, I went to the Isle of Lewis via ferry for a few days, then returned and stayed at a B & B up on the hill away from the centre. Luckily, the host told me that he has another rental studio by the loch in the centre, and that I could move over there after their guest had moved out. Somehow it all worked out, and I was more than happy to be staying in a studio facing the loch.

Ullapool is convenient as a base to explore the N.W. Highlands. I, too, used it as a base for my paper-making course in Elphin, and Geo Park tour. Hence, although I stayed in the village for 2 weeks, I did not get to visit the Ullapool museum, which was a pity.





ullapool  ullapool


Officially founded in 1788 as a herring port by the British Fisheries Society, Ullapool was designed by Scottish civil engineer and architect Thomas Telford. Although evidence of human settlements can be found along the coast and on the road side dating back over two thousand years. Some of the original 18th century buildings can still be seen facing the harbour.

However, the village is also associated with Scotland’s darker past as the harbour was the emigration point during the Clearances, where many crofting communities were evicted from their land by their landowners to make way for large-scale sheep farming from 1750 to 1860. During this period, many families in the Highlands left for the New World from Ullapool and never returned again.










Since Ullapool is a port, seafood is a ‘must’ when you visit this village, and the best seafood place here is not a restaurant, but a shack. The multiple award-winning Seafood shack (9 W Argyle St) offers fresh local seafood at affordable prices, and the menu changes daily according to what is being delivered on the day. I went there a few times for dinner, and the food was always delicious with a contemporary twist. I also had fish and chips from Deli-Ca-Sea (West Shore Street), a small fish and chips takeaway near the Ferry terminal, where they serve traditional fish and chips.

There is also a pleasant bistro facing the loch called The Frigate (6 Shore Street) that serves a variety of dishes made form locally sourced produce. And on the last night, I had drinks and dinner with a new friend at the friendly and bustling The Ferry Boat Inn (26-27 Shore Street). The Blue Kazoo Seafood Cafe not only serves fresh and tasty seafood, you can also enjoy live music there in the weekends. We had a brilliant last night there and loved the vivacious atmosphere.


seafood shack

seafood shack

seafood shack


The Ferry Boat Inn

The Ferry Boat Inn

The Ferry Boat Inn

The Ferry Boat Inn


The inspiring landscape of the Highlands is alluring to many musicians, artists and artisans. Hence it is no surprise that many of them have moved up to the Highlands to live and work.

At the paper-making workshop, I met Jan, a geologist/botanist/bookbinder who co-runs a beautiful art and craft shop in Ullapool. Ceàrd (21 West Argyle Street) focuses on locally made products by Scottish makers. You can find paintings, prints, jewellery, ceramics, textiles, crochet, carved wood and many wonderful items in their shop.


ceard  ceard





On the opposite side of the street is An Talla Solais Gallery, where they showcase practising artists across the North West coast of Scotland through their regular art exhibitions. I stumbled upon the opening night of local artist Peter White‘s exhibition and was intrigued by his nature-inspired work.

Peter collects stones from the hills he walks in, paints on them and eventually returns them to the summit of the hill they came from in memory of people who have died. Interestingly, I did encounter one of Peter‘s work when I was hiking up the hill one day (see below).








Further away from the centre, there is Highland Stoneware Pottery (North Road) where visitors can visit the pottery workshop and purchase unique pottery handmade by craftspeople in Lochinver and Ullapool. They have a vast collection of tableware, and an online shop where people who live outside of Scotland can order and get the items shipped to them directly.





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What I enjoyed most about Ullapool is that I could easily go for walks or strolls by the river and beach without leaving the village. Nature and wildlife is abundance.







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ullapool  ullapool













If you enjoy hill walking, then a short ascent up the Ullapool hill and the Braes would enable you to enjoy the panoramic view of Loch Broom and Ullapool. The highest point is the outcrop of Meall Mor with views inland of Loch Achall and surrounding countryside.

As I walked up to the highest point, the rain cloud started to move towards the village and it was engrossing to watch from the top. Luckily, I didn’t get too wet when I descended.


ullapool  ullapool









Last but not least, a trip to The Ullapool Smokehouse (6 Morefield Indstrial Estate) is a MUST before you leave the village. Located in an industrail estate, this family run business sells smoke fish, cheese, meat and eggs, using traditional wood-smoking methods. I bought some smoked salmon and smoked cheese and the quality is much higher than what you would find in the supermarkets. You can also order online via their webshop.


ullapool smoke house

ullapool smoke house

ullapool smoke house


Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum in Kyoto

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I have wanted to visit Japanese potter, Kawai Kanjiro‘s former house – now his Memorial Museum for a long time. Yet for some reason, I never made it until this trip… it was a timely visit as the museum was like a quiet sanctuary compared to hassle and bustle in the centre of the city.

Born 1890, Kawai Kanjiro was a prominent figure in Mingei (Japanese folk art) movement founded by Japanese philosopher, Yanagi Soetsu, in the 1920s and 30s, as well as the studio pottery movements led by Bernard Leach. According to Yanagi, everyday and utilitarian objects made by the anonymous craftsmen are ‘beyond beauty and ugliness’. They are inexpensive and functional ware made for ordinary people, rather than ornaments to be placed on shelves as decorations.

Kawai acquainted and collaborated with British potter, Bernard Leach (who founded Leach Pottery with another well-known Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada) throughout his life, hence he often combined English with Japanese elements together to create pottery pieces that are asymmetrical.



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Luckily, Kawai‘s beautiful wooden farm house seems to be under the tourists’ radar, so I was able to wander and absorb the subdued and tranquil setting. Designed by Kawai and built by his brother in 1937, the house had been left untouched since his death in 1966. It is not hard to see the influence of Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of wabi sabi (the aesthetics often associated with ‘imperfection’) at this house, in particular when he talks of ’emptiness’ in the his essay titles “We Do Not Work Alone”:

“When you become so absorbed in your work that beauty flows naturally then your work truly becomes a work of art… Everything that is, is not. Everything is, yet at the same time, nothing is. I myself am the emptiest of all.”





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One of the most impressive sights at the house is his huge kiln at the back, which has been well preserved. Beside pottery, Kawai also did wood carving, furniture design, metal casting and calligraphy, and these works can be seen around the house/museum. I found the museum and his work utterly inspiring, and I think it is possible to imagine the kind of person he was from his craft, designs and writings. The aesthetics of this house is so sublime and understated that it would take some time to grasp it, and you may need to return again to appreciate it fully.



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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.


fujino  fujino


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.






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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).


 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.





Burmese crafts: papier mâché , lacquerware & pottery

burmese papier mâché maker

burmese papier mâché maker  burmese papier mâché maker

Stumbled upon a papier mâché maker’s home in New Bagan


Before my trip to Myanmar, I had no idea that a myriad of traditional crafts are being produced in different parts of the country. Apparently, every region uses local materials to produce in a specific craft that is unique to that area; hence, every region has its own a niche market (a good idea to employ in our increasingly homogeneous Western society).

Our first stop was Bagan, and the most unexpected surprise happened when we stumbled upon a papier mâché maker’s house near our hotel. My travel companion spotted the back of a life-sized papier mâché in the courtyard of the craftsman’s house, which evoked our curiosity… eventually the craftsman noticed us (two suspicious tourists peeking outside his house) and invited us in. Although the craftsman spoke little English, he was keen to show us his fantastic creations. He even climbed into the life-sized papier mâché to show us the interior of it. He told us that these papier mâchés are being employed at Buddhist festivals like Thingyan (Burmese New Year Festival), where other papier mâché toys and masks are being sold.


burmese pottery maker

burmese pottery maker

Small lacquer jars made by a local artisan in New Bagan


Bagan is the official home of lacquerware in Myanmar, so lacquerware can be seen in shops around the Bagan area. After our stop at the papier mâché maker’s house, we met one of his neighbour, who is a lacquerware artisan and she creates tiny lacquer jars and napkin rings at her house.

Since the small village is away from the touristy area, the villagers were all very friendly and hospitable. It was particularly encouraging to see different craftsmen living side by side and working for themselves rather than in a factory setting.


burmese lacquer

burmese lacquer  burmese lacquer

burmese lacquer

burmese lacquer  burmese lacquer

burmese lacquer

burmese lacquer

burmese lacquer

burmese lacquer

A lacquerware workshop in Bagan


Two days later, we were taken to a lacquerware workshop in Bagan (as part of our tour), where we observed different artisans working on larger and finer pieces catered for tourists.

Although originated from China, Bagan has been producing lacquerware since the 12th/13th century. The sap used in lacquerware is called Thit-si (which means wood varnish) is collected from Melanorrhoea usitata, a tree native to South East Asia. The base of the lacquer vessels are usually made of coiled or woven bamboo strips mixed with horsehair, and later the surface is painted on the inside and outside with lacquer at least eight to sixteen different layers, then stored in a dry cellar. Since it may take a skilled craftsman six months or up to one year to produce high quality lacquerware, hence the prices of these crafts can come with hefty price tags.


burmese pottery maker

burmese pottery maker  burmese pottery maker

burmese pottery   burmese pottery

A village pottery maker outside of Mandalay


Unlike lacquerware, pottery is being produced in several areas of the country. And one of them is Nwe Nyein village near Kyauk Myaung, a riverside town along the Ayeyarwady River. Since the clay near Kyauk Myaung produces high quality pottery, therefore the area is known for its 50-gallon glazed jars. Most jars are exported, while others are primarily used for water storage. These water jars can often be seen in the streets or at Buddhist temples providing water for travelers or monks.

Although we didn’t visit this village, we did visit a village outside of Mandalay where we saw some local pottery makers producing pottery (and drying chilies) at their houses.


burmese terracotta water jars

burmese terracotta water jars


burmese lacquer

burmese pottery

Top & 2nd rows: Terracotta water jars; 3rd row: Pottery shop in Bagan; Last row: miniature pottery kits for children


To be continued…

Stoke on Trent’s vanishing kilns, craft and economy

Gladstone pottery museun

stoke on trent kiln spode kiln

stoke on trent kiln stoke on trent kiln

Top: The grade II* listed Gladstone Pottery Museum where visitors can learn about city’s pottery history and manufacturing processes; Bottom 2 rows: The city is full of abandoned pottery factories, kilns and chimneys


Last year, I visited The Asia Triennial in Manchester, and I was pleasantly surprised by the how the city has evolved since my last visit back in the early 90s. The city has also been named the most liveable place in the UK according to the Global Liveability Survey – beating London for the second time.

This year, after my 2 day visit in Stoke on Trent, I left the city feeling rather depressed, appalled and agitated. Unlike Manchester, Stoke on Trent exposes the uneven distribution of wealth in this country; and how the government has neglected many parts of the country that urgently require regeneration and economic support.


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Top row: Hanley park; Bottom left: The grade II* listed train station; Bottom right: The city’s typical terraced houses


In its heyday, about 4,000 bottle kilns dominated the city’s skyline, now only 47 (listed) are left standing. Walking around the city, one can’t fail to notice the abandoned factories, kilns and chimneys that once played a vital role in city’s development and economy.

In the 1980s and 90s, Stoke-on-Trent was hit hard by the decline in the British manufacturing sector; and as a result, many factories closed down or moved overseas, leaving a sharp rise in unemployment in the ‘high-skilled but low-paid’ sector. Although in recent years, there has been a revival in the city’s pottery industry, with ceramic exports have rising by 36 percent between 2009 and 2014, the road to recovery may still take some time.


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stoke on trent stoke on trent

stoke on trent

 The city’s mishmash architectural styles


Last year, the city made headline news when Stoke-on-Trent City Council put 33 derelict properties on the market for a pound each in a desperate attempt to clean up the area. The ‘Clusters of Empty Homes Programme (£1 home scheme)’ was a bold and unconventional idea, and it seemed to have paid off when thousands applied for them. Yet despite all the positive press coverage of the city’s ‘renaissance’, I was not entirely convinced when I was walking around the city on a weekday afternoon.


Regent theatre stoke on trentstoke on trent stoke on trentthe potteries museumstoke on trent stoke on trent

The city’s Art Deco, Brutalist and contemporary architecture


Lack of urban planning is only one of the issues in this city. The mishmash architectural styles – not in a positive eclectic way – reveal the incoherency of city planning, hence you can find architectural styles from all eras in one street. I find it bewildering that unnecessary regeneration (and social cleansing) is constantly taking place in parts of London that erase its local identity; whereas cities like Stoke on Trent would probably benefit more from it than a wealthy and over-developed city like London.


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The ‘Cultural district’ is the least cultural place I have ever visited


On paper, the cultural quarter sounds exciting, but in reality, I saw nothing related to ‘culture’ except for a street art piece and hand-written tourist information on a disused shop window panels. Many of the shops in this quarter are derelict, while the ones that remain open are chained stores like Waterstones and TK Maxx.

There were teenage ‘hoodies’ hanging out in the streets, and older guys drinking outside of the pubs looking as if they have been there for days! Even the sun couldn’t lighten up the grim and dismal atmosphere in the city centre, and I was desperate to get out.


stoke on trent

stoke on trent stoke on trentstoke on trent

‘Emptiness’ in Stoke on Trent’s city centre


I did some research on the city when I got back to London, and I discovered a Regeneration masterplan report proposed by the local Council in 2011. This plan suggests that followng: “the redevelopment of Stoke Town has the potential to create 500 jobs over the next 5 years and attract £25m in investment. The Council is providing £1m for remediation works and a further £2m for the wider town centre.”

Four years after this publication, I am not sure how many of its grand plans have been realised. As far as I could see, the former Spode works and its surrounding area still look dilapidated, and the same goes for the city centre or cultural district. So what happened to this master plan? Was it lack of funding that obstructed the regeneration?

I have never been to Detroit before, but I have a feeling that Stoke on Trent is the smaller and less drastic UK equalvalent of the US industrial capital that fell from grace. If Detroit is able to slowly bounce back from bankrupcy, then there is still hope for Stoke on Trent to thrive again as UK’s pottery capital.

The trip has been an eye-opening experience for me, and like most Londoners, I probably take things for granted and I tend to forget that London does not represent the rest of the country. It is a real shame that most of the foreign and government’s investments focus mostly on already wealthy cities like London, Bristol and Manchester etc. Shockingly, regional inequality in the UK is said to be the worst in Western Europe according to Eurostat, the data agency of the European Union. Many parts of UK are at least 20% poorer than the EU average, and the Shropshire and Staffordshire region (including Stoke on Trent) was named the 6th poorest in the UK in 2014. The gap between the richest and the poorest is growing at an alarmingly rate since this Government took office in 2011.

Now, I really want to ask David Cameron one question, “What happened to your grand vision of the BIG society?