There are many reasons to love Japan. Onsen, culure, temples, old towns, hanami, ryokans and the list goes on. But one of the biggest reasons why I love Japan is its breakfasts. Japanese brekkie is one of the tastiest and healthiest in the world. And if you know me, these two adjectives are seldom found coupled together in my favourite foods. Yet the Japanese breakfast is a big winner for me. I love them all – from big decadent hotel buffets with generous lashings of ikura, sashimi, negitoro going down with crispy bacon and scrambled egg, to pristine, clean temple vegetarian with tofu done in five different ways. Either way, they really know how to start their day right. Let’s look at my favourite – the traditional breakfast set. Continue reading
In between the cities of Sendai and Yamagata, accessed by the local Senzan train line, sits a modest village known for its waters, infused with legendary healing power, so clear and so pure that it contributes to a famed Japanese whisky distillery which produces Nikka whiskey. Little Sakunami Onsen sits off the radar for most international tourists, attracting a more domestic clientele. Yet, its onsen tradition dates back hundreds of years and its genesis story of healing waters is as mystical as Nyuto Onsen. Not far from Sakunami Onsen is the venerable Yamadera, a cluster of temples perched high above a mountain and accessed by huffing and puffing your way up 1000 steps. Who said the way to the gods is easy right?
Fancy bathing in ‘milk’? The silky turquoise waters at the famed inn of Tsuru-no-yu will help any aspiring Cleopatra to at least pretend to bathe in some milk for a night or two, possibly with much better outcomes for the skin. Better yet, with a galaxy of stars for company. The mixed baths of Tsuru-no-yu have been on my onsen radar for a long time so I was really excited to finally soak in its waters. This is not your polished onsen resort so forget about fancy kaiseki meals and posh en-suite facilities. It is very rustic in many ways but trust me, these opaque waters are well worth the journey. Nearby is the deep blue expanse of Tazawako, Japan’s deepest lake and a mere hop away on the shinkansen are the old samurai houses of Kakunodate, making this part of Akita well worth a couple of nights.
Walking in Hakodate is like exploring the musty living room of a favourite eccentric aunt stuck in a time warp – stuffed with quirky old curios, sometimes kitschy, occasionally mysterious but always charming with lots of stories. Hakodate is not unknown. In fact, many would not visit Hokkaido without stopping by Hakodate. After all, it has its share of fans who flock to its fish market for fresh and delicious sea food and its famous night view from Mount Hakodate, said to be among the top three night views in Japan. To be honest, I did not have high expectations of Hakodate. I was just there for the food – specifically a breakfast buffet ranked among the top five in all of Japan – and simply because I wanted to max out the super convenient JR East Tohoku South Hokkaido rail pass. But Hakodate turned on its quiet laidback charm and I found myself unexpectedly a newfound fan. Continue reading
Tucked away at the northern-most tip of Japan’s Honshu island, Aomori prefecture and Aomori city are quiet and under-rated gems usually skipped by travelers in favour of the more happening southern metropolises of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. But actually, there are so many reasons why one should head for Aomori. Like for example, you can’t head for Hokkaido on the shinkansen without stopping at Aomori – well, okay technically you could but then you would be missing out on some of the yummiest freshest seafood, a fun DIY donburi, the chance to see up close the gigantic lantern floats of the Nebuta festival and yes, some of the best apple products this side of Japan. Continue reading
I’ve saved the best, or at least my favorite, for last. This final post of my Yunnan trip revolves around the small town of Shuhe. Although barely 6km away from Lijiang, sometimes seen as Lijiang’s suburbs, Shuhe does not play second fiddle. A historic village in itself, one that has been around for more than a thousand years, Shuhe is a quieter, more authentic version of Lijiang. We loved staying in Shuhe. We loved its clear running waterways filled with long frills of algae, its many chill-out spots (many so prettily dressed), its numerous friendly four-legged inhabitants. Coming back after a long day out was something we looked forward to every night. It felt comfortable and familiar. This in no small part, must be credited to the wonderful team at the Singaporean-run inn The Bivou. Continue reading
One reason why Lijiang is such a magnet for travelers is not just its status as a World Heritage Site but also its proximity to some of China’s most stunning natural landscapes. Snow-capped mountain ranges, turquoise lakes, fierce rivers and deep gorges are all within an easy drive of Lijiang. Serious travelers hoping to get off the tourist route will find endless opportunities for hiking into big country. But most tourists would be happy just to take the easy Instagrammable routes of Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Go in with your eyes wide open because not only do these sites have jaw-dropping scenery, they can also be a bit of a tourist gouge.
About 16 years ago, I was browsing in a bookshop checking out some books about to be remaindered. One of them was a travelogue on Lijiang. The pictures – of glowing red lanterns reflected in flowing streams of clear water, lanes of old stones that glistened blue and dark grey in a misty rain – those romantic images of Lijiang struck a chord and for the longest time, this was on the list of places I wanted to see. Those who have seen it have returned extolling lots of praise but over time, I was no longer sure if this dreamy vision still existed or if it was smothered under huge piles of the tourist dollar. Now, in 2019, I was about to find out. Continue reading
Not far from Dali, by the shores of the Erhai lake sits little Xizhou. Everything that Dali has lost, Xizhou still has. A thriving community of residents who live and work in the village, stunning well-preserved architecture with beautiful details, interesting street food and a chill vibe. Unlike Dali, Xizhou remains accessible, preserving its human scale. No big hotels, no neon – for now. The tour groups have discovered Xizhou but thankfully only as a day trip destination. That may not last because Xizhou’s charm is an open secret now; and when the electric golf carts with guides and wireless mics have started zooming around its cobblestoned lanes, you know it won’t be long before it goes the way of Dali. But hopefully that will take a while so go while you can still wander its alleys and lanes with some space to yourself. Continue reading
Weishan is unexpected. I thought it was going to be another old town preserved for history and culture, kept ‘authentically’ crumbling for visitors to see what an ancient space is like, or worse, disneyfied for tourists. But Weishan is nothing like any of that. It is truly authentic – one of those rare places where life is still very much the same as it has always been for centuries. In the main thoroughfare of the old town, residents go about their day to day – getting a haircut, chatting with old friends, buying hand-made noodles. When people talk about authentic spaces, it could mean authenticity in architectural terms or that a space is well-preserved in keeping with or as close to history as possible. In Weishan, authentic means it is still in use, very much lived in, well kept not because someone decided to preserve a town. It is well kept because it is in use. Continue reading