Awaji Island and Tokushima trip

We drove down the coast of Awaji Island to check out the whirlpools at Naruto Kaikyo, under the Onaruto Bridge. It happened to be the opening date for the Uzushio (whirlpool) cruise season — March 1st. We were welcomed by an Awa dance team.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out the trailhead for Mt. Tsurugi in Tokushima. One of main roads to the trailhead was closed due to snow and construction. The townies near Mt. Tsurugi were no help.

The next day the rain came down hard so we gave up and headed home. We stumbled upon a roadside cafe surrounded by straw dolls a custom that started the town of Nagoro in Tokushima. One of women in town started to put handmade, real-sized human dolls where people (including kids) used to hang out… to replace the empty space after most of the locals left for the big city. We didn’t make it to Nagoro, but got some idea of what it must be like after hanging out in the cafe, full of humanized straw dolls…spooky!

Hiking in a (really) pink world

The mountain-top village of Yoshino in Nara Prefecture lives for the blooming cherry tree. Off season, the town is deserted — Meg and I have been here when the shops were all closed and we had the main street to ourselves. But not today. Now, in early April, the place is abuzz with tourists soaking up the views and enjoying the annual rite of admiring and walking under the snowy blossoms of these undeniably beautiful trees.


We broke the spell of Osaka last week with an impulsive, one-day trip to Yoshino and not too surprisingly were blown away by the colors. The wind was making a snowy storm of floating petals which added to the otherworldly, sometimes surreal feel of Yoshino.

True to form in Japan, there’s an underbelly to the beauty. The planting of some 30,000 trees in the hills around Yoshino comes at a price in that native species had to be cleared (and sometimes clear-cut) to make way for today’s vast fields of cherry trees. And the clear-cutting and felling of native trees is still going on today.

Don’t bother messing with today’s devotees of the cherry tree, however. They are single-minded in their search for the perfect view and the perfect spot under the trees where they can relax, eat their bento, and have a sip or two of sake.

The history of the cherry tree may be bittersweet, but today, with the town dressed in light pink and purple, it is easy to merely enjoy the spectacle.

Kumano Kodo Part II ~ Yunomine Onsen Hikes ~


After our stay at Kawayu Onsen (did you see Video #1?), we relocated to the slightly larger but still small town of Hongu, which we used as a base to hike two of the most popular Kumano Kodo routes — the Dainichi-goe and Akagi-goe (which essentially translate as the hikes over Mt. Dainichi and Mt. Akagi).
The small and ridiculously photogenic village of Yunomine sits almost dead center on the two trails (which extend out from Yunomine in opposite directions) and makes for a perfectly placed resting spot. Highlights of a stay in Yunomine are the 1,800-year-old Tsubo-yu, a tiny public bath built on the Kumano River (really no more than a creek that cuts through town), as well as the cooking basin on the water’s edge where locals and tourists hard-boil and eat “onsen tamago” or onsen eggs.
Check out our video of hikes in and around Yunomine.

Living the frugal #vanlife in Japan? Follow these nine simple strategies.


Shun the vending machine. The ubiquitous vending machine is one of Japan’s most enduring symbols. True, they are everywhere. And true, they can be a welcome sight when you need a rush of caffeine or something to quench a raging thirst. But you will pay a premium for the convenience. That coffee you just paid 130 or 140 yen for in a vending machine can be had for 105 in a nearby 7-11. The savings will be the same for that cup ramen, cold tea or beer you may be needing. Bottom line: Figure on a paying a ten percent premium when you buy from a vending machine vs in a store. So limit those vending machine purchases. (Business Insider Japan posted an excellent profile of vending machines and the vending machine industry. Worth a read.)

Shop smart for groceries — buy the mark downs. Almost every grocery store marks down produce that can’t spend another minute on the shelves, or items that are slightly bruised. Just like the markets in the US, right? So go for it, because the savings can be steep — figure 10 to 30 percent. The trick is finding out where in the store that rack of discounted items is located. No matter — just take the time to find that rack and load up on ready-to-eat-now bananas, apples, and lettuce.

Walk when you can. No exactly rocket science here, but with transportation costs on the high side in Japan, consider walking — even long walks — to get where you want, be it city walks for shopping, or heading to a restaurant, or in the countryside heading off to a trailhead. Just resist that knee-jerk reaction to jump on yet another subway or drive just because you can.

Cheap parking means cheap sleeping. I haven’t tried this yet but it’s on my Frugal VanLife to-do list. Which is to sleep in the van while parked in one of the many open-air parking lots you see all over in Japan. You see, while pulling over at the end of the day in the countryside is usually no problem, city boondocking is another story. You can’t just blend into the scenery on Japan’s city streets. In Osaka, the rate for 24 hour parking in in the 600 -700 yen range (6 or 7 bucks), and often you can find a lot that charges 500 yen or a 24-hour period. I say: park, set up your window baffles. and get some shut-eye. I certainly wouldn’t advertise the fact you are sleeping in your van, but if you can keep the sleeping on the down-low, this is a great way to a catch your nighttime Zzzzz’s in the middle of downtown anywhere, Japan.

Shop where parking is free. Outside of the frenzied entertainment districts where parking is rare, you should find plenty of free parking at various stores — LAMU for discount groceries, Konan for building supplies and storage solutions, 2nd Street for used clothing (see below), and Joshin for electronics are a few big brands that always have adjacent free parking. I’m not advocating turning your vanlife experience in Japan into one, giant shopping extravaganza. Just suggesting that when you do have to shop, you aim for stores that make parking a breeze and free. Free is good, yes?

Dollar stores are your friend. Not your best friend, mind you. Fact is, I’ve regretted buying certain items in a 100 Yen shop (not recommended for food, trust me), but when it comes to basics and basics-plus, you can usually find what you are looking for in a Japanese dollar store. Think rain gear, pens and envelopes, underwear and socks, slippers, snacks (not staples!), and basic pharmacy-type items. Why pay more than a buck if you don’t need to, right?

Fill up at “circle sushi” restaurants. Not every circle sushi joint serves top-quality sushi and maki, but many do. The experience is fun, filling, and (here’s a plus) usually have free parking — and far less expensive than most sushi restaurants, which tend to run on the pricey side in Japan. Look for Ku-ra Sushi for the best in frugal and good-tasting sushi fare.

Know your (free!) WiFi options. Free WiFi is as close as the nearest convenience store, which is an advantage for the traveler in Japan. Family Mart and 7-11, the two largest convenience chains, both support WiFi. Their networks are open, free, and widely used (you often see people standing just outside the doors, tapping a store’s crisp web connection). Sure, you can rent or buy a pocket WiFi hub, but if your connectivity needs are slim, convenience-store WiFi might be all you need.

Shop the second hand and discount stores. Two brands to remember while traveling Japan: 2nd Street and Don Quixote (which locals casually refer to as DONKI, pronounced “don-KEE”). The first, 2nd Street, is a second-hand store where you can replace that dying jacket or those busted up shoes. As well, day packs, winter hats, and all manner of clothing are offered at fair prices — and sometimes surprisingly cheap, sale prices. Brands run the gamut from high to low, North Face and Columbia to the anonymous Chinese brand. And some 2nd Street stores sell more than clothes (and look surprisingly similar to a high-end thrift stores in the states). Don Quixote is often referred to as the Walmart of Japan, but from what I’ve seen, it can’t compare in scale. DONKI does do deep discounts of everyday items — clothing, health products, liquor, electronics, housewares. YouTube channel “Tokyo Drew” posted a walk-through of a Tokyo DONKI store which shows off the business model and typical store layout (skip the first minute or so). We buy small instant heat pads in bulk at the local DONKI stores, as well as shampoos and clothing basics like socks and gloves.

Those are a few of our strategies for cutting costs and staying frugal. What are your go-to tips and tricks?

Walking the “Kumano Kodo”


We love Japan and want to see as much of the country as we can, but we don’t want to spend a ton of cash.

So we set out in a lightly converted mini-van to visit the countryside most guidebooks ignore, to eat local and wholesome food, to soak in backcountry hot springs, and to hike the trails that crisscross every part of the country.

We don’t have an unlimited budget so there’ll be no fancy travel companies to shuttle us around, no $100 meals, and no five-star hotels. That’s OK because we are in Japan on a long-term adventure — traveling and living to make our budget last.

This is our first trip to Kumano Kodo in Wakayama prefecture.

Here’s the vid. Enjoy!