Be Spiritual at Ise shrine 伊勢神宮

The town of Ise, in Mie Prefecture to the east of Osaka, is home to what may be the most revered Shinto shrine in Japan. Ise Jingu.

Ise Jingu’s prominence is wrapped up in the fact that the main sanctuary, called Kotaijingu, is where Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestral kami of Japan’s imperial family, is enshrined.

Meg and I (and our pal Javier from Spain) recently spent a day in Ise — first, roaming the grounds of Ise’s inner shrine, Naiku, including an adjacent grove of epic-sized trees, and then at Naiku’s sister site, six kilometers away, the outer shrine of Geku.

Naiku especially is mind-boggling in size and scope. Surrounded by forest and river, and containing the mysterious and monumental main sanctuary (mysterious because only the Emperor and his family, and just a handful of priests, are allowed inside, no photos allowed, limited viewing perch), Naiku is well-loved by visitors who flock there by the millions (eight million visitor/pilgrims in the past year).

The trees at Naiku, many old and misshapen, are especially beautiful, which might be one of the reasons it became a Shinto temple in the first place. Shintoism has long revered trees, especially the older, larger and more deformed or interestingly shaped ones, as it’s in those trees the Shinto spirits, or Kami, are more likely to be found. Interesting, eh?

We followed our day in Ise with a couple more to the south, sleuthing out more of the Kumano Kodo to hike.

Settling on portions of the near the town of Odai, we hiked parts of the Nisaka-toge and Tsuzurato-toge (Nisaka Pass and Tzuzurato Pass). The hiking was a mixed bag in that there are so many portions of the Kodo that have been paved over and subsumed by the modern world. You definitely need to do your research to find the Kodo trailheads and then to locate long stretches of trail uninterrupted by roads, train tracks, roads or tunnels.

(The best of the online maps of the Kodo nearest to Odai can be found here: http://www.kodo.pref.mie.lg.jp/…/ass…/download/guide_map.pdf)
All in all, a good mix of the modern (good food, a charming, locals’ sento in Ise), the spiritual (Ise’s inner and outer shrines, Naiku and Geku), and the natural (hiking parts of the Kumano Kodo).

The latest video is right here.

Let’s go to Naoshima!

Naoshima Island has been in our sights for years. A tiny spot on the map, just a few kilometers off the coast, it has an outsized reputation among fans of modern art. When we realized we’d be driving by the port town of Uno, gateway to Naoshima, we thought, what the heck, let’s see this place for ourselves!

Getting there is easy enough — two ferry companies make the trip from Uno almost hourly. The big decision we had to make was whether to take the van or go on foot. After speaking with a couple who’d just returned from the island, we decided that in the interest of “keeping it frugal,” we’d take the van so we could save on the cost of a room as well as cook our meals (we’d just done some grocery shopping so we had tons of food to cook up).

The rainy weather wasn’t going to make it any easier to get around on foot or bike, either, so we made the decision to go with the van.

With the next ferry leaving in just a few minutes, we bought tickets and got ourselves ready to go. Not thirty minutes later we were on Naoshima, driving on the island’s main road, asking directions for the information center and doing our usual scanning of the roadway for likely spots to sleep.

The island itself and drop dead beautiful. As we explored, we sometimes hugged the coast and beaches. Other times the road took us up and over the green hills that make up the interior.

There is art and museums everywhere. As night fell, we were able to visit one of the island’s main museums, the Benesse House Museum. We were unprepared for the art — by Sam Francis, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney and Claude Monet, to name a few big names hanging on the walls.

Artists represented outside include Yayoi Kusama, whose “pumpkin” sculptures are probably the best known Naoshima art pieces, and also Karl Appel’s many playful cats.

The island’s main town, Honmura, is the setting for what the Benesse Foundation (which owns most of the island and all the art) calls the Art House Project, eight traditional houses turned art projects we can walk through and experience on the various artists’ terms.

Naoshima is definitely worth the trip, but there is a lingering feeling that the whole experience is just too contrived. Maybe Meg and I are living too hand to mouth as we “vanlife” around Japan — the last thing I expected to see between our instant ramen breakfasts and our two banana/two apple lunches was a museum wall heavy with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.

Naoshima take-away? Visit if you are in the neighborhood but don’t build a trip around it.

Cheers for now!

Visa RUN to Taiwan

We added a new word to our vocabulary recently. And that is, Visa Run. Which can be explained with the help of a brief backgrounder.
If you are an expat on an extended adventure overseas — wherever you are — you’re going to come up against a hard and fast end-date for your stay, based on the visa you received on entry.

For US citizens visiting Japan, that’s 90 days. So for those of us tramping around Nippon with the intent of staying longer, what’s to be done when you bump up against that three-month window?

After looking at a few options the Japanese government presents — including a request to extend the 90-day visa or trying to qualify for a longer stay by claiming to be a researcher or instructor or journalist, for example — we decided to forgo the red tape and opt for, yes, here’s that word again, a visa run. Which is, simply put, an international trip outside the base country which, on return, resets the “visa clock.” For us that would mean another 90 days of unfettered and totally legal travel in Japan.

Our plan was simple. Find the cheapest international destination, go for a week of fun, and on return collect another coveted 90-day landing permit.
We started by trolling the Peach and AirAsia web sites (both are well-known discount airlines) looking for the cheapest fares and most convenient routes from Osaka. In late-February when we were planning our visa run, winter was still a force to contend with, so we were adamant about finding warmer weather (which meant Korea, the closest and cheapest visa-run option was out of the question).

Initially Bali looked good, as did Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia, as well as Penang, Malaysia. Fares to those destinations were in the $400-$500 r/t range, per person. Pricey, but not bad considering for years I’d wanted to see each of those cities.

On the down side, however, were the facts that the weather in Bali was nothing but rain, and the flights to Cambodia and Malaysia all required painfully long layovers. One possibility that kept popping up was Taiwan, especially flights to Kaohsiung, a city we had never even heard of until the chance meeting of a follow traveler a few weeks earlier. Turned out to be a giant no-brainer: there are beaches in Taiwan, transportation and food prices are notoriously cheap, the flights were non-stop and just a few hours in length, and the fares were rock-bottom. Round-trip tickets on Peach cost less than $500 (for us both!).

We booked our flights to coincide with the 87th day of our 90-day Japan visa.
We visited somewhat grubby Kaohsiung, grabbing food at the Liuhe Night Market and spending an entire day hiking in Shoushan National Nature Park. We then jumped onto one of the Kenting Express buses for the not quite three-hour bus ride south to Hengchun/Kenting. We hiked in Sheding National Park, swam in the crystal-clear waters of the Pacific Ocean and cruised town on our $5 a day, 125cc scooter.
We wrapped up our one-week stay in the country’s super-charming first capital, and now historically rich and incredibly friendly, Tainan City.

Here’s a bit of a travelogue that documents the trip — to a country I’d go back to anytime given its excellent and cheap street food (tofu pudding anyone?), low prices (lodging, bus and train, as well as said scooter rental), a boisterous night-market scene, and the open-hearted and chatty nature of the Taiwanese people. It all left an indelible impression on us.

Now, with our new visa good for another three months, we are back in Japan through late-May at least. At which time we’ll have to revisit this subject all over again. For now, we’re going to unplug our brains on the subject and go back to vanlifing!

Cheers for now! Curt and Meg

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.

CURTGOPR0227.JPG

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 ~

yunomine20180215_103428

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.

whysojapan_vending_machines_tokyo_japan_11-615x465

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?