August/September 2018 –
Greetings! We are now back aboard Contigo (in Curaçao) after two amazing months spent in Asia, filled to the brim with adventure and (rewarding) challenge. We thought it best to break up our summer land-travel update into two installments, the first of which covers our month spent in Japan. The second will delve into Thailand, Hong Kong, and travels to see friends and family — this to follow soon!
So first stop, the Land of the Rising Sun, abundant bowing and politeness, endless Matcha Tea, and of course, delectable Sushi.
We landed in Japan, laughing at the ease and comfort of our overnight flight to Osaka, which had zipped us across the Pacific at 100x what we average on Contigo. No overnight watches, navigational hazards, nor sail-changes. Fourteen hours spent in the back row of coach never felt so easy!
Once in town, the search for back-alley fine dining (which the Japanese have essentially perfected) began in earnest, and sushi was at the top of our list.
Dallying not, we found the Osaka branch of Sushi ZanMai and ordered their never-fail tuna special (Akami two ways, Chu Toro, O Toro, and maki). We first visited ZanMai during a trip to Tokyo in 2014. That meal — like this one — did not disappoint!
We spent a few days exploring the city, including a required stop at Osaka Castle (shown above), which features prominently in James Clavell’s Shogun, one of our all time favorite books.
We should mention that we were in Japan during the worst heatwave on record, and Osaka (and later Kyoto) were all blister and bake; by 8 or 9AM it was usually north of 90 degrees and quite humid, so there was no “getting an early start to the day” to avoid the heat. This was painfully relevant to us given our plan to tackle the Kumano Kodō trail, a Shinto and Buddhist pilgrimage that dates back to the days of medieval Japan, going back over 1,000 years.
When we explained to our Osaka AirBnB hosts that the 5-6 day hike through rural Kii Peninsula backcountry was in our plans, their faces showed unmistakable alarm. Apparently only foreigners are crazy enough to hike the Kodō during the height of the summer, and to do so in the midst of a record, annihilating heatwave was unthinkable. It was so hot, plastic food displays were melting, for kami’s sake (bad Shinto joke)!
Luckily the forest ended up being a cooler refuge from the heat, and we had five days of beautiful hikes with the sun peeking through the trees, which graciously offered their shade.
Why embark on a week-long hike (with all our personal belongings for two months in tow) through rural Japan, you might ask? Since first moving aboard Contigo, we have learned that:
- We really enjoy spending time outdoors, preferably doing some form of moderate exercise; here rural Japan excels — there is a reason this was the land that gave rise to the notion of “Forest Bathing“.
- People in the countryside tend to be gentle, warm, and welcoming. The big cities have denizens of a different vibe. It bears mentioning that the Japanese as a whole are extremely polite and helpful to travelers, but in rural parts, even more so.
- A bit of hardship and challenge along the way often encourage (in us, at least) a healthy dose of gratitude — we have learned this the hard way on overnight and multi-day passages on Contigo. The colder and wetter the night’s watch, the more grateful we are when the sun finally peaks over the horizon. The rougher the water outside of the breakwater, the more gloriously calm it feels once inside. And of course the analog on the Kōdo was that the harder the day’s climb, the better the onsen bath felt and inn’s dinner meal tasted that night!
The trail, which takes pilgrims across varied mountain terrain to the site of three large Shinto Hongu shrines, is also endowed with dozens of mini-shrines along the way known as Oji. If a pilgrim couldn’t make it all the way to the main shrine back in the day, they could at least pay homage at these subsidiary shrines tucked away in the forest (see one below). These Oji were an unexpected highlight of the trek, understated but often beautifully composed and integrated into the forest landscape.
Conner is shown jumping with (respectful) joy at the entrance to the first main shrine, reached after ~20 long, hilly miles.
Along the way, travelers typically stop for the night at onsen/hotspring towns with piping-hot rivers flowing right through them. Yunonime Onsen (after visiting shrine #2) is shown below.
Other rural towns (like Koguchi below) had cold mountain springs that made for refreshing mid-day swimming in the hot summer sun.
Nachi Shrine, located at the site of Japan’s tallest waterfall (Nachi-San) was the most “instagram-worthy” of the temples, so we made a brief exception to our self-imposed ban of taking too many pictures of or near the main shrines.
On the morning of our last hike, we were interviewed by a TV producer who was putting together a story on international travelers visiting Japan — at least we think that’s what it was about. Imagine our surprise when we saw her again (the following day) in Shingu over twenty miles away! We recently had a clip sent to us by a lovely American couple we also met in town along the way — so the anchovies made a brief appearance on Japanese television:
Below, Conner hikes up to a small shrine in Shingu where the gods are thought to have first descended to Japan. The general protocol at Shinto shrines was to drop a coin into the offering box, tug at the big thick rope/bell combo to call to attention the resident spirits, bow twice to show them due respect, clap twice out of joy and appreciation for this opportunity, offer a small silent prayer of gratitude, and finally clap once more to seal the whole deal.
Karl show soaking his tired and swollen feet in a public hot spring in Katsuura:
We also made it onto the Instagram feed of a sushi chef who is locally famous for taking pictures of diners, especially foreigners. He was incredibly kind and gracious and offered us free sushi in return 🙂
After exploring the countryside, we traded our sneakers and walking sticks for flip flops and bikes and headed to (hot!) Kyoto for some time in the city. Our AirBnB had free bicycles so we explored the city on two wheels, which provided a much needed (apparent) breeze from soaring temperatures.
Conner had looked up a quiet jazz spot prior to our arrival and it quickly became our Kyoto happy place. The owner (the gentleman below) has been running the intimate space for more than 30 years and is a living embodiment of Ikigai, another wonderful Japanese concept we explored that amounts to finding purpose and meaning in your craft, no matter how big or small, and continuously investing your time and love into its elevation way, way, wayyyyy past the level of diminishing returns.
A related concept in Japan is that of the “datsusara,” a phenomenon in which a salaried worker, usually employed in office work, decides to leave the safe life to find their Ikigai, be it through running a bar or a ramen shop, or becoming an artist or a farmer. Etymologically, datsu means “to exit” and sara is an abbreviation of “salaryman”. And “datsusara-sailor” is when you quit your job and buy a sailboat without knowing how to sail.
We were on a serious Tea and Japanese sweets kick at this point in the trip. Karl was Matcha crazed while Conner couldn’t get enough of Hoji Cha:
We’ll relay a hot tip we received from friends. The gardens at Okochi-Sanso’s Villa in the outskirts of Kyoto can be a brief respite from the large crowds at Arashima bamboo forest just outside. And you get a free Matcha with your entrance ticket!
Our next and final major stop in Japan was a 6-day stay at a rural Zen temple on the island of Kyushu, which we reached from Osaka by taking an overnight ferry.
Jiho-San (shown in bright blue Gucci shirt below) is a practicing Rinzai Zen monk who invites foreigners — max 5 or 6 at any one time — to stay with him and get a taste of his daily life. His approach to instruction is laid back and his personality infused with a wonderfully direct sense of humor. Plus we also met some great people from all parts of the globe during our stay there.
In short, Japan was as expected: beautifully stimulating and of course a tad confusing. Next time on Two Anchovies: Karl tragically and unexpectedly loses his unkempt beard at a barber shop in Thailand. A ridiculous Italian mustache makes a brief appearance.
Lots of love (and apologies for the delayed update 🙂 )
Conner & Karl
Japan Train Pictures