Japan, Niigata, Sado, Travels

A Trip to Niigata and Sado

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When I first went abroad years ago, I can remember my parents advice not to visit the usual destinations, but to go to places more remote and interesting. I’ve tried to follow their advice ever since. When a place looks hard to reach on a map, I become even more determined to visit. This is what led me to Sado, a large island sitting north of Niigata in the Sea of Japan. With a population of about 63,000 the island is most famous for its mountain ranges and history of gold mining.

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NINJIN GUESTHOUSE & BAR (ゲストハウス&バー人参)

I stepped off the Joestsu Shinkansen in Niigata (1.5 hours from Omiya in Saitama) to pouring rain. After a long walk I was relieved to arrive at Ninjin Guesthouse a gorgeous old machiya (traditional wooden home) converted into an inn. My warm hosts were watching an amusing game show in the bar and took me on a tour of the house with its sliding screens and shared spaces. Each guest has their own capsule; a mini room with a futon and lamp, all thoughtfully considered and perfect for a comfortable sleep.

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-03cNIIGATA TO RYOTSU (両津市)

I woke with the sun and headed out to explore the Furumachi neighborhood before taking the first ferry. Arriving at the Sado Kisen terminal I was relieved to see other people; at least I wouldn’t be crossing the wild ocean on my own. Konbini snacks served as breakfast before boarding the jetfoil, an express ferry that takes only an hour from Niigata to Ryotsu. It was a bumpy ride but the crowd of unperturbed locals kept me calm.

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RYOTSU TO AIKAWA (相川)

My first glimpse of Sado surprised me, it was so much bigger than I imagined; with two huge mountain ranges running along it. I purchased a bus pass for unlimited rides and boarded a Honsen Line bus bound for Aikawa, one of the many towns lined with traditional wooden homes. The bus wound between the two mountain ranges, straight across the island and I was in awe of the landscape either side of me.

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AIKAWA GINO DENSHO TENJIKAN (相川技能伝承展示館)

My destination was a traditional skills museum focusing on local crafts, Aikawa Gino Densho Tenjikan. My morning class was in a local specialty, mumyoiyaki pottery. The clay from the nearby mines contains iron oxide and has a distinct red color, with the fired result making a surprising metallic sound when tapped. Our teacher was thorough in background and technique, showing us how to hold our hands and exactly what to do. I created a small tea cup or yunomi, before eating my bento lunch in the sunlit workshop.

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AIKAWA (相川)

I took a neighborhood stroll around Aikawa where I was inexplicably filmed for television while looking at some local sights, before wandering along the river with its ramshackle machiya. The wooden homes formed narrow alleys with the occasional washing hanging out to dry. Due to the season, I also saw many onions and persimmons hanging under eaves and in windows. The persimmons are used to make hoshigaki, the peeled fruit is dried and massaged for several weeks resulting in a chewy and sweet treat.

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SAKIORI RAG WEAVING (裂織)

My afternoon class was in rag weaving or sakiori, produced by tightly weaving thin strips of old garments to create new textiles. My instructors were kind ladies and we worked in a gorgeous space. The room was set out with multiple looms and we were surrounded by baskets of fabric. My first task was choosing nuki (balls of rolled up fabric strips) and loom thread colors, an impossible task for a designer. I was overwhelmed by the gorgeous fabrics I could choose from and settled on a collection in pale tonal blues and greens.

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I was seated at a ground loom or jibata and taught the simple motions for weaving my first color. I found the process entirely relaxing and soon found myself in a steady rhythm weaving on my own. The ladies sat beside me on the floor, unpicking garments and quietly chatting by the heater. With the last beams of sunlight pouring through the large windows, two hours soon passed. I was pleased to see the result as we unwound my work, a little rough around the edges, but something made with my own hands nonetheless!

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-09AIKAWA TO IWAYAGUCHI (岩谷口)

From the station in Aikawa, my local bus began winding along the northern coast on the Kaifu Line and I was amazed by the views that unfurled from my window. My destination was certainly remote and hard to access, with only a few buses running along the route each day. We wound up and down mountains, passing small towns, facing the ocean the whole way. The sun was setting and orange beams of light shot from the clouds into the water. Passengers slowly disembarked along the way, before only two of us got off at the final stop.

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-11SOTOKAIFU YOUTH HOSTEL (外海府ユースホステル)

I had a tatami room facing the ocean at Sotokaifu Youth Hostel with a warm futon, essential in the chilly weather. Dinner was washoku, a traditional seasonal meal shared with the other guests and our hosts. Much of the incredible array of local sashimi was new to me, so we worked together translating the names of each dish. The sazae (turban sea snails), kamenote (goose barnacles) and awabi (abalone) were highlights. Over dinner we swapped stories and I felt incredibly lucky to spend time with such inspiring people. I took a hot bath before bed, listening to the crashing waves outside as I feel asleep.

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-12I woke before sunrise, leaving me with ample time for a coffee and a wander along the beach. The water was wild, with a pink sunrise and a few fisherman on the shore. The bamboo structures along the coast reminded me of the fish drying racks in Norway, though these haza structures are used for drying rice. Returning to take the bus, my host Hisae emerged from the inn to come and see me off. I’ll never forget the kindness I encountered during my stay, my heart swelled as she waved off the bus. Iwayaguchi turned out to be one of the most special places I’ve visited. One of the other guests has been returning for over 30 years!

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-13SENKAKUWAN BAY (尖閣湾)

The bus wound back along the northern coast, with locals jumping on board every now and then. A kind man gifted me some curious omiyage (or souvenir) a stack of papers handwritten in Japanese. I’m looking forward to finding out their translation! I disembarked at Senkakuwan Bay, an area of coastline famous for its jagged rock formations. I wandered down to the edge and found a hiking trail, which offered stunning views. The sun glowed as it rose over the mountains behind me and out to the ocean. The trail took me between rice fields and the cliff edge and I loved having this dramatic place all to myself.

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-14SENKAKUWAN TO AIKAWA

Given the narrow roads and precarious bends along the coast, it probably wasn’t the wisest idea but I decided to hike back to Aikawa. The views were incredible and the charming towns I wandered were so much more interesting on foot. Few people were awake at this hour, so the villages with their wooden houses felt unreal. Many buildings were sadly abandoned, though beautiful with vines crawling all over them. I passed terraced rice fields and shrines, all with views of the ocean.

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-15AIKAWA TO SAWATA (佐和田)

Curious to see what the town of Sawata had to offer, I took a bus along the Kaifu Line. I wandered along the main shopping street, which was a mixture of shuttered businesses and the occasional clothing shop or bakery. It’s disheartening to see towns with so many places closed. I also swung by a local cafe I’d been planning to visit ever since I discovered Matsushiba-san, though he was sadly closed for the day!

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-16MUMYOUIYAKI GYOKUDOU KAMAMOTO (玉堂窯元)

I strolled along the local beach, which sparkled so much it was blinding; before another pottery wheel class, this time at Mumyouiyaki Gyokudou Kamamoto. I’ve discovered each teacher has their own methods and it’s interesting learning different techniques. My instructor had an open approach; I was encouraged to try whatever I liked and he would chuckle and give me advice as I worked. Watching him craft things so quickly I was in awe. I could watch artisans like him all day, making such fine-tuned crafts look like a piece of cake.

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-17SUWA SHRINE (諏訪神社)

The local Suwa Shrine was beautifully dappled in sunlight. With a large red gate and a number of buildings, I was drawn to the main shrine, a mint green color; something I’ve not seen before. Despite my dream of circling the whole coastline of Sado and the excellent bus network that goes most places, some lines only run once or twice a day – so it was time to head back to Ryotsu, winding back between the mountains.

ashleigh-leech-someform-sado-island-niigata-japan-18RYOTSU TO NIIGATA

Before leaving, I found it difficult to choose my omiyage as always! Sado is famous for its gold and toki (crested ibis) along with produce such as persimmons, pears, rice, sake and butter. I ended up selecting some mochi, with the packaging winning me over. I boarded the next ferry bound for Niigata and crossed my fingers for a calmer ocean. I was in luck and scored some lovely views of Sado as it receded into the distance.

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THE COFFEE TABLE

Back in Niigata I made a quick detour to The Coffee Table just before closing time. The interior is gorgeous, with concrete walls and modern industrial furniture. The menu includes sandwiches and treats like banana bread, along with goodies to take home like Prana Chai from Australia and Marou Chocolate from Vietnam. It’s a bustling space, with customers constantly coming and going. It was pleasure to meet the lovely owner and barista Wataru, who has also lived in Melbourne! My latte was perfect and well worth the visit.

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On the shinkansen home, there was a beautiful sunset making it impossible to focus on reading my book. The patchwork of rice fields was dotted with wooden houses and campfires with farmers tending to them. In the distance the mountains faded to shades of blue before disappearing into the darkness. My trip was a memorable journey to a truly remote and very special place. I hope I can make it back someday!

Japan, Tokyo, Travels

Lattest, Omotesando

ashleigh-leech-someform-lattest-coffee-omotesando-tokyo-japanI must confess that I only discovered Lattest Omotesando thanks to a Japanese television show. One of the contestants on the show works here and after seeing her pour a coffee – I was determined to visit. As the sister of Streamer Coffee Company, Lattest was opened with an aim to promote female baristas. Set back off the main street, look for the sandwich board out front and you’ll find an inviting industrial space inside. The coffee is rich, with intricate latte art to boot. Located just down the road from Maisen Aoyama, it is the perfect stop after lunch. They also have another location Lattest Azabu Juban that’s next on my list.

Australia, Melbourne, Travels

Something More, Fitzroy

ashleigh-leech-someform-something-more-melbourne-australia-01Each time we visit Melbourne, every meal is precious and we’re overwhelmed by the staggering number of new cafes and restaurants to explore. I love to spend hours researching these new places, only to find we usually end up wandering (a little clueless) for new discoveries instead. This is precisely how we ended up at Something More, whose pale pink exterior caught my eye from a block away. Entering, we didn’t even know what cuisine was on offer, but our hunger wasn’t going to let that stop us.

ashleigh-leech-someform-something-more-melbourne-australia-02We were pleased to find it’s Asian and Korean-inspired with dishes full of chili and kimchi. We ordered the Shanghai Ball Sports (crunchy slow-roasted brisket balls, green chili and citrus slaw) and Ms Kims Euro Trip (crispy kimchi and pork waffle, topped with a pickled cucumber, spring onion salad and blue cheese mayo). Piled high, both dishes were incredibly tasty with surprising textures and strong flavors. The warehouse space is large and welcoming, filled with greenery and a regular rotation of featured art.

Japan, Nara, Travels

Minamo, Nara

ashleigh-leech-someform-minamo-nara-japan-01Whenever I travel, the one thing I will always hunt for is coffee. I love seeing how it’s treated and served in different cities and of course, I love to drink it too. On a recent trip to Nara, my considerable research led me to Minamo (ミナモ). On a lovely side street, my first visit was unlucky; I was disappointed to find the roller shutter closed with a note on the door. I returned the following day with more luck; the gorgeous storefront was open and overflowing with greenery.

ashleigh-leech-someform-minamo-nara-japan-02Inside they offer a simple set menu and pour-over coffee in a perfectly minimal interior. Small groups of locals were chatting and relaxing in this serene hideaway. After watching the care that went into artfully making my coffee, I wanted to spend the whole afternoon. The attention to detail was lovely. The staff were incredibly kind, gracious and obliging, even allowing a quick portrait!

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Australia, Melbourne, Travels

Two Birds One Stone, South Yarra

ashleigh-leech-someform-two-birds-one-stone-melbourne-australiaHi Melbourne! We’ve been back visiting Australia for a week now, my first time outside of Japan in a year. While it’s overwhelming to be surrounded by English again, it’s nice to be back and making the most of the local coffee culture! Our first morning included a stop at Two Birds One Stone, a cafe in South Yarra.

In the chilly morning weather, we luckily scored the last two seats indoors despite the bustling crowd. Our social interactions have been a little awkward as we readjust to home (especially curbing the urge to bow at everyone) but the staff took it in their stride and were super friendly and warm. The lovely interior made me think of Loading Bay in Cape Town – the layout and styling are remarkably similar!

I was beside myself to see a menu full of smashed avocado and sautéed mushrooms on toast, so that’s exactly what we had. The avocado was served with cherry tomatoes and feta cheese; the mushrooms with pine nuts and poached eggs – both meals full of flavor and the perfect welcome back. The coffees hit the spot and were just the beginning of our Melbourne coffee mission. It’s good to be home!

Japan, Tokyo, Travels

The Roastery by Nozy Coffee

ashleigh-leech-someform-roastery-by-nozy-harajuku-tokyo-japanThe Roastery by Nozy Coffee is a single-origin coffee roaster, set back off the shopping thoroughfare Cat Street in Harajuku. Passing by the outdoor seating, you arrive at a dark interior with exposed wood and industrial fittings. A central counter handles coffee orders with the roasting equipment exposed out back. The menu changes daily, with beans from around the world available as delicious espressos, americanos and cafe lattes. They also have soft serve ice-cream in espresso and cafe latte flavors, along with pastries and donuts. Baristas are friendly and incredibly helpful, happy to guide you in choosing beans too!

Japan, Tokyo, Travels

Maisen, Aoyama

ashleigh-leech-someform-maisen-tonkotsu-tokyo-japan-01Maisen is famous for having some of the best tonkatsu in Tokyo; breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet. They have many locations around Japan, but this flagship location is inside an old bath-house and still retains some of the original features and architecture today. There are many different spaces for dining, from the counter style seating downstairs to the traditional tatami floor seating upstairs. Menus are available in English, but are a compacted version of the Japanese one, so just point to order if you’re having trouble!

There are various grades of meat to choose from, along with different sides and set meals. The most classic order is a cutlet with sides shredded cabbage and rice, which have unlimited refills. The cutlets are simply incredible; crunchy and juicy at the same time. The accompanying sauce to be drizzled on top and is both sweet and salty, so tasty you can buy it bottled to take home. At peak hours, you can expect lines – so an outside a window also sells take out portions such as bentos and sandwiches to passers by. Not only my favorite tonkatsu in the city, but simply the best I’ve ever had.

Japan, Tokyo, Travels

Blue Bottle Coffee, Aoyama

ashleigh-leech-someform-blue-bottle-coffee-aoyama-tokyo-japan-01Hailing from California, Blue Bottle Coffee have locations around the world and have developed a cult following in Japan. Despite it’s secluded location on a back street in Aoyama, when this store first opened there were lines out the door! The coffee shop is a sprawling open space above a clothing boutique, with a long outdoor terrace that looks out onto greenery. The ordering system is efficient, with an incredible number of baristas working busily behind the counter; preparing drip coffee, espressos and a range of snacks.

Guides, Iceland, Reykjavik, Travels

A Quick Guide to Reykjavík, Iceland

ashleigh-leech-someform-a-quick-guide-to-reykjavik-iceland-01With a remote wilderness that is distinctly Scandinavian, it’s no wonder Iceland has become an incredibly popular destination in recent years. The capital Reykjavik is small (around 120,000 folks) yet one of the coolest cities on earth; full of creative souls, incredible food and world class design. I’m dying to return! For more photos of this wonderful place, see an overview of my trip and all my posts on the area.

GETTING THERE & AROUND

Icelandair – national airline, with free stopovers in Iceland when flying between the US and Europe.
Keflavik Airport – the main airport in Iceland is outside of the city and has a pretty range of souvenirs.
Flybus – 45 minute airport transfers between Keflavik to Reykjavik with free wifi included.
Extreme Iceland – an excellent tour operator offering all kinds of amazing tours around the country.
Kexland – also offers airport transfers and trips around the local area (ran by Kex Hostel).
Strætó Bus – operates both local and long distance buses from the main bus terminal at Hlemmur.

SLEEP

Kex Hostel – hipster hostel in an old biscuit factory with private and dorm rooms overlooking the water.
Bus Hostel – another hip hostel full of vintage decor, with private and dorm rooms on offer.
Loft Hostel – contemporary hostel with amazing shared lounge space for working or relaxing.
Hlemmur Square – a luxury hotel and upscale hostel, located right across from the main bus station.
Centerhotel Thingholt – a chain of modern hotels owned by a local family, this one is in the city centre.
101 Hotel – this gorgeous luxury hotel has monochrome rooms and a collection of local art on display.
Hotel Borg – old time elegance in the heart of the city, located near the famous cathedral.
AirBNB – so many beautiful homes are available around the country, still my favorite way to travel.

SIGHTS

The Blue Lagoon – outdoor geothermal spa, located close to Keflavik Airport. Perfect for watching a sunrise!
Hallgrímskirkja
– the largest church in the country is an impressive piece of architecture, with great views.
Hafnarhús – the Reykjavik Art Musuem is spread across 3 buildings, showing local and international artists.
Harpa – this concert hall is another architectural icon, home to Iceland’s symphony orchestra and opera.
Imagine Peace Tower – tower of light created by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon, open seasonally.
i8 Gallery – an excellent gallery featuring the work of both local and international contemporary artists.
Icelandic Phallological Museum – it’s a real thing, this museum has the worlds largest number of penises.
Bio Paradis – an independent cinema screening art house releases, documentaries and other specialty films.
Laugardalur Swimming Pool – this large pool complex is sprawling, with both indoor and outdoor pools.
Sundhollin Swimming Pool – this indoor heated pool feels like a museum as it hasn’t changed in decades.
Islenski Hesturinn – experience the tölt while riding beautiful Icelandic horses, gorgeous in the snow!

COFFEE

Reykjavik Roasters – with a couple of locations and offering various classes, these baristas know their coffee.
The Laundromat Cafe – outpost of the Copenhagen original filled with a rainbow of books and nice brunches.
Mokka Kaffi – midcentury interiors with copper lights at the oldest coffee shop in the city, try the waffles!
Te og Kaffi – this chain of cafes can be found around the country; the translation is simple – tea and coffee.
Puffin Coffee (closed) – Sverrir Sander sells coffee to passers-by out of his kitchen window for charity.

EATING (FANCY)

Grillmarkaðurinn – works with local farmers to offer items such as lobster, whale and puffin mini burgers.
Sæmundur í Sparifötunum – inside the Kex Hostel, gastro pub with delicious burgers and Nordic craft beers.
Fiskmarkaðurinn (Fish Market) – has a popular 10-course tasting menu that includes lamb and sashimi.
Fiskfélagið (Fishcompany) – offers two distinct tasting menus, ‘Around Iceland’ and ‘Around the World’.
Pearlan (The Pearl) – this dome shaped building offers views of the city and has a revolving restaurant.

EATING (CASUAL)

Tiu Dropar Café – Grandma-style cafe with soup during the day and is a cozy wine bar in the evenings.
Forréttabarinn – this gorgeous cafe specializes in a wide range of appetizers with a cocktail menu.
Snaps – this French bistro and bar is often packed and lively, offering everything from bar snacks to steaks.
Bergsson Mathús – vegetarian friendly with great breakfast plates; think rye bread, egg and sliced meats.
Café Loki – traditional home-style food such as open sandwiches, meat soup, mashed fish and herring.
Tapas Barinn – the Icelandic set menu (puffin, whale, salmon, prawn, char, lamb) has everything!

EATING (BUDGET)

Hamborgarabúllan – order the ‘Offer of the Century’ at this quirky stand and enjoy a burger, fries and coke.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – famous for their hot dogs with crunchy onions; various stands around the city.
Sægreifinn (Sea Baron) – started by a retired fisherman Kjartan Halldorsson, serves delicious lobster soup.
Icelandic Fish and Chips – this British-inspired bistro offers fish of the day and hand cut potatoes.
Noodle Station – a menu with thai noodle soup in three flavors – beef, chicken and vegetable.
Vitabar – another burger bar; tucked away behind an unassuming exterior, try the blue-cheese burger.
Isbudin Haaleitisbraut – ice cream shop with a wide range of flavors and toppings such as licorice!

DRINKING

Mikkeller and Friends – from the Danish brewer, this circus-themed interior houses 20 beers on tap.
Kaldi Bar and Café – this Icelandic micro brewery serves their own beers on tap alongside light pub food.
Micro Bar – this bar offers a wide range of brews, check their website to see what’s currently on tap.
Slippbarinn – vintage styled space within the Icelandair Marina Hotel with a cocktail menu and pub grub.
Kaffibarinn – a long standing watering hole, full of candlelit tables, part-owned by Damon Albarn.
Prikið – this dollhouse-style building is a coffee shop by day and bustling bar by night with live music.

SHOPS

Geysir – my favorite store in the city; everything is absolutely beautiful from the clothing to the homewares.
Hrim Honnunar Hus – a totally gorgeous homewares store, where I pretty much want everything!
Spark Design Space – filled with all kinds of pretty design objects with a rolling exhibition program.
Kiosk – high end boutique featuring clothing by 8 local fashion designers, who take turns running the store.
Designer’s Pop Up Market – annual market with local designers goods, held at Harpa during Christmas.
Tiger – this Scandinavian chain can be found around the globe, full of all things cute and cheap.
12 Tónar – take a free espresso, settle in and listen to some records while you shop in this music store.
Rauði Krossinn – (The Red Cross Shop) – my favorite second hand treasure trove ran by the sweetest ladies.
Hertex (Salvation Army Shop) – fingers crossed and you might find an Icelandic sweater or lopapeysa.
Kolaporið (Flea Market) – this flea market is open on weekends; a mixture of vintage and handmade goods.
Spuutnik – second hand clothing store with selected pieces, think vintage kimonos and birks.
Bónus Supermarket – for all your essentials (and local candy) this is the main supermarket in town!

NEARBY TRIPS

Golden Circle – popular tourist trail that includes a national park, waterfall and the original geysir.
Jökulsárlón – large glacial lake, where chunks of ice float out to sea and are washed up again on the shore.
Vatnajökull (Vatna) – covers 8% of Iceland and is incredible; hike across or explore the crystal caves beneath.
Vik – picturesque town famous for its black sand beaches and iconic white church on the hill.
Viðey
– an inhabited island close to the city with a Richard Serra installation, take the Elding ferry.
Sólheimasandur – this abandoned airplane wreckage on a black sand beach has become iconic.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) – elusive but dazzling display of light that can be found during winter.
Midnight Sun – during summer the sun can set after midnight, meaning there is very little darkness!

RESOURCES

Reykjavik Grapevine – this lifestyle magazine covers news, culture, events and travel better than anyone!
Visit Reykjavik – official tourist site for the city; includes accommodation listings, attractions and activities.
Visit Iceland – official tourist site for the country; a great reference for planning travel outside of the city.

view-guide-google-mapsQuick guides are condensed city guides that outline my favorite places in a city. I love to spend hours researching for incredible places to visit, so this is a way to share my finds. Happy travels!

Japan, Tokyo, Travels

Café Kitsuné, Omotesando

ashleigh-leech-someform-cafe-kitsune-omotesando-tokyo-japan-001Located in Omotesando, Café Kitsuné is one of my favorite coffee spots in Tokyo. Created by Paris-based fashion and music label Maison Kitsuné, it’s set back off a quiet street where you pass a courtyard of bamboo and palms before entering a space that is both dark and traditional. Lots of exposed wood and mirrors are mixed with an eclectic selection of wallpapers to create a cozy interior in this former Japanese home.

ashleigh-leech-someform-cafe-kitsune-omotesando-tokyo-japan-02ashleigh-leech-someform-cafe-kitsune-omotesando-tokyo-japan-03Espresso shots are poured from a Slayer machine by friendly baristas who certainly know their coffee. The menu also includes pour-over drinks, matcha lattes, simple baguettes and sweet snacks such as fox-shaped butter cookies, a nice touch as kitsune translates to fox. The atmosphere is always warm; from calm during the week to bustling on weekends, with a changing crowd of locals and tourists alike.

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Japan, Miyagi, Travels

Zao Fox Village, Shiroishi

ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-01There are all kinds of ways to meet the local animals in Japan, including cafes such as Owl Village, parks like Jigokudani Monkey Park and islands such as Okunoshima and Tashirojima, famous for their populations of bunnies and cats. One of my recent trips started with a visit to such a place; Zao Fox Village in Shiroishi, a sanctuary famous for it’s population of over 100 foxes roaming around.

ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-02ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-03Foxes (kitsune) are revered in Japanese folklore, where they are often considered both intelligent and magical. In yokai culture (dealing with supernatural beings) they can even shapeshift into human form. They’re also a special figure in religion and kitsune statues are often be found protecting Shinto shrines.

ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-04ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-05 The village is home to six breeds of this adored animal in all their various colors. After paying the ¥1,000 admission fee and purchasing optional pellets to feed them for ¥100, you enter a petting zoo area which includes other animals such as goats and bunnies. From there you enter the sanctuary, a large open area where you walk around freely among the foxes and can feed them from a raised platform.

ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-06ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-07I loved being able to watch the foxes so closely, despite my nerves as they’re wild animals after all. Many of them were sleepy and lazy, curled up in the sun or piled together in huts around the park. The park has mixed reviews for obvious reasons, but from what I saw they seemed well cared for. They showed their true colors when it came to food, but otherwise were relatively uninterested in the visitors around them.

ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-08 ashleigh-leech-someform-shiroishi-zao-fox-kisune-village-japan-09Located in Miyagi prefecture, the fastest way to get to Zao Fox Village from Tokyo is via the Yamabiko Shinkansen to Shiroishizao, which takes 109 minutes at ¥10,350 per adult, one way. From there it’s a 20 minute cab drive through the mountains to the village, around ¥4,000 each way. I’d love to return some day and see these cute little guys when the park is blanketed in snow!

Guides, Japan, Naoshima, Travels

A Quick Guide to Naoshima, Japan

ashleigh-leech-someform-a-quick-guide-to-naoshima-japanMost famous for its collection of contemporary art museums, Naoshima is a small island located in Kagawa Prefecture. With many buildings designed by Tadao Ando, incredible works on display and breathtaking views – it’s the perfect fusion of architecture, art and landscape. For more photos of this lovely island, see an overview of our trip during Silver Week and all my posts on the area.

GETTING THERE & AROUND

Nozomi Shinkansen – 3 hours 20 mins from Tokyo to Okayama at ¥17,340 per adult, one way.
JR Uno Line – around 1 hour via local train from Okayama to Uno for ¥570.
Shikoku Kisen Ferry – 20 minutes from Uno Port to Miyanoura Port for ¥290. Runs 13 times a day.
Note: Naoshima is hilly, so most places are best reached by electric bike! The Miyanoura Port area has coin lockers and rental places (Cafe Ougiya, Little Plum) with bikes around ¥500 a day.

ORIENTATION

There are three main areas on the island of Naoshima.
Miyanoura
– the main port includes outdoor sculptures, restaurants and bars but no major galleries.
Honmura – includes another port, temples, restaurants and the Art House Project.
Benesse House Area – in the south of the island, this is where the major art galleries are located.

SLEEP

Shimacoya – indoor tent camping on tatami in a cute community space in the Honmura area.
Benesse House – incredible boutique hotel within the museum itself, rooms are adorned with art.
Tsutsujiso Lodge – camp in a yurt, trailer or room on the beach in the Benesse House area.
Dormitory in Kowloon – a basic but comfortable hostel close the ferry port in Miyanoura.
Naoshima Accommodation – a full list of guest house options, published by the tourist centre.
Note: Accommodation often books out in advance, especially during Silver and Golden Weeks.

SIGHTS

Chi Chu Art Museum – the most incredible museum experience! Designed by Tadao Ando.
Lee Ufan Museum – a tranquil space, partially set underground and surrounded by sculptures.
Benesse House – sprawling museum and hotel, with work displayed both indoors and outdoors.
Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin – playful yellow and black spotted sculpture, an icon of Naoshima.
Art House Project – a collection of 7 abandoned spaces, converted into art experiences.
Ando Museum – documents the architects incredible work around the island of Naoshima.
I Love Yu – local sento (or public bathhouse) which is also an artwork in itself.
Naoshima Noren Project – display of contemporary noren across doorways to preserve local scenery.
Setouchi Triennale – contemporary art festival held three times a year, across 12 islands in the region.
Note: All Naoshima museums are closed on Mondays, so don’t plan a visit then!

COFFEE

Cafe Ougiya – located inside the Miyanoura ferry terminal, serving excellent iced lattes.
Shimacoya – this accomodation also has a coffee stall, book market and sells second hand ceramics

EATING

Shioya Diner – rock and roll themed diner with a western menu featuring charcoal Cajun chicken.
Cafe Salon Nakaoku – dark and cozy Japanese restaurant hidden in a residential neighborhood.
Cin Na Mon – a curry cafe and bar that can get lively and rather fun at night.
Little Plum – with an outdoor deck, offers set lunch plates and seasonal menus in the evenings.
Chichu Cafe – serving simple sandwiches, overlooking the beautiful Seto Inland Sea.
Cafe Konichiwa – the kind of relaxed place where you can enjoy home style Japanese cooking.
Ishii Shouten – cheap and cheerful udon restaurant, rather popular with locals.
Yamamato Udon – popular udon place, only open for lunches. On our to-do list for next time.
Note: Many restaurants close rather early so plan ahead, it’s a sleepy fishing island after all!

SHOPS

Miyanoura Souvenir Shop – inside the ferry terminal building, offers a wide range of local omiyage.
Benesse House Shops – two gallery stores that offer design items and Yayoi Kusama souvenirs.
Iwata Confectionary – famous for their daily supply of sponge cake roll and honey cake.
Honmura Lounge & Archive – tourist information centre with a wide range of art books.

OMIYAGE

Sola Shio Candies – teeny tiny rock hard candies made from locally produced salt. 
Langue de Chat Cookies – vanilla cookies also made from locally produced salt.

NEARBY TRIPS

Teshima – a nearby art island, with it’s own scattering of impressive art museums and cafes.
Inujima – another modern art site, this island is smaller and can be explored entirely on foot.
Okayama – the capital city of Okayama prefecture, home to the famous Korakuen Garden.
Takamatsu – the capital city of Kagawa prefecture and an alternative way to access Naoshima.

view-guide-google-mapsQuick guides are condensed city guides that outline my favorite places in a city. I love to spend hours researching for incredible places to visit, so this is a way to share my finds. Happy travels!

Japan, Naoshima, Travels

A Trip to Naoshima and Teshima

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-01Naoshima is a small island in Kagawa Prefecture, a former sleepy fishing community now famous for its collection of contemporary art museums. Due to it’s secluded location, it has a unique atmosphere – part traditional small town, part international galleries. We loved this special place and had one of the most incredible art experiences of our lives. We made the journey during Silver Week and were blown away!

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-18GETTING THERE

After taking the Nozomi Shinkansen to Okayama (3.5 hours) we took a memorable journey on the local train to Uno (1 hour). Boarding at sunset, it was peak hour with standing room only. Surrounded by salarymen it felt just like an urban subway, except when we looked outside we were traveling through rural rice fields. The ferry to Miyanoura Port was beautiful at night, sitting on the deck it was silent (sans the cute toddlers running up to say hello) and the moonlight highlighting the many islands surrounding us in the black sea.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-02DORMITORY IN KOWLOON

There are three main villages on Naoshima – Miyanoura, Honmura and the Benesse House area. Our first few nights were spent in Miyanoura at Dormitory in Kowloon, a simple hostel right by the ferry terminal and the red pumpkin. We spent the evening exploring – with a curry dinner at Cin Na Mon, checking out the sculptures lit in the evening, testing the local sento I Love Yu and making new friends with our roommate.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-03LITTLE PLUM

In the morning we hired electric bikes from Little Plum (1500 yen per day), grabbed some great iced lattes from Cafe Ougiya (inside the ferry terminal) and explored the Naoshima Music Festival and Naoshi Marche. We then headed out on the road and fell in love with our electric bikes – the feeling of being pushed along was incredible. We soon discovered the steep hills and winding roads around the island, and marveled at the views – sparkling turquoise water, beige beaches and golden islands dotting the landscape.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-04CHI CHU MUSUEM

Our first stop was Chi Chu Art Museum, the most incredible museum I’ve ever seen. The museum was designed around the artworks themselves, creating a carefully considered experience. Designed by Tadao Ando, the concrete buildings are set into the earth and house works by only three artists – Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell. As you enter, you pass a pond inspired by Monet’s waterlilies. Simple sandwiches at the Chi Chu Cafe were the perfect end to our visit, overlooking the beautiful Seto Inland Sea.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-05LEE UFAN MUSEUM

The Lee Ufan Museum was also designed by Tadao Ando, with the museum solely dedicated to the works of the Korean minimalist artist. The site was a collaboration between the two, intertwining both the art and architecture. The museum is a tranquil space, partially set underground and surrounded by outdoor sculptures, hills and ocean views.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-06THE YELLOW PUMPKIN

After an electrifying descent from the mountain by bike, we set our eyes on the famous yellow ‘Pumpkin’ by Yayoi Kusama for the first time. Set out on a pier, this playful yellow and black spotted creation has become an icon of Naoshima. Excited to see it first hand, visitors politely lined up along the pier taking turns to photograph one another with this masterpiece. A truly impressive sight.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-20BENESSE HOUSE

The largest of the three main museums on the island is Benesse House, also home to the most luxurious hotel on the island. Booking at such short notice, we sadly had no chance of staying here! The museum is large and sprawling, with work displayed both indoors and outdoors. The collection includes works from artists such as Dan Flavin, Keith Haring, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Gerard Richter. More incredible views meld the art, architecture and landscape into one.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-08SHIOYA DINER

Back on our bikes we peddled to Miyanoura and followed our noses to dinner, finding a barbecue operating out front of Shioya Diner. The rock and roll diner has a retro interior, a surf rock soundtrack and a menu featuring charcoal Cajun chicken, tacos and hot dogs. The owners Buddy and Misuzu even match the decor too! The rest of our evening was spent exploring at night, with some new Japanese friends who taught us pop songs on their guitar, while sharing some beers by the water.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-09TESHIMA ISLAND

The next morning we boarded a small boat to the nearby Teshima Island. Another small rural island, it has a population of about 900 people and a handful of galleries. Like Naoshima, it’s a hilly island requiring bikes and we soon discovered that none were available. Walking along defeated in the heat, we decided to try hitchhiking and were treated to the kindness of a man who let us ride in the tray of his tiny ute. We wound around the island, waving to all the cyclists before reaching our first museum victorious.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-10TESHIMA ART MUSUEM

Set amongst terraced rice fields, the Teshima Art Museum is an incredible concrete structure from another world. Designed by architect Ryue Nishizawa along with artist Rei Naito the shape represents a water drop at the moment of landing. We spent at least an hour inside this peaceful space in total silence before wandering through the nearby village, with it’s tiny corner stores, outdoor installations and traditional homes.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-11LES ARCHIVES DU COEUR

Les Archives du Coeur (The Heart Archive) is a permanent home for the project by French artist Christian Boltanski. Since 2008, the project has recorded heartbeats of people all over the world which are now stored in this modest black cabin by the ocean. Three spaces allow for recording, listening and viewing. We each recorded our heartbeats, before viewing them in the Heart Room, an installation space – an overwhelming experience. If you ever visit, be sure to listen to our heartbeats!

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-12MIZUTAMAYA

We made our way back to Ieuru Port and stopped in at Mizutamaya, a gorgeous cafe in a traditional house. Sitting on tatami, we were treated to fresh bagels from Mamipan Bread and iced coffees by our friendly host Yoshida-san who renovated the house herself. While admiring the cute bread-themed tote bags for sale (featuring loaves, french sticks and slices) she told us about the Teshima Pan Festival, a local event she’s involved in. Next time, I also want to stop by the wacky Cafe Il Vento and the rustic Shima Kitchen.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-13SHIMACOYA

Back in Naoshima, our next few evenings were spent on the other side of the island in Honmura. We camped in the yard at Shimacoya, a traditional Japanese house converted by Yamagishi-san and his young family into a special community space. The 120 year old home is open on one side to the outdoors, with tents set up on the tatami indoors as accommodation. Outside the family runs a coffee stall, book market and sells second hand ceramics along with music and film events, in a hub for both locals and travelers alike!

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-14CAFE KONICHIWA

Housed in a converted home with a lovely deck out front Cafe Konichiwa is the kind of relaxed place where you can enjoy home style cooking. Over our dinner of risotto, omelette and baked vegetables we spent our evening making friends with those dining next to us. The neighborhood is full of old wooden homes and as part of the Naoshima Noren Project, many of them display contemporary noren (or fabric dividers) across their doorways to preserve the local scenery.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-15ART HOUSE PROJECT

The next morning we explored the Art House Project, a collection of 7 abandoned spaces (including homes, workshops and a temple) that have been converted into art experiences. The highlight was Minamidera, a building designed by Tadao Ando to house James Turrell’s ‘Backside of the Moon’. Entering an entirely dark space, you sit for several minutes before the artwork reveals itself to you. We also saw the small Ando Museum, a tribute to the architect responsible for many of the structures on the island.

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-16ISHII SHOUTEN & SEVEN ISLAND CAFE

For lunch we visited a bustling local udon place Ishii Shouten, (石井商店 直島) where we were surrounded by slurping customers. Ladies in aprons dished out delicious noodles in broth alongside fresh tempura. We followed this with a visit to Seven Island Cafe, where the lovely owner Iwao Yokoyama took us on a tour of his garden and taught us about his cafe that is entirely run by volunteers. He introduced us to the shiso leaf and we tasted fresh shiso juice for the first time. Bright pink in color, it was totally refreshing!

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-17CAFE SALON NAKAOKU

Our last dinner was at Cafe Salon Nakaoku which like most places on the island – was hidden amidst a residential neighborhood. Following the wooden signs, we stumbled inside and found a beautiful atmosphere; a dark timber interior with tatami mats and a warm glow. A fusion of western and Japanese food was served tapas style, including sashimi, omurice, baked potato and matcha cheesecake. Delicious!

ashleigh-leech-someform-naoshima-teshima-art-islands-japan-19The following morning we departed Naoshima, selecting our omiyage from the store at Miyanoura Port. We chose Sola Shio Candies (直島ソラシオアメ) and Langue de Chat Cookies (直島しおらんぐ) both made from locally product salt, along with some pumpkin shaped cookies inspired by Yayoi Kusama. We were totally overwhelmed by our visit to this special place and can only hope we’ll make it back again someday!

Books, Life

Mani Mani City Guides

ashleigh-leech-someform-mani-mani-city-guides-japan-01With a few domestic trips coming up in Japan, I decided to check out the local guidebook offering and discovered this cute new series called Mani Mani. Published by JTB (Japan Tourist Bureau) in Japanese, they were released only a couple of weeks ago. Each of the 20 guides is focused on a city or region, with adorable designs outlining restaurants, hotels, sights, omiyage and more. Paired with maps and lovely photography, they retail for only ¥850. I’ve picked up the Sendai guide, so fingers crossed I find some hidden gems!

MANI MANI CITY GUIDES:

Hokkaido, Northeast and Kanto: Sapporo, HakodateSendaiTokyo, Nikko, Kamakura
Central and Kansai: Izu, Karuizawa, Kanazawa, IseshimaKyoto, Osaka, Kobe
Chugoku-Shikoku and Kyushu: Izumo, Hiroshima, KagawaFukuoka, Nagasaki, Okinawa, Ishigaki