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 dad’s advice not to visit the usual destinations, but to go to places more remote and interesting. I’ve tried to follow his 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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