17 July 2017

Top 10 Things to See and Do in Japan

I was inspired to write this article after being asked for the 30-somethingth time what I'd recommend friends and family do while visiting Japan. Until now, I've been re-typing the same vague itinerary into Facebook messenger, each time a little less enthusiastically. Part of me wants to reply something snide like "well, if you had of liked my FB page Nan’s Lucky Duck when I invited you, you'd have seen countless article already posted about my favourite aspects of Japan. But my better part is more interested in educating people and helping them design their ultimate Japan holiday experience.

When I realised I hadn't penned a top 10 must do list encompassing the whole of Japan, I decided to make it a priority. So here it is. I bring you the top 10 things you must do while holidaying in Japan!

1. Feed Deer in Nara City

Nara was named the capital city of Japan in year 710. The city has held onto old traditions and has a quaint feel, despite its high traffic of tourists. Deer roam the main streets and stone footpath leading to Todai-ji Temple- which houses a 15m bronze Buddha statue. The area is particularly beautiful during spring because of the falling cherry blossom surrounding the grounds of the temple. Buy deer crackers from street stalls before entering the huge national parkland. You’ll have persistent (sometimes insistent) deer wanting to eat from your hands and smile for selfies.

2. Bicycle around the Rice Patties in Asuka Village

Asuka Village is about an hour’s drive south of Nara City. The main railway line serves as a marker between the old farmland and the built up part of town. I recommend staying on the old side, close to the Amakashi Observatory. It’s where you can hire bicycles and ride through narrow roads in between rice patties to reach about a dozen ancient ruins. There’s a huge mystically carved stone situated in the middle of a bamboo forest and the tomb site of a Japanese emperor. I stayed at Asuka Guest House which was an experience in itself; the converted contemporary space still has original paper sliding doors and tatami mats.

3. Ski or Snowboard on Hakuba’s famous “Japow”  

Hakuba is internationally renowned for its snow, however during spring and summer the village attracts many Tokyoites seeking fresh air and somewhere to stretch their legs. There’s a coach departing at least twice daily from Shinjuku, which is about a 5 hour journey. I’ve made the trip several times now and I’m always fascinated by the sites from my window. In winter, the tree leaves look silver and the houses are undistinguishable. In summer the foliage is surprisingly luscious and the views from high on the hiking trails are spectacular and vast. When I tell people I learned to snowboard in Hakuba they suggest I stay away from Australia’s snow fields to avoid disappointment. Beginner skiers/boarders should learn on Hakuba Goryu, while the more experienced and daring tend to use the slopes of Happo or Cortina.  

4. Enjoy Onsens and Waterfalls in Oboke

There are several towns scattered throughout Japan most famous for their natural hot springs. Communal bathing in the hot springs (known as onsen) remains a significant part of Japanese culture, despite the mixed opinions of international guests. Men are women are usually separated, but wearing bathers or any form of cover is not an option. Many of the open air onsen in Oboke are built into cliff face, some of which must be accessed by cable car. In just one day, you can raft down Oboke gorge, cool off under a fresh waterfall, cross a medieval vine bridge, then soak in a steamy onsen while watching the sun go down.

5. Peruse the Outdoor Art on Naoshima and Teshima Island

Got plans to visit Hiroshima or Osaka? Clear a few days in your schedule to ferry out to Naoshima and Teshima island. The 12 “art islands” situated in Seto Inland Sea showcase the work of Japan’s elite artists. The architecture of Teshima Art Museum looks like something from a sci-fi movie, a stark contrast to Yayoi Kusama’s famous spotted pumpkin, which has been plopped by the seaside in Naoshima. The outdoor installations are dotted all over town, so I recommend hiring an electric bike to enjoy the epic ride up the mountain and determine your own route and schedule. Make sure you allow at least a full day for each of the main islands.

6. It’s a Diver’s Delight in Okinawa

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the bright lights and crowds or lack of English speakers, head far south to Okinawa. It’s a paradise that rivals Australia’s beaches and sea life of the Great Barrier Reef. You can dive inside one of the world’s few blue caves, snorkel over reef within 300 metres of white sandy shores and swim alongside whale sharks (however they are contained in a netted area in the ocean). One of the world’s best aquariums is situated at the northern tip, which is definitely worth hiring a car for (I recommend doing so in Naha City to save money).

Okinawan’s have their own unique island culture and have adapted to living with a huge US military population. It may have impacted on their attitude towards foreigners (meaning they speak more English and understand our unusual customs), but their traditional meals and way of life are staple. Make sure you try the sea grapes, agu soba (tender pork with soba noodles) and snake sake. 

7. Witness a Sumo Wrestling Match in Nagoya (or Tokyo if you’re lucky)

This is an absolute must if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. The grand tournament begins in Tokyo and tours to major cities such as Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. I recommend purchasing your tickets online well in advance to secure a seat. The tournament runs all day, but the big super stars only appear very late in the evening. It’s amazing to be part of the crowd when the big matches are on, but I found the earlier matches far more amusing. The sumos are paired based on skill, rather than weigh class. My friend and I were astounded to see so many little guys challenge and often bet some very big boys. Since we couldn’t understand what the announcer was saying, we entertained ourselves by making calls on who’d win. Be prepared to see some bloody battles and rippling flesh. Make sure you film on slow mo every now and then—you won’t be disappointed. 

8. Perv on the Bathing Monkeys in Nagano

I usually try and avoid the company of volatile animals such as monkeys, but when I heard about bathing monkeys I couldn’t resist. No matter if it’s snowing or the sun is shining, Japanese Macaques can be spotted padding around in a rock pool of steaming hot spring water at Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park AKA the snow monkey park. You can't take a dip with the monkeys but one of the closest villages called Yamanouchi is famous for its bathing facilities. Around dusk you'll see (and hear) groups of men and women clip-clopping their way through cobble stone streets to their preferred onsen. In summer they wear colourful yukatas (summer gown) and wooden sandals. 

9. Participate in a Traditional Tea Ceremony in Kyoto

Once you’ve reached the end of tourist trail of shrines and temples in Kyoto, go back in time and learn the significance of the tea ceremony. For about $30-50AUD a female host will guide you through the process of making green matcha tea and teach you how to behave throughout the ritual. The classes are usually held in traditional tea houses which means you’ll be asked to take off your shoes and kneel (if possible) for the duration on thick bamboo matting. It’s a great opportunity to ask any questions you have about cultural practices and get a sense of what it was like to live in Japan centuries ago. 

10. Learn the Art of Fake Food Making in Osaka

I thought fake food was reserved for display homes and dolls’ houses until I arrived in Japan. Almost every restaurant you go to will have some visual display of each dish—likely to be made from plastic, rubber or wax. They are outstandingly realistic; to the point they can make my mouth water (especially the crepes in Hakajuku). There are a few places in Osaka that offer 1-hour making classes (E.g. Design Pocket, Morino Sample). Although most of it involves constructing all the little pre-made pieces, it’s still a lot of fun and you walk out with your own miniature Japanese speciality on a keychain. Most of the studios have a store attached where you can buy hilarious fake food souvenirs. I have a sashimi rice bowl attached to my car keys which receives a lot of attention now I’m back in Australia.  

Know someone heading to Japan? Consider sharing this article with them to inspire their travel itinerary.

3 July 2017

I Pursued Passion Over Worry and Look What Happened

I moved to Bondi Beach over the summer to do some writing work for a guy called Dave. He looked like your typical Bondi fitness fanatic—million-dollar smile, designer tank top and trainers, sun’s out, guns out—all that. He owned and operated a small private gym in country NSW before relocating to Sydney and putting his entrepreneurial skills to the test. He wanted to share what he learnt working in the fitness industry and encourage both young and old to pursue “passion over worry” while taking part in his 30 Day Challenge program; his energetic tagline involved punching the air and shouting “POW!”

Dave being all sporty and stuff

Dave let me stay in his spare room while I worked on editing his healthy eating guidelines. In the beginning we shopped and ate together, so I got to know him quite well. Aside from everything he had going on on the outside, his mind was as active as his workouts and his heart matched his big personality. His wall-to-wall cupboards were suffocating from post-it notes, and on the days he worked from home, silence just wasn’t an option. It was difficult to judge which was louder – his morning/showering music, or his inside speaking voice when excited. Both reverberated throughout the small apartment, regularly breaking my concentration. It was as if he plugged himself into a speaker while Skyping clients and mentors, each sentence ending in a laugh or positive remark not even two sets of doors could contain. He worked feverishly on developing his brand and liked to think aloud and talk through his big ideas. He reminded me of a big slobbery puppy—I’d be working away on my laptop—then without warning, he’d barrel into the room and prod me with his words until he had my full attention. At times I found it frustrating, but in hindsight I’m glad I took the time to listen.

Dave and I were the same age (27 at the time), so I was both surprised and sceptical when he gave me life advice with great assertiveness. Some of his suggestions seemed harsh and unreasonable; at times I thought “how dare he, he doesn’t know me.” I was irritated by how sure he was of himself. If I didn’t agree, I so badly wanted to prove him wrong. I think his confidence irked me because I wanted to be that sure of something.

The day Dave and I met in Bondi Wholefoods

Dave lent me a book he sent to all his major clients called What To Do When It’s Your Turn By Seth Godin. He said it changed his life, which I thought was an exaggerated claim to make. I screwed up my face in front of him as I flicked through the pages. The alternating fonts and text placement made me cringe and the writing style seemed clunky. I agreed to have a read out of politeness, but I planned to do so half-heartedly.

By about page 10 I was hooked. I stopped focusing on Godin’s style and began pondering his simple, yet potent messages. The words and images stunned me like a ray gun; one page could snap me into a contemplation coma for days. You’ll have to read it for yourself to fully comprehend its truths, and how you can apply each nugget of wisdom to your life, but the extended title (bracketed) on the cover is what really shook me; What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn).

Read with caution: can induce contemplation coma 

I recognise one of my biggest personal downfalls as being hyper-critical of myself. Sometimes my harshest thoughts leave my brain crippled and incapable of pursuing things I’m most passionate about (in such moments I need Dave around to shout POW!) It may seem like I put myself out there, but unbeknown to most, I heavily vet my creations, ideas and opinions in fear of judgement. I’m rarely proud of the work I produce, which makes it difficult to publish. It takes the approval of others before I ease up on myself, however, one negative remark has the potential to leave an oily stain on my mind. Godin’s musings helped normalise this feeling and put some much needed wind back in my sails.

Almost a decade ago, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book for a TAFE assignment. I called it Noonie and the Missing Bone. It was a fictional story based on my pet dog and cat, incorporating various aspects of my everyday life. I hardly remember creating it, but I know it was well received among my peers and achieved top marks. When I got it back, I had Officeworks turn it into a hard-cover book, thinking it would serve as a quirky relic when my pets eventually passed away. When I went on to study primary teaching, I used it as a resource to prompt creative writing. Each session, I noticed the positive impact it had on students who were usually most reluctant to write or draw. On my last set of teaching rounds, one student was so inspired, he produced his own rhyming story at home and brought it in to share with the class. His face beamed as his peers commented on his adorable drawings of the main character, a bear on a bicycle. I often wonder whether he thought to keep it. Friends and family who read my story encouraged me to seek out a publisher, but deep down the drive wasn’t there because I didn’t whole-heartedly believe it would be accepted. It wasn’t that I thought their praise was insincere—I just put it down to how much they admired my enthusiasm and personal flair. When the book’s binding began to split, I contemplated whether to get it reprinted, or take it as a sign the story had run its course. When I moved to Japan, I packed the book alongside a Tupperware container of shells and my vintage Scrabble set. I sent the box back to Mum’s in Melbourne and that’s where it stayed.

I kept Godin’s book on my night stand back in Sydney; its ugly cover taunted me each morning as I reached for my phone. Dave’s positivity was leaching into my brain and most of my waking hours involved writing, drinking good coffee, listening to upbeat music and being surrounded by the beautiful people of Bondi. I felt inspired by the bare-chested/crop-top wearing joggers. The girls running down Bondi Road reminded me of little billy goats, weaving between slow moving boulders (I was usually one of them—a boulder that is). I felt drunk inside the Bondi Bubble—on an obscure cocktail of motivation, insecurity, jealousy, optimism, curiosity and Dave’s bloody morning music. Perhaps that’s why I can’t recall the exact moment I decided to self-publish my book. All I know is it was swift and uncalculated. I posted an advert in the IT section of Airtasker, asking if anyone was willing to incorporate an ebook widget on my webpage for $150. I accepted one of the first offers made before I convinced myself it was a silly idea. Within a week, I was announcing on Facebook my ebook was available for download. Of course Mum was my first customer.

The original front cover of Noonie and the Missing Bone
I received positive feedback from supportive friends who purchased the book, but none of which had children. More than anything, I want young people to recognise they all have a creative story like mine within them, but often it’s covered up with self-doubt and anxiety perpetuated by unwarranted criticism. I was one of those students who received mediocre marks in English, and they sat with me for years after I graduated. I’m so keen to set the record straight on what good writing entails and how it can be achieved, I’m dedicating my time to facilitate writing workshops in schools across Australia. To help me promote the program, I contacted the nationally acclaimed education organisation, Australian Scholarship Group (ASG). As they work with thousands of families, schools and teachers around Australia, I knew they’d have the channels to get the word out. I was equal parts nervous and ecstatic when they agreed to meet with me.

After the ASG team heard my intentions for the book and school workshops, they wanted to support me as best they could. They offered to publish my book and become official partners of the writing program. I’ve known for some time now, but have kept the news under wraps whilst Noonie was receiving a spruce up. We transformed his look with the addition of an eye patch, making him look even more a-dor-ARGGGG-ble and cover ready. Thanks to ASG, he now features on the front of a commercially printed and bound soft cover book with colour-in pages, available for purchase on my website. I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out. When I found out my book will feature in Scholastic Book Club, I giggled uncontrollable from excitement (80s/90s kids will surely understand).

Me: When it’s 2 mins till home time and the teacher hands out book club

I want to point out something I wish I knew years ago. I’m not sure if what I’m about to say will stir something within you or even make sense, but if it inspires or changes the perception of even one person, I’ll be glad I did. It may be a concept no one can really grasp until they experience it for themselves, but here goes. Before I became a published author, I thought published authors were shiner versions of myself. I thought they must be more intelligent, more creative and likable than the rest. As far as I’m aware, I haven’t developed those traits overnight. In fact, I wrote my book 10 years ago, so what does that say about my development one decade on? Some may claim it’s easier to get “discovered” in the digital era. Others will put it down to luck. Do you think my story would’ve been just as publishable 10 years ago when I submitted it to my TAFE teacher? Think about what that means to you.

We all have the capacity to produce work worthy of “the pool room” (as Darryl Kerrigan would say). Just because it doesn’t make it onto the world stage doesn’t mean it’s unworthy. Take my book for example, if it weren’t for Dave and his crazy POW mantra, the printed copy probably would have sat pinned up against the burgundy Scrabble box until the next time I found myself stuck at Mum’s on a rainy day (maybe not so long considering she’s in Melbourne). Just in case you’ve missed the message, I’m going to take cue from Godin and get real blunt: you’ve probably got your own Noonie equivalent (not necessarily a book or piece of writing) stashed away in your wardrobe amongst your own meaningful bits of clutter (AKA my shell collection and vintage Scrabble set).

Darryl Kerrigan thinking about his pool glorious room

My next few blog posts will be dedicated to those whose names feature on the dedication page of Noonie and the Missing Bone. So many fantastic, inspirational people have come in and out of my life, making it mighty hard to single out individuals. I decided to share the story about Dave first because although our time together was brief, his actions implicated mine, and without him the next 12 months would look very different.

The new and improved front cover of Noonie and the Missing Bone. 

If you would like to purchase a copy of Noonie and the Missing Bone, you can click here to be redirected to the online store.

Taken directly from the acknowledgements page of the book:

Dave, you inspired me to pursue passion over worry. Thank you for motivating me to “take my turn.”

I illustrated this thank you card for Dave to accompany a box of choccies

Dave’s Instagram: davepowtabain

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