MistyNites

My Life in Motion

A Weekend in Oz

I didn’t know it at the time but this was to be the last time I’d use my passport and go abroad. Back at the end of November 2019, completely oblivious to World events that were to come, myself and my partner stood in line at Christchurch airport, ready to hop the ditch for a weekend in Australia. My best friend had been living in Sydney the previous few years but was readying to return to life in the UK and with Sydney being my favourite city in the whole World, it was an easy decision to cross the Tasman Sea to visit her before she was to move to the other side of the World. I would have loved to spend more time with her, but at just 3.5hrs, an early flight there and a late flight back a couple of days later made a 3-day weekend jaunt do-able.

The Southern Alps were shrouded in low cloud as we took off, crossing the breadth of New Zealand’s South Island before spanning the width of the Tasman Sea. I adore Australia and will happily visit anywhere and everywhere within reach, and as always I was giddy when I saw the New South Wales coastline approach and the Sydney suburbs appear out of the clouds as we descended into the city. Sadly the country had been hitting the headlines due to the extreme amount of wildfires that were taking place in various states, but as we landed there was no evidence that any of that was going on.

I always stay at the same place every time I visit, the YHA hostel in the Rocks district. Not only do I love this part of the city, but the hostel is the best hostel I’ve every stayed at and its rooftop viewing deck with a view across to both the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House is worth every cent of this dearer-than-most hostel. After dumping our bags there, we met up with my friend and her partner, taking a leisurely stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens by the waterfront of Sydney Harbour. It was a bit overcast and hazy but it was warm and in the bay a couple of catamarans were parked on which Christmas parties were in full swing. Despite the years I’ve now lived in the Southern Hemisphere, I fail to feel festive with a summer Christmas but I did acknowledge that the summer did lend itself to better parties and outdoor festive fun. We laughed at their crazy antics as we passed by, and as we moved beneath the trees I sought out the loud and obnoxious cockatiels that I adore to spot when I’m in Oz.

At the far side of Mrs Macquaries Point, a swimming pool was built a few years prior which spans the side of the gardens. We stopped in at the poolside bar to enjoy an Aperol Spritz, a neon-orange cocktail that despite being Italian in origin, to me is quintessentially Australian. It turned out our waiter was from Glasgow which is where myself and my best friend used to live so it was both nice and surreal to chat away with him about life at home and life in Oz. We were pretty much the last people in the place by closing and we continued on our merry way back through the gardens, musing at the various painted koala statues as we passed.

As we reached the Sydney Opera House, the behemoth of cruiseliners, the Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Sea was negotiating its exit from the harbour. It’s strange to think how uncommon this must be now after everything that has happened in the last year, but at the time it was a normal Sydney event, and we stood to watch it turn with precision and be guided out of Circular Quay by a support boat, tiny in comparison to the enormous multi-decked ship. Sydney harbour has a constant flow of leisure and commercial craft ploughing its waters and these other vessels were simply dwarfed as they zipped past the slow moving liner.

After a while we continued on into the Rocks, taking my friend and her partner up to the roof of the hostel to see the view before we all headed round to Darling Harbour for expensive cocktails in a swanky bar up one of the skyscrapers there. I felt rather underdressed among the fancy socialites out for a Saturday night, but from the bar we had a view up the Paramatta river and the suburbs that flank the river. After dinner it was time to retire to the hostel and get some much needed sleep after the early rise for the morning flight.

 

Stepping onto the rooftop balcony first thing in the morning I was immediately confronted with another cruise ship which had arrived in the middle of the night. Now the first day of December, this was peak season here, and there would be little gap between the myriad of cruises that include Sydney in its route. We walked down through the Rocks past a giant inflatable snow globe, and down the many steps to Circular Quay where it was busy as usual. It was a familiar walk round to the Opera House and back before it was time for the 4 of us to get together once more, this time catching a ferry across to Taronga Zoo wharf on the north side of the harbour.

It wasn’t the zoo we were aiming for, but the coastal walk that runs the length of the harbour from the headlands far up the Paramatta river. I’ve walked sections of it before, but this was to be a new part, where we first headed east towards Bradleys Head. Bradleys Head cuts deep into the harbour and is well positioned to offer a view across to the Sydney skyline. There are so many places to get a view of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge or both, and every time I come to Sydney I go somewhere new to obtain a new perspective. When we reached the amphitheatre near the lighthouse, we found some bush turkeys strutting around the grounds and a couple of kookaburras. Although New Zealand to me is the land of birds, Australia has some incredible bird life, many of which, like the cockatoos and the kookaburras, are loud and raucous. It adds a whole level of auditory stimulation to city explorations. We sat there talking for a bit, watching some people out on the pier as the waves smashed into the concrete.

 

After a while, we headed back to the Taronga Zoo pier but continued on the harbour trail to the west, where the coast cut deep into Sirius Cove. The water was littered with boats and the beach in the cove was busy on a Saturday. Enjoying the company and the views, we reached the far side of the cove and cut up over the headland through the residential streets to reach Mosman Bay, another cove that was crammed full of boats. I often dream about living in Sydney, but the reality is that the city is an expensive place to live, and as much as a harbour view would be the dream, I know it’s not a realistic option for me. So instead, I just admire people’s houses as I pass. We eventually reached our lunchspot, the Mosman Rowers restaurant where it was time for more cocktails and a bite to eat. These are the kind of days that make me immensely happy, away from the stresses of life, with no schedule to keep and little care in the World. Just a group of old and new friends hanging out, enjoying the Australian way of life.

After lunch, we continued to follow the coast round the very deep Mosman Bay towards Cremorne Point. I was surprised to see a bush turkey sitting in a tree as we walked. Used to seeing them rummaging around in the undergrowth, it was strange to see one just sitting on a tree branch. Once at Cremorne Point we were back in view of the Opera House again, with an unrestricted view across to the far side of the harbour once more. We didn’t have to wait too long for a ferry to carry us back to Circular Quay where we passed the light rail that was new at the time, before heading into the Rocks for their Christmas market.

 

The last time I visited Sydney was for Vivid Sydney, the annual light extravaganza that occurs in autumn, but this time, instead of light installations spread between the streets, it was Christmas trees, and toy soldiers and fake snow. These are the kind of events where I wish my family lived nearer. I moved to the Southern Hemisphere on my own in late 2011, and only getting to see my family in Scotland every few years, I miss out on a lot of family outings and celebrations. Sometimes I see mothers and daughters out for tea or siblings hanging out at a bar, or families having picnics and I simply ache to have my family closer. One of my brothers at least has had a brief snapshot of my life over here with a visit a few years ago, but for the most part, my family has no idea what I experience with life Down Under. New Zealand and Australia feel as much, if not more so, of a home as Scotland does, and I know that being here is the right thing for me. Still, I walked round that market, soaking up the buzz, enjoying myself immensely, albeit with a small piece of my heart wishing my mum especially was there with me.

At the far end of the market, we posed under the neon sign before cutting down to Campbells Cove. We were simply dwarfed by the Norwegian Jewel cruiseliner that was parked up at the harbour, and under a hazy sky we just hung out, watching the World go by. The benefit of having friends living in a foreign city is that you get to find out about cool local hangouts. We mulled over choices of where to go for drinks, eventually deciding to catch an Uber into the city. Unfortunately where we aimed for didn’t work out, so we walked through Hyde Park and made our way to Marble Bar, a speakeasy underground in the Hilton. This place was incredibly atmospheric with walls lined with whiskies and liqueur, and a grand ornate ceiling above leather couches. The weekend had already been about cocktails and now it was cocktail time again, with a bit of whisky to balance it out.

 

Having made the most of the cocktail hour at this awesome bar, we eventually headed back to Circular Quay where there was still a few hours of daylight to ogle over the Opera House. The cruiseliner had by now left and we went for dinner at the Squire’s Landing at one end of the ferry terminal. Over the years that my friend had lived in Sydney and I had lived in New Zealand, I had seen her more often than when she had lived in London and I had lived in Scotland. She treated us to a delicious dinner as a goodbye, and we ate as the sun lowered, and the sky changed colour over the sail-like roof of the Opera House, the harbour ferries ploughing back and forth in front of it.

 

The four of us had a final catch up that morning, enjoying breakfast out in a suburb somewhere, sharing stories and making plans for my trip home in August 2020, 8 months later. We said our goodbyes at the end of it, plans in place for our catch up in Scotland, cheerily oblivious to what was to happen over the coming months. Alas, my trip was cancelled, and 16 months later I still don’t know when I’ll see my family or friends again. But at the time we knew none of that, and with our flight home not till later that day, my partner and I took a walk to Sydney Observatory where we had a view of the opposite side of the Harbour Bridge than we’d been looking at so far. I’d been to Sydney more recently than my partner had and he wanted to go to Manly, so we worked our way back to Circular Quay to catch the ferry.

 

As much as I always want to do something new when I visit, I do enjoy a few firm favourites and taking the ferry across to Manly is one of them. For less than the tourist ferries charge, the Manly ferry sails the length of the harbour offering stunning views the whole way before depositing you at a pier by a small beach. From there it is a short walk up the Corso to the gorgeous Manly beach, a long curved stretch of yellow sand that is a popular place to swim and just hang out. From there, a promenade leads round the coast to the more secluded Shelly beach where we grabbed an iced fruit lolly to enjoy in the sunshine. The previous couple of days had had high cloud and a slight haze, but out there we’d left the clouds behind, and we were under more of a blue sky. It was exceptionally hot. After lapping up the views and the heat, we headed back to Manly beach, walking under the summer banners declaring Merry Christmas next to an ice cream cone. Once again I laughed internally at the absurdity of a summer Christmas.

 

Rather than head straight back to downtown, we caught the private ferry across the harbour mouth to Watson’s Bay on the south side. The wind was stronger over here and the weather felt like it was turning. We headed up to the Gap, a clifftop lookout that gazes out onto the Tasman Sea. Sadly this is a popular suicide spot, and over the years since my first visit in 2012, suicide prevention fencing, security cameras and emergency Samaritans notices have been erected all around this area. As the waves crash on the rocks below, it almost feels a little mournful. Cutting back through the park we finally got close up to a Sulphur-crested cockatoo, one of my favourite Australian birds. It simply watched me as it ate above my head, not caring that I was taking so many photos of it.

The wind was starting to whip up so much now that as we waited for the ferry back to Circular Quay, we were surrounded by grounded seagulls that stood by our bench, reluctant to take off to save being whipped away on the wind. There was a good bit of chop as we sailed back and after taking a final walk round the waterfront to soak up the view and the atmosphere, we retired to the rooftop of the hostel to sunbathe until we had to leave for the airport.

 

As we lay there, we watched the sky change, at first subtly but then quite dramatically. From behind the downtown skyscrapers an increasingly thick wall of smog appeared, turning the air thick and the sky a funny colour. It didn’t take long to realise it was the smoke from the nearby wildfires that were raging a little way out of the city. The wind direction had blown the smoke towards Sydney, and as we left the hostel for the last time, the visibility was closing in. For a brief while I was worried our flight home would be cancelled, but although the sky was a hazy pink when we got to the airport, we were able to take off without much concern. The sun was getting ready to set as we left Australia behind, returning to New Zealand to scan my passport for the last time.

The Wild West

Deep within the Lewis Pass region of New Zealand’s South Island is a myriad of hiking trails snaking through the forests and across and around the mountain ranges that snake through there. In November 2019 on a 4-day weekend thanks to Canterbury Anniversary Day, I decided to take a trip across to the western half of the island, and stopped on route to take a trip through Nina Valley. There was little space to park despite the slightly dreary day as Nina Hut at the end of the valley is a popular spot to hike into for the night. Aside from mud, I found my usual forest walk companion in the form of a South Island robin, one of my favourite birds to accompany me on hikes. What I also found was a cute pair of mice which when I stopped to watch them, proceeded to come out and nosy around the undergrowth whilst I photographed them silently. Mice are a pest here in New Zealand, one of the many invasive species responsible for decimating our native wild birds, and at the time of visiting, we were experiencing a ‘cast’, a higher than average tree seed production that led to a spike in pest numbers. Still, they were wildlife, and I love spotting wildlife. Plus they were exceptionally cute and I couldn’t help but be a little excited watching them go about their business.

 

I’d planned on walking as far as the Nina swing bridge, an hour along the trail, but between stopping to watch the forest creatures and taking a break by the river, I decided to turn back before I got that far. It had taken a few hours to drive this far from Christchurch and I’d stopped for lunch at a favourite cafe in Hanmer Springs, a detour off the main road, so I was mindful about the drive ahead to my destination and not wanting to arrive too late. So after spotting some riflemen flitting about the trees, and with the sun bursting out a little as I returned to my car, I finished my hike and continued westwards, crossing the summit of Lewis Pass and heading into Reefton, my home for the next few nights.

 

The West Coast has an unfortunate reputation for wetness, and although I was some distance from the coast, I was on the wrong side of the mountain range, so I wasn’t surprised to wake to grey skies and drizzle. I was in no hurry to do anything so had a leisurely breakfast at a local cafe before wandering along the historic street front. Like many places on the West Coast, Reefton has its history in mining and the region is full of relics. It was also the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to gain electricity with the first electric bulb to light up being outside the still-standing Oddfellows Hall off the main street. Not many people were staying here but there was plenty of traffic passing through so there was a reasonable bit of activity going on despite the drizzle.

The rain wasn’t hard enough to stop me going for a local walk so after heading up the main street, I passed the original gas lights that still lined the pavements, and continued out of the village and down towards the river which was a power source for the region back in its day. The Inangahua river is broad and tannin-stained and just outside Reefton it is crossed by a suspension bridge which leads to the remains of the old power station. The drizzle meant there were some cool views down the valley of clouds hugging the mountainside, and although still a little wet, it wasn’t too bad to walk along the river bank and read the displays about the ruins that are still left. Only as I was at the end of the circuit back across the road bridge to head into Reefton again from the other end did the rain get a bit heavier again, so I decided to take a drive and see if I could escape the rain clouds.

 

Heading west from Reefton, I drove almost the whole way to Greymouth before circling past the old Brunner mine which I’d visited a few years prior. Even on the main road there were signs of mining at regular intervals, be it a memorial at the side of the road, or signs pointing to historic mining routes or mining works. Both gold and coal have been mined in this part of the country, and there are still some active mining works in action today. There are hundreds of old coal mining carts littered about the countryside here, and several of the local walks have them as points of interest, where they’ve been abandoned to rust and be reclaimed by nature.

 

A lull in the rain by mid-afternoon allowed me to get out for another walk again. This time I headed up the hill at the eastern end of the village. Over the tops of the invasive gorse, the elevation offered a view over the rooftops of the village below and the misty-covered peaks of the mountains on the horizon. There was even a goat wandering about here, and despite the grey skies that were my constant companion, a couple of water reservoirs provided some pretty reflections as I passed them by. The trail led out towards the back of the village and I followed it for a while before heading down an access track that brought me down at an industrial area. As I cut back through the streets I passed the old courthouse and several other original buildings before finding myself back on the historic main street.

With several hours of daylight ahead, the late afternoon still allowed for another walk before darkness would fall. Taking a long drive up a gravel road, I picked the Alborn Track to visit some of the mining remnants close to a still-active quarry site. It was muddy underfoot and threatening to drizzle again, but scattered all over the place were rusting winch equipment and even an old truck alongside some large coal carts. On the return leg, the track passed the opening of a couple of caves, marked with a warning about poisonous gas and danger on entry. I do like to explore caves but I’m always wary of man-made mining caves, so I heeded the warnings and kept going, returning to my car and heading back down the hill in time for a bit of sunshine.

I’d spent the first couple of days alone, but my partner was to join me for the last night. He had a bit of a drive over so whilst he was making his way across the country the next morning, I headed east past Springs Junction to the Marble Hill campsite. From here there is a walking track to Lake Daniell which I’d read was a good hike to do, and it was indeed a lovely forest walk on a day that was actually sunny. Predicted to be 3hrs each way, I set off under a blue sky and crossed the first river before following the bank of another river as it wound through the forest. I love New Zealand’s forests, they’re so different from the cultivated forests of pine from my homeland back in Scotland. In New Zealand they feel natural and wild, even in places where that’s not actually the case, but full of various canopy levels and with a carpet that’s often as alive as the trees are, there’s so much to look at for ecology geeks like myself.

As always, there was an inquisitive South Island robin to entertain me as I followed the path through. These and the fantails or piwakawaka love to follow humans through the forest, but the fantails tend to flit-flit about more, refusing to stay still for long, and especially not for photographs. In comparison, the robins often come right up to you, cocking their head and looking straight at you in full engagement, often hopping alongside or flitting between the trees as you walk. I’m always happy to see one, and find myself talking to the birds as I go.

 

I reached Lake Daniell and the hut on its foreshore after just 2hrs, and found the hut to be in the process of being rebuilt. The lake level was up from the rain so the surroundings and the end of the boardwalk were actually submerged, but I was able to pick my way out to the pier on the lake without getting my feet wet, and here the wind whipped across the lake a little as I stood enjoying the view. There had not been a single person on the trail and I was out here on my own with the view to myself also. It was delightful. I’ve been told that the hut is often busy as schools use it and with it being just a few hours from the main road it is popular for parents to take their children out to it as a starter hike. So I was lucky to find it so empty, and enjoyed the solitude for a while before heading back into the forest again. Once again I was befriended by the local robin population, and as I reached the end of the trail I stopped to watch the water rush through the ‘sluice’ a natural rapids that had been created by a gorge in the hillside.

 

By the time I returned to Reefton my partner was waiting for me. Without the rain, we took a wander through the streets and stopped at the local distillery for a tasting. Their produce was pricey but I felt awkward leaving without buying something so took a chance on a tayberry liqueur that wasn’t even able to be sampled before purchase. I’d never even heard of a tayberry, so not knowing anything about the taste it was a bit of a gamble. It’s a very sharp taste, and one that definitely is enjoyed in small quantities but the lady in the bar suggested using it as an ice cream topper and I’ve still to try it this way.

We had to set off early the next day to leave our Air BnB behind and head north then west to Charleston on the coast. Since I’d heard about the Underworld Adventure tours I’d been eager to take part in one, and finally it was time to go exploring with them. There was a threat of rain once more but we were heading underground, so this wasn’t going to matter. Set within the Paparoa National Park, the company offers a mix of tour options from a train ride through the forest, to tubing down rapids, or a cave walk. We were there to go cave exploring, a favourite activity of mine, so we bundled into the van and drove into the park, parking up in the apparent middle of nowhere next to a large container. Out of the container popped a small train and linked carriages and once on board we set off through the forest.

There was evidence all around of the limestone nature of the landscape with large limestone cliffs jutting through the foliage as we followed a river upstream. Eventually we hopped off in the forest and those going tubing went down to the river and those of us going caving followed the path across the river and up the hillside to reach the entrance of the Ananui cave system. I love taking cave tours, exploring the world of underground river systems and ogling over the stalactites and stalagmites that litter the caverns of limestone caves. I loved this place, it felt huge and there was so much to explore down the long passageways as we went deeper and deeper into the cave system. At times there were giant boulders to climb over, and after some time we found ourselves in a lower section that split into two, a large dark cavern to the right, and a large open-ended cavern to the left where the outside forest became visible.

 

We turned first to the left, and saw a waterfall streaming down from the ceiling near where the cave opened out into the forest. The river at its bottom cast a reflection of the cave entrance and it was simply glorious. We spent some time here just enjoying the view. We turned back into the cave heading into the other lower chamber where once out of the light from the lower cave entrance we turned off our headlamps to view the twinkles of glowworms. Although nothing has ever competed with the level of glowworms I saw in the Waitomo cave system back in 2012, there was still enough here to not only be pretty, but they were close enough to actually view the larval structures and their beaded web. Like a beaded necklace these larval flies pupate within a sac from where they lower these sticky threads, butts glowing to attract their prey towards the ropes of death. It’s one of so many marvellous things that nature has evolved to do to fill a niche in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

 

Climbing back up through the cave system was just as enjoyable, returning through the network of limestone formations, eventually popping out at the entrance, and hiking back down the trail to the train to return through the forest. The sun was out now, enlivening our drive back to Charleston where a viewing point at the Underworld Adventure office gave an elevated view into the forest to the east, and the crashing waves to the left. We decided to head back to Christchurch via Punakaiki, the site of the famous Pancake Rocks. Although we didn’t go to visit the rocks, we stopped here for a late lunch, and with the sun out and the crowds of the summer at every turn, I parked up next to a flax bush, spotting a tui feeding among the flowers. Tui are good pollinators for this species. For a nectar reward, the tui regularly wear a golden crown of pollen after feeding here, the yellow dust adorning their heads for them to spread onto the next flower as they move around to feed. I love tui, a bird I don’t get to see much of in Christchurch, and I was loving the close up experience here. It was a long drive back to Christchurch across the breadth of the country, but it had been well worth it to spend a snippet of time in the wild west lands of the South Island.

The New Christchurch

In September 2010 and February 2011 a couple of large earthquakes ripped through the city of Christchurch resulting in mass devastation and loss of life. I moved to the city just shy of the 1 year anniversary of the February earthquake, and was shocked to find a city locked down, shut off and covered in dust. Those first few months I thought I’d made such a huge mistake living there. But fast forward all these years later and I love the place. The regeneration has been incredible to watch, and whilst I don’t like everything that has been done with the place, the vast majority of the changes have returned this devastated city to a place of vibrancy and life. Whilst I’d been in Japan during October 2019, a much anticipated new spot in the city had opened up and on my return I was eager to get out and experience it for myself.

At one end of Cashel Mall, replacing the colourful and popular Container Mall is Riverside Market. It opened in sections, some of the external eateries opening sooner and on that first visit, the place was still filling up, but on walking into the large space filled with food stalls, I was quickly in love and eager to try out the new bites. From baked goods, to cheeses, to meats, it wasn’t quite what I’d expected but that didn’t matter. I sussed out some places to try as I wandered around, moving upstairs to take in the view from the rafters. Outside a plethora of eateries were ready to serve. The following weekend I was back, determined to try a few other places. Over a year later, it is still a firm favourite to eat out in the city.

Divali celebrations came and went in Cathedral Square. Aside from the sad spectacle of the abandoned Cathedral, the square itself is open as an entertainment space, so there was a decent crowd as the musicians and dancers performed on the stage, culminating in bhangra music which is my favourite style of Indian dance. Along the road, a giant bright red container had been set up as a form of statement art. Impressively, it had been cut out into giant letters stating ‘MADE IN CHINA’ and it was possible to climb through the letters which I duly did as a big kid that I am.

I’d already experienced the delights of spring in the gardens the month previous, but a return to the gardens in October still provided lots of colour and fresh blooms to ogle at. The cherry blossoms were past their peak but inside the Botanic Gardens there was a mass of pinks and yellows and reds and oranges. Semi-secluded at the back of the gardens is a series of small ponds, and aside from the usual ducks that are in attendance here, I was surprised to happen upon a little shag. It was merrily swimming around the shallow water and when it turned head on to face me, the natural curve of the beak made it look comically grumpy.

 

To my delight there were also ducklings everywhere. I especially love Paradise Shelduck ducklings as they are particularly cute and fluffy, but even the hybrid grey ducks that are the usual fare around there were fun to watch. The biggest of the lakes in the gardens, with its stone arch bridge across it, is my favourite part to visit and hang out as there’s always some form of bird activity going on here. At one point a mother duck led her ducklings along the path and I watched the family go about their stroll.

 

I gradually worked my way round the river Avon that encircles the Botanic Gardens, and was stoked to spot a few eels in the water. I had heard that the eel population was slowly improving after some remedial works had taken place to improve the water quality and here was the evidence that it was working. As I watched the couple of eels weaving around under the water, a punt and a few kayaks lazily passed by. These sunny spring and summer weekend days when people are making the most of the warmth, and the excitement of the change in season is tangible in the air, are my favourite kind of days. As much as I usually prefer my own company, I love to breathe in the shared joy of these kind of days.

 

It was good enough to take a walk around the city and watch the place go through its motions. The red tram trundled towards me as I walked along Worcester Street and on a whim I decided to jump on board. I usually get an annual pass which covers the tram and the gondola outside of the city for unlimited rides, so it was easy to make use of the card when I felt like playing tourist. That, and the tram drivers tend to be a font of knowledge for what is happening in the city, including the gossip among the developers, so it is a good way to find out what’s coming and when. At the margin of the city centre, the large form of the new Convention Centre was starting to take shape as we passed and before long we were turning into the colourful New Regent Street. This part of the city was a regular hangout in the earlier stages of the rebuild when it was one of the earlier parts of the city to reopen, but while it still has some great eateries, I now hardly come here at all.

 

When we finally circled round to Cashel Street, the mall was alive with people. Again, my memories of this street years ago was of desolation and quietness, but now it is the heart of the city once more. From businesses on weekdays spilling their workers out for local eats and coffee, to weekend shoppers and people looking for a bite to eat or drink, this end of the city is a delight with the Riverside Market, the bubbling river Avon and the Terrace eateries and bars located within a short distance of each other. After completing a circuit on the tram, I jumped off to get back on my feet, finding myself at the MADE IN CHINA container before crossing the river to admire the glorious Terraces from the far side of the river, culminating in a bite to eat at the market.

 

A few days later on another glorious spring day, I again made use of my tram and gondola pass to take the gondola up Mount Cavendish for another favourite viewpoint of mine. Looking north, the span of Pegasus Bay sweeps away into the distance and the city itself is nestled just a little away from the Port Hills, sandwiched between the hills and the distant hulk of the Southern Alps, viewed on the horizon. On the other side of the building, the glorious turquoise water of Lyttelton Harbour sits within an old volcanic caldera, dividing the Port Hills from Banks Peninsula, the mountainous remnants of 2 extinct volcanoes. All these glorious days spent wandering around my city remind me how much I love here, and how wrong I was to be put off by first impressions. Even now in 2021, with the rebuild still ongoing, I have nothing but excitement for the new things still to come. The New Christchurch is an exciting place to live, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going.

Typhoon Hagibis

The thing with staying in a capsule hotel during a typhoon is that you have no idea what is going on outside. The sleeping floors had no natural lighting or windows, and with no external stimulation at all, it was impossible to know how bad it was getting. I’d gone to bed the night before with the news already showing lots of flooding and issues to the east, and when I woke up, the news showed scenes of devastation elsewhere. A tornado had also hit one region, and the footage rolled in of flooding and landslides. Typhoon Hagibis was a category 5 super typhoon, one of the strongest to hit Japan in decades, and Tokyo’s airports were grounded. My flight was out of Osaka airport the following day and I could only hope that it wouldn’t be cancelled. Knowing that Osaka’s tourist attractions had been shut as part of the typhoon preparations, I had nothing particularly to get up for, but my grumbling stomach eventually drove me to get up and head downstairs to the hotel’s cafe for some breakfast.

I popped out of the elevator at reception and walked down the stairs to the cafe which had floor to ceiling windows and was surprised to see no blustering winds and no scenes of destruction. It was raining steadily but not even what I would class as pouring, and as I looked out, I saw people going about their daily lives as if nothing was going on. Either the worst had passed, the worst was still to hit or we just weren’t close enough to the eye of the storm. I couldn’t believe it. I mulled over my options and decided that although little would be open, I could at least take a walk and stretch my legs. One of the things I love about Japanese hotels is that they provided free umbrellas so after procuring one, I headed out, and decided to wander down to Dotonbori.

When I reached the covered shopping street I was surprised to see that most of the shops were open and it was a bustling place to be. I got myself a Hallowe’en themed morning snack and pushed on to the bridge that crosses the broad river. Here it was relatively quiet compared to the hustle and bustle from my first night in the city but the wet pavements created some pretty reflections from the large and colourful adverts that adorned the buildings. The rain was constant but not so heavy to drive me straight back inside so I took the time to watch the people with their umbrellas bobbing past.

 

After working my way through the rest of the covered shopping mall I decided to see if the nearby food market was open. I find that fresh food markets are a great way to explore local life, and are always a stimulation for the senses. Being covered, it was open and I gratefully took shelter from the rain and did a good bit of people watching whilst also browsing the fresh produce, some of which I didn’t always recognise. I passed by two food stalls that intrigued me for different reasons. The first was selling minke whale meat, the second fugu. Hunting of any sort will always be a controversial topic, one that will fire up many people’s passions on both sides of the table. I don’t personally think the debate is black and white either as there is a big difference between subsistence hunting and trophy hunting, and a difference between hunting an endangered animal versus a non-endangered animal. I strongly oppose trophy hunting and killing endangered animals, but I’m not against hunting as a whole. Even although minke whales are not endangered, I don’t like whaling and I refuse to eat whale meat when I’m travelling. But I’ve visited both Iceland and Japan where whaling occurs and I’ve seen whale meat on the menu in both countries.

I was however briefly tempted by the fugu which had a long line of locals queuing up to purchase. Fugu is not just a delicacy, it’s also fatally poisonous if it’s not prepared correctly. I had always assumed it was only served in high-end restaurants prepared by highly trained chefs so it was curious to see it for sale here in a fresh food market. The popularity of the stall suggested it should be safe to consume but a quick Google search revealed there had been cases of poisoning stemming from consumption of the fish at markets like this one so I decided in the end not to try. Instead I found myself buying a creme brulee style sweet potato dish that was highly disappointing and really difficult to swallow without lots of fluids to help it down.

I made my way to Americamura as the rain started to get heavier. With the benefit of daylight I was able to spy the Statue of Liberty which I’d failed to spot the night I arrived. It stood atop one of the buildings visible from Mitsu Park, a downsized replica of America’s one. With the rain making me feel a little chilled, I wandered through the streets of the region, taking a long route back to my hotel. As I walked, my attention was drawn to a bright yellow manhole cover. I’d noticed many painted manhole covers on my travels round Japan but most of them were either very faded or the colours were quite muted. Osaka’s were bright yellow and this one particularly was still holding its colours well. By now lunchtime I was cold and didn’t want to wander any further so I retreated to my hotel to chill out in my capsule.

 

It was still raining when my stomach dragged me back outside in the late afternoon. I found an eatery with the classic vending machine style ordering system out the door where you simply ordered off a picture menu then handed the ticket to the server inside. This was to be my last proper meal in Japan but I opted to get a range of bites, ordering a plate of karaage chicken and a mixture of fried and steamed dumplings. I wandered back through the now packed covered shopping street and back to Dotonbori which was once again alive with people and this time I had to dodge a sea of umbrellas as people congregated on the bridge across the river. The sky already had a slightly menacing look about it, but as I wandered the streets of Dotonbori, the sky began to turn a shade of purple like it had the night before. It never quite reached the spectacular shades of purple as it had ahead of the typhoon, but it added another aspect to the menacing look of the heavy clouds as the rain refused to let up. The crowds were not deterred though and by now it seemed that Osaka had definitely just gotten the edge of the typhoon. I lingered with them, experiencing my last moments in the sensory chaos of a Japanese city at night.

 

All appeared to be well with my flight out of Osaka, and I left the city with plenty of time, reaching the airport so early that the signs said my flight wasn’t open for check-in yet. I waited and waited and waited by the board for the check-in gate to appear until eventually I decided to just wander around the concourse and see if there was any sign of a desk opening. What I found was a single check-in zone for all flights by this airline which had a single queue that wound round and round a set of barriers and half-way down the concourse. A quick discussion led to the realisation that I had to join this huge queue which encompassed both bag-drop for online check-ins as well as normal check-ins. There was no get-around and as the queue struggled to move forward I grew increasingly anxious. Having been at the airport so far ahead of time, I saw my flight creep closer and closer as I waited and waited. The panic began to creep in and I tried to flag someone down to see if I could be prioritised but there was nobody on hand. It turned out that the cancelled flights from the day before had led to a huge surge of people flying that day and that was just how it was.

When I finally got to the front of the queue and the desk it was 20mins till boarding time. I hot-footed it to security to join yet another queue where I impatiently waited for my turn to go through screening. It was already boarding time when I reached the flight-side of security and then it was a race to get to my gate and onto the plane. I couldn’t foresee my bag joining me on the plane with such little time, and I settled into my window seat as we took off under the cloud and left Osaka behind. The Rugby World Cup had driven up the flight prices so much that I’d had to take a route home via Hong Kong, a rather inconvenient detour that took me in the wrong direction and dragged out my travel time. It did however lead to a pretty nice view of western Japan as we broke out of the clouds from the dispersing typhoon and sat within sunshine as we cruised west.

I’ve never had any great desire to go to Hong Kong, but my particular concerns at the time was the ongoing riots that had been plaguing the city for months and had already led to the airport being closed once. There had been another surge in rioting whilst I’d been in Japan so I’d been nervous that my flight was going to get cancelled for that reason, never mind the typhoon. In the end the approach into Hong Kong airport was interesting approaching over the water and in the distance I could see the tall skyscrapers that the city is famous for. I had several hours of a layover and the terminal was undergoing renovations which meant it was one of the worst airports to be stuck at with little to do and few places to sit. I was just tired and eager to get home by this point, but when the gate for my Air New Zealand flight to Auckland was announced I got there to discover there was a pretty awesome backdrop to the classic black plane that was parked there waiting. Then it was just the matter of the flight to Auckland and another connection to Christchurch, and just like that, my Japanese adventure was over.

Osaka

Osaka seems to be quite a polarising city. There are many tourists who don’t think much of it at all, and then there are the seemingly few that do. I for one, enjoyed my time there, and given that Mother Nature got in the way of my plans whilst I was there, I even feel a little robbed and would like to go back to experience what I missed out on. With just two whole days based in the city, I wasn’t going to waste the nights, and even though I’d been on my feet all day (as with every day I spent in Japan), I had a hunger to satiate and the city streets to explore.

My capsule hotel was in the Shinsaibashi area and from here, there were plenty of brightly lit streets to wander through on route to Americamura and Dotonbori. A large painted mural on the side of a building welcomed me to Americamura which felt like it was geared towards those 1-2 decades younger than me with trendy clothes shops lining the streets. With Hallowe’en 2019 just a few weeks away, there were pumpkins big and small decorating the path and the entrance to the large mall that greeted me. As my eyes adjusted to all the bright lights that bombarded me, I noticed that the street lights were actually made to look like a sort of robotic person. I’d read that there was supposed to be a Statue of Liberty around here somewhere but couldn’t find it, so I decided if I had time I’d come back in the daytime and see if it was easier to spot.

 

What I adored about Osaka was the immense indoor shopping street that ran block after block, occasionally broken by a road or a river. Full of shops for locals and tourists alike, the place was mobbed. Even though I was hungry, I just drifted with the general flow of people, passing clothes shops, Pokemon stores and eventually getting giddy like a child when I found a large Sanrio store. Funnily enough, I’m no particular Hello Kitty fan at the best of times, but when in Japan, it was hard not to get excited whenever I came across a Hello Kitty store. Over three floors of feeling like a kid in a candy shop, I left with a bag of goodies and continued my search for food. This came in the shape of Luke’s Lobster who had a long line of locals outside it which of course always speaks volumes. I dutifully queued up for my lobster sandwich which I messily ate rather conspicuously outside an empty shop window.

Passing dessert shops and more, I suddenly burst out at the river at Dotonbori, the streets and bridge alive with people. Large neon lights flashed all around me and as I jostled my way to the bridge edge I saw large boats carry people up and down the length of the river. I found myself constantly dodging other people’s photographs, weaving from one side of the broad bridge to the other before pushing on. On the far side of the river I took the main street which was crammed with lights and noise advertising eateries of all sorts. Large crabs and even dragons looked down upon me as I walked. Eventually circling back to the covered street I followed it till its eventual end, past arcade halls and animal-themed cafes before retracing my steps back through the madness to my hotel.

 

Japan’s ever reliable public transport system whisked me out of Osaka to the west, vaguely following the coast before moving a little inland and depositing me at Himeji. Japan is full of castles, and Osaka itself has one, but before arriving in the country, I had decided that Himeji Castle was going to be the one that I’d properly visit. When I arrived at the station it was a glorious sunny day, and I stepped out to a large avenue that led me up towards the dominant hulk of the castle. Whilst not as busy as Osaka, there were plenty of people with the same purpose and as I neared the castle the crowds congregated and moved on mass into the entrance way. A large lawn greeted us and ferried us towards the ticket booth. As most people made a beeline for the castle, I decided to separate myself from the crowd a little and explore the walled gardens first. I might as well have had them to myself, there was hardly anyone else there, but they offered a huge variety of views of the castle with other buildings and trees framing it.

 

I discovered that there was a long hallway within the wall of the gardens and this afforded a view out across the city to my left. After walking its length I joined the throngs to head into the castle, first negotiating the route up the hill to the entrance. Sensibly there was a one-way system in place that circled round the various levels, gradually heading up large staircases to reach higher and higher into the rafters of the building. From the very top there was a glorious view across the rooftops, the grounds and the city beyond. I spent most of my time on this floor before finally following the route back down the levels and back outside into the grounds again. I headed next door to the Koko-en gardens, taking my time to walk around before returning to the train station.

 

A little over half-way back to Osaka, I alighted at Sannomiya station from where I’d planned on catching a bus along the road to the start of a hiking trail I was going to follow. I’d just missed the bus so ended up walking a good chunk of it instead, eventually finding myself at a torii gate that marked the start of my route. Following some quiet back streets, the path eventually cut into Nunobiki Park where it led me to Nunobiki Falls. There are various tiers to this waterfall, the most impressive being the upper one which also has the best viewing spot. It was a small viewing area but thankfully it wasn’t too busy so each of us that arrived was generally able to enjoy the sound of the falls in peace. From there it was a gentle walk through the forest following the lower reaches of the river until I found myself at Shin-Kobe station and a route back to Osaka.

 

I had long left the sun behind in Himeji, a bank of clouds welcoming me back to Osaka. Before heading out of the station, I took a quick explore inside, noticing that there was a large floral arrangement on display on the upper floor. It was gorgeous, a sea of colour spanning almost the whole width of the upper mezzanine. Behind here was a large department store which I self-consciously walked around, aware I was a little dishevelled from my earlier walk through the forest. I didn’t hang around for long, aware that I was running out of daylight hours. It was overcast but high cloud when I stepped out of Osaka station, cutting through a business district to reach the Umeda Sky Building. I always love visiting observation decks in large cities as I find it is the best way to get a bit of orientation and perspective when ground level swallows you up in a soup of skyscrapers. This particular one is quite a distinctive building too as there are two buildings joined with what looks like a floating escalator system high above the ground.

 

By now late afternoon broaching onto the evening, I headed up the elevator within the one tower to be greeted by the first of these floating escalators that led me to the far tower. With glass windows, there was no denying how high up I was and I loved looking out at the city as I appeared to float effortlessly higher. Inside there was a good view out over the city and I could see denser and lower clouds move in from the south. This was the start of Typhoon Hagibis which had been all over the news, having tracked in from the south, and having already started to have its effects to the east. This was the second typhoon to hit Japan in the two weeks I was there, the first having hit land some distance away and not having affected me. The country had already made announcements about cancelled flights and closed tourist sites so I knew that the following day, my last day in Japan, was to be an interesting, if not restricted, one. The winds weren’t bad yet, so I was able to get out onto the outside observation deck and enjoy the views outside too as the sky changed colour.

 

I decided I would stay for the sunset and watch the city lights come on. There was no visible sun to watch set but I figured there would still be a bit of a colour change to make it worthwhile. I parked up with a beer at one of the tall windows inside and mulled over what I would do the next day. I watched planes come and go from a nearby regional airport, and then I got moving again as I saw the light dull in the sky. I’d expected to get a bit of colour through the clouds as the sun set but I was blown away with what transpired. The increasingly inclement sky that moved in as the leading front of the typhoon caused the sky to glow purple. I’ve seen a purple sky occasionally before but this was the most incredible sky I’ve ever seen. To the west some reds and yellows appeared through the small breaks in the cloud where the sun was actually setting, and the city lights began to twinkle on and contrast against the deepening purple of the darkening sky. The purple also reflected off the river turning it a divine shade too. No photo could ever do it justice, and unsurprisingly there was a lot of jostling among the gathered crowd for the best spots to take photos from.

 

Eventually the colour faded to black but the hint of the inclement weather was still there due to the immense city lights reflecting upwards into the sky. Although I’m not normally a fan of huge cities, I couldn’t deny the beauty of all the twinkling lights that lit up the Japanese sky. I stayed well beyond sunset and became aware of the wind increasing around me. Slightly stupidly I decided to walk back to Shinsaibashi, a nearly hour long walk through a mostly business district until eventually I hit the covered shopping street again. Despite the potential drama of the impending typhoon, the citizens of Osaka seemed unperturbed and I too nonchalantly headed back to my hotel, 7Eleven dinner in hand, unsure what I was going to wake up to the next day.

 

Arashiyama

It was nearly time to bid farewell to Kyoto, but not before visiting one of its most famous sites. Leaving my Ryokan behind, I joined the locals commuting to school and work at the nearby Umekoji-Kyotonishi station to head to Arashiyama, home of one of the country’s most famous bamboo forests. Like Fushimi-Inari Taisha a couple of days prior, it was a popular destination and whilst the crowds here didn’t quite rival that of the temple, there was still enough people wandering through the streets and forest to make it a tour in dodging people’s camera shots. I’m not completely sure what I was expecting here, but whilst it was a nice place to wander through, it was a little underwhelming for my expectations, and not half as big as I’d expected either. Still, I did make a point of wandering back and forward, crowd dodging and trying to make the most of the awkward lighting that trickled through the bamboo canopy.

 

At the far end of the walk, a junction split towards a Japanese garden and tea house to the right and a bamboo-lined path to Kameyama park to the left. As I walked along the track to the park, I could get right up to the bamboo, looking through the tightly packed forest. It was a little sad to see people had carved their names into the canes, a form of graffiti in nature. As I got closer to the park, a few other trees appeared on the edge of the bamboo grove, and suddenly I found myself at a hilltop and a viewing area overlooking the Katsura river. I’d always planned on taking a wander beyond the bamboo grove, but I ended up loving the rest of my time in Arashiyama a lot more than I did the time in forest itself. It was another stifling hot day but the blue sky and scorching sun belied the weather system that was moving in from the south. Here, there was just lush green hills flanking the broad river below in the valley, and across the far side, I could see a temple breaking through the foliage.

 

Cutting through the park, a series of paths took me down the hillside to the riverbank. The place was buzzing with people walking the promenade by the river while a series of boats chugged up and down the waterway. Surrounded by greenery with the city life feeling far away, I joined the throngs that crossed the river where views upstream were interrupted by a dam creating a small cascade. A lot of people on the far side were there to take river boat rides or visit the monkey park, but I passed them all by, walking along the river bank, leaving the crowds behind and feeling lost amongst the natural world that filled my view. Thick trees grew up the slope to my left, and the river by my right was a stunning green colour. I passed terrapins drying themselves on the river bank, and as a couple of locals punted slowly up the river beside me, I spotted a large egret fishing in the shallows. I sat for a while soaking it all in before starting the slog up the hill to the hidden temple.

 

I took my time in the heat, already sweating, but my attention was soon to be grabbed by a beautiful brown and blue butterfly that landed briefly on the ground. At the top, I was personally welcomed into the temple and pointed towards a lovely hut full of comfy seats and a plethora of historical information and photographs about the history of the place. From the balcony out the front I could just make out the city of Kyoto across the tall trees on the far side of the river. After a brief look around, I headed back down the hill and enjoyed my wander back along the river past more terrapins swimming and sunning themselves, this time with a power boat chugging past me as I walked. The scene that greeted me as I came around the bend in the river was one of a multitude of people enjoying themselves in row boats, the hills behind Kyoto framing the view.

 

I hadn’t originally planned on visiting the monkey park as there was a fee to enter, but having not seen any macaques whilst up in the temple, I decided to visit the Arashiyama monkey park after all. The track started steeply through the forest, with many people struggling in the heat and with the incline. At one point whilst deep in the forest I was shocked to come across a crab walking across the path. Despite around two weeks in the country by this stage, and an awful lot of walking, I hadn’t at all acclimatised to the heat and I too was tired getting up to the upper area. But it was worth it to spot some Japanese macaques hanging out around the trees. This was no zoo. The macaques were free to come and go as they pleased, and despite the crowds of people around this upper level, most of them didn’t seem to care, simply going about their business, be it sleeping, grooming or fighting with each other. There was a variety of ages too, with youngsters chasing each other in play and adults asserting their dominance to the others. At the top of the final flight of stairs to the viewing area, a female breastfed her baby, neither giving a damn about the chain of people waltzing past and taking photos of them as they went.

 

The view at the top was incredible. Never mind the monkeys walking about, I could see most of Kyoto from here, neatly nestled among a horseshoe of green-covered mountains. After standing there for a moment soaking it all in, I turned round and realised that a young baby was sitting relatively close by, munching on some food in solitude in a patch of shade. I might not think much of human babies, but baby animals are adorable, no matter what the species. Baby monkeys are no exception. At the back of the area was a water hole and a building that people could go into to buy monkey food to feed the macaques in a sort of reverse zoo where the monkeys were free roaming and the humans were behind bars. It was a popular activity but one that I didn’t agree with as I feel the animals should remain wild and not be allowed to habituate to people or associate them with an easy meal. Behind here, a path led up to a higher area with another perspective of the park and Kyoto beyond.

 

As I stood at the top a monkey family appeared nearby, the youngster pausing to pull some leaves, a mutual stare exchanging between us. Below me, a couple of macaques ran across the roof of the building while others drank from the water hole. I meandered among them, slowly walking down through the upper trails with youngsters running above me and to my side. A steady stream of people arrived as I begrudgingly left the place behind, winding my way back down the hillside and back to the river, boats continuing to plough their way across the water as I returned. A sign for happy hour tempura and beer caught my attention, and my rumbling stomach lured me inside for some much needed sustenance. By the time I re-emerged from the cafe, a bank of clouds had moved in from the south, the leading edge of a typhoon that was due to hit shore in a couple of days.

 

The streets of Arashiyama were as much a delight as the nature had been. Very much geared towards tourists, I didn’t really care as I wandered among boutique shops and a plethora of stores selling anything from Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli souvenirs to kimonos and artisan wares. A large Miffy statue grabbed my attention to a Miffy-themed bakery where I partook in a pastry and cake washed down with a hot drink served in a Miffy cup. I wandered past animal cafes, a side of Japan I wasn’t a fan of, jostling the thick crowds on the pavement until the end of the shops denoted the place to catch the bus to my last Kyoto destination. The huge queue at the bus stop left me wondering if I’d actually have any luck getting on a bus, and this was one of the few times the bus was exceptionally late in turning up. When it did, it was already quite full, but I was able to squeeze on, eventually reaching a small bus interchange in the middle of nowhere where we all had to bundle off and join another huge queue, impatiently waiting before yet another squeeze onto another tightly packed bus.

The crowds at Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famous golden temple were suffocating. A brief walk upon entering the grounds led to the south edge of Kyoko-chi pond across which stood the temple. As brilliant as the golden facade was, it was a jostling match here as people pushed and shoved to get the photograph that makes the place famous, with the reflection of the temple in the pond’s water. It was sad to see tourism ruin a place like this and I ended up hating the place simply because of the horrendous crowd here. When I was in Samoa earlier in 2019, I had been astonished to be asked to move at a swimming hole where I was relaxing because I was ruining the aesthetic of someone else’s posed Instagram photo. Here, several months later in Japan, I couldn’t believe it when people obnoxiously asked others to move despite the lack of free space, just so they could pose for a photo without other people in it. This is definitely the side of mass tourism that I hate. I snapped a few quick photos as the mass of people swept me along, literally being unable to stop at times due to the group movement along the trail.

 

Having had enough, I headed back to my ryokan to collect my luggage before walking the familiar route to Kyoto station. Just half an hour away is the city of Osaka, one which seems to leave such mixed opinions amongst tourists. Stepping out of the underground station at Shinsaibashi I could have been forgiven for thinking I was in America. The large gridded streets were lined by designer stores, and it felt a little disorientating as I cut through the streets to my hotel. I’d stayed in a variety of accommodation, but my last 3 nights in the country were to be spent in a capsule hotel. The lobby area was deceptive, but when I stepped out on my floor, I was met by a row of capsules, with no natural light whatsoever. Nonetheless I was excited to experience my little pod, which was a gorgeous little spot with a mattress bed. I laughed to myself when I opened the door to the bathroom to be greeted by a motion sensor toilet lid that opened up to greet me. Japan was still surprising and entertaining me and the delights of Osaka awaited.

Kurama to Kibune

A short trip to the north of Kyoto brought me to one very angry face. As was often the case, the meaning was lost in translation, or rather there was no translation. Upon exiting the station at the small township of Kurama, I was met by a giant red head with a giant red nose, and was left a little bemused and bewildered by it. As unwelcoming as it seemed, Kurama was a lovely little quiet hamlet nestled among the trees and it was only a short walk around the corner to the entrance to the Kurama-dera temple where my hike was to begin. There had been several people get off the train with me with the same purpose in mind, but it didn’t take long to feel quite alone here and that was just how I liked it.

 

I ignored the cable car, opting to walk the entire route, and early on the trail through the property led up the hillside. The various shrines were an unusual shade of orange, almost bordering on peach, and every few steps in the lower portion were wooden torii gates marking the entrances to prayer areas or the next part of the trail. Snaking up the hillside, I passed an unusual sculpture known as the Monument of ‘Inochi’ which was close to the path leading to where the cable car stops. Beyond here, a series of steps led up the next section of the mountainside, lined with pretty vermillion lanterns. Like every day before, it was so hot and once again I was sweating buckets as I made my way through the trees. As the altitude continued to gain, a few breaks in the trees started to offer a little view out across the nearby tree-covered hillsides. Kyoto was not that far away but it might as well have been, as it felt so utterly natural and secluded there out in the forest.

 

The views eventually started to include rolling mountain tops further away and as I reached the flatness of the grounds of the main part of the temple, a bird of prey was spotted circling above me. The buildings were once again a peach-hued orange colour and statues abounded across the grounds. It was peaceful here, the perfect place to build a place of prayer. I set off back into the forest again and came across a giant bell which encouraged a prayer and then a ringing of the bell. I am not religious but it is not difficult to be overwhelmed by the serenity of many religious sites, so whilst I do not pray, I made an affirmation and rang the bell, the low drone echoing out into the trees.

 

At the summit, a gnarl of tree roots could be walked amongst before the trail started to descend past more Buddhist temples, eventually leading me down to another hamlet, Kibune. This place was adorable, the old-style buildings so charming. At the far end was Kibune shrine, another impressive-looking building guarded by vermillion lanterns and torii gates. At the top part of the shrine, there was a waterway where for a small fee you could purchase a prediction, a fortune that would be revealed in the water. It was a novelty but I took part, the water revealing the Japanese lettering, and a QR-code that took me to an English translation. At the time of visiting in October 2019, it was a little depressing to read and I dismissed it out of my head, but during the first COVID lockdown of 2020, I happened across the screenshot I’d captured of the translation and was dumbfounded. My future prediction read: ‘SICKNESS: Heavy sickness, have faith; DIRECTION:  Fortune favours all to the south; TRAVEL: You should practice restraint; STUDY: You are advised to calm your mind and study; BUSINESS: It may suddenly get worse; MOVING RESIDENCE: Postpone your move’. 3 months after my return home from Japan, COVID emerged and within a couple of months it was a pandemic, my country was in lockdown, and my trip home to see my family in Scotland had been cancelled. We have been exceptionally fortunate in New Zealand, down here in the Southern Hemisphere, and have escaped the worst of the mismanagement and farce that has befallen other countries, but still, many businesses have had to fold. As a result of not being able to travel abroad for the foreseeable future, I made the decision to return to university and get a post-graduate qualification. I also decided to buy a house but have been unable to due to a surge in the market. It was rather spooky to re-find this fortune and read it again with everything that happened over the first half of 2020.

 

After grabbing an early lunch in a deserted eatery, I walked back through Kibune and followed the course of the Kibune river as it flowed downhill, eventually bringing me to the Kibuneguchi train station at the confluence of the Kibune and Anba rivers. A bit of transport-hopping brought me to Ginkakujicho where I followed the Philosopher’s path (Tetsugaku no michi) south through the beautiful neighbourhoods. It skirted past many shrines, distinctive houses and some lovely artisan shops. There are simply so many temples and shrines around Japan, and with so many to visit, I had done some reading to pick a few that would hold my attention. Despite the heat, I followed the path for some distance before eventually arriving at Eikando Temple.

 

It was early autumn so there was the very start of some autumnal colours as I wandered round the grounds. At the back of the complex, some steps led up to a building from which there was a view across the rooftops of the nearby suburbs. The temple itself was simple and I was bemused by the sign warning about roaming monkeys, but it was the garden that captured my attention with a central group of ponds and a gorgeous butterfly that sunned itself on the stones at one end of the complex. As I walked around the ponds, I spotted a grey heron perched atop one of the trees, and with the sun casting down onto the water, the foliage was reflected on the still water. I’d seen photos of this place in full autumn changeover and can only imagine how stunning the place would have been in a few more weeks.

 

South from here was the grand Nanzenji Temple and the nearby Suirokaku water bridge. The crowds here were notable and the various trails around the concourse, as well as into the surrounding forest were busy with people posing for photos at every turn. The water bridge was impressive and so unexpected and the forest was lush but a little oppressive in the heat. Trails led up into the mountains but I went as far as a small waterfall before returning. Back in the temple grounds I went up to the viewing platform above the entrance gate where there was a view over the nearby temple and suburbs. The sun was already dropping low and I was keen to move on to my next destination before it got dark.

The sun was really low by the time I made it up to the viewing deck of the Kyoto Tower. The space here was cramped and the crowds increased as the sun set making for a rather unpleasant experience being shoved and squashed or blocked from being able to see as the light changed and the city lights came on. Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is compact but it’s surrounded by mountains making for a beautiful setting. With the tower next to Kyoto station, I could watch the shinkansen come and go, zooming through the city as they left and entered. The crowds within the tower got no better so once the lights had gone out of the sky and it was fully dark, I headed down through the market at the base and into the station in search of dinner.

 

There was a light display on the steps as I headed up to one of the food courts where I squeezed into a small space inside a ramen house for some delicious food. Afterwards, I joined the gathering crowds at the bottom of the steps to watch the display which moved through Hallowe’en-themed images, traditional images, and tourist adverts as people ran up and down, posing for photos. I stayed through several cycles, enjoying the atmosphere before my weary legs dragged me back to my ryokan and a much-needed lie down.

A Walking Tour of Kyoto

It’s always hard to get your bearings when you arrive in a new place in darkness. By the time I arrived in Kyoto following my day hiking the Nakasendo, it was night time and with the early sunset, I had stepped out of Kyoto’s main train station into the dark of the night and almost immediately been faced with the bright glow of the Kyoto tower. As with Nagoya the night before, I had booked my accommodation at a place that on a map looked close enough, but in reality with my 10kg backpack on my back and tired legs, was further away than I’d wished for. Again I felt like I was disappearing into a non-descript part of the city but after 10 minutes I finally arrived at the cute little ryokan that was to be my home for the next few nights. After settling into my morgue-like hole in the wall where my mattress was, I headed out to get a much needed dinner. I was able to grab the last spot in a hip-looking bar-restaurant and asked for the chef’s recommendation. Out popped a plate of tasting skewers which I followed up with some Japanese style nachos. Satiated and tired, I headed back for a much-needed sleep ahead of a full day in the city.

I awoke to a bustling Kyoto and made my way to Kyoto station to jump on the JR line to Inari. The packed train should have given it away but when I reached my stop, there was a swarm of people on the platform making their way outside. I had read that it was best to get here early to beat the crowds but I had needed my sleep, so even although it was just after 9am, the place was mobbed. And with good reason. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is one of Kyoto’s most famous and most visited sights. I’d seen hundreds of photos of the famous vermillion torii gates that the place is famous for, but hadn’t really appreciated the extent of the place. Up an initial walkway, I was presented with a huge multi-story vermillion shrine beyond which were more similarly-styled traditional buildings. I was surprised on looking at a map just past there to find that the torii gates actually snaked all the way up a mountain and down again. I wasn’t completely sure that I had time to walk the entire route given everything else I wanted to see, especially as there was a queue just to get into the avenue of gates as so many people were already getting a head start on their Instagram photos by posing right at the entrance.

In the first avenue, walking was very much stop start as people kept abruptly stopping in front of you to pose for a photograph. The crowds here were a little irksome but thankfully the higher I went, the more the crowds dispersed. A decent proportion of the visitors were only walking the lower sections. In part this was because it had started to rain, and as I reached one of the level areas with one of the many shrines, the rain started bucketing down like a tropical storm and I was forced to wait under the tree foliage until it eased off a little. I still got quite wet climbing up to a lookout area where I could just make out the nearby suburbs of Kyoto through the mist. I’d already decided by this point that I was going to continue the whole loop, and as I continued to climb higher, eventually reaching the shrine at the summit, the gentle rain and the lack of people in this upper section meant it was a very peaceful place to be.

 

The trail plateaued for a little while, arcing round near the summit before starting a descent through another route. The drizzle continued as I walked but it was still a lovely place to walk through with the forest thicker and more natural on this side. There were also a few route options on the way down and I took a detour at one point to take a longer way down, eventually coming out at yet another shrine where I stopped for a matcha ice cream whilst watching some feral cats wander around. Finally the rain ceased and I was able to get out of my rain jacket which I was sweating in, and continue down the slope in a more comfortable fashion. Eventually circling back to the city view point I could see Kyoto a bit better now than I had on the way up so I paused a little to absorb the view.

 

I took an alternative route down, and at one of the lower shrines I bought a prayer cat, a small ceramic white cat that contained a prayer or fortune. There was a nice bonsai garden here, and after a brief look around, a short descent brought me to a side street with a cute little cafe where I stopped for a delicious lunch. Back through the main shrine at the bottom, I took a side street and found myself in a bustling market area where street vendors cooked fresh food and cute little shops sold all sorts of souvenirs. I was in heaven walking around shops full of Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli souvenirs and the food looked and smelled delicious. Despite not being overly hungry, I bought a scrumptious sugary dough snack to indulge in as I walked around. By now a little after mid-day, it was time to head back to the city centre.

Kyoto station is a destination in itself. The building itself is grand but sticking only to the platforms misses the majority of its charms and nooks which are spread across the upper floors. From the main concourse I took the multi-leveled escalators up to the eastern end where there was a giant Lego version of the station and a few pieces of interactive artwork. The view out the window was straight across to the Kyoto Tower and nearby, a ‘floating’ walkway led all the way over to the western end of the station where the roof stopped and stairs led up to a rooftop garden and viewing area. It was still very overcast with the occasional drizzle stopping and starting but the architecture of the station building itself was the star of the show here with crazy arched roof sections and multiple levels leading down into the station proper.

North of the station and a relatively short walk past the Kyoto Tower was the Higashi-Honganji Temple. This huge brown temple was one of the biggest I’d seen so far in Japan and although a few coachloads appeared as I arrived, the concourse was so vast it didn’t feel crowded in the slightest. Unfortunately the rain came back heavy again and I had to stand under the shelter by the cleansing fountain until it passed. This fountain was stunningly ornate and as is often the case, was in the form of a dragon. I’d already seen several dragon fountains on my travels but this one was the most beautiful. The temple itself didn’t hold my attention for long so once the rain finally eased enough to move onwards, I left the grounds behind and followed the perimeter wall north and then west.

 

A few blocks over and across a main road was Ryukokuzan Hongan-Ji-Nishi-Hongan-Ji Temple, another huge and dark brown elongated building within another elaborate wall. I didn’t stay here for long, just enough to take in the buildings and the grounds before heading north. I should have caught a bus, but I stubbornly opted to walk what turned out to be a rather long way with tired legs. I followed the side of the main road heading for Nijo Castle, but I got sidetracked by an enclosed market that spread for several blocks away from where I was heading. I found a delicious donut stall that sold creme brulee donuts, and enjoyed having a nosy at the shops and their wares as well as the various food stalls.

As it transpired, by the time I limped my way to Nijo castle which was another couple of blocks to the north, there was only half an hour until its rather early closure of 4pm, and I had just made it to gain the last entry slot of the day. A giant gold-guilded entry gate greeted me into the complex where the large exterior of the palace building stood dramatically in front of me. Inside, I walked the halls around the palace rooms, so very different to any European palace I’d ever visited. The pictures on the walls were intricate and exquisite, the styles varying dependent on the intended use or occupant for the room. Outside, the gardens looped past a series of ponds before crossing a broad moat to the Honmaru Palace which was sadly under industrial wraps as it was being restored. Within the compound though it was possible to climb up the tall and thick stone wall to get a raised view over the area. The masonry was incredible, the stonework tightly packed to form imposing defensive structures. Once across the moat once more, the trail circled back around the northern aspect of the premises, following the moat past a series of gardens to reach the entrance in time for closure.

 

The sun was getting low as I stepped out the station and made my way into the Gion district. I had a recommended walking route on my phone to catch the highlights, and I passed the little blue post office and distinctive facade of a large theatre before joining the immense crowds that were squeezing their way along the busy sidewalks. The main street was a mass of eateries and souvenir shops, with geisha-themed objects on display everywhere and people littering the margins taking photographs of everything and anything. It was an assault on the senses. I, like so many others, turned onto the historic street of Hanamikoji which was lined with traditional buildings. I eyed up the menus as I went, sussing out my dinner spot for later. Near the bottom end of the street was another huge and ornate theatre, beyond which I cut up another road to Yasui Konpiragu shrine where there is a large wishing stone, before heading back down and into the larger Kenninji temple. It was really beginning to darken now as I wandered round the grounds here. The sun had set and the remaining light was turning the sky purple. Little twinkling lights lit up a myriad of lanterns and the bugs began to come out.

 

Night brought a desire to eat, and I’d found the perfect place to circle back to where I had an awesome platter of yakatori, tempura and miso soup, all washed down with an Asahi beer. I love tempura and hadn’t had much of it yet on my travels, so it was a nice change. Once full, it was time to brave the Gion crowds again as I headed back to the main street. I followed the canal for a while before sticking to the main street, popping into sweet shops to get some local delicacies for later. Finally I reached Yasaka shrine which even in the darkness was a very bright orange colour. The grounds were open to wander through even at night, and there were plenty of lanterns lighting up the place. I spotted the moon shining brightly above one of the buildings at the same time as a Japanese man did. I waited patiently as he got his wife to pose whilst he took some photographs of her standing next to the orange building below the moon. He approached me and asked if I could take a photo of both of them to which I agreed. He lined it up and asked me to replicate which I did and then I did my usual thing when I’m asked to take photos of people, which is to take a couple of extra ones framed differently so they have choice. But the minute I started to do this, the guy started yelling at me, complaining that it wasn’t the view he wanted and insisting that I only took the framing he’d requested. I was both bemused and dumbfounded. I’ve never been told off before when doing a favour of playing photographer, and I sheepishly handed the camera back and waited for them to leave before I could take my own photos.

 

Despite my aching feet, I walked all the way back down Gion’s main street and across the broad Kamo river to reach Poncho Alley. A back street filled with eateries, and more traditional buildings, it took only a few minutes to walk the length of it. As I had already eaten, there was little more to hold me here, so I decided it was time to head back to my ryokan. As I walked past the large shopping malls, I was tempted by a beautiful little patisserie, grabbing a delicious chocolate dessert to take back with me.

I was frustrated at how long it took for my bus to arrive. The transport system in Japan is generally faultless but my tired body just wanted to collapse in a heap. When finally it deposited me close to my accommodation and I dragged myself into the ryokan, it was over 12hrs since I’d left it that morning. Every single day of my time in Japan I’d walked so much. Even with exceptionally comfortable trainers, the heat and amount of walking was leaving me with swollen painful legs and feet that were barely better by the morning. As I lay my head on my mattress, the throbbing was intense, but yet again I had a full day of walking ahead of me the next day.

The Nakasendō

Japan’s Nakasendō is an ancient route that leads inland between Tokyo and Kyoto, used during the Edo period (17th-19th C.). 中山道 in Japanese, the three symbols literally say central mountain route, and when I first read about this route, and in particular the section between the mountain villages of Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku, I knew that this was a must-do for me during my time in Japan. Away from city hubs, nestled quite far inland, I had originally planned on tackling this from Tokyo, but with research realised that it was much easier to get to from Nagoya. So having jumped off the Shinkansen there on route to Kyoto, I arose early to retrace my steps back to Nagoya train station and negotiate the rabbit warren that all major Japanese train stations are, to find a baggage locker to dump by backpack, and then the correct platform to take the train to Nakutsagawa in the Gifu prefecture.

 

It didn’t take long to leave the city behind and for a large part of the nearly 1hr train trip I was riding through a mix of Japanese countryside and small settlements. Passing arable land and crossing rivers, eventually it pulled in to the small city of Nakatsugawa and outside the train station was the bus stand to catch the mountain bus to Magome and the start of the hike. A decent crowd waited for the bus and once on board it was a half an hour trip out the back of the city and up a winding mountain road. Eventually, I was at the beginning of what transpired to be my favourite hike and one of my favourite days in Japan. Magome was a cute little settlement full of traditional buildings and looking down over arable fields. The Nakasendō was originally serviced by sixty-nine stations or post-towns of which Magome is the 43rd and Tsumago the 42nd. Out here I felt so far away from the hubbub of city life and walking around the main streets I felt like I was in a classic Japanese story.

Up the initial slope and round the first corner I found a water wheel and a continuation of beautiful wooden buildings at the side of a brick pathway. With a little height I could start to see the surrounding mountain tops which were partially hidden by swirling clouds. Further along the road were little eateries and the local post office and as I passed the tourist information kiosk I was surprised to see a warning sign for bears. During my research for hikes in Japan, everything had suggested that bears were much further north and at no point had I expected to have to give them a thought on my trip, but suddenly it twigged why many of the locals I’d seen hiking on my previous hikes had had little bells attached to their backpacks. I’ve had such a sheltered hiking life. I have hiked in bear country before in the Rocky Mountains of Canada many moons ago, and I do keep a side eye out for snakes whenever I hike in Australia, but the vast majority of my hiking has been in New Zealand where nothing there wants to kill you and eat you, or in Scotland where all you have to do is a tick check at the end of the day. I felt a little unprepared to be in bear country but it was such a busy trail that I doubt there was ever one even close to me.

 

The trail through Magome led higher and higher past more and more cute little businesses until finally it reached a lookout. The post-town disappeared down the slope below me and I had a nice view across to the cloud-covered mountain tops, and from here at last, I was heading out into the relative wilderness for the nearly 8km walk to Tsumago over the mountain. Past arable fields and giant spiders, the stone trail led down then up and into the forest. When it broke out at a main road I saw a bell on a post which I soon discovered was a bear bell. There were enough people on the trail to make the use of it unnecessary and despite how much it would have been great to actually see a bear in the wild (safely), I took great enjoyment out of ringing every single bear bell on the trail (which considering there was one every half km or so, was a lot).

 

After a brief forest section, the trail again crossed the mountain road further along and I chuckled as I came across a sign welcoming walkers into somebody’s garden whilst also suggesting it wasn’t much to look at. I opted to skip the garden like everyone else that passed at the same time, and from here the trail cut through a small mountain village, with scattered homes across the hillside. At the far end was a small shrine, the entrance marked by a stone torii gate. Deeper into the forest and once more across the mountain road where the highest point on the trail was passed, a clearing in the forest revealed a large traditional building that on closer inspection was a tea house. The sign outside said it was free and I, like several other walkers, popped inside. It was dim and smoky and made me think of historic movies I’d seen. Over an open fireplace hung a large cauldron and a lovely man served us all green tea with the biggest smile and welcome.