While I had the opportunity to visit Dunhuang and the Mogao caves, there’s so much left to Gansu that I still haven’t explored.
When I saw that incredible, off the beaten path blogger Cara from Crawford Creations, spent a significant amount of time traveling around Gansu, I knew I needed to get her to write about her experience for all of you.
The Best Off the Beaten Path Adventures in Gansu
The following is a guest post from Cara of Crawford Creations
If you’re looking to truly get off the beaten path, experience a melting pot of cultures, and see some of the world’s most unique landscapes, man has Gansu has got you covered. From incredible natural wonders to ancient temples, Gansu is China’s best-kept secret when it comes to sheer variety of off the beaten path experiences.
Gansu Province forms a narrow corridor in northwestern China. With climates ranging from sandy desert to lush grasslands, Gansu may very well be China’s most geographically diverse province.
Historically the northwestern most boundary of China, Gansu formed a link between ancient China, the Middle East, and the West. Travelers along the Silk Road entered China through Gansu Province, before ending their journey in neighboring Xi’an.
Lying at the crossroads between, Han, Tibetan, and Hui (Muslim) China, the culture, much like the geography, in Gansu is incredibly diverse. Gansu Province is home to ancient relics from all three cultural groups, a rare mismatch of treasures to explore in one place.
Out of all the amazing places I’ve visited in China (and the world), and there are many, Gansu without a doubt shoots straight to the top of my list of coolest trips I’ve ever taken. It is so insanely unique there were times I literally thought I was on another planet.
Here are some of the best “pinch me because I can’t believe this is real” things to do in Gansu Province.
1. Seven Color Danxia (Rainbow Mountains)
Talk about a childhood dream come true. Did you ever think that rainbow mountains were a real thing?! Because I didn’t until I saw photos of these mountains in China that were literally rainbow colored. It turns out, rainbow mountains do exist outside of a Dr. Suess book! And you can find them tucked inside of Zhangye Danxia National Geopark in Gansu Province, China.
These incredible rainbow striped mountains formed over millions of years of erosion of the area’s mineral-rich soil. As the mineral-laden sand and mudstone rock eroded it essentially created what looks like natural sand art. Each mineral layer tints the soil a different color forming rainbow colored stripes.
The result is an entire area of barren hills that have been transformed into the world’s most epic canvas. If you’ve never thought of nature as an artist before, you will now. Viewing the Rainbow Mountains from the park’s 5 viewing platforms as an absolutely breathtaking experience.
To be honest I was a bit worried that the Rainbow Mountains wouldn’t hold up to my expectations after two years of eagerly anticipating getting to see this place with my own eyes. Spoiler alert, they totally held up. The Rainbow Mountains were every bit as epic as I expected them to be.
If you’re a photographer, you’re going to love this place. And if you’re not a photographer, well, you’re still going to love this place. Promise.
2. Binggou Danxia (Ice Valley)
Binggou Danxia is actually the sister park of the Rainbow Mountains. Both Binggou and the Seven Color Danxia fall under the umbrella of Zhangye Danxia National Geopark. Unfortunately, you still need to buy a ticket for each one. It’s a bummer, but totally worth it.
Binggou Danxia is like the underrated younger sister of the Rainbow Mountains. Completely overshadowed by the Rainbow Mountains, but is actually super awesome in its own right.
I guess it’s because it doesn’t have any flashy colors. But it makes up for it with the most incredible rock formations and nature made sculptures I have ever seen. It’s two most famous sculptures are a giant camel and the Louvre. There are thousands of other rock formations, all which are rather phallic in nature. Mother earth was feeling frisky I guess.
Binggou’s geography is similar to that of its sister park, but without with colorful minerals. You’ll see some pink and white stripes, but most of the formations are a red-orange colored rock.
The neighboring Qilian Mountain Range can be seen from the viewing platforms built on various hilltops throughout the park. Their snow-covered peaks make for a beautiful dramatic backdrop to Binggou’s red danxia formations.
I absolutely loved exploring all the hiking paths and hilltop views around Binggou Danxia Geopark. This place can totally hold its own against the Rainbow Mountains. I have no idea why it doesn’t have any acclaim or garner much attention because Binggou totally deserves it. Unlike the Rainbow Mountains, I had no idea what to expect when I went there, but it totally blew me away with its awesomeness.
3. Mati Temple (Horse Hoof Temple)
Mati Temple is a 1600+ year-old Buddhist temple carved into the cliffside of a legendary holy mountain. It’s less of a temple in the traditional sense and more of a labyrinth of interconnected caves winding seven stories up the mountain.
Each of the 21 grottos that make up the temple function as prayer rooms with statues of Buddhist Gods and traditional decorations adorning each enclosure. Every grotto inside the temple is unique, and the collection of caves is home to 200 different Buddha statues carved throughout hundreds of years.
The 60-meter tall temple was carved in the shape of a pagoda, after, legend has it, a horse touched down from the heavens and left its hoofprint in the mountain. Hence the name, Horse Hoof Temple (Mati means horse hoof in Chinese).
Mati Temple resides in the Mati Temple Scenic Area located in Su’nan County, where Mati Temple is just the biggest of 4 different temples available for exploration including Thousand Buddhas Temple, King Gesar’s Palace, and the Pagoda Forest. You do need to buy an additional ticket to see the Thousand Buddhas Temple, but it’s pretty cheap.
There’s also a beautiful 3 km hike to a waterfall that starts just up the road from Mati Temple. During peak season they offer horseback rides to the waterfall as well (for an additional fee of course) as an added experience or if you don’t want to walk.
Mati Temple was another awesome surprise with just how incredible, fascinating, and fun it was to explore all the different temples and the surrounding scenic area. We had such a blast climbing through all the tunnels and caves carved into the cliffs. It’s not every day you get to climb through a temple built inside of a mountain!
4. Pingshanhu Grand Canyon
Often referred to as China’s Colorado Canyon, the 156 square kilometer Pingshanhu Grand Canyon is the largest canyon of its kind in China. It’s jaw-dropping to behold, and even more exciting to explore up close.
Pingshanhu Grand Canyon is a maze of red sandstone walls and pillars that stretch out as far as the eye can see. The canyon is one of China’s newest parks, having just opened to the public in 2014. Of the 156 square kilometers, only two paths have been made available for tourists to explore so far. One at the rim of the canyon with beautiful views from above, and one hiking path that makes a U inside of the canyon.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive here from the nearest city of Zhangye over some bumpy dirt roads (they’re working on building a highway), but it’s totally worth the trip. The 360-degree canyon views are incredible, and the hike around the canyon floor and back up through a narrow slot canyon and giant ladder was unreal. A truly amazing experience.
And to top it all off, there were camels hanging out along the side of the road by the park. Our driver thought we were crazy when we wanted to stop and take photos of them, but he obliged. Crazy tourists party of two.
5. Overhanging Great Wall of China
So remember when I said that Gansu used to mark the northwestern border of China? Well, the entire northern border of China is where the Great Wall was built, so guess what, you can see the Great Wall of China in Gansu Province!
The westernmost end of the Great Wall of China lies in the city of Jiayuguan. This section of the Great Wall is called the Overhanging Wall because instead of forming a single line, it branches out over the surrounding mountains like a web, ending abruptly once it reaches the mountain peaks.
The Jiayuguan Great Wall looks strikingly different from the wall most people have seen photos of in Beijing. Instead of grey stone, it’s constructed of yellow brick, made from the surrounding desert sand. The yellow wall blends in remarkably well with its surroundings, a feature that was most certainly a deliberate way to give China an advantage in protecting its border from enemies.
Like most of the Great Wall seen today, the Overhanging Great Wall in Jiayuguan was constructed during the Ming Dynasty. While there are many branches, both restored and unrestored of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan, only one of them is open for tourists to walk on.
The walk along the 750 meter long Overhanging Wall requires climbing 400 steps to the top of the mountain. The view from the top is a clash of ancient history with modern industry as factory smokestacks dot the surrounding landscape.
6. Wenshu Grottos
On our last day in Gansu Province, I asked our taxi driver to take us to a cool local spot outside of Jiayuguan city. We had already seen everything Great Wall related and I wanted to see something different, so I gave him the reins off we went, driving towards the mountains.
Granted, this could’ve gone horribly wrong. I don’t entirely trust the Chinese definition of “cool”, but luckily for us, it ended up being a really awesome experience. Our driver totally delivered and we ended up driving 45 minutes outside of the city to the Wenshu Grottos.
The Wenshu Grottos is basically a village of old temples and caves built on the mountainside. There are literally so many caves and grottos in the mountain that it’s basically an engineering miracle that the thing hasn’t collapsed in on itself. Literally, if you climb in one hole in the mountain you’ll see all these tunnels branching off of it that end at other caves, and this goes on throughout the entire mountainside.
I wouldn’t recommend actually climbing in these tunnels because the sandstone soil is super fragile and you can break through it really easily. You can tell that a lot of the tunnels have already collapsed. Definitely take a look though, it’s really cool how many of the mountains around Gansu Province are just pockmarked with ancient grottos.
Your ticket to see the Great Wall in Jiayuguan actually includes three different wall related attractions: The Overhanging Great Wall, Jiayuguan Fort, and the First Outpost of the Great Wall. So, whichever stop you head to first, buy a ticket, and then you’re good to go for the other two as well.
Jiayuguan Fort is located just on the outskirts of Jiayuguan city. The fort itself has been totally restored, but the surrounding wall leading into it is completely untouched. It’s so eroded that at this point it just looks like a pile of dirt stretching out into the distance.
The fort has two levels, ground level, and a walkway up on top of the wall where all the watchtowers are. In the middle of the fort, they’ve got some cannons and traditional games set up you can take part in if you really want to get the full tourist experience. We weren’t about it.
I think the coolest thing about exploring Jiayuguan Fort was just seeing the contrast between the fort, perfectly restored to its former glory, and the dilapidated old wall left to slowly weather away shrinking ever smaller and less great by the day.
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If there was one piece of advice I heard over and over when planning my trip to Japan, it was “stay in a ryokan!!!”
After hiking through Japan’s Kumano Kodo Iseji route for two weeks, I became obsessed with the traditional Japanese ryokan guesthouse. I loved sleeping on a futon laid on a tatami mat floor and soaking in a large tub or onsen every night. The incredible food and family atmosphere was so great that I didn’t even mind shuffling along a cold hallway in the middle of the night to use the communal toilet.
When it came time for my trip to Tokyo, I knew I wanted to stay someplace a bit different. Who needs a generic hotel when you can have your own modern Tokyo Ryokan experience?
That’s when I found Andon Ryokan.
Have you slept on a tatami mat floor?
Andon Ryokan: A Blend of Old and New
Andon Ryokan is the perfect combination of Japan’s traditional ryokan guesthouses and all of the modern conveniences you might find in a friendly hostel, along with the architecture and styling of a boutique hotel.
Andon Ryokan definitely lives up to the incredible traditions of the ryokans I experienced in Mie Prefecture. You’ll sleep on a futon laid out on your tatami mat floor, and you’re given the world’s most comfortable slippers to wear around inside. (Seriously, where can I buy these?!)
Just like a traditional ryokan, Andon Ryokan will serve you a delicious breakfast. However, in addition to the Japanese set breakfast, you can also order Western favorites like eggs and bacon or french toast! I had two breakfasts while I stayed at Andon, and both were delicious.
Andon Ryokan even has its own onsen on the top floor. But rather than a traditional onsen, Andon has a jacuzzi!
Next to the jacuzzi is a shower where you can follow the Japanese custom of cleaning yourself before entering the onsen. Then you can soak in the nude to your heart’s content.
Andon Ryokan knows that many international guests aren’t so comfortable with public nudity, so they developed a booking system for the onsen. Just sign up your name and room number and you can have the onsen all to yourself for 30 minutes! It may not seem like a long time, but in that hot water 30 minutes is definitely enough.
After weeks of having to split up for our onsen time, I really loved the fact that Chris and I could actually soak in an onsen together for once.
Usually, the onsen finishes up about 10 pm, but on the weekends this jacuzzi stays open past midnight, making it the perfect way to end your day. The best part? It’s completely free if you’re staying at Andon.
Sign up for one of their courses!
The Conveniences of a Hostel
One thing I absolutely love about hostels is their affordable community activities. Andon Ryokan’s lobby is full of posters detailing sake tasting, origami courses, calligraphy classes, and more. If you’re a solo traveler, or you’re looking for something to do or a good way to meet people, Andon’s events are actually really affordable and are offered almost every day!
Andon Ryokan has great community spirit. Travelers of all ages congregate in the lobby area where you can treat yourself to complimentary coffee and green tea. At breakfast we were surrounded by other travelers, chatting about their Tokyo adventures.
Here you can also purchase very affordable passes for both the metro and the bus system. We purchased a 3-day metro pass and used it religiously every day.
Boutique Hotel Art and Design
Andon Ryokan is more than just a traditional ryokan. The entire property has a unique design, with metal accents, art installations in the stairwell, hand-made comic books attached near the toilets, paintings on the bathroom walls, and a funky hot tub room design.
I really loved how in this ryokan, old meets new in every single aspect. You might sleep on a tatami mat floor, but the window and shelves in your room are all made of futuristic industrial metal.
One interesting fact we learned while staying here is that Andon means “lantern” in Japanese. Because of this, the entire ryokan is dimly lit with interesting light accents. In this way, the rooms are supposed to look as if they’re lit by lanterns just outside.
A cool design is something you just don’t see in Tokyo’s budget hotels, which is why I was so impressed that Andon managed to incorporate this while also offering affordable accommodation.
Andon Ryokan’s Beautiful Rooftop
While I didn’t spend much time on Andon’s rooftop considering it was December, I did go up and have a look on my last day. Wow, is this rooftop stunning.
On the very top of Andon Ryokan, you can have your breakfast with a view. Here you’ll look out over all of Ueno with a perfect view of the Tokyo Skytree. While you do have to climb a pretty precarious set of ladder stairs to get up there, the views are something you definitely can’t miss.
I spent a lot of time in this lobby
I absolutely love it when you can get to know the owners of a hotel or hostel. At Andon Ryokan, you’ll definitely spend time chatting with the owner, Aya, who takes the time to help you choose a metro card or learn the bus routes.
From talking with her, you can really tell that she cares a lot about the traditions of Japan and sharing them with international visitors. She negotiates great deals on metro and bus cards for her guests and loves showing off the local neighborhood, right near Asakusa.
While at Andon Ryokan, you’ll also probably meet Aya’s daughter, who cooks a mean breakfast and regularly brings her adorable baby to work. You’ll see her cleaning rooms with her baby asleep on her back, or hanging out in the lobby, letting all of us coo over how cute her daughter is.
Loved the comfy sandals
Andon Ryokan: Bang for Your Buck
Finding an affordable hotel in Tokyo is a struggle. Even hostel dorms can go for $40-$50 a night, and tiny budget hotels are all at least $80-$100 a room.
After a very, very forgettable night in the world’s smallest budget hotel room in Nagoya, Chris and I were looking for something that actually provided a unique experience without costing a month’s salary for a three-night stay.
When we stumbled on Andon Ryokan, we were both very pleasantly surprised. While the rooms are indeed very small (welcome to Tokyo!), this hotel provides all of the conveniences of a fancy hostel, with the traditions and perks of a ryokan, and the design of a boutique hotel. Oh… and a private soak in a jacuzzi?!
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We can all be a victim of our own expectations sometimes, and for me, that was my trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in a nutshell. I had been dreaming about visiting Japan for YEARS, and my bucket list was out of control.
Living in China, I could practically taste Japan it was so close. But every time I tried to buy a ticket, the prices were astronomical due to the Chinese holidays. When I finally had a chance to visit after years and years of dreaming, I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.
The Japan Plan: Mie, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka
My plan was to spend two weeks hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji first and then spend almost three weeks exploring Japan’s most popular tourist cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
I had dreams of geisha spotting in Gyon, hiking Fushimi Inari, wandering around Harajuku, eating my way through Osaka, checking out the Golden Pavillion, munching on conveyor belt sushi, rocking out at the Robot Restaurant, grabbing a drink at Golden Gai and getting drunk food at Piss Alley, petting deer in Nara, exploring Himeiji Castle… you name it.
While I was super excited to visit the touristy side of Japan, I was beyond nervous to spend two-weeks hiking through Mie Prefecture along the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route. I’d never done a long-term hike before, and the idea of a 170 km pilgrimage was more than a little daunting.
At first, I suffered a bit of culture shock, trying to adjust myself to Mie Prefecture’s strict traditional customs. I dove head-first into the waters of Japanese culture, and it definitely took a few days to get used to all of the new traditions. Chris and I joked that we constantly felt like barbarians… bulls in a China Japan shop.
Praying at a Shinto Shrine
Exploring a Different Side of Japan
But after a few days of hiking with our new Japanese friends, we felt like pros!
We learned how to bow appropriately at Shinto shrines, give a proper offering, and how you’re supposed to walk on the edge of the path because the center is reserved for the gods. We learned how to properly wash at an onsen, and how to take off our shoes backward while stepping up onto the clean floor.
We spent every night sleeping on a tatami mat floor and learned how to make the bed ourselves. We memorized countless Japanese phrases and said “konichiwa” and “ohio gozaimas” to everyone we met with a bow.
Locals showing us around Uo-Machi Fishing Village
We ate fresh sashimi, cheap tempura udon, and traditional ryokan breakfasts and dinners. We spent our evenings with ryokan owners who didn’t speak a word of English and rented a few rooms out of their lovely wooden homes. We met the owner of a sake brewery that showed us the farm where he grows his own rice.
We listened to a woman sing a traditional Japanese folk song while sitting on top of a mountain pass with a view of the ocean. We had a Japanese BBQ at a campsite by a crystal-clear river and listened to old records with an Airbnb host in his tiny speakeasy attic room.
In short, we had an incredible, immersive experience, and it completely ruined Japan’s tourist trail for me.
I couldn’t figure out what it was. I lived in China for five years, so I’m no stranger to tourists and crowds. But I will say that the level of international tourism in Japan really did shock me, especially after having so much of Mie Prefecture all to myself.
Everyone always writes about how much they love Japan, and it’s no different for me. I LOVE Japan. I couldn’t get enough of Mie Prefecture, and I’d love to go back and rent a little house in Kyoto.
But when it comes to Japan’s tourist trail, I really think the Kumano Kodo ruined it for me. Here’s Why:
Kumano Hayatama Taisha!
1. Meiji Shrine Ruined by Ise Jingu and Hayatama Taisha
To be honest, I was a bit shrined-out after hiking the Kumano Kodo, but I decided to head to Meiji Shrine anyway since I was already in the area.
When I first arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. No one was bowing at any of the torii gates, people were walking down the center of the path, and there were just SO MANY PEOPLE inside. After two weeks of painstakingly following all of the religious practices and Shinto traditions, seeing the crowds at Meiji shrine was actually shocking.
Wash your hands before you pray
For me, Ise Jingu and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, are just as beautiful and majestic as Meiji, but without all the crowds. However, my favorite shrine was actually the small, local shrine my Airbnb host took me to one morning in a quiet, farming neighborhood.
Shinto shrines are absolutely beautiful, but the most stunning aspect is definitely their connection with nature. Because of this, they’re best observed in quiet. It can be hard to appreciate the spiritual aspect of the shrine’s connection with nature when you’re surrounded by tourists clambering for a photo.
The BEST tuna sashimi in Mie
2. Tsukiji Fish Market Ruined by Mie’s Sashimi
One of the things I was most excited for in Japan was the fresh seafood. However, after weeks of hiking along Mie Prefecture and eating incredible, affordable fish, it was hard to see why I should have to pay over $30 USD for a small plate of sashimi at the Tsukiji Fish Market.
While I expected the cities to be a bit more expensive than Mie Prefecture, it’s a bit shocking to see the prices in action. The conveyor belt sushi in Tokyo was extremely expensive compared to the fresh sashimi donburi bowls I had on Mie’s coast, and nowhere near as delicious.
Eventually, I just gave up on having fresh fish all the time and opted for more affordable meals of ramen, udon, and curry, all of which were great. However, I couldn’t help but miss my affordable, incredible fish in Mie.
Chilling on the Elephant’s Back
3. Mie’s Hiking Ruined Nikko Too
Nikko had always been on our Tokyo itinerary with its beautiful mountains, temples, and waterfalls. But after two weeks of hiking literal mountains, a trip to Nikko just didn’t make sense anymore.
What was Nikko but a more-crowded Mie Prefecture? What temples were we going to see in Nikko that we hadn’t already seen in Mie? What waterfalls could be better than the ones we spotted along the Kumano Kodo?
I’d paddle boarded down a crystal clear river, hiked to the top of the Elephant’s Back with a view of the ocean, slept on tatami mat floors with stunning lake views… what could Nikko offer but the same scenery with more people?
WOW the crowds at Harajuku
4. The Crowds EVERYWHERE
After two weeks of walking through Mie Prefecture’s countryside, strolling through towns where we bowed and said hello to each person individually, the tourist crowds were a shock to my system.
Asakusa, the Golden Pavilion, Harajuku… every place we visited was packed wall-to-wall with tourists. I made the mistake of visiting Harajuku on a Saturday, and I could barely even move there were so many people on the main street. I can’t even imagine what the area is like in high season. I..
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Whenever I travel, I always try to choose hotels and hostels that are unique or have a story. I’d much rather stay in a family run guesthouse, or a quirky boutique hotel, than a generic chain resort. Sometimes the place you stay can be a destination in and of itself, and I may or may not have a few hotel properties on my bucket list.
When I first read about the Park Hotel Tokyo’s artist rooms on I Am Aileen, I knew I needed to book a stay when I finally made it to Tokyo.
Sure, it might’ve taken me almost a year to get here, but it was worth it! Not only did I stay for three full nights, I got to experience two different rooms, including my absolute dream room: Geisha Goldfish!
Hello Tokyo Tower!
Park Hotel Tokyo’s Artist Rooms
If you’re going to stay in the Park Hotel Tokyo, you have to book an Artist Room. These incredible rooms have all been decorated by different artists and have their own unique theme. Some rooms only took a few weeks to create, while others took almost a year of work!
Loving the Zodiac room!
My Artist Room Experience
Chris and I had the chance to stay in both the Zodiac and Geisha Goldfish rooms, both of which were incredible. On check-in, we were asked to choose which room we’d like to stay in. I was a little bummed that my favorite room, Geisha Goldfish, wasn’t available, but I was happy to stay in one of their other amazing rooms.
However, after hearing that Geisha Goldfish was my favorite, Park Hotel Tokyo gave me the opportunity to switch rooms after the first night!
After looking through Park Hotel’s photobook of the rooms, Chris and I settled on the Zodiac room for our first night, which is Park Hote’s most popular artist room.
How many Zodiac animals can you see here?
The Zodiac Room
Created by artist Ryosuke Yasumoto, the Zodiac room is absolutely stunning. You really have to see the work in person to understand how much detail goes into this room. Not only are all 12 Zodiac animals present, the walls also contain a cat and weasel who “missed out on being chosen” for the Zodiac.
Hello little mouse!
While I usually gravitate towards more colorful art, I loved the 3-D pop-out animals that are found around the room, as well as the Japanese poems written on the walls. The view of the Tokyo tower from the large window certainly didn’t hurt either!
Isn’t it beautiful??
The Geisha Goldfish Room
After the first day, Chris and I switched to my favorite room: Geisha Goldfish. The colors in this room are absolutely breathtaking, with pinks, reds, and oranges. I absolutely love how artist Aki Narita painted goldfish on the walls and ceiling to make it feel like the goldfish are swimming all around you.
I have a big soft spot for goldfish in East-Asian art, and I even have a tattoo of a Chinese watercolor goldfish on my shoulder. I’m also a little obsessed with geishas, and may or may not have spent hours reading up on the traditions and differences between a geisha and maiko before I went to Kyoto…
The amount of detail is crazy!
The amount of detail in this room is absolutely breathtaking. From the geishas playing a string game to the fact that the geishas behind the bed appear perfectly in the mirror, this room definitely had a lot of love and work go into it.
On my second full day, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the other artist rooms. While most of the rooms were full, I did get a chance to see a few others, from the minimalist Zen room to the bold Samurai room, the artistic 100 Poems, and the quirky Yokai room.
The Yokai room was definitely Chris’ favorite, and we loved spotting the kappa monster after learning about his tricky ways while hiking the Kumano Kodo! I loved that this room had small monsters and portals hidden where you’d least expect them. Find little paintings in the closet, on the window seat, and in the bathroom. There’s also a super secret painting hidden in this room, but you’ll have to ask one of the staff to show you!
There were a few rooms I didn’t get to see but wish I did. I love the look of the Chery Blossom room with pink cherry blossoms and gold leaf. The deep red and metallic Wabi Sabi room also looks incredible!
I love this neighborhood!
Park Hotel – Location, Location!
When I booked a stay at the Park Hotel, I had no idea what a great neighborhood I’d be staying in! Located just next to Shiodome subway station, the hotel is just a quick walk to Shimbashi, where the local salarymen all go to drink and eat after work.
Shimbashi is a spectacular neighborhood, and eating in a tiny restaurant right under the railway tracks feels like something out of Bladerunner. I loved getting delicious ramen, conveyor belt sushi, and surprisingly tasty Mexican just around the corner from Park Hotel Tokyo!
Staying at Park Hotel, you’re also walking distance from the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, which will make that early morning wakeup call to watch the Tuna Auction that much easier. Besides, you won’t have to pay for an expensive cab ride!
Eating dinner in Shimbashi
Park Hotel Tokyo is the Perfect Base
While staying at Park Hotel Tokyo, you’re right in the middle of the action, only a few stops away on the train from hotspots like Akihabara, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. Want to browse 90’s video games, hit up the Robot Restaurant, pray at Meiji Shrine, or go Lolita spotting? Park Hotel Tokyo is a perfect base.
Even getting to further-flung places such as Asakusa and the Tokyo Skytree isn’t too much of a hassle from here!
Hiking the Kumano Kodo was one of the most difficult, incredible things I’ve ever done in my entire life.
As someone who doesn’t normally do long-term pilgrimage hikes, I was pretty scared. I had no idea if I could handle two weeks of hiking, climbing actual mountains, and walking 170 kilometers with a pack.
Along this pilgrimage, I walked through tiny towns and fishing villages I’d normally pass by on the train. I climbed mountains and hiked mountain passes lined with stone paths from the Edo period. I slept on tatami mat floors in homey ryokan guesthouses stuffing my face with local delicacies, and I met so many incredible, warm-hearted people.
Kumano Kodo Iseji- Really Off the Beaten Path
Over the past few weeks, so many of you have been asking how to plan a Kumano Kodo hike of your own. The Kumano Kodo Iseji Route is really off the beaten path, and there’s not much information online. But if you want to challenge yourself and see a side of Japan barely any locals even see, this is the pilgrimage for you.
In this Ultimate Guide, I’m going to tell you all of the details, logistics, facts, and information you could ever want to know about hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route. My goal is that you can plan this trip on your own, without any outside help.
I’ll be honest, hiking the Kumano Kodo is not like the Camino de Santiago. There aren’t many signs, and you will rarely see other pilgrims. But if you’re looking for one of the best, off-the-beaten-path adventures in Asia, this is the hike for you.
Dressing up like Edo period pilgrims!
What is the Iseji Route?
Unlike most other pilgrimages, the Kumano Kodo consists of many different routes, all leading to one place: the Kumano Sanzan in Wakayama Prefecture. While the emperor originally traveled from Kyoto, the average pilgrim came along the Iseji route from Ise Jingu, the holiest place in all of Japan.
Currently, the most popular Kumano Kodo route is the Nakahechi Route starting in Tanabe. This 3-day route is very well preserved, full of signs, and pretty easy to plan. Chances are if you know someone who hiked the Kumano Kodo, this is the route they followed.
But for most pilgrims, 3-days is not enough. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path and really explore rural Japan, the Iseji route is the next best-preserved path and contains many World Heritage listed passes. While this route isn’t quite as easy to accomplish as the 3-day Nakachechi Route, it’s much more of an adventure!
Starting the Pilgrimage: Getting to Ise
If you want to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji route, you’ll need to get yourself to the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture. I easily took a 2-hour JR train here from Nagoya, but you can also get there on a direct train from Osaka, or from Tokyo if you switch trains at Nagoya.
Ise is famous for its two incredible shrines: Naiku and Geku. These shrines are extremely important to the Shinto religion, making Ise the holiest place in all of Japan. While the outer and inner shrines are actually 6km apart, they are referred to collectively by the locals as Ise Jingu.
Traditionally pilgrims along the Iseji route started at Ise Jingu, visiting both the Naiku and Geku shrines. So for the start of your Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, you’ll want to visit both of these shrines too, starting at Naiku and continuing onto Geku.
Just off the highway!
What Will I See On the Route?
One great thing about the Iseji route is that you’ll get to experience so many different types of terrain. From farms and villages to the mountains and seaside… you’ll never get bored!
City and Highway Walking
For the first day, you’ll be walking through the city of Ise and along a highway to Tamaru, and throughout the pilgrimage, you’ll duck on and off of the Kumano Highway with giant trucks whizzing by you. The highway walking was probably my least favorite portion of the Kumano Kodo, but thankfully you don’t spend much time walking along it after the first day and a half.
Enjoying Uo-machi Fishing Village
Exploring Tiny Towns
About half of the route takes you through tiny Japanese towns in Mie Prefecture. While the pavement killed my poor feet, I absolutely loved this portion of the Kumano Kodo. Every single local we saw greeted us with ohio gozaimasu (good morning) or konichiwa (good afternoon) and encouraged us to keep going.
By exploring these tiny towns, I really felt like I was getting to see a part of Japan almost no tourists ever see. I spent hours walking through places you can whizz by on a train in a matter of minutes. I learned about Japan’s aging population and how it affects the countryside, I saw teeny tiny tea plantations, witnessed mobile grocery store vans and bought tea from vending machines in the middle of nowhere.
Trust me, this is why you hike the Kumano Kodo.
Hiking Mountain Passes
While hiking the Kumano Kodo, you’ll have many mountain passes, or toge, that you’ll hike. While some of the toge are super easy, other passes are very strenuous and can take an hour or two to complete. While hiking toge after toge can be difficult (seriously, we did 6 in one day!), you will feel so accomplished when you finish each one.
Many of the toge have incredible views, and the signage is also very good on these trails. Some paths are covered in Angkor Wat-esque roots, while others are lined with stone roads and steps from the Edo Period.
On these trails, you’ll really feel like a pilgrim. You’ll find ancient shrines and graves from deceased pilgrims and be surrounded by cedar and cypress trees that let in showers of intermittent light.
Overall, there are 18 toge, with 17 mountain passes and one full-on mountain.
At the top of Mt. Yakiyama!!
You will climb one mountain on this pilgrimage: Yakiyama. I heard scary things about this mountain, but to be honest, it wasn’t actually that difficult compared to an average mountain pass. For me, the hardest thing about hiking Yakiyama was actually the two-hour hike down the mountain with a sprained ankle on slippery moss-covered rocks.
About 2.5 hours up and 2 hours down, Yakiyama is by far the longest toge but the experience is well worth the hike. Hey, if the pilgrims could do it, so can you!
Exploring the “Monster’s Castle” in Kumano City
Tracing the Shore
The last half of the Kumano Kodo trails the shore of the Kii Peninsula. You’ll find yourself right on the beach after finishing a toge, or wandering through a sleepy fishing village in the afternoon. One of your last days will even be spent walking along the longest stone beach in Japan.
Trust me, catching glimpses of the shoreline from atop a mountain pass is almost as incredible as feasting on all of the cheap, fresh seafood you’ll eat daily.
Kumano Hayatam Taisha!
The Finish: Kumano Hayatama Taisha
The Kumano Kodo Iseji Route eventually takes you to Hayatama Taisha, one of the three Kumano Sanzan. Every single Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route leads you to one of the three Kumano Sanzan: Kumano Hayatama Taisha, Kumano Hongu Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
The most famous of these three is Nachi Taisha, mainly because this shrine has a giant waterfall behind it. However, most pilgrims made it to all three shrines before heading home. While this pilgrimage finishes at Hayatama Taisha, you can easily hike or drive to the other two once you finish celebrating.
Five years of living in China was an incredible experience, but it definitely wasn’t easy. Being an expat has its ups and downs, but there are plenty of ways to overcome the typical challenges of living and working in China.
My friend Josh from Far West China has been living in Xinjiang, China with his family since 2006! So, if anyone can tell you about the challenges and struggles of living in China, it’s him. Today, Josh is here to fill you in on the biggest challenges China expats face, and how to overcome them!
The following is a guest post from Josh of Far West China. Enjoy!
5 Challenges Every China Expat Faces
Let’s face it: living as an expat abroad is exciting but not necessarily easy. Living in China? Well, that complicates things even more. There are a number of challenges that we face and whether you’ve been here for years or are planning on arriving in China soon, it’s good to be aware of what those challenges are so you can be prepared to face (and beat!) them.
Having lived in China for over a decade, I’ve seen some expats thrive and other expats crash and burn. What’s the difference?
Sometimes it has to do with temperament and the ability to withstand culture shock. More often than not, though, it’s the stressors of the challenges that they weren’t expecting to face.
I’d like to offer 5 of the most common challenges I see expats face in China and provide ideas on how to overcome the challenge.
Gotta love internet censorship!
The Challenge of Communicating
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re probably aware of the “Great Firewall” that censors internet access for all residents of China. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Gmail have been blocked for years and show no sign of being opened to the public anytime soon.
Living without all this social media noise really isn’t that bad, to be honest, but most expats use a VPN to gain access. Easy enough.
What’s harder is when this internet censorship affects your ability to communicate with the outside world. There have been times when I can’t make calls with Skype (even with a VPN) or my Facetime doesn’t work.
It’s happened to me so many times that I’ve had to resort to a couple different solutions:
Move Your Family/Friends to WeChat: I hate to do it, but I’ve had all my family and close friends download WeChat so we can remain in constant contact. It’s the most reliable form of communication in China and allows for voice and video calls.
Always Have Skype Alternatives: For those times when you have to call an actual phone number to call your bank or sort things out back home, make sure you have a backup plan if Skype doesn’t work. Just Google “Skype alternative” and pick your favorite.
Although physical mail is slowly becoming a relic of the past, it still has the ability to cause a headache for expats in China. I still receive important pieces of mail pertaining to taxes, the house I still own in the US, my business, etc. Not to mention receiving new credit cards in the mail or Christmas cards (yes, my family still does Christmas cards).
Most expats tend to use the address of a family member or close friend as their “address” while they are abroad – and this works for about a year – but if you’re abroad for a longer period of time, you risk over-using their generosity or missing an important piece of mail.
The solution I’ve found is something known as a virtual mailbox. It’s essentially like having an email inbox for your physical mail. I have an address in my home country where all my mail is sent. All new mail is scanned and sent to me where I can either keep the digital form or ask for the mail to be forwarded to me wherever I am in the world.
In this section, I’m going to be speaking mostly to US citizens since I know their situation the best, but make sure you do research into the laws concerning taxes in your home country.
Many expats I’ve met in China – particularly teachers – don’t give taxes much thought and many think they don’t need to file taxes while they’re living abroad.
Whether you’re a teacher on a salary equivalent to US$1,000/month or you’re a professional making a comfortable living in a city like Beijing or Shanghai, most foreign governments require you to disclose your foreign earnings. If those earnings exceed a certain limit, there are often taxes involved.
If you’ve never heard of a “Foreign Earned Income” tax credit or if you make a significant income in China, you’re much better off using the services of a tax professional when doing your taxes.
The last thing you want is your tax man waiting at the airport terminal for you when you arrive back home!
Unless you live in a city like Beijing or Shanghai, getting import foods – those “comfort foods” that remind you of home – can be a major challenge.
To make things worse, even in places like Beijing and Shanghai, no one import store has everything you might want. It sucks having to go across town to get that one item that your local import store doesn’t carry.
Again, I’m writing you as a person who has never lived in a major Chinese city, so this challenge of finding comfort foods, or any import food for that matter, has been very real!
Thankfully, over the past few years, China has grown leaps and bounds in the area of online shopping and home delivery. As recently as 5 years ago, getting something delivered to my home wasn’t even an option!
Using sites like JD.com and Taobao are a must for any long-term China expat. Make sure you open a local bank account and have a friend teach you how to use these online shopping apps. Your life in China will never be the same, I promise.
Don’t be the Jaded China Expat
The Challenge of China Burnout
If you talk to any expat who has lived in China for more than a year, every single one will have stories of those days or weeks when they just wanted to tear up their China visa and call it quits.
Every. Single. One.
It happens and that’s ok. Don’t get discouraged! The worst thing you can do is start browsing places like Reddit’s China sub, where disgruntled expats and those on the verge of burnout like to hang out and share their misery.
Instead, consider taking a short trip or treat yourself to a “staycation”. Watch some movies that remind you of home. Look at pictures of when you first arrived in China and take note of everything you’ve accomplished since arriving.
The feelings of burnout are inevitable. Once you get through one or two bouts of burnout, though, you’ll find that it’s just part of the cycle of living as an expat in China.
Author’s Note: WOW is Josh right on this one. I find making friends that are brand new to China reminds me why I loved China in the first place. Avoid the Jaded China Expats!
Conclusion | Challenges of Living in China
Every country presents its own set of challenges, even living in your own home country. Don’t try to eliminate the challenges because frankly, there will always be new ones that spring up!
The key to living in China and enjoying your experience is understanding what those challenges are and when you face them, having a game plan for how to overcome them. Whether it’s communicating with your family back home, getting your mail, doing your taxes, buying foreign goods or just dealing with burnout, know that you’re not alone.
The challenges are just one part of what makes being an expat in China so exciting!
About the Author
Josh Summers has lived in China since 2006 with his wife and two boys. He loves traveling around China and visiting other countries throughout southeast Asia. You can find him on his Xinjiang blog, Far West China, or Travel China Cheaper.
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Travelers can be some of the most difficult people to shop for. How do you buy a gift for someone who values experiences over “things”? How do you shop for someone who lives out of a backpack, or whose always saving up for the next plane ticket?
Sure, there’s plenty of travel gear you could buy, but what if you want to get someone an incredible gift they can cherish forever? What if you want to give a gift to a traveler who can’t make it home for Christmas?
That’s where Tinggly comes in.
Give your traveler something to open on Christmas!
If you’ve read a fair share of my posts, you’ll know I’m obsessed with Tinggly, a website where you can give the gift of experiences.
I’ll be the first to admit, giving an experience gift to someone can be a huge hassle. Many experience booking sites make you schedule a specific date in advance, which can be really tough if you don’t know the area or the recipient’s schedule.
But when you give the gift of experiences with Tinggly, your loved one has up to 2 years to choose their own experience. They even receive a beautiful gift box to open under the tree… or wherever they happen to be in the world.
With more than 500+ experiences scattered across 100+ countries, your loved one will have too many choices when it comes to redeeming their experience gift. They can go camping in Jordan’s desert, extreme whitewater rafting in Nepal, or try a homestay cooking experience in Gambia. Seriously, there are so many incredible experiences to choose from, it’s almost impossible to make a choice.
All you have to do is choose which gift box you’d like to buy, from the budget-friendly Essential Gift Box to the more elaborate Dream Wedding or Ultimate Collection. If you want a great selection of experiences at a good price, I suggest going for their holiday Merry Christmas gift box!
Just keep in mind, there are plenty of gifts at each price point, and many of the experience gifts are good for two people, so you and your loved one can have that incredible experience together!
Tinggly will help you avoid all of the hassles when it comes to booking an experience gift, meaning you can gift an incredible adventure without worrying about planning schedules and details. Besides, their experiences are incredible, and you have so many to choose from!
Here’s how Tinggly can help you make your gift awesome:
I chose… scuba diving with sharks
1. Your Loved one Gets to Choose Their Own Experience
Not sure if mom wants a gourmet cooking class or an Argentine tango class? No worries, the choice is hers! With Tinggly, the recipient gets to choose from 500+ experiences in 100+ countries, so you can be sure they’ll LOVE their gift.
2. No Schedule Worries
One time I tried to purchase a cooking class for my long-distance boyfriend as a surprise for his birthday. The plan was to do the class together when I visited. But finding an appropriate time without tipping him off was almost impossible. That, and I had to book the cooking class far in advance without any idea if it was even feasible to get there from his house.
After a while, I gave up and bought him a different gift instead. With Tinggly, my boyfriend could’ve had something to open on his birthday, while also letting him pick a date and activity that worked for him. No more secretly probing for schedules!
Does your daughter live abroad or travel full-time like me?
3. You Don’t Have to be in the Same Place
Many travelers and expats abroad can’t make it home for Christmas every year. If you want to actually let your loved one have something fun to open, you can have a Tinggly box shipped anywhere in the world!
Letting your traveler have an amazing experience on the road is so much more rewarding than dropping a few dollars into their account, or giving them an Amazon gift card.
4. Multiple Price Points
With hundreds of gifts at every price point, you don’t have to shell out a ton of money to get a great gift. The $79 USD Essential Collection has 300+ experiences in 80+ countries, ranging from a desert safari and BBQ in Dubai to a vodka tasting and Polish cooking class in Warsaw.
However, if you want to book a luxury experience or a romantic activity for two, there are plenty of collections to choose from that will allow both of you to go. For example, the Dream Wedding and Time Together gift boxes have a plethora of romantic experiences like a full day of relaxation at a Balinese spa for two or a two-person VIP helicopter ride on the Vegas Strip.
Whatever your budget, you can pick a themed gift box at the right price for you.
Up above Napa Valley with Tinggly!
5. Awesome Variety
The great thing about Tinggly is that their gifts really are scattered all over the world. When browsing a collection, you can easily check Tingglys map to see if there are any experiences where your loved one is living or traveling.
Heading to Vietnam? Try a 3-day motorbike experience or a relaxing thermal mud spa day. What about Japan? Choose from a secret sake brewery tour, a romatic hot spring onsen experience, or a traditional kimono tea ceremony for two.
You can even find plenty of Tinggly experiences in your own backyard. There are tons of activities to choose from all across the US, Canada, UK, Australia and more.
Sure, I love buying things. I can’t tell you how good it feels to buy a new pair of earrings or some shiny new travel gear. But will I remember those items forever? Probably not.
When you give the gift of experiences, you create memories that will last a lifetime. Both you and your partner or friend can have a wonderful day together, and build incredible memories in the process. While “things” are awesome, they definitely don’t compare to a fantastic hot air balloon ride together.
With Tinggly, you can surprise your traveler with an incredible gift of memories that will last a lifetime. If that’s not the perfect Christmas gift, I don’t know what is.
Have you ever given someone the gift of experiences? How did it go?
Thanks to Tinggly for helping bring you this post. I’m a huge fan of Tinggly and an affiliate, so if you’re interested in purchasing Tinggly for the holidays, I’d appreciate it if you used one of my button links above!
It’s been one week since I finished Japan’s Kumano Kodo Iseji Route: the thousand-year-old pilgrimage route through Mie Prefecture. This two-week hike was simultaneously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and yet also one of the most rewarding.
170 kilometers. 2 mountain peaks. 18 mountain passes. 7 fantastic shrines. 5 steamy onsens. Countless tiny towns. Fantastic meals. Sleeping on tatami mat floors. Waving Konichiwa to everyone we passed.
I read tales of girls like me hiking the Camino De Santiago, which inspired me enough to believe I could do something similar. I packed and re-packed, trying to make everything fit into my tiny 35-liter backpack. But despite my fancy hiking boots and appropriately sized backpack, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I had no idea what I was doing.
However, the more I read about the Kumano Kodo, its history, the natural beauty, sleeping in ryokans and feasting on local Japanese meals: I couldn’t help but be excited. The more blog posts I read about the 3-day Nakahechi Route, the more prepared I felt.
I was as ready as I’d ever be.
How am I supposed to hike THIS for two weeks??
Where Are My Hiking Boots??!!
The night before my hike, I sifted through my giant red suitcase, attempting to re-organize my tiny pack in preparation for the hike. I knew moving all of my stuff from China to Australia via Japan would be a giant pain, but I had everything I needed somewhere in this suitcase… right? Right?!?!
I sat on the floor of my hotel room in a panic. Nearly everything from my giant suitcase was piled around me, and yet I couldn’t find the one thing I needed: my hiking boots.
Oh my god! Oh no!
My breathing escalated as I began throwing everything around the room like a frantic toddler.
Where are they? Where are they?!
Right next to the front door of my apartment in China. Exactly where I left them, of course.
Me and my pack
Overpacked and Underprepared
I sat on the train from Nagoya to Ise in my Nike running shoes, with my bulging 35-liter pack. Still mentally beating myself up about forgetting my hiking boots, there was nothing to do but make use of what I had with me.
I’d scanned through the official Kumano Iseji website, but I knew nothing of the actual experience. Aside from a few photos and information about the mountain passes, and a brief explanation that we’d be walking through cities and towns for the first few days, I went in pretty much clueless.
I knew I’d be navigating the route by using the official Kumano Iseji Navigator map, and I had a schedule of the kilometers I’d be hiking, activities I’d be doing, and places I’d be staying daily. But in reality, I had no idea what to expect.
Would I love walking for two weeks straight? Would I be able to hike six mountain passes in a day? Would I survive without my hiking boots??!
Starting off right with a sunrise
Starting Off With a Sunrise
On the first day, we left our ryokan guesthouse at 6 am to see the most beautiful sunrise over a seaside temple. Despite the cold, wet morning, I loved learning about the Shinto faith from our guides and soon-to-be friends, Inoue and Himi.
Ring the bell, bow twice, two claps, bow again.
We learned how to wash our hands before entering the shrine. We heard the origin story of the Shinto faith, and how the Shinto gods created Japan. We saw Ise Jingu’s Naiku shrine, the holiest place in all of Japan, and I loved it!
THIS was the experience I was looking for. Off the beaten path, cultural Japan.
Beautiful, rainy Ise
The First 5k: I’m Not Cut Out For This!
After a morning of visiting shrines, we finally set out on the first 5k of the hike.
However, as we began to walk through the city of Ise, the skies opened up and poured rain down on us. It was about 1 kilometer into this 5k hike that I realized my hand-me-down “waterproof jacket” I used time and time again in Southeast Asia, wasn’t actually waterproof.
So here I was in mid-November, freezing, soaking wet, walking through the drizzly, grey city streets. As the rain kept getting worse and worse, we finally stopped by a Family Mart to buy a cheap waterproof pullover jacket.
The promise of a nice warm bath every night kept me going
The four of us: Chris, our two guides, and I made our way through the drenched streets of Ise. My back ached from holding our hotel umbrella all day. My leggings and tennis shoes were absolutely soaked. I was 100% miserable.
What the heck am I doing here?!
I trailed behind the speedy Inoue and Himi, as they forged ahead in full waterproof gear as if they’d done this a thousand times. I couldn’t even use my short legs as an excuse since I was taller than both of them.
What am I doing? Why am I doing this? This is the worst decision I’ve ever made.
I had no idea where we were even going, as we spent two hours getting lost in the rain, attempting to follow an online map, while also not getting our phones soaked in the never-ending downpour.
Kill me now.
Best. Day. Ever.
My Savior: Convenience Stoor Waterproof Pants
After a miserable, wet, slog through random city streets, we finally stumbled on a famous noodle joint… right by our first hotel?! Apparently, we had been walking 5 kilometers from the Naiku Shrine all the way to our second shrine: Geiku.
That’s funny, because I just thought we were walking through a wet, neverending purgatory.
But after a giant bowl of udon noodles and a purchase of wonderfully sexy waterproof pants from Family Mart, it was time to walk the remaining 8 kilometers to Tamaru.
And you know what? Despite the rain and walking along a highway in encroaching darkness: I had fun. I was actually having fun.
Who knew all it took was waterproof pants and a big bowl of steamy noodles.
Teku Teku time!
Turning a Challenge Into a Fun Adventure
That next morning as we walked along highways, through villages and towns, I started to realize that maybe I was cut out for this after all. Chris and I raced to scan QR codes and collect our Teku Teku stamps, while also taking selfies with every single signpost detailing the meters we had left to hike. With 32 teku tekus and 42 signposts, we took a lot of selfies…
At first, it seemed impossible. We’ve only walked 12 kilometers out of 170?! We still have 30 teku tekus left to go?!
But with every stamp and every signpost, we came closer and closer to our goal. It was like playing an epic game where the only adversaries were the forest, the rain, and my own two legs.
Hiking stunning mountain passes
I Can Actually Do This?!
On our second full day, we hit the very first mountain pass of our trip: Mekitoge. Until that point, I felt like Chris and I could’ve better prepared for this hike by just walking around Beijing for hours on end. Screw those Great Wall climbs!
My feet ached from the road, and my pack was rubbing against my lower back. I felt a little out of shape, but the more I walked the faster I became.
But when we entered the forest, I somehow felt more comfortable. As we hiked up mountain trails, I didn’t feel out of breath. When we hiked to the top of the mountain pass to get a good view, I felt like all of my Great Wall hikes had actually prepared me.
I felt good. For the first time on this hike, I knew I could actually do this.
This picture doesn’t do it justice
Descending Into a Magical Wonderland
Once we came down off of our very first pass, we entered into a beautiful wonderland of tiny tea plantations. The sky opened up, the sun came out, and butterflies flitted from tea leaf to tea leaf. It was absolutely beautiful.
Tiny traditional Japanese homes dotted the landscape, and we gasped in awe at how beautiful our surroundings had become. Gone were the hours of highway hiking along bland farms. We had stepped back in time and transported ourselves to the days of the pilgrims.
In one second, I fell in love with this village, the Kumano Kodo, and rural Japan.
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Travelers can be some of the hardest people to shop for. How do you buy gifts for people who prioritize experiences over “things”?
Last Christmas I made the mistake of saying I wanted a few candles for my apartment in China, and I ended up with no less than 8 candles as gifts. Trust me, trying to make weight with a bunch of perfumed glass bricks in my bag wasn’t easy.
Now I know you may have seen a lot of these lists, and most of them have ridiculous items. A MacBook Air? A drone??! Sorry friends, but that’s not in my budget.
All of the items on this list are realistic gifts for travelers, with only a few select items coming in at over $100. They are also all items that I either A) already use or B) want desperately, so you won’t be finding any bizarre gadgets or ugly travel clothes here.
To help you find the perfect gift, I’ve created nine different categories for you to choose from:
The Girl Who Doesn’t Like “Things”
The Girl Who Lives Out of a Backpack
The Adventurous Girl
The Fashionable Globetrotter
The Travel Photographer
The Girl With Her Head in a Book
The Short-Term Traveler
The Perfect Stocking Stuffers
Gifts That Give Back
The Girl Who Doesn’t Like “Things”
1. Tinggly: The Gift of Experiences
I think amazing experiences make the best gifts, and most travelers I know feel the same way. But how do you buy an experience gift for a traveler without knowing their whole itinerary? What happens if you pick the wrong thing??!
With Tinggly, your traveler can choose from over 500 activities in 100+ countries worldwide. Go camping in Jordan’s desert, extreme whitewater rafting in Nepal, or try a homestay cooking experience in Gambia. Recipients have up to two years to use their gift, and they can choose whichever adventure they want. You’ll even receive a little gift box so she has something to open.
Two years ago, I tested out a Tinggly experience, spending my gift money on scuba diving with thresher sharks! I got to stay in a fancy dive resort as part of the package, which was a great gift to myself considering would I never book a luxury stay there on my own dime.
Then last May I took a friend on a hot air balloon ride in Napa. We had an incredible time, and it was such a great experience for a girls weekend. Seriously, if you want to gift someone an amazing experience with no immediate expiration date, this is the perfect present!
While this might take a little more preparation than Tinggly, an awesome walking tour or skills class is a great gift to give someone for the holidays. A few years ago my mom purchased a photography class for us both to enjoy, and it was a great opportunity to learn how to make the most of my fancy DSLR.
If you’re looking for specific tour suggestions, I recommend Context Travel. These tours are very small, with a 6-person maximum, and are all led by Ph.D. and MA level scholar guides. Last year I went on a Hutong Walks tour in Beijing, and despite living in the hutongs for almost a year, I was constantly learning new things!
A Context tour is a great gift for keeping a busy traveler entertained back home, or for gifting a friend you’re already on the road with. You can even make a cute little coupon yourself and let your traveler choose and adventure later.
I don’t know how I used to travel without these. Seriously, my backpack used to be a MESS.
But thankfully my family bought me a set of packing cubes and my life has been forever changed. Now my bag is completely organized and packing is a breeze. Seriously, if you have a disorganized traveler in your life, buy her a set of these and she will forever thank you.
These packing cubes are especially good for travelers with backpacks so that all of your clothes stay neat and tidy, but I love using them in a suitcase as well!
I’m obsessed with my Lush solid shampoo. This shampoo is perfect for travelers because it’s small and doesn’t leak. It’s also great for the environment since you never need to throw away any bottles or packaging. Just be sure to warn your friend to let the bar dry out before putting it back in the tin and closing the lid, because otherwise, her bar may melt!
These Flight 001 bags are so cute, I’ve been dying to get a few of my own. They have bags for laundry, shoes, bathing suits, high heels, lingerie, “stuff” and more! Flight 001 even has a cozy little jersey travel blanket that comes in a nice pouch and a 1-quart liquids bag for security. I love how everything is labeled clearly, and it makes all of the items a little more fun.
Hopping in and out of boats, trekking in the rain, sledding through the snow… the last thing you want is a dead phone. Lifeproof cases are drop-proof, waterproof, coldproof, and dirt-proof, making them the perfect case for any outdoor adventure.
Take underwater photos on a tropical island and drop your phone in the sand, or take it on a trip to Iceland and snap photos of yourself climbing glaciers without worrying about a dead battery. This case is every traveler’s dream, and it’s not bulky or ugly!
I’ve had a Lifeproof case on my last two iPhones and I love it. Lifeproof has great cases for almost any iPhone, Galaxy, the iPod and more!
Price: $50-$170 depending on the phone and the case you choose
I purchased the GoPro HERO4 Silver three years ago, and I loved it! Unfortunately, It eventually died on me and I’ve been in the market for a new one.
The GoPro HERO Session is awesome because it’s completely waterproof up to 33 feet (10 meters) without a case! If you’re looking for a more affordable basic version, you can still buy the original 2015 GoPro Session, however, I recommend the newer GoPro HERO5. This new version has a USB port for faster charging and transferring content, 4k video resolution, voice activation, and electronic image stabilization.
If your adventurous girl is really into video, you may want to look into the GoPro Hero5 Black, which is the top of the line GoPro. It has the waterproof body of the session, but it also contains the LCD screen and is the same size as the older GoPros so it will fit easily into any GoPro drone slot.
Tevas are an epic gift idea for hikers and adventurers. Traveling through Southeast Asia, waterproof hiking sandals are my best friend. Personally, I have a knockoff pair I found on Taobao because real imported shoes are way too expensive in China, but if I could I would’ve bought myself these.
If you have a friend heading on a big trip that needs a good pair of waterproof shoes, you can’t go wrong with Tevas. If for some reason she doesn’t like the style or fit, she’ll always be able to exchange them for another pair!
For scuba divers, snorkelers, or people who don’t want torrential rain to destroy their electronics, dry bags are the best thing in the world. I use mine all the time! Whether I’m traveling via boat in the Philippines or wading through waist-deep water in a cave, I can protect all of my belongings without worrying about water damage.
What really convinced me to buy a dry bag was a windy day scuba diving in the Philippines. That day the waves were so huge that we had to jump from our dive boat and swim to a smaller boat that could take us to shore. The crew proceeded to THROW our bags to the small boat, but I wasn’t about to let them chuck my DSLR 20 feet!
Instead, I borrowed a dry bag and jumped out of the boat, swimming through the crashing waves. My camera and phone were both completely dry, and that day I purchased my very own set of dry bags.
For serious water enthusiasts, I recommend getting a heavy duty dry bag, but for those that want a little extra protection, the lightweight dry bags actually work extremely well. (I should know, I have a set of three I bought for just $10.)
Can I actually survive a two-week trek through Japan’s forested mountain trails? Can I walk kilometers on end carrying all of my belongings on my back? Will I be in good enough shape after working in an office for two years??!
What’s the Kumano Kodo?
Great question. To be honest, I asked the same exact thing when I first heard about it a few months ago.
For the last thousand years, Japanese people from all walks of life made the difficult pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan. This includes everyone from local peasants to the emperor, who trekked for 30-40 days down from Kyoto. This network of routes paths throughout the Kii Peninsula is known collectively as the Kumano Kodo.
Along the way, you’ll hike through cedar and cypress forests and find over 3,000 shrines, including the Kumano Sanzan, or Three Grand Shrines. If you don’t want to camp, you can stay in temples, ryokans, and small guesthouses while you make your way along this historic trek.
The more I read about the Kumano Kodo, I couldn’t help but think of the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James.) Both hikes have historic roots and involve stopping through small towns and villages along the way. They’re also the only two UNESCO pilgrimage routes in the world!
When you visit the Kumano Kodo, you’re even given a “Dual Pilgrim Passport” where you can collect red stamps along your route. This passport also has a second side for the Camino if you ever decide to visit Spain in the future.
The famous Nachi Waterfall
My Kumano Kodo Route
One of the most interesting things about the Kumano Kodo is that it’s not just one path, but a network of routes through Japan’s Kii Peninsula. Because of this, there are many different routes you can take, ranging from a few days to a few weeks.
Most Western tourists do the 3-day trek from Tanabe, which seems to be the most popular route overall. However, in typical Adventures Around Asia fashion, I’m doing things a bit differently.
My two-week trek will begin in Iseji and end in the Kumano Sanzan area. Along the way, I’ll pass through Magose and Matsumoto Pass, take a river cruise, visit shrines and tea houses, soak in hot springs, and sleep in ryokans and little guesthouses.
After spending a few hours searching and reading, I couldn’t actually find an account in English of the route that we’re taking. On our shortest days we’ll only be hiking 4-5 kilometers (3 miles), but on our longer days, we’ll be hiking up to 18 kilometers (11 miles)! A few of these days involve actually climbing a mountain… so that should be interesting.
I’ll be eating healthy local food, carrying my own pack, and exploring Japan off the beaten path. What’s not to love?
Why I’m Hiking the Kumano Kodo
To be honest, I had never even heard of the Kumano Kodo until a Mie Prefecture representative reached out to my boyfriend Chris and I. But from the moment I learned of what I could accomplish, I became obsessed with exploring the region.
An off the beaten path hike in Mie Prefecture Japan? Visiting temples and shrines and sleeping in local ryokan guesthouses? This is my dream come true.
However, I was also a bit nervous. The longest hike I’ve ever done was a 5-hour epic Great Wall hike from Jiankou to Mutianyu, and I didn’t even carry a backpack! Am I cut out for something like this? Could I possibly hike for two weeks with a giant pack?
It All Began With the Camino de Santiago
I first heard about the Camino a few years ago when Jess from Curiosity Travels embarked on a 9-day Camino hike. I read about her adventures: meeting people from all over the world, dealing with blisters and stumbling on a wine festival.
Earlier this year I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I’d already seen the Reece Witherspoon movie, but reading the book definitely made a big impact on me. If this woman, with all of her personal problems and lack of information, could hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, carrying all of her gear, over the course of months, then why can’t I do a two-week trek in Japan?
Reading Wild made me realize how much I need to challenge myself. After two years of working behind a desk in Beijing, I’ve put on weight and become unhappy with my fitness and my appearance. I’ve tried calorie counting, giving up alcohol and carbs, running at night, and nothing seems to make much of a difference.
It’s my hope that after two weeks of carrying a big pack, climbing mountains, eating healthy, and breathing in fresh air, I’ll begin to feel better about my body, my strength, and myself. Maybe I won’t lose those extra 20 lbs, but hopefully, I’ll gain a renewed appreciation for my body and what it can actually do.
Casual Great Wall hikes
How I’m Preparing For the Hike
While I’d like to think I’m in decent shape, the idea of preparing for a two-week trek was a bit daunting. I had grand plans about how I’d practice walking all the way to Beijing’s Forbidden City carrying a heavy backpack. I’d hike the Great Wall once a month, and wear my hiking boots around the neighboorhood. I would do yoga every morning and run every other night.
It’s safe to say almost none of that actually happened.
I did hike the Great Wall five times in three months, and I did do some running and yoga, but my epically long walks occurred in tennis shoes and travel sandals while showing my parents around China. I didn’t practice hiking with a weighted pack, and I’ve only used my hiking boots twice.
But for some reason, I feel alright about this. I may not be as fit and prepared as I wanted to be, but I’ll learn on the road. Those first few days might be really hard, but as long as I can finish it on time, carrying my own pack, I’ll be proud of myself.
Hey, if I can do a two-week trek after years of sitting at a desk every day, then you all can too!
What I’m Packing
My Hiking Pack
While I have a really awesome travel backpack, Osprey Farpoint, it’s not the best for long-term hiking. To prepare for this trip I picked up a 35-liter hiking backpack at Beijing’s Pearl Market. I’m 95% sure its fake because I couldn’t find the brand on Amazon, but it’ll definitely work for this hike.
While I’m a bit nervous about how absolutely tiny the backpack is, I figured the small size will keep me from overpacking. I just resigned myself to being stinky and gross for the next two weeks. Hopefully, the lovely ryokan owners don’t mind…
Because I’ll be working on the road, I also need to bring my laptop with me. Thankfully my backpack has a small space in the back where I can store it. Obviously bringing a laptop on a two-week hike isn’t ideal, but I guess that’s the price I pay for actually being able to travel full-time.
My Clothes and Shoes
I’ve never been a good minimalist, so packing for a two-week hike in a 35-liter backpack is painful for me. While I haven’t finished packing all of my clothing yet, here’s a rough idea of what I’m bringing for two weeks.
All of the items above will be in my backpack, with the exception of the sunscreen and first aid, which will probably go in Chris’ pack because his backpack is literally twice the size of mine.
I’ll definitely be keeping tabs on what I used during the trek, and I’ll update this list after the hike to give you a more accurate idea of the perfect packing list.
I’m so excited to sleep in a ryokan!
Wish Me Luck!
I’ll be embarking on the Kumano Kodo in two days, and I’m beyond excited. I’ll definitely be keeping everyone updated during the trip, so be sure to tune in on Facebook, Instagram, IG Stories, and Snapchat for an in-depth look at what it’s really like to hike the Kumano Kodo!
Want to Know More?
Here are some awesome posts about the 3-Day Kumano Kodo trek that most people do: