Slow Life in Onomichi

The funky yellow local train pulled up at Fukuyama station and arrived at Onomichi station 20 minutes later. After 4 hours on the Shinkansen from Tokyo, this ride was quite a welcome change as it chugged along and passed through a few small towns before stopping at Onomichi - a sleepy port town in Southern Japan, not far from Hiroshima.

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Stepping out of the station, the first thing that greets you is the waterfront promenade, and the smell of the sea. We had just wrapped up the very first Saturday Kids Unplugged Summer Camp (more to come on that - it was awesome and lots of fun for the kids, hit me up if you want first dibs for the 2020 edition), and I took the opportunity to extend the stay in Japan for a few days while Erwin brought the kids back home to Singapore first. I’m drawn towards the smaller cities and towns in Japan - I find them less overwhelming and more enjoyable to explore. Onomichi wasn’t on my radar till I started researching for a smallish town with a growing creative community, and where I can just spend my days leisurely exploring on foot.

Onomichi is a bit of a ferry and bicycle kind of town - and for all you cycling enthusiasts, you might have heard of it as it’s known as the starting point for Shimanami Kaido, a scenic 70+ km cycling route that connects Honshu to Shikoku, via 6 small islands on the way. Life takes on a slower pace here, and as a visitor, for the very fact that there’s not a gazillion sights to see makes the visit a lot more enjoyable and less-rushed. There wasn’t much on my agenda, just wanted to photograph, write and organise a whole year’s backlog of photos, and chomp away on Japanese food.

It was in the early evening when I arrived at this very relaxed town. People were sitting around at the benches enjoying the sea breeze and the view (albeit a little industrial with the big ships), people walking their dogs, students playing football, and of course, the cyclists.

I read about how there’s efforts to revive this town. At times, the town felt a little deserted, and there’s doesn’t seem to be much going on. The ‘shopping street’ which is over a kilometre long, consists of a mix of old school mom-and-pop shops selling sundries, socks, hats, some F&B and in the midst of it, a number of small coffee shops/roasters that provides an interesting mix of new and old. But for most parts of the day, it’s fairly quiet, except for the afternoons when students walk home / cycle home after school. Walking along the shopping street, you’ll be able to catch glimpses of the many flights of steps across the railway track leading up to the hill. Given that the temple walk (there’s 20 over temples of which Sentoki is the most famous), and the Onomichi City Museum of Art is located at the top of the hill, I was expecting to see some people on the way up, but on that afternoon, was pretty much the only one hiking up the meandering and narrow walkways (no wonder, the museum was closed that day!). Once up, you’ll be able to see a splendid view of the outlying islands especially on a clear day.

I left Onomichi after spending 4 days there, longer than I originally planned, mostly due to the comfortable stay at the Onomichi U2 Hotel. If you’re looking for a place with a vibrant nightlife, or lots of shopping, or one that’s bustling with activities, this probably isn’t it. But go to Onomichi if you want to experience a small town in Japan, eat good food, and even better, embark on that scenic cycling route across the Seto Island Sea. I think I’ll be back, I was very charmed by the city, but also because I went with no grand sightseeing plans.

I’ve put together a few of my favourite things and places below. Most of these are places that I’ve stumbled upon, and which I kept returning to during the time I was there. Some are places that I’ve bookmarked and would love to check out but didn’t get to do so. If you do visit, do let me know how it goes.

STAY

Onomichi U2 Cycle Hotel

Set in an old warehouse and situated just by the waterfront, here is a hotel (the very first in Japan with only 28 rooms) designed by Suppose Design for cyclists and with cyclists in mind. The space is stunning, very well-designed with an industrial feel (lots of concrete, but also wood). It is also a lifestyle hub, that houses a bike shop, a cafe, a retail shop that curates local goods, a restaurant and a bar. Rooms are very comfortable and at 10,000 Yen - 13,000 Yen, I’d say, very reasonable. Little touches make the difference, such as the provision of soft denim pyjamas designed and made in Japan especially for the hotel, racks in the hotel rooms for cyclists to hang their bikes, if they wish, and nice coffee. I just can’t recommend this hotel enough.

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LOG

Didn’t stay here, but space looks very zen and was featured in Monocle (although about 3x the price and up on the hill - waterfront at Onomichi U2 or hilltop at LOG, take your pick).


EXPLORE

Hike up the hill and head to the Onomichi City Museum of Art, check out the Sentoki Temple, the observation tower and if you’re lucky, stumble upon a few small shops and cafes along the way. Spend an afternoon checking out the cafes, having a drink at the waterfront promenade. Walk around the harbour and watch the sunset. It’s a small town, wander around and see what you find.

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SHOP

Campanella Press

This was a lucky and unexpected find. Paper products, notebooks, locally designed stationery and lifestyle products, and letterpress workshops. I really like the space.

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Onomichi U2 Shima Shop

This is the lifestyle shop situated at the Onomichi U2 Hotel , lots of locally-sourced/designed products.

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Onomichi Denim Project

You can read all about this here and here. I love the story behind it, but didn’t spend more than 5-min at the shop because there really wasn’t much to browse (!)

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Uzushio Zukkaten

Lifestyle shop with fun knick knacks.


EAT & DRINK

Yamaneko Mill

Having just arrived, I walked by a small back street on the way to ramen. Smelt something amazing. Through the glass, I saw a felt pastry chefs whipping something up in the kitchen. Popped in, asked if I can try/buy whatever they’re making. Ate one, and ended up packing another 3. Visit this place for the most delicious pudding, cheesecake, and on the 2nd floor, they have a restaurant that has a really good view/vibe serving up dishes focusing on local produce. Highly recommended, for coffee/juices, desserts, lunch and/or dinner. I would return just for this.

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Ramen opposite Uzushio Zakkaten

Small 7-8 seater ramen joint (name unknown sorry!) but simply find it opposite this shop Uzushio Zakkaten. Try the spicy ramen for a really good kick.


Onomichi U2 Hotel’s Restaurant + Cafe + Bar

Everything is good here. They’ve done a really good job curating the entire space. Head there for breakfast, lunch or dinner, grab a table outside and enjoy the view. If you’re there for a drink or for dinner, please order the wings too. It’s as good as it gets. Friend of mine said that the lemon pizza is excellent too.

Coffee

All around the small town you’ll find a good selection of roasters and cafes - some more traditional, some more hipster. a few that I like: Classico, AROUND, The Yard at Onomichi U2, Pour Over Coffee (can’t locate the address for this but it’s a few shops away from this old Japanese restaurant called Hanaakari), and this called satie that overlooks the railway tracks which I didn’t get to check out.

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Enjoy Onomichi.

Quotes

Got reminded of one of my favourite quotes (beautifully illustrated by Maurice Sendak) this past CNY weekend. Hope it resonates with you as much as it did with me.

Image source: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/07/25/ruth-krauss-maurice-sendak-open-house-for-butterflies/

Image source: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/07/25/ruth-krauss-maurice-sendak-open-house-for-butterflies/

Leadership lessons my twin toddlers taught me

Once in a while (usually when Erwin’s 30,000 feet high), he’ll pen down his thoughts on parenting. Here he draws the parallels of his two roles (at home and at work).

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Most parents might agree - raising kids is one of the most rewarding yet challenging things we do in life, and every situation, day and stage looks different. Recently I found myself drawing parallels to the business world. Here are my thoughts on connecting my experiences bringing up our twin toddler girls with real life scenarios at work.


1. Motivation gets commitment

Toddlers minds are complex and unpredictable. What worked yesterday may not matter at all today. While they love to talk and share stories, reasoning has not fully kicked in, putting your 'managing via influence' skills to the test. Patience, humility and adapting to new situations are essential to achieve things together. A top-down instruction without buy-in of your toddler? Good luck to you :). In a business context, you may not get a response as open/candid as a 3 year old will give you but you should always take time to explain the rationale of your ask vs. giving limited guidance. Adapt your communication style, have others understand why you want things a certain way and how their contribution aids a larger objective or cause.

2. Spend time to understand

Be it with your children, team members or customers, it holds true that by spending time together, listening to needs/concerns, you will develop a much better understanding of who they are, what makes and drives them, and how can you help them. It's often not just about overt communication but also understanding other signals or body language. Often times, when we spend time with kids it's fairly unstructured - on the contrary for business, where we have very rigid agendas, talking points and expected outcomes. Leaving a little flexibility & time for a personal connect in the business world can go a long way in genuinely understanding what's going on, and what really drives people professionally and personally.

3. Little things matter

One thing that surprised me over the past year is how sharp our daughters' memories are and how much they remember little things. I got reminded what books I promised to read to them at night time, long after I initially mentioned it. The little ones look up to you, and it means the world to them if you meet these promises (or even exceed by throwing in another bedtime story). I told myself to never ever disappoint them on that. Toddlers also don't judge value too much. Some of their most prized possessions are an old, worn pink t-shirt and small books that are not even meant for children (strangely enough - a manual for my wife's digital camera, a book with just text - children's name suggestions). When looking at corporate environments, yes - money/financial incentives are important - but we tend to forget the power of a 'Thank You' or 'Job Well Done' to recognize great accomplishments. Everyone will always be pressed for time during big projects but it's important to ensure people feel appreciated and their contribution is recognized & no commitments being broken.


4. Don't corrupt

Many parents resort to screens as digital pacifiers, to enable a bit of calm throughout hectic days, outings or visits to restaurant. While toddlers may be calm over the course of a meal they don't know limits well and would request more and more screen time. Its hard to resist the easy way out. But by not letting these distractions creep in too much, kids learn how to entertain themselves in other ways - in many cases involving you as parent as well. Likewise, in the business world, it's imperative to stay true to good ethics and integrity when dealing with others. The easy way out/patching things up for the moment may solve things in the short term and get you a quick win but not address fundamentals or the root cause of a challenge. Offering the wrong incentives may also set false precedents and highly likely backfires on you at later stage.

The fact that toddlers are a little bit unpredictable, yet very genuine and completely uninhibited, not guarded with their feelings and moods makes them super authentic but also more challenging than most people we interact with in a business context. But we can also learn a whole lot from them for these very reasons, due to their openness and candid, immediate feedback on everything we do around them. I am in awe seeing our kids grow and develop, as well as teaching us parents new ways of looking at things almost everyday.

(P.S. Here’s one more from over a year ago on raising twins).

Colours of Rovinj (Croatia)

How can something as mundane as hanging laundry and peeling wall paint look so interesting? It was all I wanted to photograph. 

The light perhaps? Not the 'white' light that we often  get in Singapore due to the cloud cover, but brilliant light that streams through the narrow alleys, casting strong shadows on the buildings and all around. And of course the colourful pastel facades of these century-old buildings provided such a characteristic backdrop. 

I've heard a lot about Croatia from EB and his countless summer sailing trips when he was growing up. So it was nice to be able to finally visit as an extension of our annual summer trip back to Austria. We chose Istria, the peninsula closest to Austria (4-hour drive), and used the charming old town of Rovinj as a base for exploring the region.

It was high season when we visited, so the region was bustling. With its beautiful, rugged, rocky coastline, we were unsure initially if the lack of sand at the beaches would still be interesting for the kids...but they took to the pebble beaches like a champ and had lots of fun anyway scooping pebbles and building rock-castles. Days were spent usually with a mix of activities - by/in the water, in-land, island day trips, sunset boat rides, driving around the peninsula, and seeing new sights. I think we surprised ourselves by how much we enjoyed this vacation with two toddlers in tow, finally a vacation without too much drama! (No campervan break-in this time, and no one fell ill). 

A quick dip in the sea is always just around the corner, and something that everyone seem to revel in, whether it's in the middle of old town, or in some nudist (FKK - Freikörperkultur "free body culture") corner tucked away behind some forests. People seem to live in their bikini/swim shorts here, and lots of activities revolve around the water (lucky country to have access to hundred of kilometres of drop dead gorgeous landscape and shoreline). People are VERY comfortable with their bodies here and I've seen more nude bodies than I probably needed to - including a middle-aged couple who was driving naked (!)

In Rovinj, I got reminded of how sweet and juicy tomatoes are and should be, just like when we visited Santorini years ago. Something about the Mediterranean sun? We bought tons, and made fresh homemade tomato pasta sauce. Food in general was awesome - plenty of fresh grilled seafood, and with its history (Rovinj was a part of Italy), it had a lot of Italian influences and access to delicious Italian food is all around. Cozze and vongole almost every night for me, and gelato every day for the little ones. 

For two mornings in a row, I sneaked out before the kids woke up to go for a photowalk. Here's a little impression of this charming little cobblestoned seaside town in Istria, Croatia.

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On the drive back home to Austria, in 4-hours we had effectively stepped foot in 4 countries - Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and then Austria - a reminder of how compact yet diverse this part of the world is.