Travel

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.

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. 

San Francisco, you're such a charm.

Yes the streets aren’t spanking clean. There’s a lot more homeless people on the streets than I remember from my last visit a decade ago. The city has also gotten a lot more expensive. There's random people straddling down the streets in their birthday suits without a care in the world.  You'll find broken glasses everywhere on the streets. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend walking through some of the neighbourhoods alone, at night or otherwise. 

But still, there’s so much charm I found and want to remember from this visit: 

  • I loved admiring the facades of the many houses built on the countless hills and slopes. They’re all quite whimsical and colourful and I am amazed by the amount of individuality that goes into the design of these. Secret gardens, pride flags, purple and pink lightings, the whole works.

  • The view of the city - I don’t mean skyscrapers or anything downtown. But I love the view of houses sprawled all over the hillside, or just to be able to see long stretches of roads going up and down across town. Catching a glimpse of the sunset at the Dolores park on the way to dinner. And even when the fog rolls around, that feels just like the quintessential San Francisco experience.

  • Discovering neighbourhoods - I really enjoyed Hayes Valley. It was good vibes only. Soaking in the sunset at the open square was especially nice - with the container structures housing cafes, shops, outdoor seating, people walking dogs in the parks, interesting shops and restaurants.

  • The access to the wine country in just an hour. I really wish we have access to something like that in Singapore to take the hustle and bustle out of busy city life.

  • Every other person seems to be working in tech…that by itself is nothing interesting, but when you ended up randomly bumping into the founder of Vimeo and having a chat with him on education technology for kids, then it does feel quite surreal.

  • Conversations with people and organisations who are doing amazing things grounds-up in the field of education.

  • The amazingly diverse amount of good food and drinks and innovative menus. I also love how all the wait staff and bartenders are extremely knowledgeable and not (seemingly) working off a script. All I can say is, we ate well.

I was there with the Saturday Kids crew, and San Francisco was our 2nd stop after attending the ISTE conference in Chicago, the world’s largest EdTech conference. What’s a small digital literacy school from Singapore doing in the US spending time doing all these you ask? We met up with partners, schools, checked out innovative learning spaces, to learn and to connect with them. It’s been nothing short of inspiring. Our mainstream education system isn’t perfect (and so goes for many others around the world) - and we all have our grudges about having our kids being put through the system. But fundamentally that’s also why Saturday Kids exists and what so many of us in the team feel strongly about - to see how we can provide an alternative model to learning, and to design learning experiences for kids that helps cultivate a love for learning, creativity and curiosity. We’ve learnt a lot during this trip and hope we can translate that into something tangible in time to come. I'll be sharing more about the trip over at the Saturday Kids blog over the next few weeks. 

If you’re curious to learn more about the work we do at Saturday Kids, drop me a PM. Meanwhile, enjoy the photos below, a few impressions from the trip. No time to edit, all straight off the iPhone :)

City Guide: Bergen

Bergen is the hometown of Kings of Convenience, and was the only reason why I picked that city to visit during my maiden European trip almost 10 years ago. Still one of my favourite singer-songwriter bands, I love the simplicity of their music and their set-up - listening to them is good for the soul. Watching them performed live when they came to Singapore a couple of years back, was a fan girl dream come true. 

It is not hard to envision where their inspiration come from having witnessed the beauty of their city and country, and in fact, that could probably be said of some of the music that came out of Nordics like Sigur Ros, with sounds that instantly transport you to somewhere idyllic. 

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Situated on the southwestern coast of Norway, Bergen is surrounded by beautiful mountains, lakes and sea, and used to be the Norwegian capital, until 1299. 

“Bergen is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, laid out across harbours and hillsides. It’s also rich in history and architecture, especially in the quayside Bryggen district. But this is a city that is anything but stuck in the past with a dynamic cultural life, great restaurants and nightlife”
— Lonely Planet

Walking is the best way to explore the city of Bergen. You will need a good pair of shoes to deal with the cobble-stoned streets, and possibly arm yourself with a brolly in case it rains - which happens very often. Soak in the scenery from the hilltops and peek at the secret gardens. Most of the wooden houses are gorgeous, and often decorated with flowers, a lot of flowers. Spend a day out at sea and try out deep sea fishing, where it goes as deep as 120-meters and takes a good 5-min to reel a fish in. Do an easy trek up Mount Floyen to get a nice view of Bergen. Who knows, you might spot Eirik from Kings of Convenience (as I did, really! I almost died.). Settle at a cafe for a drink or coffee over board games and good music. Check out some of the small live music venues and get a taste of the local music scene. Food-wise, Norway is an expensive country to eat out. Check out the local grocery stores - always a good idea. Fresh market stands offer fresh open sandwiches (shrimps, smoked salmon), mussels, fishcakes. Lots of seafood. Drink Hansa, the local brewery, and most importantly, drink the tap water, it's one of the best I've had. 

And to stay. The one recommendation I have, is Skuteviken Guesthouse, which is owned by Solveig and Elvind, who are artists by profession and set this up a few years ago. Located just 5-10min walk away from city centre and just across the pier, it has a great views of the neighbouring houses on a hill, as well as a gorgeous view of the horizon. It’s a small charming guesthouse on a narrow cobble-stoned street, with just 5 small apartments, each individually designed by Solveig and Elvind, and decorated with some of their own artwork. All the apartments were extremely clean and even have kitchenettes with utensils and some complimentary dry goods such as tea, coffee, pasta, which came in really handy. Great apartment, great location. Great owners too, who were more than happy to have conversations around the Norwegian culture, the Bergen-Oslo ‘rivalry’, music, life in Bergen. We ended up checking out some local music at this local bar called Logen (it's still around!) together - local musicians get together every Monday night for performances. A fantastic spot to stay in all in all.

Address: Skutevikens Smalgang 11, 5032 Bergen, Norway
Phone: +47 934 67 163
Website: http://www.skutevikenguesthouse.com/englishindex.htm