Zuocang (Sakura) Trail, Hualien

One of the things I have struggled with in Hualien and to an extent the whole of Taiwan, is trying to find out what to do. This was apparent when visiting Taroko Gorge yesterday and again today when I tried to plan my day. There is very little online other than other people’s blog posts and a lot on the brochures are in Chinese or Taiwanese. Even Lonely Planet has left room to be desired. The only real exception to this trend has been the supremely helpful and friendly hostel staff at Journey Hostel here in Taiwan. After asking the them last night, I decided to walk the Zuocang Trail today.

While I had been given rough directions to the trailhead last night, I didn’t know its name so trying to check my route was frustratingly difficult. I was fairly certain I had the correct name from a tourist map but still couldn’t find any infomation about the route. Since reading the sign at the start of the trail, I realise that this may be because the trail seems to have had half a dozen different names in relatively quick succession. Eventually, just running with the rough directions I set out in the hopes I would see a sign sooner or later.

The trail was an old road up the mountainside that used to be used by a cement company to access their mine. It offer some stunning views out over the city and I enjoyed my walk to the top lookout point, even if it it was all uphill. I also took a short side trail near the trailhead to view a lovely little waterfall, though I was a little wary with all the signs warning me to watch out for wasps and vipers, even if my logical brain new they are only really around in the summer and autumn months.

Walking the Kumano

Inspired by the scenic photos of misty mountains and cobbled paths and swayed by a wish to be surrounded by nature, away from the hubbub of cities and every tourist attraction ever, I decided that the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route was for me. I admit that there was probably also an element of romanticising the idea of walking a pilgrimage route with the hope of coming to some deeper understanding of myself and my faith.

The Kumano Kodo is an ancient Japanese pilgrimage route centred around the Kumano Sanzan, the three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Like a spider’s web, routes span out from these three shrines, stretching across the peninsula and beyond. I walked one of the best known routes from Takijiri-oji to Kumano Nachi Taisha via Kumano Hongu Taisha before taking the train to visit the final shrine of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, right on the Pacific Ocean.

29th December 2017

Accommodation: Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route

Start point: Takijiri-oji

End Point: Takahara

Hours walked: 2

Daily overview: My first day dawn bright and early in Tanabe. As the walk was going to be relatively quick, only two or three hours according to the route book, I took my time packing and headed over to the Kumano Travel shop to store some of the luggage I knew I would not be needing. From Tanabe I caught the bus up to the Takijiri-oji trailhead, admiring the mountains as they gradually began to loom over the road. I was the only person on the bus for the entire journey despite it being close to the new year, a major public holiday in Japan.

After collecting the Takijiri-oji stamp, I started out on the day’s walk. And what a start it was. Guide books and route maps can only go so far in describing what a trail will be like and they had not fully imparted just how steep ascending three hundred meters over a kilometre would feel. What made it particularly challenging was the way most steps were only ever conveniently positioned tree roots or slightly less jumbled rocks. This meant there were a few occasions on which I was left trying to decide if a slope was the path or not.

After this shaky start which had me more than a little worried about my chances of completing the Kumano, the path became a little more legible and I was able to enjoy more of the scenery. Admittedly, the scenery was mostly cedar trees and rocks but it was a welcome change from the city landscapes I have spent so much time in recently. The lodge was lovely, and I luxuriated in having a room to myself instead of the shared hostel dorms I normally bunk in. Like all the meals I had over the course of my journey, dinner was of a traditional Japanese style with lots of different little bits that I can only hope I ate correctly. It was accompanied with a delicious glass on homemade umeshu or Japanese plum wine.

30th December 2017

Accommodation: Guest House Mui

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route

Start point: Takahara

End Point: Tsugizakura-oji

Hours walked: 6

Daily overview: After a filling and tasty breakfast, I set out on the next leg of my journey. There was a definite bite to the air but the steady uphill hike quickly warmed me up. Re-entering the forests of Japanese cedar felt a bit like entering the depths of Mirkwood with a perpetual gloom enveloping the forest floor. Despite being initially amazed by their height and the straightness with which they grew, after about four hours of almost nothing but cedars (they even blocked any potential views out over the mountains) I began to get a tad bored of them. Another thing I began to notice is that, like cedars which were planted in great quantity after WWII, very little of the landscape has been left to chance with many of the streams and rivers set between concrete banks.

I was the only guest at the guesthouse. Apparently it is too cold for most people to be gallivanting around mountains. A part of me has to agree. The dinner was probably my favourite meal from while I was walking the Kumano and I had a lovely chat with the innkeeper. I was impressed to learn that both he and his wife had walked the Camino de Santiago before coming to run the guesthouse, something I have been eyeing up for 2019.

31st December 2017

Accommodation: Yoshinoya Ryokan

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route and Dainichi-goe

Start point: Tsugizakura-oji

Via: Kumano Hongu Taisha

End Point: Yunomine Onsen

Hours walked: 7 to Hongu Taisha, 1.5 to Yunomine Onsen

Daily overview: This was the longest hike at over 23 kilometres and I was a little worried I would not manage to finish it before sunset so had a contingency plan to get the bus from Kumano Hongu Taisha to Yunomine Onsen if needs be. However, I arrived at Hongu with plenty of time to spare and was able to walk the whole way.

The day started off with rain and foggy glasses and I was extremely grateful for my walking trousers which kept my leg nice and dry while still being extremely comfortable, unlike many waterproof trousers. Most likely because of the rain, I only saw one other person walking until the final stretch, an American with amazingly yellow waterproof trousers who I ran in to a few times. He seemed to move at an astonishing speed that I confess to somewhat envying.

In 2011 a typhoon caused a crack to form in the mountain next to the path so a permanent detour has been put in place. This was probably the most brutal part of the route, with lots of steep ups and downs. Even the spectacular views of mist shrouded mountains couldn’t make up for it. I think what made the whole detour particularly nasty was the lack of place markers. The actual Kumano has five hundred meter markers and small shrines or teahouse remains that are all marked on the map. However, the detour had nothing so it was impossible to mark my progress.

When the rain stopped around eleven I cheered up a little bit and enjoyed walking through some small villages rather than the gloomy cedar forests which had not improved with the weather, letting absolutely no warmth reach the ground. I eventually made it to Kumano Hongu Taisha which was a hive of activity with ongoing preparations to welcome in the new year. This was a little overwhelming after three days of relative solitude and being wrapped up in my own thoughts so I collected my stamp, had a look around and moved on. The warm promise of a soak in the onsen at my hotel drawing me on.

1st January 2018

Accommodation: Minshuku Momofuku

Route Name: Kogumotori-goe

Start point: Ukegawa

End Point: Koguchi

Hours walked: 6

Daily overview: After catching the bus to trailhead, I set out on the most leisurely section of the route. Gone were the threatening rainclouds of the day before and with the exception of the final descent, there were no particularly steep slopes and many level stretches. The route map predicted four to six hours and unlike before where I’d hovered around the minimum times, I fully intended to take the full six hours to make the most of the sunshine as well as recover from the previous day’s 23 kilometres.

In this second half of the Kumano, I found there was a huge amount more variety in plant life, including many ferns lining the path. With less cedar trees blocking the light, the route was bathed in sunlight and I ate my lunch at the remains of an old teahouse, looking out over the mountains.

This was the only day I didn’t have a lunch box prepared by the hostel so had bought a few things to eat the day before. Included in my lunch were eggs I had hard boiled in the hot spring waters that morning and was very excited about. The only downside to this day was the final descent, not because it was particularly challenging but because it offered an excellent view of what the next day’s hike involved.

2nd January 2018

Accommodation: Minshuku Kosakaya

Route Name: Ogumotori-goe

Start point: Koguchi

Via: Kumano Nachi Taisha

End Point: Kii Katsuura

Hours walked: 6.5 to Kumano Nachi Taisha

Daily overview: This was the day I had been dreading, ranked as the hardest section of the routes I would be walking and to make matters worse, a recent landslide meant an additional 40 minutes of walking along a detour path. Fortunately for me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had be predicting, or rather, it was bad in a completely different manner.

I had been expect a repeat of that first ascent at Takijiri-oji, with an unclear path and lots of roots just waiting to trip a person up. Instead I got a relatively well “paved” path for much of the way. What made the route so challenging was the never ending ascents and descents. The route started out with four kilometres of pure up. It didn’t seem so bad at first, but gradually the constant gradient sucked all strength from my legs and I found myself taking regular breaks. Only the five hundred metre posts kept me going.

When I reached the top, it was only to begin an immediate descent and so on. The only respite from this constant yo-yoing was the detour, which rather sensibly decided to go around the mountainside at one level instead of going up and over, even if it did add to my journey time. After the final descent (another four kilometre stretch), I reach Kumano Nachi Taisha on wobbly legs.

Naturally there were more steps down to the waterfall, but they were worth it. The Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall is the tallest in Japan and is striking against its rocky backdrop. The whole of Nachisan, both waterfall and shrine was crowded with people going about their first shrine visits of the year, despite the scafolding that covered the shrine, so I quickly moved on.

The well marked part of the Kumano ended here, with only sporadic signs showing up seemingly at random. Nonetheless, I decided to walk a little of the way down to Kii Katsuura, mainly I’ll admit, because I wanted the perfect number of stamps to fill up my stamp book. Extra stamps collected, I caught the bus the rest of the way and had a well deserved early night.

3rd January 2018

Accommodation: Hotel Sunshine

Route Name: N/A

Start point: Kii Katsuura

End Point: Shingu

Hours walked: Sporadic Meandering

Daily Overview: The pilgrimage routes that I may have taken between Kii Katsuura and Shingu have long since been eaten up by roads and railways so I took the train to Shingu. From the station I walked up the most vertigo inspiring stairs ever to Kamikura-jinja shine. They were so steep in a few places, I felt the need to use my hands on the steps in front for balance. Fortunately, the view was worth it and after a little time to recover I descended and made my was along to the final Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

Even though it was now the 3rd January, the shrine was still extremely crowded with people on their first shrine visits of the year so I took a few photos, collected my stamps and proceeded to wonder around Shingu until my hotel check in opened. This was a little dull as almost everywhere was closed for the bank holiday but I did enjoy looking around a large stationery store and having crepes for lunch in a really cute little cafe.

All in all I really enjoyed walking the Kumano and was amazed by how few other people I met along the way. While I know I have complained about the cedar forests, they were beautiful in their own way and some of the mountain scenery was absolutely breath-taking. I may have not reach some great deeper understanding but time away from the world has allowed me a little space to arrange my thoughts and look forward to the new year.

Now I only need to complete the Camino de Santiago side of my stamp booklet and I’m all set to be a daul pilgrim.

Walking Kyoto

As a tourist it is easy to jump on and off buses or trains, only every seeing the “must sees” and never stopping to look at anything else. To try and combat this, today I decided to walk between the temples and shrines that I planned to visit. This proved to one of my better ideas and, other than the gardens at Ginkakuji Temple, provided the best scenery of the day.

I started by looking around the gardens of the Heian-jingu Shrine. Sadly, while the gardens had the potential to be really beautiful, I felt that winter definitely wasn’t the intended viewing period. There were a lot of bare trellises and empty spaces that were waiting for spring so they could be clothed in greenery once more. This isn’t to say the whole garden was a dissappointment, I felt childish glee crossing the pond via stepping stones and the second half felt a little more winter orientated with a larger selection of evergreens.

From Heian-jingu I past a few minor shrines and temples and walked through a graveyard as I headed in the direction of Ginkakuji Temple. I ended up ambling next to a quaint little stream which was boarded with picturesque houses and shops. Part way along, I came across a little studio that offered the opportunity to try using a potters’ wheel and had a promising amount of English signage. Deciding this would be the perfect souvenir, I attempted to spin a (somewhat wobbly looking) bowl, which will be fired and sent back to Guernsey in due course.

After this little aside, I continued on to my original destination, speeding up towards the end so as to avoid a tour group that had just offloaded from a bus. Unlike the crush of people at the Golden Pavilion, Ginkakuji Temple had a steady flow of people that didn’t get congested around singular points. This immediately won it a few brownie points in my book and then the exquisite landscaping did the rest.

There is very little grass within most of the temples, instead moss covers the grounds and here was no exception. There was a multitude of mosses from emerald to forest green, all creating a lush carpet. The large number of evergreens kept the garden feeling alive and created a mystical air. I was extremely impressed with the attention to detail, from the veined stones used in the pathway to the bamboo grids used to discreetly hide the metal gratings of drains, no step was too far to ensure visitors felt fully immersed in nature.

I next looked around the Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, where tents and awnings were being pitched in preparation for New Years celebrations. The surrounding woodland was very scenic, though I will admit to feeling a little superstitious when a murder of crows started cawing at me.

I wrapped up the day with some rather bland yakitori skewers in the Gion district. I think in the future I shall have to avoid the “recommended for overseas visitors” option on menus.

Hitting the Ground Walking in Seoul

My first impression of Seoul is cold. Cold enough to wake me up from my midnight flight state of foggy sleep deprivation. After making it through immigration and retrieving my bag, I’m quick to pull out warm coat, hat, gloves and scarves (yes, plural scarves) before continuing any further. Clearly my body has forgotten what it is like to be in a cold climate after being spoilt by the year round high temperatures and humidity of Singapore. Especially when the cold temperatures in question are hovering below zero and hardened snow still lines the roads.

Land-side, I immediately run into the roadblock of none of the ATMs working for me. This is an issue I occasionally run into with some banks overseas, particularly when the exchange rates differ by a number of decimal places. Normally the quick and easy solution is to go to the next ATM along and, provided it belongs to a different bank, one is in with a fighting chance of managing to take out some cash. If not, rinse and repeat until one encounters success. At most airports there is a whole line up of ATMs, so it is just a case of trial and error to find a bank that works. Unfortunately for me, every ATM in Incheon Airport belongs to the same bank and it did not like my account. Hence I was forced to convert my leftover Sing Dollar at the currency exchange, most frustrating.

This inconvenience over, I purchased my travel card and made my way to my hostel. On the subway I had a lovely chat with a game designer about this, that and the other. It was a nice pick me up after the trauma of my ATM adventure. Parting ways, I took shelter in the subway station while I waited for the hostel reception to open. Backpack safely stowed, I ventured back into the subway armoured with some coffee and a target destination.

I started off by heading to Changdeokgung Palace just in time for the 1130 English speaking tour around the Secret Garden. This section of the palace can only be seen by tour as they are trying to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I was pleased that my timings lined up perfectly. The dusting of snow that lingered on some rooftops added a beautiful picturesque feel to the whole day. Iced over ponds complimented the wintery feel and after I had finished looking around, I was relieved to take shelter in a café to warm up and eat a late lunch.

After defrosting slightly, I made my to Unhyeongong Palace. This was much smaller, but had a few rooms laid out and mannequins in traditional dress performing various tasks. I was particularly excited to get a closer look at the chimneys and firebox systems called ondols that were used in a historic version of underfloor heating.

Taking a break from palaces and with the weather a few degrees not as cold, I wandered through the traditional Hanok Village of Bukchon. As I tried to outpace various tour groups and hambok wearing tourists, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the residents that have to listen to our racket all day. If I had had a little more time to plan, I may have stayed to try some of the traditional artwork workshops offered in some of the hanoks.

Back on my palace tour and I headed over to the Gyeongbokgung palace. This was very different to the previous two, with a more rigid layout that didn’t flow with the natural landscape in the same way that Changdeokgung palace does. The majority of it has also had to have been rebuilt in recent years due to its past relocations to Japan and various fires. To use a concept from The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, I felt these building lacked historicity. The replicas do not hold the same soul as their originals. Of course this may be because perfectly straight edges in a historical building are practically unheard of, with time wearing smooth all things and fading paint so that we forget that these haunts were also new once upon a time.

I wrapped up my tour with roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and returned to the thawing warmth of the hostel to spend a pleasant evening with the other guests. Overall today has left me extremely impressed with the South Korean government who are making a consertive effort to restore, rebuild and rejuvenate the history and culture of Korea, both with the palaces and the hanoks. Too often today, people are all too eager to leave the past behind, forgetting that the Old can hold just as much beauty, intrigue and life as the New.

Walking the Dragon

When I first came across the urban trail in Hong Kong called the Dragon’s Back, it would have taken me the same amount of restraint not to walk it as is required to prevent me from entering every bookshop I pass. That is, a level of discipline I do not possess was needed, so from day one I knew I would be winding my way along the Dragon’s back sooner or later.

The Dragon’s Back is a part of the eighth and final section of the Hong Kong trail. This section stretches from To Tei Wan to Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay) and was the route I walked today. While the official site considers the route as very difficult and taking 3 hours, I would say it is only moderately hard. As for time, it took me two hours but I was pushing myself as I enjoy the challenge of maintaining a faster pace.

But I digress, let us return to the beginning. My day did not have an auspicious start and I ended up take three buses instead of one to get to the start of the trail. This was – in part – my fault as the nature of how to ride the Hong Kong Public Light Buses still eludes me and I am terrible when it comes to shouting for anything, let alone demanding a bus pulls over because it has missed my stop. Ah… these English sensibilities of mine. Clearly this is something I must learn to overcome in the future – I cannot forever be adding hours to planned travel times just because of a dislike of “conflict”. Sometimes I fail to understand my brain.

Anyhow, after making it to the stop, only forty minutes later than intended, I embarked on my quest to climb up to the Dragon’s Back. Years of walking the wild(ish) cliffs of Guernsey had prepared me for this moment and I bounded up the first hundred and fifty steps before slowing to a slightly more maintainable speed. After all, it is important to pace oneself I wasn’t tired.

Making it to the Dragon’s Back, or rather the connecting ridge of the trail, I was transported for a moment back to Sarnia cherie and the sweet cliffs of my homeland. For that precious second, as I gazed down at waves crashing on granite, I saw not the bamboo and machilus trees but instead was surrounded by brambles, gorse and wind swept blackthorn. It was naught more than a fleeting fancy, but it invigorated me nonetheless, and I mad my way along the ridge with renewed vigour.

What goes up must come down, and so it is with any hike. All to soon I found myself descending from the Dragon’s Back and into the tree lined second half of the trail. This section of the route was extremely pleasant, with the worst of the sun blocked by gordonia trees and a few streams crossing it here and there.

Eventually I hit the road and followed it until I finally reached the last descent to Big Wave Bay. This certainly lived up to its name, with a large number of surfers all gathered in the shallows. The extremely jealous part of me tried to console itself by pointing out how the waves broke too soon but in truth my heart sang out with longing for the ocean as it always has and always will. Instead I was forced to merely walk the beach in search of shells and lost treasure

My quest over, I returned to the hostel, catching the correct bus this time, and enjoyed a little Lord of the Rings before eating a well deserved bowl of wanton noodles at Mak’s Noodles.

Off Again

To say the last month has been stressful is an understatement. When I haven’t been studying for a slew of end of semester tests and exams, I have been arranging my Christmas travels in more detail. While some of this planning was no more complicated than logging on to Hostel World and choosing the perfect balance between cost, location and amenities, other sections have proven to be more challenging. Fortunately, the worst of it is over and I can now enjoy my holiday.

I’ve started the Christmas holidays off with a stop in Hong Kong and have certainly enjoyed my first day here, though my feet are glad to be resting. I started the day off by teaming up with another girl from my hostel and going on a walking tour of the central area. Rather than focusing on traditional sights the tour provided an insight into the history of Hong Kong and its politics. The tour guide was wonderfully cheerful and well informed, including telling us where to get the best wanton noodles for lunch after the tour was over.

My favourite piece of history was about a feng shui war between the Bank of China and HSBC headquarters, as well as seeing the two lions, Stephen and Stitt outside the HSBC headquarters.

With full stomachs we rushed back over to Kowloon on MTR and headed up to Mong Kok and Prince Edwards for another tour, this one focusing on some of the social challenges faced by locals. In particular we learnt about the astoundingly high property prices and rents and how the local economy is so dependant on the maintenance of these high costs. For me, I found the existence on coffin houses where people live in cages or bunk boxes stacked upon one another and little bigger than a dog crate particularly shocking. Especially when the rent is between HK$1800 and HK$2500 a month.

After this rather gloomy though important tour a group of us headed off to sample the delights of a dim sum restaurant. I felt the Michelin Star of Tim Ho Wan was well deserved as the food was absolutely delicious and I won’t need to eat for a few years. A lovely pair of Canadian sisters knew all the best things to try and the conversation proved lively and stimulating so it was a shame to part ways.

We concluded the day with a trip on the Star Ferry and watched a somewhat anticlimactic “A Symphony of Lights” over Victoria Harbour.


Arriving at Hanoi Rocks Hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am immediately taken by the music themed interior and sold when I meet the hostel’s resident cats.  With little planned for the next day, I signed on to the free walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter tour the hostel offered.

We started off by walking to Hoan Kiem Lake.  This roughly translates as lake of the returned sword and is said to be where the Emperor Lê Lơi returned the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, to the Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui.  I have to say with this story and the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend I begin to detect an interesting premise for conspiracy.


We had a look and the Hanoi Opera House but then the skies opened so we went and ate ice cream and looked around a fancy mall until it stopped raining.


Our next stop was St Joseph Cathedral.  Despite the infusion of French influence throughout the Old Quarter, the cathedral still seemed very severe and out of place next to cheerfully painted façades and balconies overflowing with plants.


There is something so refreshing about cities filled with the vibrant green of nature.


With the tour over, we sat down on the pavement to enjoy lunch.  This proved to be an interesting mix of chopsticks and fingers.  I would love to see an English food inspector’s face at these delightful open fronted cafes and restaurants.