Saturday 29 December 2018

2018: The year of coming home

End-of-year greetings to you, fellow sun-travellers. How was your journey around the golden orb this time?

I love this part of the year, for the pause it gives us all, whatever our beliefs, the breathing space amid the relentless moving-forwardness of life, the chance to glance back at the year that's been.

Barefoot, at home
At first, it's hard to see it clearly. Then markers appear out of the memory mist and a movie begins to play, seen from your own eyes. Each year unique to each of us, despite all the shared experiences and events.

I packed my travel bag less often than usual this year, by choice: to minimise my flying time and to spend more time at home letting my roots sink deeper into the rich Northern Rivers soil.

I'm not sure I have the mix right yet - between travelling to make a living and staying home to make a life - but I'm working on it. And although being home is often regarded as second-best, a consolation prize, something you do when you don't travel, particularly in my world, it's precious to me and I'm increasingly grateful for all the love, belonging and natural beauty I've found in Lennox.

Frangipani thanks
At the same time, I feel privileged to travel and want to thank all the editors and travel people (PRs, tourism organisations, tour operators, you know who you are) who have sent me places and published the stories I've brought back.

That's my 2018 in a macadamia nutshell: a year of balancing these competing, co-existing urges.

Here are a few personal highlights from it, things that made me feel lucky or happy or connected to this big old world hurtling around the sun.

Nepalese kids on the trail
1. Trekking in the Langtang Valley. This Nepal trek went beyond the usual simplicity of walking amid snowy mountains and along glacier-fed rivers, because every day we met people affected by the 2015 earthquakes that devastated the country. A reminder that while many places are over-touristed, some destinations really want, and need, tourists. Read all about it here.

Old jeans make excellent bags!
2. Boomerang Bags Lennox Head. The community group I helped to start last year had its official launch in June and has become a good news story around town. Our volunteers turn recycled fabric into reusable shopping bags we give away and sell at local shops to reduce plastic pollution. It's the first time I've been involved in something like this and I love it.

A stone-walled shed, Nepal
3. Other home-game highlights: I started singing lessons! And, as part of my education, saw A Star is Born (four times!). I read a lot of fantastic non-fiction, particularly Sapiens, Eating Animals and Utopia for Realists. And I helped my dad launch his new website,, which helps people find someone to travel with. I also did a travel sketching workshop and started doing little drawings when I'm away.

Serenity at Santani
4. Serenity in Sri Lanka. Though I've been into yoga and meditation for a while, I stayed at my first wellness resort in August. Santani Wellness Resort was the highlight of my Sri Lanka trip. The life of a travel writer might seem dreamy from the outside, but it's still a life, with all its ups and downs, and those three days at this beautiful place - with its twice daily yoga classes, incredible Ayurvedic food, kindly people, and bungalows reflecting the "architecture of silence" - soothed my soul and brought me home to myself.

5. A win for sustainable travel. Also in August, I won the ASTW's Best Responsible Travel Story award, for the sixth time, for my review of Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan. It feels wonderful to be recognised by one's peers and an award like this is also a great opportunity to spread the word about low-impact travel and I'm grateful for that.

A writer's tiny house (yes please)
6. Learning how to build a tiny house. In September I added fuel to my daydreams of a rent-free existence by doing a weekend tiny house-building workshop run by Fred's Tiny Houses. Daunting as the whole idea seems to me, Fred's workshop inspired me to make this happen, somehow. Stay tuned.

7. Japan, revisited. I spent October in Kyushu, where I did a working holiday more than 20 years ago, and fell in love with Japan all over again. The best part was self-driving around the island in the world's cutest campervan, indulging my love of Japanese food and relaxing into the bosom of Japan's peacefulness.

Buddha in Dad's garden
8. Coming home, again. Last month Dad and I planted three native flame trees on his property for Mum, who died 25 years ago. That was a big milestone, not least because the life I now live began that day.

After Mum died, I left my corporate job to live in Japan, where I found my feet as a writer and travel photographer. Much later I remembered she'd been a photographer too, before she married Dad, and had always loved to travel. She also grew up in Murwillumbah, in northern NSW, just north of where I came to live four years ago - by chance, I thought, or maybe it was Mum calling me home one last time.

Barefoot love from me to you
That's how it is sometimes. We put one foot in front of the other, thinking life is linear, until something makes us realise it's really a circle.

May your new year be full of adventures, away and at home, that remind you we're all connected - to the earth, to each other, to the past and the unlived future. See you back here in 2019.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Sashimi, cats and tatami mats: 15 reasons to love Japan

What's your favourite country? People ask me this a lot. I often feel cornered by the question and end up mumbling something about every country being amazing. Or I start talking about the place I've just been.

Street art, outside Fukuoka
What makes a favourite country anyway, I wonder (sometimes out loud). There are some I would happily visit again (Jordan), others where I feel part of humanity (India), places that are special because I may never get there again (Antarctica).

But there is one country I've loved for a long time: Japan. I lived there in the mid-1990s and it changed my life. I taught English there and surfed typhoon swells, found a community of like-minded friends and lived pretty simply for a year and a half. It's also where I grew my wings and started to write about my travels.

And cosmos flowers
When I think of Japan, I don't imagine Tokyo or Kyoto or even Hokkaido. I think of hot summer days, palm trees lining the main roads, bento box picnics by the sea and friendly people. I think of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Kyushu for the first time in 22 years. So much hadn't changed. And being there reminded me of some of the things I love about Japan, my Japan.

1. The people. It's never a good idea to generalise about an entire nation, even one as homogeneous as Japan (only one per cent of its population is non-Japanese). But it is basically an introvert's paradise where the ideal is to be quiet, thoughtful, bookish and sensitive (unlike the "extrovert ideal" in countries such as the US and Australia; see Susan Cain's wonderful best-seller Quiet).

A simple vegetarian meal (a rarity
in Japan) in Yufuin, Kyushu
2. The food. Where to start? I love the fresh-off-the-boat sashimi, the sweetness of Japanese rice, miso soup and genmai cha (brown rice tea). I love okinomiyaki ("Osaka pancake"), the noodles (particularly udon, soba and ramen), teriyaki anything, bento boxes and California rolls, onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed, the perfect healthy snack) and so much more.

3. "Irrasshaimase!" I love hearing this when I walk into a shop, cafe or restaurant. There's no expectation of a reply, it's just the staff acknowledging your presence. There's no "I'm too cool to serve you" attitude in Japan either. People seem to take genuine pride in their work, or at least don't show if they don't. There's a lot to be said for NOT expressing every thought and feeling one has, in the name of group harmony, and makes even the busiest places feel surprisingly calm.

My own private onsen, at KAI Aso
4. The onsen! Japan's natural hot spring baths come in all shapes, sizes and temperatures. Some are social, some are rustic, some have outdoor pools and ocean views, others are silent but for the trickling of volcano-warmed water. I love them all. I even love sitting on those little stools to shower and the communal (same-sex) nudity - all for just a few hundred yen (about $5).

The "Ship's Cat" outside
WeBase hostel, Fukuoka
5. Cat-love. Japan is quite possibly the world's crazy cat-lady, in a good way. Wherever you go, you'll see cats. Not just real ones - on the streets, in parks, snoozing on the steps of temples and in "cat cafes" (there are "cat hostels" too now). But cat iconography, from Hello Kitty everything (even a Hello Kitty-themed bullet train) and waving fortune cats on shop counters to a giant cat sculpture out the front of WeBase hostel in Fukuoka. Japan's No.1 courier company even has two cats on its logo, which hasn't changed in decades: a mother cat carrying her kitten.

Hello Kitty does Hokusai
6. Convenience stores. "Conbini" (as they're called) really are convenient in Japan. Not only is there a Lawson, Family Mart or 7-Eleven on almost every corner, they're usually open 24 hours, have incredibly clean toilets (good to know when travelling) and sell everything from snacks and bento boxes to toothbrushes, shirts, undies, pens and notebooks, and magazines. Even the coffee's not bad.

Loved this tatami room in the
mountains of eastern Kyushu
7. Tatami mats. Oh, how I love the sweet straw smell of tatami mats. Not to mention the feel of them under bare feet (no slippers allowed!). Traditionally made from rice straw, they just say "Japan" to me. I love paper shoji screens too and how their delicacy inspires mindfulness; one careless gesture and you can tear a hole in the wall.

8. Bikes. I love seeing people of all ages riding bikes, day or night, without helmets (so European!), which makes bike-riding accessible to everyone: women in skirts and high heels on their way to work, children returning from school (they usually do have helmets on), ojichans (grandpas) riding to the shops, even police officers (who wear caps instead of helmets in Kyushu).

9. Hundred-yen shops. There are thousands of these shops in Japan, where everything costs 100 yen (well, 108 yen including tax, which is about one US dollar). They're way better than bargain $2 shops back home, selling everything from stationery to swimming goggles to homewares and kitchen tools. They're a great place to pick up reusable chopsticks too, to avoid killing a tree three times a day by using disposable wooden chopsticks.

Black, shiny limo-like taxi
10. Taxis! In Japan, catching a taxi makes you feel as if you're in a limo: they're black and shiny, the drivers wear uniforms with caps and white gloves, lacy doilies cover the headrests, and the back doors open automatically (Aussies, take note: one never sits up front in Japan).

11. Full-service petrol stations. Only in Japan would you be able to find someone to pump gas for you, in the 21st century. There are fully automated gas stations too, but if you're ever driving in Japan, try to have the full-service experience at least once. It's like being set upon by a Formula One pit crew. The uniformed attendants will even stop traffic for you as you drive out, before bowing deeply until you're out of sight.

Remember these?
12. It's timeless. I'm not talking about geishas and cherry blossoms, lovely as they are, but about the fact that on my latest trip I saw things I remember seeing 22 years ago. Like one-yen coins and public phone boxes and the same convenience store and department store brands. Constancy is a rare thing in this ever-changing world.

13. It's safe. I love that you can walk down pretty much any street in Japan alone, even late at night, and feel completely at ease (my fellow womenfolk will get this). It's one reason I didn't even think twice about doing a solo campervan trip around Kyushu on my recent visit.

Beautiful Takachiho Gorge, Miyazaki
14. Japanese English. It's oddly comforting to see English signs in a country where you can't read the signs (I can speak a little Japanese, but I never learned to read it). And some of them make you smile, like the Hotel Grateful, The Brilliant Coffee (a cafe) and car names such as the Toyota Athlete and the Suzuki Stingray.

15. It's beautiful. Mountains, volcanoes, cedar and cypress forests, even beautiful beaches and wild horses in Kyushu. There's also beauty in human-made settings: tatami rooms, weathered wood, wabisabi (the embracing of imperfections) and Japan's trademark simplicity.

A footnote: My love for Japan isn't blind and this post wouldn't be complete without mentioning one thing I don't love about it - the excessive use of plastic packaging.

Pretty, but plastic
Even travelling with my own reusable water bottle, coffee cup and chopsticks, I probably threw away more plastic on my three-week trip than I do in a year back home. I bought plastic bento boxes, rice balls wrapped in plastic, even a banana wrapped in plastic. (I know. I'm going to have to change the name of this blog). I vow to do better next time.


Big thanks to Kyushu TourismWalk Japan and Hoshino Resorts' KAI Aso for a wonderful trip in one of my favourite places in the world. I'll post more links as my stories about the trip are published - about the 10-day hike, the solo road trip in the world's cutest campervan, two nights in a boutique hot spring resort and a few days in Fukuoka, gateway to Kyushu.

Until then, I wish you all peace and a happy Saturnalia, winter/summer solstice, Christmas or whatever you like to celebrate this time of year. Maybe just the chance to slow down and take a few deep breaths. I'm all for that. Thanks for reading :-)