Taichung, Feng Chia Market and hike in Da Keng

As the last month of 2017 started, I took the chance to visit two of my friends who were temporarily in Taiwan. Yes, Taiwan, the same island I had visited in February, only 10 months ago. Since it’s not close to other destinations I had in mind for my next trips, I never expected to be back so soon. That’s the way traveling goes at times. For as much planning you can do, sometimes opportunities come up and you must say goodbye to all that was previously planned. That’s why I’ve never been much of a planner. 

I landed in Taipei airport in the early afternoon and took a 2 hours Ubus to Taichung 臺中市, the third biggest city of the island (as big as Kaohsiung in the South and only second to Taipei) located in the middle of the west coast. I spent only 2 full days in the city, trying to spend time with my friends and see some of the attractions.

As the three of us were all staying in Xitun district 西屯區 we spent our evenings walking around Feng Chia night market逢甲夜市, considered one of the biggest ones in Taiwan. This was also a popular spot because of its vicinity to Feng Chia University, so the streets were crowded with people enjoying meals and shopping. We found a place to have dumplings and got a few drinks while walking, but it was impossible to run away from the pungent smell of Stinky Tofu, sold everywhere as it’s proudly one of the traditional food on the island.

On my second day, while one of my friends was working, the other and I went looking for a hike close to the city. Mountains are very close to Taichung so it’s easy to guess that there are many hiking opportunities. We chose to go to Dakeng 大坑 Scenic Area. We started at the beginning of trail 10, which we followed up until it merged with trail 6. From there we reached Guanyin Pavilion which offered a panorama over the whole city. The way up was not hard and it took us only 45 minutes. We ended the trail and found a bus to drive to the east side of the Dakeng 大坑 Scenic Area, where trails 1 to 5 are. The bus ride was only 15 minutes long. 

Dakeng 大坑 Trail 2 in Taichung

The bus stops at the trailhead of trails 1 to 4 (trail 5 is the one that links the other four on top of the mountain). We picked number 2 and started the ascent. It said it would take 1 hour to complete 1.4 km of trail. Only one hour?! It seemed to be overestimated, but as we made the way up, the trail changed so that it was entirely made up of logs, nailed one to another in a sometimes precarious way. As it became really steep, we had to use the ropes by the side to pull ourselves up. It was a tiring hike but very adventurous, and we were both without breath on the top! I started to chat to a group of Chinese middle-aged hikers who were having tea together. Even if they spoke no English, we communicated for a while and sat down with them to have tea and a few slices of apple. I love how communication can be behind the barriers of language. They showed us the way on trail 5 to connect to trail 3, the one we took to descend. Some parts of the trail 5 offered amazing views and made the ascent worthwhile. 

We waved goodbye and took the trail 3 by ourselves. An hour later we reached the road again. It was an adventurous hike but I do recommend to do it only if you are fit (at least a little bit), as it’s not an easy one. 

Having seen another part of Taiwan and spent time with my friends, I took the bus back to the airport and left the country to go back to Vietnam. Who knows when I’ll be back again!

Anyway, it was time to go back to Đà Nẵng and organize my next trip. 


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The hike of Koyasan Choishi Michi trail

As I like one day hikes, I decided to fly to Japan and walk the Koyasan Choishi Michi pilgrimage trail. This hike is situated in Wakayama prefecture, in the Kansai Area, only about one hour south of Osaka by train. 

Gathering information on the internet was not easy, but luckily I found some very interesting posts by fellow travel bloggers with all the information I needed. It was very useful to do so, especially when I found out the beginning of the trail was not in Koyasan station, but in Kudoyama station! There you can start the hike and finish at Koyasan village, where all the accommodation options are located. The best help for the hike was this map.

I took the Nankai Railway train from Shin-Imamiya (you can also take it from Namba) to Koyasan on the Koya Line. Many websites will tell you to get to Gokuraku-Bashi station and then take the cable car to Koyasan. Don’t do that if you want to do the hike in one day! I went down in Kudoyama station, before Gokuraku-Bashi, and that’s where the hike starts! The trip to get there from Shin-Imamiya lasted just over an hour and the ticket was 790 yen.

The hardest part, at that stage, was to find the beginning of the hike from Kudoyama station. Just outside the tiny station there is a large map that helped me find my way through the small town and to Jison-In, the temple that marks the beginning of the trail. It took me about 20 minutes to get there, helped by an elderly Japanese couple who was traveling in the same direction.

It took five and a half hours of hiking to get from Jison-In to Daimon gate, situated at the entrance of Koyasan village. The map really helped me to understand how far I was and what landmarks I had to look for on the way. On the path there were plenty of maps, so once started, it’s practically impossible to get lost. There are also 180 posts (or chôishi) located at 109 metres intervals to sign the way to the pilgrims. 

Koyasan is an active monastic center founded by Buddhist priest Kukai (later renamed Kobo Daishi) over 1200 years ago. This sacred territory in Koya Mountain has been the destination of pilgrims for over a thousand years, so it immediately attracted my attention when I was looking for an interesting hike to do in Asia. 

The first part of the hike was one of the most intense, as the path constantly led me further up in altitude. The views from this part of the hike were amazing, and I was surrounded by thousands of trees full of ripe persimmons. I could not resist and took one to give me energy for the rest of the hike.

The first five of the total 23 kilometres were probably the hardest. Once I arrived at Ropponsugi Pass, the path became flatter while it immersed itself into the deep forest. Trees were so high that no sign of modern society filtered through anymore. It almost felt like traveling back in time, as everything was the same way it had been for centuries. No other people in sight, I kept going hearing only my footsteps on the irregular ground and the sound of birds chirping high up in the trees.

This felt like the longest part of the hike. The landscape did not change as I kept walking endlessly through the forest. Although it was a sunny Autumn day, I needed to have a sweater on as the light did not reach the path but was stopped a few dozen metres over my head by the trees.

It took me an interminable two and a half hours from Ropponsugi Pass to the small village of Yadate. My legs started to feel tired after this trip through the past. Time spun back to the 21st century as I slipped a 1000 yen note in a vending machine to get a snack and a drink. I sat on a small bench to sip my drink while observing the map.

There were 5 more kilometres to walk to get to Koyasan, so I soon resumed the hike. According to the map, the path was supposed to lead up once more, but I did not think it was as hard as the first part of the hike. At this stage, the road runs close to the forest, so one can hear the sound of car engines roaring while they make the way up the mountain to their final destination. 

The tiredness of my legs did not stop me from enjoying every step of the last part of the hike. The last hundreds of metres were really steep, but by then, with the end in sight, everything became easy and in a few minutes I made the last turn and could admire the intense red of the columns of Daimon gate, which meant the hike on the trail was over. 

The village of Koyasan offers many possibilities of accommodation in a shukubō 宿坊. These temple lodgings may not be the cheapest or more comfortable place of your stay in Japan, but they offer a unique glimpse into life in a temple. Normally, you are served dinner and breakfast and you can join in the morning prayers with the monks in the early morning. As I did not have enough time for that, I did the hike in a day and then got back to Osaka, but I heard many good reviews about people staying overnight and suggesting it as the best way to explore the area. 

The last thing I did before heading back to Osaka was to visit Okunoin cemetery, located on the east end of the village. It was an amazing experience to walk between high cedars and old graves and memorials of families that had probably been built during the last thousand years. The cemetery contains over two thousand graves, making it the largest one in the country. The walk in the cemetery ends with the spectacular Torodo Hall, lit by over 10,000 lanterns. As the legend goes, some of them have been burning for over 900 years.

The cemetery offers a spectacular view even at night, so there are night tours organized to fully enjoy the sacred atmosphere that permeates the place. I did not have the time to stay long after dark, but could enjoy the sight of the lanterns lit up everywhere along the paths that guide you around the cemetery.

Just after sunset, I took the local bus from the town to Koyasan station to make my way back to Osaka. It was a rewarding hike, and although I wished I had more time to spend there, I will always bring with me the images of the high trees, the posts by the side of the path and ancient graves hiding behind the trees in Okunoin cemetery.


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Deer and shrines in Nara

I remember when I was a kid, maybe seven or eight years old, a warm summer day somewhere in the mountains where I used to spend a few weeks of school holiday in my grandfather’s home village. That day we had driven to an area where the local community was taking care of injured deer. Easy to access to the few tourists who made it there, it was a unique experience to see them up close and not surrounded by the cold barriers of a zoo. I can still recall the emotion of having a small deer eating food from my hand through the protective fence. I had been scared he would also bite one of my fingers off.

Deer in Nara Park

Twenty years later, as I was admiring the shape of a five-story pagoda, I turned my face to the left, and there it was. In the middle of the crowd. A deer. Our eyes met briefly. He seemed not to care about me, and turned towards another tourist who had a piece of delicious deer cracker in his hand. Reading about it could not take away the sense of surprise in meeting my first deer of Nara Park. It had been few days since I read about them, but the late arrival in Kansai airport, the night search of the hostel in Osaka and the early morning train ride to Nara made me forget about it.

It did not take long to notice a second deer, then a third, then more and more in any direction I decided to turn my head. As I walked deeply into the park, towards the ancient temples and shrines, the same scene seemed to repeat in front of my eyes. Tourists feeding small crackers to these tame animals, who seemed accustomed to this pleasant routine. 

Quickly getting used to this presence during my walk, I proceeded in the park to visit some of the most ancient buildings in Japan. They were all built during Nara’s short spell as the capital of Japan, from 710 to 794. 

The first stop I made was in Tōdai-ji 東大寺, a Buddhist temple complex that includes the Great Buddha hall Daibutsuden 大仏殿. It was built to host a 16 m tall Buddha statue, completed in the year 751, and has been rebuilt twice after fires, the last time in 1709. Even though the current hall was rebuilt only 2/3 as big as the original one (57 metres long and 50 metres wide), it has been, up until twenty years ago, the largest wooden building in the world.

Tōdai-ji temple in Nara

As I entered the hall, I was welcomed by the smile of the Buddha, the same smile that had welcomed millions of people in 13 centuries of history. The statue had also been rebuilt several times, as it had been damaged by fire and even earthquakes during its long life. This did not change the feeling of being surrounded by history, the same feeling I encounter every time I visit historical sites in this ancient and fascinating country.

I walked out the southeast exit and followed the path south for 15 minutes, surrounded by deer and other tourists. The road led to Kasuga-taisha 春日大社, the most celebrated shrine in Nara. Built in 768, it had been periodically rebuilt every 20 years for almost a thousand years. The tradition was discontinued at the end of the Edo Period (only 150 years ago). The shrine is known for having 3000 lanterns along the path in Nara park that leads to the main building. The lanterns, a symbol of guidance and illumination in Shinto beliefs, were donated by citizens as a sign of support for the shrine.

Nara seen from Mount Wakakusa

On my second day in Nara I also had the chance to walk up Wakakusa-yama 若草山 a small grass-covered mountain behind Nara park. For hike enthusiasts like me, it’s a nice walk up to keep fit. It takes less than one hour to the top, including stops on the way to admire the view of Nara and all the mountains that surround it. 

Once at the top, be prepared to be once again surrounded by deer, who seem to understand that they can wait there for the tourists and their deer crackers. I could not even take a picture with the sign saying 342 metres without having deer around me!

Nara can be easily visited on a one day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, as all its attractions are in or very close to Nara park. For more information on the trains to get there, click here

The deer in Nara park are very tame, so don’t be afraid to buy some deer crackers from the many sellers (150 yen) and feed them! After all, in how many places in the world can you do that?!


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