Hello, I’m Nicolas, a freelance photographer from France, with a strong love of Japan and Japanese culture.
I’m a full-time destination photographer now residing in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Santorini, an island in the southern Aegean Sea about 200 kilometers off the coast of mainland Greece.
My trip there started as just a holiday, but the breathtaking views as well as the timely meeting of my future wife, Angeliki, got me hooked, and I now call it home.
However, in September 2017, a couple of months after my arrival in Santorini, I left on a trip to Japan on my working holiday visa.
My plan was to move to Japan for a year to focus on my photography project and this is how I came across Workshift, an online platform that helps freelancers discover possible work opportunities.
Long story short, Angeliki joined me in Japan a few months after my arrival and we traveled and worked together.
Not so long after that, we had a baby girl, named Tokio!
As we left Japan, I did not have the opportunity to use the Workshift platform much, but I stayed registered and received regular newsletters from them.
Last October, I received an unexpected email invitation from Workshift to apply for a once in a lifetime ‘adventure’ which got me and my wife jumping for joy!
It was an opportunity to travel to Japan (all expenses paid), to the island of Kyushu, a region in Japan that we had always wanted to visit.
The purpose for which was to participate in a new experimental tour created by the Japan Tourist Bureau (JTB) and get feedback from European travelers about the quality and enjoyment of the tour.
With no hesitation, we applied to the offer, and a couple of days later had a Skype interview with the management of Workshift.
Not long after that we finally received the amazing news that we had been selected for the ‘adventure’!
This once in a lifetime ‘adventure’ was the brainchild of JTB and the local tourist office of Minami Oguni, a rural area in Kumamoto prefecture, who were looking for a European couple, to explore new touristic paths and tours in the area and provide their feedback, with all expenses paid.
The day finally came for our departure where we flew from Athens to Japan. Upon arrival to Kumamoto airport we were greeted by our host and were transfered to our accommodation, Senomoto Kogen Hotel.
The hotel was a modern ryokan style luxury hotel, with natural onsen springs, overlooking the mountains and the volcanos of Aso, a breathtaking view.
After a good night’s sleep, a warm bath in the onsen (hot springs), and an indulging breakfast (both continental and japanese), we met with our tour guide, Max, to start our 4 days of adventure!
We started the first day with a cycling activity of about 1.5 hours on mountain bikes, where we cycled downhill though the valleys and forests, to reach a settlement of farmhouses.
In one of the farmhouses, we met the owners, a lovely old couple, and together we visited their farm field where we picked fresh spinach and japanese village potatoes for our lunch.
Together we cooked a lovely meal with the freshly picked vegetables, and after lunch, they performed some passages from old folklore japanese myths.
We left the farmhouse with warm goodbyes and hopped on our bikes to continue our ride through the countryside passing small rivers and picturesque villages.
For the end of our day, we were hosted in an old lady’s house where we were going to stay the night. We were welcomed by an outdoor fire where we were going to barbecue meat, called yakiniku in Japanese.
The meal was excellent and great fun for all of us, accompanied with a great variety of alcoholic drinks.
Next morning, after a comfortable warm night on tatami floors, we had lovely homemade japanese breakfast (including miso soup, salmon, local yogurt etc.) and got ready for our next adventure.
The second day was based and inspired by the forest. Our tour guide, Max, picked us up with a taxi, and drove towards the forest.
At the forest entry, we were introduced to a lumberjack, who would guide us through the forest. We were provided with rain boots and helmets and deep in the forest we walked.
We were told about the history behind the forest, the trees, and the need of human intervention in order to maintain the cedar tree forests.
The lumberjack showed us how to cut a cedar tree (which is truly massive) with a chainsaw, and with the trunk of the tree we built a bench and chairs for us to enjoy a nice hot cup of coffee in the nature. After a walk in the cedar tree forest, we hopped back into our taxi, and headed for lunch, in a lovely B&B ran by a lovely old couple.
In the afternoon, we visited a local lumbermill, to see how the cedar wood from the surrounding forest it’s been processed and turned into planks for commercial use.
Not far from the lumbermill, owned by the lumbermill’s wife, was a small studio, were we experienced candle making.
In order to utilize and recycle every part of the tree and wood, the lumbermill’s wife, utilizes the needles of the cedar tree, to create lovely scent oil. With this oil, we scented our candles that we made and decorated on the premises, a lovely artsy designer’s studio.
With our lovely smelling creations in hand, we headed to our accommodation to end the day, in the amazing onsen (hot springs) town of Kurokawa.
In a small town along the border of Minami Oguni, is a settlement of traditional ryokans (old japanese inns with accommodation and food) that are built in the banks of a river, providing the guest with onsen baths (natural hot springs).
Our ryokan was one of the oldest in town, and provided amazing Japanese hospitality, that felt like going back in time. Our traditional tatami room, the lovely yukatas (spring kimonos to wear in the photo above while walking to the onsen) and an amazing kaiseki dining experience.
After dinner we had the opportunity to enjoy a small stroll in town and bathing in both the public and private onsens.
After the relaxing baths, a good night’s sleep and a lovely breakfast served in a private dining room, we were ready to experience the water path, the focus of the third day.
We drove to a small settlement, where we followed the river upstream, as close to its source as possible. We tasted the clear crispy water and followed and explored the riverbanks. In this settlement, we encountered the inhabitants, where we fished from a local man’s pond, for our lunch.
We followed a local farmer and picked fresh vegetables from her small garden by the river, and all of us together cooked and ate a lovely lunch including the veggies and fish we caught.
Later this day, we visited a shitake mushroom farm. There, we met the young owner, who showed us around and explained us the process of cultivating mushrooms and how much it’s depended on fresh water. After touring the shitake farm, we picked some mushrooms, and grilled them for a snack, honestly the tastiest mushrooms I ever tried.
The evening, we spent our time in the onsen town relaxing and having dinner in our ryokan.
The Last Day
Last day of our adventure begins. The fourth day was mostly about touring the Aso area and visiting touristic sites. Aso is an active volcano surrounded by a caldera offering breathtaking views.
We started the day by stopping at a lookout point to admire the caldera views, and then hopped in our taxi, and visited Nabegataki falls, natural waterfalls in a protect natural reserve.
We had a lovely lunch stop at the town of Aso for soba noodles, the famous specialty of the area, and continued closer to the volcano crater, in a hill where you could admire the smoking peaks of the mountains.
To conclude our day, we visited Kamishikimi shrine, a hidden gem in the middle of the forest providing majestic and mystical vibes.
For our last night we were housed in a lovely traditional B&B, and next morning drove to Kumamoto airport to begin our journey back.
The opportunity that was offered to us to visit Minami Oguni was unique. We experienced untouched paths of Japan and Japanese culture, explored nature and people and returned home full of beautiful memories, and connected to places and people we would definitely love to visit again.