L|M Retreat | Japan | Kurokawa Onsen

Finally. A year later, and I’m back in Japan. Matt & I just arrived, red eyed & happy, in Tokyo last night. So now seemed as good a time as any to share the photos from the most magical part of last year’s journey to Japan: a stay at a traditional Japanese onsen ryokan (hot spring fed bathhouse), Ryokan Sanga, in Kurokawa for a photography retreat that I hosted with Haruka Sakaguchi, the talented photographer & designer behind The Denizen Co. (and also the designer of my new website which will go live…some day when I get my act together!) In a few days we’ll be greeting this year’s guests, and I can only hope this becomes an annual tradition. You can get on our mailing list at Local Milk Retreats to be notified of all such get aways in the coming year!

Japan might be my favorite place on earth; maybe it’s because I can never hope to truly understand it. I am & forever will be an outsider respectfully looking in, and because of that it will always hold a mystery that’s hard to find in this melting pot, digitally connected world. Besides that the country is healing and serene, a place where time both doesn’t exist and where it seems to scramble forward with sci-fi intensity. All of Japan has captured my imagination, my spirit. You hear all the time that a visit here is a life changing experience, and I concur.

Last year’s journey that began in hectic Tokyo street light (find my little guide here…though we’re working on a new one with a map and many others for Japan!), snaked to mountain trail between Tsumago and Magome in the Kiso Valley where I explored the countryside alone, and then began anew when I met up with Haruka in Kyoto. She and I trekked to Koyosan together for a stay in a temple, and then most finally made our way to Kurokawa where we hosted the Mono No Aware photography, food, and slow living retreat you see here. The idea both last year and this year is to explore the wabi-sabi concepts of ephemerality, imperfection, and shadow through creative expression and the camera lens in the land of their inception. The philosophy of wabi-sabi is something that permeates both my life and my creative work. Perfect imperfection is, and always has been to me, true beauty.

Upon arrival at Ryokan Sanga, we were in another world: mossy boulders, downy ferns, steaming outdoor baths of aqua water nestled in the dense green of a secluded forest in the shadow of the largest active volcano in Japan, Mount Aso. We made our home in a tatami mat room, and tucked into a delicate, traditional Japanese supper with fragrant rice, pickles, fish, and earthy cups of green tea. After supper I made my way, in the dark, to the steam of the women’s outdoor bath. Alone in those waters, I achieved a dream state. I experience true contentment and a rare reprieve from anxiety. The next day we were joined by a small group of creative, adventurous women—Japan attracts a solid crowd—and our retreat began.

The next couple of days were spent learning & practicing photography, having one on one consultations, and styling with pastries from the village & the gorgeous pottery and books the bathhouse had on hand. One day we were joined by local senseis who taught us the traditional arts of ikebana (Japanese floral arranging) and tea ceremony. Each evening after dinner we’d take a dip in the out door bath, talk, and watch the steam rise in the moonlight. On our last day we took a journey through the mountains to the traditional ceramic making village of Onta. Water mills power the giant wooden hammers that pummel the clay in the earth, and the streets are lined with kilns. We visited the studio of a local artist, and you can imagine the bags of cups, tea pots, plates, and  bowls we all departed with.

Many more photos of Japan to come along with travel guides for the regions we’re visiting—as many notes as photos are being taken! In the mean time if you’d like to visit Kurokawa (and I recommend, given the opportunity, that you do, the stay at Ryokan Sanga can’t be beat & do try to visit Onta!)

Follow along on Snapchat (user name = localmilk) & Instagram for this year’s adventures as we make our way all over the country!

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