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Japan: Day One

You never know what to expect in Japan. After a traditional breakfast of rice, fish egg and seaweed (my favourite), I headed to the conference room for our orientation.

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Here we learned about the motive to help Onomichi tourism thrive, a little more about this small shipping city in Hiroshima with a passion for cycling, and then introduced ourselves.

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My introduction went something like "Hi my name is Gillian, I'm a travel writer, social media specialist, past TV producer, and I really enjoy eating and drinking.  Also I just learned how to ride a bike so brace yourself on our big cycling day."

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The French Canadian girl also introduced herself with a bit of "I love eating and drinking," and we quickly realized we'd be friends (and maybe left a certain impression of Canadian girls.)

After I set our group up with a hashtag to share photos - you can follow here - we took off for lunch and a day of exploring.

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Lunch was simple and good at our hotel restaurant. It has a bizarre Hawaii theme that I can't quite explain. When I ran up to my room to grab my coat I realized I had a nice mound of rice stuck to my crotch and I'm hoping I made at least one person laugh on my way up.

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After sitting in a conference room all morning we all couldn't wait to explore. As we walked to the Senkoji Temple we passed small stores selling dried fish, fruit, and pottery. Several men and women of all ages passed on bikes, and some of the trees were lit up with bright orange persimmons growing.

We took the ropeway up to the temple, which overlooks the entire city, the Seto Inland Sea, Shikoku mountains, old houses with tiled roofs, temples and shrines. The sun revealed itself and the smell of incense filtered through the air. I felt calmer than I have in a long time.

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The temple is said to have been founded in 806, the first year of the Daidō era.  The big rock beside the main hall, Tama no Iwa, is said to have been a landmark for voyages due to a shining gem placed on it in the past.

While other visitors visited the various shrines for good luck, we were taken in for a traditional tea ceremony with one of the monks.  We sat crossed legged and were served a sweet red bean jelly and matcha tea.  The secret is to have a bite of your jelly before sipping the bitter matcha.

From here we followed one of the monks down the steep small winding streets, passing local homes and a small school with children, to a meditation spot.

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The young monk, dressed traditionally with a shaved head, first led us into the temple's practice room. Here he taught us how to cross and twist our legs into a difficult meditation posture, to focus our gaze, concentrate on our breathing, and try to find a blank space in our mind.

The monk himself had mastered the posture, the art of slow inhales and exhales, and that happy place of nothingness (he said don't think about dinner - my tummy gurgled.)

We were then led into a separate room for a ten minute meditation. We bowed, turn towards our pillows, sat and closed our eyes. At first my legs throbbed. There was no blank space (I even started singing Blank Space by Taylor Swift my head), and then something shifted. I counted my breaths.  I felt calm. My legs hurt less. And before I knew it we heard the sound of the gong and the meditation was over.

When it was all done my friend told me she was impressed that I had kept the seated position the whole time and the monk complimented my posture - I was elated. I have been struggling to meditate for years now and it's something I would really love to bring into my life.

Feeling a new sense of joy and calm, we headed back down the small roads, passing groups of people setting up for tomorrow's festival, paper lanterns hung everywhere, a young group of kids passing us, each yelling "Konichiwa!" with cheeky grins.

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We walked back towards the hotel through an underground shopping street lined with small food stores, clothing boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Many cyclists casually zoomed past. I realized this small city has a great sense of calm to it. It reminds me a lot of the villages in Europe, with an added sense of stillness I've only experienced in Japan.

We passed a small artisanal coffee shop with smiling owners, a bakery that smelt like heaven wafting down the street, kimono shops, a cafe selling waffles towering with whipped cream and fruit, a small produce shop with perfectly packaged apples and ripe looking persimmons.

Since I had my French Canadian with me, I declared it was time for an apéro!

We walked over to U2 with two other journalists from Indonesia and Mexico.  U2 is an old warehouse converted into a shop, restaurant, bar, gourmet grocer, cycle store and cycle themed hotel on the wharf.  The modern space is gorgeous and feels like it belongs in New York or Paris.  We asked to see some of the rooms - which were all equipped with a wall mounting to hold your bike - before enjoying proper apéro at the bar.

The night ended with traditional okonomiyaki - a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "what you like" or "what you want".  Tonight's special had spaghetti, egg, pork and vegetables.  While I had a separate meal due to my gluten allergy, I loved seeing these compilations, which reminded me of something my brother might have created after returning home from a night out partying with friends.

I went to bed early and woke up at 4 a.m.  I'm now sipping my instant coffee from the convenience store, writing this blog, and hoping to even attempt some Zazen meditation before another day in Onomichi.