After a challenging period for the site, it was great to find ourselves suddenly quite busy again in 2023, with lots of opportunities for travel and new experiences. It also turned out to be a big year for me personally, as I was finally able to fulfill my dream of relocating to the countryside.

As always, it's hard to do justice to a year packed with extraordinary moments in just a handful of the best trips, but here are five that opened my eyes to something new, or challenged me in a positive way.

#5: A stroll in Iwamura

In a recent trip to Ena City in Gifu Prefecture for an upcoming video, Thomas and myself spent a very enjoyable few hours exploring this little former castle town located on the old Nakasendo highway. From its atmospheric castle ruins and old Edo Period merchant houses to its easy countryside charm, there was so much to like about the area yet it remains relatively unknown, even to many Japanese travelers.

#4: Meeting master sword makers in Gifu Prefecture

As part of our video diving into the history of the Battle of Sekigahara, I was lucky enough to meet two well known modern sword makers - Fujiwara Kanefusa and Asano Taro - with the latter proving an insightful and charming interview subject.

#3: Revisiting Himeji Castle

The last time I visited Japan's most iconic castle was within days of the enormous renovation project that among other things restored its roof from dull gray to near-white, so it was a genuine pleasure to see how it had changed. As a bonus, several parts of the castle usually closed to visitors were temporarily opened, giving us some rare views of the keep and its surroundings.

#2: Toughing it out on the Shin-Etsu trail

After wanting to give this extraordinary long distance hiking trail for a few years, I finally got my chance to check out the first section for a blog piece this summer. It soon turned out to be one of the hottest days in an unusually hot summer and a lot more challenging than expected, but still I loved the spectacular scenery and the feeling of being completely alone in wild country. I hope to continue the adventure soon!

#1: A deep dive into Bizenware pottery

The standout moment from this year's travels was learning about this fascinating form of ceramic art directly from Yamamoto-sensei, a master of the style and the son of a living national treasure. Even with my limited time and Japanese skills, his kindness and depth of experience left a lasting impression.