Last monthI was asked to write an article of the Miyazaki International Exchange Report. They ask local foreign residents to write about their experiences in Japan and share them with members of the International Association. I wrote a piece about seeing a Sumo tournament last year and thought it would be fun to share it here as well. I’ve included the Japanese translations (provided by Heyne Kim, a Coordinator for International Relations who works in Miyazaki) just for fun. Enjoy!
When you think about Japan, as a non-Japanese, there are a few things that likely come to mind. Sushi, kimono, Kinkaku-Ji, and of course, sumo. So when I arrived in Japan for the first time two years ago, I had big plans to make sure I experienced all of these things. I ate at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant for my first meal in Miyakonojo. I took a trip to Kyoto and found that Kinkaku-Ji is way shinier than the pictures show, and I spent a weekend in Izumi, Kagoshima, where the organizers helped all participants try on (and keep!) our very own kimono. I did all of these, and more, but by the end of my first year I had still not seen a sumo match.
This wasn’t for lack of trying. Soon after I arrived in August I learned about the official tournament held yearly in Fukuoka. I quickly made plans with some friends to go over a long weekend. We booked the hotels, applied for time off from work, and waited for the tickets to go on sale. Despite our best efforts, by the time we went down to the combini to buy tickets, all of the reasonably-priced options were gone. Someone had bought up all of the tickets, and was reselling them at three times the normal price. We were all terribly disappointed, but we couldn’t afford the inflated price and so we changed our plans. I resolved to try again the next year, and I wrote the 2016 tournament dates on my calendar as a promise to myself.
Sunday was our last full day on Yakushima, and we were determined to get a long hike in. The weather gods appeared to be on our side, and when we woke up it was sunny and warm. We packed our trail snacks and water bottles and hit the road for Yakisugi Land, one of the most popular hiking spots on the island.
Yakisugi Land has several trails of varying lengths, all starting and ending in the same spots. It’s basically a big loop, with bridges at various points to take you back to the parking lot. Annin and I were set on a long hike, so we chose the 150 minute path (the longest one) and decided we’d do a second hike after lunch.
As we gathered our packs in the car we barely noticed a large tour bus pulling into the parking lot, and took our time getting set up and stopping by the restrooms. This was a big mistake. We went through the park entrance only to find ourselves behind a large tour group stopping for pictures every two seconds. We glared at the tour guide (clad in loafers and a suit, this was clearly not a group that cared about hiking!) but he made no move to ask his group to step aside and let us through. Luckily we found a detour which took us to the “Thousand Year Cedar” and away from the group. The tree was cool, but the silence and ability to move at a reasonable pace were better.
When we got back to the main trail we had thankfully lost the tour, and so we made our way through the forest. At first the trail was entirely paved, and we were worried that our hike would turn out to be more of a stroll. But as we continued on the pavement gave way to a path of roots and stones and we were relieved.
After an hour or so of hiking we reached a split in the trail. One path led back to the parking lot, our intended route, but the other led to Tachudake, a massive stone monolith we had read about in the guidebook. It took almost no time for us to decide on the more challenging trail. One thing about traveling with Annin is that we always push each other to go just a bit further than planned, always with the express acknowledgment that we can turn back if it gets tough (which we’ve never done so far). This combined can-do spirit and acceptance of our own limits is what makes traveling together so fun.
So we set out to find the monolith and immediately found ourselves pleasantly alone in the forest. The hike was definitely a challenge, but the solitude and scenery were well worth it. The terrain was a bit steep, especially for the final forty minutes. In several sections we had to use ropes to help us climb, but that only added to the fun.
On our way up we passed maybe five or so people, but by the time we climbed the final bit to the top, we had the peak to ourselves.
Tachudake – a big old rock and a very blue sky
We had a nice lunch of onigiri (rice balls) packed by our lovely hostel owner, and then scrambled up onto the monolith itself to take in the view. It was absolutely stunning, and well worth the effort.
After an hour or so at the top we made our descent back to the main trail. It had gotten windy and we wanted to get down the mountain as quickly as possible. The return trip was easier, and after an hour and a half we were back at the main trail. We were thrilled to have made it back, except we still had two kilometers to go before we could peel off our hiking boots and eat the chocolate waiting for us in the car. That last leg was definitely the most difficult part of the whole day…
When we finally got back to the car we were exhausted, but very pleased with ourselves. We had worked hard and had a great time, and so we rewarded ourselves with a Yakushima specialty – yakushika, or local deer. This was only my second time eating venison, and I really like it. The gyoza were an added treat.
These trees are huge.
Annin gives climbing the rock a go
Deer yakiniku and a plate full of gyoza
As always we ended our day at a hot spring, and I’m convinced there is no better way to end a day of hiking. Back at the hostel I was exhausted, and quickly climbed into bed, ready to rest up for our trip home.
Yakushima surpassed all my expectations and turned out to be one of my favorite places in Japan. There is something really special about that island, and I hope one day I can return to experience more of what Yakushima has to offer.
If you ask the locals about the weather, you’ll hear that in Yakushima it rains 35 days a month. This is only partly a joke. Yakushima is one of the wettest parts of Japan, and this near constant rain is what keeps the forests so lusciously green.
Having attended college in Tacoma, Washington, Annin and I were sure we could handle the rain. We’d been outdoors in the rain plenty of times before! With such similar scenery to the Pacific Northwest, we assumed the rain in Yakushima would be just like the rain in Washington.
We were wrong.
While the near-constant state of rain is similar to the PNW, Yakushima definitely gets more rain at any given time. In fact, Seattle gets roughly 36 inches of rain a year. Yakushima gets a whopping 176 inches. Needless to say, we were a bit taken aback when we woke up to heavy rain and quickly cancelled our hiking plans.
Luckily, renting a car provided us with lots of flexibility to change our plans, and we mapped out a course to drive around the island in search of waterfalls and hot springs.
First up was Ohko no Taki, probably the best known, but also the furthest away. Yakushima is about 200 square miles, but the only roads are along the perimeter. The center of the island is almost entirely mountainous. You can’t quite circle the island (there’s a stretch of nature preserve on the Western coast we were told not to drive on), but if you could it would probably take about two hours. Surprisingly, many of the waterfalls on Yakushima are easily accessible from the main road, and most are clearly marked.
We walked around Ohko no Taki a bit and then got back into the car. Our main aim for the day was to time everything out so we could visit Hirauchi Onsen, an ocean hot springs that was only accessible during low tide. We still had a bit of time to kill, so we stopped by the Tsukazaki tide pools, which would have been lovely if they hadn’t been covered in washed up garbage. The picture above was taken with the trash just out of sight, but it really was sad. Clearly all of it had washed ashore from mainland Japan, since the people on Yakushima do a really good job of keeping everything else clean. It was a reminder that all of the amazing natural beauty on the island needs constant maintenance and protection. We didn’t stick around the beach for long, and quickly made our way to the onsen.
I’ve mentioned onsen and onsen etiquette in previous posts, but what I have failed to mention is that most onsen are separated by gender. Most, but not all. Hirauchi Onsen is a mixed gender hot spring, which neither Annin nor I had much experience with. In fact, Annin had never been to a mixed onsen (or “konyoku“) before, and I had been only once, sort of by accident. The general rule at a konyoku is that women wrap themselves in a towel, and men usually have a small towel as well (though, in typically gendered fashion, they don’t really have to). We were totally game for this onsen, but realized too late that our towels were a bit small. After a bit of frantic googling to see if full sized towels were an absolute necessity, we were relieved to read they were only a suggestion. After a long discussion and a fair amount of nerves on my part, we decided that we’d never see any of the people at the onsen again, and we were just going to go for it!
Once we’d reached the Onsen I had second thoughts. There were no changing areas, just a slightly lowered rock that provided a tiny bit of cover. We stood on the path debating yet again, when an older woman who was already in the water started calling us over. She was super cheerful and said the water was lovely, we should come on in. That was the push I needed, and so we made our way down to the water.
It took some awkward maneuvering, but we were able to cover ourselves enough to feel ok walking into the water. The old woman was thrilled to learn we could speak some Japanese, and spent the next half hour chatting with us. It turns out that she lived on the island and came to this onsen every day, but women coming to this onsen was pretty rare. Mostly tourists come to take a picture of the ocean, but are too nervous to get in themselves. I can understand that, especially if you’re not used to onsen culture in Japan, but I can honestly say that this was one of the best experiences on our trip. We had such a fun time chatting with the locals, and it was such a beautiful, unique experience. But next time, I’m bringing a full sized towel.
After our soak in the hot springs we made our way into the town of Anbo for lunch at a tea house, and then it was back to waterfall hunting. The roads became slightly more confusing on the way to Senpiro Falls, but the view was definitely worth it.
The final waterfall of the day was Touroki Falls, which is the only waterfall in Japan that falls directly into the ocean. This one took a little bit of a walk to get to, but luckily by then the rain had cleared a bit.
With our waterfall search complete, we decided that we needed to clean up a bit. The ocean hot springs had been fun, but I can’t say as I felt particularly clean afterward. So we found yet another hot spring, Onoaida Onsen, this one separated as usual. Turns out Onoaida is known for its super hot water. I could only last about a minute and a half in the water, but after using the showers I felt much better.
At the end of the day we went back to the hostel for dinner with the other guests. We ate nabe (hot pot) and flying fish sashimi, a Yakushima specialty. The dinner was a bit awkward, but fun, and afterward we stayed up chatting with a few of the other guests about travel and the cultural differences between Japan and America. It really pushed my Japanese to the limit, but I had a good time.
After a while I headed to bed and slept like a log after a fun, full day.
It’s finally April, which means a number of big things here in Japan. First, it’s almost cherry blossom (sakura) season, a frantically busy time where everyone does their best to spend as much time under cherry trees as possible. The buds haven’t bloomed just yet, but it’s coming, and everyone is feeling the need to get outside and embrace the warmer weather.
April also means the start of the new school year. Teachers have been transferred, new teachers and staff will arrive soon. The students are all off on spring break, which means most of them are actually at school for club activities or to keep studying… Yes, after two years it’s still hard for me to get over this particular culture shock.
But for me, April signaled the true beginning of the end. I have four months left in Japan, and this will be my last semester teaching. I’ve got a bucket list a mile long, with not nearly enough money or time to get through everything, but that won’t stop me from trying. And one of the biggest items on my list, “visit Yakushima” has just been checked.
Yakushima isn’t usually the first place people think of when planning a trip to Japan. To be honest, I’d never even heard of it before I moved here. But when I started researching places to go in Southern Japan, this little island quickly moved to the top of my list.
Located off the southern coast of Kyushu, Yakushima is technically part of Kagoshima prefecture. It takes about two hours to get there via high-speed ferry, and the island itself has a population of about 14,000. The draw of Yakushima has always been its dense cedar forests, full of “yakusugi,” trees which are estimated to be between 1,000 and 7,000 years old. In the past these forests were heavily logged, but since the 1960s there has been an extremely successful conservation program in place, and the forests have regained much of their grandeur.
Annin and I set out for Yakushima early Friday morning, taking a 7:45am ferry and arriving with plenty of time to start exploring. We picked up our rental car and drove straight into the mountains for what I thought would be a light walk to acclimate ourselves. We went to Shiratani Unsuikyo, one of the most popular hiking spots on the island. It’s probably most well known as the inspiration for Miyazaki Hayao’s “Princess Mononoke,” and indeed when we spoke with a park employee at the entrance he pointed out the specific spot on the map that tourists have named the “Mononoke Forest.” Looking at the map, it became clear that I had confused a few different trails, and this was a bit more of a hike than we had intended. But we had full water bottles, hiking books and plenty of “genki” spirit, so we decided to go for it.
Starting out on the trail
The Mononoke Forest
“Ringo Tsubaki” – An Apple Camellia
Shiratani Unsuikyo, despite being a popular destination, felt serene. The forests reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, with giant trees and deep green moss over everything. The trails we used were originally logging trails, made in the Edo Period (1600s – 1860s) with found stones and bits of wood. They’ve been maintained amazingly well, and the first hour and a half of the hike was smooth sailing. The final part of the trail is an added loop up to Taikoiwa, a massive rock peak from which we were told there might be a good view of the island, depending on the weather. After a very short discussion we decided we might as well give this last leg a shot, and took the steep path up.
Taikoiwa did not disappoint. Despite gray skies and overall gloomy weather, the view from the top was lovely. The valley was completely filled with mist, and we felt on top of the world.
Our hike back down was quiet, which was wonderful. There’s truly something magical about the forest in Yakushima that put me completely at ease. There were several moments along the trails where I felt the need to stop and just soak it all in. In Japanese, I think this is sometimes called “shinrin yoku” or “forest bathing.” It did indeed feel like a mental cleanse, and as we made our way back to the trailhead I felt refreshed and ready to take on whatever the weekend had in store for us.
Goofing around in the forest
Was that a Kodama (tree spirit)?!
After running into a friend of a friend on the way back to the car (it’s a small world!) we made our way to our hostel, Tomarigi. We were a bit apprehensive, since we’d booked one of the cheapest hostels on the island, but our worries disappeared as soon as we met the owner. I swear, I have never met a nicer woman in my life. She showed us around and we felt instantly at home. We planned out the next day with her help, then decided to wash up at a local hot spring followed by dinner at a surprisingly trendy cafe down the road.
From the moment I returned to Japan from my winter trip home to the states, I pretty much hit the ground running. I had to work two weekends in a row, co-led a workshop for the annual Miyazaki JET Skills Development Conference, and spent the dreaded inauguration weekend answering questions and playing American-themed games at a the local “World Festa” event, where I was meant to engage families in internationalization. If I had 100yen (roughly a dollar) for every old man who came up and made a joke about Trump over the course of those 5 hours, I’d be able to buy enough alcohol to make the whole thing slightly more bearable. But alas… In a small act of defiance, I wore my “The Future is Female” shirt, and all Americans in charge of decorating our booth refused to use any pictures of the Cheetoh in Chief. All complaining aside, I did manage to have a few thoughtful conversations about the state of the US, and overwhelmingly the Japanese people I spoke with were concerned about the relationship between our countries. It was a long, interesting day.
Needless to say, after two weeks of non-stop work and a bit of jet lag, I was absolutely ready for a weekend of relaxing in an onsen village. A friend of mine had organized the trip, apparently a semi-annual tradition among the foreign ladies of Miyazaki, and we were all very excited. Kurokawa Onsen Village is about four hours north of me, up in Kumamoto. It’s pretty close to Mt. Aso, the volcano that caused the massive Kumamoto earthquake last year, so I was surprised that everything was open and functional.
I had volunteered to drive and so early in the afternoon I set off with my friends Amber and Dasha. Dasha, who is from Siberia, spent a lot of the ride telling us about what life is like in Russia, and what she thinks of working as a TV personality in Japan (she’s the co-host of a local show about travel and food). The whole thing made me want to book a ticket to Siberia immediately, and I think Amber felt the same. It was also nice to talk with someone who wasn’t a teacher, which is a rarity these days. Anyway, we were having a lovely time when we entered the Mt. Aso Geopark. It was stunningly beautiful – the mountains were covered in yellow grass, and the clear weather meant we could see the whole mountain range. It felt a bit like being on another planet, like a set they could use for Star Wars or something. Dasha said it reminded her of home.
As we were appreciating the scenery my car made a rather ominous sound and came to a stop, much to my surprise. We were a bit confused, and since none of us knew much about cars we fussed around a bit before managing to get the hood up, all on the side of a two-lane mountain road. After much googling we decided that my car had probably overheated after I pushed it a bit too hard up some serious hills. Remember, my car has a pretty tiny engine, and I had not paid close enough attention in my haste to get to our destination. We let the engine cool a bit, took some pictures, and then slowly made our way out of the park. Luckily everything was fine after that, and we made it to the village with no further problems.
When we arrived in Kurokawa we bought a pass for three onsens (hot springs) each, which was about $12. The village has tons of options to choose from, and after driving I sort of left the decisions up to the others. They decided on an outdoor bath and we walked through the town to find our first stop. The town was really cute, full of tiny shops, a pretty river, and lots of charm. The onsen was equally lovely, and to our delight we were the only ones there! Normally you’re not allowed to take your camera anywhere near the baths, since everyone wanders around nude, but we took the opportunity to snap a few shots of our surroundings.
Kurokawa is pretty high up in the mountains, and at the end of January it was pretty cold. Most onsen require that you rinse yourself off before getting in, and they usually provide a special area to do so. This particular onsen had the rinsing area on the opposite side of the pool from the changing rooms, so we had to run to the other side in the freezing cold, to douse ourselves in scalding water, before getting in the super hot pool. It was quite the experience. After the initial shock it was lovely, and we spent a nice long time lazing in the water before we decided it was time to move on.
We dried off, put our clothes back on, and set out to meet up with the others at an onsen a bit further away. The lovely thing about hot springs in the winter is that they leave you feeling warm from the inside out, so when we walked around town this time we felt nice and cozy. We stopped by the river, now lit up, and took in our surroundings before getting back into the car.
Onsen number two was a bit fancier, and involved a decent walk from the hotel to the water. We met up with most of our friends, about 12 of us in total, and practically took over the place. There were only a few people there when we arrived, but by the time we left (nearly 2 hours later) we were the only ones left. I’ve been told that large groups of foreigners speaking English sometimes make Japanese onsen-goers uncomfortable, so this wasn’t entirely a surprise. We tried our best to keep our voices quiet and respectful, but the sheer numbers were a bit much, I think. In any event this led to us once again having the place to ourselves, and I had a great time chatting with everyone. This particular onsen had a nice view of the stars, and a second pool overlooked a small waterfall. Not too shabby.
After a while we realized we had stayed way longer than we had intended, and the place was about to close. We quickly packed up and made our way to the cabin we had rented for the night. The rest of our group had already arrived and started preparing a nabe (hot pot) dinner. I’m convinced there’s nothing nicer on a winter evening than a Japanese nabe, especially when surrounded by friends. There are versions of this type of communal hot pot dinner in many Asian countries, and I always enjoy the process (even though I will say that I like the flavor of the Japanese version more than the Vietnamese lau). As we cooked dinner Dasha made spiced wine, and we had a lovely, silly, slightly drunken time.
In the morning one of the ladies had thoughtfully brought a waffle iron, so we had a leisurely waffle breakfast, followed by one last onsen. This time we chose a spot overlooking the infamous Mt. Aso. This particular volcano is one of the easiest mountains to recognize – it has a trademark jagged rim, which is both really cool to look at and a bit terrifying to think of, given how recently it went off. But we were far enough away to enjoy the view without too much fear, and so we had a lovely morning soak. By the end of our time in the onsen we were, surprise, alone again. Cameras came out, and we decided to take a few photos. The whole thing was such a strange combination of super Japanese and not at all culturally appropriate, but extremely fun and pretty memorable.
Finally it was time to go home. We took a commemorative group photo, hugged goodbye, and hit the road again. My car held up just fine, and we made it back without incident. I was happy to be home and ready to not drive again for a while, but I could easily have spent another day or two soaking in the onsen town. It’s been a few weeks now and I can definitely say I’m ready to go again!
Last month I signed the papers that will officially end my time in Japan. I didn’t make any pro-con lists, and I didn’t really consult anyone about the decision. This was something I knew in my gut was right, and have known for some time.
I still love being in Japan, though I’m the first to admit that living here sometimes drives me up a wall. For all of the awkward misunderstandings, cravings for food I can’t find, and impatience in the face of extreme rule-following, this experience has been more than I ever could have wanted, and nothing like I expected.
Over the past year and a half I have seen amazing natural beauty, met people whose kindness and generosity exceeded all logical bounds, and had some truly amazing food. I was pushed to grow as a person and an educator, though I was also forced to admit that teaching is not really for me. I became more comfortable being alone, and less ashamed of wanting company when I’m lonely. And I’ve also cultivated a thirst for knowledge of the world that I know will serve me well no matter where I end up.
For these things and so many more I will always be grateful to Japan, to the JET Programme, to the people I have met, and to the support of everyone back home who never demanded I return (though it was certainly hinted at). And yet, it is time to go.
Many of you may have noticed that my writing has become… well, infrequent would be a kind way of putting it. In the past year I wrote less in general, but a bit more about politics and my feelings on the state of the world. This has been a gradual process, but it hit me a while back that I was taking less joy in writing about my travels than I had in the past. My trips to Taiwan and Ibusuki seemed inconsequential in the face of the massive changes taking place on the world stage. I know this blog is mostly a trip diary, a vehicle for fun photos to send home, but for the past few months I couldn’t find many reasons to write. I was angry, I was scared, and I was losing interest in travel in general.
I knew I had to make a change. So I have decided to leave Japan not because I am done with this country, but because I feel that there is work that must be done elsewhere. If I don’t get off my butt and do it now, I know I will grow to resent the life I have built here. The world is changing, and so must I. I’m tired of reading about what’s happening in the world and feeling like I’m unable to contribute. It’s time to come home and figure out what comes next.
The decision not to stay in Japan may have been a clear one, but that does not mean it was easy. I waited until the last possible day, after I’d come back from a holiday trip home to the states. My school showered me in praise, gave me an excellent performance review, and many of my friends had already decided to stay. So when I told the vice principal of my decision, it was with a heavy heart. I signed the papers and it seemed ridiculous that such a major decision could be reduced to a speedy signature. I had felt confident of my choice until the moment my pen hit the paper, and when I was done I felt a wave of sadness. There’s so much I could still do here, so many people I want to spend more time with. I was close to tears talking with one of my favorite coworkers about how fast the next few months will fly by. It will not be easy, leaving Miyakonojo and Japan, but I still know it’s right.
And so, with the end in sight, I’ve resolved to make the most of my time in Japan. A deadline has once again boosted my enthusiasm for travel and made me feel better about writing. The weight of this choice has been lifted, and I feel free to focus on other things. So I’ll be posting more about my travels in the next few months, though I’m likely going to stay away from political writing, at least on this site. I’ve got a few travel plans in the works, and most of my free time these days is spent figuring out my post-JET travel plans. Just because I’m coming home doesn’t mean I’m taking the most direct route!
So thank you to everyone who has continued to read my ramblings, and encouraged me to keep writing. Here’s to my last six months in Japan, and whatever comes next!
On Tuesday night I went to bed hopeful. It was just barely Tuesday morning in the US, and my sister texted me to say she got to the polls at 5:45am to vote. I planned out a white outfit to wear to school, in a nod to suffragettes. I proudly pinned my “Future is Female” pin on my sweater and fell asleep after crying, because I truly thought the next day would mark the election of America’s first female president, and I was overwhelmed with joy and hope.
Wednesday morning (Tuesday night in the US) I got to school and caught only the first few states before I had to leave my laptop and teach two classes. The staff room TV was tuned in to the election, and several teachers had asked me about it. They all asked if I liked Trump, and when I said no they smiled and said they agreed.
When I got back to the staff room 2 hours later, the mood had clearly changed. Everyone looked at me, then at the TV, a look of concern on their faces. When I realized what was happening, I literally ran out of the school to get my phone and call home. I listened as my sister watched the election coverage, and I cried again, this time because I felt hope was lost.
America, we have just elected a man who has the full support of David Duke and the KKK. We have elected a man who will go on trial next month for child rape. A man who has used hateful and degrading language to talk about women, Muslims, people of color, people with disabilities, and anyone who is not like him. This is not about economics, or a push for smaller government – this is about spitting in the face of civil liberties because people who look different are scary.
I know that some of the people I love voted for him. I would like to think that they hesitated, they felt some slight shame or concern, and I am angered and disappointed that in the end fear won out. Many of my friends are posting notes on Facebook telling anyone who voted for Trump to remove themselves from their lives. I understand, and for many of them this is important for their safety and sanity. I will support them.
I wish I could do the same, but I know that’s not how we fix this.
Family and friends who voted for Trump, I am angry, I am disgusted, and I want us to talk. I need you to understand why my friends, many of whom are Black, Asian, and queer, are afraid for their lives in the coming years. I want you to tell me why, knowing full well what he stood for, you supported this man and pushed him to the highest office. I want you to explain why Hillary was such an abhorrent choice, because I sincerely don’t get it.
I worry about the future of such a divided nation. But I also know that we have risen above in the past. I hope those of us who are shocked and hurt today are motivated into action. We must support organizations that work to uphold our civil liberties, especially when they are threatened. We must recognize those who will be hurt most in the coming months and stand up for and with them. We must remember that political action is not limited to voting every four years. Our government still exists to serve us, but we must take action to demand their service. Call your representatives about issues that matter to you. Vote in midterm elections. Donate your time and money to organizations like Planned Parenthood or the ACLU. And most of all, talk to people who don’t look or believe as you do. Don’t shy away from the chance to change someone’s mind. After all, that’s what got us here in the first place.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I’m going to fight like hell to make it better. I hope you will do the same.