Land of the Yakisugi – Yakushima (Part 3)

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.

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Yakisugi Land

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.

IMG_8803When 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.

IMG_8807So 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.

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.

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Hiking selfie or 90s LL Bean catalog?

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…

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I am definitely still afraid of heights

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.

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.

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Yakushima – a magical, beautiful place

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.

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Yakushima: Mystical Forest Island (Part 1)

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Tired feet at the top of the trail

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 is part of the Osumi Islands of Kagoshima

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.

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Welcome to Yakushima!

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.

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.

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The view from the top

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.

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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.

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.

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It was a great start to a fantastic trip.

Kagoshima Road Trip – Camping, Hot Springs and Archery

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Selfie at Cape Nagasakibana, in front of Mt. Kaimondake (the “Fuji of Satsuma”)

On the road again after my stop at the Ibusuki sand baths, I took several detours – I visited Cape Nagasakibana, the southernmost tip of the Satsuma peninsula, and Lake Ikeda, the largest lake in Kyushu. Both were gorgeous, offering stunning views (despite the crazy heat) and interesting history. A highlight for me was the statue of Lake Ikeda’s resident monster, Issie (pronounced ee-shee), which is absolutely the Japanese version of Nessie. The lake is actually home to giant eels, so as far as I’m concerned the lake does in fact have monsters.

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The infamous Isshie

Monster hunting out of the way, I drove the last hour to Makurazaki, where I was decidedly late to the JET party. I arrived at a small port and was playfully scolded by the ferrymen who had taken the others over to the beach three hours earlier. Basically, the beach we went to was part of the mainland, but separated by seriously rocky terrain that makes in inaccessible by anything other than small boats. I hopped on the boat and I knew it was going to be great – the sun was out, the weather was hot but perfect for swimming, and the scenery was absolutely stunning. It reminded me a bit of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, but with almost nobody around and no garbage in the water.

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A gorgeous beach all to ourselves

Once at the beach it exceeded my expectations. The water was clear, the sun was shining, and I had a blast swimming and chatting with friends.

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The view from our campsite

Eventually it was time to head back to the mainland, so we packed up and dried off. The whole event was a camping trip, so we drove out to our campsite, which turned out to be a gorgeous park overlooking the ocean. And much to my surprise, the camping was both legal, encouraged, and completely free. It was amazing! We pitched the tents and a group of us decided we still felt a bit salty after the swim, so we took advantage of a nearby onsen to clean off. This was my third onsen in two days, and although it wasn’t particularly fancy, it was definitely my favorite. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and the outdoor hot springs offered an amazing view of the sunset over the ocean and the cape. It was one of those moments where everything felt at peace, and I remembered how lucky I was to be there, to have these experiences.

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Group photo at the campsite

We dried off and ate some ramen, then spent a good few hours playing games and drinking maybe a bit too much at the campsite. In the morning the sun was strong and the heat drove us out of our tents early in the morning. We packed up, took a group photo, and set off on our separate ways. My friend Jean and I decided to go through Kagoshima City on our way back home and check out an archery event. I enjoyed having company for this leg of the trip, and we arrived in time to have lunch at one of my favorite bakeries before braving the crowds at Sengan-en Gardens.

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Sengan-en Gardens has a pretty amazing view of Sakurajima on a clear day

We got off to a bit of a rough start with crazy traffic and some seriously incompetent parking attendants who seemed to think the only way to communicate with me was through stern looks and gestures. After being accidentally hit in the face during one of these gestures (and then getting no acknowledgment that I’d just been hit in the face) it was eventually made clear that the attendant wanted me to back up through the parking spot he had directed me to, not into it. But eventually it all worked out. I tried to channel my sister’s signature death glare his way, but sadly I don’t think he cared. I eventually let it go and we went into the gardens.

The event, called yabusame, is a type of very traditional horseback archery. I’ve written about it before. The event was free with admission to the garden, but took a while to start, so we wandered the grounds, admired the horses, and watched the archers warm up. We also ran into a large group of Kagoshima JETs, and almost everyone from our camping trip.

When the main event finally started, it was just as cool as we’d hoped. Archers, dressed to the nines in the most fantastic traditional gear, rode their horses at top speed past two targets. The goal was obviously to hit both, and it was no easy feat! There were a number of archers of varying skill levels, which you could determine based on their clothes. The best archers had deerskin over their hakama pants, and were decked out in all kinds of accessories. The lower level archers still looked cool, but had a bit less flare. All of them looked like Japanese cowboys, due in large part to the hats. It’s safe to say I enjoyed the clothes and the archery in equal parts.

Once the event wound down we had to brave the crowds yet again. Even though this all took place in September, it was ridiculously hot, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. We were all probably a bit dehydrated, and just looking at the archers in their full gear made me sweat. But eventually we made it to my air conditioned car, and then back home. I was exhausted, but in the best way. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend.

Hot Springs Weekend – Ibusuki, Kagoshima

Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. I live in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Much like in the US, it’s very easy to travel between prefectures, and many travelers make it their goal to visit as many as possible. Personally, I’ve visited roughly ten prefectures, mostly via road trips around Kyushu. The travel fanatic in me is very tempted to go the “gotta catch em all” route, but it does seem a bit unreasonable if I’m only living here for two years.

So instead of traveling the whole country, I’ve been enjoying the sights a little closer to home. A few weeks ago we had a national holiday on a Thursday, so I took the opportunity to make a long weekend for myself and do a bit of exploring in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.

Originally I had planned to go to Yakushima, a heavily forested island famous for ancient cedar trees and its role as inspiration for yet another Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke. But as my trip approached so did Typhoon Malakas. There was so much talk of how big it would be and how much damage it could wreak that I decided to cancel my island trip in favor of one on the mainland. And as the storm came and went (without much damage to anything but my sleep schedule), I felt pretty happy with my decision.

While my Yakushima trip would have started on Thursday, I instead took the day to relax and clean my apartment. This plan would have gone really well if the building managers hadn’t scheduled an 8am lawn mowing. Seriously, 8am on a public holiday,  right after a late-night typhoon, for the teacher’s building. Sometimes I just don’t get this country…. Sleep was pretty much off the table, so I settled my plans, moved furniture, and generally felt productive. I packed up and the next day I set out for Ibusuki, Kagoshima.

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A handy map of Kyushu

Ibusuki is a town on the eastern coast of Kagoshima’s Satsuma peninsula. It’s not a super exciting place but it is well known for its hot springs, and for its thermal sand baths. I spent Friday night at 心の湯, an onsen (hot springs or spa) recommended to me by one of my favorite teachers. The hotel itself was nothing particularly exciting, but one thing I was particularly pleased with was the availability of a single room. Anyone who’s ever traveled solo knows that finding a single room is a challenge most places, and more likely than not you’ll end up paying full price for a double room. Not in Japan! I presume this is because of traveling businessmen, but basically if you’re looking to travel on your own you’ll have very little trouble finding single rooms and single-serving anything. It’s really nice and has made me a little bit spoiled – I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back to sharing hostel rooms after being able to get single hotel rooms for a comparable price!

But anyway, the onsen. Because I was staying at the hotel I was given a yukata, which was basically a slightly more formal robe. I could then walk next door to the spa spend as much time as I liked in the hot springs. I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. This was only my second time going to an onsen, and I wasn’t totally sure of the rules. I’d say that onsen, while a staple of Japanese culture, are a bit notorious among foreign visitors. First, there’s the fact that they are almost always completely nude – no swimsuits allowed! This makes a lot of foreigners a bit nervous and uncomfortable, especially if you’re the only non-Japanese person there. Luckily, I’d visited a similar spa while back in the US, so I knew that after a few minutes of slight discomfort, I’d get over the whole no-clothes thing. The second reason onsen are a bit notorious, however, is due to a particular type of etiquette that needs to be observed. There are rules (both written and unwritten) about the order in which you are to shower (before you get in the baths), you must keep your hair out of the water, must be courteous to your fellow spa-goers, you must be careful with where you put your towel, etc. Famously, you are also not usually allowed in public baths if you have tattoos, since these are traditionally worn by yakuza (Japanese gangsters).

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A few Onsen no-no’s. You can read a longer list of rules here

So onsen can get a bit complicated. But after a few minutes of confusion and self doubt I managed to relax and enjoy myself. The spa was outdoors, the water was nice, and I even spent some time chatting with a few other women about the area. I took a break for dinner at the spa restaurant, then treated myself to a massage and a bit more time in the hot springs. It was a pretty relaxing evening.

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A mysterious space ship in Ibusuki

The next day I had a lot planned – the end goal was to meet up with some other JETs for a beach party on the far side of the peninsula, but there were plenty of things to do and see on the way. Leaving the hotel I passed by a really strange building and had to stop to take some pictures. This place looked like an abandoned spaceship, crashed in the middle of all these small traditional houses. I still have no idea what it actually was, but I walked around and watched as people cleaned up after the typhoon.

After that slight detour I visited a small art museum attached to the Hakusuikan hotel, which was gorgeous. They had tons of beautiful satsuma ceramics, historical information about the area, and a pretty thorough English audio guide.

Next up was the main event, the whole reason for visiting Ibusuki – the thermal sand baths! Because this area is heated by volcanic hot springs, the beaches are warm as well, and Ibusuki has made a name for itself by setting up sand spas where you get buried in this hot sand. They claim that since the sand is heated in hot spring water, it’s got amazing health benefits, and 10 minutes of lying in the sand can cure you of all your ills. I’m not so sure about that, but it was certainly an experience. I was given a yukata and then lead down to the beach, where I was instructed to lie down in a slight hole in the sand. The staff then buried me in extremely warm sand (very little of which touched my actual skin) and I stayed put for about ten minutes. It was not exactly a super relaxing experience, since I felt a bit claustrophobic and had to keep wiggling my toes to remind myself I could get out at any time. And that sand is hotter than you think – by the time I got out I had worked up quite a sweat. When I freed myself from the sand (it’s easy to do, after all – it’s just sand) I was directed towards the baths and washed all the sand off. In the end, I’m not sure I’d do it again, but I’m glad I tried it out.

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The sand baths in Ibusuki. Photo from Japan-tour.jp

 

Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with Palm Trees

Hello everyone! I’m working on a blog update about my trip to Europe over the holidays, but it’s been a busy few weeks since returning. I’ve been planning my next few trips, the Miyazaki ALTs had our mid-year conference, and I’ve otherwise been cold an unmotivated. This past weekend I thought I’d finally get it together and do some writing, but was utterly distracted by SNOW!

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Little flurries outside of my apartment

Yes, that’s right. Snow. In Miyazaki. To give you an idea of how strange that was, here’s a picture of a palm tree with a nice dusting of snow:

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I woke up and saw flurries, which was exciting, but had planned on staying in my moderately warm apartment until a friend invited me to go out and see the snow. My Australian and Arizonan friends were very excited. While the snowfall was not particularly impressive by St. Louis standards, it was downright amazing to them. We spent some time walking around a nearby (completely empty) park and taking photos.

We then met up with my friend Noriko for lunch and she said this was the only the second time in her life that she’s seen snow here in Miyakonojo, and the first was thirty years ago. What luck that I got to see it in my first year here!

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Driving around in the snow. Photo by Meagan

After lunch Noriko suggested that we go to a temple in the mountains to see more snow, and we thought this sounded great. We made a very snowy (but not particularly icy or crowded) drive to Kanoya, about an hour away, where we stopped by the White Snake Temple. As the name implies, the temple houses a sacred white snake (there’s a Buddhist legend involving a snake) but of course the snake itself was hibernating, and we were much more interested in the scenery. I’ll have to come back in the summer to see the snake, and also the surrounding mountains when they’re green again.

The temple was gorgeous, and Japan in the snow is amazing. Of course I’ve seen snow before, and way more than this, but the Japanese landscape is so different from that of St. Louis, or even Colorado, and it was pretty cool to see. I’ve definitely resolved that next year I want to se a bit of the Japanese “snow country” up north, where they get so much snow that they’ve installed heated roads.

Two days later the snow here in Miyakonojo has completely melted, and temperatures are back on the rise. Since Japanese schools and homes don’t have the most efficient heating, that’s fine by me, but I’m really glad to have gotten one lovely day of snow. Now, time to get writing!

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Phil, Eddy, Meagan, Noriko and me. Photo by Meagan

Gazing at the Cosmos

A gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Miyazaki
A gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Miyazaki

Summer and Autumn are the seasons for festivals in Japan, so I’ve been trying to attend as many as possible before the winter cold sets in. According to my friends who’ve been here for a while, once December hits there’s suddenly no events to be found, so it’s best to soak it all up now before it’s too late.

Cosmos fields at the Ikoma Plateau
Cosmos fields at the Ikoma Plateau

This past weekend I went out with a few friends for a day of cosmos viewing – cosmos being a type of flower.

Yellow cosmos
Yellow cosmos

We drove about an hour to the Ikoma Plateau, where a field had been planted with cosmos flowers. This is pretty common in Japan – seasonal plants are a major draw, and seasons in general are a big deal here. The best example of this is cherry blossoms, which mark the beginning of spring (or end of winter, depending on which part of Japan you’re in). People often go out and “hanami” or look at flowers, and maybe have a picnic or a drink under the trees. The same sort of goes for other seasonal plants, such as the sunflowers I saw a while back, and the momiji (Japanese maples) which will soon be changing colors, and thus drawing massive crowds.

Cosmos fields and walking paths
Cosmos fields and walking paths

For this particular event, a field was covered in cosmos of varying colors, and for a small fee you could walk through the fields and take photos or just enjoy the scenery. There was also a small stage where musicians played background music and a few tents with food and drinks.

Awesome photo by Megan!
Awesome photo by Megan!

There weren’t too many people, which was really nice, especially since my friends went there specifically to take photos.

Goofing around with Amber, my neighbor. Photo by Megan
Goofing around with Amber, my neighbor. Photo by Megan

After strolling through the fields we stopped by the food tents for a snack, then drove another hour to Kokubu, a beach town in neighboring Kagoshima prefecture. The draw for the evening was a festival advertising 6,000 fireworks, which we could watch from the beach.

Goodbye cosmos! On to the fireworks
Goodbye cosmos! On to the fireworks

One thing about Japan – people here love fireworks. I mean really love them. In the summer you can’t go anywhere on a weekend night and not find at least a few of them, usually as part of a festival. I’m not usually a big fan of fireworks, but this show in particular was pretty amazing. There were just so many of them! And on top of the fireworks, there were also lasers, and the whole show was set to music. The show went on for an hour and the finale lit the sky up with hundreds of gold sparkles. My standards for fireworks have just gone way up!

All and all, it was a pretty good day.