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.

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