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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A Rainy Day in Yakushima (Part 2)

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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.

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A shrine at the top of Hirauchi Onsen

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.

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Ohko no Taki

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.

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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.

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Hirauchi 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!

IMG_8779Once 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.

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Senpiro Falls

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.

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Touroki Falls

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.

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The hostel had two cats! That orange one is much friendlier than he looks.

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.

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The friendliest hostel owner on Yakushima!

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.

A Thirsty Waterfall Hike and Some Magical Watermelon Juice – Day 2 in Taiwan

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When planning our trip to Taiwan, Annin and I were both set on getting out of the city for at least a day. Taiwan being a fairly small place, it’s known mostly for its major city, Taipei. And while we were interested in exploring the city, we had also heard some pretty great things about the Taiwanese countryside. If you travel just an hour outside of the city, you have easy access to some gorgeous mountain hiking and beautiful coastline rock formations. After a bit of research Annin found a particularly appealing waterfall hike, and so on Friday morning we set out for Sandiaoling.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

Our day began with a bit of a frantic scramble for both train tickets and breakfast. While the subway system is super efficient with a train every few minutes, getting outside of the city requires a bit more planning, and the Taiwan Railway website isn’t super intuitive. We tried speaking with someone at our hostel, but unfortunately by the time we asked, the English speaking staff had already gone home. In any case, we eventually pinpointed what we hoped was the correct train, and made our way to the station early in the morning. We bought our tickets, and had half an hour to find food before our train left.

While Annin did a lot of the research into where we would go, the job of finding out what to eat fell to me. I had read about a bagel shop near the main train station and since we were already there, I was determined to find it. Bagels are a rare treat when you live in Asia, and these ones looked pretty promising. A few things I didn’t account for were 1) the fact that, as we had discovered the day before, google maps is not the most accurate in Taiwan, and 2) once we actually found the place, it took them a good 20 minutes to make my cream cheese and lox sandwich. Not great when we were short on time! They handed us our bagels just in time for us to run back to the train, and oh man they smelled so good. Sadly, eating on public transportation is sort of looked down on, so we didn’t actually get to eat them for an hour and a half. It was pretty rough.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

In any case, we took two trains: Taipei Main Station to Ruifeng, then Ruifeng to Sandiaoling. The trains were really crowded, but only one other group got off at our station, and they seemed to have done so by mistake. We took a few minutes at the station to eat our bagels, which were just as delicious as I’d hoped, and set off to find the waterfall hike.

The hike we chose, Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike, is a bit off the beaten path. Most tourists opt for the much easier Shi Fen Waterfall, which is sometimes called the “Niagara Falls of Taiwan.” That hike is much shorter, and closer to a train station. But we were looking for a challenge, and were delighted to find that there was almost nobody on the trail, whereas the whole crowd on our train was likely headed to Shi Fen.. We probably ran into a total of 10 people over the course of 3 hours or so.

The trail took us through a lush tropical forest, over two rope bridges, up a particularly steep set of stairs, and past three lovely waterfalls. I think that the water was a bit low due to the time of year, but we still thought the falls were beautiful, and the surrounding forest was spectacular. I would highly recommend the hike to anyone visiting Taiwan.

But as beautiful and peaceful as the hike was, it was also incredibly hot and humid. We really underestimated the weather, and neither of us packed quite enough water. By the tail end of the trail we were pretty thirsty, and a bit worried about finding drinks. While Taipei has a convenience store on every corner, the hike was really in the middle of nowhere. From the trailhead we had seen a sleepy little town, but nothing that resembled a store from the outside. Once we made our way off the trail and into town, it didn’t look very promising, and I was feeling more than a bit dehydrated. Just as I was starting to worry, we stumbled across a hotel with some tables set outside. The owner was chatting with someone, and we tried to ask about water. Of course, we don’t speak Mandarin, and she definitely didn’t speak English, but holding up the empty water bottles seemed to get the message across. She said something and brought us two bottles of homemade watermelon juice, which was close enough for us. Now, I’m not usually a watermelon fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything as good as this watermelon juice. It was pure heaven, and the woman was clearly pleased we liked it so much. Once we’d paid for the juice she brought out a kettle and refilled our water bottles for free. We left with quenched thirsts and a serious appreciation for her kindness.IMG_7535

As we walked back to the train, we decided that rather than continue on to Jiu Feng, a nearby village, we would head back into the city to change and have a chill evening. We were exhausted and more than a little sweaty after the hot hike. And the universe seemed to approve of our choice, since right as we made the decision the sky opened up and let out a tropical downpour. Now we really wanted to change, and so we took the train back into Taipei.IMG_7433

The rest of our evening was centered around food. We sought out a famous beef noodle soup restaurant and followed that with a long-anticipated treat – mango shaved ice. It’s just as tasty as it looks, being made up of mostly condensed milk and fruit, and a pat of panna cotta on top. Fabulous!

IMG_7434After eating we stopped by Longshan Temple, an old confucian temple near our hostel. It was a beautiful place, but what really struck me was the number of people out playing Pokemon Go. I haven’t played the game myself, and don’t really plan on playing, but it seemed such a shame to me that in such a beautiful and culturally important place, people were all staring at their phones. But I suppose to each his or her own.

We rounded out the evening with another trip to The 58 Bar and called it a night. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good day.