The next morning, water was teeming from the grey cotton balls above. We pulled our rain jackets on and headed to the bus stop to catch a ride to Shiratani Unsuikyo. Located 800 m (2624 ft) above sea level, the ravine is nicknamed “Princess Mononoke Forest”; Kazuo Oga, the lead artist for the film, spent a great deal of time sketching here for ideas.
I heard someone calling my name as I flashed my pass to the bus driver and peered out of my soaking hood to see a bunch of fellow Miyazaki teachers sitting on the bus. Shunbun no Hi, or Vernal Equinox Day, had gifted an extra day of weekend and apparently Yakushima was calling to us all. It was fun to catch up, but once we reached Shiratani Unsuikyo, Austin and I waved our goodbyes and hurried onto the trail.
We didn’t just want to hike around the ravine, which, while absolutely beautiful, is very touristy in its setup. The wooden walkways feel crowded; you can only go as fast as the person in front of you, and you feel like you can’t stop to take photos or admire the scenery lest you hold back the person behind you.
I watched the many peaks of Yakushima expand in stop motion as our Jetfoil powered towards the island. The high-speed ferry is the quickest and most expensive way to get there by sea, but I was glad we had forked out the extra yen; it was only 10:28 a.m., the sun was shining, and we had almost a whole day left to get our bearings and start exploring the place that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.
Truth be told, I’ve never seen the acclaimed Studio Ghibli film. “I’ll watch it after we get back,” I assured Austin. But a love for the Japanese anime, I soon discovered, is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying the island. With its impressive peaks, 1,000-year old yakusugi trees, cascading waterfalls and pristine coastlines, Yakushima is one of the most beautiful places you could imagine.
The round-shaped, subtropical island, which politically belongs to Kagoshima prefecture, is located approximately 60 km (32 nmi) off the southernmost tip of Kyushu where the Earth’s palearctic and indomalayan ecozones meet.
AIR RESCUE POINT. The small, yellow sign caught my eye as I clambered over another giant boulder. Take note, I teased myself, this is where they’ll have to come to find you. I was two hours and 40 minutes into the 4,25 km (2.6 mi) ascent of Kaimondake. Most of the hike so far had been a gentle walk, but this last bit was proving to be quite tough. The rock I was standing on was propped up against the cliff face by another rock, and next to it was a sharp drop into the trees and shrubs below.
Located in the Ibusuki region of Kagoshima, “Open Gate Mountain” is a dormant stratovolcano that is part of the submerged Aira caldera in Kagoshima Bay and belongs to the Kirsihima-Yasu National Park. It last erupted in 885 AD and is the 99th of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains as listed in the popular 1964 book by Kyuya Fukada.
Kaimondake is nicknamed the “Fuji of Kyushu” for its similarity in shape and symmetry to Japan’s most famous peak, although it’s just a quarter of its size standing at 934 m (3031, ft). The relatively small mountain rises straight from sea level though, making its elevation change of 815 m (2,700 ft) from the first station a challenge for even the experienced hiker.
Charcoal skies and lime lawns – that’s how I remember my first visit to the Kirishima Open-Air Museum last June. Now, eight months later and in the last months of winter, the landscape surrounding the outdoor art gallery looked somewhat different. As Ian and I chugged up the road that winds around the side of Mount Kurinodake, I kept my eyes peeled for the two, giant polka dot flowers, one yellow and one red, which mark the rabbit hole into the sculpture Wonderland.
Upon first glance, the museum looks like any other modern art gallery: a tree-lined walkway leads to the entrance of a giant 3D rounded rectangle decorated with tall, glass windows tinted a shade of turquoise. Inside, a larger-than-life high heeled shoe, matching in pattern to the flowers at the gates, sits adjacent to a small cafe-come-gift shop. And off to the left, installations are scattered around a small, white hall.
The real attraction, of course, is outside.
Every year on the third Saturday of July, Chiran holds its own, miniature, version of the famed Nebuta Festival that takes place in Aomori City. Large washi lanterns, decorated with images of legendary warriors, are hand-wheeled up and down the town’s main shopping street, accompanied by drums, flutes and dancing. In the Chiran adaptation, the performers still wear the traditional haneto costume and chant “rassera, rassera’ to liven up the crowd, but it has a character of its own, with a smaller crowd and oozing a charm that only small towns can.
“Why are you taking pictures of yourself?” Mark asked with one eyebrow raised as he turned around and saw my lens pointing into the window. “I’m getting bored, there’s nothing else here to photograph,” I replied.
The humidity had produced rivers of sweat on my forehead, which were running down the back of my neck and feeding into the giant prickly pear that was now my ball of hair.
“Don’t be a Negative Nancy, there’s plenty of things to see,” he teased.
“Dude, the bamboo isn’t even real.” I motioned to two plastic stalks lying in the sand.
“Fuck it, let’s get food.”
If ajisai is the quintessential flower of tsuyu season, the firefly must be it’s insect. Called hotaru in Japanese, these lightning bugs swarm around streams and rivers in the countryside from late May to June and can be viewed in some places up until August. In Kobayashi, Idenoyama Park hosts a firefly festival every year, and after talking about going for almost a month, I finally got to it.
Have you ever seen a place that’s so beautiful it doesn’t seem real? That’s how I felt staring out the car window as Mark and I made our way down the coast to the Kasasa region of Minamisatsuma.
The road took us to a hook-shaped peninsula, known as Nomahanto, that extends 10 km (6.2 mi) into the East China Sea. Designated a prefectural park, the peninsula and its uniquely jagged coastline, characterized by sharp cliffs and dozens of reefs and islets, is a setting straight out of a Famous Five novel.
Fukiagehama beach is one of Japan’s three biggest sand dune systems. Bordered with pine forests, and facing the East China Sea, it’s also a beloved spot for both the residents of Minamisatsuma City, and the loggerhead turtles who come to lay their eggs there. But it is best known for hosting an annual event that brings artists from all over the world to showcase a unique talent; sand sculpting.
“This… is so wonderful that I don’t know how to express it,” said British diplomat Harry Smith Parkes of his sojourn at Senganen in 1866. “Anyone who visits there must be stricken by a desire to stay for three years at least.”
The historic garden was built in 1658 by the second lord of the Shimazu clan, and contains within it the family’s former summer villa. It was used to entertain guests of the daimyô and, overlooking Mt. Sakurajima and Kinko Bay, often left a lasting impression on its visitors. A small pond and hill are integral to the design of Japanese gardens; Senganen ‘borrows’ these elements from the ocean and volcano.
I must have woken up half of the forest with the scream I let rip when I felt my legs giving way beneath me, but Mark grabbed my arm and steadied me before I hit the ground. “Hahaha, you’re so weak,” he retorted with a smile. Three minutes later, he slipped and almost knocked himself out.
I have never seen an active volcano in real life before, so when John reminded me that there was one just a 15 minute ferry ride away from where we would be spending the weekend, of course we had to go. Andrea had invited us to her birthday party in Kagoshima City on the Saturday night, so John flew down early on that morning and I drove down from Miyazaki to fetch him.
Just 40 minutes drive from Kagoshima Airport, Sakurajima (桜島) is one of three volcanoes under a Level 3 alert by the JMA. At regular intervals, large amounts of ash and stones spew from its southern peak.
We navigated our way down to the parking lot of the ferry, and realised we had driven straight on to the boat! It was positively freezing up on deck, but we braved the wind long enough to snap a few photos. Fifteen minutes later, we were driving out the other end.
Waking up to a spectacular view of the countryside from an apartment window in Kanoya, Kagoshima, I never thought the day would end in blood and tears.