In the mountains of Kitago, Nichinan, there is a hidden ravine that has the ability to relieve its visitors of their ailments. It’s not local lore or legend – spending time here has been scientifically proven to heal the body and mind. The Inohae Valley (猪八重渓谷 ) is one of three spots in Miyazaki prefecture that have been certified as “forest therapy bases” by the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine.
Forest therapy bases are parts of a forest where various psychological and physiological experiments have been conducted that show the healing and preventative medical benefits of the area. These range from boosting immunity and lowering blood pressure, to decreasing heart rates and relieving stress, anxiety and depression.
It sounds like hippy pseudoscience, but the concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” as a health-enhancing practice is well established in Japan. It’s backed by an every-growing body of research that suggests a walk in the woods is one of the best things you can do for your health. A certification program to register forest therapy bases was started in 2006 and since then, 62 sites have been designated across the country.
“You ate what?” Maria-san asked with surprise.
“Wild boar and deer.”
She scrunched up her nose in disgust, “Urgh…really?”
“Yeah, it was delicious!”
“Oh no,” she frowned unconvinced, “I’ve never tried it.”
Maria is the co-owner-co-chef of one of my favourite restaurants in Miyazaki, which made her reaction that much more amusing. It’s not an uncommon one in Japan though, where game meat seems to have a pretty poor reputation. As my one colleague explained it, “most people are put off by the smell.”
Two crouched rikishi look each other dead in the eye. In perfect symmetry, they rub their hands together, clap once, and then move their arms out slowly to their sides, first facing their palms up, and then turning them to face down. They put their hands on their knees, still not breaking eye contact. One grabs a handful of salt and throws it into the air, and then they both lift their legs out to their sides and bring them back down to the ground. The salt will purify the dohyo; the stomping will drive away bad spirits; and the arm movements will show that they are unarmed. Once the greeting ceremony is complete, the match can begin. They put their fists on the ground. Hakkeyoi!
Sumo is more than just a sport. In this Japanese style of wrestling, the pre-match ceremony often lasts longer than the bout itself, with each movement carefully performed to honor the activity’s core values: integrity, dignity, discipline and strength. Intertwined with the country’s Shinto religion, the history of sumo spans almost 2,000 years. Ancient wall paintings reveal that it was first performed to pray for a bountiful harvest when planting rice.
The earliest written account of sumo, found in the 8th century history book Kojiki, recounts a tale in which the possession of the Japanese islands was decided by a sumo match between the gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata. The former won the bout and is believed to have established the imperial family from which Akihito, Japan’s present emperor, traces his ancestry.
At this time of year, the terrifyingly life-like fibreglass statues of Colonel Sanders that guard the entrance to every KFC in Japan are dressed up in red suits and Santa hats ready to greet the long line of customers waiting to pick up their Christmas dinner: roast chicken, champagne and strawberry shortcake.
Born out of a Western visitor’s search for a turkey substitute, “Kentucky for Christmas” has been going strong since 1974. The campaign is one of the many odd mutations of Western culture to be exported to Japan; Christmas here is most enthusiastically observed by young couples, who exchange presents and enjoy a romantic dinner out in an occasion more akin to Valentine’s Day.
But there’s one Christmas tradition that Japan has borrowed and not butchered: the illumination.
Last Saturday, generals at the Nyutabaru Air Base in Shintomi Town, Miyazaki, constructed and hung a giant teru teru bozu doll from the awning of the Fifth Air Wing offices. Traditionally believed to bring good weather, it was hoped the doll would eliminate the rain forecast for the following day, when the base would hold its annual air show.
The Nyutabaru Air Festival is the biggest of its kind in western Japan. Every December up to 100,000 aviation enthusiasts and photographers from all over the country descend on the aerodrome, just a 40 minute drive from Miyazaki City.
Visitors can explore the base, see various airplanes and equipment from the Japanese military on display, and grab a bite to eat from one of many food stalls, or shop for souvenirs at pop-up stalls selling caps, t-shirts, bags, posters and DVDs of Japanese aircraft. But the festival’s biggest attraction is an hour-long display by the Japan Air Self Defense Force’s (JASDF) aerobatic demonstration team, Blue Impulse.
During the Age of the Gods, the daughter of the Japanese sea King Ryujin, Toyotama, lived with her father in the underwater palace of Ryugu-jo. One day, the dragon goddess met a young hunter named Hoori who had come to the bottom of the ocean looking for a missing fishing hook that belonged to his brother. The two fell in love and were married.
After a few years of living together in the palace, Hoori began to long for a life above the sea. He convinced Toyotama to come with him and, pregnant with his child, she agreed. They set up camp inside a cave along the shore and soon after Toyotama went into labour.
Not wanting her husband to see her transform into her alternative form, Toyotama begged him to wait outside. Curiosity got the better of him, though, and he peered in to find a giant black dragon holding a baby. Ashamed, Toyotama fled back to the sea, leaving her breasts behind to feed the newborn child.
In the Ichifusa Mountain Range of Miyazaki, alongside the Hitotsuse River, seven picturesque hamlets are scattered across a 272 km² area filled with forests, streams, rice fields and vineyards. Collectively, they are known as Nishimera Village (西米良村).
It’s a quiet, peaceful place – a nature-lover’s haven filled with hiking trails and fishing spots that are home to wild boar, deer, and trout. In autumn, its fertile soils yield shiitake mushrooms, followed by yuzu citrus in the winter, and bell pepper in the spring. It’s the only place in the prefecture that cultivates iseimo, a soggy-textured, sweet-tasting root vegetable that most resembles taro.
But despite its natural beauty and agricultural riches, Nishimera has experienced a staggering population decline in the last 50 years. With just 1,240 residents left, the village is one of hundreds in Japan facing extinction.
The giant cotton balls overhead slowly parted as Austin and I made our way from the parking lot down the gravel path, as if to reveal to us a secret. The Kaeda Valley, hidden in the mountains just 15km (9mi) south of Miyazaki City, is something just of that.
Towering conifers stand guard in a line formation at its entrance, daring you to walk through its walls that shield the Kumbachi Mountain to the left and Soishiyama to the right. Its gate, an emerald river, crawls over rocks and cliff drops, and then rushes past as it continues on in its journey to the shore.
It’s an extraordinary place, the kind that needs a few moments to take in. I closed my eyes for just a second, breathing in the clean air and letting the afternoon sun blanket my cheeks, wrapping me up in that familiar comfort, I have come to learn, only being in nature brings.
I could feel my throat turning to sandpaper as my shirt wrapped its arms tighter around me. Another ball of sweat dislodged from my forehead, hurtled down the slope of my temple, and skidded into the corner of my eye. Then the tears came.
It was my second day in Takanabe and I had been aimlessly walking around for close on two hours in the August heat trying to find my apartment building. I was desperate for a drink, but with a dead phone battery and no real grasp on the lay of the land yet, I was well and truly lost.
Sobbing and sweating, I rounded yet another corner, and then stopped dead in my tracks. Before me stood an angel, its white glow beckoning to me in the hot summer sun. Clunk. My change went in. Badunk. Heaven in a bottle rolled out.
And just like that, I was saved by a vending machine.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Just wait for the next wave. Ok, now go! Move your hand around!”
A tiny spec of blue suddenly appeared under the water.
“Woah! I see one! There’s another one!”
Mermaid fireflies, dancing around our hands and legs.
“Holey shit, that’s cool!”
It had been a really long day, but I immediately forgot I was tired. It was going to be a great night; I could just feel it.
On the last Saturday of August, Danielle and I packed up my old but trusted Kei, Anene, and headed out for the long drive to the southernmost tip of Miyazaki prefecture, picking up Austin and Alicia on the way. Cape Toi is one of my favourite places in Kyushu, but I had yet to experience its single most popular event – the annual Toimisaki Fire Festival.
At different times in my life, August has either represented the approaching autumn, or the coming spring. And as if to echo those transitions, it has marked my most exciting beginnings and most painful endings. Consistently, it has been a month of change.
Now, as a JET, August is the time of year when I have to bid farewell to old friends who have made the decision to return home, and welcome new ones who have just arrived to start their Japan adventure. Anyone who has lived abroad for a length of time will understand just how hard those hellos and goodbyes can be.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt on this very crazy journey of my own it’s that change can bring about the most beautiful of things.
“Cherry blossoms in spring, they mean everything…” coos the Night Beds’ Winston Yellen on the sixth track of Country Sleep. A truer line could never be sung for Japan. Here, cherry blossoms are spring.
From the first bloom in Okinawa in February, the forecast is predicted and tracked as it heads to the mainland and then spreads north. The arrival of the pink and white popcorn balls are eagerly awaited; sakura is the unofficial national flower of Japan and has been revered in art, culture and poetry for centuries.
But spring came late to Miyazaki this year; the weather is not nearly as warm as it should be and the blossoms were slow to open, with a bout of rain causing them to fall before they reached their full potential. Streets and parks are still covered with a dusting of pink snow, reminding, perhaps more than usual, of the beauty of transience.
I spent three different days tracking their progress in Saito City, along with the rapeseed that is in full bloom.
In Shintomi Town, on the road from Takanabe to Saito, is a garden carpeted in bright, pink flowers. During spring, when the shibazakura (moss phlox) is in full bloom, the private residence attracts up to 3,000 visitors a day. People come to admire the beautiful flowers, of course, but the garden is attractive for another reason; the story of how it came to be.