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.
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 Japan, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city or town that doesn’t have at least one onsen (温泉). Thanks to abundant geothermal activity on the archipelago, there are thousands of these natural hot springs scattered throughout each of the prefectures. Not to be confused with bathhouses, or sentō, in which heated tap water is used, onsen must contain at least one of 19 specified minerals and have a natural temperature higher than 25 ºC (77 ºF) to be officially designated as such. For hundreds of years, people have enjoyed soaking in their healing waters to relax, unwind, and cure stress-related ailments.
Onsen don’t only differ in their mineral content; there are outdoor and indoor baths, public and private baths, and baths for mixed and gender-separate bathing. A popular way to enjoy different kinds of baths is to visit an onsen resort, a hot spring area or town with its own hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and amusement facilities.
One of Japan’s top onsen resorts is located in Oita prefecture, which also boasts the highest number of hot spring locations and the highest annual yield of hot spring water in the country. Yufuin (由布院) is located just a 35 min drive from its popular neighbour Beppu, in a small valley beneath the impressive Mount Yufu.
The tears came hard and fast. I had just reached the sign marking the last 800 meters of the Yufudake trail but instead of feeling elated that I was almost to the top of the mountain, I felt an overwhelming urge to give up and turn around. Switchback after switchback had made the terrain seem like an endless ascent and I knew that “almost” stretched ahead in another long series of back and forth that would only grow steeper and rockier.
As surprised as I was at my sudden outburst of emotion on the side of the mountain, I also felt relief. Finally, my body was allowing me to acknowledge just how exhausted I was. My legs were butter and my chest a furnace, but it was starting to feel good in the way exercise does when the endorphins show up to the party. It was my mind that was worn out; hiking is a mental sport and I was losing to the voice in my head.
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.