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.
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.”
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.
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.