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.
“Please visit Miyazaki again,” a sign reads at the entrance to the prefecture’s last tunnel burrowing through the Kyushu Mountain Range on Route 219. When you emerge on the other side, another one is waiting to greet you: “Welcome to Kumamoto!” It’s as if the passageway is a portal, transporting you to another world. And that’s exactly what Hitoyoshi feels like: a dreamy hidden town that’s come to life from the pages of a storybook.
Just a two hour’s drive from Miyazaki City, Hitoyoshi is located in southernmost Kumamoto, in a basin that’s enveloped in fogs from late autumn to early spring. Once a lake, the town is also an onsen resort, fed by the alkaline and carbonated hot spring waters that flow from rock layers containing fossilized trees.
More than 25 public baths are scattered around town and dotted along the banks of the Kumagawa. Flowing from its source in the Kyushu Mountains down to the Yashiro Sea, the 115 km-long (71 mi) river turns to powerful white water once it reaches Hitoyoshi, making it an ideal location for canoeing and an abundant source of ayu, or sweetfish.
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.
As we stepped out of the train station and into the attached undercover market that snakes towards the centre of Tsuruhashi, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. I was literally dripping, too – it had been sheeting down all morning and I’d long ago surrendered in the battle of the thousand umbrellas.
The array of mismatched shops that line the roofed walkway, selling everything from linen to handbags to crockery, reminded me of the Oriental Plaza in Johannesburg. The 360-store shopping center was a supporting character in the story of my childhood; every so often we’d make the trip into ‘town’ to profit off its bargains and spend our savings on samosas and roti.
Here, the smell of curry was replaced with barbecue and the signs hanging above each of the stores were not tamil or hindi, but kanji. Still, it was a different side of Osaka – older, quieter, poorer and distinctly un-Japanese. The Tsuruhashi District in Ikuno-ku is home to one of the country’s biggest Korean resident populations and its “Koreatown” is becoming increasingly popular locally and abroad.
There is no Japanese word for ‘hipster’, which, ironically, is about as hipster as you can get. The closest you’ll find to the Western pejorative here is “ultra individual” (超個性的) or “one who loves novelty” (新しがり屋). But there is a term for the stuff hipsters love to buy.
Zakka (雑貨) refers to all those miscellaneous items you’d find in Urban Outfitters – the ones that cost an arm and a leg but that you buy anyway because they’ll totally improve your appearance and lifestyle, transforming you into the epitome of cool.
But we’re not talking mere household hodgepodge here – zakka is as specific and vague as the subculture it serves. As the New York Times explains it, “a plastic ashtray will not qualify as a zakka but a plastic ashtray picked up in a flea market in Paris with “Pernod” inscribed on top, is zakka at the maximum level.”
It’s a ¥4 million market that is thriving in the trendy neighbourhoods of Japan’s larger cities – Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa and Koenji, and Osaka’s Nakazakicho.
The ever-so distinctive smell of old books is a Floo powder that transports me to my childhood: the water heater in primary school that I spent most winter mornings propped up against, chasing like a second Timmy after Julian, Dick, Anne and George through hidden coves and mysterious lighthouses; my grandmother’s couch, where I lost entire Saturdays exploring the Enchanted Wood and the Faraway Tree; the back seat of our family’s car, where I dedicated long car rides out to the Magaliesburg helping Nancy solve clues; and the most magical place to exist outside of those pages: The Boskruin Library.
It was a wonderful thing, being raised by a mom who loves books as much as I do. I’d get to spend almost every day after school maxing out my library card and weekends nosing through new and used book shops. Which is why, when I read about an entire neighbourhood dedicated to books in Tokyo, I had to go check it out.