One of my favorite things about living in Connecticut is being surrounded by nature. Despite being a pretty urbanized state, there is plenty of untouched land filled with rolling hills, woodlands and water. While most of the latter comprises of modest waterfalls, there is a dramatic series of cascades in Litchfield Country that are the exception.
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.
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.
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.
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.