After four years, the time has finally come to say goodbye to my life in Japan. In just a few days, I’ll be getting on a plane bound for Stars Hollow. That’s right, ladies and gentleman, the fourth Gilmore girl is on her way! Oh, but if only. I will be moving to Connecticut though. That feels weird to say. For a long time, I’ve called Takanabe home and it feels surreal to be leaving it.
As someone who’s had to do a lot of grieving, I’ve come to know that goodbye isn’t just a single word or event; it’s a process through which, little by little, you learn to let go.
The range of emotions that comes with packing up a life is certainly vast; I’ve felt everything from an irrational fear of missing out on experiences in Miyazaki I’ll never have, to an intense worry about my future, to a profound gratefulness for all the times I’ve had living in this wonderfully weird place. I am deeply sad to be leaving, but also very relieved to break out of this bubble.
In the Valparaíso Region of Chile, a group of statues equal in shape and size rise from a site known as Ahu Akivi and stare out into the Pacific Ocean. These mysterious Maoi are just some of thousands discovered on Easter Island, built by the Rapa Nui to honor important people who had passed on. More than 14,000 km (± 8800 mi) away, on the southern coast of Miyazaki, Japan, the world’s only sanctioned replicas of these statues can be found staring back.
Situated on a gorgeous hill that overlooks the Nichinan Coast, the Miyazaki statues form part of a seaside park called Sun Messe. There are seven figures in all, each standing 5.5 m (18 ft) high and weighing about 20 tons. Each statue represents a blessing (health, love, leisure, marriage, money, business, and academics) and the spirit of one of the seven Easter Island explorers.
Why on earth would a city like Nichinan reproduce monoliths from a Chilean island, you ask? Well, because Japan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“Woaah!” I exclaimed to Mark. “Are you seeing this?” The red shrine that he was investigating wasn’t enough to distract me from the roar of water falling down. An unexpected stop on our roadtrip to Miyakonojo had led us down a flight of stone stairs to meet the majestic Sekino-o Falls.
With the cherry blossoms forecasted to open in Miyazaki later this week, our original plan was to see if we could catch any early bloomers; the sakura festivals will take place around Miyazaki next weekend but I’ll be away in Nagano and Nikkō then.
We had been in Mochio Park, enjoying the couple of blossoms that had opened and the tree lilacs in full bloom. We were definitely too early to see the sakura in all of their pink and popcorn glory, though. But the view of the surrounding countryside from Mochio Shrine was pretty impressive.