ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 34

Sayonara Japan

SAYONARA JAPAN – THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH!
We left Japan and all its wonderful idiosyncrasies behind today, bound for Hong Kong. Our whole Friday is basically just one very long transit day so there’s not much of interest to report. We’re currently at Incheon Airport, just outside Seoul (Korea), waiting for our connecting flight to Hong Kong. Rather than make our way back to a bigger city in Japan we decided to fly directly out of Kagoshima (the small international airport there has flights bound for Seoul that allowed us to transit through to Hong Kong). Our transit day started at 7:00 this morning when we caught the jetfoil back from Yakushima to Kagoshima (2 hours), then lugged our bags to the bus stop to catch the “airport limousine bus” to the airport (1 hour). It took just 90 minutes to get to Seoul but now we have a 6 hour wait until our connecting flight to Hong Kong leaves. Arggghhhhhh – 6 hours is such a looooong time…. At least there are heaps of facilities here at Incheon – we’re currently in the Sky Lounge making the most of their free* food, drinks, wifi, showers, and massage chairs. I guess there’s worse ways to spend 6 hours.
*”Free” once you pay to get in, that is.

 

Kagoshima international airport. Nobody else for Hong Kong?

 

This is the third big trip we’ve done to Japan and it’s still one of our favourite places in the world to visit. We’ve been sitting here eating soft serve ice cream and drinking café lattes, remembering some of our favourite moments from the past 5 weeks. From sakura to volcanoes, snow to tropical heat, serene rainforests to chaotic mega-cities, this trip to Japan has been a blast! If you’d care to take a brief trip down memory lane with us, we’ve included some of our highlights and favourite photos below….

 

Most memorable sights and experiences from Japan 2015 (in no particular order).

1. Yakushima’s forests, mountains and epic scenery makes on to our list of favourite places in the world, not just Japan! This magical fairytale island was every bit as mystical and beautiful as we’d imagined, and more. Definitely a highlight.

 

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2. The Iya Valley in Shikoku was similarly spectacular. The deep gorges, dense forests, blue rivers, vine bridges, and tiny villages of this remote valley are a vision of “olde worlde” Japan that we loved.

 

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3. While we’re on the theme of the Iya Valley, we have to mention the indulgence and sheer luxury of our private, open air onsen at the Nanoyado Iya Valley Onsen Hotel. Sitting in the warm waters of the natural hot spring, watching monkeys cavort in the trees around us and the sun set is a memory we’ll cherish forever.

 

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4. For the sheer fun of it we have to put the Tokushima Hana Haru Festival on our list. This was also the day we were famous and got interviewed live on Japanese TV, tasting the local specialties!

 

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5. Not be undone, Kyushu gave us a pretty good day of festival fun too when we went to Fukuoka’s Hakata Dontaku Festival. The street parade alone was worth the day trip!

 

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6. We also had a blast at Nagasaki’s Tall Ship Festival – seeing all those ships lit up was great!

 

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7. Definitely one of the highlights for us was seeing Mt Fuji in all its glory whilst we were up at Kawaguchiko-machi. After days of snow and cold weather, it was such a joy to awaken to the mountain revealed! Mt Fuji really is a special sight and one that is sooo iconically Japanese, you just have to see it at least once!

 

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8. Speaking of iconic images, we can’t forget delicate, fresh pink and white sakura. Seeing the cherry blossoms in Tokyo at Ueno Park and Shinjuku Park was awesome, and then marvelling at entire hillsides covered in them at Yoshino was even better.

 

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9. If we’re going to remember Yoshino we have to mention the chaos of the Hanakueshiki Festival we stumbled across when we went up there for the day. So many people, so many sakura-flavoured goodies, so many cherry blossoms everywhere…

 

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10. In Yufuin, outside Beppu, we fell in love with Ogosha-ji shrine and its giant cedar tree. Set against the backdrop of lush forest, this humble little shrine was so peaceful and serene that we couldn’t help but be touched by it.

 

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11. Of all the temples we visited, our most memorable was Kompira temple. With its 1,349 steps this temple probably just stands out in our mids because we exerted so much effort just getting there! All the temples we visited in Shikoku had something unique about them, and we would still love to do the Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage one day.

 

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12. We got to see a couple of awesome castles this time around too. We loved both of them; Matsuyama-jo for its epic hill-top location and Kumamoto-jo for its huge castle grounds filled with ancient trees and cherry blossoms.

 

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13. On a slightly more sombre note, Nagasaki’s Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum were certainly memorable and a poignant reminder of what can be lost during war.

 

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14. More poignant reminders of how human beings can impact the landscape around them were had at Gunkanjima island. Our visit to this abandoned coal mining island was interesting, but more than a little eerie and tragic.

 

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15. For the sheer beauty of it we have to mentioned Ritsurin Gardens in Tokushima. This was definitely one of the best examples of Japanese landscaping and garden aesthetics we have ever seen. Simply stunning.

 

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16. As perverse as it may sound, we would also put getting “ashed on” at Sakurajima on our list of favourite experiences this time around in Japan. Walking around an active volcano as it spews forth piles of ash is not something we have ever done before (or will likely do again). The sheer power of a volcano like Sakurajima certainly makes you feel small.

 

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17. When it comes to making us feel small and vulnerable, Mt Aso wins hands down however. The sheer size of the Aso-san volcanic crater blew us away (pardon the pun), and left us awed.

 

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18. We got to do a few hikes this trip and one of our favourites was the day we got to hike up Homanzan in Dazaifu. So much up….. The maths may not make sense, but trust us when we say Japan is 90% UP. Steep, steep UP. We couldn’t walk properly for days after our hike up Homanzan, but it was totally worth it for the views!

 

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19. We also really enjoyed hiking through Aokighara forest up around Mt Fuji. Despite this forest’s sinister reputation as Japan’s “Suicide Forest”, it’s a beautiful, peaceful place that we really enjoyed visiting.

 

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20. Finally, of all the parks we visited Nara Park has to rank as our favourite. With its tame deer, temples, shrines, and cherry blossoms, Nara Park is history and beauty combined in the best possible way.

 

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Japan has a very unique culinary tradition as well so we have to pay tribute to all the food highlights and lowlights too. Memorable edibles we will remember from this trip include…

 

1. Vending machine coffee. Bad. Always bad. Very bad.

 

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2. Yam flavoured ice cream. Lucky Shane!

 

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3. Sakura flavoured ice cream. Lucky me!

 

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4. Canned “chicken of the sea” (i.e. tuna) with corn and cheese. Not as yummy as you might think.
5. Chicken gizzards on skewers in Fukuoka. Sphincters, hearts, liver, chicken skin – all nice and crispy for your gustatory pleasure.

 

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6. Sizzling grilled tongue in Kagoshima. Tastier than you might think.

 

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7. Mame-ten-yaki – Takushima’s local speciality that got us on TV! That was that omelette thing made from a combination of eggs, flour, soy beans, cabbage, shrimp, and precooked chunks of tempura batter. All mixed together and cooked on a sizzling hot plate while you wait. It’s finished off with a generous serving of Japanese BBQ sauce and served with a garnish of chives. Not bad at all.

 

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8. Gooey and delicious takoyaki (i.e. tasty, bite-sized balls of octopus cooked in an egg and flour batter).
9. Awesome, crunchy chicken karage (i.e. like the Japanese version of KFC, just good).

 

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10. Bag-fulls of baby kasutera (i.e. the Japanese version of Portugese Pão de Castela, a sweet sponge cake made from flour, eggs, sugar and syrup).

 

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11. Sour as hell and guaranteed to make you pucker your mouth – everyone’s favbourite lemon/mandarin thing: sudachi!
12. Shane has a predilection for weird desserts. The best/worst one he picked up during this trip would have to be mitarashi dango. These are sweet rice balls served on skewers, grilled and served warm covered with a syrup made from soy sauce, sugar and starch. They had the weirdest sweet/salty taste.

 

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13. Countless bowls of hot, steaming ramen noodles; round or flat, skinny or fat, with chicken, pork, seafood or tofu, we ate ‘em all!

 

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14. Nabemono (i.e. Japanese hot pot meal) in Nara. Warm and hearty and oh so tasty!

 

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15. Shane’s favourite drink: Tapioca Swirkle. A bit of milk, a bit of ice cream, a whole lot of tapioca and just a dash of swirkle (???).
16. While we’re on drinks, Shane would like to tip his hat to his favourite Japanese beer: Yebisu.

 

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17. No trip to Japan is complete without at least SOME sushi and sashimi. Thanks for all the fish Japan!
18. And last, but certainly not least, our most memorable meals of all: our epic multi-course degustation dinners at the Nanoyado Iya Valley Onsen Hotel. When cuisine becomes art…

 

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We’ve been lucky enough to have had some great weather (and some not so great weather – viz: getting snowed on in Kawaguchko-machi), and to have seen some awesome things during this trip. We survived our first Japanese Golden Week experience (busy, so busy!), got to ride a few shinkansens, trudged up a few mountains, celebrated with the locals at a few festivals, and just generally had an absolutely brilliant time. Arigato gozai-masu Japan – sayonara ‘til next time!

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 33


MIDORI SPLENDOUR OF SHIRATANI UNSUIKYO
For our last day on Yakushima island we decided we needed to soak in as much of the island’s magnificent midori* vistas as we could. The best place to do this is up in the mountains, so we went back to the Shiratani Unsuikyo Nature Reserve and did one of the longer hikes through the forest. It was awesome up there and well and truly fulfilled our desire for midori splendour.
*Midori means green in Japanese.

 

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The hike we did runs through a section of the forest that is often referred to as the Princess Mononoke Forest. The moniker is based on the fact that this area served as the inspiration for the Studio Ghibli animated film “Princess Mononoke”. Walking through the forest today we could definitely see how the forests of Yakushima could be inspirational.

 

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Even 20 years after its release, “Princess Mononoke” remains one of the most popular Japanese anime films of all time, and with good reason. It’s a beautifully told story based in feudal Japan that centres on the struggle between the supernatural guardians of a magical forest and the humans who consume its resources. The environmentalist theme of the story seems all the more poignant when you see how majestic the “real life” version of Princess Mononoke’s magical forest actually is.

 

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Traditionally the forests and mountains of Yakushima have been considered to have a spiritual value, and the ancient Yakusugi cedar trees were revered as sacred trees. We passed by/under/around a number of ancient cedar trees today, many of which have been named, including:
• Kuguri-sugi (i.e. kuguru = to pass through; sugi = cedar tree)
• Sanbonyashi-sugi (i.e. sanbonyashi = three legged; sugi = cedar tree)
• Bugyo-sugi (i.e. bugyo = magistrate or “ruling”; sugi = cedar tree)

 

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All along the hike there were old cedar trees that had us gazing up in wonder. Sitting under the eaves of the forest we could just imagine the kodama* that reside in this area peaking out from under bushes and from behind the trees around us.

*A kodama is a Japanese tree sprite that exists to protect its home tree. In “Princess Mononoke” they are portrayed as small, white humanoids with large, rattling heads and big black eyes. Japanese folklore states that not all trees are protected by kodamas, but those that are need to be cherished. The knowledge of those trees that have kodama living in them is passed down through the generations and, even today, cutting down a tree which houses a kodama is thought to bring misfortune. Such trees are often marked with rope to indicate its spiritual value.

 

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Throughout the hike we had to cross a number of streams and rivulets, and gained an appreciation for just how much water really does pour off the mountains here. The intense green of the moss-covered rocks in and around the streams we passed was incredible. We never realised there were so many shades of green!

 

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There is definitely something special about this place, and as challenging as the hike was at times*, we spent most of the day in awe of our surroundings. The hike was well signed posted, with little pink markers every few metres, which is just as well because it would have been very easy to get lost up there in the midst of all that green!

*We blithely set out on our hike in our regular day hiking gear. Lucky for us we had another rain-free day, so the route was relatively dry and we were fine. But if it had rained, we couldn’t have made it without some proper hiking gear. Most of the time it was more of a scramble than a hike, with every step up and down being fraught with hazards such as slippery moss, tree roots, and granite rocks. This was NOT a stroll along a perfectly maintained walking trail, this was quite a challenging test of balance, endurance, and fitness! Awesome and totally worth it, but not one to attempt without good shoes and proper hiking gear.

 

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We had our picnic lunch up there on the mountain and then continued the scramble home. By the time we got back to the entrance of the nature reserve we were exhausted, but ecstatic at having spent another day in the forests of Yakushima. We definitely got our fill of GREEN today and left the mountains with a sense of joy, peace and serenity that will hopefully stay with us for a while – especially given today is our last full day in Japan and we’re moving on to Hong Kong next!

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 32


YAKUSHIMA’s WILD WEST
Yakushima is an amazing place – thick rainforest blankets the mountains; ancient cedar trees tower up to the sky; waterfalls carry crystal clear water from the highest peaks down to the ocean; wild monkeys and deer roam freely; and giant turtles lay their eggs on golden beaches.

 

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After our experience of Shiratani Unsuikyo yesterday we decided to venture a little further afield today and explore some of Yakushima’s west coast. The western side of this roughly circular island is hard to access as the road (note the use of the singular) there is very narrow and winding. This means public buses cannot get through there and the only way to access it is by car. We tried to hire ourselves a car for the day, but given it’s Golden Week all the rental cars on the island were booked. So instead we hired a (Japanese speaking*) guide for the day who took us around to the wild western side of Yakushima and showed us more of the island’s unique flora and fauna.
*English is not widely spoken around here. We were lucky to get a Japanese speaking guide for the day, given how busy it is at the moment. Poor Shane had to take in what the guide was saying, interpret as much of it as he could, then translate everything for me. By the end of the day his brain was running pretty hot and he needed a couple of beers to cool it off!

 

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We were lucky enough to, once again, have blue skies and gloriously warm sunshine for our outing. This made our first stop for the day, Nagata Inaka beach, even more spectacular. This beach is Yakushima’s longest white sand beach and is also one of the beaches where loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs in spring and summer. From late May to July female loggerhead turtles make their way up this beach and lay their eggs in sandy “nests”. Each females lays over 100 eggs per nest, and makes 3-4 nests per year. That seems like a lot of baby turtles, until you realise that less than 1% of them will survive into adulthood.

 

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Current estimations are that 40% of the loggerhead turtles in the northern Pacific nest on this one little island. The amount of rain that falls on Yakushima means that the sea waters around the island are colder than they otherwise would be. This changes the ocean ecosystem and means that the area around the island contains a large number of crustaceans, loggerheads’ favourite food. Loggerhead turtles are an endangered species and Yakushima’s importance as a nesting site adds to its ecological value. We’re here a little early to see turtles lay eggs, but it was still great to see the beach and learn about the role Yakushima plays in helping keep the loggerhead turtle species in existence.

 

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From Nagata Inaka beach we hopped back in our van and drove down the Seibu Forest Path, as the road through the island’s western side is referred to locally. Clinging precariously to the side of the mountain, the narrow road wound its way through some of the greenest virgin forest we’ve seen on Yakushima so far. We learnt from our guide that, due to its inaccessibility, this side of the island has never been logged and is thus still old growth forest.

 

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With the green of the forest plunging all the way to the blue of the ocean, this side of the island was especially beautiful. It reminded us a bit of the Daintree Rainforest in northern Queensland (Australia), though far less developed and touristy.

 

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We stopped a few times to walk short distances into the forest and saw wild deer and monkeys, as well butterflies, lizards, frogs, and countless birds. The diversity of flora and fauna on Yakushima is quite unique – our guide was telling us that there 1,900 species of plants, 200 species of birds, and 16 species of mammals endemic to the island.

 

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Due to the island’s isolation, climate and unique vegetation many of the mammal species on Yakushima have evolved to be slightly different from their mainland Japanese cousins. The Yakushima macaque, for example, has evolved to be smaller than “regular” Japanese macaques; they also have darker fur and black hands and feet. We saw a few of these yaku-saru (i.e. Yakushima monkeys) today, including a few tiny babies born in these last few weeks.

 

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We also saw a number of yaku-sika (i.e. Yakushima deer). The estimated wild deer population on Yakushima is around 19,000 and they can be seen all over the island: from the coastline to the mountain tops. To put this figure into perspective, the human population of the entire island is just 13,000! Like the macaques, the deer on Yakushima have evolved to be slightly smaller and darker in colouring. As they’re not hunted any more, the deer were quite unperturbed by us; we got to watch them foraging in the forest for quite a while before they casually wandered off.

 

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After a few hours spent enjoying the Seibu Forest Path we moved on to Ohkonotaki waterfall, one of Japan’s largest. This powerful waterfall drops 88m and filled the air around us with a fine mist of cool water. Our guide told us that the waterfall was only about 30% “full” at the moment – during typhoon season, when most of the island’s rain falls, it triples in size and ferocity.

 

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Our excursion at an end we then made our way back to Miyanoura, where we got to enjoy another glorious sunset over the mountains of Yakushima. We’ve been so fortunate to have had such amazing weather while we’ve been here, and to have seen so much of what the island has to offer. Best of all: we still have one more day to go!

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 31


HIKING THROUGH YAKUSHIMA’S CEDAR FORESTS
Yakushima is famous for its lush vegetation, precipitous mountains, waterfalls, temperate rainforests, and ancient cedar trees. Today we got to experience a little of each of these things with a visit to Shiratani Unsuikyo, or “Rain-cloud Valley”.

 

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As glorious as the day turned out to be, it didn’t start out that way. We got no sleep last night and woke up tired and cranky. So cranky, in fact, that we decided we needed to find another place to stay. The guesthouse we had booked for our 4 night stay here is above a fishing shop, and is really, really basic. We booked it because it was cheap (i.e. $30AUD per person per night), and given that it is currently Golden Week, everything else was either booked or stupidly expensive (e.g. $300AUD per person per night). Unfortunately it seems you get what you pay for; the whole guesthouse smelt like fish, and there was 1 toilet and 1 Japanese-style bathing room to be shared between 5 rooms (which last night meant between was 12 people – too bad if you had to pee in a hurry!).

 

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We had rock-hard bunk beds to sleep in, and the walls were paper thin. It was the complete lack of sound proofing that was our undoing – we could here every word spoken by our neighbours last night, as well as every fart, every burp, every cat yowling in the night, just everything! And as our room was right by the front door, every time the door opened and closed, our whole room shook and shuddered. For those who like to rough it, this would seem like the whinging of a spoilt brat. We’re in an isolated, incredibly beautiful part of the world, and I’m complaining about lack of sleep…. Yup. Lack of sleep is my arch nemesis. Well, that and heights. Without sleep I am useless and cranky. So cranky that Shane decided we had to find another place to stay (i.e. he couldn’t stand the idea of putting up with 4 days of me like this). Lucky for us the one hotel in town had a cancellation and was really happy to sell us the room at a reduced rate, which is AWESOME as it means I get to sleep like the spoilt, precious princess I am for the rest of our stay here. Such happiness and joy!

 

Once our little accommodation issue was resolved, and with a couple of coffees in us, we caught the local bus up to Shiratani Unsuikyo Nature Reserve to do some exploring. This area is close to Miyanoura and very accessible for day hikers* like us. It is also beautiful.
*That is: we like to do hikes that go for a up to 8 hours, but then retreat to the comfort of civilisation and a warm shower for the night. If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’m not the camping type. My rule is: if I have to dig a hole to poop in and/or carry my own poop around in a bag, I’m not going. What am I, a bear that I have to sh#t in the woods?!

 

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Just the drive up to Shiratani Unsuikyo was spectacular. The nature reserve is almost 1,000m up and the views from the bus as we wound our way higher and higher up the mountain were amazing. We could see all the way down to Miyanoura and the port, as well across valleys and mountains.

 

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The hike we did is one of the shorter ones available at Shiratani Unsuikyo; it takes you through some areas of the forest that were logged during the 1600s (and are therefore somewhat cleared of trees and a little more accessible), and up to Yayoi-sugi (Yayoi = Iron Age; sugi = cedar*). Yayoi-sugi is an ancient cedar tree that is one of the oldest and largest trees in Japan. The name of the tree derives from its age – it’s believed to have sprouted some 2,300 years ago during the Yayoi Period or Japanese Iron Age (i.e. about 300BC).
*The Japanese cedar, known colloquially as ‘sugi’, are often used as a symbol of Yakushima. Trees younger than 1,000 years are known as ‘Kosugi’; older specimens are known as ‘Yakusugi’.

 

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The forest that we walked through to reach Yayoi-sugi was typical of the temperate rainforest seen at this altitude – very green and mossy, with ferns and epiphytes everywhere. Talking to a guide at the nature reserve today we learnt that altitude has a huge impact on the flora of the island: at higher altitudes the climate is temperate, with grasses dominating the landscape and snow falling in winter. Whereas at lower altitudes the climate and vegetation are more sub-tropical and tropical. The entire island can be divided up into strata, with plant and animal distributions changing as the altitude changes.

 

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We were even lucky enough to have actual sunshine during our walk through the forest today! Given it rains 10m a year here, dry sunny days are very rare. The sun shining through the trees painted everything bright green, and when came out into the open, the blue skies above us just added to the beauty of the forest.

 

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It was a great way to spend the day and we can’t wait to see more of this incredible island! Tune in tomorrow folks to see what corner of Yakushima we explore…

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 30


JETTING OFF TO YAKUSHIMA FOR AN ISLAND GETAWAY…
Yakushima island lies about 135km south of Kagoshima and has been on our “Must Wander” list ever since we first saw the Japanese anime movie “Princess Mononoke” and learnt that the setting for this animated film is based on the spectacularly green forests of this isolated spec of land. Yakushima is one of the Osumi Islands, which, though technically still part of Kyushu, lie far enough south that their climate and flora has more in common with Okinawa or Hawaii than “mainland” Japan. This is tropical Japan at its best!

 

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We arrived in to the town of Miyanoura this afternoon, after a 2 hour jetfoil ride from Kagoshima. You can reach Yakushima either by traditional ferry, which takes about 4 hours, or by jetfoil, which is faster but a bit more expensive. Given that Shane and the ocean have this mutual dislike of each other, we chose the quickest way here to minimise Shane’s discomfort. And it was awesome – jetfoils are so cool! The boat was going about 80km/h most of the way and the ride was so smooth that Shane didn’t even go green!

 

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Miyanoura is the largest town on Yakushima island; though, with a population of just 5,000, this is still a very provincial little place. The town is very small, and looks more like a South Pacific island than the Japan we’re used to – there are vines, creepers, ferns, banana trees, passionfruit vines, and heaps of other tropical plants everywhere.

 

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The best thing in town, however, has to be the backdrop against which Miyanoura is set. The lush, green vegetation that covers the mountains here is what makes this island unique enough that, in 1980, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The forests here are a unique combination of temperate rainforest (at lower altitudes), and ancient cedar forests (at higher altitudes). The island’s rugged terrain and the inaccessibility of much of the forest means much of it has never been logged – this means there are trees on the island that are over 7,000 years old. Though we could only see the forests and mountains from a distance today, we’re already entranced!

 

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The other sight that had our attention was the Miyanoura River, which flows through town. The water in the river is so incredibly crystal clear, though very cold.

 

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There are a lot of rivers, streams, rivulets and waterfalls on Yakushima, mainly because it rains A LOT here – like 10,000mm (i.e. 10m) per year. It’s all this rain that has allowed the unique forests of Yakushima to thrive. We learnt this today when we went to the Yakushima Nature Centre and looked at all their displays and watched the informational documentary they play about the island (worth watching if you’re very here – includes some epic photography).

 

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We also learnt that Yakushima is not a volcanic island; the bedrock of the island is granite and was formed some 1.4 million years ago from subterranean pressures* forcing this little piece of land to jut up out of the surrounding ocean. The entire island has a circumference of just 89km but has over 30 mountains on it that measure more than 1km high, all of them pushed up out of the Earth by the tremendous forces at work below far us. The highest of these peaks is Mt Miyanoura, which, at 1,935m high, is southern Japan’s highest mountain. Many of the tourists a year who come to Yakushima come to climb Mt Miyanoura; all of us come to see the ancient forests of this island and experience its beauty and isolation.
*Those forces are still at work – turns out Yakushima is growing at a rate of about 0.5mm per year.

 

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We were really lucky to arrive just as the clouds were lifting off the mountains, which was awesome! We got to watch sunset over the mountains, and then found a small restaurant that specialised in BBQ meals – they brought a small hot coal BBQ out to our table and a selection of meats and veggies for us to cook on it. A very tasty meal and a great way to end the day here on Yakushima island. Tomorrow we’re off to explore some of those epic mountains we can see in the distance…

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 29

Fukuoka, Hakata don taku

FESTIVAL FUN & A LITTLE BIT OF TONGUE
This week is Golden Week in Japan; this week of national holidays is the busiest holiday season in Japan. It’s also the week when many cities hold festivals to celebrate this festive season. We’ve turned into festival junkies after our experiences at the Tokushima Hana Haru Festival a few weeks ago, so when we heard that Fukuoka holds one of Japan’s biggest and best street festivals on the 3rd May every year, we just HAD TO go!

 

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Fukuoka is about 280km north of Kagoshima, but with the wonders of the shinkansen and a J-Rail Pass*, we got up there in just over an hour. J-Rail Passes are awesome – we get them every time we come to Japan as they give you virtually* unlimited access to the rail network across Japan. Given how expensive travel on Japanese trains can be, they quickly pay for themselves. Today’s trip to and from Fukuoka, for example, would have cost us about $400AUD total, without a rail pass.
*There are just a couple of the super-fancy shinkansens you can’t use, every other train is your to ride for “free” – even seat reservations are free with a J-Rail Pass, which is great during busy travel periods like Golden Week as you’re guaranteed a seat of your own.

 

We got to Fukuoka around 11:00am, before the main street parade kicked off, but in time to see the city getting set up for the party. There were people dressed in costumes walking around the streets, and we stumbled across an impromptu street performance as a local girls’ high school practiced their routine for the parade. The atmosphere on the streets was great – everyone was definitely in holiday mode today!

 

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The Hakata Dontaku* Festival is held in Fukuoka every year on Constitution Day (i.e. 3rd May) and it’s designed to be a celebration of thanks. The festival has been running for over 800 years and used to involve local merchants paying their respects to the ruling daimyo (i.e. feudal lord) and priests from local temples blessing people, and carrying shrines and images of Shinto spirits of good fortune through the streets.
*“Hakata” is the name of this district and “Dontaku” means “holiday*” in the local dialect. We’ve also heard the “Dontaku” is thought to have derived from the Dutch word Zondag, meaning “Sunday,” which was broadened to mean “holiday,” and corrupted into Dontaku. Whatever the origin, the meaning is the same!

 

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The festival continues to involve a modern equivalent to this, with the highlight being a 3-hour parade where priests hand out blessings in the form of bamboo cuttings decorated with coloured paper. There are also legendary gods riding past on horseback; floats and performances from local schools,the police, fire fighters, army and businesses; and groups of musicians playing samisens*, flutes, and drums.
*A traditional Japanese 3-stringed instrument similar to a banjo.

 

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We got ourselves front row spots from which to watch the colourful parade. It was great fun; we even got handed a few bamboo “blessings” to wave around.

 

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The festival is said to include 300,000 participants with over 600 groups involved in the parade. There were all kinds of costumes and types of performances – from very traditional Japanese ones, to big brass bands with majorettes and pom pom girls, and religious ones featuring demons and gods.

 

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This festival attracts more than 2 million spectators and is one of the busiest in Japan – as we found out today. The crowds were unbelievable! It was a little overcast and wet at times, but the occasional shower did little to dampen the crowds’ enthusiasm – us included!

 

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As well as the main there were also about 30 stages set up around the city and loads of street stalls selling takoyaki (i.e. cooked octopus in batter), yakitori (i.e. chicken bits on skewers), corn on the cob, grilled squid on a stick, and various other edible bits.

 

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Many of the festival performers were carrying shamoji (i.e. wooden rice serving spoons), and beating them together rhythmically. Symbolising abundance and plenty*, the shamoji are used as the symbol for this festival and were available at stalls as souvenirs.
*There’s also a note in the festival brochure that says the shamoji symbolise that the festival is for everyone – it’s a arty for the people. The rice servers are supposed to evoke the image of a woman, busy preparing a meal, dashing out to join the parade passing in front of her house.

 

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The niwaka masks were another common feature at Dontaku. Traditionally this mask was worn by comedians to hide their identity so they could poke fun at people without being identified. These days they are worn for fun at the festival.

 

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As we walked around, we stumbled across various stages where dances, folk music, and other displays were keeping people entertained. The parade of brightly decorated vehicles called hana jidosha was also entertaining.

 

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After hours of walking around the festival, we were famished and sought out a nikkuya (i.e. meat restaurant) for dinner. We found a place called “Steak & Beer”, which Shane thought sounded perfect. Turns out it wasn’t “steak” as we would know it, but tongue. Given how expensive beef and lamb can be in Japan, we’ve learnt to enjoy some diverse cuts of meat, including tongue. This place did grilled, flaming tongue, and the tenderest tongue stew ever. We sat at a bench around the central cooking area and got to watch the chef cook sizzling tongue right in front to if us. It was a great meal and a great way to end a fun-filled day of festival fun!

 

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Now we’re on the shinkansen once again, heading back to Kagoshima and thinking fondly of our comfy (but tiny*) bed…
*Japanese hotels offer double rooms and semi-double rooms. Semi-doubles are often cheaper but are much smaller – i.e. semi-doubles are 120cm wide vs. doubles are 140cm. Makes for a cosy night’s sleep!

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 28

Sakurajima, kogoshima

KICKING UP CLOUDS OF ASH ON SAKURAJIMA
We were so entranced by Sakurajima,, the active volcano just 2km across the bay from Kagoshima, that we decided to spend today getting better acquainted with this noisy mountain. It was awe-inspiring, getting close to such an incredible force of nature. We heard and felt the mountain belching out ash and gases almost continuously, which was amazing. Less amazing was all the ash we had to walk through and ended up covered in. All our clothes were grey and after a day on Sakura Island we had to wash our hair, scrub out our ears, and dust off all our gear. How do the people that live on the island put up with it every day?!

 

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Given it was such a perfect day, and the sheltered waters of Kinko Bay were nice and calm, we chose to start out with a short cruise around Kinko Bay that showed us the mountain from a few different angles.

 

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When we managed to tear our gaze away from Sakurajima, the waters of the bay were the most beautiful blue, and the green, lushly forested mountains all around us made for a great backdrop.

 

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While we were out on the bay the volcano gave an almighty belch and shot up a huge plume of ash and gas (we found later by reading the Japanese Meteorological Bureau’s webpage that the plume reached 4.5km in the air). It was spectacular, but quite scary – especially when it started raining little bits of pumice all around us! The guide on the boat was telling us that sometimes there are golf ball sized bits of pumice that get shot out. Pumice isn’t too heavy so it probably wouldn’t kill you, but a golf ball sized lump would still sting if it got you!

 

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Given the amount of ash that was being expelled from Sakurajima today, we pulled out a couple of the face masks you often see Japanese people wearing. They are simple cloth masks designed to stop you breathing in our people’s germs, pollutants, and (today), volcanic ash. Thank goodness we took the masks – the amount of ash in the air after the big explosion was incredible, and a lot of the people around us who didn’t have masks were soon coughing and trying to cover their noses and mouths with hankies, shirts, and whatever else they had handy.

 

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We learnt that Sakurajima’s crater is about 50km around, and that the mountain used to be around 1,600m high – the top 400m or so got blown off in a big eruption some 30,000 years ago. Sakurajima’s last really big eruption was in 1914, when it spewed out lava for months on end, destroying hundreds of homes and farms*. Sakurajima literally means ‘cherry blossom island’, but it’s not technically an island any more as, during the 1914 eruption, a lava flow joined it to the mainland on the Western side. While the lava stopped flowing long ago, Sakurajima has been erupting almost non-stop since 1955.
*There are about 7,500 people who live on the island today, mostly farmers who use the rich soil to grow yams.

 

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Due to the volcanic activity, you can’t climb to the top of the mountain*, but there is a road all the way around the island, and several lookout points that provide great views of the volcano. It’s about 36km to go right around the island, which was a bit far for us to walk, so we used the local tourist sightseeing bus instead.
*Sakurajima is currently at a Level 3 (orange) alert by the Japan Meteorological Agency, signifying the volcano is active and should not be approached. It is currently one of 3 volcanoes in Japan with this status. Mt Aso, that we went to see the other day, is at Level 2 (yellow) alert.

 

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The sightseeing bus took to us a to a few of observation points around the island where we got to see a bit more of the mountain in action, as well as some of the places where lava flows from previous eruptions have engulfed what were once smaller nearby islands.

 

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The views from the highest observation point, about half way up the mountain, were fantastic. It was a fairly clear day and we could see all the way across to Kagoshima and up and down the coast for miles.

 

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The sightseeing bus was packed* with people and by the end of the circuit we couldn’t wait to get off and have some space to ourselves, so we sought out the Nagisa Lava Trail and went for a walk around the Eastern edge of the island. The trail cuts through the lava flow zone from the 1914 eruption and gave us a good chance to see more of the island’s rocks, vegetation, and sea-front.
*That is “packed” by Asian standards, not by Aussie standards. Which means a lot of people (us included) standing up, no personal space, and a lot of time spent in people’s armpits if you’re short (i.e. me). Not as much fun as you might think on a hot, humid day.

 

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After our 2 hour walk around the lava flows and through the scrub, we were dirty, hot, sweaty, and most definitely ready to head home. And so we caught one of the regular ferries back across the bay to Kagoshima, watching the sunset paint Sakurajima golden as another great day on the road came to and end.

 

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