Recently, I and my pal Egglet embarked on a brief tour of Japan that took us from the Southern Kyushu Island, along the main country, before terminating in Tokyo. What follows is a highlights reel of some of the things we saw and experienced divided into four, easy to digest, bite-sized chunks.
Kagoshima is a fine place to start a trip; the city is large, but not overpowering, the pace relaxed and there’s a bloody great big active volcano in the bay. When we arrive, it’s warm and the Sakura are just coming into season, bursting out of the craggy mountain scenery in clouds of pink. On the bus from the airport I’m serenaded by a group of children chanting ‘Ebola! Ebola!’ Which is the sort of welcome you just can’t get in England.
Visually the city provides a very dramatic contrast – all neon billboards and Blade Runner umbrella clusters one minute and then a tram that looks like it was brought in a scrap exchange from 1920s San Francisco the next. It’s pretty easy to fall in love with the place and with the help of the city’s friendly English and Japanese ALTs, Egglet and I get a crash course in local life: shrines, dinosaur parks, improbable celebrities, unironic karaoke sessions and sushi served via toy bullet train.
They also teach us that traffic crossing instructions should be treated with the same reverence you might otherwise reserve for bomb disposal manuals. Seriously, jay-walking as a local will probably get you onto the 6 o’clock news under heavy police escort. Eating, drinking and smoking while walking are also completely verboten unless you happen to be a Yankii (delinquent). The local English ALTs fill me with horror stories about how the Yankiis in their class not only jaywalk while eating, but also drink cans of coffee and then leave those cans on the pavement! Flower of English hooliganism! The gauntlet has been thrown, will you, nay DARE you pick it up?
The Queen of the ALTs decides we need a deeper immersion in traditional Japanese life, which will be accomplished by a trip to the famous black sands onsen at Ibusuki. The idea is attendants bury you up to your neck in black sand, where you steadily bake for ten minutes before being turfed out into the traditional hot spring. As the shovels get to work two sensations immediately spring to mind – being buried alive and returning to the womb. Ultimately the latter prevails and the overall experience is a very peaceful one as you lay there and listen to the distant wash of the ocean. The onsen that followed was somewhat underwhelming by comparison, like a large jacuzzi, just with a lot more sausage in it. The best moment came when I realised I’d forgotten to bring a spare towel with me. Fortunately the men’s changing room comes complete with hairdryers. You haven’t lived before you’ve hairdryered yourself down in front of a full length mirror with attendant Japanese audience. Definitely an experience I recommend.
Post onsen we decide to have some vending machine ice cream on the promenade. As we sit down to enjoy it a Black Kite swoops down and rips the ice cream from Egglet’s hand, showering the road in a fine rain of chocolate and vanilla. Hands down the happiest moment of my life. Hands down.
Kagoshima also serves as the gateway to Yakushima, a mountainous sub-tropical island off the southern coast whose lush scenery inspired the setting for Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. Quite frankly it’s a magical place and I don’t use that term lightly. Covered in mile upon mile of gnarled cedar forest, it is home to Yakusugi. These trees hold a special spiritual significance – the larger, especially impressive ones were once thought to be the homes of gods by the indigenous populace. The forestry commission have maintained the traditional hiking trails carved out by foresters hundreds of years ago and the walks are pretty intense – as thrillingly dangerous as they are ethereally beautiful. You pick your way between trunks using roots, rocks and planks as your stepping stones over sheer gorges with river water roaring over distant boulders, with the near constant rainfall helping to add to the challenge. Egglet manages to fall in the river. Result.
There’s a crazy amounts of wildlife here and we’re given a little check card of poisonous species to avoid when we arrive, which immediately filled me with a Pokémon-like urge to catch them all. You’re unlikely to encounter many of these though. What you will see a lot of are deer and monkeys, both of which roam as and where they will. The deer are for the most part fleeting creatures that tolerate, but for the most refuse to indulge in human company. The monkeys however… You do not want anything to do with monkeys – they are twisted homunculi with the strength of men, the vicious cunning of a spoiled toddler and just enough manual dexterity to be able to flip you the bird. They are not to be trusted.
It’s also a pretty good look at life in rural Japan (But with added foreign hikers). Every morning we are awoken at 7.00 am by what I think is an instrumental version of Edelweiss, which appears to be piped into every building on the island (some cultural barriers are just impenetrable). Massive meals are available for peanuts, including battered flying fish. It should be noted fried food is in superabundance over here – anything and everything will find its way into the fryer, including mint leaves. Glasgow’s crown has been taken and plastered in batter. The smaller restaurants also come complete with their own comic racks and Apparently it’s quite natural for grown adults to pick a comic from the rack and read it alongside their meal. In England this sort of behaviour would only be found in pop-up bars where beer is £7.00 a pint, £.6.50 with a suitably smug beard.
Yakushima is our last stop on Kyushu, Hiroshima awaits in our next installment, just a bullet train away.