This post was contributed by Erin Brown Achterhof, Administrative Associate for Faculty-Led Programs in Education Abroad, about what inspired her to go abroad.
When I was in middle school, I was visiting my younger cousins in New Orleans, and they wanted to watch a movie with me called “Princess Mononoke,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki. At the time, I had never seen a Japanese anime movie, and I did not know what to expect. Now in my mid-thirties, I still think about when I first saw that movie and the lasting impact it has had on me. The movie was hauntingly beautiful. It was about a complex world of ancient Japanese forest spirits fighting against the changes brought by humans reshaping the environment around them.
After watching “Princess Mononoke,” I became a life-long fan of Studio Ghibli movies. I also studied Japanese history during college and was an exchange student in Osaka for a semester. After several years, I had forgotten most of my Japanese, but I never forgot how beautiful Japan was when I studied abroad and how much I wanted to see more of it.
So, in February 2020, I decided to visit my roommate from college who was living and teaching in Nagoya. At the time, there were a few isolated cases of COVID-19, and the travel advisory from the U.S. Department of State was only considered Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution. In planning for the trip, I decided to buy a 7-day Japan Rail Pass, and we traveled from Nagoya to Kyoto and then stayed a few days on the island of Yakushima before traveling to Osaka and returning to Nagoya.
Yakushima is a subtropical island off the southern coast of Kyushu and the source of the concept art for “Princess Mononoke.” In fact, while creating the movie, Hayao Mizayaki and his entire team stayed on Yakushima. The island itself is about 17 miles wide and accessible by ferry from Kagoshima or a flight from Osaka. Yakushima’s population is just over 13,000, so it still feels remote and wild compared to the densely populated cities on mainland Japan. Yakushima is also a very mountainous island and heavily forested.
Over 20 percent of the island was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, and about 95.5 percent of the island is under the protection of the forestry department. The lush forest dominates the landscape from the mountains to the sea. The whole island is covered in Japanese cedar called yakusugi (a combination of Yakushima and sugi, the Japanese word for cedar). Several yakusugi are thousands of years old and honored with individual names. During the Edo period, logging was the main industry on the island. Today, Yakushima is known for tourism, oranges and organic tea.
Our first day on Yakushima was a shock after coming from densely populated cities like Nagoya and Kyoto. It was a radically different pace of life; the sounds of trains and traffic were replaced with the sound of rain. The locals like to joke that it rains eight days a week on Yakushima.
On our second day, we did a guided hike through the Shiratani Unsuikyo Valley, and we took the trail to the Taiko iwa outlook. The Shiratani Unsuikyo Valley is best known for its moss-covered forest. There are over 600 species of moss in Yakushima. Earnest Wilson, a botanist famed for his explorations of East Asia, called this world a “wonderful cryptogamic [mossy] kingdom.” Since we were traveling during the off-season, it felt like we had the entire misty, mossy forest to ourselves. Throughout the entire hike, I just kept taking pictures because I still do not believe I can ever fully describe the beauty of that ancient forest and the sun beaming through the mist. We slowly made our way to Taiko iwa (Taiko rock), which overlooked the interior mountains and Anbo River. The view was a panorama of the forest and mountains; there were no buildings or man-made structure in sight.
Our third day on Yakushima was Valentine’s Day, and it started at 3:30 a.m. We woke up to catch the bus going to the Arakawa Trail to start our hike to see Japan’s oldest cedar tree named Jomon-sugi. It is estimated that Jomon-sugi is around 7,000 years old. Due to its location on the mountain and irregular shape, it was spared from being cut down by loggers. The hike to Jomon-sugi is one of the main tourist attractions on the island and takes 10 hours on average. The owner of our rental cottage, Mr. Nakashima, had prepared our bento lunch boxes the night before and kindly warned us that the only bus available during the off-season going to the national park would be at the bus stop at 4:00 am. He also warned us that the only bus coming back to the cottage would depart the park at 5:00 pm. We had brought headlamps and raincoats from home, and as soon as the bus arrived at the park we set-off on the Arakawa trail in the dark, rainy morning.
The first part of the 13-mile Arakawa trail is built along the old railway line that was used to transport lumber to the port. Our whole morning was crossing the Anbo River multiple times and walking along a railway line that seemed never–ending. By mid-morning, we reached the end of the tracks and the beginning of the stairs. At that point, we were climbing up the mountain, one rickety, slippery step at a time. Although we had brought raingear, after several hours of constant 50-degree rain, we were completely soaked. The stunning scenery helped make up for the soreness in my knees and the coldness in my hands. We kept going until we made it to a landmark called Wilson’s stump, and we paused for lunch.
Wilson’s stump was also a giant yakusugi that was cut down in the 1500s and named after Earnest Wilson. Inside the stump, multiple people can fit, and it gave us a rough idea of how massive the tree must have been in its prime. It’s also a popular place to take photos because from a certain angle of the stump, the top opening appears in the shape of a heart. After reaching Wilson’s stump, it was another 90 minutes of grueling, steep stairs before we arrived at the viewing platform of Jomon-sugi.
The hike to Jomon-sugi was our last full day in Yakushima, and on the way back to the park entrance, I was exhausted but grateful to have had the chance to stay on the island for a few days. We completed the hike around 3:00 pm and swapped snacks and cheers with the handful of park visitors who had also made the trek that day. The next day it was raining again, and our shoes were still soaked from the hike to Jomon-sugi. We took the ferry to Kagoshima and arrived in Osaka that evening. The neon lights of Dotonbori Street and the smell of fried street food was such a contrast to the quiet island we had just left.
For me, February of 2020 seems like it happened during another time, and on Yakushima it felt like another world tucked away from modern Japan. Shortly after I returned to the U.S., COVID-19 began to spread around the world, and the Japanese government shut down schools during March. By mid-March in the U.S., major businesses and counties were issuing stay-at-home orders. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to travel safely and to experience a small part of the island. I hope to return again to Yakushima in the future.
Our guide to the Shiratani Unsuikyo Valley told us that shortly after “Princess Mononoke” was released, there was a large bump in tourism for a few years, but recently the number of foreign visitors to Yakushima has steadily declined, and the forest is encroaching further every year. Nature is reclaiming the island. Since COVID-19, so much has changed, but I am looking forward to a time when travel is possible again. Yakushima is one of many places I would love to revisit.