On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

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13 January 2016

Yakushima, in the footsteps of Miyazaki

Visit the island of Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and source of inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki.
Yakushima, Japan © Claire Blumenfeld
DISPATCH

Early in the morning of Tuesday, January 5, a ferry took me four hours sixty kilometers south of Kyushu, on the island of Yakushima. Located in the Osumi archipelago, the island has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. The environment of Yakushima greatly inspired Hayao Miyazaki for the making of Princess Mononoke. Yakushima is mainly made up of mountains covered with a lush primary forest sheltering an impressive number of “sugi”, Japanese cedars, called “yakusugi”, some of which are thousands of years old. Yakushima’s oldest and best-known cedar is located in the center of the island, around an hour’s hike. Called “Jômon sugi“, it is said to be around 7000 years old (according to scientific estimates: 2300 years) and therefore dates from the Jômon period. The Jômon period covers the prehistory of Japan ranging from 15,000 to 300 years BC. J.C.

Nature in Yakushima is particularly abundant: many flowers, hundreds of rare mosses, 1900 plant species and subspecies … All this abundance results from the fact that the island is one of the wettest places in Japan. It rains there almost every day. A local proverb even says “it rains 35 days a month in Yakushima”. This turns out to be true since I arrive under a gray sky and a humid atmosphere. I do a little tour in the port village of Miyanoura located on the north coast of the island and where my hostel is located. The sky is threatening but I still decide to go see Inaka-hama beach, located on the northwest coast. Between May and July, the beach is filled with sea turtles who have come to lay their eggs. I need an hour by bus to reach the beach and I spend them chatting with the very friendly bus driver, Keiji. Fifty years, all smiling and full of spirit! I arrive at the beach at the end of the afternoon, in really gloomy weather. But that does not detracts me from the beauty of the place. Peaceful atmosphere, gurgling birds, white sand, turquoise blue water, palm trees and shells, a true paradise. I walk the beach looking for shells, stroll around the Soyotei ryokan, a traditional inn dressed in black, with fascinating architecture (white stones are placed on the roofs contrasting with the black walls) and spend a long moment to fix the sea. I feel perfectly well here. Alas, night falls and I have to go back. Return by bus again with Keiji and stop at the only supermarket in the area to buy my meals for the days to come.

The next day is disaster. Torrential rain fell on Yakushima. No matter how I gaze at the sky with an imploring air, it does not seem like it want to stop. Depression. Me who planned to go hiking in the mountains! I still decide to face the rain and head for Anbo in the southwest of the island to go see the Botanical Research Park. My now assigned driver, Keiji, drops me off in Anbo an hour later with downpours. I take a quick tour of the city without finding anything to eat then take the bus which drops me twenty minutes later, hungry in front of the botanical garden. I take my ticket and ask the lady holding the counter if I can find something to eat in the area. The garden being located in the middle of nowhere, I have some concerns. Fortunately, she points to a tiny gargotte across the road. Two old grannies prepare the only available dish for me: udons. Thick pasta made with soft wheat flour, I had never eaten it before. Accompanied by tempura vegetables (fried in sought) and onigiri (rice balls), it is a treat! They give me a gigantic orange that I take with me. With a full stomach, I set off to visit the garden. This one is a little wonder, filled with plants and flowers, each one more beautiful than the other: bananas, papayas, lychee, guava, coffee, hibiscus, bougainvillea, oranges, apples , coconuts… Not everything is in bloom but what I see is a feast for the eyes!

The view of the mountains from the botanical garden is impressive: covered in mist, they give the impression of an impassable barrier. Coming back to the entrance of the garden, I am entitled to a small “snack” composed of the fruits of the garden: pineapple, orange, passion fruit and the flesh of cactus leaves (if I am not mistaken) with soy sauce. Gooey, sticky and without any particular taste, the cactus flesh has a little trouble getting through my throat. Back to Miyanoura in a never-ending rain.

The next day, Thursday January 7, the rain fortunately stopped but the sun is still absent. Too bad, it is my last day on Yakushima and I am going to see what I mainly came for: the forest of Shiratani Unsui-kyō (which means “throat of water and cloud of Shiratani”), place that inspired Miyazaki for Princess Mononoke environments. The forest is even nicknamed since “Mononoke-hime no mori” (“the forest of Princess Mononoke”). I walk around with my eyes dazzled by so much greenery, moss and roots. A real jungle! A few fleeting rays of sunshine make my eyes truly dazzling. What a pity that it is gray weather! Old Japanese cedars dot the forest. I do not push to see the well-known “Jômon sugi” (the hike lasting more than nine hours, I cannot do it), but I still go see the foot of the venerable “Yayoisugi”, 3000 years old. Curious trees with orange-colored trunks, called Himeshara, contrast with the dominant green. Apparently their sap is cold and it is recommended to hug the tree when it is too hot. The weather being rather cold, I do not have the opportunity to test it. As I wander among the forest, images of Princess Mononoke come back to my mind.

At the top of Taikoiwa rock, the view of the center of Yakushima is breathtaking. The few rays of sunlight light up the ridges in the distance, transforming them into shadows and shadows. I stay a long time in spite of the cold wind to appreciate the landscape, before going down again.

I also reviewed Princess Mononoke a few days ago. An absolute masterpiece that has not aged a bit and with a very current purpose. The influence of Yakushima is greatly felt in the movie. Some shots really look like the places I went for a walk: the vision of the forest filled with moss, the majestic old trees, the view of the mountain and the ridges … I have made some screenshots to illustrate. (see below).

My three days on the island have passed quickly, despite the bad weather. Friday January 8, I left Yakushima again in the rain, to reach Tanegashima, another island in the Osumi archipelago, located a few kilometers east of Yakushima and hosting one of the main launch bases for Japanese rockets. Direction space!

Screenshot of Princess Mononoke movie by Hayao Miyazaki

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Chapter I. Japanese walkabouts

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