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  Kyushu and Yakushima! (Entered Jul. 24, 2007)     Great Escapes...  

July is adventure month here at Mike's Blender! Needing to get out of Tokyo again, I took a week off and headed down to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. Kyushu is something of a 'last frontier' for me as I've pretty much been everywhere else in Japan. I headed down solo with only two firm objectives. The first was to visit Nagasaki, and the second was to go to the island of Yakushima. If I happened to find something interesting in between, all well and good.

Kyushu and Yakushima map

I ended up flying to Fukuoka as my starting point, and in hindsight, this was a big mistake. Fukuoka is the biggest city in Kyushu, and in many ways, is like a smaller, more cosmopolitan version of Tokyo. However I didn't take this vacation to go hang out in another big city, I wanted to get away from crowds and people for awhile. I checked the information center for some interesting sights in Fukuoka but there isn't really anything there that I couldn't see or do in Tokyo, so after about 30 minutes I was already on the train to Nagasaki.

Nagasaki station

I skipped over Saga which also didn't seem to have much to offer, and arrived in Nagasaki in the late afternoon. Calm, quiet and nestled in the hills, I liked it the moment I arrived. I thought perhaps it would even be a nice place to settle down. Since it was already evening I headed off to find a youth hostel listed in my guidebook. It turned out to be easy to find, with a friendly, older couple running it. Surprisingly there were quite a few people staying there even though it was a Monday.
The nighttime view of Nagasaki from the surrounding hills is supposedly one of the top three in Japan, the two others being Hakodate and Kobe. I headed off to check it out after dinner and although it was good, it didn't really compare to Hakodate's. I haven't seen Kobe's yet.

Nagasaki night view

The next day I went to Nagasaki's Peace Park and Atomic Museum. Although the museum in Nagasaki lacks the emotional force and horror of the one in Hiroshima, it was still quite good, and I spent a good 2 hours reading and looking at everything carefully. The peace park was ok, but when you get right down to it, was really just a small park with some statues and a fountain. I was blissfully alone for a while but the arrival of a huge tour signalled my swift retreat.

Nagasaki Peace Park

I decided to continue on with my travels, and after a long bus ride, I arrived in Kumamoto. Usually I can tell within seconds of arriving in a new place whether I like it or not. Like Tokyo and Fukuoka, Kumamoto has a big city buzz going that didn't put me at ease. Here I am having just gotten off the bus, pondering my next move.

Pondering in Kumamoto

My next move ended up being getting something to eat, so I spent the next hour trying to find a couple of restaurants listed in my Lonely Planet guide, neither of which seemed to exist. I suppose it didn't help that it was published 7 years ago. After eating at some random restaurant, I went to check out Kumamoto castle, supposedly one of the great castles of Japan, but it was closed. So far Kumamoto wasn't putting it out much for me. I decided not to spend any more time here and jumped on a train to Kagoshima in the south. I arrived in the evening so there wasn't much to do except go to bed. Kagoshima also had a nice, relaxed feel to it, but the next morning I decided to go to Yakushima first and check out Kagoshima on the way back. Ended up being a very wise choice.
Yakushima was everything I hoped it would be and more. I had no idea such a place could even exist in Japan. True I had heard people talk about it, and talked to people who'd been there, but I guess it's the kind of place you have to go to yourself to appreciate. I had planned to stay just two nights then head back to Kagoshima, Miyazaki and Oita, but I ended up staying in Yakushima for the rest of my vacation, and each day was better than the last.
I stayed at a youth hostel called Chin Ryu An. It was a rustic sort of place located in the woods, on the opposite side of the island. As youth hostels go, it was pretty good. It was large, the food was good and the people were friendly, but it wasn't without its problems.

Chinryu An Guest House

I arrived in the afternoon the first day, so I didn't have time for anything major. Fortunately the youth hostel was located close to the ocean, where amazing views greeted me. It may look steep, but I climbed right down to the bottom and walked around rock formations and miniture waterfalls, etc.

Yakushima ocean view

The next day, 4 other people I met from the youth hostel and I, decided to go to a place called 'Yakusugi Land'. Aside from the stupid, 'theme park' like name, everything else about it was fantastic. One of Yakushima's main draws is that it has huge, old cedar (sugi in Japanese) trees located in the mountains. The artist who made the famous animated movie 'Mononoke no Hime' drew his inspiration from his time spent in the brooding, old forests on Yakushima.

Yakushima Yakusugi Land

Some of the trees are thousands of years old, with the oldest thought to be 7000 years old! Hard to fathom really. That's older than most of recorded human civilization. In the quiet and stillness of the forests, you get a feeling of awe that's impossible to describe in words.

Yakushima Yakusugi Land

From left to right: Christopher and Catherine from France, and Kyomi and Mieko from Japan. We started off together but eventually ended up separating due to hiking at our own paces.

Yakushima Yakusugi Land

It was a pretty gruelling hike, some semi-vertical sections needing both hands and feet. Total time to get to the top was 2.5 hours. There wasn't much animal life. Even insect numbers were low. I did see a deer though, which bounded away on my arrival, and some wild monkeys who didn't seem too impressed with our group.

On day two, me and two others decided to go river kayaking. Having just kayaked last week in Izu, I was hesitant at first, I wondered if I shouldn't do something new, that I hadn't done before. Turned out that I needn't have worried.
The river itself was amazingly clean, clear and deep. Clean enough to drink actually. We started out near where the river ran into the ocean and slowly made our way upstream. Despite the gentle current, paddling up the river was extremely easy, perhaps due to the kayak's lightness and buoyancy. However one thing I didn't like was, unlike Izu, we weren't given the option of having our own kayak. I had to share a double with with someone else.

Yakushima crystal river

Here we are chilling out on a little island beach in the middle of the river. The guide went off and cooked an excellent lunch of grilled flying fish, a meat and vegetable stir fry, and rice with just a little camp stove. He also gave us some little fishing rods and we caught about 10 small river fish which he then proceeded to fry up with some garlic and oil. Delicious!

Yakushima kayaking trip

I spent a lot of time swimming in the crystal water. Heaven.

Yakushima crystal river

We then paddled the rest of the way up the river until it became rapids and we could go no farther. We were told that we could fill up our water bottles here as this point in the river was clean enough to drink, and had a faintly sweet taste. Lo and behold the water was sweet!
The day wasn't over yet, part of the tour included snorkelling in the ocean. I thought I knew what snorkelling was, but this was the real thing. We swam out around the coral reefs, and besides lots of fish, we even saw some large manta rays! For obvious reasons I couldn't take any pictures. The experience was marred though by my mask which kept leaking water into my nose. Every time I tried to empty it, the water ended up running down my throat, making me gag and cough continuously. Disgusting sea water.... I am totally not an ocean person. Being from Canada which has about a million lakes and rivers, I live for freshwater. Of course after that we did the Japanese thing and ended the day by heading to the onsen.
Evenings were mostly spent eating and drinking in the hostel. The food was quite good and portions were large. We had to sit on the floor though, which after four dinners and breakfasts began to get really tiring for us non-Japanese. Christopher, Catherine and I spent our time grimacing and trying to get our legs into comfortable positions. The guest house also had a major ant problem. I suppose sitting on the floor and eating with the ants is all part of the experience though.

Chinryu An Guesthouse

Remember how I said the days just kept getting better? Well the last day was no exception. Who would've thought that on this day I'd find my own personal paradise?
I decided to head to a waterfall which was about a 4 km hike up a nearby mountain. Getting there took about 2 hours and the scenery on the way while nice, wasn't nearly as good as the first day's at Yakusugi land. However near the top there were some small waterfalls and one really big one that fed a small, deep mountain pool with clear and clean water.

Yakushima waterfall

What made it perfect was that nobody was around to disturb me. I spent the whole day alone swimming, lying on the rocks, and just contemplating the beauty of unspoiled nature. A very rare treat for someone living in Tokyo. Pictures and words don't do it justice however, so I made a video as well. Unfortunately the video doesn't do it justice either, damn.... Time to get some better software, and to stop relying on Youtube so much.

The other thing worth mentioning about Yakushima is that it's a tropical fruit paradise! Mangoes, papayas, and passion fruit are all grown locally, and cost a fraction of what they'd go for in Tokyo. I don't think I've ever really eaten a fresh passion fruit before, and now I'm crazy about them! I ate about 5 a day and bought a box of 20 to take home with me.

Passion fruit

So I ended up staying 4 nights in Yakushima instead of 2 like I previously planned, meaning I didn't get a chance to go to Miyazaki or Oita and the famous hotsprings at Beppu. Am I disapointed? Not at all. In fact I should have just flown directly to Yakushima and left Kyushu out of the equation altogether. It's not that Kyushu wasn't good, but Yakushima is in a whole different dimension. I suppose the real reason I went to those cities in Kyushu is for the simple fact of saying that I'd been there. Next time I'll know better. I'll be back next year Yakushima!!




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Sea Kayaking in Izu!
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