I've always hated anime. I never really gave it much of a chance as it combined two things that I didn't care for: cartoons and words I couldn't understand.
One night I was at my friend Charlie's house, hanging out in the living room. Someone in his family put on Hayao Miyazaki's anime mastepiece, "Spirited Away".
At first I ignored the movie, giving it just a small fraction of my attention. By the time it was over I was totally enthralled. The story was fantastic, the characters were great, but most of all the movie was beautifully drawn.
When we first got our train passes a month ago or so we searched online for interesting and far away places to go. The first place we fell in love with was Yakushima, a small island a few hours off the Southern coast of Japan.
We saw pictures of beautiful untouched forests where literally everything was green. Cedar trees that were thousands of years old towered over the dense vegetation of the forest. Even the rocks were covered in moss.
When we heard that the forest was the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki's most popular movie, "Princess Mononoke", we were totally sold.
And so was Elliot, our host turned friend who was listening on.
"That sounds amazing. Maybe I can get some time off from work to come too."
He did, and so we planned the trip for when our friend from Austin, Elisia, was coming to visit.
After some research we decided to go down the Kusugawa trail rather than the main one. The main trail led to the oldest tree in the forest, but everyone said that the Kusugawa trail was a lot more spectacular.
On the day of the trip we woke up at 5:30am to catch our first of many trains. Nine hours and four transfers later we arrived in Kagoshima, the closest station to the island.
The plan was to take one of the ferries to Yakushima and spend the night there. But that's not how it worked out at all.
Elliot, by far the best Japanese speaker in our group, returned from the ferry ticket counter.
"There aren't any more ferries today."
A minor hitch. The amount of planning we'd done so far could generously be called minimal, and it definitely didn't include any contingency plans.
We went to an Italian restaurant in the mall connected to the station and studied the map of the area that Elliot had been given.
"Look," I said, pointing at a dot in the middle of nowhere that was simply labeled 'cave', "We can sleep in a cave."
I was mostly joking. I didn't think there was any way other people would be into sleeping in a cave, especially Elisia who is a girl who makes her living selling thousand dollar pairs of shoes online.
But everyone agreed that it would be fun to sleep in a cave.
It was pouring rain outside. Todd and I had our rain gear, but Elliot and Elisia were armed with just an umbrella each. My shoes began to leak (thanks a lot Salomon) and water dripped from my chin to the front of my shirt, making me only moderately less uncomfortable that they were. Todd stayed dry.
What the map left out was elevation. Todd navigated us to just a few hundred meters away from the cave. Unfortunately there was a huge sheer cliff in between us and the cave.
Behind a seedy love hotel we finally found a set of stairs that wound back and forth up the cliff.
People started losing hope as we reached the top. We were freezing, soaking wet, and there was some disagreement on whether or not we were going the right way.
Luckily we hit a big tunnel which gave us all a few minutes to be dry and recoup a bit. When we exited the tunnel we saw the cave.
I don't know what exactly we were expecting, but this wasn't it.
Next to a small shop was a hole in the cliff, about two meters tall and wide. Five meters away was another similar hole. They were connected, forming a small U shaped tunnel.
Inside were a couple of small shrines and a row of dusty glass display cases filled with Japanese paintings.
Were we supposed to be in here? There weren't any signs, but it seemed like some sort of exhibit. Then again... it was really dry and we were a long way away from anything.
We heard footsteps outside, which revealed our true belief that we really weren't supposed to be there.
With our backs up against the cave wall we whispered about what we'd do if someone came in. We held our breaths when someone started taking pictures at the entrance, sending muted flashes of light to our part of the cave.
When they left we bunked down. Elisia found some dry cardboard boxes in front of the shop that we used as mattresses. Some smelled strongly of shellfish and had to be returned.
Spirits were high when we went to sleep, but were lowered each time we woke up freezing and still somewhat wet. Elliot had the foresight to bring a sleeping bag and was a lot warmer that the rest of us.
As soon as the sun began to rise we woke up without an alarm clock. Most of us were half awake anyway. Todd couldn't sleep so he walked around at night, being stopped by the police only once.
After stopping for fruit and nuts at a convenient store we made our way onto the ferry. My socks and shoes were still wet.
The ferry was a lot cooler than we expected it to be. The ride was four hours to Yakushima. Instead of chairs there were large carpeted areas where you could sleep. Todd and Elliot went to sleep, I read on my phone, and Elisia went exploring.
"I found showers! There's a sauna too!"
I thought she was kidding, but sure enough there were huge bathrooms with showers, saunas, and a changing area.
I took a shower, dried off in the sauna, took another shower to clean off the sweat, and dried off. After a rough night in a historical Japanese cave it feels good to be clean again.
Then again... it also feels good to be dry. In spite of the signs urging me not to, I put my wet shoes and socks in the sauna and headed downstairs. I try to follow the rules in Japan, since they like them so much, but the lure of dry feet was too great to resist.
When we arrived in Yakushima my stuff was dry. I walked down the gangway to meet Todd and Elliot. Where was Elisia?
Elisia came out a few minutes later. She had woken up as soon as we got into the port and scrambled to get her clothes out of the women's sauna.
A lesson learned from the night before in the cave, Todd, Elisia and I all rented sleeping bags from an outfitter near the port. We looked up at the mountainous landscape of the island - this was going to be an amazing trip.
The bus to Kusugawa dropped us off by ourselves. The rest of the passengers were going to the other side of the island to do the more well known trail.
We looked around and saw a small sign that said "Kusugawa Hiking Trail". That had to be it - easy.
Our ship pulled up to Gallno. The landing was nothing more than a small dock and a dirt trail that led into the large island. It's the sort of place where my sense of direction is totally adequate, just one trail with some things along it.
Sharing the trail were a couple people from the boat. One had a hand cart with some sort of cargo, and didn't speak with us. The other was a chatty woman from Stockholm who ended up leading us to the only hostel on the island, a converted schoolhouse that looked closed and had no signage whatsoever.
There's not much to do on the island, but that's a nice change sometimes. We're in the main room of the schoolhouse, converted to a big living room. I'm programming, and Justine is painting. Out the window I see purple and white flowers, green fields, and a few cows. Last night we roasted ourselves in the wood-fired sauna.
When I travel and see other foreigners, I involuntarily cringe. As if Tokyo isn't a big enough city for at least a dozen of us white devils, I feel as though my trip is somehow degraded every time I see another foreigner on the streets.
The itch to explore is superseded only by the itch that accompanies me on my flight back to Rio. I am wearing bug bites like war scars...having survived my sojourn into the wild Amazonas.
An early morning flight landed me in Manaus midday good Friday, and it was a boat+pickup truck+boat ride past the meeting of brown and blue river waters, and over the high(water)ways to the place where the mouths of rio Mamori and rio Juma meet and where the Lake Juma lodge resides. i'm the one-who-came-late and the tour boat swings by to pick me up before we head out for a spot of piranha fishing on the lake. No skills needed, just stick a piece of frango (chicken) on the hook, dip the wooden rod down low and wait for the nibbles. The trick is to be swift once you feel the bite. My level of patience is not quite suited to the waiting sport of fishing, so either it was luck or impatient me whipping up the line each time i felt the tug of a bite (so that I would not lose my bait too often to pirate piranha), i was rewarded with two piranha catches! These were not the most vicious breed (out of the 25 species) that would chomp one's fingers off, but hey, a piranha is still a piranha! And every living creature deserves a second chance, so back they went into lake, to bite another tourist bait another day.
After a sunset tour of the large lake, we head back out for cayman spotting after dusk. The boat skimmed the shoreline as the guides flashed their torches into the vegetation. It's always the eyes that show. (Flashback: I recall the Masaai guard swinging his torch around the bush at the serengeti camp and knowing which animals were out there just by their eyes shining in the dark). So whilst our untrained eyes looked blindly into the dark forests, the guides jumped out and waded into wet grass to catch the caymans. Just over a foot long, these reptiles have a flat lone & powerful tail, webbed hindfeet for swimming, 4-fingered forefeet for climbing and 72 sharp teeth for chomping... complete with eye lenses and ears. However, it seemed that evolution deemed a tongue as unnecessary but the cayman is certainly no dumb creature, be careful to keep its mouth shut as bites are potentially nasty bacteria-laden infections.
Since we had put the sun (pôr do sol) to sleep that first evening, we naturally had to wake up at dawn to watch it rise over the rainforest. That was the intention anyway but the cloudy sky merely made it a serene morning boatride as the dawn gave way to daylight. The mornings somehow always carries a certain magic with the freshness of a newborn day. The surface of the lake wobbles like a dark green jello as our boat floats gently by in the still cool morning air. It's a game drive on water as we cruise the shores on the lookout for forest creatures.
Day 2 is explore-the-forest day. We gear up and head out after breakfast, ready to meet & greet the residents of the rainforest. Forest survival 101: 1. Keep to the muddy trail and follow the guide's footsteps, 2. Do not touch underside of leaves (the residents there don't like to be disturbed), and 3. Beware of walking into branches and spider webs. .. i think. So the bunch of us city folks keep in step behind our guide whilst his native eyes picked out armadillo and tarantula burrows, giant ant colonies, grasshoppers and tiny tiny frogs that pack a poisonous punch. The dense forest is a treasure trove of nature's own medicine from antiseptics to mosquito repellant (involves mashed ants) and superfruit such as trendy açai. If you are into a hi-protein diet, try snacking on firefly larva. Then there were the trees the natives used for weapons or communication or shelters... and the ones that smelt of menthol vapour rub or essence of rose, not forgetting the fascinating walking tree and the 600 year old Brazil nut tree. Three hours later, seven pairs of wet muddy shoes returned to the lodge...except for our guide who was wisely and cheerfully dry in his rubber boots. By mid afternoon we were ready for our second foray into the forest...this time for a sleepover under the stars.