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.
Man do we have a lot of catching up to do. This rapid fire traveling schedule doesn't leave us with all that much time to contemplate and write. If we aren't checking in somewhere, we're checking out and trying to catch a plane.
We were worried about where we'd stay in Hong Kong. It's a famously expensive city and we intended to be there for about ten days.
I always say, "Everything always works out perfectly," to which Todd always replies that it's dangerous to say that.
What a treat it is to visit the South Pacific. People always ask what Fiji is like and I always say the same thing. Fiji is simply breathtaking. The beauty is unmatched and the locals are extremely friendly.
We spent our days basking in the vibrant sun–fanned by the relentless ocean breeze. At night, we were lulled by a moonlight that seemed much closer to the earth than normal. If that wasn't enough, we sang soft rock from the early 90s while trying feverishly to follow the words attached to a television monitor...Karaoke anyone? We laughed and drank Kava- Fiji's traditional drink of choice, comprised of a ground root soaked in water. Always open to new experiences, I took the cup offered to me by a charming man with grey hair and leathery brown skin. I held the cup, which was more like a small bowl between my hands, and I drank. Kava is beloved by native Fijians. The drink had an earthy flavor. Once down, my tongue went numb in some places. On the bright side, I felt more relaxed–one of the benefits of drinking Kava.
We stayed at an all-inclusive resort run by native Fijians on the private Matamoanoa Island. The island is located about 2 hours from the airport by ferry. The ferry ride over was an amazing journey. The views were astounding and the weather was perfect. We zipped along dropping off passengers at islands scattered in the sea. As we approached Matamoanoa, we were greeted by nearly a dozen people standing on the beach singing a lovely welcome serenade. "Bula" the Fijian word for welcome was stated then and we felt that way during our entire stay.