Japan Photo Trek: Yakushima Island

Shiratani Unsuikyo: Princess mononoke's Garden; Yakushima Island

Not surprisingly, Yakushima – wet, wild, off the beaten path, and featured in poems, movies, and even video games – is on many peoples’ shortlists of “power spots” in Japan. The mountains and mossy, antediluvian cedar and cryptomeria cypress rain forest on this mist-shrouded island off the coast of Kyushu resonate with the kind of “ki” energy that draws poets, movie directors, and even computer game designers: the Beat poet Sansei Yamao and friends founded a community inland; the forests in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke anime and the Dremuchij forest in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater were inspired by the green trees and rocks of Shiratani Unsuiko and the island’s mossy, mountainous interior.

Yakushima Highlands; Yakushima Island, Japan

Yakushima’s unique ecological diversity, the subtropical coastal areas reaching up 2,000-meter mountains to sa-sa  bamboo grasslands at the – snowy, in winter – summits, and the 1,000+-year-old yakusugi Japanese cedar trees, especially the millenia-old “Jomon sugi” tree have also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Stump, Ancient Jomonsugi Cedar Tree; Yakushima Island, Japan

R. and I visited in the spring, when it rained – apparently it’s always raining on Yakushima – on our hike to the Shiratani Unsuiko Princess Mononoke forest and kayaked on the Anbo River.

See more photos at https://500px.com/tokyoaaron/galleries/yakushima-japan-s-lost-world-island

Other Resources

Yakushima thread on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree discussion forum

… and on TripAdvisor

Yakushima Life, a blog by professional hiking guide Jenny

Extreme Weather: How Hot is Tokyo in Summer?

Recently a question was posed on Quora: “How is the Tokyo summer heat?”. Here’s the bulk of my answer:

…   June is the rainy season: not as hot, but, well rainy (though not every day). July is, apparently, the most humid Weather and Climate: Average monthly Rainfall, Sunshine, Temperatures, Humidity, Wind Speed. August is the hottest.

It’s been a long time – 35 years? – since I visited Arizona in summer, specifically Sun City West where my grandparents retired. What I remember, however, is the dry heat you mention. even coming from my hometown of Toronto, a place not known for being particularly hot at any time of the year, I was surprised that the 100-degree-plus days didn’t FEEL hotter than they did (seems to me the hottest temp during one of my visits was 116).

By contrast, a hot day in Tokyo reaches 35 degrees Celsius, sometimes topping 38 (100 degrees Fahrenheit). However, there are two additional factors to take into consideration: humidity, and the heat-island effect.

Offhand, I can’t find any useful stats on just how humid Tokyo can be in the summer, but I can recall days where the temp was around 38 and the humidity above 90%. According to the Heat Index calculator at the National Weather Centre, that works out to 178 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, that ain’t the average, as I say, and I’m not sure any days reached that high in the summer of 2016, but it gets there – and in the summer of 2015 there was a record number of straight days of temps above 35 celsius in early August – in fact I posted about it Big Sushi, Little Fishes: a japan blog

The other consideration is the heat-island effect. I don’t know of any way to calculate how much concrete can raise the ambient temperature of a city, but I do know that walking ib Shinjuku, say, on a hot summer day, with car and air conditioner exhaust, amidst crowds of sweltering people, and a hot wind blowing up the urban canyonland can be an overwhelming experience. Fortunately, there are bars and cafes and shops and department stores and the like, most with over-active aircon, in which to take refuge!

So yes, of course comfortable weather is a relative phenomenon, and coming from southern Arizona the temps may even be a little low compared to what you’re used to. But temperature is only part of the equation; people who know say that in summer Tokyo is a tropical climate, on par with Singapore and other hotspots in southern Asia.

Of course, life does go on – even in heat-island Shinjuku – and there are mountains nearby to escape to if the heat does get oppressive. So the heat and humidity is no reason not to visit in summer: it’s just a matter of adjusting your inner thermostat, so to speak!

Mount Mitakesan Photo Drift, Winter 2016

Tenguno Koshikakesugi "Tengu Tree" Mount Mitakesan; Tokyo Japan

This new years’, our 13th at Mitakesan, a cold wind and rain blew from the desiccated Kanto plain rice paddies into the Okutama mountains and cedar forests. R and I slipped and slided on silvery trails through mist-draped woods. The sun stayed behind the clouds – did it ever really shine in these cold shadows, on this frigid earth? Rain and sweat chilled us both: hypothermia country. Fortunately, we made it off the mountain and onto a heated JR train back to the city and… a hot bath. Looks like we owe another one to the guardian spirits of the mountain – and the city.

Check out all the pictures on Instagram

Kinokuniya’s Flagship Bookstore in Tokyo Downsizes

Kinokuniya Bookstore, Tokyo

It couldn’t last; Heck, I’m surprised it stuck it out as long as it did. A six-story bookstore simply wasn’t meant for this world of online ordering and ebook readers. As of December 1st, the flagship store of the Kinokuniya bookstore chain has given up four of its six floors to a designer furniture shop. For now, the foreign books section remains on the sixth floor, and still stocks books in English and French and other languages, though anyone who’s visited recently knows, other merchandise such as large-scale wall calendars and t-shirts are encroaching on the floor space once reserved for books and magazines.

On a personal note, the Kinokuniya bookstore served as a critical landmark  when I first arrived in-country almost two decades ago and spun out a jet-lagged fugue in Shinjuku’s elevated walkways and neon canyonlands. I’ve made regular visits ever since, and always allowed myself the luxury of impulse purchases to help support one of my favourite places to kill time. I have to admit I’ve visited less in the last few years, but I’m going to miss riding the escalator from the sixth floor to the cafe where I could check out my latest purchases.

Sigh. End of an era.

Niigata 雪国 Yukiguni “Snow Country”

Sea of Japan Xoast; Niigata, Japan

Every year, winter storms out of Siberia and mainland Asia, picks up steam as it howls across the Sea of Japan, and crashes onto main-island Honshu, making Japan – literally – the snowiest country on earth. Fortunately for us, Tokyo is in the lee of the “roof of Japan,” mountain ranges which trap the worst of the cold and snow to the windward side. Areas such as Niigata prefecture, on the coastal plain between the Sea of Japan and mountains, are transformed into the 雪国 yukiguni “snow country” made famous in Kawabata’s sparse, bleak-as-winter-snow love story. Just as a point of reference, Niigata City averages 217 cm a year (Tokyo, on the other hand, is a paltry 11cm; my hometown of Toronto comes in at 115cm; my first host city in Japan, Nayoro in central Hokkaido, records a massive 890 cm). Traditionally, houses in snow country have a special door built on the second storey for winter. When I lived on Hokkaido, I had to shovel off the roof to avoid having our cabin crushed under the weight of snow; every winter a few homeowners disappear while shoveling roofs, only to re-appear in spring as the snowdrifts melt away.

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” – Kawabata, Snow Country (Seidensticker trans.)

Not surprisingly, until recently this part of Japan was quite isolated. In the 60s and 70s, a major highway and a shinkansen bullet train rail line connected Niigata City, and outlying mountain towns, to Tokyo and the rest of Japan. Niigata is also an important port: until the ship was linked to abductions and drugs and weapons smuggling in the early 2000s, a ferry connected Niigata with North Korea. Another ferry plies the Sea of Japan between Niigata and the once-closed Soviet-era city of Vladivostok – home to the Russian Pacific fleet, if you wanna know. 

Today, R. and I make the trip at least once a year to visit her family in the suburbs, near enough the sea to avoid the worst of the snowfall in the mountainous interior.

“I might as well be going to the ends of the earth” – Matsuo Basho, writing about the neighbouring prefecture of Tohoku

See more pictures on my Niigata gallery at 500px

Pictures from Japan, 2008

"Sento" Traditional Japanese Bathhouse
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Sento Traditional Japanese Bath, Tokyo Japan

I continue to work through my library of photographs from the last decade I’ve spent here in Japan. Currently I’m back in 2008, a time when I took a lot of landscapes, cityscapes, and “omoshiroi mono” interesting objects, in day and at night, in fair weather and foul, in various states of decay and renewal. See some of the most popular recent uploads below, and visit my galleries at https://500px.com/tokyoaaron/galleries to view the uploads to date. Enjoy!

Fence Posts; Kodaira, Tokyo JapanKiyoharu Art Village, Yamanashi JapanRouault Chapel, Kiyoharu Art Village, Yamanashi JapanRusty Sign, Kodaira, Tokyo Japan