Friday, February 27, 2015

Jurin Tea House

I love the decor.
How many times do I drop off clients at the airport and want nothing more than some comfort food? Curry or maybe pasta with meat sauce? And yet, I have to admit, despite all the good reviews I've heard, I've never tried the curry at Jurin Kissa (literally, the Forest Tea House) in Koseda. In fact, the other day was the first time I entered the door! The savory scent of spiced curry wafted in from the kitchen, but still, I didn't try the curry. Why not?

Let me tell you why:  Floats.
All kinds of fruit juices from passion fruit to guava served with a glob of ice cream floating inside. Trust me, Jurin does not forgo the details: My partner and I ordered coffee floats -- vanilla ice cream on ice coffee served with cream and sugar syrup, and even the ice cubes were made of coffee! For a while I forgot that we'd also ordered cake -- cheesecake and lemon tart. Jurin also serves a tankan-orange cake . . . next time!

One of the owners of Jurin was, apparently, on of the folks behind the magazine, Seimei no Shima, and the wall is lined with back issues. If you read Japanese, it's a great insight into life on the island in previous decades. There's a small assortment of tasteful souvenirs. And Jurin is a great place to crack open a magazine: Open spaces, wood paneling with relaxing decor and large drawings on the walls. Details include the glass&bottle rack separating the kitchen and the dining area and the stove flue that come up through the counter. Outside I can see cherry trees, so I know I'll be back in the spring when they're blooming.

Location: Koseda, Just up the street between the super/drug store and the home center. (30.3852, 130.6549)
Hours: 10:00-16:30. Closed on Mondays.*

*Hours subject to change, so please check before you go!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Swimming Beaches

Okay, February is not the ideal month for a dip in the ocean in Yakushima unless you're either looking for a polar-bear experience or wearing an insulated wet-suit. But today I thought I'd try to warm up by thinking about one of Yakushima's great summer activities: Swimming.

First things first, Yakushima isn't some sandy atoll caressed by gentle tides. The shoreline is mostly rocky and there are some powerful currents in the area. In fact, the island slopes down under the sea so steeply that even marine biologists are amazed that Yakushima can support rich coral reefs, but that doesn't have to spoil your fun: There are three designated swimming beaches in Yakushima where you can splash around in relative safety: On the east coast, there is Haruta Hama in Anbo; on the West Coast there is the sea turtle beach in Kurio; and on the north coast there is the swimming beach in Isso.

Of course, you can enjoy the beaches year round, but during summer vacation days from mid July through the end of August, showers, restrooms, and lifeguards may be found. I believe Kurio's restrooms are open all the time, but you may want a flash light.


Isso is probably the most lively, offering a roped-off swimming area and a beautiful sandy beach that slopes gently into the ocean. During summer vacation, venders hawk food and snorkel sets on your way from the parking lot, and there are often a few kids trying to kick a soccer ball along the sloping beach. But don't worry: The swimming area is big (and deep) enough that you can easily swim away from the bustle if that's not your style. Perfect after a morning of hiking in Shiratani! Also, if you're in to snorkeling, ask around: The bay on the other side of Yahazu Peninsula -- just a few minutes drive east of the swimming area -- is known for sea life, and -- unlike most coral reefs around Yakushima -- there are not too many big reef rocks to crash into.
A handful of sea glass from the swimming beach in Isso.

Haruta Hama
The swimming hole at Haruta Hama is literally just that: A large pool carved out of the coral rock, with great protection from the waves. The swimming area is plenty big enough to swim laps, and there are two large rock piles kids like to jump off of in the middle. You can also see colorful fish lurking in shade of the rocky walls. The bottom is mostly sand, but during extreme low tides it can be a bit too shallow and salty for a pleasant swim. Bring your shoes so when you're worn out from swimming you can take a stroll along the coastal flats and peer into the tide pools.
I love strolling the expanse of coastal flatlands near Haruta Hama.


I have to admit I have never swum at the swimming beach in Kurio because I'd rather explore the nearby coral reefs of Cape Tsusaki that are so beautiful. However, because of currents and rocks, the swimming beach is a safer option if you're looking to relax or take the kids for a swim. It's protected by the same sea walls that protect the neighboring harbor, and the sand beach is usually quiet except for the lull of waves and the occassional fishing boat. Not too many swimmers venture out to this beach, although it is very popular with sea turtles during summer nights.
Reefs and tide pools at low tide at Cape Tsusaki near Kurio. The tides can be rough, so please play it safe.

I'm not going to state the obvious guidelines like don't swim by yourself, and don't swim after drinking alcohol, etc, but I do want to point out two important rules.

1.) Let the sea turtles be. Remember that they bury they're eggs in the sand at night, so don't bother them by going swimming at night, and try not to disturb their nests. And, of course, no fires.

2.) Be aware of dangerous animals. The swimming beaches listed here are safer than outer reefs, but to be on the safe side, don't touch or bother sea snakes, lionfish, striped eel catfish, cone shells (yes, sea shells can kill people), sea urchins, certain corals、fireworms (think underwater caterpillars), stonefish, blue-ringed octopuses, or man-of-war. Actually, you'd better find alternative plans if you've run into a mass of men-of-war. The animals listed here aren't known to attack, but some of them can kill you. (Hope to have a new post on these guys soon! In the meantime, I found this page featuring photos of many of these critters. ) Let's avoid touching anything we are unsure of!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ippon Houju Dai GonGen: One god you can't ignore in Yakushima

Shrine at Hana no Ego
In the island sometimes called the "Alps of the Ocean," it would be odd if religion didn't play a large part in shaping the local culture. Indeed, mountain pilgrimages, folklore, traditional dances, and stone monuments attest to the influence of the gods. Even to an uninitiated foreigner like me, there are two Japanese gods whose influence is especially visible in daily life in Yakushima: Ebisu, and Houju. Shrines to the god of fishermen, Ebisu, are scattered around the parameter of the island so that the statue inside gazes out over the sea, while there are at least 26 mountain tops crowned with a stone shrine enscribed with the characters for Ippon Houju Dai GonGen (Ippon translates to something like "The Revered" or "On High", while Dai GonGen is a Buddhist title used for gods. I'm just going to paraphrase this as Ippon Houju.) and many more stone shrines around the island bearing this inscription.
One of Yakushima's many shrines
to Ebisu. This one is in Mugyo.

Ebisu is one of Japan's Seven Gods of Fortune. You can find a series of seven large statues erected at seven points around the island in 2011, each statue portraying one of the gods. In fact, let me save that for another blog post.

Today, I'll focus on Ippon Houju, the god of fortune of the mountains. Most Japanese may know him by one of his other names: Hoori or Yama no Sachi Hiko.

To understand his place in both religion and culture, let's trace the first Shinto gods and their descendants down to the first emperor of Japan, and stop along the way when we get to Hoori. I'm a newbie when it comes to the Shinto religion, so I'm going to pull out my books (i.e. the picture book versions of the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki) and charts now:

Abbreviated lineage of Shinto gods and goddesses, as I understand it.
We'll start with the forefather of the gods, named Izanagi, and his wife, Izanami. (In some, but not all traditions, their first child is associated with Ebisu. Yakushima also a mountain with a shrine to this couple, but that's for a future post!) As I understand it, they had a plethora of children before she died giving birth to the god of fire. Izanagi visited her in the land of the dead and upon returning underwent a purification ritual during which many more gods were born. Of these, three were considered as forming a sacred pillar: The sun goddess, the moon god, and the wild god of sea and storms. The sun goddess, Ameterasu became the grandmother of Ninigi. Ninigi is known for leaving the gods' celestial realm to live and sow rice on the earth. There's quite a bit of debate, but we'll say that Ninigi had sons including Hoderi and Hoori. It was Hoori that would become the grandfather of Jinmu, Japan's legendary first emperor.

Okay, stop there. Do you know the story of Urashima Taro and the underwater kingdom? It's a Japanese fairy tale (one of the three most famous Japanese fairy tales) about a boy (Urashima Taro) who rescues a turtle, and in return the turtle takes him to the undersea kingdom of the dragon god and turns into a princess. When Taro decides to go home after three days, she gives him a box and tells him not to open it. (Can you tell where this is going?) When he gets home everything has changed. He recklessly opens the box and instantly turns into an old man.

Participants in Yakushima's
Goshinsan Festival stage a
kind of tug-of-war between
the sea and the mountains.
Alright, back to the gods and goddesses. Hoderi was a fisherman (sometimes Umi no Sachi Hiko, meaning Prince of Fortune of the Sea) and Hoori was a hunter (similary called Yama no Sachi Hiko, meaning Prince of Fortune of the Mountains). Hmm. . . the perfect stage for sibling rivalry? The struggle between the mountains and the sea? One day Hoori traded his hunting bow for Hoderi's fishing hook and the siblings attempted to trade professions, but the results were disappointing and Hoori lost his brother's hook in the sea. Hoori went to look for it but instead found the underwater kingdom of Ryujin, the dragon god, and fell in love with his daughter, the princess Toyotama-hime (also called Otohime). When Hoori decided to return home, the princess -- now his wife -- went with him, and the dragon god found Hoderi's fishing hook and also presented Hoori with two jewels to control the tides. So things work out well for Hoori.

Yakushima is a favorite
breeding ground of sea
Well, that's all fine, and you've probably drawn the conclusion that the tale of Urashima Taro grew out of the tale of Hoori, but in Yakushima, this  is more than some fairy tale imported from the mainland. For example, do you know how lots and lots of sea turtles visit Yakushima to lay their eggs in summer? Depending who you ask, that's because sea turtles are the messengers of the dragon king, and his palace is just off the coast of Yakushima's community of Anbo! And there are many, many local tales of Hoori's travels around Yakushima, in which he is referred to by another name, Hikohohodemi no Mikoto.

But Hikohohodemi no Mikoto also has a Buddhist name, or perhaps a title, Ippon Houju Dai GonGen. In the mid-15th century, the ruler of the Tanegashima clan was introducing Nichiren Buddhism to the islands of Tanegashima, Yakushima, and Kuchinoerabu, but in Yakushima it wasn't a simple switch. You see, while things may have gone smoothly on the geographically flat island of Tanegashima, on the neighboring mountainous island of Yakushima, Shinto worship of mountain gods continued to be popular and the Ritsu school of Buddhism had also been established. In the mid-15th century, there were also a lot of earth quakes and un-fortuitous occurrences in Yakushima, which the islanders contributed to the deity’s resistance to the new religion. So when a monk named Shounin Nichizou from Kyoto came to spread the Nichiren school, it's not surprising that the islanders were reluctant to convert. It is said that, after the customary rituals failed to placate the gods, Nichizou resorted to hiking up Mt. Miyanoura where he stayed for several days and chanted a million times. Then a white deer appeared and knelt before him, and the earthquakes stopped. The islanders were deeply impressed and embraced the Nichiren school.
A stone shrine erected in
honor of Ippon Houju atop
Myoujou Dake
And so stone shrines with the inscription "Ippon Houju no Dai GonGen" (This is written both 一品法寿ノ大権現 and 一品宝珠ノ大権現, and -- as I learned in a recent lecture -- it is not known whether the name Houju refers to the jewels (宝珠) received from the dragon god, or to the sutras (妙法) chanted by Nichizou) came to be erected on mountaintops all around Yakushima.

Since that time Buddhism has fallen in and out of favor and temples and shrines in the towns of Yakushima have flourished and waned with the tides, but the Ippon Houju stone monuments persist.

*Disclaimer: I don't know squat about Shinto traditions, except that Shinto stories make for great manga adventures. Especially in this land where Shinto and Buddhist schools and Shigendo traditions have melded and flourished and fallen into decline and favor again, there are bound to be many details that have been cloaked in ambiguity. Everyone has their own opinions. For this blog, I've leaned heavily on the snippets written in books by Toshimi Shimano (下野敏見氏) as well as things I've picked up from friend, lectures, and hearsay, but if I've stated something odd, please let me know!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

La Monstera - For a Great Omurice Lunch

(There is a restaurant oriented towards natural foods in its place. It's open for breakfast, too.)

I should probably start with the obvious question:
What is omurice?

According to Wikipedia, omurice is
an omelet made with fried rice and usually topped with ketchup.
Hmm. I'm not sure that does this melty, fluffy egg and tomato-and-demi-glace sauce justice, so here's a photo:


It's a pretty popular Western-Japanese dish, and for just under 1,000 yen and just minutes south of the airport, the omurice served at La Monstera Cafe could be easily be your first or last lunch in Yakushima. Either way, the light, cheery atmosphere and seating limited to four small tables assures you a relaxed dining experience. I tagged on a mini baked custard for desert and my taste buds were singing for the rest of the day. La Monstera (named after the plant, I assume) also serves a few other dishes, or you can drop in for coffee before catching a flight, but I'm pretty sure most of the locals come for the omurice!

A light and cheery, yet cozy and intimate atmosphere.

This is a monstera plant, but
note that the sign for La Monstera
restaurant is in Japanese:

Location: A few minutes south of the airport, near the Hayasaki (早崎) bus stop in the back of a small cluster of shops on the ocean-side of the road. (30.3746,130.6648)
Hours: 11:30am to 4pm. Open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday ONLY*

*Hours are subject to change, so please call the restaurant or check ahead.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Botanical Research Park

If you've done you're homework before visiting Yakushima, then you know that biodiversity and particularly the "vertical distribution" of plants was one of the major reasons Yakushima earned World Heritage status. With over 1500 species of vascular plants in a space of about 500 square kilometers, it's a botanist's paradise.

With this in mind, there are several gardens around the island that were created with botanically inclined visitors in mind, or were at least created by fellow plant lovers. These include the Fruit Garden (an "agro-forest") in Nakama, the Rhododendron Park in Kurio, the Comprehensive Nature Park (I think a better translation would be "Nature and Horiculture Gardens") in Miyanoura, and the Botanical Research Park in Mugio, which I will focus on in this entry.

According to general local knowledge (i.e. hearsay), the Botanical Research Park used to be a thriving attraction where busloads of tourists would regularly stop and motorized carts would wait to carry older citizens around the vast grounds before lunch in the now defunct dining room. While the Park's heyday may be over, it still earns it's place on the map, and even though I visited the park in winter, when only a few plants were blooming or fruiting, I still enjoyed my trip.

After purchasing an entrance ticket for 500 yen (Half the price of tickets a few years back! Kids get in for 250 yen.) and receiving a rather cryptic map, a visit begins with the towering green houses visible from the main road. Check out the wood support frame for this structure!

The inside is a bit austere, but depending on the season, you may be greeted by trees bearing mangoes, guavas, star fruits, sea grapes, bread fruits and others that I've never seen before!

The second greenhouse focuses more on flower plants, and includes both exotic and local species, such as sakura azaleas. However, their is a dearth of signs that is only going to become more apparent until--if you don't read Japanese-- you just throw up your hands and just run around the park and have fun.

From fruit trees to an artificial brook lined with flowers.

Next is the pineapple field:

Can you spot a pineapple? (Hint: front left)
And then, it depends what direction you take. Coffee, bananas, lychee, tangerines, monstellas, a passion fruit vineyard, both an "edible flower garden" and an herb garden, subtropical trees, hibiscuses and hydrangeas promise to make for beautiful scenery for visitors in the spring and summer. I was happy to see that quite a few scientific names are posted, but don't expect any signs or explanations in English.

Nasturtiums in the Edible Flower Garden, Mocchomu Dake rising behind
a tankan orange grove, and passion fruit vines.

Smack in the middle of the grounds in the three-story observation tower, which will give you a lovely view of the ocean in the south and Mt. Mocchomu to the northwest.

From the tower I spotted a fruiting Hawaiian screw pine (Click for a close-up)...

...and the view was as great as I expected!
Once you've found gotten your bearings again, head to the southwest corner of the park, following these signs:
They will guide you to a viewing platform for the Torohki Waterfall. In fact, this used to be the best way to view the waterfall until a public walk was built just down the street from the Botanical Research Park.

Torohki Waterfall is an unusual waterfall
that empties directly into the sea. The Botanical
Research Park offers one of two views available to
land-bound tourists.

A walk around the park can easily take over an hour, but if you've brought a lunch with you, you'll find that there are several small shelters with benches scattered around the park, or you can head back to the main building and eat in the gift shop, where your long walk will be rewarded by a small plate of seasonal fruit.

Location: Mugio 896, at the Botanical Research Park bus stop. (30.25174,130.5933)
Entrance: 500 yen, half price for children under 12.
Hours: 8am to 5pm*

*Hours of business may change, so please check or call ahead.

Smiley Cafe in Anbo

What better way to end a
trip to Yakushima than with
a hot cup of Joe at a quaint
cafe with a view of the port?

Residents of Anbo know that the best way to pass time away is to sit along the river bank and stare out at the ocean.

For those of us who happen to have a sweet tooth or a coffee craving,  the best location is Smiley. My impression of Smiley is clean, cozy, cute and above all cheerful. Here, food is appreciated not by quantity, but by the thoughtfulness served with each creation, from soups and muffins to custard parfaits.

Since much of Yakushima runs on island time -- either you're up and going at 4am or you're not going to open your eyes until mid-morning -- finding breakfast anywhere outside of your hotel can be a bit tricky. But in Anbo a slow morning begins at 9:30am at Smiley.

Left: The seasonal speciality of winter 2015: French toast!
Right: Ooh! Yakushima-themed cookies!

Location: Anbo, near the river between the port and the bridge. (30.31432,130.6565)
Hours: 9:30-6pm. Closed on Tuesdays*

*Hours of business may change, so please check the website or call ahead.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Komorebi Okonomiyaki

Gourmet okonomiyaki -- YES!
Let me just state for the record: hen I make okonomiyaki, it's anything but gourmet: Mix some okonomiyaki flour and water and shredded cabbage in a bowel, throw in any leftovers sitting in the fridge, and vaguely try to copy the pancake-pizza hybrid I last saw either at a crowded festival stall or on a countertop grill in bustling Osaka. Teppan Okonomiyaki Komorebi is the antithesis of the okonomiyaki that come out of my kitchen.
The river is so clear it's easy to miss!
A handful of restaurants have opened in the past couple years, but Komorebi stands out. First, the mood of any visit is set before you even walk in the door, because Komorebi is located next to the gorgeous river that flows down from Shiratani Unsuikyo.

The interior has a very personal feeling, with ambient lighting and a very limited amount of seating.

I've never seen okonomiyaki made like this lady makes them!
I'm happy to notice there are two women working the grill, and on the wall I notice a sign for drinking party prices: One price for all-you-can-drink alcohol, and one price for free soft drink refills. According to their website, Komorebi also uses local products as much as possible. YES. Komorebi is this girl's kind of restaurant!

The menu looks pretty reasonable, except for the specialty: Tomato Okonomiyaki. We order a Cesar salad, a tomato okonomiyaki, and (lest we be actually healthy) a deluxe mix.
The salad is great. Fresh with lots of meaty bits and a big runny egg. It's half-gone before I remember to snap a photo.

When the okonomiyaki with the deluxe is brought to our table, it looks like pretty standard fair. . . but the first bite proves otherwise. The sauce is incredible. It's kind of citrusy and with a pureed texture, and it includes hints of locally caught and cured mackerel.

Thehead chef/owner explains that when she first left Yakushima as a young woman and tasted okonomiyaki in Kyoto she was blown away. For decades, she thought about opening her own restaurant, and for years she experimented to create that sauce. And yes, you can ask for extra sauce.
Have you ever seen an okonomiyaki like this?
Check out the detailing on those tomatoes!
The highlight, of course, is the tomato okonomi yaki, for which the chef brings out the torch and sears the pile of succulent tomatoes hiding the okonomiyaki underneath. Exquisite, and exquisitely delicious!

Location: Miyanoura 2560-27, on the road that goes to Shiratani Unsuikyo Park. (30.4145,130.567)
Hours: 11:30-13:30, and extra dinner hours on Fridays and Saturdays from 18:00-20:30. Closed on Mondays.*

*Hours of business may change, so please check the website or call ahead.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yakushima Gelato Solaumi -- Gelato and Sorbets on the Sunny(er) Side of Yakushima

Until recently, Yakushima had no speciality ice cream stores. I mean, you could find ice cream at a few cafes or restaurants, but the only real way to satisfy a sweet tooth was to go to the grocery store.

Until 2014, when TWO completely independent ice cream stores opened.
1.) Just north of the airport in the town of Koseda, Cafe Mori offers soft-serve vanilla made from Jersey milk.
2.)Near the town of Mugyo, right next to Pension Echoes and Mori-no-Ferry Cottages, Sola Umi spoons out a variety of gelatos and sorbets.

At Solaumo, I always get a double cup so I can pick two flavors -- something exotic like papaya or avocado(?!) or my favorite coconut, and something more traditional like chocolate. A small double-cup costs a little less than 500 yen. They also serve coffee.

Then comes the best part of the experience: Indoor hammock chairs. After a couple days in Yakushima, you may understand why this is such a brilliant idea, even in one of Yakushima's sunnier towns. The name of this ice cream parlor translates to "Sky Sea," and sometimes I wonder if that's a reference to sun-and-fun or to incredible rainfall! On rainy days, bring a book or some headphones and watch the sky poor down outside as you lounge in one of six individual hammock chair.*2019 Edit: I hear the hammocks have been replaced with something just as cool.

I advise you call ahead though, because they keep some unusual business hours.

Yakushima Gelato SolaUmi
Location: Mugio (30.262792,130.6045482)
Business Hours: 1pm to 5:15pm, closed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the first Saturday of the month*

*Hours of business may change, so please check the website or call ahead.