Seven Minutes in Moss Forest

Beware the leeches

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

I was on a bullet train traveling south through Kyushu, staring out the window at an especially pretty sweep of land, when I had one of those moments of disorientation that somehow puts everything into perspective. I was gazing at jagged crests in the middle distance, the kind I never see in my own country — craggy like mountains in the American west but green to their very tips. Just as my eyes settled on one very impressive peak, I heard Anna say, “I want to go to that mountain.”

It was an odd coincidence, that my teen and I should be looking at the same mountain at the very same time. For the moment I ignored this. I felt a rush of pride, or maybe relief. Finally, I thought, my daughter has come around. I’d been nagging my girls ever since we’d left Tokyo five days ago to pay more attention to the landscape. “Girls!” I’d say. “Look at the sunlight on the water! Look! Look at the rice paddies!” They’d glance up from their screens, nod politely, turn back. They were every bit as glad to be in Japan as I was, they just didn’t really care about things flying by outside a window.

“Mount Fuji!” their dad said at one point. “You’ll see it any second now. Just keep looking out the window!” That time they did make an effort. Unfortunately, Fuji was completely obscured by clouds, as it often is, which didn’t do much for our argument.

I was pleased that my eldest was finally seeing the world my way. Then I realized we were looking at two different mountains. Bereft of internet and bored out of her wits, Anna had let her little sister convince her to start playing Minecraft, which at the time was near peak popularity. The two of them were navigating the construction game’s rigid terrain on Nora’s six-inch Kindle, pixilated fields and forests under odd, geometric clouds. “Mmm, sunflowers,” Anna murmured. And then, “Can we grow sugar cane?”

“Yes, but only by the water,” Nora told her.

The “water” was royal blue, flat, and unvaried as a scroll of wrapping paper. That my daughters preferred this sad little prospect to an actual view of Japanese mountains made me anxious more than anything. They were halfway around the world and still managing to miss out! When would any of us ever be back here? Even as I thought this, I knew my frustration was kind of hypocritical. Hard to blame my kids for being locked to their screens when screen culture was our reason for traveling to Japan in the first place.

This was six years ago, what feels like a lifetime, back when screen viewing was a treat for me rather than a mind-numbing way of life. When U.S. travelers weren’t banned from most countries and money was all that ever kept us from seeing the world. My husband was writing a book on landscape representation in Japanese cinema, so we’d applied for grants, taken on extra jobs and fresh lines of credit to get the whole family over here. Roger’s research hinged on the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki. We were all huge fans, our daughters raised on a steady diet of Miyazaki’s exquisitely detailed Studio Ghibli films — My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service when they were little, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle when they were old enough for something scarier. Our time in Japan was basically a Miyazaki grand tour, including visits to the Ghibli Museum and the Totoro Forest near Tokyo. But our ultimate goal was Yakushima, a remote island off the southern coast of Kyushu. Yakushima’s mountain forests provide the setting for Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s iconic 1997 historical fantasy about a battle between forest spirits and a medieval mining village. We were headed to an ethereal patch of woodland in the island’s Shiritani-Unsuigiyo Ravine, known colloquially as the Moss Forest.

Even some of the film scholars Roger had interviewed expressed surprise when we told them where we were going — 900 miles from Tokyo for a look at a little scrap of forest when we only had three weeks in Japan to begin with. Wouldn’t a solid week in Kyoto be a better use of our time? It’s fine, we said — we’re Americans. We’re used to traveling outrageous distances. Our country can’t manage a high-speed rail system, so the trip doesn’t even seem that long to us. Kyoto to the port of Kagoshima is just four-and-a-half hours — we’ll be there in no time! Truth is, only Roger and I thought this trip was worth it. The girls would rather have stayed in Kyoto eating custard sponge cake and hanging out at the Manga Museum. They were indifferent hikers under normal circumstances, and now for some ungodly reason they’d been reading up on sparrow bees — hornets with quarter inch stingers found most commonly in the mountain forests of Japan. We call these guys “murder hornets” now. They’ve been showing up in the US since 2019, but they were new to us at the time. Sparrow bees kill 30 to 40 people each year, a fact Anna mentioned several times, hoping we’d change our itinerary.

Now as we neared Kagoshima and the girls murmured over Nora’s Kindle, I felt doubt set in. There’s something misguided about visiting a landscape you first encountered through animation — my girls seemed to know this instinctively. View a place for the first time through a lens as immersive and magical as Miyazaki’s and the actual thing is bound to pale in comparison. In Mononoke, the woods are populated by spirits and animal gods but also full of breathtaking, real-world details, an uncanny blend of the real and fabulous. Morning light spills through cedar leaves; raindrops ripple the water. Clouds at sunset look so real it breaks your heart, that smoky blue limned in gold. Exquisite simulations can indeed seem better than the real thing. Were we inviting disappointment, traveling so far for an artist’s source of inspiration?

If so, we appeared to be in good company. The ferry from Kagoshima was packed for the Obon holiday, whole families camping out on wall-to-wall floor mats, plus rugged-looking Europeans and Aussies lugging frame packs. Yakushima has plenty to recommend it even without Miyazaki. The rainforest is a Unesco World Heritage site, home to some of the world’s oldest Japanese cedars, including “Jomon Sugi,” a gnarled colossus 7000 years old. There are lovely resorts on Yakushima, nice beaches, a loggerhead sea turtle nesting ground. But many of these folks were there specifically for the Moss Forest — also called the “Genseirin,” or primeval forest — an area far from Jomon Sugi where Miyazaki and his crew spent their time. In the ferry’s main hall, a large poster showed a cedar superimposed with images of kodama, the little white tree spirits from Princess Mononoke with crooked heads and empty, round eyes. In the gift shop you could buy Studio Ghibli merchandise — kodama key chains and embroidered hand towels and such. Everyone we chatted with seemed to be there because of Mononoke — the architecture students from Kyoto, the Australian apprenticed to an orchid grower, the French guy traveling solo.

Planning our trip for Obon week was a miscalculation, that’s for sure. We had nowhere to sit for the four-hour boat ride — we moved from deck to snack bar to various spots on the floor and back outside. The East China Sea was brilliant under a faint scrim of cloud, like molten silver, and I thought about how the most transcendent moments come to me when I’m not expecting them. Maybe lowering my expectations for the forest wasn’t a bad idea. Yakushima was logged aggressively for hundreds of years, after all. The Genseirin isn’t even virgin forest, although that name basically means “virgin forest.” Studio Ghibli objected when they tried to call it the Mononoke Forest, so “primeval” or “virgin” had to suffice, but likely this was nothing more than a nod to tourism. I thought about this as I watched my daughters pass a packet of lemon lozenges from the gift shop back and forth between them. “They taste chalky,” Nora noted. Her father picked up the package and tried to sound out the hiragana. “I think this might be antacid,” he offered.

Nothing was as it seemed.

Yakushima happens to be one of the wettest places on Earth, with ten meters of rain in the mountains each year and four on the coast. It was sunny when we docked at Miyanoura but spitting by nightfall; we crouched in our lodgings and listened to rain gunning the vinyl roof. To save money we’d rented a yurt, a big drum lined with bunk beds. At least it was cozy and dry, and there was wifi, so the girls were pretty upbeat. Earlier in the day, they’d picked up a candy-making kit that they saw on Youtube when we were still in the States. Now they were huddled together on a bottom bunk, re-watching the DIY video and sorting packets of pastel powder. Things could be worse, I thought.

Soon our host came in with cold barley tea and brochures. He wanted to know if we were headed for Jomon Sugi, a ten-hour hike that required leaving before dawn. Plenty of tourists get in over their heads with that trek and our host seemed pleased that we were only headed to the Shiratani Ravine. He did have a word of caution, though. There are mountain leeches in the forest, he told us. Big ones that hang out in trees and drop down on unsuspecting hikers, get inside your clothes, latch on and make deep, itchy, long-healing wounds. Our host didn’t speak English — he used a translation app on his Android — and the sweet female voice lent a surreal quality to the conversation. “Bite the ankle roughly,” she said serenely, and, “For healing takes one month.” I looked over at my daughters, sitting with us at the low table in the center of the yurt. Nora was actually slack-jawed with disgust, her eyes round as nickels.

“Girls, don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll wear long pants and tuck them into our socks.”

Our host shook his head and spoke into the phone. “No way for preventing,” the voice corrected me.

The girls tossed aggrieved looks my way but didn’t say anything. I was pretty horrified myself — I’ve always had a visceral fear of worms and slugs and leeches. The bloated bodies of night crawlers on the pavement after rain make me physically ill. I think if I found a leech on my body I would hyperventilate.

Our host was crooking and straightening his finger to show how mountain leeches move — upright, standing on one end for God’s sake, stretching and bending. I could tell he was enjoying our reactions. He was a good-natured guy in his 50s with a wacky sense of humor, and I’m pretty sure this was all just part of his shtick. In an hour he would drop by the yurt again with a plastic bag full of salt. A leech wound can be ugly, but sprinkle some salt on the nasty thing and you’re apparently good to go. No need to change our plans, right?

We could have, though. Could have spent the day at the beach or exploring the botanical gardens, viewing the splendid mountains from afar. Our daughters would have liked that. Freed of the burden of that hike, they’d have relaxed and enjoyed a couple of days in paradise. Roger and I considered it, but we’d already come this far, so leeches and hornets and a hard rain the following morning notwithstanding, we slogged off to the bus stop in plastic ponchos and rain pants our host had loaned us.

The soggy wait for the bus was completely unsurprising. I was more surprised that the rain stopped. By the time we’d reached the town of Miyanoura and rented hiking boots, it was merely overcast, the subtropical air dense as cotton. We took off our rain gear and stowed it in our packs. Underneath we wore jeans and full-length socks despite having been told this was pointless. On the bus to the trailhead, I could see that everyone else was wearing shorts over breathable Lycra leggings. We were the only Americans on the bus, the only fools trying to ward off leeches with damp denim.

Up at the trailhead the air didn’t feel much cooler. We set off, our jeans cleaving to our thighs. It takes about an hour-and-a-half to reach the Moss Forest. Guidebooks say the hike is rather low key compared to others in the area, but they also suggest carrying a backpack to keep your hands free. This, we discovered, is because the path angles so steeply at certain points it requires grabbing onto roots and saplings to haul oneself up. We saw young children and fit-looking seniors on the trail, but for screen junkies like us, it wasn’t easy going.

There were gnats in abundance. There was filtered sunlight, and there was the heat, and the raw discomfort of denim, and the stress of climbing steeply for what felt like a very long time. The girls were stoic, uncomplaining now that they couldn’t change their fate. We saw little spotted Yaku deer and one cantankerous monkey who wouldn’t pose for a shot. I had the sense that I should be taking in more, but I couldn’t really. When your whole body is engaged, you aren’t a passive viewer anymore and there’s only so much you can notice. Visual sensation is no more important than what you’re feeling in your own skin — the burn of muscle, the irritation of a gnat in your eye.

Forests are hard to process visually anyway. There’s such a litter of vine and brush and root. In childhood, I had a recurring dream of being in a wood in autumn with the leaves down, the trunks all black, and the forest floor a glowing patchwork of orange and yellow. The dream always seemed magical to me because it looked more like a storybook than a real forest, immaculate, each trunk equidistant from the next. At the Tenryuji temple in Arashiama the previous week, we had strolled through a garden whose basic arrangement was unchanged since the fourteenth century. There were pinkish-green maples and dwarf pines and stone pathways, a little brook with a ferned bank, every rock and plant arranged to facilitate focused deliberation. That’s what gardeners do — they make sense of the world for us, ease us toward understanding. So do illustrators, photographers, animators. It’s just so hard to accept our muddled world on its own terms. No wonder we want someone else to do the heavy lifting.

The terrain got mossier and more alien as we went, shaggy trunks and boulders, the wet smell of them. We crossed an iconic brook that I’d seen in dozens of pieces of Yakushima literature. I’d always figured those photos were doctored, yet here the scene was in all its strange beauty, water tumbling into mist past great green rocks. We reached some of the giant yakusugi. One cedar was probably spared from shingling for the massive knot on its side, like a round, heavy tumor. Another tree, Kuguri Sugi, straddled the trail with its forked base. We crawled under, stumbled onward, stopped to catch our breath.

We weren’t even at the Moss Forest yet. We’d been gone 90 minutes and the bus down at the trailhead would leave for Miyanoura in 90 more. Miss it and we’d be stuck up here for hours with two energy bars and a bottle of tea between us. We had to turn around, but according to the trail map we were almost there. “We’ll just peek at the Moss Forest,” I promised the girls. “We’ll touch it and leave.” Nora was starting to feel an old dance injury in the arch of her foot. Anna was hungry and anxious about missing the bus. But they nodded silently and plodded on.

I’ve come to know this about myself: that I look to the otherworldly to shock me out of my torpor, but I’m also a cynic, so I never really expect it to happen. That said, when we finally reached the Moss Forest, it turned out to be the strangest pocket of woodland I have ever laid eyes on. I thought the land we’d already passed was mossy, but the Genseirin feels like you’re in a sleeve of velvet. Or in some kind of neural network, some secret part of the brain gorgeous in its microscopic detail. Everything is indistinct, a twisted confusion of root and limb, every surface furred green and brown. And the chirr of bugs in the air, and the sweaty frustration of your own inability to take it all in. We had seven minutes in the Moss Forest. We took pictures. What else could we do?

Miyazaki and his team took their time in these woods. Background artist Kazuo Oga captured in watercolor the plush fabric of the forest floor, its depth and subtle variety. He painted ferns dripping from the base of a tree, light and shadow playing across trunks. When we first arrived in Yakushima, I was shocked to see a veil of clouds drifting across the mountaintops in exactly the way they do in Mononoke. I’ve seen clouds in mountaintops all my life, but something about these — their precise speed, the ghostly fingers of them — was so exactly like the film that I stopped and stood watching for several minutes. Detail like that requires real mindfulness to recreate. You have to be present to the world. You can’t be distracted by hunger or discomfort or worried that there might be a leech under your stupid sock. You definitely can’t have a bus to catch. But we did, so down we went, moving as quickly as possible and noticing very little.

These days nearly all my experiences are screen-mediated. Everything comes at me through a pane of light: the worried faces of friends; my stepmother on her 90th birthday; clouds of tear gas drifting through the streets of Portland. When I can’t bear the news anymore, I turn to travel vloggers. I watch drone footage of the terraced hills of Bhutan or the red rooves of Kotor, Montenegro, everything set to the ambient pulse of stock music. The videos are pleasant, but ultimately too perfect to be sublime. When every shot is flawless, nothing galvanizes me or jolts me out of my funk. Now is the time to consume risk-free simulations — we all understand this, or should. But what I wouldn’t give to go anyplace at all that hasn’t been curated for me. To have the discomfort and confusion of genuine discovery back in my life, where you don’t know how things will turn out, and sometimes you’re worried or uncomfortable, and sometimes you’re not. I want to spy a hawk riding a thermal, or to miss one because I didn’t look fast enough. I want the rush of a mountain overlook, the irritation of a blister, the visceral thrill of an actual leech on my actual skin. Or, you know, at least the unsettling possibility of one.

Ask me about my trip to the land of Princess Mononoke, I’ll tell you it was brilliant. Our hike could have been wet and miserable but the weather cooperated. There were no hornets, no leeches, not a one. The ancient cedars were magnificent, the Moss Forest lavishly surreal. Like Mononoke but better for the tactile experience, the smell of the humid air, even the gnats and damp denim, and the threat of bloodsuckers. And the exquisite chaos of the forest, that too — better for the fact that we couldn’t quite make sense of it. After the bus dropped us off at the base of the mountain, we found a great place for donburi and flying fish and gelato in Miyanoura and the whole trip felt like a smashing success. The girls thought so too. They understand that most adventures are best when they’re over and done with, shined up in your memory as you sip on a cold drink.

Back at the yurt that evening, I downloaded our photos onto my laptop. My favorite was a long shot of roots and boulders offset by one side of a massive trunk with heavy, low-hanging limbs. The moss was so thick it made a kind of soil, and there was actual grass growing from branches. But the color was all wrong. The picture looked washed out, suffused in a white light that obviated the lushness of the forest. I adjusted the contrast and saturation, raised the red tone of the bark a shade, deepened the shadows. I toyed with that photo for a long time, searching for some ephemeral quality, some element of shape or light that would capture the dreamy core of that place. I don’t think I ever got it right. •

Essays and stories by Joan Marcus appear in The Sun, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Laurel Review, Gulf Coast, Statement of Record, and elsewhere. She is a two-time winner of the Constance Saltonstall grant for upstate New York writers. Avoidant Type, her memoir-in-progress, tells the story of her battle with medical anxiety. She lives in Ithaca, NY and teaches fiction and narrative nonfiction at Ithaca College.

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