Cartoons and anime have always been a huge part of my childhood memories, especially the animated movies from Studio Ghibli. As someone who likes fantasy, the scenes in their movies feel very magical and the art style is unique. The thing that attracts me the most is that it always feels like there is a deeper meaning behind every story that is relatable to our real lives. Among their many iconic anime movies are “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Spirited Away”, and “Princess Mononoke”.

So, I jumped at the opportunity when some of my friends from the Tokyo Tech Academy for Leadership (ToTAL) program told me that they were organizing a 4-day, 3-night mindfulness camp in Yakushima. Not only would this be my first camp in Japan, but it is said that Yakushima’s forest is one of the inspirations for Princess Mononoke!

Yakushima is an island off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture in Japan’s Kyushu region (as shown in Figure 1). Yakushima is renowned for its lush cedar forest that contains Japan’s oldest living trees. Cedar trees that are more than 1000 years old are called “yakusugi” on the island. The oldest tree in Japan, Jomon Sugi, which is estimated to be between 2200 – 7200 years old, is also in Yakushima. In the past, the forest was logged for cedar shingle production, but it is now protected and was declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 1993.

Figure 1: Map of Japan. Both Kagoshima and Yakushima are located in the Kyushu region (pink region at the bottom), while Tokyo is located in the Kanto region (green region in the middle).

The 4-day, 3-night mindfulness camp was held from August 29 – September 1, 2022. We were lucky that Professor Tamio Nakano, a former ToTAL professor, has a retreat base in Yakushima and guided us throughout the camp. A total of eight people were there, consisting of five students and three professors, all belonging to ToTAL. As illustrated in Figure 1, we started our journey by flying from Tokyo to Kagoshima, followed by a 2.5-hour ferry trip from Kagoshima to Yakushima. It was raining when we arrived on the island. We were told that it rains almost every day in Yakushima due to the roughly 2000-meter-high mountainous landscape.

The structure of the camp was very inspiring. Before beginning, Professor Nakano gave us a rough idea about the camp and allowed us to arrange for 2 – 3 people to take turns in preparing food for each meal. The general flow of the camp was as follows:

Day 1Day 2 (Mountain)Day 3 (Water)Day 4
– Arrival at Yakushima
– Visiting the local shops/businesses
– Dinner
– Morning yoga
– Hiking among the yakusugis
– BBQ dinner
– Morning yoga
– Swim in the estuary
– Visit waterfalls and wildlife
– Outdoor hot spring right beside the sea
-Morning yoga
– Clean up
– Return to Tokyo

While the people in charge of cooking got to work, everyone else was encouraged to relax and enjoy the surrounding nature in their own way. No suggestions were given. It made me feel weird in the beginning, being totally free while some people were busy cooking for us. However, I learned to trust the people that were on duty and to relax when I should.

On the first day, we arrived at Yakushima in the afternoon. Professor Nakano drove us around to pick up some groceries from the local stores and to collect drinking water from the mountains before heading to our accommodation. During the drive, we managed to talk to some locals and got an insight into the Yakushima community. We ended the day with some hearty homemade dishes and a local delicacy, flying fish sashimi.

We started the next day by doing yoga and went for a short hike to admire the thousand-year-old yakusugi trees. I was surprised to see that the yakusugi were not as large as I had thought. Photo 1 (left) shows the size comparison of a thousand-year-old cedar tree with an average adult male. Professor Nakano explained that the island was created by a volcanic eruption, hence the ground mainly consists of hard volcanic rocks. This makes it difficult for roots to grow, leading to the slow development of the trees on the island. It takes about 100 years for a seedling to reach a height of nearly 15 cm (see Photo 2). Attributed to the high frequency of rain in Yakushima, mosses grow easily throughout the forest, producing fiction-like scenery that was depicted in the anime movie Princess Mononoke, as shown in Photo 1 (right).

Photo 2: 100-year-old cedar seedlings with a height of roughly 15 cm

The most inspiring thing for me was the way that the camp balanced both group and individual participation. This applies to the cooking duty mentioned before and the “silent hike alone” part. This is the first camp I have experienced that encouraged me to put importance on both my individuality and working in a group at the same time. At the end of each day, we had time for reflection and sharing in which we listened to each other’s thoughts for the day.

We began the third day with a yoga session surrounded by lush trees and the sound of flowing rivers in the morning. It was breathtaking and totally different from doing it in the city. There was a moment when I looked up mid-pose and could literally see the morning dew fall in slow motion toward me. That sight burned into my mind and remains until this day. After that, we visited two waterfalls and went for a swim in the river and the estuary. The nature there was so untouched that I felt like I was in a well-designed aquarium. There were colorful freshwater fishes everywhere and they did not shy away from our presence at all. It made me realize that the scenery in an aquarium is not just artificial decoration but is what true nature should be. The idea of “what true nature should be” struck me, especially when we observed the milky way, visible to the naked eye, every night during our stay. The sky was so clear that we could see at least one shooting star every five minutes (yes, we counted).

Time flew by and we had to head back to Tokyo on the fourth day. The trip benefited me more than I expected. I learned that we do not have to sacrifice our individuality while maintaining a sense of community. Moreover, I was surprised by how mesmerized by nature I was. I would like to travel to such places more often from now on. I am very grateful for this opportunity and would like to give many thanks to ToTAL for encouraging students to initial events, the students that organized this trip, and the professors that supported the camp wholeheartedly.