In the Land of the Forest Docents

There was a morning last week when I realized that I had left my prescription sunglasses in Hakodate Airport—the latest in a string of lost and forgotten items. As John pointed out, I’ve been firing on all cylinders for a few months now, and the strain is starting to take its toll. I cried then, in the Kagoshima Hotel MyStays, a little about the sunglasses but mostly at the feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s an experience that mirrors that of past Brooks fellows I’ve talked to—just part of acclimating to a year on the road. It’s learning to balance the desire to see everything with the acknowledgement that you can’t possibly see everything, nor should you, for the sake of your sanity and personal wellbeing (not to mention that of your travel companions). I wrote the following post to capture this kind of balancing act in real time, as well as the unique cultural alienation (benign but inescapable) of being a Westerner in Japan for the first time, one who is not following the usual, scripted tourist experience.

Yesterday I accidentally went to four museums, an unintended public history bender if you will. I spent the morning trying and failing to get to the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum of Culture Reimeikan. GoogleMaps first sent me to the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum, which is distinct from the institution listed above. The latter is a natural history museum, whose target audience is A) Japanese and B) approximately age 8. The very kind woman at the counter was clearly befuddled at what a sweaty, thirty-year old blond woman was doing there, but handled it with unrelenting chipperness and a toothpaste-ad smile. Then it was my turn to be befuddled when entrance to the museum was free, and instead of a ticket, I was handed a small Ziploc bag containing a minuscule amount of ash from the 2012 eruption of Mt. Sakurajima. We’ll see what TSA makes of that coming back into the US. I wondered up a few flights of stairs to a room where butterflies were elegantly pinned according to their taxonomic classifications, and rows of stuffed birds and mammals marched in single-file lines, a meticulous retinue of Kagoshima’s diverse fauna. A video played nearby, depicting (purportedly) the area’s harmonious interactions between nature and humankind. From the approximately five minutes I watched, this “harmony” mostly consists of beautiful women enjoying nature alone. The entire video is without Japanese or English narration, so the depictions had the exaggerated quality of a 1920s silent film. In one particularly abstruse scene, a robed young women strolls on a beach with two men in tow. The men are wearing neon jumpsuits and holding shovels. The sand on the beach burbles from what the viewer can only assume are natural hot springs or heat vents below the surface, though the visual and auditory effect is that of some malignant Star Wars creature. The men proceed to dig a hole in the sand, into which the woman climbs, smiling and demure. They then bury her up to the neck and then march off into the distance. The woman closes her eyes, head protruding serenely, absurdly from the sand. Fade to black.

Next I ended up at the Kagoshima City Museum of Art (which is listed online translated as just the “Kagoshima City Museum”). For 300 Yen, I saw exactly one Pissarro, one Cezanne, one Picasso, and bizarrely a larger number of Dalis and Ernsts. Because Surrealism is definitely what I need right now. This is the kind of museum where there’s one big, hulking, psychedelic Frank Stella on the wall, and then a row of eighteenth-century ceramic tea cups.

Convinced that I was still not where I needed to be, I continued my long, hot march down the “History and Culture Road” towards yet another institution purporting to be the “Prefectural Museum.” This was it, at last. Built into a former castle town, the museum is a steep climb from street level, past seemingly impenetrable masonry walls. Inside, some 1990s chandeliers and a gift shop. I get a glossy book in five languages from the nice woman at the counter about the history of Kagoshima. I wonder if museums are the main employer of nice, young women in Japan, women who smile and seem genuinely unperturbed by my total lack of understanding that at this museum, the tickets come out of a machine on the wall—women who would consent to being buried, smiling, in a treacherous sand pit and left to steam until medium well done.

Finally at the right museum… though from the outside not entirely welcoming.

This museum likes its dioramas. It does not like having photos of its dioramas posted on social media. There is an outside area with some thatched-roof Edo-era buildings, but you have to flag down a docent before seeing them. As my Japanese currently consists of “Hi,” “Thank you,” and “I like it,” I am not sure that I am up for explaining “I would like to see your outdoor collection of thatched-roof Edo-era buildings, please.” I take some pictures of the dioramas (which I will not post here) and go on my way.

It’s a half hour walk back to the main train station where John is waiting in a chaotic, crowded Starbucks. The air feels thick and hazy. I pass a pair of women who, having just come from the costume rental shop, are wearing full kimonos and struggling with the parking meter.

John and I eat lunch in the bus station mall food court. Tonkatsu for the win. Under any circumstances in the United States would I order a breaded pork cutlet with white rice for lunch and think that was a normal, healthy thing? No. But in this land where a Caesar salad is as elusive as the Great Forest Spirit, my conception of “normal” has shifted accordingly.

After lunch, we wander over to the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. Public history folks who create museum soundscapes worry a lot about “sound bleed,” the undesirable mix of sounds that comes from having multiple auditory installations too close, or not acoustically engineered to prevent overlap. This museum is sound bleed city, a veritable 1980s arcade of animatronics, music, and aggressive interactives. And I do mean aggressive – you can test your “sumo” strength by shoving two hand-shaped panels on a wall to measure your compressive force. The seriousness of the museum’s topic (a complex and politically fraught decision to restore imperial power and pursue a vast top-down program of modernization), is somewhat belied by the ubiquitous cartoon versions of local hero Saigo Takamori and his dog. (Takamori was a big supporter of the Meiji government until a disagreement over policy towards Korea prompted him to resign. He later helped lead a rebellion against the new government and ended up committing ritual suicide.)

Saigō Takamori, local folk hero and cartoon character.

Today, I get up and resolve to take it a little easier—fewer expectations, fewer heritage experiences. My plan is to check out one of the two other UNESCO heritage sites connected to Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution near Kagoshima. After a typically white breakfast of cheesy toast, I roll out the door and down to the bus station. Despite my best efforts and the assistance of Google Translate, I arrive with very little idea of actually how to access the site in question, the Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat. I almost board a bus I am about 45% sure is the correct one and then quickly loose my nerve and get right back off. I stand around and watch the buses in hopes that there will be one that has an English sign that reading: “This bus takes you to the obscure UNESCO site! Hop on, foreigner!” No luck. I bring up the Japanese version of the website with the site info, and trek over to the Tourist Info booth. The man at the counter scratches his head and emits a “hmmmm” that would indicate I had just asked him how best to climb Mt. Fuji in January. He passes me off to an efficient looking woman nearby with a shrug— “She knows more.”

The woman in question nods knowingly upon reading the info on my proffered phone, and pulls out a looseleaf binder full of papers, onto which hand-written Post-it notes have been taped, an arcane analog archive of locations and directions. She briskly locates the correct sticky note with the necessary magic words and goes to work on an iPad, decoding a long list of bus time tables. She transcribes the resulting directions on a slip of paper.

“You want to go now?”


“Bus is leaving now! Hurry!”

I take the paper with the directions and sprint across the parking lot. By this time, it’s raining and I wipe out almost immediately on the slick stone. A half dozen concerned people are suddenly headed my way, speaking rapid Japanese. I pick myself up, choke out “I’m fine” (in English) and hobble over to the bus stop. I make it just in time.

Now I’m on a bus that is winding out of the city and up into the hills above Kagoshima. I have no idea how I’m getting back, which is a bit concerning. I try to reassure myself that if worse comes to worse, I can just walk back, which Google Maps says will only take two hours.

Fortunately, I see a sign for the venerable Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat and I push the button to signal the bus driver to stop. I hop out and find myself in a sleepy farming community. There are more signs for the UNESCO site, which I follow gratefully through a valley full of rich green fields. The fields give way to trees, and even though I can’t see the sluice gate, I can hear the channel of water rushing somewhere nearby. Up I go into the hills, and around a curve in the road. I have arrived.


Amidst the trees are three chairs around a table, a sign, and a single docent. He wears an official-looking red shirt and must be about 80. We establish that I am American, I do not speak Japanese, and I am here to see the UNESCO site. He takes me up a path, narrating the history of the site in a fluent barrage of Japanese, punctuated with illustrative gestures that I assume are meant to evoke building a gate, water flowing down the mountain, etc. At the end of the short trail is the sluice gate. I haven’t visited many, but as sluice gates go, this one seems very nice. I nod vigorously to indicate my appreciation. Having executed his task of explaining/gesticulating the history of the site, my docent departs to greet another family that has arrived. I take many pictures of the rushing water, the cut stones covered in moss. I imagine the nineteenth-century stone masons who carved them, and created the narrow channel to direct spring’s water down to the site where the Satsuma clan built their metal warships on the beach of Shuiseikan.

The elusive forest docent regales a visiting family with the history of the Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat.

There’s thankfully a bus that will take me back out of the hills and to the Kagoshima central station. I buy a chocolate cream-filled puff pastry at the little farm stand that seems to act as the de facto cafe for the sluice gate site to break a larger bill so I have return bus fare. The woman at the counter gives me a 50% discount. Maybe it’s because I am carrying the pamphlet for the UNESCO site, or maybe it’s just because I am clearly foreign and bedraggled. I sit on the bus station bench with my umbrella in one hand and the pastry in the other. Eventually the bus appears.

I’m proud of myself for persevering, for coming to this site that was clearly not designed for foreign, non-Japanese-speaking visitors. It was strange and lovely, and ultimately worth the trip. There was a brief moment, after I had just picked myself up off the pavement at Kagoshima-Chuo station, when I considered just giving up, going back to my AirBnB and having a cup of tea and not trying to do anything for the rest of the day. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad, in a way, that I saw all four museums the day before, too. It’s all part of the experience.

One thought on “In the Land of the Forest Docents”

  1. Absolutely love this entry and can, entirely, sympathize with the wonderful ridiculousness associated with these travels! We’ll have to swap stories at SAH – there are too many to count, but an icy trek up Yama-dera with a walking cast was pretty great.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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