Chapter Fourteen: Totoro Woods, Monkeys and Death Roads

I was twenty-one years old when I went to Japan as an exchange student. Although physically and legally an adult, I was quite infantile; my life lacked experience, my interactions lacked grace, and my naïveté lacked charm. An insidious reclusively and fear of failure resulted in a year abroad in which I made almost no Japanese friends and did little to discover the visual, cultural, sensory or culinary offerings of my host city. A sense of regret which surfaced only years later was the strong undercurrent that swept me toward returning to the country I had failed to truly enjoy.

A manifestation of my burning enthusiasm to find adventure and forge lasting memories was to hoover up every free map of the local area I came across. I amassed quite a few, which I kept stuffed in a plastic folder and consulted regularly. I unfolded and rearranged, studied and cross-referenced, circled, annotated and highlighted.

On one of these many colourful cartographies I had found something called the ‘Totoro Forest.’ Even if you have not ventured far down the dizzying rabbit hole of Japanese animation, you will likely recognise Totoro as the universally adored, zoologically ambiguous and heavily marketed creature from Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 film ‘My Neighbour Totoro.’ The iconic oversized beanbag has been enchanting audiences for thirty years, and is the motif of a mindboggling array of merchandise. Naturally I was avidly curious to visit this woodland.

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One day during the summer holiday, with the heat at about 30°C and the humidity at 58%, Richard, Warren and Jared took up my suggestion to investigate the Totoro Forest, and we set off in Richard’s extremely new replacement rental car, with plastic wrapping still clinging to the seats.

We headed north towards Yamagata, driving through the luscious green mountains and stopping frequently when the scenery seemed photo-worthy. We sailed past the serene Lake Hibara, passing camping sites and leisurely boating excursions, and saw dramatic vistas of the cratered face of Mount Bandai.

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Lake Hibara
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Mount Bandai

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For hours we calmly basked in the glorious sun-sharp panoramas and self-congratulatory sense of adventure, until somewhere in Yonazawa we turned an unremarkable corner on a nondescript stretch of tarmac to see a monkey sat in the centre of the road.

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I yelped, Richard performed an emergency stop, and there was an instinctive, desperate scramble for cameras, while the macaque sat quite unfazed before us. After exhausting the angles that could be acquired from inside the vehicle, I ventured out while the boys stayed in the stationery, hazard-lighted car.

The nonchalant primate and his small surrounding trope meandered about the road and its banks, with some sitting atop the high metal fence segregating the road from the forest which slopped sharply upward to our right. Indolent and scattered, they moved in the opposite direction to us, largely following the road. Our presence did not in least part agitate them, and at best we were regarded with suspicion and treated as a nuisance.

I took as many pictures as I could of the macaques, none of which would win Wildlife Photographer of the Year, before jumping back into the car, giddy with happiness.

The town of the fabled Totoro Forest was small and rural, and my map did not give a detailed overview of its position. Google Maps also failed to help us successfully locate it, and we spent a frustratingly long time driving around the farm village in search of a woodland shaped like a cartoon. Jared had started to consult blog posts about it to provide further cross-reference. Our search was beginning to feel fruitless, and Richard commented “I’m ready to give up,” in the same second that a sign for the Forest appeared. I was flooded with relief that the journey had not been completely futile. We followed the signs, and at long last found the small copse of twenty-metre-high cedar trees, topiarised into a massive evergreen effigy of Totoro. Richard stopped the car at a purpose-built viewing platform from which the living monument could be admired. The boys waited at the platform while I walked over and discovered a small Shinto shrine nestled in the tiny wood.

Beside the viewing platform was a large board displaying “A Guide to the Attractions around the Totoro Forest,” illustrated with colour photographs and a map. There was also the outline of the prefecture, a silhouette often used as a logo by the respective tourism offices, which in Yamagata’s case looks like the profile of a laughing man.

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A Guide to the Attractions around the Totoro Forest

Of the sightseeing menu choices, it was decided that the suspension bridge, pictured shrouded in autumnal leaves, was worth finding. We drove toward the onsen (hot spring) that the bridge lay before, and soon enough we were in thick forest, taking hair-pin turns on a worryingly narrow road at an alarming gradient. As we snaked up the mountain, we peered out at the sheer drops below, and in a video that Jared took, I can be heard whimpering. Richard was enthralled.

We weaved slowly higher for a long time. At length, Google Maps was consulted and we realised it would be dark by the time we reached our destination. In a petrifyingly tense reverse manoeuvre using one of the switchback corners, we began the long drive back to Kitakata.

As the sun set, the sky was ablaze behind the dark alpine waves, and in a poetic moment I witnessed a lone firework soar heavenward from the lake.

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Three weeks later, still in the heat and freedom of the summer holiday, Warren suggested a lunch trip, and we travelled the hour-long drive to Yonezawa to visit two ludicrously named business; Bikkuri Donki and Hard Off. Bikkuri Donki is a chain restaurant with a name that translates to ‘surprise donkey,’ allegedly devised by founder Akio Shouji to make people smile, and to evoke the image of a diligent pack animal. Hard Off is a second-hand hardware store, selling an eclectic range of goods. I shouldn’t need to explain why that one is funny.

It transpired that we were but a stone’s throw from Death Mountain, as it had come to be known, where our plans to visit the suspension bridge had previously been thwarted. Having only expected a city trip, I was wearing flimsy slipper shoes and did not bring my camera, for which I was quite gutted.

With Richard once again our trusty chauffeur, we headed back to the concertina trail. I took a video as we climbed, the mountain falling away a foot from the car doors. Already caught in a nervous excitement, we passed a section where the forest below thinned, and we were presented with a rather clear drop. Collective hysterical laughter filled the vehicle. Warren mocked Richard’s previous remark that any potential tumble from the road would soon be stopped by the density of the trees below, and Richard commented, as he took another sharp turn, that his hands were sweating.

We reached the section where we had wisely aborted weeks ago, and discovered that not much further on the track became much less perilous, and we were reassured about our destination when a sportscar drove past. At last the road terminated in a car park from which we needed to walk to the onsen. We foolishly assumed the bridge could not be far from the parking area, but found ourselves hiking down a very steep and very uneven concrete path. The walk was long and hot, but we finally reached the short bridge lying above a beautiful river, which creaked and swayed underfoot. The small onsen on the other side, with its plastic beige cladding and red cladded roof, looked like a Sylvanian Families building nestled in the close wooded cliffs.

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I was desperate for the toilet, and sheepishly took the liberty of using the facilities, which I don’t think the staff were pleased by. Back outside, I was drawn to the enticing rocky cascades below, and attempted to scramble down to the water but found it impenetrable. A man who worked in the onsen appeared outside just as I had scrabbled back to the path, and I got the impression he was keeping a weather eye on me.

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Our activities exhausted, we started the arduous climb back to the car. Sweaty and fatigued, we could cross the suspension bridge off our adventures list.

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That evening, in the darkness of a country that sees little twilight, I set out for a short run, in time to witness a cicada come screaming around the apartment block towards me. It flew rapidly into next door’s porch area and threw itself against the walls like it was possessed. My presence only served to make it more vocal and crazed, so I dashed past, less for the exercise and more out of blind fear. Upon my return, I needed to walk past the porch it had noisily invaded. I spied it on the ground, motionless and silent, so attempted to slink by inaudibly. Cicadas, however, are apparently very sensitive, and at my movement it stirred, hovered, and buzzed. I let out an undignified scream and ran the last few steps to my door, locking out the demonic wildlife for the night.