The Alien Among Us

by | Jul 25, 2022

Long before I locked eyes with him, he had been studying me intently from beneath the shroud of ferns between us. If he had the will and the means, he could have easily lunged silently from his hiding place and murdered me, leaving me to the bountiful creatures of the subtropical forest who would have devoured my lifeless body within days. But he was an Amami tip-nosed frog, and murder was not on his mind. Rather, his intelligent golden eyes regarded me curiously as if to inquire what sort of alien creature had set foot in Kinsaku Baru.

You Don’t Belong Here

These are the protected lands of Amami Oshima Island, with only about a 1-kilometer-long trail accessible to the average visitor, and even then, only with a registered guide accompanying them. It is representative of about 85% of the vegetation on the island, about half of which is still unexplored. Every few years, a new species of plant or insect is recorded here, usually through the persistence of the scientists and explorers intent on pushing deeper into the mysteries of the forest. Even driving to the trailhead, the forest seems to encroach upon the road as if trying to heal a wound that brings the infection of mankind. You are unwanted, unneeded here.

When you finally begin your trek, it is imperative that you slow your pace and absorb the fullness of what is around you. If you are hoping for grand waterfalls or towering trees of colorful foliage, you will not find them here. Instead, you must look into the shadows, under the ferns, among the tree branches. Let your eyes wander, and when you sense something is there, move in closer. Nothing in the forest can kill you, except the venomous habu pit viper, but our guide Eiji had my back.

Tiny movements began to catch my attention. The quivering black hair turned out to be an 8-centimeter-long leg of Kinsaku Baru’s version of the “Daddy Long Legs” spider whose distant relatives lived comfortably in the corners of my bedroom in California for years. This version was about three times larger with a plump black body resembling an Imperial Probe Droid (although, in fact, it was likely the inspiration for the character Kamaji who operated the baths for Yubaba’s bathhouse in “Spirited Away“). A colorful scramble revealed a cluster of red and black beetles with creepy skull-like patterns on their flattened backs. Beneath the moist decay on the ground, a shiny armored millipede with yellow racing stripes emerged briefly before heading back into the darkness.

To Live and Die in Kinsaku Baru

The cycle of life turns quickly in Kinsaku Baru, Eiji explains. Rarely will you find any living thing over 100 years old here, whereas in other forests of Japan, you’ll often find ancient trees that are hundreds, even thousands of years old. Things die every day, they are consumed by the creatures whose job it is to consume them, and new life springs forth again.

As you trek deeper into the forest, you make yourself believe you will grow more comfortable with your surroundings. Yet you do not. Even the foliage seems alien at times, ferns that have a bone-like pattern, and even the famous Flying Spider Monkey Tree Ferns seem to be from a different era, one when they might have been munched on by dinosaurs.

Leaving the Forest Primeval

Eventually, your thoughts will turn on you. You cease to wonder, “What is this alien place I am in?” to “Who is this alien in this place?” And the realization sets in that there are places on this earth that simply don’t need us, that would be better off without us. That we came into the garden and trashed it when it was created in perfection.

The residents of Amami Oshima face this shameful realization every day after introducing the mongoose as an invasive species to kill the habu vipers in 1979, a strategy that quickly went south (go figure). The mongooses soon realized the defenseless Amami rabbit and frogs were much easier prey than the feisty snakes, and soon the mongooses numbered in the thousands while the rabbits and frogs quickly became endangered. Only after trapping and eradicating the mongooses for decades has the population of rabbits started growing again on the island. This is why we can’t have beautiful things.

Once you realize you don’t belong here, you will resign yourself to leaving, to driving back down the narrow road, which seems to have grown even narrower in the past hours as the trees desperately close in on both sides. You may long to return to Kinsaku Baru, and one day, you may, but you know in your heart it is not yours and never will be. You may find yourself at peace in natural surroundings whose love for you isn’t so unrequited, a shady spot on the beach or a rocky cliff above a valley. But the image of Kinsaku Baru will haunt you, in a wistful way not entirely unpleasant, and it will change you.

Take a guided tour in English with the highly knowledgable Eiji of Low Key Amami.

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