Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Stringing Tea": Chapter 2: King Kong Island

[This is part of a series of postings about my recent tea-buying expedition in Japan. Click here to see the other installments.]


Yakushima — a World Heritage site — is a small, beautiful island located about 4 hours by ferry from Kagoshima City.


Actually, it's only 2 hours by high-speed boat if you don't need to take a car, but with our mountain of filming, lighting, and recording equipment, leaving the van behind was not an option.


In the world of Japanese green tea, Yakushima, with its semi-tropical climate, is famous as the source of the nation's earliest shincha, or new spring harvest. We were heading there to film my meeting with a grower about whom I had heard wonderful things. He specializes in 100 percent organically grown green tea.


Before I saw the inside of the ferry that would take us to Yakushima, I wasn't exactly excited about the prospects of the 4-hour ride, and my already gloomy spirits were further dampened (literally) by the heavy rain that morning. We drove the van into the ship's dark, cavernous hold, then walked up the narrow metal stairway to the passenger deck.


Our compartment turned out to be wonderful. Instead of seats, it consisted of a slightly raised, carpeted "sleeping platform" (somewhat like this one) roughly 20 feet by 20 feet, with blankets and pillows neatly placed all around. The room was brightly and naturally lit by large windows looking out onto the ocean.


We removed our shoes and stepped up. Three of us sat on the carpet, leaning against the cool steel bulkhead with our legs comfortably extended, while Manuel, the sound engineer, grabbed a blanket and pillow and went directly to a horizontal position. Ilka, the director, was reading a book, Chris, the cameraman, was listening to his iPod, and I was munching on a sandwich I had brought with me.


We were all in heaven — especially compared to the dark, cramped flights we had endured on our way to Japan. I had spent 11 hours elbow-battling my neighbor over our common armrest, eating crummy food, and watching bad movies on a tiny screen embedded into the back of the seat in front of me — whose occupant had, naturally, reclined the seat right into my knees as soon as the plane went wheels-up.


But those horrors were a distant memory as I lay stretched comfortably out in the ferry compartment, letting the low, powerful hum of the engines lull me into a doze.


Why can't the airlines be like this? Imagine how comfortable and relaxing a long flight would be if you could lay down and snooze, read, or watch a movie in a 180-degree flat position. The airlines should just remove all the seats from their planes. It's not as if being strapped into a seat has ever saved anyone's life in a fiery midair collision.


As I pondered these thoughts, the ship's PA system crackled to life and the captain announced we were only 30 minutes from our destination.


Chris removed his earbuds. "Time to get some shots of you as we approach the island," he said. Heading to the wind-blown bow of the ferry, we were greeted by an island shrouded in mist, with impossibly steep mountain peaks.


"It looks like King Kong island," I quipped. But my comment was met with silence. Either the others were entranced by the island's beauty ... or they didn't get the joke.


Once ashore we headed straight to the organic tea fields. Chris was positively thrilled when he saw none of the frost-preventing fans that had spoiled many an otherwise perfect shot elsewhere on our journey. The grower we met explained that the island's near-tropical climate was free of frost, hence the absence of the fans.


While talking with the grower inside his funky wooden tea shop, our conversation was interrupted by a loud, startling metallic crash. Rushing outside, we saw that a member of the crew — who shall remain nameless — wanting to move the van out of a shot, had backed right into the only other vehicle in the expansive parking lot. Luckily, the other vehicle was a thick-framed truck. Close inspection didn't even reveal the slightest of scratches — in contrast to the deep dent in the rear hatchback door of our van. Oh well. Another unexpected expense. That's filmmaking.


Once I had seen all I had come to see on the island — and tried the grower's amazing tea and bought a couple of samples to take back to the States — I caught the last ferry out. I spent three nights with friends and family in Kagoshima and Aso while the crew enjoyed the sights of Yakushima — waterfalls, wild monkeys, and egg-laying sea turtles, just to name a few.


They had a wonderful time. Which was good, because they would need those positive memories to get them through some grueling shoots when we met again in Kagoshima.



Thar she blows — King Kong Island, otherwise known as Yakushima.


—Mellow Monk


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