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Yakushima keeps expat busy as a bee

German Rainer Kaminski trades in Tokyo taxi for flyingfish, treks, trails, the taste of honey

by Edan Corkill

Long-term residents of Japan might remember the name Rainer Kaminski. In 1985 he made headlines as the first Westerner to become a taxi driver in Tokyo.

What happened to him after that? Well, after six months as a cabby based in Setagaya Ward, Kaminski decided he had had a large enough dose of city-living to last him till the grave. He quit in 1986 to move to Yakushima, the island off the southern coast of Kagoshima Prefecture that in 1993 was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO for its ancient cedar forests.

Life in the Yakushima village of Onoaida has allowed Kaminski to escape the hustle of the city, but it hasn’t quelled his appetite for experimenting with unusual occupations.

“For eight years I spent three months each year working on the fishing boats catching flyingfish,” the mustachioed German said at his home last month. “I also spent a long time each year out camping on the mountain trails, building walking paths.”

Yakushima is famous for both its flyingfish, which visit the island’s waters from March through May, and for its gigantic cedar trees, the beauty of which is experienced via a network of walking trails that traverse the island’s mountainous terrain.

“A team of us would stay up in the mountains and they would deliver the wood for the paths via helicopter,” Kaminski said of the trail-building work. (On catching flyingfish, he explained they are not caught while in flight — as this overimaginative writer hazarded a guess — but in the water using nets.)

Kaminski said the locals were welcoming when he arrived. “There were two other foreigners down here back then,” he said. One was an Italian pastor who had built a church and the other was an Australian woman who lived with her family in a cabin in the woods and taught English.

By the 1980s, Yakushima was known essentially for two things: its logging industry, which had continued since the Edo Period, and its population of alternative-lifestylers, who had moved to the island in the 1970s after the student movements in Tokyo petered out.

Things started to change when 10,747 hectares of the island’s remaining forests were named a World Heritage site in 1993.

“Many more tourists started to arrive,” explained Kaminski. “That meant more accommodations facilities were built, and land prices started to increase.”

Nevertheless, Kaminski continued on in his own distinctive ways. He and his Japanese wife had two children — both born on the island — and in 1999 he built his own house on a strip of coastal land at the foot of Mount Mocchomudake, which, at 940 meters, is about half the height of the island’s tallest peaks. He then embarked on his next project: breeding honeybees.

Kaminski’s property is about half an acre. Hidden by a hedge of “ketanki,” a hardy type of camellia that is commonly used on the island as a windbreak, are 20 hives.

Kaminski’s bees are regular honeybees, as opposed to native Japanese bees, which have a tendency to stray from the hive and produce less honey.

“The honey we produce down here is a mixed variety coming from wild trees,” Kaminski explained. “The bees pollinate a variety of trees in the area, including orange trees and ‘sharinbai’ (an evergreen shrub of the genus Rhaphiolepis).”

Kaminski’s honey, which is sold under his Yakushima Mandala Bee Farm brand, has the stamp of approval of many local shops and eateries, including the recently opened upscale Sankara Hotel and Spa Yakushima, which is located a short distance away.

Kaminski is so devoted to honey-making that to increase output he makes an annual overland pilgrimage, bees in tow, to Hokkaido. In Yakushima the bees stop making honey in June, but in the cooler Hokkaido climes they continue through August.

“I close up the hives, put the bees on a truck and drive to Maizuru, near Kyoto,” Kaminski explained. From there he catches a ferry to Hokkaido.

“The bees are fine as long as you keep them cool,” he said.

A short distance from the beehives on Kaminski’s property is a small campsite he operates. Jerry’s Campsite, as it is called (after a pet macaw he used to own), offers quick access — albeit down a rocky escarpment — to a stunning rock pool where visitors can fish or swim.

Last month the site also offered stunning views of the young green spring foliage slowly progressing up Mount Mocchomudake as the weather became warmer.

“It’s a beautiful location,” Kaminski said — before adding that you need to get used to the island’s famously heavy rainfall. “I think I’ll end up retiring here.”