Nestled in the mountains of Eastern Kumamoto lies a small village that is undoubtedly ‘inaka’. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains and not a conbini for miles around, Itsuki Village is effectively cut off from much of Kumamoto.
“Oh my god guys, it’s hitting me now,” one of my friends, Kay, says as we zoom up the mountain roads, higher and higher into the depths of nature. We all murmur our agreement and continue to chatter excitedly as the winding uphill road leads us closer and closer to our destination.
We’re jumping off a bridge today.
Outside the car window, the scene is beautiful. The early afternoon sun washes over the huge, stoic mountains that surround us. The rays of light illuminate the light pink patches of ‘yamazakura’ – mountain cherry blossoms that dot the landscape. The yamazakura turn the normally green mountains into a multicolored spectacle; as if someone has draped a patchwork quilt over them.
“Is that it?” I ask excitedly. “I see a bridge!” I point down through a ravine where a large red steel bridge extends across two peaks.
“No, that doesn’t look high enough,” our friend Ren answers matter-of-factly.
I nod in agreement and my heart beats a bit faster. In less than two hours, we’re going to be jumping off of Japan’s highest bungy jump site. The little red bridge I have just seen is nothing compared to the one we are preparing to dive from.
Aside from a halted governmental dam project, Itsuki Village is not known for much, it seems. However when Bungy Japan, a New Zealand based company, set up camp at the top of its tallest bridge (77 meters/252 feet!), it quickly became a destination for thrill-seekers from all over Japan. Add in a promotional video of Kumamoto’s beloved vacant-eyed bear mascot Kumamon swan diving off the bridge and it’s no wonder Itsuki Village has experienced a recent boom in tourism.
We see the jump site before we see the sign for Bungy Japan. It’s a massive, sleek stone bridge stretching high over a calm, babbling river. Surrounded by pine trees and beautiful scenery whichever way you look, it’s obvious why this site was chosen out of more than two hundred potential jump sites across Japan.
As we get out of the car and take in the scenery around us, excitement and terror hit me all at once. I gaze down into the gorge below and my heart jumps into double time. We hurry excitedly to the site and check in.
As we’re going through the motions – signing our lives away, being weighed, paying the 10,000 yen that it costs – the crew starts sending people over the edge.
The two employees start a countdown before the person jumps and the crowd of excited spectators eagerly joins in. I rush over and squeeze myself between two ojiichans and watch as the first person of the day (a woman who looks to be in her early twenties) prepares to jump. I see her do a kind of clumsy hop off of the ledge and it looks more like she is ‘falling’ rather than ‘diving’.
Nervously, I follow her figure down and soon the bungy rope snaps taut and her body is jerked like a rag doll. As she rebounds through the air, her arms extend outward by her sides and she is waving happily as she falls back down again. It’s hard to make out, but she is smiling. I think.
Breathing a sigh of relief that she was okay, I push myself back from the railing of the bridge. I wonder if it hurts when the bungy rope snaps you back up? From the angle I was watching from, it looked like a pretty violent jerk. People wouldn’t do it if it hurt, right?
We watch others take the dive and I note that some are braver than others. One man in particular keeps balking. We count down three times for him before he finally falls off of the platform unconfidently. Others are more gung-ho and leap off the platform willingly. I watch a fellow foreigner that I had just met from Boston jump off expertly. As he’s falling, his arms begin flapping like a bird in flight. I begin to notice how interesting it is to see the different styles of falling that people do.
Soon, I’m watching my friend Kay get strapped in on the platform and my heart is beating fast for her. She has decided to jump off backwards which seems insane to me. I watch her inch out on the platform in her trademark purple silk pants and bedecked with a flashy masquerade ball mask covering her eyes and nose. She is ready.
The countdown starts and right on cue she springs gracefully into an elegant backwards dive. Her back arches spectacularly and within seconds she disappears from my vision. My remaining friends and I applaud.
Not long after, I’m being told how to put on the harness that I’ll wear on my jump. I end up putting it on wrong and look rather foolish as it hangs loosely around my buttocks and crotch. After embarrassingly fixing it and tightening it more than I probably had to, I find myself being led onto the jump platform.
I’m sat in a small chair in the corner of the platform while the two workers get me ready. To be honest, I’m not really paying much attention to what they are doing as I am busy looking out into the ravine. Peeking over the edge, I see a tiny dot below that I’m fairly certain is Kay. I wave to her and after a few moments, I see her wave back. It’s…pretty far down. I exhale heavily.
The Bungy Japan guys are super cool about keeping my mind occupied – asking me questions about where I was from, what I did in Japan, what my plans were after etc. As they fasten the bungy apparatus around my ankles, they pull it tight and I find that I feel oddly secure and reassured.
Until I step up on the ledge.
Part of the bungy cord slides over the narrow ledge in front of me and feels like it is going to pull me down with it. My hands instantly clamp down onto the metal side railings just in case something were to go wrong and drag me screaming from my position of safety. At this point, my mind is obviously not in the most rational of states. I step onto the ledge and try my best not to look down. It is not as easy as I had imagined. I find myself struggling against my brain, which has activated Survival Mode and is not having any of that psychological bullshit.
“Alright, move forward a bit more”. One of the cool guys tells me. I inch forward a scant millimeter or so.
“Little more, mate. Put your toes riiiiight over the edge.” his coaxing, nonchalant voice instructs me as if I were putting the finishing touches on a bowl in a pottery class/easing me into a pose in a yoga class.
My instincts scream in protest but I do so, suddenly feeling my heart leap into my throat. Looking down to make sure my toes are okay, I catch a glimpse of the rocky bank of the river directly below me. Far far below me.
In this moment it hits me. I am really going to jump off this ledge.
“Fuu-hu-huuuck” I blurt out as I force myself to look away. “That’s pretty high”. I focus instead at the group of people on the bridge to my left who are watching me in anticipation. As instructed, I flash a nervous peace sign and a terrified smile at the camera man who is also waiting off to the side.
The guy who was helping me lightly touches my elbows and move my arms up into a horizontal position. I had not realized how hard I had been clenching the rails of the platform. Wrenching my hands off, I take a deep breath and hold my shaking arms out at my sides, feeling like the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Suddenly, the countdown behind me starts. It’s fast and I quickly realize there’s nothing else to do. I bend my knees, pull my elbows backwards and leap forward off the platform.
And my mind goes blank.
I close my eyes briefly – due to instinct more than anything else. When I open them, the scenery around me unfolds beautifully in my vision – the pine trees, the mountains, the yamazakura, the glistening river off in the distance. I feel weightless and for a brief brief moment, it’s like I’m flying. Then the sensation of free-falling quickly takes over and everything I see begins rushing by at incredible speed. It’s then that I let out an adrenaline-fueled scream of delight.
To be honest, I don’t clearly remember the feeling of being snapped back up. By the time I realize that it’s all over, I’m clapping my hands and laughing hysterically; the sound of my dumb adrenaline-fueled cackle echoing through the mountains.
I pull myself upright to try and see the bridge but I am swinging underneath it and am only able to see the underside. I let myself fall back down and enjoy the lazy swing of the rope. I’m spinning slowly and it’s almost relaxing. Once again, I extend my arms out horizontally and let out another whoop of excitement. I can feel my heart pumping in my temples as the blood rushes from other parts of my inverted body straight to my head.
As I get closer to the bottom, I begin to see the upside-down figures and colors of the people who had jumped before me. I wave and speak to them, but realize that they can’t hear me. By this point, the blood that has rushed to my head has made me a bit delirious.
I continue laughing uncontrollably as the BungyJapan guy pulls me into the raft and unhooks me. With adrenaline still pumping through my veins, I stagger to my feet and feel the blood drain from my head again. On the banks of the river, I high five everyone who is there (maybe twice) and then eagerly wait for the next people to come down.
One of the reasons why I wanted to do bungy jumping was that I have also been skydiving. I wanted to experience the difference between the two. Skydiving, while exhilarating felt very protected. Of course jumping out of a plane isn’t the safest thing to do, but I mean that I was strapped to an instructor who did everything for me. He threw us out of the plane together, pulled the chute, guided the parachute to where it needed to be (he even let me steer!) etc.
But with Bungy jumping? You’re on your own. You don’t have a fancy dive suit. You don’t have goggles. You don’t have anyone strapped to you to help out. It’s just you and that heavy elastic cord tied around your ankles.
To watch people jump is totally different than the feeling of standing at the edge of the precipice getting ready to do it yourself. You are the only one who can throw your body off the ledge. The guys running it will not push you. You have to be the one to take the plunge. And I think that willing yourself to leap off a tall place with nothing but a bouncy rope for safety is the scariest, most thrilling thing about bungy jumping.
Once you do take the plunge, however, it is an incredible adrenaline rush. All of the fears and worries that you may have about it are completely erased as you’re falling through the air. I would say that there’s probably nothing like it.
It’s not clear yet whether Bungy Japan will be back again. However with the success that the past two years have brought, it might be safe to assume that they will. If and when they invade the Moto again, I recommend everyone to challenge their fears and jump off a bridge! You will definitely NOT regret it.
*I originally wrote this in the Spring of 2013. Feedback and comments appreciated! Have you ever bungy jumped? Did you have a similar experience? Different? Would you ever bungy jump? Let me know!*