Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kyushu Expedition I

The bus left early, and was empty but for me on it, winding up the hills and past that log cabin cafe that I'd seen on the day that it had had a chimney fire.  Forest and trees were the common denominator for awhile, then the land grew wilder and opened up, looking significantly like the American West with massive peaks dwarfing the odd settlements or lone homesteads.  I am liking this Kyushu more and more.

The obvious difference here is that many of those peaks are spewing sulfurous white plumes.  One hotel expressed the dictionary definition of optimism, perched as close as it was to the crater emitting the most steam.  

The bus terminated at the trailhead, where a small shop sold me rice balls for the climb.  In the sun out front, it took me a good half an hour to extend my collapsible trekking poles, bent as they were from supporting the weight, and the lives, of Wes and I back in the unforgiving snows of the New Year.  But winter had moved on here in the higher reaches of Kyushu, and it was with the warmth on my face that I began the initial trudge up what looked like a concrete wheelchair ramp stretching straight up the first 500 meters of the mountain.  

Before long, I came to a small saddle, where the trail showed a little gumption in climbing over and around boulder fields, chains and ladders there for added excitement.  Beyond this, all was mud, another reminder of New Mexico.  The track was wider and reasonably flat, but there had been snow here until about a week before, and the saturation was complete, offering no real choice but to tramp through the mud until boots and trouser legs were caked in light brown.  I had smirked a little at the old guy in the parking lot wearing gaiters on such a sunny day, but looking down now at my own two-tone pant legs, I got it.    

This was an interesting ascent in that you'd climb, then level off, climb, and level off.  I continued up the ridge, as if traversing an iguana's back.  What should be a reasonably easy climb had been made difficult by the mud, and it was with relief that I was moving across flat ground now, sticking to the edge in the trail where there was the least mud.  The mud had frozen into the shape of a mold around older footprints, and the tips of the mud were still frosted, looking like whitecaps.  When I passed one old guy, he returned my greeting with a "ひどいな!” which I hope was a reference to the mud and not to my Japanese pronunciation. As the ground thawed, the entire landscape sounded like a giant skillet, just sizzling away. 

 I was alone then, when a roar sounded as a Self Defense Airforce plane buzzed the top of the ridge.  I waved my arms up at him in greeting as he flew over.  He then made another pass, and another, and I suddenly realized that he may have thought that I was signaling him because I needed help.  I'm good today dude, but where were you back in January

The mud continued all the way to an open space upon which was built a mountain hut, with a beat up look more commonly seen in the States.  The vista too opened up,  all the major peaks of north Kyushu visible, but looking more like islands with their tops popping out above the layer of pollen and exported Chinese smog.  Yufu-dake's familiar form looked a bit like a dusty Stetson. The trail was finally dry as I moved up to the next level, though what was underfoot was volcanic rock rather than earth.  A vent gushed steam just below me to the right, making the air reek of sulfur for the next twenty minutes or so.  

Kuju-dake, on whose flanks I was currently on, has four peaks that ring the collapse crater, and I spent the next few hours going up and over all of them.  I'd imagine that the four ascents and descents brought my total vertical altitude gain to over 1600 meters, which is like I'd started at sea-level and walked to the height of my mother's house in New Mexico.  

There was another reminder of that state in the sight of a lone hut far below me as I sat atop Naka-dake, the true peak, the sight of which reminded me of the Navajo hogans I'd seen sitting lonely and forlorn across the territory of that people.  I sat longest atop Kuju-dake itself, looking over at Aso-dake, which I'd go up the next day.  There were more trees on this eastern side, the landscape more Colorado there.  An old couple joined me after awhile, and after leaving them behind, I realized how late it was in the day, and worried about them getting down by sunset.      

I followed my tracks back down, cutting awhile through the drier earth beside the trail, amidst vegetation high enough to make me thankful that the vipers were still sleeping.  A crow found me near the bottom, an odd sight at this altitude.  As I was back in the boulder fields, no doubt common playground for local yamabushi,  I counted the crow's legs to make sure there weren't three.

I had a coffee in the sun while waiting for the bus.  It took me across the open plains, mostly treeless as here the lava once flowed. My hotel was big and spacious and near empty, as usual.  There was another gent in the bath, or should I say outside it.  I saw him through the glass door, which made me assume there was a open air tub out there until I saw that the door was locked.  I'm not sure how, or why, but this guy was standing there on the deck in full view of the large open grassy area below, happy to share with the world all that he'd been endowed with. 

Bathed and fed, I read awhile in my room with Mt. Aso looming just outside my window, throwing winks my way to remind me of our date tomorrow... 

On the nighttable:  "Buddha Bar, Living Theater"

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