Monday, April 01, 2013

Kyushu Expedition IV

The early ferry departure meant I'd miss the hotel's breakfast, but I considered that an acceptable risk.  I'd been looking forward to seeing Sakura-jima, but she was fogged in.  Kaimon more than made up for it a little further on, lengthening herself upward as if the entire southern tip of Kyushu was stretching after a night's sleep.

It was sunny when we arrived on Yakushima.  My driver was waiting there, and he quickly whisked me and my luggage toward the mountains at the island's center.  He kept up a steady patter as we wound up into the hills.  I enjoyed talking with him about the island, but then he started getting into the usual 'foreigner this, and foreigner that.'  For example, when I was asking him about Yamao Sansei (a famed ecology writer who had lived here), rather than have a conversation about him, the driver chose to ramble about how surprised he was that a foreigner knew about him.  Etc.  Even worse was that when I asked him for information about the mountains here (vital info to anyone about to do a multi-day hike), everything he told me I later found to be false. Along the way, we passed a few deer, along with a monkey sitting nearby like he was their shepherd.  My driver went on about how rare it was to see them, yet I saw deer and monkeys throughout the entire hike.  I also found some comfort in his telling me that all the vipers were down by the sea and not in the hills, but later a ranger set me straight.

I had a quick informative chat with a ponytailed ranger at the trailhead, then set off.  From the first few steps it was easy to see the inspiration that Miyazaki Hayao found here, with the trees and the moss intermingling in a way that was almost social. There were more shades of green here than I thought possible, the fresher hues springing from the darker tones of the dead.   It is wonderful to be alive in a place that has so much life, and how sad that this same feeling of wonder we get is a testament to the fact that such places are becoming rare.  As I moved upward, I felt as if I was part of it, rather than simply hiking through.  How easy it would be to just sit down and become a permanent part of the landscape.   

The peaceful atmosphere was contagious.  Intermittently I'd pass a cluster of kids that were part of a Tokyo school group, and they were all in the same awe that I was.  At the top of the pass I talked awhile with one of their ranger guides, who had been working here for eighteen years, and I wondered the shape awe takes when it is tempered by time.

As I dropped over the other side of the pass, the mud creaked in a way that sounded exactly like the forest sprites in Mononoke.  The trail arrived eventually at an old rail line once used for logging. Boards had been laid between the rails for easy walking, and to ensure safety on the multiple bridges that spanned fast moving water pregnant with snow melt.  It was fun to move along this line, yielding occasionally to the groups of walkers returning from a day trip to Jomon sugi.  Yet this stretch carried on like this for a good hour, so it was a relief to leave it for real trail again, utilizing the exposed system of roots for foothold as the trail steepened.

Atop this next section was Wilson Stump, a small clearing at the center of which was a massive hollowed out stump.  Ducking within, I entered a space bigger than most Japanese apartments.  Water flowed through off to one side, and I could imagine the starlight that would come through the natural skylight above.  Being within what had once been a mighty organism was profoundly spiritual, a feeling that would have gone back for centuries beyond the time when the small stone shrine had been placed within.  I sat outside in the clearing awhile eating a Clif bar, as a ranger photographed a group of the Tokyo teens, who posed as if they were the next big thing.

Upward still, the hikers becoming scarce.  The face of Jomon-sugi looked wise.  This grey and wrinked visage predates all but the rocks beneath it. I stayed here and stared at it as it stared back, both of us maintaining our silence.  I debated staying at the nearby hut as I heard it isn't used much and thought I'd be alone.  I liked the idea of walking back to Jomon Sugi in the dark, the two of us silently pondering the stars.  But I'd heard good things about the newer hut an hour further on, which also would shorten the following day.  

The trail reached a definitive top of something, and the sea of clouds rolled in to covered all I'd walked earlier.  The hut came up quicker than I thought, but there were already others there, all of them university students but for an older man who kept to himself in one corner.  I took an adjacent corner, then went outside to eat my dinner of cheese, jerky, and three day old onigiri.  The latter crumbled as I ate it, but I tried to catch every grain of rice as it dawned on me that I'd shorted myself a day's ration of food.  Completely unprompted, one of the college students offered me some miso, which warmed me before I crawled into my sleeping bag.  I was glad I'd brought my winter bag, due to the fact that I was sleeping at 1500 meters and the night went below freezing.  (Many hours later, I enjoyed the stars as I took my prostate for a walk, but the cold kept me from enjoying them too long.)  A small group of students actually had the temerity to cook within the hut itself, despite the rest of us trying to sleep.  I thought of trying to pass myself as a ranger who catered to foreign groups and tell them off, but I wasn't sure if cooking inside was actually forbidden.  They did try to keep quiet, but for the occasional bursts of laughter, and one guy who seemed to say, "Butter," every third sentence... four the usual hut racket began, despite two full hours until daylight.  It began with an alarm, and the crescendo built from there.  The others were quiet as they packed up, but my indoor cookers gradually began to talk in more conversational tones that I could hear despite my earplugs.  "Urusai! (Shut up!)," I roared at them, before drifting off to sleep again.  

I awoke again as light was coming into the sky.  I was sleepy as I set out again, after a meager breakfast of bread and some chocolate covered coffee beans which worked as well as the real thing.  I'd had a lousy night's sleep, but felt energized as I stayed above the cloud layer which glowed gold.  The trees grew more and more gnarly, then stopped.  I pushed on through a layer of low shrubbery of a brilliant green, whose small twigs helped on the sections of trail slippery with ice.  I reached a trail junction, stashed my bag behind some boulders, and thus unencumbered, shot across the ridge to Nagata-dake, an imposing spire that offered fantastic views on this sunny morn.  A young hiker from Okayama joined me, having come up an adjacent trail.  We talked awhile, both of us basking in the glory of the morning, then I doubled back toward my pack.

It wasn't long before I reached the top of Miyanoura-dake.  I sat up here awhile, eating a Clif bar and watching Sakurajima push her plume of ash into the sky far to the north.  I smiled at the thought that everything from here was down.  Whether it was due to my heavy pack, lack of food, a winter spent indoors, or (sadly) age,  I'd really felt it this time around.  

The descent was down through more shrubbery, punctuated with massive boulders strewn all across this upper strata of the island.  An hour or so later, I ate my lunch beside the marsh at Hananoego, in conversation with an older man from Shizuoka who was a bit of a quiet soul. Then descended more to eventually arrive at Yodogawa Hut.  I'd expected to get here by four o'clock but was only one-thirty. That's okay I thought, I have books, gorgeous environs, and good weather.  I sat there awhile, then the mind began its usual scheme and I was back on my feet before the clock struck two.  

I made the last bus of the day, received the okay to stay an extra night at the inn where I had a booking the following night, and from there I more than made up for my lack of food, plus got a bath, beer and a futon as a reward...

...the next day I took the bus back up to Yakusugi Land in order to scramble up Tachu-dake.  I sat upon this flat slab of rock to eat my bento, then took my time descending through a landscape of massive trees and fast rivers that I can't imagine I could ever find tiring.  A friendly deer kept me company until my bus took me back to the bath, beer, and fried flying fish...

...and yet another day, with a hired taxi taking me along the coast through villages more Okinawan than Japanese.  There were waterfalls, the forboding peaks of Mt. Mocchomu, flyers  for yoga and massage stapled to poles, and coffee shops set in the jungle, all of them conspiring to conjure up images of a life lived on this island.


But there was also a ferry.  At sunset I was back in Kagoshima, sitting in what was formerly the stronghold of the Satsuma-han, drinking beer brewed there on the hilltop premises, and watching Sakurajima fade as a storm rolled in.  The storm held off until I could have a Saint Patrick's Day pint in a bar that smelled strongly of wet dog.  

But I hold the rain responsible for an aborted attempt to get to the top of Karakuni-dake.  I disembarked in Kirishima Jingu, a town with a bright a new train station, which doesn't quite dazzle you to the point where you fail to notice the scent of raw sewage coming from beneath the grates of the town's main drag. As if in protest, the businesses in the area have long been shuttered.  I ponder whether to wait an hour for the bus or hitch, and as I'm examining the bus schedule, a couple of taxi drivers who obviously moonlight as comedians came over for a chat.  I thumbed a ride partway to the trailhead, but the weather forced me to retreat to Kirishima Shrine, where the priests climbed the steps beneath umbrellas of oiled paper. I decided to head north.

A wise choice.  The weather cleared as I sat that same evening in an onsen in Fukuoka, and later enriched the words "Happy Hour,"  the only downpour being the craft beer that went from pint-glass to gullet.   

On the turntable:  Captain Beefheart, "Grow Fins Rarities"

No comments: