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October 26, 2014

Yakushima Magic: More than Mononoke

We finally ticked a big item off our Japan bucket list - a trip to Yakushima. The island off the coast of Kagoshima is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its lush forests, which inspired the landscapes in the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke. Yakushima is home to wild deer, monkeys and the Japanese cedar "Yakusugi" - the most famous example of which is a tree called Jomon Sugi, the largest and oldest yakusugi estimated at somewhere between 2,170 and 7,200 years old. Add to that already impressive list Mt. Miyanoura which, at 1935m, is Kyushu's tallest mountain peak.

What first attracted us to Yakushima was certainly the Mononoke Forest (Shiratani), as big fans of the film, but soon our trip turned into something much bigger. Kamil worked out the best route for our two-day hike with day one climbing up Mt. Miyanoura and down again to a mountain hut, and day two meeting up with the more popular day-course to see Jomon Sugi and Shiratani. We loaded up our backpacks with sleeping mats, sleeping bags, pillows, food and cooking gear, took a bus and a ferry down from Fukuoka and set out on the adventure of a lifetime.
Nine hours hiking on day one, eight hours on day two was no easy feat, but also nowhere near as impossible as it sounded to me before we set off. We came out of the forest with a resonating feeling of accomplishment, and a renewed admiration for nature. When we got home, Kamil wrote an account of our hike and, because I doubt I'll be able to say it better, I asked him if it was okay to type it up for this on his behalf.

What follows is Kamil's Yakushima account & a selection of our best photos. Enjoy...
What an adventure! Still hard to believe we pulled it off. Here's how it went down:

Day 1: 5:30am wake up, cleared up our stuff from Minshiku Furendo, picked up the bento we ordered and then 6:03 bus to Anbo. Still dark, strong wind & cold. After quickly jumping off to get change for the bus, we switched to a taxi waiting to take us up. As it weaved its way up the mountainsides, the sun rose over the ocean to the east, painting the hills a perfect golden hue. 

The weather was looking perfect and we were getting very nervous, unintentionally gripping hands very tightly in the back seat. Passed some deer grazing and monkeys cleaning each other in the middle of the road before finally getting dropped off at Yodogawa Trailhead. 

At first it seemed like a tough trip ahead, but soon we warmed into it and the packs seemed a touch lighter as we got used to the weight. The first hour was a bit slow going as we excitedly took many photos and began to shed layers of clothing. Also started naming particularly nice trees after loved ones, starting with Jayne Sugi. This continued over both days and often gave us a much-needed boost, as we spent the next few minutes recalling that person and how they have helped us along the way. 

We got into a good rhythm and covered ground more quickly, stopping for a short jelly break at Hana-no-Ego, a unique wetland-like valley in between some high peaks. This also included some magical deer encounters. 

We were still going strong as we hiked the steep, narrow, and often wet path out of the valley and into the high peaks. 

As we got out into the open the wind brought the clouds in and nearly took us down the rocks. The weather looked dicey for a while as we rushed on, but we were blessed with the bluest of blue skies again as we worked our way along the ridge, around 1,700-1,800m. Elle was all smiles and we both couldn't believe the place we found ourselves in.

Unfortunately time was getting a bit ahead of us and we were still without lunch  after more than 5 hours on the trail, and the adrenalin of being on top of those mountains gave way to tiredness. We took a little break about 1km shy of Miyanoura Peak and Elle even slipped off the boardwalk as it became harder to focus on the task at hand. Ultimately we made the tough call to battle on for the last stretch so that we could enjoy late lunch on the peak.

That last kilometre was one of the toughest but we stuck true to our plan, with Elle putting in an incredible effort. It was amazing to see her pushing herself to make it, and neither of us could really believe it when we finally climbed onto the highest peak in Kyushu.

The weather was still perfect and we enjoyed 360 panoramas down to the sea on all sides, taking in the rolling mountain range littered with impossibly huge boulders, and the start of koyo (autumn leaves) on the lower slopes.  The bento we had picked up that morning could not have been more timely or delicious, and the view was breathtaking. 

The day's work was not yet done, however, and our way down challenged the tiring legs. Going down the narrow rocky path was often more challenging than the ascent, as we had to focus even after 7+ hours on the go. 

Obstacles along the way also included long wooden staircases and rope descents down smooth boulders. Luckily we were able to beat the sun, thanks to a fortuitous deer sighting that lifted our spirits before we plunged down into the forest. The last few kilometres seemed to stretch forever but we pressed on, finally catching sight of Shintakazuka Hut just before 17:00. We were close to the last arrivals there but somehow managed to claim a prime-location top bunk to ourselves.

We were overjoyed at completing the first day's task, and yakisoba/tuna tasted like the best dinner ever. The smiles continued even as the sun went down, with more deer sightings just a stone's throw from camp. The eyes glittering in our headlamps were a beautiful way to end a perfect day.

Day 2: We were woken by the stampede of obnoxious hikers at 4am. It may have been fine if they just got their stuff and left, but when the biggest group started to eat breakfast after half an hour of frantic bag-rustling, we knew it wasn't going to be over quickly. Add to that the slamming of boots on wood and increasingly pointless conversations, we weren't able to get back to sleep 'til the last of them departed into the rainy darkness at 5:30am.

We managed to get a much-needed extra couple of hours of rest, and by the time we set out around 8:20am, the sun had broken to the clouds and the rain eased off. 15 minutes in and we had shed our rain gear as the faint mist parted and sunlight streamed through the wet leaves above. Seems that good things come to those who wait, or at least aren't inconsiderate to those around them. The hut and the morning's events were put behind us however, as we navigated the steep, slippery roots that lay in tangled heaps over the forest floor whenever it wasn't covered by planks. 

The descent down to Takazuka Hut was slow going but Elle's hiking boots proved good and we safely arrived at a huge tree we named "John-mon Sugi" after Elle's Dad. Following the advice of the tree's namesake, it was one foot carefully in front of the other as we worked our way down to the famous Jomon Sugi. Just before we got there we rounded the bend into a clearing where two monkeys quietly cleaned each other in the sunlight.

Jomon Sugi was good but not as impressive as some of the trees we had passed, since we couldn't get near it and one of the observation decks seemed to have been washed away. We had a little jelly break and got on our way just before the sea of tour groups descended upon the area. 

The next hour or so was constant stopping and starting up and down the boardwalk and stairs, as increasingly noisy groups came from the opposite direction. It felt nice to be going down while people battled with the endless stairs, but going against the current really slowed us down. The scenery was very nice, and even included some crazy monkeys leaping and screeching manically through the treetops, but we were glad when it changed as we got closer to Wilson's Stump.

The stump was more impressive than the more-famous Jomon Sugi, and we were able to take a little rest in the cavern-like remains of the tree. While we didn't quite manage to get a good angle of the heart-shaped roof, we left feeling refreshed from being in its presence.

This didn't last long however, as the next section of trail worked its way steadily down over roots and through creeks. 

When we finally saw the old railroad below we rejoiced and quickly found a nice spot for lunch and a well-earned break. Again, the simple cup noodles tasted absolutely amazing as our bodies craved the extra energy. 

Time was against us because of the crowds we battled with on the way down, but with Elle back in her sneakers and our bellies full again we decided to go for it over the next 3km stretch of railroad. If we could make up enough time here we may just make the last bus back from Shiratani. 

The boards that lay between the old rails made progress a lot faster, and Elle led the way at a furious pace. We were soon overtaking group after group as we raced down the hill. Not even a slight derailing by me could slow us down. By the time we reached the Kusugawa-Wakare fork we had made up almost half an hour and Elle continued with the same pace as we turned into the forest towards Shiratani.

Both the railroad and the surrounding woods were starting to show off their autumn colours, and after last night's rain the floor was littered with leaves in a beautiful array of reds, yellows and oranges. Just as we admired the scenery, a small snake made its presence known and we were quickly reminded that this was indeed a wild place. This didn't deter us and Elle continued to lead at a brisk pace as the path climbed endlessly on. I couldn't believe she had such energy left and did my best to keep up. 

Unfortunately we had underestimated the extent of this climb, and the pace dropped a little as each bend revealed another uphill section. Luckily, after a short water break, we arrived at Tsuji Pass with time now on our side. This lead quickly melted away, however, as the scenery of Shiratani proved irresistible and we added a lot to our photo collection. It really was like the magical moss-covered forest in Mononoke-Hime. I even stopped to play the little tune on my ocarina. 

Lost in the moment, all of a sudden we realised we had only 30 minutes before the last bus left and still 1.8km to cover, over some tough terrain. And so the amazing race was on, over rocks, roots and rivers, down, down, down. The river grew into raging rapids as we jogged over the suspension bridge and picked up even more speed on the other side. 

Elle was leading us at a half-jog and it seemed like we were almost there when a huge boulder in the path threw us off for a few seconds. Laughing at the crazy thought that the last three hours of rushing had almost come unstuck right at the end, we finally spotted the bus waiting below. 

Still at a jog, we rushed straight on, to the surprise of the two Israeli guys we parted ways with that morning. We slumped down in the seats just as the bus started off, both in complete disbelief that two days of hiking came down to a split-second finish and that we had indeed made it. 

Thanks Kamil for the account. Truly an incredible adventure.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Ellery,

    Nice blog! Interested in making some short "local reporter" videos or articles that my company would pay for?