It was with great apprehension and excitement that I embarked upon my free week in Japan. At the onset, I was ready for a week of travel. With my Rail Pass, charge card, emergency phone list, traveler’s checks, reasonable grasp of the language, and passport (not to mention the welcome company of my fellow Pac-Rimmer Reed), I knew I could remedy any uncomfortable situation with a phone call, or at least weather it with an overnight camp out. Japan is (quite purposely so, as some would argue) an easy place for foreigners to traverse. However, any opportunity for independent travel raises uncomfortable uncertainties and questions. How can one possibly make reservations (as is Japanese custom) at hostels if the amount of time it will take to reach any given place is unknown? As wonderful as the summary in your friend’s guidebook is, what are they not telling you? If the trains stop running, where does one sleep? Reed and I were only able to make it as far as we did because of the wonderful aid of the innkeepers, information desk attendants, and friendly foreigners we met along the way.
And how far we did go, courtesy of our Rail Pass? Over the course of several days we moved from dinner with Jessica, a friend of Reed’s aunt in Kobe, to the peace museum in Hiroshima, and then down to one of the southern-most ports of Japan, Kagoshima. Kagoshima was decked out. With no reason to celebrate Thanksgiving, the Japanese were already getting into the spirit of Christmas by erecting giant Christmas trees at the mall attached to the Shinkansen station (an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, but that’s another article). Kagoshima was easy to navigate—a multitude of English maps and an information kiosk were located at the train station, and the owner of the Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) we stayed at, Nakazono, eagerly provided us ferry schedules and advice on the location of grocery stores, camping shops, and port locations. When we arrived on Tuesday the 25th and mentioned that we had yet to have dinner, he rather good-naturedly donned his slippers and overcoat before leading us to a reasonably priced Japanese restaurant. When invited to eat, he rather apologetically excused himself, saying “wife” and making demon horns on his head with his hands as he left.
From there, our plans splintered, depending on the weather, ferry schedules, and our monetary resources. We intended to travel to one of three southern Japanese islands: Okinawa, Yakushima, or Io-Jima. Eventually we ruled out Okinawa was because we figured out that the 25-hour ferry ride would limit our time on the island to a mere twelve hours. We also dismissed Io-Jima, one of the most remote islands on the Japanese coast, because of its decidedly erratic hydrofoil schedule, which was highly dependent on weather and could easily compromise our abilities to return on time. We eventually decided on Yakushima, the UNESCO world heritage site and camping mecca renowned for being the inspiration for Miyazaki’s blockbuster Princess Mononoke. The daily ferry, which would only take five hours, was relatively cheap, with a round trip cost of 8,100 yen (approximately $90).
With our plans narrowed down to a two night camp out on Yakushima, we spent one day visiting an onsen (Japanese hot springs) on a nearby volcano island, buying groceries, and getting the necessary camping supplies. At 7:30 the next morning, we bid a fond farewell to Nakazono and boarded the ferry for Yakushima. The weather could not have been better. As we approached the island, rays of sunlight filtered through the clouds, lighting up the many tree-filled mountains of Yakushima. Fortunately, the ferry was nearly empty, aside from a few foreign tourists like ourselves and a handful of Japanese. Hardly anyone was going to Yakushima on this sunny Thursday morning, and we were glad to have missed the crowded tourist season but not the excellent weather. After finding a sleeping bag for Reed to rent (I had purchased one back in Kagoshima), Reed suggested we eat one last warm meal before heading up to the mountains. We ate lunch at a local restaurant: tonkatsu over rice with an egg on top, served with miso soup and unlimited iced soba tea. It was the perfect meal to have before a three-day trek into the wilderness.
One outrageously scenic bus trip later, we were at the trailhead and ready to go. By this time, it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, so we were starting to get nervous about making it to our camping spot before night set in. Scattered around the island were five huts, which the Japanese government had built specifically for hikers, and we planned to make camp at one of them. Our first hike in Yakushima became a race against the sun as we sought to make it to the hut, which was located about two kilometers into the park. Fortunately, we arrived just as the sun was sinking beneath the tree line, giving us enough time to prepare our dinner of pre-cooked hotdogs, tuna, and crackers before turning in for the night. Much to our delight, we did not spend it alone—an Australian blacksmith who had stopped by to tour Japan on his way home, Will, was also sleeping at the hut. We spent the dark hours talking politics and exchanging stories about travel, life in our respective countries, and wild blacksmith get-togethers before going to sleep on the rather cold wooden bunk frames of the hut. The first night in a strange forest is always a scary one, especially since we did not get a chance to know the forest before nightfall. It was extremely nice to have company that first night. We woke up early the next day, wished Will luck on the rest of his trip, and began hiking towards the Jomonsugi.
Yakushima is famous for its cedar trees, collectively known as sugi. To give us an idea of the range of ages by which cedars on Yakushima are measured, we learned that a tree under 1,000 years old is called a Konsugi, over 1,000 years Yakusugi, and the granddaddy of them all is a 2,100-year-old tree called the Jomonsugi. Everything in the forest is immensely old. Many of the trees that were cut down for lumber in ancient times have either sprouted entirely new trees on top of them or they serve as fertile grounds for all sorts of mosses. The Jomonsugi was about a ten-hour hike from our hut headquarters, making it an ideal goal for our full day of hiking.
The pictures included with my article will probably do the best justice to the amazing sites we saw on our hike. As for the other four senses, suffice to say the air was clean and woodsy, many of the trails were either rock or well-maintained boardwalk (leaving no blisters, thankfully), the forest diffused a quiet sense of solitude and age, disturbed only by the occasional broken branch or wild animal, and the spring water did NOT give us diarrhea. About two hours into our hike, we came upon an old system of railroad tracks, and from then on saw many groups of older Japanese tourists. It really is amazing how active a lot of elderly Japanese are. Although we outpaced them, we knew that making it through some of the steep inclines and rockier terrain on the way to the Jomonsugi requires excellent knees. We made it to the Jomonsugi early that afternoon, but could not stay for long because we still had to retrace our steps back to the hut in time to sleep. Which, long story short, we did.
After another night in the hut (this time shared with a Japanese couple, who left us more or less alone), we headed back to Miyanoura port and caught the slightly stormy afternoon ferry back to Kagoshima. After twenty-four hours of late trains and friendly foreigners, and several adventures later, we met up with some fellow Pac Rimmers a few train stops before Osaka-Nanba and soon reunited with the rest of the group. For me, the funny thing about hiking is that no matter how enjoyable the hike, the return to civilization (and a warm shower) is always something I welcome. Though I had a wonderful time roughing it for two days in Yakushima, words cannot describe the joy with which I got ready to sleep in a real hotel! Checking in to the Toyoko Inn that afternoon brought a peaceful conclusion to a week of adventure, unexpected blessings and beautiful sights, which I will treasure as long as I am able.
(Article and photos by Safa)