Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Five: The Frozen Forest

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The Frozen Forest

We had arrived at the Takatsuka Shelter and not the Shin Takatsuka Shelter as planned. But it was dusk and only the first day of the four we were to be on the mountain. Granular snow was pelting through the fog-filled forest and the light was dimming. Mr. Koga and Mr. Ichino agreed that we would stay here tonight. We had done well so far. Shooting at both Wilson’s Stump and the Jomon Sugi had been accomplished. The Shin Takatsuka Shelter was only an hour or so more up the trail and we could reach it in the morning.

The Takatsuka Shelter was not so big. There were two floors and the first floor was just capacious enough to accommodate six of us comfortably with our packs. The second floor had the same surface area and as there was only one other occupant, the other two from our party found room there.

Mr. Koga and the porters set about preparing dinner. There was powdered stick coffee, Japanese potato wine (Nihon shu) and whiskey, as well as various tsumami – small snacking items such as dried squid, peanuts and rice cracker crescents, and what we had in our snack bags provided by Mr. Koga. Dinner was simple but tasty, and while it wasn’t that cold or uncomfortable, I had a restless night’s sleep. Perhaps it was the excitement.

The next morning we were up at six and a hot breakfast was prepared. Outside the wind still shook the trees and clouds enveloped the forest. Mr. Koga reported that the weather today would remain cloudy and windy. If we were to climb Miyanouradake today, the wind chill would make it a very chilly affair and we would not likely see anything from the summit. Mr. Ichino said that we should go to the Shin Takatsuka Shelter first and then he would decide what to do from there.

Granular snow had covered the forest floor with a soft layer of nearly weightless white. It was like walking through polystyrene beads in the thicker places. The trees were bristled with an armour of spiky rime. The yakusugi looked imposing with their size and stature, and the himeshara – a relative of the camellia – stood out in their red bark from the white and dark muted green landscape. The frosted leaves of the shakunage – the mountain rhododendrons of Yakushima – hung down and curled as if withered. Everywhere the scenery looked harsh and frozen. This was a side of Yakushima that many fewer people saw as most visitors come in the summer and even those who do come in winter mostly only climb as high as the Jomon Sugi.

The last leg of the hike to the Shin-Takatsuga Shelter saw us crossing deep snow that had collected on a somewhat perilous slope that the path traversed. I suggested that Mr. Mori capture us making this crossing. Careful not to disturb the pristine layer of snow, he descended the slope and crossed to the other side below our intended path. A short clip of this scene would end up in the final program.

We reached the hut and Mr. Koga attempted to open the door. It was frozen shut. We had encountered other hikers coming down the path as we had headed up, but nearly all of them had only gone to the Jomon Sugi. Since the last person had been to the hut, some water had gotten into the rails of the sliding wooden door and frozen. There was some hacking and jabbing with available tools but the door remained held fast. Finally Mr. Koga poured hot water on the rails and the door was opened. This humorous little incident would also end up in the final program.

This shelter was much more spacious. There was only one floor but bunks doubled the sleeping space. We TV people each had room for four people to ourselves while the guide and porters shared a space. It was here that our eldest porter also bid us farewell. He had carried our additional food supplies and as this hut would be our base for the next two nights we no longer required the extra pair of stout legs to carry our stuff. He set off back down the mountain on his own.

Once we had settled ourselves, the plan for the day was announced. Mr. Koga would join us as we went back down the path to shoot some of the impressive trees and other winter scenery. The two young porters would scout the trail ahead, checking the conditions that would await us the next morning. We gathered outside the hut and parted ways.

I was most grateful for the opportunity afforded this morning. My previous visit to Miyanouradake had been for only two days and during that time we were on the move nearly continuously. I lamented in particular the rush back down through the forest on the second day because there were several times when I had wished to stop to photograph but couldn’t ask to do so because I had to adhere to the schedule. Today our schedule was as leisurely as a morning shoot in the forest. We stopped at one particularly beautiful location where some huge yakusugi towered over the path and the wind and fog helped to create a frost-coated forest scene. Mr. Mori was doing a lot of filming of the scenery and so I had time to do a bit of photography myself. I only needed to appear in one scene where I described one of the yakusugi and then a couple of scenes with Mr. Koga where we walked through the wintry landscape.

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We returned to the shelter once and then Mr. Ichino informed me that they were just going to do some more shooting of scenery and confer with Mr. Koga about tomorrow’s route up the mountain. I was told I could take the rest of the day for myself. I pounced on the opportunity to explore the trail ahead and set off on my own to capture some of the scenery that I surely would not have time to shoot when we were hiking up the mountain.

It was with a special kind of elation that I wandered along the trail. Since my previous Yakushima visit the only nature I had explored was in some parks not far from my home in Saitama and a day outing to the Arasaki Coast. In fact, it had been two and a half years since I last walked on my own freely in the mountains. I reveled in the winter scenery. I wanted to dash ahead but at the same time I wanted to enjoy the frosty solitude.

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An open grove of himeshara first occupied my interest and camera and then I climbed up to the first viewpoint where clouds obscured the view but snow-covered granite boulders encouraged my camera once more. I descended and soon found myself in a world of feather rime along an exposed ridge. The shutter clicked away and I then pressed on to begin the climb up the slope to the second viewpoint. I had in mind to turn back from there but the heavily ice-coated trees stopped me once again. As I framed a scene in my viewfinder, the clouds lifted slightly and I spied sunlight on the lower mountaintops in the distance below. Time was running out by now as I had to think that it would take about 45 minutes if I rushed back to the shelter. But I wanted to see the clouds lift once more.

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It was then I heard voices behind and above me. The two porters who had gone up to scout the trail conditions were returning. They soon joined me and I told them of the clouds that had lifted. I thought to walk back with them but I was full of pep and vigour as I leapt and dashed through the snow. This winter wonderland had imbued me with ebullience. Arriving back at the Shin Takatsuka Shelter I eagerly showed the captured evidence of the promise of improving weather to my travel mates.

That evening we filmed Mr. Koga preparing dinner for me. Then we all settled in to dinner with some enjoyable chit chat about past adventures and humorous experiences. The next morning we would leave in the dark and make our ascent of Miyanouradake.

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Four: Back into the Woods

It was dark outside at five o’clock. I pushed aside the curtain and tried to see the sky. No stars. That at least meant it had become cloudy. Ten minutes later, the sound of heavy rain surrounded the hotel. That was what the weather forecast for today had stated: rain in the morning. No matter. I had my rain gear ready and I prepared my backpack with a pack cover. Prior to leaving for Yakushima, I had applied water repellent spray to my boots. I was ready for rain. And in fact, I was looking forward to it. My previous visit had been a hot and dry trek through the forest and over the mountains. I had not seen Yakushima’s forests as I had hoped: green and misty and damp. This was my chance.

The volume of the rain slackened and when we loaded the van at six it was just a usual rain. As we drove to the mountains, however, I spied a light in the clouds and soon the moon appeared lighting the edge of a dark rain cloud. What a contrast as the mountains remained dark and obscured while over the sea stars looked in and the moon watched us ascend the winding road into the inky blackness.

Somewhere dawn came, and by the time we reached the parking lot and rest house at the logging trolley tracks, there was light enough to see the dull colours of the grey winter forest scene. The four of us disembarked from the van and our guide and three porters greeted us. I noticed a Caucasian man with a bushy beard sitting in a small parked car, and as we hauled our loaded packs into the shelter of the rest house, a young Japanese woman on a motor scooter arrived in outdoor clothes, her jacket wet from the rain but her eyes carefully prepared with mascara and eyeliner. After we had eaten our bento breakfasts, I approached the young woman and struck up a conversation. She had come here to climb up to the Jomon Sugi (that mightiest of the ancient cedars) and photograph herself holding a sign congratulating two friends on their wedding. The weather, however, was not favourable and so she intended to head back down. She saw the TV camera and asked if we were here for a television program. I explained that we were shooting for an NHK World program called “Journeys in Japan” and that we were going to climb Miyanouradake. She asked if I would mind taking a photo together with her.

Once we were ready to go we shot the commencement scene where I meet my guide, Mr. Koga and we set off along the trolley rails together. The rain would ease off for a moment and return with such frequency that I gave up optimistically removing my hood and just left it on my head for a while. We crossed the first bridge and I got a view of mists rising from the forested slopes of the mountainside. Just then, a beam of sunlight brightened a streak of treetops. It faded but returned and repeated its fleeting appearance. It was like a Morse code slowed down. But that at least reaffirmed my faith in the weather report which had called for rain only in the morning. Somewhere up there the clouds were moving about and the sun was finding a way in. Which meant that I had better get as many green and wet forest shots as I could while the conditions prevailed.

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Walking along the trolley tracks I tried to remember places I might have passed. There was a tunnel we had to pass through, a few bridges to cross, and some views into the misty river gorge. Hail fell at one point and the rain continued to come and go. Blue sky appeared through the clouds now and again. We passed under a flume that directed water over our heads. It splashed down onto the track on either side. There was a broad granite slope that had been desiccated on my previous trek buy. I remembered seeing the brown and shriveled sundew plants. Now the rock face was green and wet. Mr. Koga said it was too early for sundew plants but we spotted a few anyway.

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Along the way, there were stops for filming. Mr. Koga and I had to wait while Mr. Mori and company ran ahead to set up and shoot us walking up the tracks. At one place I had to wait several minutes and took the opportunity to shoot some forest scenes. The light was rather low and I should have been using a tripod but I never knew when I would have to be ready to shuffle off. So I did my best to shoot handheld by bracing the camera against a tree when possible.

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Our path crossed yet another bridge over the Anbo River and at the other side was the site of the old Kosugitani settlement. This had been where the logging community had lived until August 18th, 1970. That day the settlement was officially closed and logging of the yakusugi no longer permitted. Here, the others did some more filming of scenery while I went to shoot from the bridge. Sunshine continued to make fleeting appearances. The rain had finally given up.

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From here we went onwards and after a while we encountered snow on the track. A small yakushika, the native deer crossed the tracks in front of us. The animal was in its winter coat I noticed, recalling the scene I had captured the last time of light brown deer with white spots. With its thick dun-coloured coat, this deer looked like a separate species.

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When we came to the end of the track for us, we took a short break and then began the trek up into the forest. There were many steps to climb up steeper parts of the path and snow had been trampled into ice. Mr. Koga had given us these rubber things to slip over the soles of our boots. They had small knobs of metal on the bottom for gripping into icy patches. Intended for safely navigating iced-over city sidewalks, these simple little things would actually be sufficient for our entire snow experience on Yakushima.

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We stopped to admire trees and Mr. Koga shared his knowledge. I felt a little sorry for him because Mr. Kikuchi had told me so much the last time that there was not a lot of information that was new to me.

We stopped to shoot at Wilson’s Stump and I successfully made a better exposure looking out of the stump than I had in the summer two years before. And after pressing on for a time more, we came to the Jomon Sugi, my second time to lay eyes upon the symbol of the island.

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IF   Not far from the Jomon Sugi was a shelter. We were actually supposed to have stopped at the Shin Takatsuga hut some distance farther along the path but we had spent time shooting here and there. The daylight was beginning to fade and the clouds were filling the forest. Granular snow started falling. Mr. Ichino and Mr. Koga conferred and it was agreed that we would spend the first night here and move on to the Shin Takatsuga hut in the morning. As for the weather, we had received the predicted morning rain and even had a bit of sun in a few random patches. With nightfall came the clouds and wind that we were told to expect on the second day. So far we were off to a pretty decent start.

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Three: First Day There

I should have chosen the meal Mr. Kurihara had chosen. It was what had first appealed to me because it sounded like a meat and rice dish. But I ordered something else instead which came with a lot of soup – spicy soup – and though it was good, looking at Mr. Kurihara’s lunch confirmed that my original choice should have been the better one.

This first day on Yakushima was going to be pretty easy going for me. Our schedule included visiting the shop and studio of two artisans who work with the wood of the yakusugi, the island’s famous cryptomeria trees of thousands of years of age. The wood sold in those shops was of course not cut from living trees but salvaged, as I heard, from the rivers after storms. Yakusugi wood is very dense and sinks, and this they say makes it excellent for working with.

There wasn’t much for me to do. We entered the shop of the first artisan. There was yakusugi wood for sale everywhere. Some pieces were in their natural form, just lacquered and set on a display shelf where they looked like natural works of art. Others had been shaped into bowls, chop sticks, even furniture. The price was not cheap at all. I made it a quest to find the most expensive item in the store and found a large vase for 810,000 yen! But there were larger items set back on a broad stage in one corner of the store. These items included slices of large logs that could be used as a seat, a table, and even a wall unit with shelves and cabinet doors. The prices for these were either set too far back for me to make out the numbers or they simply had no price displayed.

Shop display of yakusugi wood

Shop display of yakusugi wood

After filming in the store a little, the TV guys went with the artisan to shoot him working in his workroom. I wandered about the store with my iPhone only and tried to get some record shots of the more beautiful pieces. I found that switching the setting to “noir” gave me some rather artistic-looking monochrome images. I was pleased enough with my results to show the woman who was minding the shop. Whether out of politeness or genuine delight, her response was very positive: “The wood looks really different in the black and white photos. You captured the natural beauty of it and turned it into a new work of art.” I had to agree that the tightly–cropped black and white images emphasized the beauty of the tree rings and the flow-like patterns.

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ball wood hole wood

At the next shop, I asked the artisan if I could take photos. While the other three set up their tripod and recorded some of the items on display, I tried shooting hand-held. Because of the rather dim lighting, I had to change the ISO setting and ended up with grainy photographs with a very shallow depth-of-field, many of which weren’t totally sharp either as the exposures were often made at ¼ second. But it kept me entertained while having no work to do.

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Outside there was a river and a bridge nearby. I went there to see if there was any natural scene to photograph and while studying the boulders in the river, a bird with a yellow-breast came and alighted on a boulder beneath me. Without my telephoto lens I couldn’t expect to get a decent photograph but I took a few record shots. Then back at the taxi van I spotted some ferns growing out from a rock retaining wall. I saw our driver and recalled that when he had taken us to a high bridge over the Anbo River on my previous visit, he had stopped to pluck some ferns for tossing over the rail so we could watch as they sailed and spun slowly down to the water far below. I approached him and told him of my memory. He still didn’t recall having been my driver 18 months prior, however, he did recall throwing the ferns as he does that occasionally to show his passengers.

After saying farewell to the wood artisan and his wife, we drove round the northern tip of the island and over to Nagata Village. Part of our northern passage included driving over a low mountain route and here I noted that some leaves had turned yellow and as well, there were some nanakamado – related to the rowan or mountain ash – that had turned red. Our driver told us that only the day before, the temperature had been very cold and in some places there had been ice and frost. The forest on this climbing road looked like it was in mid-autumn.

The scenery on this road was familiar to me. I recognized the two small mountains (hills really) that projected into the sea on the wick-like northern tip of the island. Soon there were the beautiful and inviting sands of Inakahama Beach where I had seen the sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the sea. Kuchinoerabushima, a volcanic island to the west northwest, was issuing white smoke into the clouds. I considered how Sakurajima, Kirishima, and the volcano of Satsumo Iwojima had all been smoking. I expressed my thoughts to the driver and he confirmed my observation by saying that the volcanoes of the chain running north/south through Kyushu and into the ocean were all in an increased state of activity.

At Nagata Village we got out and looked into the clouds obscuring the mountain summits. From here we should have been able to see Nagatadake, the second highest mountain on Yakushima and neighbour to Miyanouradake, the highest and our goal in three day’s time. Yet even though the clouds were low, we could still see that snow was at the higher elevations. The clouds stirred and sunlight broke through in places. Beautiful as it was, the mountains were not going to reveal much about themselves just yet.

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I was asked to walk along a bridge and look at the mountains and also to the sea. Then at one spot I had to stop and address the camera. I was back on Yakushima and this time hoping to climb Miyanouradake in the snow. Indeed there was snow to be seen on the mountains. We did two takes of this brief monologue and then Mr. Mori captured a little more of the local views before we loaded back into the van and drove back to Miyanoura Town.

I was given some free time after we checked into our business hotel, a two-story structure with a restaurant and additional rooms across the street and up a slope a little. I decided to wander down to the nearby seashore and as I did, I passed some peculiar rocks that looked just like enormous cracked eggs. One house had two set at the corner of its garden but the next house had several bordering the garden and carport. This house, in fact, had an unrealistically large collection of rocks and shells which appeared to have initially been placed in some attractive arrangement but later on simply accumulated in a pile like some scrap yard for beachcombers.

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I went down to the river mouth and as the sun was just setting out of view the sky was changing colour. I had only my iPhone and using the proHDR application I snapped a few pretty scenes and sent one to Mr. Suzuki at the production company. The sky was clearing and the clouds were few. He replied with an enthusiastic, “What a Wonderful Yakushima!” which was an intentional use of the previous program’s title.

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I examined many of the rocks at the seashore. Most of Yakushima is composed of granite but along the northern and eastern shores there are several other kinds of rock that were either part of the original ocean floor that was pushed up with the uplifting of the granite pocket or rock that had collided with the island as a result of plate movement.

Returning to the hotel, I passed the giant egg collection again and spotted an elderly woman stooped over a bucket in the carport. I called out a greeting and we were soon engaged in a dialogue about the rocks and her collection. The rocks, she said, used to be found fairly frequently down along the shore and she enjoyed taking them home with the help of a friend who had a pick-up truck. However, with age she no longer can take rocks home so easily. Friends and visitors who know of her hobby like to bring her interesting items they find on the shore, and so her collection continues to grow. There were corals, large shells, and a great many rocks of interesting colours and bands. She had no explanation for the eggs except that they were of marine origin and were usually found on the shore after a big storm. I looked closely and noted that they were composed of sandstone. This meant that with their ovular form and fracture patterns they were likely concretions – rocks that had formed by the natural cementing together of sand or mud. I had seen the famous concretion boulders in Red Rock Coulee, Alberta and at Moeraki Beach in New Zealand.

Back at the hotel, we met with Mr. Koga, who would be our guide. Finding a guide had been the key factor to making this trip possible and for my participation, as I explained in Chapter One of this series. My previous guide, Mr. Kikuchi, had not been available. Next, an American woman living and working as a guide on the island had been selected. However, she was tied up by the three-day training course for guides, which also meant that most guides on the island were occupied until February 14th. Mr. Kikuchi had then asked Mr. Koga, who had the level two guiding licence for winter mountain guiding, to organize our expedition.

Mr. Koga was a gentle and soft-spoken man with white in his hair, though he looked to be my age or slightly younger (he was in fact just three years my junior). He was pleasant and polite and as he spread out a map of the mountains and discussed the route with Mr. Ichino, the director, I understood he knew the trails well. The summer trail, he explained, was under a metre or two of snow above the tree-line, however, I had been assured by Mr. Ichino that we would not need crampons or snowshoes. Mr. Koga was looking after that detail.

Each of us was given a sealed bag with various small snack items. Two weeks prior to leaving for the island, we had been given a list of required gear to bring, and I had either already owned my own gear or had gone out to buy a couple of essential items. I had not, however, been able to procure any over-gloves at my local outdoor goods store. Mr. Koga would bring some for me. Each person would be responsible for carrying his own gear and snacks and drink, but three porters would carry up the extra food and drink supplies as well as additional camera gear for the filming of the program. The weather for the next four days called for clouds and rain in the morning of day one, clouds and strong wind on day two, clearing skies on day three, and clear skies returning to overcast on day four with the possibility of rain. Fair enough. It sounded as good as we could expect. I had no idea of how perfect this forecast was going to prove to be.

Mr. Koga departed and we four went to the hotel restaurant where we celebrated our forthcoming mountain adventure with beer and a meal of flying fish. Come the morning I would be back among the trees and mountains.

As I walked under the stars back to my room, I observed that the sky was clear. Rain in the morning? The clouds had all cleared away. I knew, though, that rain in the morning was as good as given. It was just hard to believe as Jupiter and a twinkling night sky watched over Miyanoura Town that first night.

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Two: A New Adventure

I have never asked my wife to take me to the train station in the early morning or to pick me up late at night. When I got up at 4:30 on February 11th and made myself ready to leave for the airport, I was fully prepared to walk the twenty minutes with both my hiking backpack and my camera pack. But my wife woke up early to have a cup of café ole with me and then offered to drive me to the station. Our two children were sleeping soundly and we hoped that during the 10 minutes or so that she’d be gone neither would wake.

I was going to be away for eight days, the longest I had ever been away since we had children. I hoped that she would be able to cope on her own. Our two little darlings can be quite the handful, as I am sure any parent facing a two-against-one situation with their kids will concur. I boarded the first train of the day at 5:40 and enjoyed a relaxing ride until crossing the river into Tokyo where I had to transfer. The holiday assured that there would not be as many people as on a typical weekday morning, and so even boarding the monorail to Haneda Airport was fairly smooth.

Memories of my previous trip to Yakushima surfaced as I searched for my travel mates. I recalled Mr. Hatenaka’s smiling bearded face, and the friendly relaxed nature of the crew to whom I was introduced in the check in queue. This time I already had met the crew once two weeks prior in Shibuya. Mr. Ichino was assigned as director. With much experience climbing mountains in Japan in the winter, he would be well-prepared for our snowy ascent of Miyanouradake. I was later to learn that he had been to Greenland, Iceland, the table lands of Venezuela a few times, and several other exciting places in the world. He started out, as he would later tell us one night, as a salesman for Asahi Beer. After three years he quit and turned to acting, during which time he appeared in some TV dramas. But he decided that directing was more for him and studied to be a nature documentary director.

Other members of our team were to be Mr. Mori, a veteran world traveler and camera operator and the oldest member of our group. He would tell of his experiences in Chad, northern Canada, Antarctica, and other places. As it would turn out, Mr. Mori had also been the cameraman shooting the scenes I had watched on TV of the two climbers in the snow on Yakushima. Our youngest member, Mr. Kurihashi the sound engineer, had done a bit of traveling abroad for work as well. At dinner times I would listen to my companions talk about their adventures abroad and other well-known people in the documentary business of whom I had never heard. Thankfully, I would at least be able contribute with a few stories of my own of foreign travel experiences.

Unlike the previous trip where I had met the rest of the crew for the first time and there had been a round of introductions, this time was very casual. Mr. Ichino greeted me and let me step in front of him in the queue for check in. The other two were nearby and gave a simple morning greeting. The feeling was like this was just another day of work for the four of us. Perhaps everyone else was still in early morning mode.

Before long we were taking our seats on the plane and I noticed that we were all seated separately. That meant I could plug in to some music and keep a watch out the window and snap some scenes above the clouds with my phone camera.

Walk the plank! Looking down shortly after take-off

Walk the plank! Looking down shortly after take-off

The tip of the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa

The tip of the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa

Numazu City, the Izu Peninsula and Izu Oshima beyond

Numazu City, the Izu Peninsula and Izu Oshima beyond

What would this trip to Yakushima bring? As I watched Tokyo disappear below and then saw the golden orange and yellow reflected light on Tokyo Bay, I wondered what weather would be in store for us. The previous visit had been at the very end of a three-week drought and we had enjoyed sunshine for four of the five days. Only on the last day did we experience the heavy tropical rains. At least I knew to expect rain frequently. It would be a little warm by the shore but the high mountains were covered in snow and the night time temperatures were still down just below zero. Snow would be alright. Heavy rain would not be so welcome. But I wasn’t able to shoot satisfactory forest views in the bright sunshine of the previous visit. Some rain would be essential for creating typical Yakushima forest scenery.

We sailed over the clouds most of the way to Kyushu and descended through them to Kagoshima. I noticed that the volcanoes of both Sakurajima and Kirishima were smoking. The sky seemed to be clearing as our small prop plane flew from Kagoshima to Yakushima. I caught sight of Satsuma Iwojima and saw the volcano was smoking as well. The mountains of Yakushima came into view. It was partly cloudy weather and sunshine was streaking in here and there. This was a good start.

The approach to Yakushima

The approach to Yakushima

At the airport there was no filming of me stepping onto the airstrip and taking in the view as there had been last time. We simply stood waiting for our packs in the tiny airport and then loaded them into the taxi van. The driver came round and began chatting to the director. I recognized his jovial expression and friendly manner. He had been my driver on the previous trip. I asked him if he remembered me and he seemed put on the spot. No matter. It made me feel welcome to return to a place now familiar to me and see a face I knew.

The Mr. Ichino instructed the driver to take us to a Korean restaurant for lunch. I was back on Yakushima with much to look forward to. The taxi van left the airport and we set out on the road for day one of our Yakushima adventure.

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter One: Getting Back There

Ever since the success of the first Yakushima program in which I appeared in 2013, the head of the production company was for going back to do a winter episode. At the end of 2013, I was told that a winter story was being put together for proposal to NHK for their internationally broadcast Journeys in Japan program. In early January 2014 I was told that I should clear my schedule for January 31. On a program about World Heritage Sites, I watched two men climbing up through the snow of one of the mountains on Yakushima. That was going to be me, I imagined. A week later, I received notice that the plan had been scrapped. There was something about the danger of climbing mountains in the snow, risks to the cameraman and director, and not wanting to give foreigners the idea that climbing mountains in Japan in winter was an easy thing.

I accepted that this was how things were going to be and forgot about winter in Yakushima. I proposed some other locations that I hoped to visit, but nothing came out of my ideas. Then the word came in early December, 2014: a new story proposal was being prepared and they wanted me to be the reporter. It sounded great, but I knew not to get my hopes up.

January came and I was told that we had to set the dates. This time they wanted to go for eight or nine days in the middle of February. Because of my work schedule we had to negotiate back and forth between their shooting desires and my manager and boss. The main issue was that I couldn’t miss two of the same weekday consecutively. Fortunately, Wednesday the 11th was holiday, and we decided on February 11 to 18. I had to be back at work for the morning of the 19th because of a very important event.

The dates were agreed upon, the proposal passed, and I received a message saying we were good to go. But right after that came a message informing me that the guides on Yakushima all needed a three-day training course and we wouldn’t be able to get a guide until the 14th. Could my schedule be changed to go from the 14th to the 20th? To the credit of my manager, she tried to arrange something, but it was not up to her to make any final decisions. The schedule could not be changed, and I was informed that the production company would have to find another reporter.

This was a crushing disappointment. The chance to climb Miyanouradake in winter and to see more of Yakushima had been dropped in my lap. And yet due to a single important event in my work schedule I would have to give the opportunity to someone else. That night I went home and sent a message to my contact at the production company. I thanked her for all her efforts and expressed my regret that I could not be the one to go.

The following morning she replied. They really wanted me to go because the story was based on my return to Yakushima. After a couple of hours I got a message saying that they were looking for a new guide who could lead us up the mountain through the snow during the dates that I was available. And then soon after, I received the great news that a guide had been found. We were – I was – going back to Yakushima. I still didn’t want to leap in the air for joy, but somehow this time it felt like it was really going to happen. I was really going to go back to Yakushima for another adventure.

The Country of Water: Japan

Last night on Fuji Television (March 10, 26:00 to 27:15) the program, “Mizu no Kuni Nippon – 水の国ニッポン” was aired. The program featured four stories from around Japan where water is used for some special purpose. See my previous post for details about my trip to Miyagi Prefecture. Now here are some snaps of my TV screen during the broadcast.





To Call a Magan

From January 16th to the 17th, I visited Osaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, the next bullet train stop north of Sendai. I was asked to be a foreign travel reporter for a TV program called “Mizu no Kuni Nipppon – Japan: the Country of Water” to be aired on a television station in Kumamoto, the station being part of the Fuji Sankei Group. The program would also be aired a week or two later on Fuji Television during the late night.

I met up with the director, assistant director, sound engineer and camera operator when I boarded the bullet train at Omiya Station in Saitama, and we rode through the morning mist in Utsunomiya, past the cloud-covered peaks of Bandaisan and Adatarayama, and the clear white summit of Azumasan, on past snowy fields to the bare brown fields north of Sendai. From the train station, two people working for Osaki City Hall’s land use and environmental department took us off to the rural areas outside the city.

Our first real stop was Mototaki, a waterfall located in a hidden alcove carved out in layers of volcanic tuff in the small mountain mass of Kagoboyama (加護防山). The water seeping through the layers of tuff was barely a trickle but it was clear and naturally filtered and enriched with minerals leached from the rock.

Mototaki

Mototaki

As we were visiting the area – me shooting away with my camera and the camera operator busy filming this and that – the local caretaker came to the shrine located before the falls. The director said this would be a great chance to speak to a local and ask about the significance of the water. I greeted the old man and first asked if the rock was indeed volcanic tuff. He immediately replied that it wasn’t and that there were no volcanoes around here (I later checked a geologic map of the mountain on the web and found that it truly was tuff). Next I asked about the significance of the shrine. He went on to explain a lot about how in the old days people came here for the New Year’s traditions and the water used to be used for the rice paddies below. These days few people come and the water in the fields is recycled water from the river. I understood that much anyway, but there were many times I couldn’t catch a thing and only looked at him and smiled in interest. After he left, the director said, “I think I understood only half of what he said.” Everyone else concurred. The man had spoken in some local dialect. “If we use that part for the program we’ll have to use subtitles,” said the director.

Closer view of Mototaki

Closer view of Mototaki

Next we drove to the top of the mountain. In the old days, there used to be a shrine on the summit; however, it burned down. We saw some unnatural mounds in the ground and some large stones place in the ground with hollow bowls carved out. These stones used to be for the main support pillars. Ironically, the name Kagoboyama includes the Kanji for “Add”, “Preservation”, and “Protection”. It seems the mountain didn’t live up to its name when the shrine burned down; due to a drought, there was not enough water at the time to douse the fire!

View from Kagoboyama

View from Kagoboyama

We drove down to visit the wide tapestry of rice paddies below. It was unusual to see fields that still retained water during the winter months. Usually the rice paddies are left dry in winter. But here parts were muddy and wet, and a type of wild goose called magan in Japanese and swans waddled about in the mud, searching for rice grains that had dropped off during the previous autumn’s harvest.

Water in the winter fields

Water in the winter fields

As I was to learn, this visitation of water fowl was a crucial aspect for the local rice farming industry. For the time being, however, we drove around and I was filmed walking about and photographing or we went in search of birds in the fields to shoot for the program.

Magan in flight

Magan in flight

As evening approached, we went over to see the Kabukuri Marsh (蕪栗沼)where the birds would all come to roost for the night. The weather had been mixed sun and cloud during the day but the clouds were taking over the sky and a bitter wind blew in from the northwest. A Mr. Saito had been arranged to come and meet with me on the dyke overlooking the marsh. He described how in old times people thought the wild geese and wild ducks were the same creature. But then they learned more about the geese. The birds are actually from Siberia but they come to Japan in the winter and try to fatten up. They eat the dropped rice grains in the paddies mostly. Mr. Saito explained how the farmers made great effort to keep water in the fields in winter to provide the birds with a wetland environment and a source of food. I saw how this benefited the birds, but what did human beings stand to gain from this magnanimous activity? I asked but Mr. Saito suddenly looked awkward and said to the director, “He should just ask me about how we look after the birds.” So I did and got the explanation about how the farmers help the NPO people by observing the birds and keeping records.

As he spoke, the sun began spreading a beautiful orange light between the clouds. I was shivering in the wind and eager to start shooting. At last Mr. Saito wrapped up his story and gestured for us to enjoy the evening light as dozens of flocks of geese came in to feather down for the night.

Geese come in to roost at Kakikabu Marsh

Geese come in to roost at Kabukuri Marsh

IF

IF

As darkness fell, we wrapped up the day’s shooting and headed into town for our hotel rooms and dinner out together.

The following morning we awoke to rain. Nevertheless, we returned to the dyke to watch the birds take to the skies, flock by flock, and start their day.

IFOnce the morning shoot had concluded, the clouds began to stir and soon the sun came out. The crew had to film some scenes of the car driving down the road past the paddies, so I had an hour to kill, roaming about the area until it was time to move on.

IF

IF

We spent some of the morning driving about, looking for scenes of geese to film and visiting another small shrine nearby, though there was not so much for me to do at this time. I just followed along and photographed as much as I could.

Geese in a rice paddie

Magan in a rice paddy

The next big scene for me was meeting Mr. Nishizawa, one of the local rice farmers. He was out tending to one of his fields, making sure water was being diverted into the paddy and being retained by dams of clay.

Mr. Nishizawa at work

Mr. Nishizawa at work

At last I was to learn the secret importance of this operation. In a document from a few hundred years ago, the words “fuyumizu tanbo” (ふゆみず田んぼ) showed up in an explanation about farming practices. It seems that during the Edo Period, local farmers flooded their fields in winter to attract the magan. The birds ate the fallen rice grains and in turn their excrement provided fertilizer. Additionally, the water in the field keeps the mud from freezing and microscopic organisms can continue doing their thing all year just as in the marsh. This means the previous year’s stalks become soft and easily decompose, adding more nutrients to the mud. Crayfish, freshwater eels (dojo), and other larger aquatic critters keep the ecosystem active, too. The net result is more fertile mud for planting and growing rice in the following spring and no chemical fertilizers are necessary.

IF

Mr. Nishizawa invited me to his home for lunch. Well, that was part of the script, so to speak. His house was very new and a little expensive-looking. I asked him how new his house was and he responded that it was built after the 11-3-11 earthquake. Many old farm houses in the area had been badly damaged by the earthquake, but after the tsunami hit, the news focused entirely on that extraordinary catastrophe.

I was served rice balls of just the fuyumizu tanbo rice and I have to honestly say it tasted really good. I felt I could just eat this rice for lunch and be satisfied. But the real winner was the Chinese cabbage. The entire crew agreed that it was so crisp and juicy and served naturally it was a delight. The cabbage was from his garden and watered with water from his well where the mineral-enriched water from Kagoboyama flowed.

After lunch we set off to shoot some more scenes of magan in the fields and then stopped at the Kabukuri Marsh for more bird views. The sunny weather wasn’t going to last as a cold wind blew a messy mass of snow-laden clouds our way.

IF

As we drove north, the snow began blowing horizontally. Our last stop was a sake plant  where they made Japanese rice wine using the fuyumizu tanbo rice. Normally, rice wine is made with a different kind of rice than what is used for mealtime consumption. After a tour of the facilities and an explanation of how rice wine is made, I was treated to a glass of the local brew. I can drink sake but I don’t order myself. However, this stuff was actually really good. I was considering buying a bottle when I was told that we were out of time and I had to get back into town to catch my train. As I was quickly being ushered out the door, my tour guide of the plant came rushing up to me with a big bottle of fuyumizu tanbo rice wine.

The short trip was certainly informative, and even though I wasn’t able to capture any views that I consider among my best work, I enjoyed the time I had to photograph and look around at the local scenery.

I am still waiting to hear when the program will be aired. There was a lot of follow up work, including finding photos of myself when I was younger, but the lines have been quiet for a week now and the initial broadcasting in Kumamoto was said to occur in late February. I will update this post when I know more information. For now, I am enjoying a small glass of fuyumizu tanbo saki while I prepare dinner on my days off.