Winter on Yakushima – Chapter 10: The Final Day

IF

Back in August 2013, the last day of the five-day trip to Yakushima had been planned by Mr. Hatanaka as a day for fun. Our shooting objectives wrapped up more or less, we went river kayaking, visited a hot spring, and went souvenir shopping before heading back to the airport. This time, under the directorship of Mr. Ichino, even with eight days we were busy shooting until the last moment. Had I not wandered out exploring one late afternoon between returning to the hotel and meeting for dinner and found a large souvenir shop, I would have had to do all my souvenir shopping at the meagre store in the tiny airport.

We’d had a lot of experiences already. After our four-day mountaineering trek, I had felt that we had already accomplished our prime objective and that the rest was just filler. However, the visit to Unsuikyo was a treat in itself and learning about the white pines as well as other aspects of the Yakushima forests and their problems confirmed that every day spent on the island was educational and fulfilling.

So, on our final day there, we were off round the east side of Yakushima and heading to the southern part. Our first two stops were for some views of rivers and mountains. Once more I saw the view of the Anbo River from the high bridge over the waters.

The Anbo River looking downstream

The Anbo River looking downstream

The Anbo River looking upstream

The Anbo River looking upstream

Next was Senpiro Falls, which I was eager to see. It is one of Japan’s 100 selected waterfalls (hyakusen no taki 百選の滝) and I hadn’t received the chance to see it on my previous visit. The waterfall itself is impressive as it plummets over a granite precipice, but more than that, there is a huge slope of exposed granite to the left side. When it rains heavily, not only does the waterfalls flush with white water but streams of white streak the face of the granite slope like ribbons. We were in for yet another day of fine weather as only a few small clouds scudded across a vast azure sky. As an added surprise, we found a cherry tree in bloom at the parking area!

Senpiro Falls

Senpiro Falls

The grand view

The grand view

In spite of the feeling of freedom that imbued my spirits, we were on a schedule still. I wandered down the path to a viewpoint of the falls and snapped a few shots only to find Mr. Ichino approaching from behind with the words, “Alright, let’s getting moving now.”

We next visited a seaside hot spring that is only accessible when the tide is out. I have had a few memorable hot spring experiences in Japan but this was a first – there was no bath house! I simply walked down a concrete walkway to where a line was painted and the instructions to remove footwear. Once my boots and socks were off I walked over to where several pools of varying sizes had been made with concrete between the rocks and boulders that comprised the sea shore. It was here that I disrobed – no screen or cover – and slide into the hot water. The view from the pool was unusual to say the least. In the near distance beyond the wavelets of the hot spring pool, the waves of the ocean crashed and foamed over the rocks. The tide was out for now. When it came in again, the hot spring would be submerged.

Seaside hot spring

Seaside hot spring

I tried to relax and enjoy the moment. The ocean thundered with restraint not far to my right. Black and grey rocks surrounded me and green coastal vegetation covered the slope nearby. In the distance to my left, green mountains with grey protrusions of stone made their skyline under the blue heavens. Mr. Ichino and Mr. Kurihara stood some distance away while Mr. Mori darted about here and there with his camera. Ordinarily, towels are not permitted in the hot spring water and swimwear is strictly prohibited. But for filming purposes, one may bring a towel to cover oneself. I had wrapped a typical white hot spring towel around my hips and was trying to be at ease in the hot water; however, buoyancy caused my hips to raise up and the towel came loose more than once. This required constant adjustment and an effort to sit in the water and still look relaxed without worrying about offering a peep show to the camera (was he using a zoom lens?). I closed my eyes. I opened them and looked thoughtfully at the sea and the sky. And when I looked at the greenery and rocks, I was sure to see a camera lens pointing my way.

After several minutes, two elderly men came to join me. They were local residents but retirees from Tokyo. They came to the hot spring daily, or at least when weather permitted. They explained that locals referred to the tide schedule to plan their visits. For those who didn’t like the water too hot, it was best to dip in shortly after the tide had receded and the water was still mixed with cool sea water. Those preferring hotter water could wait until the hot ground water had heated the pools more. My two new companions were supposed to have played tennis but the wind was too gusty that day and so they retreated to the relaxing waters of the seaside hot spring.

Next we were on a flower hunt. Our first stop was near a large hotel overlooking the sea. Along the road leading to the hotel there were hibiscus flowers blooming. Mr. Mori shot different takes of me walking past the red blossoms and then we each had time to shoot on our own.

Hibiscus in February

Hibiscus in February

Next we were off to a sunflower patch. Canola was also in bloom. I marvelled at the thought that we were experiencing spring scenery around here with all the blossoms: sunflowers, canola, hibiscus, and cherry, among a few others we had noticed from the window of the taxi van. Yet only a few days prior we had been tramping through snow beneath ice-encrusted trees in the mountains of the interior and seen leaves of yellow and red round the northern tip of the island. How remarkable to consider seeing three seasons in one week on such a small island!

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“

Our flower session over, we were at last on our way back to the airport. I sat comfortably and felt satiated having seen and done so much. It had been a long time since I last enjoyed so many things on a trip of such length. But I had not had enough of Yakushima. For I understood that the mountains in spring were another sight to behold and there were still places of interest I had not yet visited. Could I hope to return again some day?

As our flight crossed the sky over Yokohama, I could see snow streaking past the window. The snow turned to rain as we descended to Haneda Airport. The hibiscus blossoms, the blue sky and green mountains, and the silver waves on the sea were now confined to memory. Our journey was over. We collected our luggage and parted ways. The three members of the TV crew would still meet again and possibly work together again. Meanwhile I thanked them and set off on my own, returning to my ordinary life. What a wonderful job it must be working for documentary television. Maybe I would be so lucky as to be asked to do this again someday.

Winter on Yakushima – Chapter Nine: Sylvan Defenders, Part One

Kenshi Tetsuka’s house would have been called a dump in the neighbourhood where I grew up, but out here on the green, forested slope of a mountainside on Yakushima, I found it to be quite enchanting. The whole thing had been constructed of wood thirty years ago by Mr. Tetsuka himself, and in Yakushima’s damp climate, the house had become mottled with the colours of various lichens and mosses and whatever other woodland growths had made a home upon the surface of the weathered wood panels.

There was a litter’s worth of cats and a litter of sea shells around the house. Ferns grew in normal size except for a tree-sized species that looked to me like the tree ferns of New Zealand. The forest hung over the back of the house and a slope dropped away in the front with a view through the trees to a neighbour’s house some hundred metres away. Through the windows I could see books lining every visible shelf, and there were shelves anywhere a shelf could have been affixed between two walls.

Kenshi Tetsuka at home

Kenshi Tetsuka at home

Mr. Tetsuka had moved to Yakushima thirty years ago from Iruma City in Saitama. He lived here on the mountainside with his wife in a house with only enough electricity for lights and an old record player for some even older jazz records. The most modern of things in the house were his computer and CD player. Mr. Tetsuka didn’t have a TV.

We were here on his patio sipping herbal tea served by his wife and talking about the Yakushima white pine, known in Japanese as the yakutane-goyo (ヤクタネゴヨウ). Yaku and Tane come from Yakushima and Tanegashima respectively and are given as a prefix because these are the only two places in the world where these trees remain growing. Goyo (五葉) refers to the five needles that grow in each fascicle. The trees have become a concern because they are dying, and Mr. Tetsuka and his colleagues have been researching the possible causes and cataloguing every tree on the island, by no means an easy task because the Yakushima white pine prefers a habitat of cliff environments. So far, they have recorded 200 trees on Tanegashima and 2,000 on Yakushima.

Our taxi van drove along the Seibu Forest Road, the stretch of Yakushima’s circumnavigating highway that narrows and winds along the steep granite slopes that plunge directly into the ocean. In places, the granite bedrock emerges from the forest cover like the talons of some colossal bird dipping its toes in the sea. We stopped at one curve in the road and got out, and Mr. Tetsuka directed our attention to some granite cliffs that rose into the cloud cover while passing beams of cloud-filtered sunlight moved across the vertical landscape. Standing out clearly from the thick green forest cover were numerous white tree skeletons. All of those white trees, Mr. Tetsuka told us, were dead yakutane-goyo. He said that here on the west side of the island the damage was particularly bad.

White pine skeletons

White pine skeletons

What was killing off the trees? It had begun to escalate within the last 20 years or so, he explained. There were a couple of plausible reasons such as pine beetle infestation and Yakushima’s explosive deer population which meant more deer were nibbling the saplings. But Mr. Tetsuka and his colleagues had set up air quality testing stations at three elevations on the island and had found that a more worrying element was most likely the cause. When we had told him about our climb to the summit of Miyanouradake and all the feather rime we had seen, Mr. Tetsuka had said, “Oh, I wish I could have a sample of that feather rime. You see, the wind comes from the Asian continent and any particulate matter borne on that wind would be frozen in the ice – evidence of what we have been trying to prove. We are quite certain that the reason for the sudden increase in tree deaths is because of pollution coming from China.

IF

Mr. Tetsuka explained that the usual pine trees found in Japan have two needles sprouting from each fascicle. The yakutane-goyo has five. These five needles act like a catcher’s glove that trap particulate matter in the air. These minute particles then lodge themselves in the stomata of the needles – those tiny pores through which gases and water vapour can pass, allowing the tree to breathe. In other words, China’s industrial air pollution was suffocating Yakushima’s white pines.

IF

We drove on and came to a stop once more. Here we all got out and Mr. Tetsuka told us that he was going to lead us from here up into the forest to show us some of the yakutane-goyo. This was part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and ordinarily visitors are not permitted. Mr. Tetsuka had been granted special permission to lead us into his research area for the Journeys in Japan program. He reminded us not to damage anything intentionally and to take great care not to damage anything by accident. After saying a short prayer to the mountain gods, he led us up a steep slope leading through the brush at the roadside and soon we were ascending the crest of a ridge extending down mountainside.

Thinking of what I had seen of Yakushima’s forests so far, I was puzzled by the openness between the trees here. There was no thick mossy carpet, and no ferns and flowers were sprouting up everywhere. The leaf strewn forest floor supported only three kinds of undergrowth: the thorn-bearing bush of about 20 to 30 centimetres high, and two other types of bushy undergrowth that were well-spaced apart. Mr. Tetsuka pointed out the lack of vegetation variety and said that it was because of the deer. Since the creation of the UNESCO site, the hunting of deer became illegal and the population as been increasing. The deer strip away everything from the forest floor except for the plants that are too bitter, poisonous, or covered in thorns.

Though a man with a thick head of grey hair, Mr. Tetsuka was spry and agile as he lead us up the mountainside. We soon came to a most bizarre tree. It looked like a biology experiment had congealed and a tree with parts resembling a spider’s anatomy was sprouting from the grotesque formation. It was in fact all one single tree called ako (Ficus superba var. japonica). Ako grow around other trees, slowly sending out parts that are neither roots nor branches that grow together and form a net around the host tree. The net gradually thickens and the individual strands grow thicker as the ako drains nutrients from its host. At last the host dies and the ako tree by this time has secured its own roots in the forest floor and can support itself. Eventually the host tree decays and a hollow basket that looks like some science fiction horror creation remains with the ako tree standing up from it. We came across a yakutane-goyo with an ako attached to it, already creating its network of choking strands. The ako is actually a tropical tree but parts of yakushima provide a comfortable climate. As it was, that particular plant was a little higher up than usual and the yakutane-goyo a little farther down than usual. The two trees met at their extreme borders. A kind of fig tree, the fruit of the ako is eaten by monkeys but the seeds have a sticky covering that adheres to the monkeys’ fur. Monkeys will swipe the sticky seeds from their posteriors with their hands and wipe them on the trunks of trees where the seeds will then germinate and the ako sapling will begin its attack.

An ako tree with its host long since perished and decayed.

An ako tree with its host long since perished and decayed.

An ako tree forming its net around a Yakushima white pine.

An ako tree forming its net around a Yakushima white pine.

Another tree we encountered was responsible for providing the forest floor with a rich environment of bacteria, which in turn provided food for fungi and microscopic organisms living in the soil that were essential to a healthy forest.

At last we came to Number 77, the largest yet recorded yakutane-goyo. Mr. Tetsuka told us that when they started recording the trees they assigned each tree a number, and this tree was number 77 of over 2,000 trees. In girth and height and probably age too, this tree was superlative to all the others. It grew at the edge of a small cliff on the ridge, one side with thick roots slithering into the forest soil and the other side clinging to the rock face and plunging roots straight down to the steeply-sloping forest floor below. Here we busied ourselves with photography and filming. Mr. Tetsuka picked up a sprig of five needles and produced a small magnifying lens from his pocket. He handed them to me and I looked at the needles through the lens and saw tiny yellow spots on the green needles. Those spots, he explained, occurred after a stoma had become plugged. Thinking about the clouds rising from the crater of Kuchinoerabu-shima, which was within view of Yakushima’s west side, I asked if volcanic gasses could also be a factor. Mr. Tetsuka said no. Especially on a day like today when the pollution was crossing the South China Sea, the trees were in danger. I said I had seen a lot of haze over the water. Wasn’t that just sea mist created by the warm air of the approaching spring? No, that was air pollution.

Majestic Number 77

Majestic Number 77

Tezuka san and 771

IF

I took some interest in the rocks around the tree. They looked like limestone. I asked Mr. Tetsuka about it but he said there was no limestone around here. He named another kind of rock in Japanese that I did not know. I looked at the rocks again. They definitely looked like limestone. Perhaps there were two words in Japanese each one for a different kind of limestone and I had used the wrong one. I’d have to check that out. Later I found that there was only one word and I had used the correct one. I have since checked some photos I took in the museum I visited back in 2013 and according to the map of Yakushima’s geology, there are some mudstones and metamorphic rocks in that area. The rocks I saw, however, didn’t match the appearance of the samples I photographed in the museum, but also didn’t match the museum’s limestone sample either. I should have written down what Mr. Tetsuka had said.

Back at his house, we were invited inside. Books lined every space except for where a collection of jazz LPs and CDs lined the wall by the sound system. I noticed that Mr. Tetsuka’s books looked really old.

Day 7 house 11

As we sat around the small pit in the living floor, Mr. Tetsuka started a fire. There was a black kettle suspended over the flames in which water was to boil for tea. Above that there was a basket with cheese that was hanging there for smoking. The fire burned and the smoke drifted up into the rafters. I looked up and saw many thick and somewhat unsettlingly large spider nests. I asked where the smoke went out. Mr. Tetsuka replied that the smoke went out naturally. Weren’t the spiders bothered by the smoke? Apparently not. I had always imaged that spiders could be smoked out of a cave with a fire but now it seemed my assumption had been incorrect. I looked over to the bookshelf and inquired about the aged look. If he had moved here only 30 years ago, why did his books look to be over 150 years old? “Graduation,” Mr. Tetsuka said. “You’ll notice that the oldest-looking books are at the top while the newer-looking ones that still have some colour are at the bottom. This is because of the smoke. And since the smoke changes the colour of the upper books more, the aged-appearance graduates.”

Day 7 house 61

The water boiled over and splashed into the hot ashes. Smoke billowed and ash flakes danced all around. My eyes were stung. I had flashbacks to sitting around a campfire as a child when the wind would change direction and blow smoke in our faces. “I never thought,” I said to Mr. Tetsuka, “that I would experience the campfire feeling in someone’s living room.” Everything in Mr. Tetsuka’s house looked smoke-tarnished and weathered. I wouldn’t wish to live in such a house, but it was indeed enchanting. I said to Mr. Mori that I would enjoy the opportunity to spend time photographing inside the house. He agreed with me having had the same idea.

Living room heater

Living room heater

Smoked cheese

Smoked cheese

Entrance

Entrance

Classic jazz

Classic jazz

Winter on Yakushima – Chapter Eight: The Green of the White Valley

ŒShiratani Unsuikyo 白谷雲水峡

ŒShiratani Unsuikyo 白谷雲水峡

One of Yakushima’s famous places is Shiratani Unsuikyo. The Kanji mean White-valley Cloud-water-ravine. The name originates in the often cloudy and rainy climate as well as the white waterfalls along the course of the stream flowing through the ravine. We hadn’t stopped here on my previous visit, and I was so glad to know that it was on the itinerary this time. But there were going to be two added bonuses.

The first was that I was going to meet the guide that had originally been planned for this trip. Jennifer was an American from Florida who had come to Japan some years prior and had lived in a couple of other places before coming to Yakushima where she now works as a guide. The production company had thought that for an international program like Journeys in Japan, having an English speaking guide would be appropriate. However, due to the training schedule of Yakushima guides and also because Jenny didn’t have a level two certificate (for winter guiding up the mountain) she couldn’t be hired to lead the ascent. The producer still wanted her for the program though, and so it was decided that she and I would cross paths at Shiratani.

The other bonus was that I was going to be reunited with Mr. Kikuchi, my guide from my previous visit. As I had written in the blog posts about my ascent of Miyanouradake in 2013, Mr. Kikuchi seemed to know every plant, animal and historical fact about Yakushima. When he had led me through the forest that summer, he stopped to indicate some plant, insect or some aspect of the scenery and explained what was interesting about it. I still remember the land leach that did not suck blood, the devil stag beetle, and the furry undersides of the mountain rhododendron leaves. I was also able to discuss with him what I had read about the history of Yakushima and gain new insights.

We (the TV crew and I) left in the taxi van with rain falling, and I seemed to be the only one thankful for it. As I mentioned previously in another post, the weather on my previous visit had been sunny for the whole four days of shooting. Only on the last day when we went kayaking did the skies finally deliver a deluge. This meant that I had not captured a single image of typical Yakushima forest scenery: misty air and lush greenery. It seemed that this time the rain would ensure that I got my Yakushima wet forest pics. Rain did mean that Mr. Mori’s shooting would be affected, so I understood his concerns with the weather. However, once again the rain drops ceased as we arrived at the trailhead and the sun began to peak out through small gaps in the clouds.

We had arrived ahead of Jennifer and so we set off up the trail a little in order to scout for a good location. The stream flowed over granite rocks and down through a cleft while a green canopy arched overhead. At a large open rocky area, the stream spread out in pools. Between the trees, moss covered tree trunks and rocks. It was the Yakushima I had seen in books and on posters but the sun kept a curious eye on our progress and washes of light would suddenly flood the scenery temporarily. I tried to steal and moment or two for shooting but Mr. Ichino assured me there would be plenty of time for that soon enough.

IF

We returned to the trailhead and met Jenny. She seemed a native of Yakushima already, laid back, easy-going, forward enough to appear friendly, reserved enough to seem unobtrusive. Having thought of many questions to ask her for our filmed conversation, I was almost concerned of being too loquacious and inquisitive. As we hiked back up the trail, I began asking Jenny questions and engaging her in conversation. Her responses were so easy and natural that I began to feel that perhaps I was being too conscious of being the talkative outsider / off-islander.

Jennifer

Jennifer

Within a short time we reached an opening in the forest near the stream. I was to stand and shoot some scenery while Jenny came down the path and called out a friendly “hello”. She would start the conversation by asking me something and then I would inquire whether or not she was a visitor and from there we would discuss her experience as a guide on Yakushima. Thinking about the program’s audience, I wanted to help promote that there was an English-speaking guide and tried to include a question that would give Jenny a chance to advertise her services to any potential visitors who might be reluctant to hire a guide believing that they all spoke only Japanese. As it turned out during our conversation, most of Jenny’s clients were Japanese. This was not, however, so much because Japanese visitors chose a western guide because of the novelty but rather because she worked for a guiding company who assigned their guides to groups based on availability. Jenny was of course fluent in Japanese and knew a lot about the island’s nature.

After our initial staged meeting had been filmed, Jenny and I continued to chat about guiding life on the island. She mentioned two points that made an impression on me. The first was that within the guiding community there were differing opinions on the protection of the island’s natural environment. She pointed out the hot topic of toilet facilities. At the moment, there were pit toilets near the shelters. She explained that the creation and maintenance of pit toilets was difficult work (pit toilets do fill up and making new pits is met with the challenge of shallow soil and the granite bedrock) and though donations were supposed to pay for it, the workers were actually all volunteers because there was not enough money to actually pay them. Donation money was used for supplies and equipment and also allocated for other needs in the park related to maintenance, not only toilets. One place was now using the sawdust system where a device churned sawdust and microbes broke down the waste, the sawdust helping to trap heat and providing a suitable environment for the microbes to work. But this system requires electricity and that meant running power lines up through the forest. The other commonly used system is the carry-out bag. Small tents along popular routes have a toilet frame inside. A durable carry-out bag (to be brought up by hikers) can be set on the toilet frame and the contents then securely bound and safely carried back down the mountain. The problem is that not everyone takes their bags back down again. So the human waste issue that plagues all places of natural beauty in Japan and everywhere else in the ecologically-concerned world is a hot topic among the guides and conservationists of Yakushima as well.

The other memorable story she told me was about the abandoned cats and dogs that live in the forests of Yakushima. I believe she said there was an estimated 15,000 stray cats living on the island, though I might have this number confused with a news story about strays that appeared on TV shortly before or after I went to Yakushima. One day, Jenny was leading a group of visitors down a path when a sound came from the woods. “Was that a dog?” a woman in the party asked. Jenny explained that there was a bird on the island that was good at mimicking sounds and it was surely that bird they had just heard. Just then, a deer burst forth from the bushes and sprinted across the path, heading down the slope the river. Hot in pursuit was a dog! The deer was forced to turn around at the river and tried to return to the path but the dog met the deer there and took it down. Right in front of Jenny’s party, the dog began ripping into the deer.

I would have enjoyed speaking with Jenny longer but we still had work to do and so she went off down the trail by herself. Mr. Mori and Mr. Kurihara were busy recording scenes by the stream and so I set about capturing a few shots myself. Then Mr. Ichino gave us the signal that it was time to head back and meet Mr. Kikuchi.

IF

I met my old guide with a warm handshake. Though we hadn’t met for 18 months, meeting Kikuchi-san again was like seeing him after only a week. Kikuchi-san was to officially introduce me to Shiratani Unsuikyo. He led me up the path and almost immediately stopped to point out a small white flower in blossom. “This is called ohgokayo-ohren オオゴカヨウオウレン (Coptis ramose). It’s one of the earliest flowers to bloom and is a sign that spring is coming.” At a waterfall he explained, “This is Hiryu Falls. Most Japanese waterfalls with word “ryu” in the name us the Kanji for “dragon” but in this case the Kanji for “flow” is used. The name means “Leaping Flow” because of the way the water bounds down the rocks.” As ever, Kikuchi-san was a textbook of knowledge. He pointed out “phoenix moss” (looks like the tail of a phoenix), a diseased tree, the importance of a particular tree to the forest, and several other things.

„Coptis ramosa

„Coptis ramosa

Phoenix moss ホウオウコケ

Phoenix moss ホウオウコケ

He took me up to what used to be called Mononoke Hime Forest after the Gibli film “Mononoke Hime”, which takes place largely in a thick green and mossy forest, and it is said that the forest scenery here inspired the artwork and setting in the film. However, the name “Mononoke Hime” is under copyright protection and so the map had been relabeled “Kokemusu Mori” or basically “The Moss-Covered Forest”. Here it was said that a lucky visitor might catch sight of the forest spirit known as the “Kodama”. Though I saw nothing of the sort, I have to admit that I felt a certain amount of excitement. There was a tingling sensation inside me that was not unlike anticipation. For the camera, I suggested that by standing still one might be able to feel the presence of the Kodama. Honestly, it was too busy there with the five of us and three women sitting and chatting behind us. But had I come alone… Who knows?

ŒThe mossy forest 苔むす森

ŒThe mossy forest 苔むす森

Me with Kikuchi-san

Me with Kikuchi-san

We had a bit of time heading back for more photographs and at a crossing of the stream, Mr. Kurihara was recording the sound of the running water while Mr. Mori filmed more scenery. I was enjoying having so much time for photography, quite different from the hurry and hustle of the previous visit.

With a bit of sunshine...

With a bit of sunshine…

...and without any sunshine.

…and without any sunshine.

When the working day had ended and we said farewell to Kikuchi-san, we then headed back to town for dinner. I noticed for the first time that the wall of the hotel restaurant was covered with calendars that recorded the weather dating back to 2005. Though known as the wettest place in Japan, the hotel’s records indicated that Yakushima experiences sometimes several days consecutively without rain. It seems my visit in early August, 2013 had come at the end of a month-long dry spell. Of course, this was the weather recorded at Miyanoura. Other parts of the island may have had different weather, possibly wetter weather.

The weather record

The weather recordfor 2013. Notice the empty circles in July. They are all consecutive days of sunshine.

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Seven: The Kosugitani Settlement

As planned, we left the Shin Takatsuka hut around 8:00 and began our descent. We passed the Jomon Sugi and I stopped for a few parting thoughts. The tree remained silent and unmoving.

We came to Wilson’s Stump and I wondered when I would be passing this way again. I had been so fortunate for both opportunities to come to Yakushima and see some of its great natural landmarks as well as gain knowledge of this splendid island.

As we descended we encountered a few small groups of visitors, mostly university students on a graduation trip. I recalled how in the summer our pace had been impeded horrendously due to the large number of tourist groups being led up the steps. Each time a group appeared, Mr. Kikuchi and I had had to stand aside and wait, sometimes for three groups in succession. This time the going was much swifter, though ice on the steps meant that we had to descend with caution.

We took a long break where we met up with the trolley rails and had lunch. The sun was still shining though a cloud cover was gradually covering the sky and thickening.

Some time later, we arrived back at the site of the Kosugitani Settlement. There was a view down to the green waters of the Anbo River and some enormous boulders. Mr. Mori and Mr. Kurihara were going to do some filming here and so I once again broke loose from the group and went off on my own. I scrambled through the brush and clambered onto one of the huge boulders and began shooting the scenery here by the river.

Ä@B

x@B

IF

Once satisfied, I returned to a covered area with benches where the porters, Mr. Koga, and Mr. Ichino were talking. Two monkeys came down from a concrete slope that led into the forest. I had visited the school ground on my previous visit but I was unaware of a trail that led through the woods and around the old village site. I decided to go exploring.

First I walked up the concrete slope and looked at the scenery around me. It was a mossy forest with young trees now but until 1970 there had been homes and some community facilities here. I turned to my left and was surprised to see a Yakushika buck resting on a bed of moss barely three metres from me. He watched me without apprehension and chewed on something. I carefully lifted my camera and clicked off several exposures. He seemed curious but not at all alarmed. I bade him good day with a nod and thanked him for posing and set off through the trees.

A yakushika buck

A yakushika buck

At first I became aware only of some large concrete or brick blocks that were covered in moss and signified where houses had once stood. Then I began to notice stone steps, depressions in the ground, and discarded items of glass, porcelain, and rusting metal that lay half covered by the detritus of the forest floor. As I walked, I discovered a drain gutter, porcelain objects for electric wires, and some light blue bathroom tiles. The more I looked, the more I found. It occurred to me that the path led throughout the whole settlement site, past the foundation remains of buildings and abandoned items that people had tossed when they all left for good. It reminded me of the village site of the Nichitsu Mine in Saitama, where many useful items had just been left, except that the mining village in Saitama still had all the buildings standing.

Kosugitani settlement remains

Kosugitani settlement remains

ŒBathroom tiles?

ŒBathroom tiles?

I informed Mr. Ichino of my discoveries and showed him some of the photos I had taken. He permitted me to lead him up the path and he commented on the things I showed him. Then at last Mr. Mori and Mr. Kurihara returned and we all prepared for the last part of the hike back to the parking lot.

The sky had gradually been turning grey and when we finally reached the parking lot at the end of the trolley tracks, some very fine raindrops began to fall. We said our goodbyes to Mr. Koga and the porters, loaded ourselves into the taxi van, and headed back to our hotel in Miyanoura. We had the rest of the afternoon off and we all took advantage of being able to have a shower. I set off into town to search for a store where I could buy a few snacking items for the next day and then spent a bit of time relaxing and preparing my things for the next day before sitting down to dinner together with the other three. We toasted to our good fortune with the weather and our successful winter ascent of Miyanouradake. The biggest part of our trip was over; the main story for the TV program filmed. However, we had three more days with assignments planned for each of them. The adventure was not over yet.

Winter on Yakushima: Chapter Six – The White Mountain

Once more the moon peaked out from behind a dark and cloudy sky. The wind continued the swish through the forest canopy like waves over a coral reef. Though I didn’t feel it, someone noted the temperature was -8 degrees Celsius.

We stood outside the hut in the pre-dawn darkness with our headlights awakening the whiteness of the snow. It was time to climb the mountain.

Mr. Koga led the way with me following. Next came Mr. Ichino, Mr. Mori, and Mr. Kurihara, and behind them the two remaining porters who had scouted the route ahead the previous day. We tramped through the snow past the himeshara forest I had stopped at the day before and up the slope to the first viewpoint. As daylight strengthened we clicked off our headlights. At the first viewpoint, the sun was up over the ocean somewhere and the clouds were lifting enough so that we could see the intense golden glimmer of dawn on the water far below and in the distance. It was a magical moment of light.

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We pressed on to the second viewpoint though there were only the skirts of the mountains to see. Though the clouds prevailed, I did not lose heart. The weather forecast promised clearing skies later in the morning. It was still early.

As I had seen the day before, winter still maintained a grip on the scenery around here, and as we moved further along the route and higher up the mountain, the world around us grew more frigid. Trees were thickly encrusted in feather rime and snow covered the ground to nearly two metres we were told. At one point we had to enter a natural shelter made by overhanging ice-coated branches. Then we came out on an exposed slope and in the blue-grey light we found ourselves standing in a world of bizarrely sculpted ice forms. Trees were entirely covered in thick rime and the shakunage were only distinguishable by the few curled leaves that stuck out from large chunks of roughly chiselled lumps of ice. Feather rime covered everything like a growth in stagnant water.

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Along this ridge an enormous exposed knob of granite stood like an observatory dome. Its visibility changed as the clouds shifted. Then sunlight suddenly illuminated the dome. We lifted our eyes skyward and saw a hole in the clouds. The sun beamed through. Mr. Mori wanted to capture some of the scenery here, so I was afforded an opportunity to do the same. The sun came and went and the landscape changed with the light, mysterious and alien in the clouds, dazzling and fantastic in the sunlight.

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We ascended a rise and reached the top. The granite needle on Okinadake loomed in the distance. Miyanouradake remained cloaked. But the weather was without a doubt changing and the alpine world of Yakushima in its winter glory was becoming exposed before us.

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But quite literally, we were not out of the woods yet. Our route led us through thickets of trees and brush that probably formed a canopy over the trail in summer but now with two metres of snow, the trees clutched at the route, forcing us to crawl on our bellies in order to pass through. On three occasions, I had to lower my head so far that the top of my tripod, which was fastened separately from the legs, slid out from the elastic straps and landed in the snow. Each time I had to remove my pack and secure it once more, each time with more effort than the last. Crawling through these tunnels of branches was amusing at first, an added obstacle to our adventure, but it soon grew tedious and each subsequent barrier of trees made my mind weary for the forthcoming exercise.

Fortunately, we were ascending the mountain and the trees grew shorter, the depth of the snow overcoming their height and eliminating the need for us to wriggle under the branches. At last we were walking through the soft, dry snow under a brilliant sun and deep blue sky. I should mention that all this time we did not use crampons or snowshoes but instead had these simple rubber soles fitted onto our boots. The soles had small knobs of metal and were intended for use on icy city sidewalks. The were perfectly sufficient for our entire mountaineering experience on Yakushima, right from the first icy steps to the Jomon Sugi to the summit of the highest peak.

Now out in the open, Mr. Mori wanted to shoot Mr. Koga and me in different settings and from various angels as we climbed. Sometimes I was free to raise the camera for a few record shots. Sometimes I just waited and chatted with Mr. Koga. At one moment we were given the signal to start walking. As my feet pressed into the snow, I was suddenly overcome with an overwhelming feeling of contentment and joy. To be here in this wind-swept, snow-covered landscape with only the alpine scenery all around was such a feeling of elation. I was in my happy place, as they say.

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Looking back to the TV crew as we were filmed climbing the mountainside from a distance.

Looking back to the TV crew as we were filmed climbing the mountainside from a distance.

Feeling overjoyed to be in such surroundings

Feeling overjoyed to be in such surroundings

Miyanouradake comes out from the clouds

Miyanouradake comes out from the clouds

We were nearing the summit and by now we could barely tell granite boulder from frozen bush. Everything was a hard white lump of ornate frost on a soft bed of dry granular snow. Nagatadake watched our progress and Miyanouradake awaited our arrival with indifference. The clouds were gone. Only in the lower elevations over the sea did clouds still drift about lazily.

And then we were there. The final steps and Mr. Koga and I stood on the summit. The first time I had been here everything was a vibrant summer green with huge grey boulders and the blue of the sky and the ocean. I now stood in a white mountainous environment where the grey boulders looked darker in contrast with the snow and frost. But what fine weather we had been given once again. For the second time, I stood on the highest summit of the rainy island of Yakushima and basked in sunshine. The shrine in the cleft was visited again and we camera wielders set about our business. After what seemed like a leisurely time compared to the previous visit’s day-long rush, we were retracing our footprints in the snow.

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The route back was very different because the heat of the sun was rapidly changing the scenery. Among the trees, chunks of frost were breaking free and crashing to the ground. The branches were dripping and bare where earlier in the day they had been frozen white. I could not help but reflect on the weather of the last few days and consider how perfectly timed our climb had been. The day before we arrived, the temperatures had reached their lowest of the season with frost being seen near the coast. The day we started out had been rainy below but snowy above, and the day after, moisture-laden clouds had crossed the high mountains and their cargo of airborne water vapour had frozen to the trees and rocks. The sun had finally appeared to melt the ice but only as we descended. We could not have arrived on any better day in February!

Nagatadake

Nagatadake

Descending was easier as we slid and skittered down the slopes which were becoming like wet crushed ice. The tree tunnels were still a struggle to pass through but the going was faster on the downslope. At the second viewpoint we stepped out onto an exposed outcropping and took in the view of Okinadake and Miyanouradake. There was still time left and our shooting was done for the day, so Mr. Koga and I remained behind for another hour to photograph the late afternoon scenery, even though the sun was setting behind the mountains. The sunrise view should be spectacular I postulated. Unfortunately, sunrise was at 7:00 and we were to start on the trail down at that time. Even if I prepared all my belongings and rushed to the first viewpoint to capture the sunrise I would still not be back until around 8:00. I wanted to ask but I felt I couldn’t. No matter. Nature had bestowed me with more than enough gifts already on this trip. And there were still four more days to spend on this island with three or four more points of interest to see.

Okinadake and Miyanouradake

Okinadake and Miyanouradake

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Mr. Koga and I at last descended and returned to the shelter. Once again, we all spent an evening of food, a few sips of whiskey and potato wine, and stories of past adventures. I tried to enjoy every moment because I did not know when I would have the opportunity to experience days like this again.

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.