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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSCSONY DSC

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.

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.