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.

Day 1 061

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.

IF IF

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.

IF

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.

Day 1 07 rocks1

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.

Day 1 081

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.

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