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.

2 responses to “Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Five: The Frozen Forest

  1. Yakushima in winter – indeed, an undiscovered world. Thanks for revealing it to us in prose and photography. And, when NHK produces the broadcast, perhaps you could add a link to their web clip, if any, on this post?

    • PH, many thanks for your comments. The program was broadcasted internationally on March 31st at five time slots. It was viewable on the NHK World web site and on some satellite channels in various countries. The previous Yakushima program was rebroadcasted twice after its initial airing, so we may expect this one to be shown again as well. When I hear news I will let you know.

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