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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.