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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.