3:30 A.M. I awoke and dressed, throwing the last couple of items in my pack. Today I was going to climb Miyanouradake. I met the others in the hotel lobby. Outside it was dark but still very warm and the sky remained clear. We loaded our packs and bags into the taxi van and set off for the mountains.
During the winding ride up past landscapes obscured in blackness with the occasional glimpse of distant lights near the coast, the camera and a spotlight were turned on me and I was asked for a short monologue about Miyanouradake and my interest in the Hyakumeizan. I spoke to the camera and at times let my gaze stray off to the shallow world of light in the taxi’s headlights. Mountains. My home territory. I knew what I was talking about.
We reached the trailhead. A few other vehicles were already parked there. We would not be taking the route up past the Jomon sugi like most people do but rather another lesser used route, and then descend by the route to the famous tree. We’d all been given two bentos, one for breakfast and one for lunch, but this early in the morning I was not hungry, especially after the previous night’s meal. Everyone else filled up while I wandered further up the road to check out the scenery. Daylight was soon to break.
My guide, Kikuchi-san and two porters who would help carry our camp gear and filming equipment arrived. We had met the day before when he came to our hotel and we discussed the plan. I had been told that we would stay in a cottage or hut and so I had not brought my tent or ground mat, only my sleeping bag. But the plan got changed and we were going to stay in tents that he would provide. I figured that I could do without my ground mat.
For the start of the trek, I was filmed greeting Kikuchi-san and asking him to guide me up the mountain. We set about our hike that would take us through the forest, over the highest peak on the island, and back down into the forest near the Jomon sugi – 11.5 kilometres in total for the first day. We were both wired with mics and Mr. Sasaki followed close behind with the video camera, and behind him Mr. Ohkawa with the microphone boom. Mr. Sato with his flying camera, video engineer assistant Mr. Hazui, director Mr. Hatanaka, and the two porters made this trek of a foreigner hiking with his Japanese guide a small caravan.
Kikuchi-san was a small and very thin but wiry man. He weighed less than my wife and carried a pack almost half his weight. He had moved to Yakushima about 10 years ago and now ran an outdoor goods store called Yakushima Messenger that also provided guide services. He was easy to talk to and had a deep knowledge of the island. As I had read a lot prior to coming, I was able to verify my knowledge and add copiously to it. During our hike through the forest, he often stopped to point out some tree or other plant, a flower or insect, and tell me about it. We encountered a wood leach that did not suck blood. I noticed stag beetle and was informed that it was the Yakushima oni-kuwagata, a devil stag beetle. It was not of great size compared to the ones boys usually get excited about, but its pincers curved up slightly at the tips giving the impression of devil horns.
We came across our first Yakusugi – an impressive sylvan monument aged over two thousand years. Though not very tall, the convoluted and gnarled wood with various other species of plants growing from its heavy limbs and clutching at the trunk left us without a doubt that we were in the presence of one of the senior denizens of the wood. The fir trees here were also so enormous that I did not recognize them for what they were.
A Yakusugi. Trees over 1,000 years old become Yakusugi. Younger than that they are only kosugi or little sugi.
Fir trees. There were jokes about decorating them for Christmas and using the helicopter camera to put the star on top.
Our party reached the first resting point and we threw down our packs. The crew went ahead over a bridge to inspect the angles for shooting Kikuchi-san and I as we crossed. Mr. Hatanaka said I had ten minutes. I pulled out the tripod and began exploring the nearby moss-covered roots and trunks. I found a good spot and heard his voice call out, “Five minutes,” and barely a minute later, “Okay, Peter. Time to go.”
Limited time only: rushed as I was, I neglected to check the focusing here.
The nature from the bridge was sure a delight, though. A stream flowed so smoothly and silently that it made nearly a perfect mirror for the sunlit tree branches. I quickly fired off a couple of shots from the bridge. At the other side it seemed I had a moment to go back but before I could start shooting further I was called again. They needed to shoot a scene of me concentrating on photographing a tiny cedar sapling sprouting from a luxurious bed of moss. I obliged and hoped that I would be able to steal a few minutes back on the bridge with the camera on the tripod. But it was time to saddle up again.
Resting the camera on the rail of the bridge because there was no time to set up the tripod.
The camera shooting the other camera shooting.
The trail was not difficult at all. It was mostly a gentle ascent through a rich forest of primordial beauty. This area had never been logged. We were inside the UNESCO site boundaries. The path was littered with white cubic stones. These I recognized as the nodules of orthoclase feldspar, which occur in rather large sizes in Yakushima granite, a testimony to the cooling process of the magma having been slow enough to allow for the formation of feldspar crystals but still too quick to permit large quartz crystal growth.
We began to climb more steeply and after a time, our path took us between shorter trees with views to the nearby mountaintops. Upon one such peak there sat a sourdough loaf-shaped boulder that looked as though it had been sliced and ready to serve. Kikuchi-san explained that it was called “Tofu Iwa” or “Tofu Rock”. This was not the original Tofu Rock, however. Another rock with more squared proportions acquired the name first. But a surveyor mistakenly believed that this was the rock and had it recorded for the maps.
We came up near Kuromidake, a popular peak with a path branching off to the summit. A viewpoint nearby offered us views over the trees and to four consecutive small peaks. Kikuchi-san said we would be passing between the one on the far right and the one to its immediate left. But first we had to descend to a peat bog nestled in a small valley between the great knolls of granite.
Just beyond them thar hills… are more of them thar hills.
At the peat bog, a doe and a fawn were grazing. We stayed on a boardwalk and I shot some of the scenes with the deer. Then Mr. Hatanaka gave me directions while Mr. Sato got his helicopter into the air. The buzzing of the six props, which sounded like some gigantic insect, startled the deer and they bolted into the bushes. I nevertheless continued my charade of photographing the wildlife as the helicopter flew before my camera lens.
Oyako – parent and child – out for a graze at the peat bog, Japan’s most southern peat bog thanks to the cooler climate up in the high mountains.
It was time for the final climb up out of the trees. We made a stop at a clear stream to fill up our water bottles. Though the map showed plenty of spots to get fresh water on our way to the summits, the recent dry weather left our guide wondering about the situation. I pointed out a small tree that resembled the alder trees of Canada’s west coast. Kikuchi-san seemed unfamiliar with it. Everyone shouldered his pack in full confidence that we would be able to find fresh water again soon. Was I the only one to pack an extra 2-litre bottle just in case?
Precious water. What could be more necessary under the searing sub-alpine sun? A hat?
Up we went and broke free of the forest. For the next few hours nothing would obscure our views of the summits of Yakushima.