Category Archives: Travel

An Unfinished Petra?

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A couple of years ago, there was a TV commercial in Japan for Google with a group of traveling friends who ask Google to locate the “Japanese Machu Pichu”. Google gives them the Takeda Castle in Hyogo Prefecture. Certainly there are some similarities – the stone remains of a mountaintop construction – but of course the scale of the Takeda Castle is much smaller, the mountain much lower, and the purpose of the initial construction quite different. It brings to mind how the highest ranges in Japan were christened the Japan Alps after the loftier and more extensive ranges of Europe.

Are these misnomers or do they bring false expectations? Are they exaggerations or blatant “wannabes”? Take them as you like. But I found the Petra of Japan last weekend.

I had originally planned to drive up Mt. Akagi to the crater lake and shrine for the national holiday on the 11th, but a road condition update stated that snow tires or chains would be necessary after last Thursday’s snow. Being aware that I may require a backup plan, I began searching the Web for places of interest around Mt. Akagi. That’s when I stumbled across a photo of the Yabuzuka Quarry in Ota City, just near the border to Kiryu in Gunma Prefecture.

The photo depicted towering stone walls cut into volcanic tuff. There seemed to be openings with chambers beyond. Trees and vegetation hung over the sheer cliffs. It immediately made me think of Petra in Jordan even though there were no ornate carvings and the rock type was not sandstone. What was the story behind this place? Upon first glance, I did not know it was a quarry. Further investigation revealed it to be so. Regardless of it not being an abode of ancient peoples, I wanted to go there, and it became the first stop for my companion and me early that holiday morning.

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There was no large parking lot and no tourist centre. No one and no structure was present to indicate that we were entering a historic site. A narrow road led into the hills and to the side there was a small graveled clearing capacious enough to accommodate at the best three economy-sized vehicles. A well-aged sign indicated that this was the entrance to the Yabuzuka Ishikiriba, or stone-cutting place. A simple path lead through the forest and into a gap cut into the hillside. Once through a narrow opening we stood in the centre of the old quarry, cliffs rising straight up all around us and an amphitheater leading off to the left to some dark chambers with a second open chamber before us. Steps appeared cut into the rock here and there but none ever reached ground level. Holes had been bored into the rock in places and in the one open chamber some wooden poles and platforms remained in place several metres above the ground. If this was Petra, it had only just been started before becoming abandoned.

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This, however, was not a Japanese Petra. The Yabuzuka Quarry was first opened in the middle Meiji Period. Around 1903 the quarry officially opened with up to 350 workers at its peak. The tuff – a rock made of compacted and consolidated volcanic ash from 20 million years ago – was easy to cut and was used as foundation stone in buildings. It was discovered though that tuff is very porous and easily absorbs water (it makes a great water filter as I learned in Miyagi two years ago). The rock here also contains small stones so that it was not the best quality for construction use, cheap though it was. By the Showa year 30 (1955) the quarry was closed. High up on the ceiling in the open chamber one can see some Kanji written in red and the year 1959.

The Yabuzuka Quarry makes for an interesting visit, and nearby there is the Yabuzuka hot spring spa, a country club, and a reptile centre.

It’s no Petra but we easily passed a couple of hours photographing the quarry ruins.

To see more photos, please visit my album on Flickr.

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Two Days to Get What I Could

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Just me. No wife. No kids. Just me. And I was feeling a little guilty about it.

Going back to Canada for the Christmas holidays this time was not about a family get together in the usual sense. There were some extra points to be weighed and considered. Firstly, the whole idea that I should go and visit was inspired by my mom’s 80th birthday in November. My work schedule could not have permitted taking time off then, but at Christmas I was off anyway. There was also the matter of my parents’ age and most concerning, my father’s incident last year where he fell and injured his back, leaving him in hospital for two or three weeks. His recovery was swift to the degree of nearly being a miracle, but I still wanted to check up on my mom and dad and see how well they were taking care of themselves. And then most tragically, a dear friend of mine revealed that he had liver cancer and, as his sister was to inform me, how much time there was left for him was uncertain. Though I did all I could to arrange time for seeing him again, he passed away just two days before I arrived back in Vancouver.

With all the above considered, there was furthermore my children’s age to consider. A boy of seven and a girl of nearly five who were used to the freedom of roaming and playing in their own home would likely be bored and become irritable spending two weeks in their grandparents’ condo. Perhaps once they are a little older we can all go.

So, it was just me and for only eight days. The plan was to spend most of the time with my parents and enjoy the company of my sister and her husband for a couple of days, and also to see my two closest friends and their families. In between all that I was determined to take a couple of days for a trip to the mountains. The original and admittedly ambitious plan was to drive to E.C. Manning Provincial Park (east of Vancouver) on the 26th and do a hike up to the summit of a small mountain (1,825m) called Windy Joe and then return to my parents’ home for the night, and then drive up north to Squamish and do a longer hike up to Elfin Lakes in Garibaldi Provincial Park.

The one glitch was that my snowshoe straps were discovered to be breaking (MSR snowshoe straps are apparently notorious for this) and I was unable to adequately repair them because the substitute item suggested on one web site was not available at the local home centre. In the end, I had to rent a pair from the Nordic Centre in Manning Park and there I decided that it would be much more sensible to just spend two days in the park, where I had a pair of snowshoes that fastened up properly, and skip the long hours on the road.

Windy Joe

I left around 5:30 a.m. after having had about three and a half hours sleep (watched Star Wars – The Force Awakens with a friend the night before) and drove carefully in the dark down a wet Highway 1 to Hope. From there I went over to Highway 3 and into the snow-covered world of the North Cascade Mountains. The sky began to turn pink and then orange over the mountains, and I had to make a quick pull over in order to grab a couple of shots before the moment passed.

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Dawn light over Manning’s mountains

At last around 8:00, I was at Manning Resort, though with the problems of finding where to park and where the trail to Windy Joe began and then my straps breaking more, it wasn’t until after 10:00 that I was at last on the three-hour plus hike to the summit. Though fresh power covered the landscape, Christmas holiday trekkers had trampled a trench into the snow, and it was easy to follow the route.

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Creek view along the trail

The first stretch led through the forest and was mostly level, and then the second stretch climbed a gentle slope for most of the way. There were a dozen of so places where fallen trees blocked the path and it was necessary to go around them and on the mountainside, this meant scrambling up the steeper slopes and going around. But until near the end of the hike, the going was quite easy. Only one short part of the route became steep; the snowshoe trench had become a bum-sliding chute here. Soon after, I reached the fire lookout on the summit of Windy Joe. The lookout had been used to look out for forest fires from 1950 to 1963. It was a small wooden structure with two floors and the second floor had illustrations of the surrounding views with landmarks labelled.

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Near the summit of Windy Joe

The sky remained overcast the whole hike, and here on the summit the sun was just a luminescent smudge in the clouds. Fortunately, the mountains all around were visible and I was at least able to examine the views and photograph them.

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The weather on Windy Joe

An Unexpected Night Hike

The hike back down took as long as the hike up; however, when I came to the road to the Gibson Pass Ski Area, I mistakenly crossed right away instead of continuing a little longer through the forest. It was already after sunset and the light under the overcast ski very dim. I had a headlight with me but thought that I would be back soon and didn’t take it out. I followed what turned out to be the Canyon Loop trail but found a sign that said it led to the resort in 1.8 km. By now it was dark and the headlight was put to use. The path, however, seemed to just lead further into the forest and began climbing a slope. I decided to turn back and met to other people out for a night hike.

At last back at the road, I was able to follow it to the resort. I ditched my gear in the car and went to a restaurant and tried to let my sweaty clothes dry a bit while I ate something that was not trail mix. A juicy burger with a salad hit the spot. Next I checked out the prices of the resort but $130 a night – the cheapest price – was too much for me. There was a wool blanket in my parents’ truck and I opted to sleep in the back. Actually, under the blanket and with my winter jacket spread over top, I was warm enough. It was just difficult to remain sleeping because of the need to stretch my legs from time to time. Instead of folding the seats down, I slept with them up, reasoning that having a cushiony surface on two sides of my body instead of just one would help retain heat.

Grassy Mountain

In the morning I went to the ski area and bought a one-time lift pass and rode up to the top of the ski run. From there I took a hike over to the top of Grassy Mountain – 1,888 metres. The hike was not as long and also easy, and the weather was better because when I first reached the summit, sunlight was breaking through the clouds in places.

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‰ Frosty Mountain

After feeling satisfied with the shoot, I continued with my plan to hike over to Poland Lake. But the path soon began to descent steeply and I was uncertain about whether or not I was going the right way. There were no signs and furthermore, the clouds were coming in thickly again. It decided that I would get my best shots back on the summit or, if the weather improved again, I could hike across to an exposed ridge on the over side of the ski lift. But on the summit again the clouds were coming in and swallowing up the mountains. I decided then to just head back and get an early start on the drive back. Snow was beginning to fall and it would be prudent to hit the highway in daylight.

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Two of the Three Brothers

I stopped to look at a map posted where the hiking course met up with the ski run and saw that the hike to Poland Lake went by a different route than the one I had taken. A sign posted on a nearby tree, however, indicated the way I had gone was the right way. Confusing. The topographic map, though, seemed correct as the route to the lake didn’t cross the summit of Grassy Mountain. No matter. My hike had given me some exercise and a few decent photos. I descended by lift and returned to the Nordic Centre to return my snowshoes.

A Snowy Drive Back

Fuel was low in the truck, so I decided to drive to the gas station just outside the east gate of the park, which was much closer. Along the way, I stopped for some photos of ice and snow on the Similkameen River and later on the way home, I tried to get a few shots of the mountainsides disappearing in the low cloud cover.

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Similkameen River side

Snow fell the whole afternoon, and I drove a below the speed limit. Many other vehicles roared passed me, though I later saw three cars that had slid off the highway and in one place on Highway 1, two vehicles heading east had thoroughly smashed each other into wrecks, the lights of ambulance, fire trucks, and police cars making a Christmas light scene in the dark.

A brief stop in Hope to completely fill the tank because gas was much cheaper there and a few shots of the darkening mountainsides in snow and I was off, my two-day mountain adventure tightly wrapped up. It felt greatly inspired once more to dream about where I could hike and photograph in my old territory, but those future adventures would be on some untold date in the far future.

 

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Seven: The Kosugitani Settlement

As planned, we left the Shin Takatsuka hut around 8:00 and began our descent. We passed the Jomon Sugi and I stopped for a few parting thoughts. The tree remained silent and unmoving.

We came to Wilson’s Stump and I wondered when I would be passing this way again. I had been so fortunate for both opportunities to come to Yakushima and see some of its great natural landmarks as well as gain knowledge of this splendid island.

As we descended we encountered a few small groups of visitors, mostly university students on a graduation trip. I recalled how in the summer our pace had been impeded horrendously due to the large number of tourist groups being led up the steps. Each time a group appeared, Mr. Kikuchi and I had had to stand aside and wait, sometimes for three groups in succession. This time the going was much swifter, though ice on the steps meant that we had to descend with caution.

We took a long break where we met up with the trolley rails and had lunch. The sun was still shining though a cloud cover was gradually covering the sky and thickening.

Some time later, we arrived back at the site of the Kosugitani Settlement. There was a view down to the green waters of the Anbo River and some enormous boulders. Mr. Mori and Mr. Kurihara were going to do some filming here and so I once again broke loose from the group and went off on my own. I scrambled through the brush and clambered onto one of the huge boulders and began shooting the scenery here by the river.

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Once satisfied, I returned to a covered area with benches where the porters, Mr. Koga, and Mr. Ichino were talking. Two monkeys came down from a concrete slope that led into the forest. I had visited the school ground on my previous visit but I was unaware of a trail that led through the woods and around the old village site. I decided to go exploring.

First I walked up the concrete slope and looked at the scenery around me. It was a mossy forest with young trees now but until 1970 there had been homes and some community facilities here. I turned to my left and was surprised to see a Yakushika buck resting on a bed of moss barely three metres from me. He watched me without apprehension and chewed on something. I carefully lifted my camera and clicked off several exposures. He seemed curious but not at all alarmed. I bade him good day with a nod and thanked him for posing and set off through the trees.

A yakushika buck

A yakushika buck

At first I became aware only of some large concrete or brick blocks that were covered in moss and signified where houses had once stood. Then I began to notice stone steps, depressions in the ground, and discarded items of glass, porcelain, and rusting metal that lay half covered by the detritus of the forest floor. As I walked, I discovered a drain gutter, porcelain objects for electric wires, and some light blue bathroom tiles. The more I looked, the more I found. It occurred to me that the path led throughout the whole settlement site, past the foundation remains of buildings and abandoned items that people had tossed when they all left for good. It reminded me of the village site of the Nichitsu Mine in Saitama, where many useful items had just been left, except that the mining village in Saitama still had all the buildings standing.

Kosugitani settlement remains

Kosugitani settlement remains

ŒBathroom tiles?

ŒBathroom tiles?

I informed Mr. Ichino of my discoveries and showed him some of the photos I had taken. He permitted me to lead him up the path and he commented on the things I showed him. Then at last Mr. Mori and Mr. Kurihara returned and we all prepared for the last part of the hike back to the parking lot.

The sky had gradually been turning grey and when we finally reached the parking lot at the end of the trolley tracks, some very fine raindrops began to fall. We said our goodbyes to Mr. Koga and the porters, loaded ourselves into the taxi van, and headed back to our hotel in Miyanoura. We had the rest of the afternoon off and we all took advantage of being able to have a shower. I set off into town to search for a store where I could buy a few snacking items for the next day and then spent a bit of time relaxing and preparing my things for the next day before sitting down to dinner together with the other three. We toasted to our good fortune with the weather and our successful winter ascent of Miyanouradake. The biggest part of our trip was over; the main story for the TV program filmed. However, we had three more days with assignments planned for each of them. The adventure was not over yet.

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.

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Four: Back into the Woods

It was dark outside at five o’clock. I pushed aside the curtain and tried to see the sky. No stars. That at least meant it had become cloudy. Ten minutes later, the sound of heavy rain surrounded the hotel. That was what the weather forecast for today had stated: rain in the morning. No matter. I had my rain gear ready and I prepared my backpack with a pack cover. Prior to leaving for Yakushima, I had applied water repellent spray to my boots. I was ready for rain. And in fact, I was looking forward to it. My previous visit had been a hot and dry trek through the forest and over the mountains. I had not seen Yakushima’s forests as I had hoped: green and misty and damp. This was my chance.

The volume of the rain slackened and when we loaded the van at six it was just a usual rain. As we drove to the mountains, however, I spied a light in the clouds and soon the moon appeared lighting the edge of a dark rain cloud. What a contrast as the mountains remained dark and obscured while over the sea stars looked in and the moon watched us ascend the winding road into the inky blackness.

Somewhere dawn came, and by the time we reached the parking lot and rest house at the logging trolley tracks, there was light enough to see the dull colours of the grey winter forest scene. The four of us disembarked from the van and our guide and three porters greeted us. I noticed a Caucasian man with a bushy beard sitting in a small parked car, and as we hauled our loaded packs into the shelter of the rest house, a young Japanese woman on a motor scooter arrived in outdoor clothes, her jacket wet from the rain but her eyes carefully prepared with mascara and eyeliner. After we had eaten our bento breakfasts, I approached the young woman and struck up a conversation. She had come here to climb up to the Jomon Sugi (that mightiest of the ancient cedars) and photograph herself holding a sign congratulating two friends on their wedding. The weather, however, was not favourable and so she intended to head back down. She saw the TV camera and asked if we were here for a television program. I explained that we were shooting for an NHK World program called “Journeys in Japan” and that we were going to climb Miyanouradake. She asked if I would mind taking a photo together with her.

Once we were ready to go we shot the commencement scene where I meet my guide, Mr. Koga and we set off along the trolley rails together. The rain would ease off for a moment and return with such frequency that I gave up optimistically removing my hood and just left it on my head for a while. We crossed the first bridge and I got a view of mists rising from the forested slopes of the mountainside. Just then, a beam of sunlight brightened a streak of treetops. It faded but returned and repeated its fleeting appearance. It was like a Morse code slowed down. But that at least reaffirmed my faith in the weather report which had called for rain only in the morning. Somewhere up there the clouds were moving about and the sun was finding a way in. Which meant that I had better get as many green and wet forest shots as I could while the conditions prevailed.

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Walking along the trolley tracks I tried to remember places I might have passed. There was a tunnel we had to pass through, a few bridges to cross, and some views into the misty river gorge. Hail fell at one point and the rain continued to come and go. Blue sky appeared through the clouds now and again. We passed under a flume that directed water over our heads. It splashed down onto the track on either side. There was a broad granite slope that had been desiccated on my previous trek buy. I remembered seeing the brown and shriveled sundew plants. Now the rock face was green and wet. Mr. Koga said it was too early for sundew plants but we spotted a few anyway.

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Along the way, there were stops for filming. Mr. Koga and I had to wait while Mr. Mori and company ran ahead to set up and shoot us walking up the tracks. At one place I had to wait several minutes and took the opportunity to shoot some forest scenes. The light was rather low and I should have been using a tripod but I never knew when I would have to be ready to shuffle off. So I did my best to shoot handheld by bracing the camera against a tree when possible.

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Our path crossed yet another bridge over the Anbo River and at the other side was the site of the old Kosugitani settlement. This had been where the logging community had lived until August 18th, 1970. That day the settlement was officially closed and logging of the yakusugi no longer permitted. Here, the others did some more filming of scenery while I went to shoot from the bridge. Sunshine continued to make fleeting appearances. The rain had finally given up.

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From here we went onwards and after a while we encountered snow on the track. A small yakushika, the native deer crossed the tracks in front of us. The animal was in its winter coat I noticed, recalling the scene I had captured the last time of light brown deer with white spots. With its thick dun-coloured coat, this deer looked like a separate species.

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When we came to the end of the track for us, we took a short break and then began the trek up into the forest. There were many steps to climb up steeper parts of the path and snow had been trampled into ice. Mr. Koga had given us these rubber things to slip over the soles of our boots. They had small knobs of metal on the bottom for gripping into icy patches. Intended for safely navigating iced-over city sidewalks, these simple little things would actually be sufficient for our entire snow experience on Yakushima.

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We stopped to admire trees and Mr. Koga shared his knowledge. I felt a little sorry for him because Mr. Kikuchi had told me so much the last time that there was not a lot of information that was new to me.

We stopped to shoot at Wilson’s Stump and I successfully made a better exposure looking out of the stump than I had in the summer two years before. And after pressing on for a time more, we came to the Jomon Sugi, my second time to lay eyes upon the symbol of the island.

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IF   Not far from the Jomon Sugi was a shelter. We were actually supposed to have stopped at the Shin Takatsuga hut some distance farther along the path but we had spent time shooting here and there. The daylight was beginning to fade and the clouds were filling the forest. Granular snow started falling. Mr. Ichino and Mr. Koga conferred and it was agreed that we would spend the first night here and move on to the Shin Takatsuga hut in the morning. As for the weather, we had received the predicted morning rain and even had a bit of sun in a few random patches. With nightfall came the clouds and wind that we were told to expect on the second day. So far we were off to a pretty decent start.

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.

Winter in Yakushima – Chapter Two: A New Adventure

I have never asked my wife to take me to the train station in the early morning or to pick me up late at night. When I got up at 4:30 on February 11th and made myself ready to leave for the airport, I was fully prepared to walk the twenty minutes with both my hiking backpack and my camera pack. But my wife woke up early to have a cup of café ole with me and then offered to drive me to the station. Our two children were sleeping soundly and we hoped that during the 10 minutes or so that she’d be gone neither would wake.

I was going to be away for eight days, the longest I had ever been away since we had children. I hoped that she would be able to cope on her own. Our two little darlings can be quite the handful, as I am sure any parent facing a two-against-one situation with their kids will concur. I boarded the first train of the day at 5:40 and enjoyed a relaxing ride until crossing the river into Tokyo where I had to transfer. The holiday assured that there would not be as many people as on a typical weekday morning, and so even boarding the monorail to Haneda Airport was fairly smooth.

Memories of my previous trip to Yakushima surfaced as I searched for my travel mates. I recalled Mr. Hatenaka’s smiling bearded face, and the friendly relaxed nature of the crew to whom I was introduced in the check in queue. This time I already had met the crew once two weeks prior in Shibuya. Mr. Ichino was assigned as director. With much experience climbing mountains in Japan in the winter, he would be well-prepared for our snowy ascent of Miyanouradake. I was later to learn that he had been to Greenland, Iceland, the table lands of Venezuela a few times, and several other exciting places in the world. He started out, as he would later tell us one night, as a salesman for Asahi Beer. After three years he quit and turned to acting, during which time he appeared in some TV dramas. But he decided that directing was more for him and studied to be a nature documentary director.

Other members of our team were to be Mr. Mori, a veteran world traveler and camera operator and the oldest member of our group. He would tell of his experiences in Chad, northern Canada, Antarctica, and other places. As it would turn out, Mr. Mori had also been the cameraman shooting the scenes I had watched on TV of the two climbers in the snow on Yakushima. Our youngest member, Mr. Kurihashi the sound engineer, had done a bit of traveling abroad for work as well. At dinner times I would listen to my companions talk about their adventures abroad and other well-known people in the documentary business of whom I had never heard. Thankfully, I would at least be able contribute with a few stories of my own of foreign travel experiences.

Unlike the previous trip where I had met the rest of the crew for the first time and there had been a round of introductions, this time was very casual. Mr. Ichino greeted me and let me step in front of him in the queue for check in. The other two were nearby and gave a simple morning greeting. The feeling was like this was just another day of work for the four of us. Perhaps everyone else was still in early morning mode.

Before long we were taking our seats on the plane and I noticed that we were all seated separately. That meant I could plug in to some music and keep a watch out the window and snap some scenes above the clouds with my phone camera.

Walk the plank! Looking down shortly after take-off

Walk the plank! Looking down shortly after take-off

The tip of the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa

The tip of the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa

Numazu City, the Izu Peninsula and Izu Oshima beyond

Numazu City, the Izu Peninsula and Izu Oshima beyond

What would this trip to Yakushima bring? As I watched Tokyo disappear below and then saw the golden orange and yellow reflected light on Tokyo Bay, I wondered what weather would be in store for us. The previous visit had been at the very end of a three-week drought and we had enjoyed sunshine for four of the five days. Only on the last day did we experience the heavy tropical rains. At least I knew to expect rain frequently. It would be a little warm by the shore but the high mountains were covered in snow and the night time temperatures were still down just below zero. Snow would be alright. Heavy rain would not be so welcome. But I wasn’t able to shoot satisfactory forest views in the bright sunshine of the previous visit. Some rain would be essential for creating typical Yakushima forest scenery.

We sailed over the clouds most of the way to Kyushu and descended through them to Kagoshima. I noticed that the volcanoes of both Sakurajima and Kirishima were smoking. The sky seemed to be clearing as our small prop plane flew from Kagoshima to Yakushima. I caught sight of Satsuma Iwojima and saw the volcano was smoking as well. The mountains of Yakushima came into view. It was partly cloudy weather and sunshine was streaking in here and there. This was a good start.

The approach to Yakushima

The approach to Yakushima

At the airport there was no filming of me stepping onto the airstrip and taking in the view as there had been last time. We simply stood waiting for our packs in the tiny airport and then loaded them into the taxi van. The driver came round and began chatting to the director. I recognized his jovial expression and friendly manner. He had been my driver on the previous trip. I asked him if he remembered me and he seemed put on the spot. No matter. It made me feel welcome to return to a place now familiar to me and see a face I knew.

The Mr. Ichino instructed the driver to take us to a Korean restaurant for lunch. I was back on Yakushima with much to look forward to. The taxi van left the airport and we set out on the road for day one of our Yakushima adventure.