Tag Archives: Journeys in Japan

Up and Running!

Before I take time to write a proper blog entry, I wish to make a quick announcement about my latest book project, “Waterside: Photograph’s from the Water’s Edge“.

I began working on it early in the year, or perhaps late last year, when I decided that I had a number of very nice waterside-themed images from around Saitama, Japan, and other places in the country, as well as some good ones from Canada.

As the project developed, I decided to add more locations and I began setting out very early in the morning or even the night before to reach locations that were a little far from my home. Last weekend, I finally made it to the last location for the project, the Onamitsuki Coast in Chiba.

Only 30 minutes ago, the finalized book was uploaded to the blurb.com web site and it’s ready for previewing and ordering.

In other news, the NHK World program, “Journeys in Japan” episode about Taisetsusan in Hokkaido is available for view-on-demand at the web site. You can watch the incredible scenery, the wild flowers, bears, and me!

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Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Two

There were eight of us. Leading the way was the guide, Mr. Morishita, a thirty-something man from Chiba who had fallen in love with the nature of Hokkaido and was now working as a guide, leading folks into the mountains all over the island. I followed him and listened as he explained about the vegetation and the landscape. Behind me was the cameraman, Mr. Tsujinaka. TV camera operators always strike me as being so calm and mild-tempered, and Mr. Tsijinaka was no different. He was also taller than me. Tethered to his camera by microphone cord was Mr. Okawa. When he had stepped up to me at the airport to introduce himself as the sound recorder, I had immediately recognized him and interrupted him, “Okawa-san! Long time no see! We worked together on Yakushima four years ago.” Indeed, he was the same sound engineer from my first Journeys in Japan gig.

IMG_2599

Camera and sound – shooting ukon’ utsugi blossoms

The director, Mr. Ichino came next. We had first met during my winter trip to Yakushima and he had called on me last year to climb Akagisawa in the Kita Alps and explore Kumonodaira for the TV program. This was my third time working under his direction. Bringing up the tail, or sometimes rushing up to the front to be out of the camera view, were three young men serving as porters. One was twenty-five and studying for his masters degree in Sapporo and the other two were first year university students. The 19-year-old Yamada made an impression on me as he was so enthusiastic about mountains and commented on the first day, “To be getting paid to climb mountains is the best!”

We descended from Kurodake down the slope from the summit to a broad and almost level bench. The clouds would sometimes erase the world and leave us walking in grey mist. Other times they would grant us glimpses of the green-coated, rugged lava landscape off to the distant left. Mr. Morishita pointed out more species of wildflowers and I kept recording their names in my iPhone note pad. As I looked at the obviously wind-blasted environment, I began pondering why so many species of flowering plants had made their homes in this harsh landscape. Why not only a few species?

32M イワブクロ

Iwabukuro – Pennellianthus frutescens

The path descended once more and the vegetation rose up around us. Japanese rowan took over for the creeping pine and the flowers beneath the green canopies stood taller. The familiar white blossoms of bunchberry dogwood appeared in a large patch. I remarked to Mr. Morishita that these flowers had grown in the woodlots of my neighbourhood. In fact, whenever I climb mountains in Japan I always encounter familiar plants that I know from the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, Canada. The climate of higher elevations in Japan is similar to that of the latitude of my homeland.

26M ゴゼンタチバナ

Gozentachibana – Bunchberry dogwood Cornus canadense

We emerged from the greenery to cross a large strip of snow filling a shallow ravine and on the other side we were met by a wonderful garden of green hummocks with white blossoms. I was glad to know that the shelter and tent site were just around the corner because that meant I could steal moments of downtime to dash over here and photograph the scenery properly with a tripod. While on the move, I have to always capture everything handheld, which I prefer not to do if I can use a tripod. When I go out to photograph on my own, the camera stays mounted on the tripod.

05M チングルマの花畑

Chinguruma – Geum pentapetalum

The shelter buildings were simple and rudimentary, single-floor, wooden structures. There were only rooms for sleeping and toilet facilities, which required pedaling a wheel-less bicycle to churn a large screw that mixed up the waste with sawdust and bacteria. There was a table and a couple of chairs next to a small bookshelf and a reception desk that sold a few items like bear bells. Outside were picnic tables, and following a path through some bushes led one to the tent site. Tents were provided by our guide and his crew and each of us got his own one-man tent except for the guide and his team, who shared a large dome tent spacious enough for all of us to sit inside and share meals together, which were also prepared by the guide and his team.

This is where we stayed for two nights and from where we made out excursions out to explore and learn about the flowers and other plants. This is when Mr. Morishita would share with us his knowledge of alpine flora.

22M コマクサ

Komakusa – Dicentra peregrina

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part One

Alpine wildflowers. I like them. I stop to photograph them. I know a few of their names. And now I was standing amidst the rugged rocky peaks of a volcano complex in the centre of Hokkaido for the purported reason of having come to see wildflowers. Not the volcano. Not the steaming fumaroles and the sulphureous deposits. Not the dozen or so varieties of volcanic rock. I said I was here to see the wildflowers and was told that my interest in geology was not important to the program. Well, okay then. Let’s check out the wildflowers.

Taisetsusan

Big Snow Mountain – Taisetsusan. That’s the Japanese name. The aboriginal Ainu people called it Kamui Mintara – the Playground of the Gods. Central Hokkaido is home to some volcanic mountain ranges, and the highest summit of them all is Asahidake – 2,291 metres – in the Taisetsusan Mountains. The whole area is a remarkable natural wonder: a volcanic plateau with soaring cliffs replete with cascading ribbons of white water, hot springs, volcanic cones and craters, noxious volcanic gases, and beautiful ponds. It is also host to vast alpine meadows, and from base to summit, there are approximately some 270 species of wildflowers.

I was asked to be there for an upcoming episode of Journeys in Japan, my fourth appearance on the program. Previously I had climbed mountains on Yakushima and scrambled up waterfalls in the Kita Alps. Adventure and new challenges had been the order in the past. This time I was going to explore alpine meadows and learn about flowers. I was excited about the trip! There was the possibility of climbing Asahidake, which would have been my 35th Hyakumeizan. There was also word of a species of flower that grew only near a bubbling mud pit and nowhere else in the world. Visions of a Japanese Rotorua came to mind. In addition, part of the itinerary included seeking out the Ezo brown bear, the higuma. For me, the wildflowers would be but a pleasant bonus.

Taisetsusan’s summer weather is a wreck. High peaks stand above the pastoral hills and fields where cows graze, and those peaks trap every current of moist air passing through, forcing them up into the cooler air and causing clouds and rain to frequently hold parties at the higher elevations. A playground indeed. For the weather Gods. Our director had been there three weeks earlier, running the course that he’d planned for the program. Running through fog and strong winds and not seeing a damn thing! “Why did I come here?” he reflected as he told us about his reconnaissance trip. “It was just training for running in the mountains.”

The weather Gods were there for the summer break. The first night it rained in the Sounkyo Canyon where we stayed in a hotel. But the sun came out in the morning and we rode the gondola and chair lift under blue skies. True to mountain weather form, however, as we made our way up the trail to Kurodake, clouds drifted in and erased the view.

The flowers were blooming. It was no surprise to see many varieties of blossoms or even to see large swaths of alpine flowers. But as the guide began pointing out species after species, I began to appreciate why Taisetsusan was known for its flora. 

A bush-like plant called ukon’utsugi was particularly interesting. A tube like blossom in pale yellow, it had a clever method of communicating to insects about its pollen. The inside bottom of the blossom was a golden orange colour, which is easily seen by visiting insects. This is like an open for business sign, saying, “Pollen here!” Once the pollen has been removed, the colour changes to a deep red – “Pollen sold out!” In this way, insects can soon find where to get pollen and the plant can ensure insects don’t waste time searching depleted pollen stores.

The clouds enveloped the mountain. At the summit, I smiled and shook hands with my guide in a grey shroud. To our surprise, another film crew was there. With two cameras and larger staff, the NHK Hyakumeizan TV program crew were also covering a story on Taisetsusan.

It was then that the clouds began to part and views across the highland between the peaks were revealed to us. Cameras were parked on tripods and the precious moment was captured. The clouds played a game of conceal-and-reveal a couple of times more before we began to move on, descending toward the Kurodake shelter and tent site. Now we were heading into the world of alpine vegetation. I did not anticipate how interesting it was going to be.

9M ウコンウツギ

Ukon’utsugi – Weigela middendorffiana

17M チシマキンバイソウ

Chishima kinbaisou – Trollius riederianus

19M チシメフウロウ

Chishima fuurou – Geranium erianthum

44M 黒岳より北鎮岳

View from the summit of Kurodake – Hokuchindake (centre) and Ryoundake (right)

Winter on Yakushima – Chapter 10: The Final Day

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Back in August 2013, the last day of the five-day trip to Yakushima had been planned by Mr. Hatanaka as a day for fun. Our shooting objectives wrapped up more or less, we went river kayaking, visited a hot spring, and went souvenir shopping before heading back to the airport. This time, under the directorship of Mr. Ichino, even with eight days we were busy shooting until the last moment. Had I not wandered out exploring one late afternoon between returning to the hotel and meeting for dinner and found a large souvenir shop, I would have had to do all my souvenir shopping at the meagre store in the tiny airport.

We’d had a lot of experiences already. After our four-day mountaineering trek, I had felt that we had already accomplished our prime objective and that the rest was just filler. However, the visit to Unsuikyo was a treat in itself and learning about the white pines as well as other aspects of the Yakushima forests and their problems confirmed that every day spent on the island was educational and fulfilling.

So, on our final day there, we were off round the east side of Yakushima and heading to the southern part. Our first two stops were for some views of rivers and mountains. Once more I saw the view of the Anbo River from the high bridge over the waters.

The Anbo River looking downstream

The Anbo River looking downstream

The Anbo River looking upstream

The Anbo River looking upstream

Next was Senpiro Falls, which I was eager to see. It is one of Japan’s 100 selected waterfalls (hyakusen no taki 百選の滝) and I hadn’t received the chance to see it on my previous visit. The waterfall itself is impressive as it plummets over a granite precipice, but more than that, there is a huge slope of exposed granite to the left side. When it rains heavily, not only does the waterfalls flush with white water but streams of white streak the face of the granite slope like ribbons. We were in for yet another day of fine weather as only a few small clouds scudded across a vast azure sky. As an added surprise, we found a cherry tree in bloom at the parking area!

Senpiro Falls

Senpiro Falls

The grand view

The grand view

In spite of the feeling of freedom that imbued my spirits, we were on a schedule still. I wandered down the path to a viewpoint of the falls and snapped a few shots only to find Mr. Ichino approaching from behind with the words, “Alright, let’s getting moving now.”

We next visited a seaside hot spring that is only accessible when the tide is out. I have had a few memorable hot spring experiences in Japan but this was a first – there was no bath house! I simply walked down a concrete walkway to where a line was painted and the instructions to remove footwear. Once my boots and socks were off I walked over to where several pools of varying sizes had been made with concrete between the rocks and boulders that comprised the sea shore. It was here that I disrobed – no screen or cover – and slide into the hot water. The view from the pool was unusual to say the least. In the near distance beyond the wavelets of the hot spring pool, the waves of the ocean crashed and foamed over the rocks. The tide was out for now. When it came in again, the hot spring would be submerged.

Seaside hot spring

Seaside hot spring

I tried to relax and enjoy the moment. The ocean thundered with restraint not far to my right. Black and grey rocks surrounded me and green coastal vegetation covered the slope nearby. In the distance to my left, green mountains with grey protrusions of stone made their skyline under the blue heavens. Mr. Ichino and Mr. Kurihara stood some distance away while Mr. Mori darted about here and there with his camera. Ordinarily, towels are not permitted in the hot spring water and swimwear is strictly prohibited. But for filming purposes, one may bring a towel to cover oneself. I had wrapped a typical white hot spring towel around my hips and was trying to be at ease in the hot water; however, buoyancy caused my hips to raise up and the towel came loose more than once. This required constant adjustment and an effort to sit in the water and still look relaxed without worrying about offering a peep show to the camera (was he using a zoom lens?). I closed my eyes. I opened them and looked thoughtfully at the sea and the sky. And when I looked at the greenery and rocks, I was sure to see a camera lens pointing my way.

After several minutes, two elderly men came to join me. They were local residents but retirees from Tokyo. They came to the hot spring daily, or at least when weather permitted. They explained that locals referred to the tide schedule to plan their visits. For those who didn’t like the water too hot, it was best to dip in shortly after the tide had receded and the water was still mixed with cool sea water. Those preferring hotter water could wait until the hot ground water had heated the pools more. My two new companions were supposed to have played tennis but the wind was too gusty that day and so they retreated to the relaxing waters of the seaside hot spring.

Next we were on a flower hunt. Our first stop was near a large hotel overlooking the sea. Along the road leading to the hotel there were hibiscus flowers blooming. Mr. Mori shot different takes of me walking past the red blossoms and then we each had time to shoot on our own.

Hibiscus in February

Hibiscus in February

Next we were off to a sunflower patch. Canola was also in bloom. I marvelled at the thought that we were experiencing spring scenery around here with all the blossoms: sunflowers, canola, hibiscus, and cherry, among a few others we had noticed from the window of the taxi van. Yet only a few days prior we had been tramping through snow beneath ice-encrusted trees in the mountains of the interior and seen leaves of yellow and red round the northern tip of the island. How remarkable to consider seeing three seasons in one week on such a small island!

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Our flower session over, we were at last on our way back to the airport. I sat comfortably and felt satiated having seen and done so much. It had been a long time since I last enjoyed so many things on a trip of such length. But I had not had enough of Yakushima. For I understood that the mountains in spring were another sight to behold and there were still places of interest I had not yet visited. Could I hope to return again some day?

As our flight crossed the sky over Yokohama, I could see snow streaking past the window. The snow turned to rain as we descended to Haneda Airport. The hibiscus blossoms, the blue sky and green mountains, and the silver waves on the sea were now confined to memory. Our journey was over. We collected our luggage and parted ways. The three members of the TV crew would still meet again and possibly work together again. Meanwhile I thanked them and set off on my own, returning to my ordinary life. What a wonderful job it must be working for documentary television. Maybe I would be so lucky as to be asked to do this again someday.

Winter on Yakushima – Chapter Nine: Sylvan Defenders, Part One

Kenshi Tetsuka’s house would have been called a dump in the neighbourhood where I grew up, but out here on the green, forested slope of a mountainside on Yakushima, I found it to be quite enchanting. The whole thing had been constructed of wood thirty years ago by Mr. Tetsuka himself, and in Yakushima’s damp climate, the house had become mottled with the colours of various lichens and mosses and whatever other woodland growths had made a home upon the surface of the weathered wood panels.

There was a litter’s worth of cats and a litter of sea shells around the house. Ferns grew in normal size except for a tree-sized species that looked to me like the tree ferns of New Zealand. The forest hung over the back of the house and a slope dropped away in the front with a view through the trees to a neighbour’s house some hundred metres away. Through the windows I could see books lining every visible shelf, and there were shelves anywhere a shelf could have been affixed between two walls.

Kenshi Tetsuka at home

Kenshi Tetsuka at home

Mr. Tetsuka had moved to Yakushima thirty years ago from Iruma City in Saitama. He lived here on the mountainside with his wife in a house with only enough electricity for lights and an old record player for some even older jazz records. The most modern of things in the house were his computer and CD player. Mr. Tetsuka didn’t have a TV.

We were here on his patio sipping herbal tea served by his wife and talking about the Yakushima white pine, known in Japanese as the yakutane-goyo (ヤクタネゴヨウ). Yaku and Tane come from Yakushima and Tanegashima respectively and are given as a prefix because these are the only two places in the world where these trees remain growing. Goyo (五葉) refers to the five needles that grow in each fascicle. The trees have become a concern because they are dying, and Mr. Tetsuka and his colleagues have been researching the possible causes and cataloguing every tree on the island, by no means an easy task because the Yakushima white pine prefers a habitat of cliff environments. So far, they have recorded 200 trees on Tanegashima and 2,000 on Yakushima.

Our taxi van drove along the Seibu Forest Road, the stretch of Yakushima’s circumnavigating highway that narrows and winds along the steep granite slopes that plunge directly into the ocean. In places, the granite bedrock emerges from the forest cover like the talons of some colossal bird dipping its toes in the sea. We stopped at one curve in the road and got out, and Mr. Tetsuka directed our attention to some granite cliffs that rose into the cloud cover while passing beams of cloud-filtered sunlight moved across the vertical landscape. Standing out clearly from the thick green forest cover were numerous white tree skeletons. All of those white trees, Mr. Tetsuka told us, were dead yakutane-goyo. He said that here on the west side of the island the damage was particularly bad.

White pine skeletons

White pine skeletons

What was killing off the trees? It had begun to escalate within the last 20 years or so, he explained. There were a couple of plausible reasons such as pine beetle infestation and Yakushima’s explosive deer population which meant more deer were nibbling the saplings. But Mr. Tetsuka and his colleagues had set up air quality testing stations at three elevations on the island and had found that a more worrying element was most likely the cause. When we had told him about our climb to the summit of Miyanouradake and all the feather rime we had seen, Mr. Tetsuka had said, “Oh, I wish I could have a sample of that feather rime. You see, the wind comes from the Asian continent and any particulate matter borne on that wind would be frozen in the ice – evidence of what we have been trying to prove. We are quite certain that the reason for the sudden increase in tree deaths is because of pollution coming from China.

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Mr. Tetsuka explained that the usual pine trees found in Japan have two needles sprouting from each fascicle. The yakutane-goyo has five. These five needles act like a catcher’s glove that trap particulate matter in the air. These minute particles then lodge themselves in the stomata of the needles – those tiny pores through which gases and water vapour can pass, allowing the tree to breathe. In other words, China’s industrial air pollution was suffocating Yakushima’s white pines.

IF

We drove on and came to a stop once more. Here we all got out and Mr. Tetsuka told us that he was going to lead us from here up into the forest to show us some of the yakutane-goyo. This was part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and ordinarily visitors are not permitted. Mr. Tetsuka had been granted special permission to lead us into his research area for the Journeys in Japan program. He reminded us not to damage anything intentionally and to take great care not to damage anything by accident. After saying a short prayer to the mountain gods, he led us up a steep slope leading through the brush at the roadside and soon we were ascending the crest of a ridge extending down mountainside.

Thinking of what I had seen of Yakushima’s forests so far, I was puzzled by the openness between the trees here. There was no thick mossy carpet, and no ferns and flowers were sprouting up everywhere. The leaf strewn forest floor supported only three kinds of undergrowth: the thorn-bearing bush of about 20 to 30 centimetres high, and two other types of bushy undergrowth that were well-spaced apart. Mr. Tetsuka pointed out the lack of vegetation variety and said that it was because of the deer. Since the creation of the UNESCO site, the hunting of deer became illegal and the population as been increasing. The deer strip away everything from the forest floor except for the plants that are too bitter, poisonous, or covered in thorns.

Though a man with a thick head of grey hair, Mr. Tetsuka was spry and agile as he lead us up the mountainside. We soon came to a most bizarre tree. It looked like a biology experiment had congealed and a tree with parts resembling a spider’s anatomy was sprouting from the grotesque formation. It was in fact all one single tree called ako (Ficus superba var. japonica). Ako grow around other trees, slowly sending out parts that are neither roots nor branches that grow together and form a net around the host tree. The net gradually thickens and the individual strands grow thicker as the ako drains nutrients from its host. At last the host dies and the ako tree by this time has secured its own roots in the forest floor and can support itself. Eventually the host tree decays and a hollow basket that looks like some science fiction horror creation remains with the ako tree standing up from it. We came across a yakutane-goyo with an ako attached to it, already creating its network of choking strands. The ako is actually a tropical tree but parts of yakushima provide a comfortable climate. As it was, that particular plant was a little higher up than usual and the yakutane-goyo a little farther down than usual. The two trees met at their extreme borders. A kind of fig tree, the fruit of the ako is eaten by monkeys but the seeds have a sticky covering that adheres to the monkeys’ fur. Monkeys will swipe the sticky seeds from their posteriors with their hands and wipe them on the trunks of trees where the seeds will then germinate and the ako sapling will begin its attack.

An ako tree with its host long since perished and decayed.

An ako tree with its host long since perished and decayed.

An ako tree forming its net around a Yakushima white pine.

An ako tree forming its net around a Yakushima white pine.

Another tree we encountered was responsible for providing the forest floor with a rich environment of bacteria, which in turn provided food for fungi and microscopic organisms living in the soil that were essential to a healthy forest.

At last we came to Number 77, the largest yet recorded yakutane-goyo. Mr. Tetsuka told us that when they started recording the trees they assigned each tree a number, and this tree was number 77 of over 2,000 trees. In girth and height and probably age too, this tree was superlative to all the others. It grew at the edge of a small cliff on the ridge, one side with thick roots slithering into the forest soil and the other side clinging to the rock face and plunging roots straight down to the steeply-sloping forest floor below. Here we busied ourselves with photography and filming. Mr. Tetsuka picked up a sprig of five needles and produced a small magnifying lens from his pocket. He handed them to me and I looked at the needles through the lens and saw tiny yellow spots on the green needles. Those spots, he explained, occurred after a stoma had become plugged. Thinking about the clouds rising from the crater of Kuchinoerabu-shima, which was within view of Yakushima’s west side, I asked if volcanic gasses could also be a factor. Mr. Tetsuka said no. Especially on a day like today when the pollution was crossing the South China Sea, the trees were in danger. I said I had seen a lot of haze over the water. Wasn’t that just sea mist created by the warm air of the approaching spring? No, that was air pollution.

Majestic Number 77

Majestic Number 77

Tezuka san and 771

IF

I took some interest in the rocks around the tree. They looked like limestone. I asked Mr. Tetsuka about it but he said there was no limestone around here. He named another kind of rock in Japanese that I did not know. I looked at the rocks again. They definitely looked like limestone. Perhaps there were two words in Japanese each one for a different kind of limestone and I had used the wrong one. I’d have to check that out. Later I found that there was only one word and I had used the correct one. I have since checked some photos I took in the museum I visited back in 2013 and according to the map of Yakushima’s geology, there are some mudstones and metamorphic rocks in that area. The rocks I saw, however, didn’t match the appearance of the samples I photographed in the museum, but also didn’t match the museum’s limestone sample either. I should have written down what Mr. Tetsuka had said.

Back at his house, we were invited inside. Books lined every space except for where a collection of jazz LPs and CDs lined the wall by the sound system. I noticed that Mr. Tetsuka’s books looked really old.

Day 7 house 11

As we sat around the small pit in the living floor, Mr. Tetsuka started a fire. There was a black kettle suspended over the flames in which water was to boil for tea. Above that there was a basket with cheese that was hanging there for smoking. The fire burned and the smoke drifted up into the rafters. I looked up and saw many thick and somewhat unsettlingly large spider nests. I asked where the smoke went out. Mr. Tetsuka replied that the smoke went out naturally. Weren’t the spiders bothered by the smoke? Apparently not. I had always imaged that spiders could be smoked out of a cave with a fire but now it seemed my assumption had been incorrect. I looked over to the bookshelf and inquired about the aged look. If he had moved here only 30 years ago, why did his books look to be over 150 years old? “Graduation,” Mr. Tetsuka said. “You’ll notice that the oldest-looking books are at the top while the newer-looking ones that still have some colour are at the bottom. This is because of the smoke. And since the smoke changes the colour of the upper books more, the aged-appearance graduates.”

Day 7 house 61

The water boiled over and splashed into the hot ashes. Smoke billowed and ash flakes danced all around. My eyes were stung. I had flashbacks to sitting around a campfire as a child when the wind would change direction and blow smoke in our faces. “I never thought,” I said to Mr. Tetsuka, “that I would experience the campfire feeling in someone’s living room.” Everything in Mr. Tetsuka’s house looked smoke-tarnished and weathered. I wouldn’t wish to live in such a house, but it was indeed enchanting. I said to Mr. Mori that I would enjoy the opportunity to spend time photographing inside the house. He agreed with me having had the same idea.

Living room heater

Living room heater

Smoked cheese

Smoked cheese

Entrance

Entrance

Classic jazz

Classic jazz

Winter on Yakushima – Chapter Eight: The Green of the White Valley

ŒShiratani Unsuikyo 白谷雲水峡

ŒShiratani Unsuikyo 白谷雲水峡

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.

IF

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.

Jennifer

Jennifer

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.

IF

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.

„Coptis ramosa

„Coptis ramosa

Phoenix moss ホウオウコケ

Phoenix moss ホウオウコケ

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?

ŒThe mossy forest 苔むす森

ŒThe mossy forest 苔むす森

Me with Kikuchi-san

Me with Kikuchi-san

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.

With a bit of sunshine...

With a bit of sunshine…

...and without any sunshine.

…and without any sunshine.

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.

The weather record

The weather recordfor 2013. Notice the empty circles in July. They are all consecutive days of sunshine.

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.

Ä@B

x@B

IF

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.