November 24, 2012

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Yakushima

Life is a lot like hitchhiking: You've got a destination in mind and depend on others to help get you there. Most people will not be able to take you all the way, but they get you closer. And sometimes they'll alter the course of your trip in ways you never imagined. But if you wait for someone to take you exactly where you need to go, you very well may not get anywhere.

Things have been stressful since arriving in Kagoshima. I am down to about $35 cash and few places, if any, accept credit card. I spent last evening trying every ATM in Kagoshima to no avail. I am fearful that I'll have an even harder time on Yakushima island and although I can purchase my ferry tickets and hostel rooms with a credit card, eating and taking the bus will certainly require cash.

On top of that stress, I've been lonely. I've certainly had my fair share of excitement, but it's not always easy to be alone and I certainly wish I had company to share this adventure with. But I have decided that when I get to Yakushima I'm going to turn off my phone; I need to learn to be present.

The final stress to add to the list was the uncomfortable bed I attempted to sleep in last night in the hostel. I've been pretty lucky so far with accommodations, but last night was not one of them. There was a sign that read "bed may shake due to traffic, do not worry" so I knew from the start I was in for a poor night's sleep. Luckily, I didn't have to spend long shaking in bed as I left my hostel at 7am. My ferry was leaving at 8:30 and I wanted enough time to get tickets and to try and find a cheap breakfast.

The ferry was quite pleasant. The main area was a series of carpeted platforms where passengers slept. The Japanese have the ability to fall asleep just about anywhere, so walking through the first floor of the ferry is a bit like that scene in Inception where they go into the opium-den of people plugged into collective dreams.

The second floor had a bar, a casino, a theater and a ramen restaurant. I would have enjoyed some ramen or even a few turns of the slot machine if not for my lack of fundage. I instead settled on a bagel and water. $5. Bringing my fundage down to about $30.
Leaving Kagoshima with Sakura island in the distance
No Alan & Michael production on this cruise
Sakura island is an active volcano which occasionally dumps ash on Kagoshima
4 Hours later, Yakushima in sight

Yakushima is an almost perfect circular island with the main port located at 12 (if you image the island as a clock). My hostel was at 6 and was a 70 minute bus ride. But by the time I made it off the ferry and collected some maps at the tourist center, I had missed my bus. Not a great start to my time on Yakushima as I then had to wait 2 hours for the next bus. I splurged on some delicious curry ($10) while I waited, Truth be told, the restaurant was playing a Bill Withers album and the mixture of good music and hot food lifted my mood.

Spirits lifted a bit, I went to the bus stop and accepted that I'd have to wait 90 minutes. It then occurred to me that buses cost money, which I did not have much of. It also occurred to me that there was only one road road that travelled along the coast. This would be the perfect place to hitchhike (71)! I stuck out my thumb and watched as cars passed. The drivers all seemed to notice me, as they would bow their heads, but no one appeared to know why I was sticking out my thumb. Perhaps they thought I was saying "Hello, good work driving!". Kelly, who had spent a month hitchhiking, told me most Japanese people are unfamiliar with the concept. But, no more than 90 seconds after beginning, a small SUV pulled over and the Japanese man who was driving alone signaled for me to get in. 

まさひる(Masahiru) turned out to be an extremely great guy and we talked non-stop during our hour-long drive. He had visited America a few times and told me he enjoyed West Hollywood and Santa Monica. He was traveling on Yakushima alone and had been hiking for the past few days. He has a son who is a freshman in high school and just struck me as a young, cool dad. He said he would take me to where he was going (about 20 minutes from my hostel) but then eventually just dropped me off at my front door! We got a bit lost and I kept telling him I would be happy to walk and find exactly where I was going, but he insisted that he see me safely to my hostel. We took some photos, exchanged email addresses, and then parted ways.

My first hitchhiking experience was a complete success! And as I would later discover, missing the bus was the best thing that could have happened to me. 

My hostel was a true Japanese inn. No beds, just futon mats and rooms measured in たたみ(tatami, which are floor mats used as measurement in Japan). I ended up having the room to myself and doubled up on futons to create a rather comfortable bed on the floor. 5-star living!

Welcome to my crib
As the sun was setting I went out on foot to find two ocean-side onsens, one of which was only accessible during low tide. The water in the first was a bit too cold to enjoy as the ocean water had started to return to the baths, and by the time I arrived at the second onsen, I was more taken by a group of rocks off the coast than I was the naked old people in the baths. Both onsens were beautiful and I ended up enjoying the sunset and appreciating how present I had become without my phone.
Jurassic Park-style leaves
Out of focus giant spider
Clouds and fog blanketing the island
Ocean-side Onsen

Sun setting as I walk to the second onsen
Where's Ariel?

The walk back to my hostel was about 45 minutes, but after I stopped at a store to get dinner (cup noodles) I realized I had become an expert in the ways of hitchhiking. I stuck out my thumb, watched a few cars pass in the night, and then once again flagged down a small SUV. This time the young driver did not speak English, but the drive was short and my limited Japanese allowed me to express my appreciation.

The night concluded with a ghost story written by my friend Mark Danielewski, and with the enjoyment of this novella also came the completion of goal 52.

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