What drew me to Yakushima was the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, which I first watched in Tokyo a few weeks ago. One of the things I learned while reading about the film was how Miyazaki and his animators travelled to Yakushima in order to find inspiration for the look of their film. A few clicks later and I was cycling through the most gorgeous images of lush, green forests of moss covered trees whose twisted roots were partially obscured by the thick fog that blanketed the ground.
So at 8:15am, after stashing everything I brought with me save some salami, my jacket, and a water, I set out to become Princess Mononicky.
I will save most of the descriptions of the forest for the photos as they do a better job of describing the landscape, but I will say that no picture I took can capture the beauty and mystery of the forest; certainly not the way it looked, and definitely not how it sounded.
My hike turned out to be a three part adventure:
The first part was a 2 hour climb through the woods. This path began as a paved road, turned into dirt trail, and then vanished into a series of pink flags tied to trees, which marked the way. The climb was never easy as I was rising in elevation over rocks and damp inclines, but the path occasionally flattened out and I had a chance to look beyond my feet.
|A sign letting me know I was headed in the right direction|
|How foolish I was to think it would be paved the whole way..|
|This marked the end of the paved road|
|Everything was covered in moss|
|Trees grew from trees grew from trees|
At first I was focused only on my steps, but soon I found a rhythm and I was able to let my mind wander. To what, I cannot recall at this moment, but I do remember thinking how pleasant it was to be completely alone in the forest. No cell service (I checked for GPS), no music (though there was always a song going through my head) and nothing to do other than walk and be with myself and the forest.
|Doesn't this look like an everlasting gobstopper?|
|Taking in the green light|
|Green Green Green|
|Life springing from the rock|
|A happy hiker|
|Roots & rocks|
|More streams and moss|
It was then that I realized I was alone in the woods. No cell service, no music, no contact with anyone. No one knew where I was, and should the deer decide to attack me, I very well may die alone in the forest. But if that were to happen, I wouldn't have much control over it, so I accepted whatever fate lay ahead and continued on my hike.
My friends at the hostel told me to keep an eye out for monkeys, but all I managed to see where monkey butts. I discovered the best way to look for wildlife is to find an area with a good view and then not focus on any one place in particular. Any movement in the forest caught my attention, but all those movements were of monkeys in the distance, obscured by trees. By the end of the day I had seen about 10 hind-sides of monkeys, which I guess is the same as seeing 5 monkeys in full.
I'm sure they all saw me though as I heard them in the tree-tops above. Another frightening moment came when I stopped for a moment and saw a group of deer starring at me from the hills above. For how long, I'm not sure, but as I passed by, their eyes followed me. I became very aware that while I was unable to spot all the creatures in the woods, they were certainly able to spot me. Maybe I wasn't alone after-all.
My pace grew quicker, not for fear of killer deer but out of confidence in my step. I thought of every movie where there's a chase through the woods and how the protagonist always seems to trip at predictable moments. I have always rolled my eyes at this strategically placed fall, but after spending an hour walking through the forest, I realized the real eye roll is that they only trip once. It would be near impossible to run through these woods without tripping every single step. The ground is a wet, uneven sludge, branches and other obstacles make every step a struggle, and the low hanging branches require constant batting. I have a new appreciation for the animals that can effortlessly run through these landscapes.
Two hours after climbing (often times on all fours), the first part of my journey ended and I reached this sign:
I guessed as to the direction I should go and eventually found a parking lot: I had arrived at the Yayoisugi cedar. This area was accessible by car for tourists and hikers who wanted to view the various thousand year old cedars that inhabited the area. I spent an hour crossing man-made bridges and hiking up wood steps. I made or attempted to make conversation with some of the people I passed, One such passerby was a Japanese man who had lived in Colorado for 3 years working for NASA. As I said goodbye he stuck out his hand, but instead of a handshake, he wanted a fist-bump. Cool dude!
|Scaling the stairs to find the ancient cedars|
|When they said "suspension bridge" I imagined something from Indiana Jones. I was disappointed.|
|Tell me that doesn't just beg to be explored|
|The 3000 year old Yayoisugi Cedar|
I did not have a map with me and had become a bit lost: while I intended on hiking the first leg, arriving at the Yayoisugi cedar, and then continuing onto Mononke Forest, I was not sure how to get to to my final destination. I checked my watch and decided to start making my way down the mountain, admitting to myself that my day may have prematurely come to an end. I knew that once I made my way down, my coordinates would be at 1 and I'd need to retrieve my bags at 1:30 and then head to my hostel at 12, which was an adventure in itself and one best served before nightfall.
The walk down the mountain was terribly uninteresting. There were occasional views of the valley and ocean, but for the most part I was just zig-zagging down the mountain on a paved road. And after climbing through the Yakushima forest, that was boring.
I considered hitchhiking down, as I figured the walk would be about 3 hours, but I was not ready to admit defeat. I did not want to have hiked for three hours only to spend another three hours just walking down a road; I wanted more adventure.
Suddenly in the trees there appeared wood stairs. The road did not widen into a parking area, suggesting that these stairs lead to a hiking trail, nor was there a sign or any indication that I would find anything good. There was just a gap in-between the densely packed trees and a set of stairs. I'm in!
|Could you resist this mysterious ladder?|
I have never been more confident in my stride. I leapt from rocks, pulled myself over fallen trees using the branches of others, and very often slipped and banged myself against something hard. Later in the day I would discover I was bruised and bleeding, but the excitement of the adventure distracted me from my pain. I ducked under branches, scaled walls of dirt and rocks, and eventually pulled myself to the top of the hill where I was able to see: nothing. Well, I was able to see trees. Lots and lots of trees, but there was no clear view of anything beyond.
I turned back and made my way down the hill, which I learned is much tougher than going up. When you climb, you've usually got ahold of something above you: a stump or rock perhaps, but when you descend, you've got very little to grab onto. And since it had rained the night before, the ground was very loose and often I would slide. Only once however did I completely land on my ass. I kept marveling at the human body and its ability to catch balance. I avoided so many unpleasant falls (which very well may have lead to being impaled on something) because of my body's ability to quickly shift weight and steady itself. Nice work, evolution.
|A tame slope compared to the one that would come later|
|At times the trail was obscured|
|Which I found to be completely rude|
|Other times the forest created fun obstacles|
|Like this moss-covered bridge|
I found an alternative route down the hill and back to the river. I checked my watch and determined I had 90 minutes left in this area before I needed to be back on the road. Not wanting to climb the other hill (the river was in a revine of sorts, surrounded on both sides by large hills, I decided to leap from rock to rock and move up-stream.
Again I found a confident pace, easily bouncing between rocks. I resorted to rock climbing as I would occasionally need to scale a large boulders in order to avoid the river below. I caught glimpses of myself from above, alone in the woods, hanging above a river, scaling boulders with my backpack and some salami. I was having the time of my life.
|Jumping between boulders|
|Making my way up the mighty stream|
|A view from the second plateau|
|My own private swimming hole|
I wish I could say that I leapt into the water, but I instead crept down the side of the rock and slowly submerged my body. I also wish I could say that I spent an hour swimming in the water, but I was only in for 30 seconds. It was cold and I was fearful that the sun would soon be disappearing below the trees. But I did it, I get naked and went swimming. I fulfilled the cliché of hiking through the woods, finding a waterfall and pool and then going swimming.
I got clothed and ventured back to the road. I discovered that getting into a freezing pool of water is a great way to get the blood flowing. I was moving faster and more confidently that I had ever moved before, but with this speed also came carelessness. I again stumbled and scraped my knees. I cut myself on branches and more than once whipped myself in the face. But I did not care. I felt great.
Even when I realized I was hopelessly lost (31) and could not find the way back to the road, I did not care. Thoughts of getting stranded in the woods certainly crossed my mind, as did visions of me slipping and cracking my head open on the rocks, but I did not really care. I just kept moving.
|None of this looked familiar on my journey back to the road|
If that is how my day ended, it would have been glorious. I was completely present in my life. No phone, no one to talk to, just myself and some beautiful scenery. And a mission! The need to keep moving kept me from getting bored. It is sometimes hard to be present in the in company of great scenery when you have nothing to do, but I had to keep moving and this kept me occupied. But my day did not end there because I still needed to get my bags!
I was dropped off at the main road and found I was only 4 bus stops from my bags. I walked for twenty minutes and returned to the trail head. I made my way up and found the goats:
I returned to the road and flagged down another ride. If it sounds like I've become a master of hitchhiking, then it should be noted that it's hard not to flag down a ride on a small island with only one road. I am certainly a lot more confident in my new skill than I was before, but I can't imagine it's as easy on the mainland.
The driver spoke broken English and we had a nice Japanglish conversation from the trailhead to the tourist center where I had originally docked (12 o clock). It was a few blocks from my hostel but I wanted to ask for a map of the area to find a post-office. My search for ATMs in Kagoshima had been limited to 7-Elevens, which are supposed to be international banks, but since they did not produce any cash, my last option was to try the post-office ATMs.
It was an odd feeling to be so overjoyed that I finally had money because I had just spent the day in nature with practically nothing and had the time of my life. And more so, I had spent 2 or 3 days hyper-aware of every yen I spent and discovered that it is possible to get by on almost nothing. Stressful, sure, but possible, yes. But you know what, I had barely eaten anything in the last 48 hours, had just spent 6 hours hiking up a mountain, and really wanted a feast!
To round out a perfect day I had perfect company. My roommate at the hostel was a 22-year old architect named Allan from Melbourne. He was in Japan alone for one week in order to hike Yakushima before meeting up with his family for a month-long vacation through mainland Japan. We didn't immediately hit it off, but we did immediately start talking. He said he would have come to Japan earlier, but he wanted to stay in Australia in order to catch Sigur Ros and Radiohead. That was a good sign. And he seemed to have some interesting views of the world. That was also a good sign.
We walked around town and found an izakaya (Japanese tapas). 10 minutes into the meal it became apparent how much we had to talk about. He had just returned from 2 days in the forest (there are huts where campers may stay) and we shared many similar thoughts about the forest as well as observations and thoughts we had.
"Did you ever wonder how the fuck the deer got here from mainland?" I asked.
"Funny you should say so, I did! But on the ferry over here I read about how they migrated form the mainland when there was a land bridge. Did you ever wonder about that day when suddenly the land bridge was closed?" He retorted.
We had a good laugh thinking about what would have happened to the deer who walked over to Yakushima and then discovered it had become an island. Years would pass without communication from their families. During this time, he informed me, the deer on Yakushima developed grayer hair than their relatives on the mainland, so when the bridge finally opened again, we wondered if the deer were like, "what happened to you?! Youv'e changed, man. I don't even know you anymore."
As I write that, it doesn't really translate, does it? But we had each just gone a few days without a proper conversation so we had quite a laugh. It was also great speaking with him about all the observations I had about Japanese cities and the way they are built and operate. As an architecture student, he's very informed and in tune with these things, so I think he was rather impressed that I had picked up on the spacing of buildings, the depth of sidewalks, and the flows of cities.
The friend chicken and vegetable tempura perfectly complimented all the great conversation we had. Aside from sharing a number of thoughts about trekking through the forest and about the layout of Japanese cities, as well as the structure of all cities and the way in which people operate, we also shared the uncertainty of why exactly we were on Yakushima island. He too seemed to be doing a bit of soul searching.
An amazing day. And if you've made it this far through my rambling then I hope I was able to translate the feelings and joys I experienced.
I came to Yakushima feeling very lonely and very stressed so it is funny that the cure to my loneliness was to be completely isolated and by myself in the woods, and that the cure to my stress was to have my body bashed against rocks and shocked by freezing cold waters.
It is important to be present and it doesn't hurt to wake up early.