Posted by: chapmaar | October 9, 2010

From Genki to Jenky – 3 Days in the Yakushima Wilderness

“and if not, what did it really matter? Wasn’t life just a dewdrop within a dewdrop?” Shogun, James Clavell

My 36 oz. Adams Peanut Butter jar had been scraped clean, washed, and thrown in the recycling. The plants, watered; the appliances, unplugged. The sun was rising over Kanonji’s jagged hilltops, and all I had to do was figure out how to attach my child-sized Deva backpack (and by child-sized I mean it is the size of a five year old child) onto my rickety cruiser and pedal the twenty minute journey to the bus stop. “The adventure starts now,” I thought, as I stopped repeatedly to readjust, clip, tighten, and tie more knots (once with the help of a good natured old woman who kept gesturing “Rope! Rope!” to me). Luckily, I’d given myself an hour, and except for remembering halfway there that I’d left the delicious PB&J sandwich, fancy grapes, and carrots in the fridge, I arrived with time to spare. The long awaited, lengthily planned and oft-discussed trip to Yakushima, a tiny island south of Kyushu, was about to begin.

Bus, bus, and I was standing in an airport waving and squealing excitedly as the handsome face and svelte figure of fellow Whittie David Abramovitz approached and encircled me in a tight squeeze. We made small talk, our conversation careening over widely disparate topics, our tongues loosening, familiarizing themselves to the college cadences, the remembered laugh, the particular quirks. The excitement fizzed in the air around me, wore on me, so I napped on the plane and woke up refreshed and buzzing – soon I would see BRIDGET!!!


There was a loud concert playing at the arrival station. Four youngish looking Japanese popsters (but everyone here looks youngish. I had tagged them at 17, but the much more experienced David guesstimated late twenties!)banged and bleated a saccharine harmony to a crowd of politely clapping Japanese girls in black leggings and unlikely heels. But their noise was no match; when the song ended the crowd turned in shock as a piercing “AMYYYYYYY!” rent the placid air. A language-less squeal answered it , and then we were hugging, my heavy backpack obstructing her arms. The girl I’ve lived with, cooked with, cried with, fought with, danced in my underwear with, crossed the country with, and FUCKING OWNED WHITMAN COLLEGE with were back together for one week. In Japan.

We slept that night at an ex-JET’s apartment in Kagoshima, the biggest city near Kanoya, an agricultural town where Bridget teaches English. We ate Indian food, had a photo booth sesh, and rode a Japanese ferris wheel that was in the mall (it wasn’t worth it). The next morning, we woke up at 5 am to catch the ferry to Yakushima.

From here, the pictures begin, and every one knows what they say about the word count ratio of pictures to words. I’ll chime in every now and again, but let me just say that, ultimately, this is the story of a backpacking trip. As I said to David at one point along the journey, in between one step and another, “backpacking is an activity that’s borderline tedious already, unless you have the right attitude.” In all likelihood, the same could be said of the experience of looking at photos of a backpacking trip; after all, how many pictures of rocks and mountains do you need to see (or, to quote a line from my all time favorite novel/movie Pride and Prejudice, “What are men compared to rocks or mountains?” “Or carriages that work!”)? But this is where the whole attitude part comes in. When you’ve been hiking for seven, ten, or twelve hours, you begin to notice when a rock is particularly smooth and sculpted, or a tree twisted and red, or a root, ginormous. And trust me, you get excited. Looking back at these photos, I am unable to distance myself from the amazement and wonder I felt as the nature of Yakushima enveloped me and passed me by. Nor would I want to. So, the following Notice remains:

Yakushima seems to me a place too beautiful, too magical to be real. Everything you’re about to see here, even the really crazy stuff, is 100% thirty-minute oatmeal NATURAL. I didn’t even use special effects settings on my camera. I promise.

ah ha! bridget glimpses yakushima from the ferry boat.

"I guess it's true what the travel book said - Yakushima's mountains really do catch every passing rain cloud." - a comment made as we see the clouds billow over Yakushima's peaks, the only fluff balls in an otherwise clear blue sky

pulling in to port. a sort of gnawing sensation slips under my navel, and grows over the evening that ensues. The first night, we take a bus along an edge of the island, skirting the mountains, which shoot up menacingly besides us. My mind ranges from the soft-soled running shoes in the butt of my backpack to the ominous clouds squatting over the mountainous mounds. No one speaks much, and the question is hanging about all of us. Can we do this?

Can we do this? Well, well, funny you should ask, the old man’s disbelieving smirk seems to say. I don’t know what he says; he’s speaking rapid Japanese at David (who’s studied for eight years and lived abroad in Kyoto, so he’s legit), but I don’t like that X the man makes with his hands, or the way he chops his hand sideways against his chest with such menace.

Finally, David turned to translate. “He says it’s impossible. Apparently there’s a river? He says its really deep and we won’t be able to cross.” We exchange  glances – the man runs THE hostel located near the entrance of the trail. Bridget pulls out her photocopied pages of Lonely Planet’s Hiking In Japan and furrows her brow. “How far in is the river?” I ask, thinking that if it turns out to be true we could always just turn around and attack the peak from another direction. David asks, and then laughs darkly. “He says its seven hours in. And there’s no marked trail.”

The pause that hangs over us is pregnant with doubt and concern. But in a flash of irritation, I burst out, “Wait a second. Isn’t this totally Japanese? That they would be really afraid of something, make it sound really hard, when it’s really not?” We laugh with relief for a second – this totally is something that would happen – but a mood is set. For the rest of the night, we fluctuate between self-doubt, exhilarated nonchalance, and tentative excitement. I decide last minute to rent some serious hiking boots (thank.god), and we set our alarm clocks for 4:30 am next morning, planning to hit the trail with the first light.

the sign at the base of the hike - our projected trajectory for day one

sunrise through the trees as we begin our traverse of yakushima

sunrise through the trees

an hour in and we're already sweating like crazy. little did we know, we had over ten hours (i think?) of steady uphill battling still to come

after a few hours, we reached a fork where we could drop our packs and take an hour excursion to a secluded waterfall. david straddles some rocks to get to the little slice of paradise

beauty! feeling hella genki (excited, clean, happy energetic), we strip off our clothes and decide to tak e a dip in the crytal clear, refreshingly cold water

a well-deserved lounge by a beautiful secluded waterfall

back on the "trail," the terrain turns treacherous. we scan the forest for pink markers, then scramble over fun natural obstacles

An oft-repeated quip from that first day occurred during a discussion of how steep the the path was. After countless times pulling on roots, scrabbling onto our knees up a level and then standing back up, Bridget made some claim to its steepness, to which I replied, “I don’t think it could be any more difficult to climb unless we were rock climbing.” A few paces later, we stood before a flat rock face we had to rock climb up with our packs on to get over. We started hiking around 6 am, and reached the mountain hut in which we would be sleeping around 6 pm. We had just enough time to lay out our pads and sleeping bags, soak our screaming legs in the nearby river, and boil up a quick meal of cup of noodles with dehydrated tofu and carrots. We munched and talked quietly in the dark, the cicadas whirring around us, before turning in early ourselves.

You would think any sane person would sleep like a log after such a taxing first day. But the gods made me crazy. I’m a ridiculously light sleeper. The cabin was shared with maybe ten other hikers, most coming from different directions (we saw maybe five other hikers on our first day, all going down hill in the opposite direction, and only one going in the same direction – also a foreigner, from Switzerland). Of the fifteen or twenty people sleeping in that hut, two were particularly musical snorers. I was, frankly, amazed at their range (before I became infuriated with its ceaselessness). They sawed and harumphed and whistled the night away, while I tossed desperately on my silly Japanese-purchased pool-inflatable air mattress. The next morning, I rose from my pad raging. I had another full day to hike, my feet ached, and I hadn’t slept a week. Expletives mired my thoughts, and I was impervious to the genki attitudes of my fellow compatriots over a breakfast of peanut butter bread, instant coffee, and ferociously gnawed apple. But it took maybe, what, ten minutes? Fifteen? of renewed hiking to lift the clouds. I apologized to my friends, and soon was laughing, rapping Warren G, and singing R. Kelly’s “Bump & Grind” in the glorious morning sunlight (as you can tell, our British friends had excellent taste in American music).

That second day was probably the best day of hiking I’ve ever had. The nature was so varied, the weather perfect, the companionship unbeatable. We quickly left the dense tropical forest of gigantic fern fronds and tangled roots we encountered the first day. Instead, high bamboo fields, ridge lines, picturesque highland marshes, and twisting red forests of dappled light brushed past us as we first summited Mt. Miyanoura Dake, the highest point in Kyushu, and then continued on the a small, rustic mountain hut right at the foot of Jomon Sugi, a giant cedar tree that is famous throughout Japan for being over 7000 years old.

Sam, a Britisher, adventurer, philosopher, and lover of Warren G. What's not to like? His great attitude and hilarious questions in long games of "Would You Rather" made our trip so enjoyable and unforgettable

the hills behind us - our first viewpoint of the day

a highland marsh.

this one is said to resemble a traditional japanese garden . .. naturally

it was still a steep uphill battle the second day, but while the first day had been virtually unguided, the second day came with wood platforms, clearer trails and ropes!!!

. . . oh, and little steps cut BETWEEN the rocks - though they weren't quite guy-jin back pack sized

bamboo and cool rocks all around

summit! bridget spots the top of miyanoura dake in the distance

weaving our way to the top

where we've been

it's windy on top!!!!!

the half to come - you can see the ocean and the island of tanegashima between the clouds off in the distance

group photo

and moving on into the mist

The rest of the second day took us between amazing twisting sun-dappled trees. Finally, our feet aching, we arrived at a small little mountain hut, a picture perfect respite at the end of an arduos but unforgettable day.

i love this rock

our mountain hut

That night Bridget and I spent in a tent, talking for hours, until thunder rumbled. “Oh no!” Bridget exclaimed, panic-stricken – our tent didn’t have a ground tarp. The rain fell anyways, and continued pouring after the sun rose, cooling down with our English Breakfast Tea and tapering off into a few light drizzles that coated our packs and leaves as we set off on the more touristy, most downhill day of our climb.

in front of Jomon Sugi, a 7000++ year old tree

hm, looks like a stump. what's UP?

AH, KAWAII! a cute heart

whitties living the afterlife


still enough energy for an end of hike dance party

That night, we went to the onsen hot springs near the end of the trail. We scrubbed off the stink. It was my first onsen experience, and surprisingly, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all in the small room full of naked and sweating Japanese women. I did overdo the heat a bit at first. I left trying not to pass out or vomit from heat exhaustion. But a green tea and a taxi ride later, we were sitting cross legged on the floor of a local izakaya. That night we feasted. I don’t remember tasting the fried pork curry, fried udon, salads, sashimi, and god even knows what else, but I do know each was consumed in record time. Here’s a photo of the aftermath:


The rest of the trip, we pretty  much chilled. After one amazing night on a soft bed in a youth hostel, we rented a car and camped on a beautiful stretch of beach. We went to onsens every day, including one that was set in to the ocean (though it was a bit awkward because it was mixed bathing and bathing suits were not allowed. However, I will go against normal sauntersauce decency guidelines so i can give you a glimpse of this really beautiful natural hot spring.

view from the onsen


beach time

the sun sets on an amazing week

waving goodbye


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