The Jungle. Pt. 2

 

The Logging Railroad

The Logging Railroad

Eventually we reach the old logging railway line, and the rain stops, so we eat bananas and grin happily, then plod on. The going is much easier, and the railway line is appallingly romantic, thin guage and wending through ancient forest, with moss covered stone on one side and steep forested slopes on the other. Deer graze the slopes, and the large river parallel to the track is coursing itself jaggedly into off-white. The rails fork at one point, and one leads into a high but short rock corridor, at the end of which stands an alien blue and strangely tall tent.It is a toilet station, in which you can use your ‘toilet bags’ on a fold out seat, then take your waste with you. We give it a miss. At the end of the line (always wanted to say that) we take a trail back into the woods. Shortly we reach a grove reminiscent of the Californian redwoods, where the trees are massive and the canopy is tall. Before us is Wilson’s stump, felled in the 16th century, and 32m in circumference. The tree it suggests is too huge to contemplate, and photos do not do it justice, but within the rotted stump you can fit 10 tatami (about 6ft by 3ft), and there is a small shrine. It must have taken them days to cut it down.

Wilson's Stump

Wilson’s Stump

Tsubasu-san!

Tsubasu-san!

Next is a long section of log ladders upwards, which Subasu-san flys up, while I become more and more worried about my low level of fitness. Eventually the gradient levels out, we pass odd flat wooden beds (for tents, we discovered later), and shortly reach Jomon-sugi. Jomon-sugi has a 16m circumference, has a volume of 300m3, and is thought to be the oldest sugi of them all. Its tree rings lead back 2,170 years, but its core has long since rotted. It is lessened a little bit by the extensive wooden viewing platform, which is empty when we arrive, but we gawp nonetheless. It is almost like a pilgrimage, travelling to all through the jungle to all these ancient trees. We soon reach the next hut, a simple concrete cube, and eat nuts with crackers for lunch. Subasu-san tries to persuade us to press on in order to climb the highest peak (Miyanoura Dake) on the island, but given the time of our return ferry and the unpredictability of the weather we reluctantly decline. We exchange contact details, and Subasu-san says goodbye with the neologism “mata facebook!” (until facebook), and strides out, munching a hunk of gammon.

Tsubasu-san and Jomon Sugi

Tsubasu-san and Jomon Sugi

Wood Wave

Wood Wave

I’m not really sure what happened next, but we were wet and cold and spent the next 16 hours lying in sleeping bags… At nightfall, the hut began to fill up, and we were on the upper floor, which only had two other people – some extremely loud middle aged women who rudely told us to move our bags to make room, despite the fact their equipment was covering about half the hut. The rain and night wore on, and still new travellers came in out of the night, finding their way with head torches. Every new arrival took a place on the lower floor, and it sounds like there is an army down there. At 9, another 6 or so troop in and start making nabe (hotpot) and drinking beer. This is amazing for two reasons: that they have been hiking through the dark for so long, and that they have been lugging several kilos of beer through the jungle for just this moment. Eventually, two more join the upper floor, and, on heading outside to find water, I see that the bottom floor now looks like a refugee camp. Scraps of newpaper, the stench of sweat, boots all over the floor. There are 11 people trying to sleep in the space we are finding quite cramped with 6. I neglect to point this out to them. Outside, I can see a number of brightly coloured tents across the hillside, which with torches on throw out a diffuse glow, which makes the lot of them look like ornamental lanterns. There is no obvious tap, so I head to the toilet, and find some large barrels behind it. Aha! I think, a rainwater trap, there is even a bucket on a long pole to scoop it out with. I undo the clasps happily and prize the lid off to find…faeces. Gallons and gallons of faeces. I cram the lid back down and decide to be thirsty until the morning.

Jungle Fever

Jungle Fever

We leave the hut at 6 30 the next morning, last except for the two crones. People here are serious about hiking. The way down is much easier and the sun is beating down, warming our skins pleasantly in the crisp morning air. We pass a tremendous number of pensioners heading up the trail, very near the top, at around 7, and wonder how on earth they got here. Slept in tents on the forest floor? Hardcores! This makes us feel a little less adventurous, and we feel even more cowed upon seeing some kids happily walking up the railway tracks. There are many guided tours, one guide keeps yelling “Kodama!” at us and brandishing the a toy of the jiggly headed tree spirits (Kodama) from Princess Mononoke. Another is dressed as a samurai, katana at the waist and a majestic moustache above his smile. We return to Taiko rock, to this time find beautiful, empty air, and a huge ridge facing us across the valley. The great weather and the sight of Miyanoura Dake gives us a pang of regret, and I eventually content myself with taking photos, upon which my camera runs out of battery. Sigh.

The Last Photo...

The Last Photo…

Descending to the coast, we look forward to sleeping in a tent on soft grass rather than on hard wood, as well as an onsen soak. Kusugawa onsen is a little run down, but apparently in the summer you can watch fireflies whilst you soak. Dinner is at a nearby Indian restaurant, where I have one of the best curries of my life (possibly related to living off biscuits and nuts for the previous 48 hours), and we are pestered (a first in Japan) by a man who wants to give us a tour the next day. We obfuscate like true British people, and later decide we’ll do fine on our own. In the morning, we head for another onsen, which is only usable at low tide, being in a tidal pool by the sea. We get off at the wrong bus stop, realize that we don’t have time to get to the onsen and the ferry anymore, then sulk.

Sulking in Onaida

Sulking in Onaida

Ferry+Rain

Ferry+Rain

The ferry back is a little busier, and just before we leave the skies open once more. The bedraggled and slightly creepy proprietor of our campsite is waiting for new arrivals (this is the only place in Japan I have seen, albeit very polite, touting), and soon ensnares a young woman. We get on the boat to find the same woman, apparently she has experienced the fury of Yakushima’s weather and given it up as a bad job. Back in Kagoshima, we walk up to the viewpoint, past a statue of Saigo Takamori. Saigo Takamori lead the Satsuma rebellion in 1877, which failed to take Kumamoto castle and was quashed by a huge imperial army. Saigo Takamori committed (or was helped to commit) seppuku rather than surrender, and the remaining scraps of his samurai charged downhill into the guns. His embodiment of the bushido (warrior) spirit made him enormously popular in Japan, and he was pardoned just 12 years later. At the viewpoint we see the volcano leering over the city, and meet a very kind middle aged woman, who invites us to her house, after asserting somewhat circularly “I wish there was no war, war is bad, if there was no war then people would not have to fight, so there should be no war”. In the car we find that she taught English for many years, including to blind people (apparently the braille alphabet is used in Japan as well), and greatly enjoys meeting foreigners. She explains this stems from an enjoyable holiday she had when young in America, and to pay them back decided to be as welcoming as possible to everyone visiting Japan. We like her a lot.

Kagoshima and Sakurajima

Kagoshima and Sakurajima

Tasty Tsukemono (pickles)

Tasty Tsukemono (pickles)

Her house is on a hill and has a great view of Sakurajima, the volcano. We are introduced to her husband, a retired headteacher who is suffering from a racking cough. Despite insisting that we have had lunch, our host whips up a delicious selection of tsukemono (pickles), as well as a preserved persimmon which reminds me of a date. We enjoy talking together, exchange addresses, and look at the hundred dolls which decorate their house. The dolls are in pairs (husband and wife), and are present because it is hinamatsuri (doll’s festival), where dolls are set out to capture bad spirits. They are left out for a month, and should be taken down before April the 4th (in Kagoshima) to avoid bad luck. Kagoshima celebrates it a month later than elsewhere in Japan. We need to get our bus, so quickly try on simple kimonos, say goodbyes, and head to the station. We feel better about humanity for the experience. Thank you, kind couple!

Our Kind Hosts

Our Kind Hosts

 

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Welcome to the Jungle

The Okinawan and Me

The Bug Catcher from the Pokemon Games…

Yakushima is a sub-tropical rainforest clinging to a volcanic island, with 10 times the rainfall of the rainiest place in the UK. The ferry is eerie and empty; we sit in the corner booth of a deserted coffee shop. The ofuro is empty, the noodle bar closed. We lie on the deck in the sunshine and read David Copperfield, hoping to see a whale and muttering about how little wildlife there is compared to the Scottish islands. Towards the end of our quiet voyage, we are disturbed by a portly fellow from Okinawa. A wide-brimmed hat sat on top of his heavily tanned head, and jiggled slightly when he spoke, which together with his slightly bottom-heavy appearance, gave the faint impression of one of those toy clowns that you can’t push over. He had helped us out at the ferry ticket booth back in Kagoshima, so we got up and he pointed out to us the outline of Yakushima against a thin sea mist. While the island draws closer, we chat, and find that the Okinawan is an entomologist at Ryukyu University, tracking the spread of an invasive ant species through the Southern Islands. Promptly, he disappears, and returns with a textbook on ants and a small jar of formaldehyde (in a breast pocket) containing the species in question. Soon, the nearer ridges of the island darken, whilst the valleys remain steeped in mist. It’s a little bit like the opening island shots in any of the Jurassic Park Films.

SONY DSCWe ask the Okinawan about what is essentially an American occupation of Okinawa, and he is reasonably balanced, disliking the noise and crime that they bring, but aware that around half of the island’s economy is based around the US military. The Americana that has followed them to Okinawa (drive-ins, malls, and diners) apparently draws tourists from the Japanese mainland. We ask what he would recommend seeing in Okinawa, and he recommends staying away from the bases and seeing the less spoiled North, where you can see remnants of the Ryukyu kingdom. There is a street that he warns about visiting repeatedly, explaining that it is nice during the daytime but that there are regularly guns fired by US servicemen at night, without telling us what town it’s in. He tells us that with all the construction for the military bases their reefs were destroyed. I feel a strange mix of anger and shame when I hear that.

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We arrive in blazing sunshine, hire camping gear, and take a bus to the island interior. A winding mountain road lifts us further away from the coast, and we are the only people on the bus. Outside we see gnarled Cryptomeria, occasional explosions of cherry blossom, and the radioactive green of new beech leaves. The forest suddenly envelopes the road; we see sika deer and Japanese macaques at the side of the road, and right on cue the national park sign. We begin hiking through the jungle, which is fairly dense but has astonishingly maintained plank footpaths. Even here the Japanese have beat back the wilderness. Despite my initial instinctive scorn at this ‘mollycoddling’, I was soon thankful for it, as hiking in a jungle is insanely tiring. 4km is quite tough, rather than a stroll. We take a detour to see Yayoi sugi, an ancient Japanese cedar. The sugis are given names if they are over 2000 years old, and there are around 100 named sugis on Yakushima (plus doubtless some undiscovered ones). It is amazing to look at a living thing that was here, waiting, in this exact spot, while Rome rose and fell. That they have stood here, indifferent, through all the triviality and gore of human history. That they were 1000 or so when Genghis Khan sent the Middle East back to the dark ages (it never really recovered). Their forms are twisted, their bark is sagging, and their trunks are mostly hollow. Their gnarled, dead white limbs poke up out of the forest, like broken fingers. Finally I understand what bonsai are trying to imitate. The ancients.

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SONY DSCWe walk through streams and trees, and startle a deer before reaching the mountain hut where we are staying. The only other inhabitant is a crouched Japanese man, stoking up an illegal fire and rubbing his hands together. We dine on stale garlic bread, bananas, and peanuts, then sleep, serenaded by our companion’s sonorous snores. At 6am we are awoken by keen hikers, eat yoghurt with muesli, and begin waterproofing: it is raining domestic mammals out there. The forests of Yakushima are almost monochrome; everywhere is green. Bornean rainforest feels almost like a cathedral, with a high ceiling, huge straight pillars, and a drab understory of logs/pews. The trees in Yakushima are gnarled, twisted, and low. The higher light levels and high humidity allows moss to cover absolutely everything. Boulders and roots alike are felted with emerald green, until it becomes unusual to see the grey of stone, or the brown of wood. Wood itself does not seem to be quite solid. It behaves like a viscous organic sludge, rippling in every direction, and dripping off the huge rocks that litter the mountainsides. You can almost see the forest sliding chaotically down the hill, branches colliding in slow motion. Princess Mononoke was set here, and Yakushima has the same timeless feel, and used to have the logging.

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Kodama

Manic Fear

Manic Fear

Rain in a rainforest is a completely different creature. It begins suddenly, and gets so hard that the air becomes a strange grey with the amount of water falling through it. You have to laugh as it sort of pours down over you, and fills the air with loud low hiss. The saying in Yakushima is that it rains 35 days a month. We have brought umbrellas (hiking in the rain with an umbrella is strangely comforting, I promise), and weave them awkwardly through the tight forest, very thankful that our faces are dry. A tattered and soggy map is lying in the mud, which we pocket. Soon the path has turned into a small river, but we are headed upwards so think that we will be safe up there. Three-quarters of the way up, the lightening starts. Thunder booms through the thick air, huge and hollow. It is the loudest storm of my life. We stride onwards, faces lit periodically white, counting the delay between light and sound. The noise and speed of the thunder increases, until I feel like we’re in ‘nam. A signpost to Taikoiwa rock points left, and we head for the viewpoint. The gradient is enormous, and it is dark, like early night, at 9am. There is an animalistic joy in struggling, scared, through the forest. We put our umbrellas down at the rock, and I walk out to see thick air and flashes and the ghosts of ridges in the distance and the sudden realisation that I am the highest thing in a very wide radius. One photo for posterity and I run back, terrified.

The View fomr the Lightening Rock

The View fomr the Lightening Rock

There is a tremendous sound, a high jagged ripping sound that is devastated by the thunderclap, which seems to shake up from below. We plunge back through the forest, descending with the water, and wondering how far you need to be from a tree that’s struck by lightning.

Rogue Flower

Rogue Flower

Rain

Rain

Walking along the lower trail, we see a thin Japanese man in a bandana and a purple wind breaker haring towards us. After making the snap judgement that he doesn’t still think that the war is on, we stay put and he tells us pantingly (in Japanese) that he has lost his map. Me and Lune exchange glances, and we give him the fragments of his map back, as well as a new one (we brought spares). He thanks us and we munch peanuts to give him a bit of a head start, to avoid that awkward side by side race-but-not-a-race feeling. Presently, he returns, and tells us that he is scared, and asks if he can come with us. You probably have to live in Japan for a little bit to understand quite how unusual this is. Imagine a British person walking up to you in the middle of the countryside and asking (to walk with you, but let’s exaggerate) move in with you. We say that we are scared too, and agree, exchanging peanuts as a sign of our bond. The stream alongside is now a roaring river, and the rain keeps on falling, while the sky keeps splitting. We see a boulder the size of a house with a small hollow beneath it, and crouch in there, feeling safe for the first time in a while. Our new companion, Tsubasu-san, is on holiday, and works in a bagel shop in Tokyo. Our voices are thin and excited as the world outside rages, and I feel safe with tonnes of damp grey stone above me. A return to the hut is discussed, as the path looks like it may be impassable further on, but we wait a while and the rain starts to slow. Emerging, we descend clumsily through the still heavy rain, and see two guys heading in the opposite direction. I assume they couldn’t get through, but they have come from our destination and this encourages us to carry on. By this point, Tsubasu-san has distinguished himself as a singularly fast and maladroit hiker, who must lead the group. We are happy to follow through the puddles and branches, pointing out the pink electrical tape that marks the trail the couple of times he tries to lead us into the uncharted jungle. We both blocked out this section of the hike a little, but I do remember that it was a miserable trudge.

Water

Water

Flaming Volcanoes and Corduroy

Last week me and Lune took a week’s holiday around the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu., We deviated from our itinerary numerous times (making this my most spontaneous holiday ever), and met enough weird and wonderful Japanese people to populate a number of post-modern novels. Our route was convoluted and recursive, so I’ll organize geographically rather than chronologically (just so you know).

Aso: The largest caldera in the world. Formed 300,000 years ago by the collapse of an enormous, erupting volcano, the crator is 20km wide, with an almost perfectly flat bottom and extremely steep walls. It’s as if someone has pressed the cap from an enormous beer bottle into the earth. Rather ruining this comparison are the remnants of the volcano, 5 volcanically active mountains which lie in the middle of the crater. The fertile soil of the basin floor is covered in rice farms and pasture, and small towns look delicately up at their potential destruction. We stayed in a lovely hostel with kotatsu, futons, sliding doors, and a dim common room filled with low tables. There we met a motley crew of Japanese guys, about half and half staff and holiday makers. My Japanese is poor, and feels even more so next to Lune, but I could understand a surprising amount of conversation, albeit without contributing much beyond agreements and simple statements. The owner folded 12 small coloured paper squares into small basket shapes, then painstakingly arranged them into a 3D cube with cut vertices. He then told Lune to hit it, which produced an explosion of paper, which then floated gently down the ground. Who knew origami could be both gangster and fun? The owner then played a youtube video (the universal language) of some enormous scrub fires in the Aso caldera, and said excitedly, ashita (tomorrow)!

Origami Explosion!

Origami Explosion!

The Iron Prime-Minister

The Iron Prime-Minister

The plan to visit the pretty gorge of Takachiho conflicted with this, and we were wondering what would be the best thing to do, leaning towards the one-off experience of watching people who live beneath volcanos setting them on fire. Payback perhaps.  Our funniest new friend was a short ultramarathon runner with turn up jeans and a brilliant grin, who was pulling a sickie (unheard of in Japan) to watch the burning, and translated his name as ‘the iron prime minister’. Hearing our dilemma, he asked how long we were in Japan:

About one year

What is your one year, compared to 1300 years of history? *smiling gleefully* Sooooooo… catch a cold shimasu

Volcanoes at Sunrise

Volcanoes at Sunrise

That settled it. At 6 15 we piled sleepily into a jeep and chatted about musical taste whilst driving to a viewpoint to watch the sunrise. Earnest Japanese guy, as we called him, looked earnestly out at the landscape in a brown corduroy suit. We took photos and were extremely grateful to the guy driving, who had brought tea. The view was from the edge of the basin, looking inwards at the lumpy volcanic ridge, which looks just like a man lying down. If you’re lucky the crater holds mist from the night before, so you can see mountains jutting out of a bowl of porridge. We weren’t lucky, but the view was impressive nonetheless. PA systems are very popular in Japan, but it was a surreal experience to hear good morning piped across the crater from megaphones at 6 30 am. Driving back cords boy told us that he was a North Korean scholar, and travelled to many soviet bloc countries searching for documents about their relationship with North Korea. We were interested to hear that North Korea was the advanced, modern half of Korea 30 or so years ago. The movement of missiles to the North Korean coast is a little worrying, hopefully they lack advanced ballistic missiles, as I think Japan comes a close second to South Korea in terms of animosity. Fingers crossed.

The Road

The Road

A konbini breakfast, then we got in another van with the hostel owner’s mate, and set out towards the edge of the crater. Suddenly, everyone excitedly began pointing out plumes of smoke, ahead, behind, everywhere. Soon it was like driving through hell, infernos on distant hillsides and the never-ending smell of smoke. The overcast sky was smudged and dirty. We stopped on a hillock beside some serious photographers or rich people with serious cameras, and jogged towards the flames. Over the road there was the roar of flame, and motorcyclists chugged past looking as cool as its possible to do with a wall of flame behind you.

Cooooooooool

Cooooooooool

Tall Walls

Tall Walls

Kumamoto: Castles and karashi renkon were the things which took most of our time here. Kumamoto-jo, the castle, is enormous and sprawling and looks utterly impregnable. The Satsuma rebellion effectively broke against its walls, like waves on a beach, and rolled back South. The walls are Japanese style, made of irregular rocks fitted together perfectly into a sheer curving wall, which just passes vertical at the tops. There are about 3 layers of tall walls, studded with guardtowers, gates, and murder holes. Cherry trees and paths fill the space between walls. You can feel the history when walking up towards the keep on giant stone steps with the walls looming above on all sides. The keep is reconstructed because it was burnt in the rebellion. At night we go to take photos and see kids shooting complex long exposures in front of it (glowstick trails, flash lighting the foreground, and the castle in the back).

Joy

Joy

Karashi renkon is a speciality food of the region, and consists of a lotus root in which the holes have been filled with a mix of miso and mustard, deep fried in a spiced batter. When I was 12 or so I dragged my family around Barcalona in search of (inexplicably difficult to find) churros for about two days, and my search for karashi renkon was similarly fervent (sorry Lune). Cords boy made a chance appearance during our lengthy search. In my opinion, it was worth it. We sat in a restaurant with beautifully carved dark wood panels, beside two businessmen who were drinking their cigarettes and sipping their whiskey, and I entered gastronomic paradise. The umami of the batter, followed by the soft crunch of lotus, the sweet flash of miso, and the gently burning mustard aftertaste. It was worth trailing around half the city for, in my opinion at least…

Kumamoto-Jo

Kumamoto-Jo

Kagoshima: Immediately on leaving the bus, I saw a stall selling deep fried renkon and bought some for lunch. My first bite informed me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore: it was filled with fish. The Southern port city of Kagoshima is warm, wet, and the streets are paved with ash. Ever-present on the skyline is the looming outline of sakurajima, a huge and extremely active volcano that erupts around thrice daily. It used to be an island on the other side of the bay, but in 1914 it had the largest eruption in 20th century Japan, and the lava flows formed an isthmus to the mainland. We took a bus to a town nearby, Ibusuki, planning to have a sand onsen – you are buried in hot sand, caused by geothermally heated water flowing to the sea through the beach. The bus took longer than expected and I ended up grumpily stomping down the main street, sweating profusely, and muttering about how much I wanted to be buried in hot sand. There was a queue, which meant we didn’t have time to use the commercial sand onsen, but Lune dug in the sand nearby and we had a street onsen to heat our feet.

Cheap Onsen!

Cheap Onsen!

Returning to Kagoshima we were distressed to find that our ferry to Yakushima had been cancelled. I went to ask ferry staff if their boats were headed to Yakushima, whilst Lune rang the tourist information centre. Rather worried about where we would sleep, I returned to find that Lune had booked us into a hostel at the base of Sakurajima in a hostel owned by a hippie and an Okinawan musician. Hero. We took the £1.50 ferry to Sakurajima and had a relaxing onsen, which was far too hot, leading to me sitting for extended periods of time in the cool pool to recover. An old man with crinkled skin floated face up in the hot pool for a very long time, with his toes hooked onto the side to keep him in place. Top class bathing. Moon Garam Masala (our hostel) faced onto a carpark, had a portaloo, and was filled with posters of hippie gatherings and driftwood. The TV played home video of gatherings in the past. Two topless Japanese men drummed intensely in the hills. The female hippy had a weathered face and was very friendly. Kindly, she had offered to cook a vegetarian meal for us, and so we enjoyed locally picked seaweed tempura, seaweed salad, and carrots. It was delicious, and it was interesting to chat with her and the slightly gruff musician, who told stories with excellent impressions. Lune baulked (understandably) at the small fish floating in her miso soup; I had thankfully downed mine without looking at it. We went to sleep in a bunk bed with an aloof Korean sleeping on the floor. At dawn we woke and took the ferry back to Kagoshima, with the sun rising above the volcano, to head to Yakushima. Sadly we didn’t get to see it erupt, but for a great photo of it, try http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130311.html.

Life in the Shadow of Death

Life in the Shadow of Death