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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!