Last week was Silver Week in Japan–a string of September holidays that comes around once every five years. I feel lucky for Silver Week to have fallen during my year in Japan, so I seized the opportunity to travel somewhere new. My school approved my two days of nenkyu (paid time off) for Thursday and Friday, so I boarded a ferry with three other ALTs and headed to Yakushima for a week of hiking, camping, exploring, and discovering.
Yakushima is a tranquil, beautiful island with a World Heritage Site nestled in its ancient cedar forest. If you’ve seen Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, you understand just how magical this place is. The mountain tops are always shrouded in mist, and the island is inhabited by tailless macaques, spotted deer, beautiful butterflies, and fleeting kodama (tree spirits.)
We saw and did a LOT with our five days, so as always, I’ll break it down for you.
-Ferried from Kagoshima port to Yakushima. The ferry ride was about four hours–not bad!
-Around 1:30 pm, we began our hike through Shiratani Unsuikyo (the part of the forest that inspired Mononoke) with the intent to make it to a mountain hut for the night.
-…We made it to Wilson’s Stump around 5:00 pm and then promptly lost our way because the trail markers were only in Kanji when up until this point, they were in Kanji AND English. So we decided not to play the game of Pick-the-Kanji-that-looks-most-like-a-hut-and-go-that-way-in-the-dark.
-A few hundred yards away from Wilson, we ran into a naked guy while he showered in a stream. Oops! We let him cover himself, then he pointed us to a safe spot where we could camp out for the night. Thanks, Helpful Naked Guy!
-After pitching our tent, we walked back down to Wilson`s Stump to change out of our sweaty clothes and make dinner.
-Lesley had the most adorable and useful portable propane tank so were able to boil water from the stream. This is when I discovered the magic of Pocari Sweat Tea. Hot water with a few dashes of Pocari Sweat powder really soothes the soul after a long day of trekking!
-With our bellies full and thirst quenched, we ended our day with some relaxing yoga stretches while surrounded by shadows of ancient cedar trees. And the forest was silent. It was peaceful, not scary. There are no real predators on the island so I could not have felt safer doing my tree pose in a dark forest!
-Woke up with the sun in our ancient cedar forest. Perfect way to start any day.
-Hiked to Jomon Sugi–the oldest tree yet found in Japan!
-Finally made it to the Takatsuka Hut and secured a spot on the top floor. (I`m glad we saved this hike for daytime, because the trail from Wilson to Takatsuka was stunning.)
-Encountered a tribe of macaques! We had seen some lone macaques on our hike the day before, but this was our first time seeing an entire family of them.
-Around 11 am, we set off on a 3k hike to the next mountain hut just to check it out. We took our time and admired all of the natural beauty around us. (We were on a MISSION on Monday to find shelter, so we didn`t marvel at our surroundings as much.) Save for the macaques and deer, we were the only hikers on the trail. Our trek was relaxing, quiet, and educational. Lesley Sensei taught me a lot about trees so now I am inspired to write a story about Strangler Fig.
-We relaxed at the Shintakatsu Hut for a short while. I napped in the sun, and we hung out with the cutest fawn. Deer and monkeys always showed up when we most need them. And I love that the animals are not afraid of us.
-The sky turned gray, and we headed back down to our home for the night. We were glad we didn`t sleep at this hut. It was creepy.
-Made it back to our hut around 2. We played some cribbage (Skunk Rules!), two rousing games of Bananagrams, ate dinner…and then our hut-mates were going to sleep, so we too curled up in our sleeping bags and it was headlamps out by 7:30. I don”t think I’ve ever gone to bed that early!
-My 1200 yen sleeping bag (about $12) offered no support on the wooden floor, so I rolled out my tent for extra cushioning and used the peg bag as a pillow. I kid you not, a peg bag makes for a great pillow! When you have nothing else to rest your weary head on, that is.
-We were safe and warm in our shelter from the impending rain, but hardly slept at all because of the two Jabba-the-Mountain-Hut snorers next to us…not even loud rain on a tin roof could drown them out.
-Woke up at 6 to pouring rain and Jabba-the-Mountain-Huts squawking loudly next to us. Harumph.
-Waterproofed ourselves as much as we could, then started our 15k trek out…
-We made good time on our way down, even passing hikers from our hut who started walking earlier than us…until we hit our last 5k on the train tracks. The rain picked up, the tracks were flooding, and we kept seeing a sign that said “Shelter” but there was NEVER ANY SHELTER. We worried we had lost our way again. Then we happened upon another tribe of soaking wet macaques to lift our spirits, so we trudged on. (I told you the animals always appear when we need them most.)
-And then we came to a tunnel with glowing lights inside, and I thought this is how we die, or the end of the tracks are on the other side…
-…It was the end of the tracks! We made it! It was 10 am, but the next bus wasn`t coming around until 3 pm, and we had no service to contact anyone…
-…an hour later, two other hikers we had met in the mountain hut let us share their taxi with them back to civilization. One of the girls was from China, but living and working in Tokyo, and her English was great!
-We checked in at our guest house and the owner gave us a box of chocolate and some hot tea almost immediately. I liked him already.
-We met up with the rest of our group at Nomada Cafe-my first of several visits to unique cafes on Yakushima. I had chickpea curry (mmmm). I desperately needed a pair of flip flops because my hiking boots were soaked, and this place conveniently sold brightly colored flip flops!
-Went to Yudomari Onsen–an outdoor hot spring on a rocky beach. 99% of the time, you`re supposed to be naked in a Japanese onsen. We learned that nudity was an optional at place…after we had already stripped. Oops!
-Ate tobiuo (flying fish) for dinner–a Yakushima delicacy.
-Returned to our hostel for Jason Mraz, Frozen, and Maroon 5 singalongs.
-Slept in a top bunk futon. My first time sleeping off the ground since Tokyo Orientation. My back was so happy.
-After securing hot coffee and baked goods for breakfast, we spent the day driving around the coast of Yakushima. If you ever travel to Yakushima, I 100% recommend renting a car.
My pictures will do better justice of this day than my words ever could…
-At the beach, a friendly local let us borrow his snorkeling gear. We found a lost flipper underwater and returned it to him. Apparently he had lost the flipper two months ago and thought it was gone forever. He was so grateful that we found it that he gave us a thermos of iced green tea! I’ll forever be obsessed with the kind and generous interactions I’m having in Japan.
-Woke up early to go kayaking on the Anbo river!
-Snorkeled in freezing cold water and played on the rocks
-Checked into our Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and declared it looked like The Overlook Hotel from The Shining
-Bought too much omiyage for coworkers, friends, and myself
-Experienced my first traditional Japanese breakfast. Concensus: Fish with its head still intact at 7 am is not my thing.
-More omiyage shopping
-Smiley cafe–going to adorable and overpriced cafes are my calling
-Ferried back to Kagoshima
What an incredible trip. I tested my endurance, legitimately camped out for the first time, stayed at my first hostel (and discovered it is an extrovert’s paradise–everyone hangs out in the common and room and wants to talk!), and bonded with some truly amazing and talented people. I am proud of myself for back country camping for two nights and never giving up. We hiked an average of 40k over the span of two days. And now I know to never make the mistake again of not bringing enough food for camping in the future. Food is more important than extra sports bras, Becca!