The Next Step: part thirteen - love the island

Sunday, May 21. 2006
Yesterday I arrived in Kagoshima, found a hotel and freaked out. After that I figured out what I was going to do, did my washing and all the boring shit. Then today I was up and at the dock with my bags by seven am and had bought a one way ticket to Yakushima. Only because they dont sell return tickets in the tourist season. The ride was about three hours and the ferry was absolutely packed out. Every nook and cranny had a person sitting in it, or a bag lying on it. The decks were lined with people, the insides had blankets all over the floors and people lying around. Jesus. This was one popular destination.

We rolled into Miyanoura port and I joined the line to get off. I was talking to three Canadians who had all the gear, which made me feel a bit stupid. Quite possibly I had bitten off more than I could chew? Yep, yep. Oh well, I am here and I should make the most of it! So to the tourist information lady. Anywhere to stay? No, no reservations. Really? Oh dear. Hold on. And she asks, how long will I stay? One night, I guess. Oh no, that wont do, you wont get to see enough of the island! You will stay two, dear, and I am powerless as she calls up a place and gets me two nights accommodation. I trust her, as all tourist info desk old ladies know best. And what will I do there? Dont know, whats everyone else do? Oh my, you have to do. And I miss most of what she said. Ok, sounds good. I get a personalised itinerary and again I am off with a map and a bunch of pamphlets. I haul arse up to the main road and eat lunch, more ramen. Yakushima ramen! Only available here at this one shop. It has fish in it. But I enjoy it none the less.

Then onto the bus, to Otokogawa. And the bus is full. There are the Canadians again! Wonderful. Where you headed? Where you staying? Camping, it seems. Word up. Hard core. The bus is so full and so late that the driver looks like he might cry. He has to turn away people who want to get on, because there are no more seats. My stop is about a quarter way round the island, everyone else stays on. The hotel is ghetto. It looks battered on the outside, but the inside is nice enough. The old guy who runs it is nice and although initially suspicious of me, comes around. He shows me the room I will share with three others. I am still sore from the adventure in Amakusa, so I decide not to go adventuring just yet. I walk back into town and do some shopping, then get a bus back to the hotel.

After everyone eats, some of the people who were sending glances my way over dinner come over to where I am sitting and furtively offer a greeting. I answer back and after the initial shock (he speaks Japanese!) we have a good old conversation. The rest of their group comes over, all four of them, and the next thing I know we are sharing a drink and stories. I have a new friend in Hakata, if I ever go back, and I might have to show some guys around Melbourne, if I ever go back.

Thats the way friend making goes when you are on the road.

So at five the next morning I am already on a bus. The main trail, which I will call the East Trail, starts at Arakawa. So I jump off the bus and hit the trail. It goes to where the Jomon-sugi stands and takes about four hours. It is so crowded I can scarcely believe it, and since the track is single file, the going is slow. The number of, well, old people is astounding. The trail gets very, very hard about halfway and cannot be easy for them. Not only is it narrow, but numerous sections have rudimentary ladders and bridges built into them and the steps are small and far apart. One slip and you are in big trouble. Yet some of these old timers gambol over them like mountain goats. I hope Im half that energetic at that age. The weather is good, nice and warm, no rain. Good thing, because the rain would really fuck things up, it is slippery enough as it is. The parts that arent wooden bridges and ladders are rock, with little soil. So if it were any wetter I would have fallen on my arse for certain.

Along the way everyone is friendly and everyone greets and apologises. There are times when we have to wait, because the crowds going either way hit a choke point, and nobody complains. The scenery is unique. The island stretches from the sub-tropical climate around the edge right up to a temperate zone near the peaks and includes everything in between. It is a microcosm of most of the climates the world has to offer. The flora and fauna collected here is indeed a treasure chest. The kings of this world are the Yaku-sugi cedar trees. They are what the people come to see, they are what the trail traces. The East Trail has about five or six major trees, the North trail about ten more. Around the island are about thirty all together. To be defined as a Yaku-sugi, rather than just a normal cedar, a tree must be over seven hundred years old. The amount of resin they produce makes them extremely hardy, but it also makes calculating their exact age impossible. The layers that trees accumulate let you calculate its age, but the Yaku-sugi dont get much bigger after the first two thousand years. But it is know for certain that they are at least that old, the rest is based half on legend, half on guess work.

The trail passes Wilsons Stump, where a great tree was cut down to make a statue by order of warlord Hideyoshi. The stump is enormous. You can walk inside. Further along there are trees joined together, trees that have grown out of the fallen stumps of earlier trees and all the while crowds of people staring in awe.

The top of the path is where the Jomon-sugi stands. Seven thousand years old, he was only found thirty or so years ago. There is a viewing platform around him now, so that tourism wont be the end of his reign over the island. Seven thousand years, he would have seen the vast majority of human history. So serenely it stands for all the gawking tourists. It is indeed massive. While nothing in the greater picture of things, in the timeline of the universe, it is still longer than anything I can imagine. Old man Jomon, I wonder what you have seen, standing there, all that time, and what you might be waiting for

On the way up I fell in with two guys my age who had come down from Fukuoka to visit the island. Unlike me they had a good idea of what they wanted to do and had a plan (they also had heard of the Jomon-sugi before the previous day) so I asked if I could follow them. They almost died, they were so happy. They knew that the North Trail intersected with the East Trail about halfway back down, a path that went through what was known as the Mononoke forest. From there it went all the way back to Miyanoura and civilization (as much as the towns clinging to the coast could be called that) via a path that took in many more stately Yaku-sugi. I had heard of the Mononoke forest, in passing, and wanted to visit there. So I was well happy for the chance. Fearing we would run out of daylight, we double timed it down the path to the crossroad and off into the interior we went. This time we were almost alone. The trail was even worse, almost indistinguishable, thankfully marked with pink ribbons where the going got particularly bad. The movie, Princess Mononoke, had several scenes based on what this forest looks like all covered in green moss, running countless streams, shadows outnumbering the sunlight that occasionally broke through. It was cool and shady in there, not to mention slippery.

Again, it was unlike anything I have ever seen. Everything is covered in green, everything, and everywhere you look is something amazing. We took our time through here, took plenty of photos. Eventually it comes out into more normal looking scenery and we saw plenty more Yaku-sugi (one that had three legs, too) and made it back to the road. Roping a taxi we headed back to town where we said goodbye. I was knackered. I had been walking from five thirty until almost seven at night. So it was food, bath and sleep.

Two nights were all I had on Yakushima, but as far out of my way as it was I think it was the best little side trek I could have found. I had gone there almost on a whim, because I had heard vague talk of the place and giant trees and despite the holiday crowd had found them, and more.

The next day I made my way back to the port after saying goodbye to all the new friends I had made. In the end (there are a few missing stories in between) I had at least spoken to almost everyone else in the hotel who stayed there those two days. Once people find out that I can actually talk to them, they all want to hear my story. It is truly a good place to be in some time. Minor celebrity has its setbacks I never manage to pick up all the names and yet they all know mine.

At the ticket office for the ferry back to Kagoshima, I ran into the Canadians again. They had done it really wild, sleeping on the beach and stuff, swimming with turtles and all that. No hotels, just sleeping bags and a bit of luck. I helped them get tickets and then we all went to get some food before the boat left. We got talking and they invited me to stay at their place in Kagoshima that night. All right! We played cards for a while on the boat and then they all fell asleep on the deck, wrapped in their sleeping bags.

So when we arrived, we hauled our bags to their place and then decided to go out. And go out we did. Some Japanese friends of theirs showed up. Beer was consumed, Canadian Club was consumed, bars were hit and girls were talked to. This is why the next day, after bidding my farewells, I ended up wandering trying to find the port with almost no clues and a rotten hangover. I was supposed to look up that stuff the night before But you know how it goes.