Yaku-shima continued: No time to linger on the summit of Japan’s southernmost famous mountain
2.20pm: the trees are thinning now, as we approach the alpine zone. A wooden ladder helps with a rock step, and then I squeeze through a cleft into a new world. Ahead, much closer, is the green pyramid of Miyanoura-dake. The sun is now running ahead, and it takes the rock at a grazing angle, picking out the curious rectangular inclusions of a quartz-like mineral in the grey stone.
As much of Japan is volcanic, I’m still expecting to find some kind of lava in the centre of the island. But this is no volcanic rock: it looks like granite. Later researches indicate that Yaku-shima is more akin to Taiwan than to mainland Japan. It consists partly of sediments scraped off the Philippine Plate as it plunged under Eurasia. A blob of igneous rock later welled up into this melange of sandstones and mudstones, breaking out into crystalline pimples as it cooled. It is these bunions of orthoclase, embedded in granite, that are scraping at my pack as I ease myself through the rocky gap.
2.30: tea-break amid a cluster of granite domes set, like a collection of Moores or Hepworths, in a park-like expanse of bamboo grass. Now that no trees obscure the view, I notice a long bar of cloud hanging in the eastern sky. Lenticulars usually herald bad weather, but the balmy sunshine makes it hard to take this warning seriously. Reluctantly, I rise from my granite bench and address myself to the final slope.
2.45pm: generations of Hyakumeizan-baggers have worn a trench deep into the turf. Snow meltwater has smeared the path with ribbed ice. Here and there I have to take to the bamboo grass beside the way to make progress but my ice-axe doesn’t come into play.
The people who advised me to bring the axe were right, though: it can snow heavily on Miyanoura-dake. A foot of snow covered the summit when Fukada Kyuya, the Hyakumeizan author, topped out. In fact, the academicians have calculated that the mountain gets almost ten metres of rain or snow every year. Precipitation is adequate.
3.00pm: no shrine crowns the summit of Miyanoura-dake, just a humble wooden marker post inscribed with the altitude of 1,935 metres. The view is more impressive than this modest figure would suggest. To the west, scattered clouds trail their shadows on a silver sea. Eastwards, lenticulars shape-shift silently over a foreground of rocky outcrops. Puffy clouds are starting to drift over the ridge to the south – and that’s where I have to go.
Having attained a long-sought peak, the Hyakumeizan author liked to take his time. “Scrambling between the boulders, we hauled ourselves onto the summit and lay down to sun ourselves like the lizards. We spent a pleasant hour here, chatting and looking down on that wilderness of rocks … The hour I spent on that bright and peaceful top was as close to heaven as one gets in this world.” These are typical summit comments from his writings.
Fukada was in no rush. He got to know his mountains over the course of a lifetime: he was already in his sixties by the time Nihon Hyakumeizan was published. Would that we could emulate his unhurried style today. But the sun is leaning at an ominous angle towards the horizon and it’s time to press on.