Friday, February 13, 2009

The Hot & Cold Hyakumeizan challenge (14)

Yaku-shima concluded: A dark night’s passing turns into a noki-shita horror show

4.30pm: the path comes out into a waterlogged clearing. This is Japan’s southernmost mountain bog, a noticeboard says. A pool reflects the westering sun as tinted clouds brush the wooded ridge above. And now I really do have to hurry: there’s no more than an hour of light left.

5pm: I switch on my headlamp outside the Yodogawa hut. Under the forest canopy, the darkness is almost palpable enough to run my nose against. Get careless now, and it would be easy to stray off the path and disappear down a gully. An hour later, I emerge onto the forest road. Safe, sort of. Now for the four-hour hike back to the coast.

6.40pm: I pause for a moment by the Kigen Sugi, a tree said to date back to the dawn of history. The sky is so dark that not even the cedar’s topmost boughs can be seen, but I listen to the wind. It’s not every night that you hear the wind blowing through a tree that seeded itself before humanity discovered iron.

8pm: the moon sails into the clouds. Walking down the dark, dark road, I spot a tiny blue light ahead, shining like a good deed in a naughty world. As I get closer, I see that it’s a camping lantern and that it’s illuminating the interior of a car.

Then the beam of my headtorch picks out the bulk of a silver Nissan Patrol with Hamamatsu plates. Hamada-san has just finished his pot noodles when I knock on the window. He is as surprised as I am. We exchange news – he did a training run up today and will go for Miyanoura-dake tomorrow. He warns me it’s a long way down to the coast and says he’ll drive me there, an offer I deflect – he’s already saved my day once, after all – by saying I’m going to bivvy just a bit further down the road.

10pm: still hiking down the mountain road. Outraged hoots and crashes in the bush indicate that the monkeys prefer to have the mountains to themselves at night. Seawards, an occasional flicker of electric blue runs along the horizon. As you can’t logically have summer lightning in the middle of winter, I decide that the flashes must be emanating from lighthouses on Tanegashima.

11.30pm: I reach the first sign of civilisation, a vending machine. Although it purports to be the passport to drink paradise, I keep going. The glare from its illuminated cabinet lights me far along the road.

11.45pm: The coastal village of Ambo is deserted, shuttered, dead, dark. But not quite silent: the sound of karaoke wafts to my ears. I follow the music to its source, drop my pack, and slide open a glass door. The singers – it is a duet – don’t miss a beat. Raggedy figures stumbling out of the jungle late at night are clearly nothing unusual here. In the lull before the next song, I order a plate of yaki-soba.

While the noodles are sizzling in the pan, the mama-san asks where I’m going next. Back to Miyanoura, I say, to catch the ferry. A man with a mop of white hair looks up from his sake. STORM! he says in English, miming wind and waves so vigorously that he almost swipes his bottle from the table. The mama-san remonstrates: the gaijin-san can speak quite good Japanese, so why not just speak normally. But White Mop is just getting into his stride: WAVES! STORM! FERRY! NO! STOP! he mouths.

5 December, 00.15am: with this warning ringing in my ears, I pay for the yaki-soba and step outside. A bit of cloud, but still a calm night with some stars: I can’t believe that a spot of bad weather is going to stop the MV Hibiscus, a 1,000-tonner disposing of 8,000 horsepower. So I’d better get myself to the ferry port. Unfortunately, Miyanoura is 20 kilometres away, as a roadsign reminds me. What now? I’m reminded of a joke involving an economist and a can of baked beans on a desert island. Assume a tin-opener, says the economist.

Assume a taxi
I try assuming a taxi and, on cue, a black Toyota Crown drives up. The passenger door, bearing the logo of the Nankoku Taxi Company, swings open by itself. The elderly but immaculately be-suited driver says, apologetically, that Anbo to Miyanoura will set me back about ¥6,000. That’ll be fine, I say. Lord Powerscourt has about run his course for today. On the way, the driver tells me about the weather: it’s much too warm for the time of the year, he says. Quite often by this time, the mountain-tops are white with Japan’s southernmost snows.

00.45am: The taxi driver cancels the meter when it reaches ¥5,500, well before we reach the ferry port, but I pay him the agreed fare anyway. Most late-night taxis you have to call. Only very special ones materialise when you assume them. The driver is concerned about my plans for the night. No need to worry, I say, I’m going to bivouac “noki-shita” – under the eaves of the ferry terminal.

01.30am: Noki-shita turns into the Noki Horror Show. I’ve just settled down under an arcade when a sheet of electric blue ripples across the sky. For a second, the mountains stand out as a crinkled black silhouette. Then the display repeats itself, this time with a roll of thunder for emphasis.

I scramble to my feet and consider the options. A shed for fork-lift trucks offers a more convincing shelter. I get there just before the first squall beats a furious tattoo on the tin roof. When it eases, the squealing of hawsers takes up the refrain as nearby ships strain at their moorings. The thunder moves on, but the rain continues to lash down. With this more than adequate precipitation, it’s going to be a cooler night than expected. I hope Hamada-san is OK, high up on the mountain in his Nissan Patrol.

7.20am: between the harbour pier-heads, there is nothing to be seen except for tumbling wave-crests that streak the black water with foam. The MV Hibiscus stays away. Later, an efficient clerk of the Iwasaki Steamship Company rebooks me on the hydrofoil – the sea-state is just within limits for the Toppi (‘flying fish’), as this one is called.

10.20am: As the gas turbines spool up with a rocket-ship whine – these really are jetfoils – the captain warns that he’ll turn back if the weather worsens. The occasional wavetop slams hard against the hull as the hydrofoil weaves through the swell, but we keep going. Behind our bucketing craft, Yaku-shima recedes into the heart of a dark cloud.


Anonymous said...

Gripping stuff! A one-day up & back is quite something to have achieved. I was concerned that an Ernest Wilson style benightment was in the offing..

Anonymous said...

This has been a highly enjoyable series, thank you. I hope you'll make other trips over to provide fodder for the blog.

Japanese taxi drivers are surely a rare species. A UK cabbie might well have taken you clockwise around the island to Miyanoura port.

Anonymous said...

Interesting reading! Yakushima is one of my best three "Dream Hyakumeizan" Rishiri is another. Thanks for the opportunity to experience them vicariously.

But I'm curious how you got a picture of the back of the hydrofoil... after you disembarked in Kagoshima?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Chris: although, as observed in one of the postings, a one-day traverse of Yakushima is more a crime than a feat. Next time, I want to go from sea-level on foot and give the mangrove swamps their due too....

Hanameizan: the taxi-driver was definitely a paragon of his profession, but, even so, very few UK taxi-drivers would go so far as to take you the wrong way round the island.

Kamoshika Bob: as for the hydrofoil photo - two are scheduled in the morning, one to Tanegashima and one to Kagoshima direct - so I took the photo of the Tanegashima one before boarding the direct 'flight'. Incidentally, it was interesting to see how they dealt with the rough sea. In a ship, you turn towards big waves; in a hydrofoil you have to turn away, and take them sideways. Otherways your jetfoil becomes airbourne....

Anonymous said...

Great report as always.

Did you happen to see any flying fish
in the waters around Yakushima? I saw quite a few during my trip in May, but wasn't sure if they're around all year or not. It's a shame that they actually eat that fish on the island, as well as the deer!

Anonymous said...

You may be interested to see an elevation profile of (what I think was) your route:

BTW, I'm surprised the hydrofoil was running, yet the ferry was not. I thought it was usually the other way around in rough seas?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Wes: trust your Ibuki climb went well. No, I saw no flying fish in December, but the outward trip was at night and the return leg was during rough weather, so not good flying conditions for them, I guess....

Hanameizan: thanks for the height profile. Actually it was not so much the absolute vertical height of this hike as the mileage that made itself felt! Yes, I was also surprised that the small hydrofoils were prepared to tackle the rough seas and not the ferry. But I guess the ferry carries cargo, which might shift. And the hydrofoils' "wings" are fully immersed, so they cut through the waves rather than going over them.