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.