Saturday, May 26, 2018

Yakushima--Saving the Best for Last

At Shiratani Unsuikyo gorge
Wetter than wet, greener than green, beautiful beyond measure.  That's how we would describe Yakushima National Park on Yakushima Island.  It's a 40-minute hydrofoil ride from Ibusuki, our last place by Mt. Kamion.  Its Japan's first World Natural Heritage site.  Unlike the rest of volcanic Japan, this island is made of granite.

Officially one of the wettest places in Japan, it gets over 13 feet of rain per year.  We got to experience that on our first day of hiking.
This makes Olympic National Park
seem very arid and sparce

It was hard to decide whether to get wet from sweating in our rain gear, or wet from the warm rain.  Either way we got wet, but we smelled better with the rain method.  But we didn't care because it was so beautiful and we had to watch our footing.

Our slippery path in many parts

One of many old cedars

A mother stump

Giant cedars, some over 2,000 years old dotted the path.  Others were gigantic stumps, giving birth to more trees of differing species.  Many of them were logged over 1,000 years ago by peasants, paying their taxes to feudal lords in cedar shingles, rather than rice.  Getting them down the mountain to the coast was quite an undertaking, and we walked along some of their "sidewalks."

Ancient "sidewalks" used by
women carrying shingles cut
by the men
One of many bridges
On our second day of hiking we lucked out with one of the few days of the year it doesn't rain here. We ascended nearly 2,000 feet from sea level on a narrow road, then climbed about another 1,000 more for a stunning vista above the rain forest.  Along the way we crossed a spectacular gorge came across the area where Disney animator haymow Miyzazki found inspiration for the scenery in Princess Mononoke.

So many waterfalls, only so much
room to post them here

One of the areas where Disney artists
meticulously copied for Princess Mononoke 

View from Taikoiwa (Thunder) Rock

We descended the peak to a beautiful river where some of us went for a swim in clear, icy water.  Then we followed an old narrow-gauge logging track back to waiting vans.

 Deep, clear, and cold swimming hole with azaleas 
The Japanese version of rails to trails

Part master chef, part

The hosts at our traditional inn (a royakan) went out of their way to prepare us a feast each night with stuff we hadn't had before, like barnacles, pigs feet, and bamboo shoots.  Smooth jazz played in the background. The proprietor was quite the fun-loving character.

This was taken before
the pigs feet arrived

A feast of feasts!

View from our inn and our hot soaking room

Yesterday we returned by plane to Kirishima on the Island of Kyushu, with the intention of exploring the crater lake of Onami, 4,200 feet above sea level.  However a series of eruptions closed the area off.  We actually heard one and saw the plume.  So we walked around a shine, one of oldest in Japan, with some remnants dating back more than 2,000 years ago.  Kind of anti climatic, but we got an early start to our soaking and our farewell partying.

outside the party room

After our last hike on our 12th day of hiking.
Is this a civilized country, or what!

This turned out to be a wonderful trip, both our first independent part and with the Sierra Club hiking part.  Lots of physical activity, unique things to see, unusual food, fun and compatible traveling companions, and a hospitable country.  We made some new good friends.  Above all, we had two outstanding local guides from Walk Japan and two well-organized volunteer trip leaders from the Sierra Club.  Thanks, everybody for making everything so fun and special!
Volunteer leader Todd, local guide Mario,
volunteer leader Joyce, and local guide Ben. Mario
was born here, educated in the States.  Ben moved
here from the UK abut 11 years ago.
You can see more photos by clicking on this link.  Enjoy!

 Be sure to catch my next blog in a few days entitled "Japan Between the Cracks."  It will be about things we found unusual or interesting, but that didn't fit the narrative of the previous blogs.  I promise you it will be a fun read.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Kyushu Island: Volcanoes, Samurai, and Kamikazes

Kappa, a water spirit on the steps of
an old Samurai home in Chiran
Another day, another hike—a very comfortable rhythm, yet every day and every hike is different.  And so are our culinary experiences.  We’ve left the ancient Buddhist trails portion of our trip and have been exploring the volcanoes and beauty of the rest of Kyushu Island.
Kyushu, Japans, largest southern island.
We started at the top, and now we're
south of Kagoshima, near the bottom

Five days ago we enjoyed the luxury of spending two nights in the same place at the hot springs resort area at the base of Mt. Yufuin. The climb to the top of it was well worth the seven hours it took to ascend 800 meters and descend 1200 back to town. We lucked out with perfect weather.

Mt. Yufuin in the distance
View from near the top of Mt. Yufuin

We only had one really long bus day, coupled with a train ride.  It took us down to the bottom of one of the world’s largest calderas at Aso, (12 miles across and 18 long), complete with rice paddies, two cities, and multi-story apartments.

The giant caldera at Aso

Then we ascended 500 meters to the rim on the other side for a hike among the azaleas to the top of Mt. Eboshi to view the active Mt.Naka volcano. The azaleas were spectacular!

View the way to Mt. Eboshi 

After a bullet train ride we spent the night in Kagoshima, the third largest city on Kyushu Island.

We woke up the next morning to find the city streets dusted with gritty volcanic ash from an overnight eruption of Mt. Sakurajima 20 miles away.

Mt. Naka blowing off steam

One of our regrets about this trip is that we just couldn't work the Hiroshima Peace Park into our itinerary.  However, we may have made up for it in a small way with a visit the next morning to the Peace Museum for the Kamikaze pilots, located in Chiran, the site of a former Japanese Air Force base. Kamikaze means "divine wind," from over 1,000 years ago when typhoons wiped out two invading Chinese navies.  It was both fascinating and highly emotional. We saw the artifacts and photos of all 937 pilots, including some translations of their poignant last letters to their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children.

The Kamikaze Peace Museum
Many of the pilots were only 17 and had never seen combat before, but they had been training since the age of 14. No one, including their commanders, suspected months earlier that they would be flying such desperate last-ditch missions in the battle of Okinawa. Many didn’t want to go and were scared, but their honor and duty were more important then their own lives. I wonder if soldiers and airmen of the Allied forces felt the same way on the eve of Normandy, bombing missions over Germany, the invasion of Iwo Jima. Perhaps, but they at least had a glimmer of hope that they might survive. The Kamikaze pilots didn’t.  Only 10-15% hit their targets, but nearly all of them died.

At a Samurai garden near Chiran
Nearby we visited a well-preserved Samurai village dating back to the the 1600s.  This was the "Edo Period" of peace that lasted for about 250 years.  The Samurai got bored of all that peace stuff and focused on gardens and geishas.  The Kappa water spirit at the top of the post was on one of the steps to a home.

We ended the day with a climb part way up Mt. Kaimon, the “Mt. Fuji of the South.” This was the last glimpse the pilots saw of the Japan mainland as they tipped their wings and headed and headed toward Okinawa. The hike was hot and humid in lush foliage and volcanic rock.

Mt. Kaimon, the "Mt. Fuji of Satsuma"

View from part way up Mt. Kamian
We ended the day in a resort town with hot mineral baths.  Our inn had several of varying temperatures, including ice-cold.  Nice!

Click here for more photos.

Getting ready to "sabo-sabo" pork in Kagoshima

The mother of all sashimi in Yufin

Mario, our guide and
tabletop barbecue expert 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hiking the Ancient Buddhist Trails of Japan

Our experiences the past six days of hiking in the remote areas of the  Kunisaki Peninsula of NE Kyushu Island (the southern-most large island in Japan) were a stark contrast to our mostly city experiences our first 10 days in Japan. It’s peaceful, rural, steep, sacred, and serenely beautiful. The forests and mountains are every shade of green imaginable.

It is so nice to now have two local guides who can answer our questions and explain things we never thought to ask. And our group of 15 is downright fun!
We'll start working our way south from here

We are hiking what are described as the “Ancient Buddhist Trails,” which date back to the origins of the Shinto religion over 2500 years ago and the Buddhist religion that followed 1300 years ago.  They still coexist in peace and have intermingled to some extent. The trails were intended as a meditation and are marked with many Buddhist statues and Shinto shines, but not the kind you would expect in India or China.

The Yanagigaura shrine,  gateway
to the start of the Buddhist trails 

Much of our trails were on volcanic
Lantern near a shrine

Cell phone Buddhas?
Our trails are sometimes marked (usually in Japanese) and also hard to find, so it’s nice to have guides. We hike several hours a day through bamboo, cedar, cypress, rhododendron, and azalea forests, often up and down narrow rocky ridges. Fortunately we have chains and ropes in some parts.   We came across small and large Buddhas everywhere, especially under rock outcroppings. It’s been hot and humid.
A stone bridge with a huge
drop on each side

Monks' gravestones near Kyu-Sento-Ji temple

Kathy hugging a rock on a ledge
(It's not as scary as it looks)

Morning fog and a view of our trail on the left

The entrance to the Kyu-Sento-Ji  temple,
one of many shrines and temples we passed through

Himeshima Island
On Thursday we left the mountains and spent he night on a small island, Himeshima. What made it unique was a special temple on a rock outcropping, and  that it had children and young people on it. The rest of the countryside we’ve experienced appears deserted, with abandoned schools, rice paddies, and seldom used—but nice—roads. The average age is 75. Like in many parts of the US and the world, the young gravitate to the cities.  Japans's restrictive immigration policies over the years has created this demographic time bomb and rural economic crisis.

Our last bridge, crossing "The Void" and symbolizing
the end of the Buddhist pilgrimage trails 

Our roykan on Himeshima
We spend each night in traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans. Each room provides bathrobes (called yukatas) and slippers which we can wear throughout the inn.  The rooms are plain with straw mats.  After dinner, the futons magically appear on the floor.  The roykans  all have hot soaking rooms, some of which are heated by natural springs. So civilized! You bathe before getting in.

Our room on Himeshima

Our onsen in Yufin
And did I mention food?  Each night and most mornings, we have amazing Japanese feasts of all sorts of amazing tidbits, raw seafood, pickles, tempura, and more. And if we’re still hungry afterwards, the bring out bowls of rice.

Tonight we're in the spa resort town of Yufin, known for it's thermal hot spring baths.  From this point forward we're exploring other hiking trails and volcanic features of Kyushu Island.  It's  been a wonderful and unique trip for us.  And it's nice to be on an organized trip where we're hiking more, riding a bus much, much less.

Click here for more photos