Japan: 1/6 — 九州 Kyushu: 鹿児島市から屋久島まで。Kagoshima to Yakushima and back

TL;DR — My friend Geoffrey and I decided to spend 6 weeks cycling Japan from the south of Kyushu northward and catch Hanami (Cherry blossoms festival) on the way.

I already told the story of my first two day, and how G and I met in Kagoshima, Kyushu, and our exploration of Sakurajima and our first onsen.

The first leg of this journey is a round trip to hike through the forest of Yakushima island, one of the UNESCO world heritage site, well known to be a source of inspiration for the wild forest in Princess Mononoke Ghibli’s movie.

Yakushima right ahead

Late start for us to get on the ferry to Yakushima before noon, for a 4 hours journey. Aboard, we’re collecting maps and advices to see how best we can enjoy the island. We settled on a long hike to get to the top to Miyanoura Dake, the tallest mount of the island, culminating at 1,936m.

Two ferry men taking care of our bikes

After we struggled to find supplies — no convenient shop here — and enjoyed ramen with fish, we headed for the trailhead along a step and long climb. This was just the start of what would soon become a reality to us: Japan isn’t a flat land.

We parked our bikes behind the information centre’s booth, transferred our stuffs to backpacks and started to hike to the first refuge, where we would spend the night before the big push to the summit.

On the way, we got a first glimpse of the forest: winding paths surrounded by old, tortured, moss covered trees.
The refuge is a concrete building. Dry toilets and no water. Why would you need tap water when you have clear running spring outside anyway?
We shared the building with another team of hikers, we both got to have our own rooms, luxurious.

The night was cold, especially for G. We got an early start, the day would be a long one. The short version is an eleven hour day which felt mostly uphill. Most of the time, the trail was actual stairs. Many times, we had to use ropes and chains to help ourselves up steep inclines — Mid-day, we cross a team of hikers with huge backpacks on their way down and we wondered how they were doing this; they looked pretty beaten though.

The main attraction of the trail are the two-thousands years old cedar trees, among them is the Jōmon Sugi “estimated to be between 2,170 and 7,200 years old”. An other odd thing is the train track leading to said trees and its little train ferrying supply and construction material for the trail.

Once the busy section to the trees past, you literally start climbing flights of stairs. During climb, we saw lots of deers and some monkeys. The mist of the morning was icing the tree tops and by the time we reached higher grounds, we had a clear blue sky and the ice flack from the trees were snowing on us. The ground was covered of them and so appeared white. It was a beautiful experience.

Five hours in and we finally reached the summit (and my camera also decided to fog…). Our enjoyment of the view and the achievement was short lived: the summit was cold and we were only mid-way through our hike.

The second part of the hike was following an open and sunny trail. The downward slop was a relief at first but we soon began to feel its strain on our quads. Eventually, we were happy to hike the trail in this direction: ending with what we went through in the morning would have been painful.

As we reached the end of the trail and took a brief rest at the last refuge, we took our first bad decision that set the adventurous tone of our journey.
I don’t know what we were expecting to find at the trailhead, but an empty parking lot with no shuttle service wasn’t part of the list. How to hell were we to get back to our bikes?

The sun was set and we had nowhere to sleep. We went on walking down the road and see what we could find. Worst case scenario we would reach the coast or find some shelter on the way down.
We walked on for more that an hour. We were getting tired and by back started to cramp. We stopped to rest it at what seemed to be the information centre/museum.

My side of the restrooms hallway.

We explored around the building, looking for a place to crash, and found a separated entrance to the restrooms. They had been recently cleaned. We closed the door and decided to spend the night in the hallway, roomy enough to accommodate our two sleeping bags, and much warmer that outside. The mood of our little team wasn’t at its peak. We were tired and hungry and everything felt cold and damp. We silently got in our sleeping bags and got some much needed rest.

The sound of a car woke us up. It was just before dawn and we decided to pack and leave before the staff arrived.

We resumed our walk down the road. And that’s when our first road angel, in the form of a taxi cab, manifested itself.
We made him a sign, he sprang the door open — always weird the have car doors open and close by themselves — and made sure we understood he was a cab, and not a random driver. He drove us back down to the main road and dropped us at a bus stop. After clearly explaining us when would be the next bus and that there was a breakfast place on the other side of the road, he bid us farewell and drove off. We sought the comfort of these breakfast place — really a place where the locals get their bento for lunch — and proceeded to stuff ourselves with food and coffee.

Was that it?

G had a cold coming. At that time, he didn’t really had any proper insulated jacket and the nights had been cold. After a gram of paracetamol, we decided, once our bikes retrieved, to seek the nearest onsen and enjoy its steaming warm water. Our first experience with onsen had been of a huge size pool. This one was more a shake, laid out in pure Japanese fashion and run by a tiny old smiling lady.

So far, our encounters with Japanese had always been full of kindness. We were relieved of that. One less thing to worry about. Personally, it was one of my wishes to be able to communicate with peoples, not just bike by them, and I took Japanese lessons to help with that. I wasn’t expecting that most of our social encounters would actually be in onsen though.

宮之浦岳 (Mt. Miyanoura)

Overall, we had well planned our hike but misjudged the logistic around it. We had barely enough food for the two days.
So, not even a week in and we had already struggled and relied on luck more than we should have. Not that it wasn’t interesting, the type 2 kind of fun, but we didn’t really wanted to spend our 6 weeks worrying about that.

Once back to Kagoshima, we went back to Montbell shop to correct our mistakes. I got a proper stove that wouldn’t run out of fuel in two days, and G got a shiny new, bright red and warm, down jacket.

The hike, from right (north) to left (south-east)

PS: When you’re cold and a bit on the down side, there is two great things in japan: onsens and ramen-ya.

The fast food kind of ramen…
…and the freaking yummy kind of ramen

Goodbye Yakushima, we’re heading for the east coast of Kyushu.