Today was the big day! The big hiking day that is. Of all the plans for our vacation, we knew this day was going to be the most strenuous. After we woke up very early around 3:00-3:30 AM I went to the dining area where our breakfast and lunch bentos were waiting for us next to some bento for other people in our hotel who were also doing the climb to joumon-sugi.
After suiting up we headed to the front of the lodge to meet our guide Wada-san who was already there. We found this guide via a friend of Anna’s. He lived in Seattle and Canada in Seattle for a few years so his English was pretty good, he just had difficulty remembering some words, but I had no trouble understanding him at all. The drive to the area where we’d take our bus to the bottom of the trail took almost an hour. It was still very dark because it was so early in the morning. During the drive it rained a bit, but later stopped.
We got to the bus area where a bunch of people started gathering around, but we managed to be first in line. Wada told us to sit in the front of the bus because the roads wind and weave like crazy so you can get really motion sick if you’re sitting in the back of the bus. The bus ride took around 40-50 minutes.
When our bus arrived, everyone sat together in the meeting area and ate their breakfast. Unfortunately we didn’t take photos of our bento T_T there were some rice balls, umeboshi and a little fish. Anna got a photo of me eating the dessert mochi that came in our bento.
After our breakfast we went outside to do some stretching before we started off. It was still pretty dark outside at this point. Then around 7:00 we headed off! I really had no idea what to expect for this hike. All I knew was that the hike lasted around 10-12 hours. Turned out that the first 2-3 hours of the trail were along a railway, so most of the time I was looking at the ground to make sure I didn’t trip on the ties.
The first bridge we got to was pretty high up and the walking path was very narrow which made me pretty nervous. There was a sort of fence to the bridge, but it was so far to the sides that it really wasn’t meant to be held onto while going across. There were probably 20-30 people on the bus that we took, but every group went at their own pace so sometimes we’d bunch up in one area and then not see anyone for a long time until the next rest point.
Something I was very conscious of the entire time was the fact that during most of the trail if you tried walking only a few feet to the right or left there was a HUGE DROPOFF. Huge like, falling and not stopping until you hit a tree or a massive pile of rocks. I was very careful to not going anywhere near the edge. I clutched my camera the entire time in its mini raincoat.
It was still very early on, but the view was already very peaceful and pretty to look at. Wada explained to us that Yakushima is mostly comprised of granite, there’s very little soil. This is pretty amazing considering the vast amount of plantlife on Yakushima. It turns out, the reasons trees can grow is because of the moss that grows on the rock! There are over 600 species of moss on Yakushima and it rains so frequently that the moss is enough for the trees to grow on. Amazing! This explains the look of the Miyazaki film backgrounds which usually have rocks covered in moss.
The second bridge was even more nervewracking because there was no fence at all! I couldn’t help but think of the scene from “Stand By Me” when they’re going across the bridge veeeeerrrry slowly. Anna managed to take a photo while crossing, but I was concentrating too hard on not falling. Wada told us that since people get so nervous crossing the bridges there are very very few accidents. Most people tend to injure themselves because of overconfidence somewhere else on the trail.
After the bridge we saw our first large cedar tree. Wada explained that cedar trees have a lot of sap/oil inside so they live for a very long time, but especially long on Yakushima because of the rain. The named cedar trees on Yakushima are all at least 500 years old! Also when the trees get old, they rot from the inside out which explains how later we saw many massive hollowed out tree stumps.
As soon as we started seeing a lot of moss covered rocks and trees we instantly felt like we were walking through a Miyazaki movie. Everywhere we looked there were rocks, trees and stumps that had moss growing all over them. They looked like whenever you see ruins in a Miyazaki movie like Nausicaa which have plants growing everywhere. You can get an idea from the photos, but seeing and touching it was amazing. Because of the moss not only did trees grow on rocks and stumps, but trees grew upon other trees!
Later we crossed a bridge high over a rocky area. Wada asked us if it looked like a scene in Mononoke. As soon as my brain made the connection I probably had a huge goofy grin on my face. Wada said it was the scene where Ashitaka meets San, but later on when we rewatched the movie I realized it’s actually the scene where Ashitaka throws the crystal dagger to one of the wolves to give to San.
Directly after this was an area of a village that until the 1970s was a village in the mountains. There was a village there for a while that used the railway to get to and from town where they had to do their shopping. The place where we rested was where the school used to be. Wada said that the railways are still used, but only to transport toilet waste from the mountain. At this point we had been walking for about an hour.
The next really cool thing was this branch which Wada told us is rumored to be the inspiration for the Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke with its dozens of antlers. It was a large branch out of which several white branches were growing out of like antlers. Even if it wasn’t the inspiration, it still looked very cool.
Also in this area is where we saw our first and only monkey for the trip! He was crawling across the track then went up a hill. Luckily we managed to snap a few photos before he disappeared. We also saw our first deer around this area too! This was also around a very interesting bathroom they had. It was a “bio-toilet.” When you look inside the toilet it just looks like there’s dirt, but when you press the button, these metal blades turn the earth over which buries the waste. Believe me when I say that it didn’t smell at all! It was pretty awesome.
I realize that I could write here “Then we saw another tree, then we saw another tree” which could get pretty boring so I’ll let some of these photos speak for themselves.
At the three hour point is when the really difficult hiking started. There was a rest stop right before this extremely steep looking set of steps so we sat down, drank some water and used the bathroom. There weren’t any bathrooms past this part of the trail so we had to go here.
This next section was the most difficult part of the trail. There were three stairways which were really steep. Wada told us when we were starting each section, with the third one being the steepest. Because of how steep it was there wasn’t really any place to rest on the side, so I didn’t take many photos in this section because I wanted to keep moving. The trail alternated between wooden steps and also stepping on rocks. I was very careful to watch where Wada was stepping through all of this. There were several areas where I really had to hold onto the surrounding trees to balance myself.
After half an hour of this we reached a MASSIVE cedar tree which had collapsed only a couple months ago! It’s hard to see, but I got a photo of the top half that fell over. Wada was saying that he had climbed the trail one day, and the next day the tree had already fallen over!
The next big landmark was “Wilson’s Stump.” When we saw this place on the map we were wondering how on earth the stump could have a name “Wilson.” It turns out there was a Harvard professor who wrote about the cedar trees on Yakushima in a book of his which introduced it to people in the West. As a tribute to him, the people on Yakushima decided to name this massive stump after him.
Wilson’s Stump is known not only for being really enormous, but you can also walk inside of it because it’s hollow. The fun thing about the stump is that if you look out of the top from a very specific angle from the inside, the opening looks like a heart! We took tons of photos of course. It really is massive, it’s feels like going into a cavern. The other thing that it reminded us of was Totoro’s house which has the open top. It definitely feels like this could’ve been the inspiration for that.
From Wilson’s Stump we still had an hour and half of climbing to do. The trail alternately went up and down a lot and was pretty steep the whole way. Anna preferred going over the rocks to the stairs because the stairs made her feel more tired. Very rarely was there any kind of railing for the wooden stairs, and a lot of times there was at least a good 5-6 drop to the ground underneath the stairs. Those sections were pretty harrowing so I was extra extra careful.
Around this are we really appreciated having Wada around as our guide not only for being able to explain the different trees, but also for setting the pace of our hike. The pace he set was very brisk, but not too fast. I think also having someone there to force us to keep going until the next rest stop was a good thing to have. Anna especially was saying later that it helped push her forward.
Finally, five hours after the start of our hike we reached Joumon-sugi! Joumon-sugi is estimated to be over 7000 years old!! Wada took our photo and then we started taking as many photos as we could. The last two hours were very tiring but we made it! Feels kind of anti-climactic to not have much to say about Joumon-sugi, but it was an incredible site. Wada told us before that cedar trees usually live to be 500 years old, but the conditions on Yakushima are what let them live for thousands and thousands of years.
I was pretty sweaty under all my layers, but one of the shirts I had from Anna’s dad was made of some kind of material meant to help with sweat. I realized later that when I stopped moving and my body cooled down that it was pretty cold. I especially noticed this when we stopped for lunch at the rest area around Joumon-sugi. Wada made some miso soup to warm us up which was much appreciated. Oh and I should mention here that so far during the whole hike it hadn’t rained a drop!
The entire time going up I had my camera in its little raincoat because I was paranoid, but I didn’t need to use it at all on the way up because it was absolutely gorgeous weather the whole way. We seriously couldn’t have asked for better weather. Wada told us that he’s hiked the trail when there were several inches of snow covering everything. I can’t believe that people do it when there’s snow, especially for some of the more perilous areas at the end of the trail. Even when the stairs were a bit wet I felt paranoid about slipping and falling. Luckily we only had some minor slips and one time Wada slipped and fell on his butt.
When we finished lunch we headed back down! Of course, going down was MUCH faster especially during those three sections where things were really steep. Still, I was very careful not to hit the steps too hard so that I didn’t hurt my knees. I thought that going down would be kind of boring since we saw everything already, but Wada saved some landmarks to point out to us on the way down so there was still more to see.
This one part of the trail which had this little trickle of water coming out of a plastic pipe embedded in a rock wall. On the way up Wada told us that water was the best tasting water on Yakushima which had no minerals or anything in it. I took a little sip and sure enough it didn’t taste like anything! There weren’t any little bits of debris or anything at all.
It’s hard to describe the “taste” of water, but its after taste was incredibly soft. When we passed it again on the way down I emptied my bottle of “Pocari Sweat” and filled the whole bottle. In retrospect I wish I emptied both of our bottles and filled it up. I still have a little bit in our fridge, but at the bottom it tastes more like Pocari Sweat :P.
Some other trees we passed on the way down was one called the “Medusa” tree because of all the branches coming out of the top. Also, there was a tree formation that looked like the dragon “Sheng Long” from Dragon Ball 😛
About two and a half hours from Joumon-sugi we stopped at a beautiful riverside for a break. Wada made some coffee using the river water! (He had a pot and portable heater). We rested here for a while before continuing. The last couple hours were a little boring because it was all along the railways, but at least it went by relatively quickly.
Approximately four hours from Joumon-sugi and we were DONE! The whole hike took us just under ten hours which meant it was around 5:00 PM. Turns out we didn’t even need the headlights we had packed. But the other fantastic thing was that on the way down it didn’t rain a drop either! We couldn’t believe our luck that the place said to rain “35 days a month” didn’t rain at all during our hike. I’m not sure if we’ll be so lucky next time we come, but we were very thankful.
After we were done, Wada took us back to town where we wanted to try this restaurant which was known for having good flying fish. Unfortunately they didn’t have any flying fish. I got a sashimi dinner and Anna got fish. Of the meals we had in Japan this was probably the one on the bottom. It wasn’t *bad* but it felt like pretty normal sashimi. But it was okay because we were so tired from the hike and just happy to have our shochu and beer to celebrate.
After we finished dinner we went to buy some celebratory shochu and went to the main hotel where they drove us to our lodge in the woods.
When we got back we took an amazing bath in the couple’s bath house! During the trip Anna had been complaining about her skin feeling dry, but the amazing water at Yakushima was so nice and soft that after taking the bath she didn’t feel dry at all! We soaked in the bath for a long time which felt sooooo good.
It was crazy to think that the next day we’d be going on another trail that was about 4-5 hours and then leaving Yakushima!