Monday, March 27, 2006


Yakushima , a small circular island approximately 60kms from the south-most tip of Kyushu, is world renowned for its mountains, flora and fauna. With an annual precipitation of 4,000 to 10,000 mm, lush green vegetation covers everything and crystal clear rivers gush down the valleys.
The famous anime director Miyazaki Hayao used Yakushima as the model setting for Mononoke Hime, the most successful anime in history and the most profitable Japanese film to date.

March 22nd was a national holiday, giving us a long weekend. This allowed us just enough time to make a trip to Yakushima. Leaving Saturday night from our house we were able to take the ferry from Kagoshima port the next morning and get to Yakushima by early afternoon. The ferry ride was exciting with 3-4 meter waves rocking the boat back and forth much to the delight of the hormone-laden high school students who were on a school trip. With every sway the girls all screamed while the boys, queasy themselves, displayed obvious interest. We wondered to ourselves, when did we grow out of this kind of behavior?!
Upon arrival we jumped on the only available bus, which took us almost to the start of our trail. The first part of our journey was on the road until we came to the confluence of the Arakawa and Anbou rivers. From there we started up a narrow gauge railway which was once used to haul lumber. The tracks gradually climbed until finally we came to the trailhead.
From here it was a steep climb on a nice path through old growth forest. This was when we could finally relax and abandon our stress to the fairytale-like surroundings of the forests and mountains. We saw monkeys and deer foraging by the trailside. High above in the canopy could be heard the cries of birds rejoicing in the warmth of spring.
Just as the light started to fade we came upon the Joumonsugi -- the main reason why so many Japanese tourists come to this island at all. The age of this tree has been estimated to be somewhere between 2,100-7,200 years(scientific estimates tend to be toward the low end of this wide spectrum). Its trunk has a circumference of 16.8m and the tree is over 25m high. I was of course impressed with the tree, but truthfully speaking there were many big and beautiful trees -- one after another.
That night we camped by a mountain hut in our tent. The hut was crowded with university students traveling on their spring vacation. The huts along the path are free of charge to hikers. Nearby there are toilets and a spring with clean delicious water. During peak season I imagine this particular hut is always packed. We considered sandwiching ourselves among the nest of merry hikers, but instead opted to sleep outside in our tent.
Bright and early the next morning we set off enjoying the clear brisk air. As we continued to gain elevation the trees started to thin out. In their place grew a kind of low bamboo grass called Yakuzasa. In patches there was snow and still higher up, the path was completely covered in a varnish of ice. In many places the sides of the trail were decorated with delicate hoar frost.
We decided to make a side trip to a nearby peak called Mt. Nagata. We dumped our packs at the trail junction and relieved of our burdens practically flew up the trail to the summit.
Surrounding us were large boulders and beautiful vistas in all directions. After retracing our steps to our packs we continued on the remaining distance to Mt.Miyanoura (1936m). Mt.Miyanoura is the tallest mountain in Kyushu and is rated as one of the top 100 mountains in Japan. (Yes, it’s “the best 100” phenomenon again.) At the summit we caught a quick break while enjoying the unique scenery. On this particular day the visibility was unusually clear. Looking north, we were able to see as far as the Kirishima volcanoes in southern Kyushu, and to the south the phantom outlines of three more islands further along the chainlike archipelago which stretches towards Okinawa.
On the way down we slipped and skated on the icy trail until finally the midday sun thawed things out. From an alpine bog called “Hananoegou", we took the Ishizuka trail down to Yakisugiland (Yakisugi is the name of the large cedar trees, and land is, well, English -- go figure?!)
This trail was obviously the path less taken, as we only met one other person who happened to be a foreigner that lived on the island and worked maintaining the very trails we were walking. The trail followed the ridge, weaving through the green velvet forest and descending into a valley with a beautiful clear river running through it. We enjoyed the trail’s solitude. We made it down to Yakisugiland at dusk; perfect timing.
xing The next morning we made some friends with various interesting hikers, caught the bus down to the port and together lunched on the local specialty- flying fish.
On the ferry ride back to Kagoshima all passengers were brought together over the baseball game on TV- Japan vs. Cuba in the World Championship final. With every hit scored the energy in the cabin grew, finally terminating in a crescendo during the 9th inning victorious rally. Everyone was clapping and cheering. Strangers were suddenly the closest of friends. After this past winter Olympics disappointing results, this victory for Japan was much appreciated and warmly received.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Weekend Climbing Warriors

Lately on weekends, we have been rock climbing. This is no simple or cheap venture, as the nearest crag is over 3 hours away, and involves a ferry ride. Despite the inconvenience, we have grown accustomed to the rituals involved in getting there; the ferry ride with the occasional ride up front with the captain, the hilly, agro intensive scenery, the stops at the favorite FOODS PEOPLE, an interestingly named grocery store, driving through the Pachinko lined main street of Isahaya, and finally onto a farming road which eventually leads us to our destination.
February-March is the start of the potato and lettuce-growing season in Nagasaki. I suppose in order to cut down on the weeds the fields have been covered with rows of plastic. It makes for an interesting view, although somehow unsettling.

Upon reaching the crag, we try and jump on any descent climb that is available. This is often difficult as on Sundays there are many eager climbers. After a few warm up climbs we like to jump on some climbs that are quite difficult for us. Slowly week after week of repeated effort we manage to figure out the best combination of movements and finally link things together.

(Sorry no picture available, this is not that kind of site!)
After a full day of climbing we hit the “onsen”, the local hot spring. This has become a must after any day of hard climbing. We find it very therapeutic for our muscles and our sore fingers. Rik likes sitting in the cold bath until he can’t any longer and then switching to the boiling hot bath until he is fully boiled. He claims it helps flush out the old blood, and bring in new fresh blood. It all makes sense.

There are two different onsens to choose from “Hiratani Onsen” in Saga Prefecture and “Sun Spa” in Omura City. Hiratani Onsen is a newly renovated hot spring with 2 indoor baths and one outdoor bath. The water feels nice on the skin and the baths are never too crowded. Rik likes the cold bath because it is especially cold. The setting is very peaceful by a clean river with lots of nice trees and greenery. The only drawback is the price 600yen (a little expensive), and the boilers that heat the water. The boilers happen to be situated beside the men’s onsen, and depending on the wind, blow disturbing fumes into the men’s bath.

The onsen in Omura “Sun Spa” is another unique and completely different, yet truly Japanese experience. Located near the Nagasaki Airport, this onsen is located in a plaza with everything you could ever want within a few meters. There is a noodle restaurant, a sushi restaurant, a game center, a dessert shop and the onsen right at the heart of the complex. In the crowded parking lot there is loud pop music blaring out of strategically located loud speakers. This onsen is no ordinary hot spring. Recently in Japan, new deluxe hot springs are popping up everywhere. They are all unique and extravagant, but none quite matching the Sun Spa hot spring! Indoors there are about 4 different types of baths, a large sauna with a big screen TV, a cold bath and extensive showering cubicles. Outside there are more baths, a water wheel, a footbath, four oversized clay pots perfectly sized for one large gaijin. Outside there is also another sauna and a cold air sauna?? I haven’t really figured this one out yet. Perhaps it will come in handy in the summer.

This is only a description of the women’s hot spring. Apparently the men’s hot spring is completely different. After our long soak, it has become a necessity to sit in the massage chairs. For 100 yen you are kneaded, vibrated and chiggled around until you become fully limp and useless. It’s all you can do to get out of the chair and buy an ice cream at the long line of vending machines. After eventually escaping from the hot spring complex, we find ourselves moving spontaneously to the game center complex next door. Inside we are greeted with different music coming from all directions, young couples feeding 100 yen coins into machines in futile attempts to catch various cute stuffed animals in a game called UFO catcher, people lined up in front of a large screen betting on virtual horse races. Game after game, endless clanking of coins, a cacophony of sounds and the smell of stale tobacco, senses are numbed and after observing this form of entertainment for awhile we find ourselves feeding our coins to the hungry ”Puricula Machine”, a funny photo booth complete with music, drawing pens, the works. After a ridiculous amount of time we leave the game center with our sanity barely intact and a new collection of fun photos.
We depart the complex and pass by the local used electronics shop “Hard Off”. What exactly is that supposed to mean? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Finally we leave the city and head back into the mountains to our long abandoned campground, and the comforts of our tent. The next day, Monday, will be spent climbing with few or even no people to be seen. By noon, we have to pack up and sprint in our mini car back in time to catch the last ferry of the day.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Mexico Part3


fraile oeste
During our extended stay here three years ago, we occasionally made forays into the trail-less mountain wilderness that contains the high peaks of the desert. Several summits were attained, but the experience was so painful a couple of months would pass before one would get the desire to do it again. This time around, our trip would have felt incomplete if we hadn’t climbed at least one peak.

We chose El Toro, the mountain that towers immediately above the campgrounds and sports a 900m vertical north face. Its backside is more benign: although it has climbing routes up to 26 pitches long, there exists one way one may reach the summit by scrambling. A new trail that misses the summit but attains the nearly horizontal knife edge ridge that leads back to it allowed us to ascend most of the vertical distance without doing battle with too much cactus. We grabbed a rest straddling the ridge; the real business of the ascent was now close at hand.

It turned out okay, although as expected the rock was treacherously crumbly, the optimal route difficult to find and cactus was everywhere. A crux section was passed chimneying against a palm tree, and holds were triple-checked before body weight was committed to them. After one last move Leanne emerges from the steep section. Only a short section of precarious ridge leads to the rather anticlimactic summit.
The GPS read 1510m, about 20 meters higher than previously gleaned from a topographical map. In any case it’s 850m above the campgrounds and cottages spreading out below the precipitous north face. A limestone mine, soon to be reactivated, will supply the cement factory when it reopens this spring. Explosions will once again rock the peaks, and gung-ho climbers will no longer need alarm clocks to get an early start at the cliffs.
Equally carefully, Pedrissimo and Leanne begin the descent back down the knife-edge. The 2140m tall Cerro La Palmitosa with its massive east face (sporting only one unfinished climbing route) forms a spectacular backdrop. This mountain can also be climbed mexicaneering style, for unsurpassed views of the desert stretching out into the infinite west.
Carefully reversing our route (it is impossible to see the way from above, so we navigate through the rocky labyrinth by looking at pictures taken on the way up with our digital camera), we finally reach the trail, which will take us safely down. Leanne is triumphant as she balances down the last few meters of the knife-edge. Later that afternoon Leanne and I crank out a few more 5.12’s at the cliffs, though Pedrissimo, unused to Mexican hiking, crashes out for the rest of the afternoon in his tent.

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