Saturday, September 26, 2009

Central Mountain Biking 九州中央山地MTBツアー

On a rare long weekend this September, we took a rambling bicycle trip through the mountains of Central Kyushu. We plotted the trip (red) and the drive up (green) over an image taken by a space shuttle astronaut (from NASA's excellent Earth from Space site). The course was very hilly with about 80km of distance 1000-2000m of elevation gain for the first three days. A relatively flat but long 140km finish on the fourth day was possible by following the Kuma River basin and canyon through the hills. The image shows fog in the upper basin; an almost daily phenomenon in an unusual flat valley surrounded completely by mountains.
The course began from our friend's house on the southern outskirts of Kumamoto City, where we dropped off our car.  The sun had just risen, illuminating the pastoral landscape as we followed the flood-control dikes of the Midori River upstream into the hills towards its headwaters.
Rice will be ripening soon in the western foothills.  Bevies of dragonflies hover over the paddies as the day heats up, but the ubiquitous vermillion of amaryllis (literally 'equinox flower' in Japanese) shows that the summer is winding down.
As the terrain becomes more rugged, we begin climbing among terraced fields whose elusive color seems that much brigther when set off by the dark green of the deep mountains.
We enter the narrow Naidaijin Valley and the forest and steep mountainsides close on us.

The dirt track leads over a high pass over Kyushu's spine into Miyazaki Prefecture, through some of the most remote tracts of western Japan.
Patches of virgin forest were spared on the highest reaches of these mountains; they are a fountain of relaxation to pass through.
The source waters of the Mimi River, clear and vigorous in spite of a rather dry summer.
Thirty kilometers downstream, the Shiiba dam spans the grown river, a part of an extensive system of tunnels and dams that harness  streams for hydroelectric power.
The Cental Mountains are characterized by steep, erosive slopes upon which narrow roads twist precariously. One tack of the road below me, Leanne steadfastly climbs toward the day's summit.

A multi-hour sweaty uphill crawl is rewarded by an hour's exhilirating descent into the valley.

Like a ghost in a static landscape, Leanne makes a fleeting pass in front of an amaryllis-spangled bank.

Spending a damp morning ascending the Dogawa valley, we can retrace our meandering path on the landscape viewed from on high.  I took some artistic license with this image, just for a little fun.
Quite unexpectedly, we find a large and impressive waterfall on the Oyabu River.  We have explored these hills through and through it seems, but they still haven't revealed all their secrets to us.  The fall is marked by only the smallest of symbols on the topo map and so was easy to miss.
Behind the veil of water, an exquisite inspiration for a Japanese-style garden.

Roadside Iwagumi Series continued...inspired by nature and Zen? A mere accident of the gnashing Japanese construction machine? Or both?
On the morning of the final day, the mountains opened for a time to reveal the lush, fertile Hitoyoshi Basin with its sea of ripening rice.

Camera technology really could not do justice to the delicate colors that were all around us.

The mountains encircling the basin bring daily fog and chill air in the winter, but are also a source of clear water and nutrients that make this valley one of the most fertile farming areas in the country.

A pastoral scene in the Hitoyoshi Basin - sorry I went a bit nuts at the controls again!


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rolling Practice  ロールの練習

Lately we’ve been spending time on the water with our partner in crime Jerremy Akiyama. Jerremy is a natural sportsman amply endowed with mind-body coordination, so it was not a great surprise to see him roll a kayak on his very first try (after only a verbal explanation of what to do), it was nevertheless the first and only time we’ve seen it done. He is an avid sport fisherman of national renown and many of our paddles together have been visits to remote rocks where he enjoys casting lures into the sea while we spearfish, snorkel, or survey the area.


The other day, we shot sequences of ourselves doing the basic sweep and roll. Jerremy has been practicing toward ten rolls in a row (he’s at five now). Consistency is most important in practical kayaking; finer points of technique can come later.

Jerremy is righting his kayak solidly using a powerful combination of sweep and draw. His quick hip action and lower back flexibility are excellent: watch his kayak flip itself in the blink of an eye just when the paddle shaft is at right angles to it. Perfect timing! At the conclusion of the stroke, Jerremy performs a draw, instinctively and correctly sweeping the paddle down and forward as his body comes out of the water. Therefore, his paddle ends up under the water surface, but not deep enough to cause any serious problems. The initial, sweep part of the stroke still needs a bit of tuning up. Jerremy keeps the paddle tracking precisely along the water’s surface, which is very commendable, but the angle of the paddle blade to the surface is a bit too big – about 45 degrees. At this angle, it is necessary to push away quite bit of water out of the paddle’s path during the long sweep. Jerremy certainly does not lack power as he stirs in an impressive amount of air bubbles, but this technicality does not affect his roll’s consistency too much. Note also how his head comes out of the water a bit too early, requiring additional power from the paddle during the draw to haul all that body mass up.

Rick executes the sweep and roll simultaneously, so his hip-twist is slow and continuous. He is extending his body and arm out, giving the paddle more potential leverage. His head is tilted back and actually leads the motion, always facing the sweeping paddle and coming out of the water last. Because Rick’s paddle blade is tilted only 10-20 degrees to the water surface, he does not need much power for the sweep; the motion is very smooth and fast, reducing the total time needed for the roll. Throughout, only surface water is stirred up and although Rick executes a subtle draw at the end of the sweep, the blade never sinks deeper than about 10cm. This leaves him in a fully stable position as he completes the roll.

Both boys can roll decently, but there’s still plenty of room for practice! 

Monday, September 14, 2009

Late Summer Outing

A map of one of our favorite day trips in Amakusa's southern extremity. We went last weekend with two of our friends. 天草の好きなカヤック旅の地図です。先週末友達二人と漕いできた。

Like going for a walk in the park. のんびりで公園の散歩見たいな感じ。


I found some tasty shells while diving. Mr. O. pries them open with a knife.

This little guy was living in one of the shells. なんか可愛い。貝の中にいた。


Mr.O had just purchased a beautiful Waterfield Kayak "Arashi" sea kayak.

A creepy discovery. In years gone by, when contagious diseases could not be easily controlled, sick individuals were often banished to small uninhabited islands to die. One of these, Kuwashima, is said to have such a history; this sometimes gives the otherwise idyllic island a spooky feeling. This time, our friend discovered human-like bones embedded in the dirt where a small landslide exposed the underlying soil and rock.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Day 3-6: Takara-Suwanose

The west-to-east flow of the Kuroshio became evident on this interval, just like the forecast said it would.  Speeds were up to 1.7 knots (3.2km/h) around Akuseki-jima.  Normally, the currents are 2-3 knots from the north-west; these crossings would certainly be more challenging under such conditions.  As it was, we had the wind and current more or less behind us, and were able to move quickly. 予想通り、黒潮の西から東への流れはこの辺で明らかになりました。流速は悪石島の付近で一番速くて1.7ノット(3.2km・h)だった。黒潮の状態は普段に変わりやすいけど、一般的に北西から南東への2-3ノットの流れです。今回幸運で追い風と良い流れのおかげで速く横断しました。

This section of the trip was perhaps our favorite. The inhabitants of the southern Tokaras were particularly friendly, welcoming us heartily, showing genuine interest (and concern) in our way of travel, and spending time with us to show us each island's unique sights. On the sea we were on our own, of course, but once landbound it felt almost like a guided tour!
We hoped it would last. On the sea, we began to feel the Kuroshio, though it usually speeded up rather than hindered our progress. 
A persistently strong south-west wind blew all the way through to Akuseki, allowing us to sail much of the way in choppy to rough seas. Combined with the effect of the current, this really increased our speed; we achieved a nearly 9km/h average between Takara and Kodakara. Expecting rough water on approach to each island, we sacrificed some speed and steered upstream (left) each time but the expected races never materialized, and we actually under-shot each island (except Suwanose). But that was a small price to pay as insurance against getting washed into the open Pacific or among the enormous haystack waves for which the area is famous. It's amazing that with this wind, we never saw dangerous waves, even from a distance. On Kodakara, not knowing what was ahead, we spent a day waiting out strong winds and a rolling sea. In retrospect, we would have been okay even if we had gone that day, but our decisionmaking was sound. We did not take any major risks and the pleasure of a solidly executed travel plan feels better than a mere speed run.

A portion of a current data chart we were consulting before and during the trip. Some of the ferries running between Kagoshima, Amami and Okinawa are equipped with current meters and their measurements are viewable on the Kagoshima Fisheries website. Data quality is good, although the time is not explicitly specified, so it is hard to account for the tidal component of the current. The ferry runs along a route different from our own track (shown in red for reference), but the current observations compare well with our own. Interestingly, the wakes of several of the islands show quite clearly on the ferry track 20km or so downstream of the islands, leading us to believe that each island leaves a long and useable wake for regaining ground should one somehow be swept too far eastward by the Kuroshio. これは鹿児島県水産技術開発センターのHPで鹿児島から奄美、那覇、甑へ就航している定期客船で観測した流れのデータを示すグラフです。情報の質が良いが、計った時間が載ってないので潮流の影響がわかりにくい。定期客船と僕たちの(赤線で示している)航路が大分違うが、流れの測定の結果を比べると、主に大きく変わらない。フェリーのデータを細かく見ると島から20キロ下流でもその影が見えます。もし黒潮に東に流されたらこの影を利用して島に戻れる可能性があるだろう。

Like Takara-jima, Kodakara too has a rampart reef embedded with tall pinnacles like this one.  By its base and invisible in this picture, a swimming-pool-size artificial lagoon was blasted out of the reef, making playing in the sea accessible for local children.  Currents, waves, and sharp rocks on the coastline make the sea otherwise off limits to all but very experienced swimmmers. 宝島と小宝島も同じ地形で珊瑚礁からピナクルがあちこち出ている。こちらの「赤立神」の麓でプールのサイズの人工的な海跡湖が出来ている。島の海岸の周りの流れ・波・鋭い岩の為泳ぎにくいから、地元の子供のために作られたプールです。

This yellow variety of hibiscus was ubiquitous in Tokara, contributing to the distinctive feel of the islands' natural environment. この黄色ハイビスカス(黄蜀葵)がトカラで代表です。島の特別な自然な環境の観照に増やしてくれた。

宝島から諏訪瀬島まではこの旅の中で一番楽しかった部分でした。出会った島民が特に優しくて親切でした。僕たちの旅について本当に興味と懸念を持っていて、車で島の案内もしてくれました。海では独行で動いたが上陸するとツアーに参加しているの感じでした。海ではやっと黒潮を感じていたが航海に悪い影響がなかった。悪石島まで絶えることなく強い南西の風が吹いていた。そこまで荒波でもずっとウインドパドルを使って快走した。追い流れと風の為宝島から小宝島までの横断では平均速度9km・hに近づいた。 島を近寄ったら三角波が立つと思ったので避ける為に左へ溯上したが余り激潮が無かった。実は諏訪瀬島以外に島を避け過ぎました。でもどうしようもなかった。もしデッカイ三角波に会ったら大変な事になるでしょう。最悪の場合太平洋に流されてしまう。


Spiders rule the late summer in southwest Japan, gradually growing in size as they feast on abundant insect life.  Even near our home, one cannot go hiking in the fall without vigorously swinging a stick around to clear the huge and resilient webs off the trail.  In Tokara, the spiders were one or two months ahead of Kyushu in size.  This one was already about 5cm; we wonder how big he will get in October? 晩夏は蜘蛛が虫の世界を支配する季節です。

The aptly named Kodakara-jima, or Little Treasure Island, is small enough to walk around comfortably, offering enjoyable scenery around every corner. This and nearby Treasure Island's Mediterranean hues differ in character from the abundantly rich greens of the rest of the Tokaras. Nearby Kojima and other reefs (visible in the background) reportedly have first-class snorkeling and fishing; tropical species such as the giant Napoleon Fish are to be seen. 小宝島は名前通り小さくて気楽に一周を歩けます。宝島と小宝島は景色がどこでも美しくて、景色は中々地中海の島に似ている。

We explored the reefs on the lee side of Kodakara while waiting out a windy day.  Notable was the abundance of sea-snakes of all sizes; we were told that this is their breeding ground.  Rick spent several hours spearfishing in the crystal clear water, but the fish outsmarted him this time.  With labyrinthine caves and crevices in the limestone reef into which the fish can and do escape, a snorkeling hunter has very little chance of success.  Because of the presence of reef sharks, the fish are also a lot warier of human-size creatures than they are at our home base of Amakusa.

The breeze ripples the forest of dense bamboo forest that covers the high ground of Akuseki-jima, giving it a deservedly desolate appearance. Our new friend Mr. Higo the fisherman drove us all around the island. He dreams of someday visiting Canada and seeing the scenery of the Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile our own jaws drop on the spectacular sight of these lonely islands scattered across the deep indigo sea. 悪石島の竹山が薫風で踊っていた感じがした。

On this volcanic island chain, geothermal springs are the norm and many simple but authentic spas can be enjoyed free of charge, though perhaps the tropical summer is not the right time for such a tour. Leanne, whose body seems to generate very little intrinsic heat, didn't think so I guess. この暑い天気でも里杏は温泉を楽しめる。

Mr. Higo pointed out to us a nature trail that led through the sub-tropical foliage of a thick, dark jungle. The distinctive leaves of the Chinese fan palm particularly caught the eye. 悪石島のジャングルにてビロウの葉っぱが目立ちました。

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