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Archive for October, 2011

The train pulled into Ina-Oshima station shortly before midnight, as I searched for a dark corner to catch some shut-eye before the early morning bus to Shiokawa trailhead. My eyes immediately caught sight of a long bench in the covered bus shelter directly across the street from the station. The bus I needed to catch would leave from here, so at least I wouldn’t have to worry about oversleeping if I bedded down there. I unrolled the sleeping bag, crawled in, and spent the next 6 hours or so in an uneasy fit. As soon I drifted off, a car would come swooshing by, splashing rain water perilously close to my partially-exposed figure. Once the bus finally arrived, I sighed with relief and fell into a deep slumber, awaking only after the driver tapped me on the shoulder. Good thing the trailhead was the last stop.

The path towards Sanpuku-toge was just as I’d remembered it: lush, overgrown, and completely deserted. The rain had eased overnight but the cloud hung heavy on the ridge far above, threatening to turn my first day into a foggy mush of misery. Somehow I managed to not lose sight of the tape dangling intermittently from the surrounding trees, as I crossed the river one last time before starting the infinite switchbacks towards the highest mountain pass in the Minami Alps.

Shortly before noon I popped out in front of the hut I’d stay in during my last tramp into these mountains. The jovial staff gently filled my water bottles while inquiring about my plans. Usually hikers need to pay for water here, but since I was the only one around for miles, he quickly waved off my offers of cash. “Where to today?,” the middle-aged man queried. Thinking I was headed towards Shiomi-dake, my information source let out a rather audible gasp when I pointed in the direction of Arakawa. “You’d best stay at the emergency hut at Kogochi”, he added before ducking back inside. “Here, take this”, shoving a ripe Fuji apple into my left hand, “you’ll need this.”

After bidding farewell to the caretaker, I started the long, slow climb towards Mt. Kogochi through the thick cloud and strong winds. Robbed of a view, I marched to the beat of an imaginary drummer, humming myself into a trance with obscure tunes from my childhood. Flowers bloomed all around but I was in no mood for snapping photos. I knew I had a long way to go before reaching the next Hyakumeizan on my list, and all I could think of was how many kilometers I could knock off of that approach during the slowly fading daylight. Perhaps that was the main reason I opted not to follow the apple giver’s advice and pushed on well beyond the summit of Kogochi to the next hut along the ridge, a good 8km away from my current position. I don’t remember much about that trail except for the white monotony of the misty veil. Shortly before dusk, I stumbled into Takayama emergency hut, startling the manager who’d given up hope of having any additional visitors for the evening. As I handed over the modest accommodation fee, the elderly worker nearly fell off his chair when I told him I’d come from the station earlier that morning. Apparently most people take at least 2 days to cover the same distance I’d knocked off in the better part of one. After a quick meal, I slipped into a deep coma, preparing my body and soul for the even longer day that lie ahead.

Day 2

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The ferry from Osaka to Kagoshima is far from ideal, as it drops you off in the boring town of Shibushi, miles from anywhere and convenient to only the truckers delivering supplies to southern Kyushu. Regardless, I slapped down the money on the ticket counter and boarded the ship for an early winter foray in the volcanic hills of Satsuma Peninsula.

It took nearly an hour to flag down my first ride from Shibushi, but by mid-morning I was well on my way towards Sakurajima, my home for the night. After dropping off my stuff at the rather bleak-looking youth hostel, I hitched completely around the island, stopping several times to see the sights and enjoy the thermal baths. Someday I’d like to make it up the crumbling flank of Minami-dake, but the frequent eruptions make it near to impossible to set foot on the volcano. Instead, I focused my attention further south, towards the conical forms of Mt. Kaimon, mountain #25 in my quest for the almighty 100.

The ferry ride to Kagoshima the next morning revealed an overnight dusting of snow on Sakurajima. Despite its tropical image, Kyushu does in fact receive a sizable amount of snow, enough to close roads to mountain passes and to make crampon navigation mandatory. I’d hoped that Kaimon would remain approachable. The train whisked me most of the way down the peninsula, and I used the thumb to guide me the rest of the way, hitching a ride to the base of my target peak. Mt. Kaimon is as majestic as they come, rising abruptly from sea level to a height of nearly 1000 meters above the sea below, rightfully earning the  nickname of Satsuma-fuji.

The path rose quickly through the silent forest, passing over volcanic rock with views of the azure waters below. Mt. Kaimon has the distinction of being the only Hyakumeizan without a single switchback, as the trail does a 360 degree loop of the mountain before arriving on the summit. A glance at any map will clearly show the spiral route to the top.

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Upwards I pushed through the tranquil environs, not meeting an entire soul until just below the boulders of the summit rocks. Here the ice clung to the rock face firmly as I cursed myself for forgetting the crampons. Luckily the other hiker ahead of me had kick-stepped a manageable route and I quickly followed suit, imitating his movements as best I could. Eventually I topped out on the crater rim and was rewarded with an outstanding view of Satsuma’s crescent-shaped coastline. Yakushima was buried in thick cloud way off in the distance, but the rest of the peaks glistened blissfully in the early afternoon sun. I retraced my steps back towards the foot of the peak, painfully stubbing my toes at one point on a frozen rock. Pain shot up my left leg, but at least I was on the way down instead of up. I knew that the town of Ibusuki would be the perfect remedy for my bruised appendages.

After walking back to the main road, I flagged down a ride with a strange man who I seriously thought was going to rob me and leave me for dead in the bay. As soon I entered the car, he turned the vehicle around and told me we were heading to his house, where he had “forgotten to lock the door.” When we arrived, I gripped my hands tightly on the seat of the car. There’d be no way I’d enter his dwelling without a fight. Alone, he walked to his front door, turned the key, and quickly returned. “Ok, let’s go”, he said. The man was telling the truth after all, but still, the experience left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and the rest of the ride was quite awkward, as he kept calling me his best friend. One bad hitch out of nearly a hundred rides over the last decade is a pretty good batting percentage I’d say.

Only one more peak to climb in Kyushu: the might Sobo-san. This time around I’d need companionship, and I knew just where to find it.

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