Posts Tagged ‘Okinawa’

My day-off, if you can all it that, consisted of a 10km walk on a deserted road through farmland to reach an isolated beach on the southwestern tip of Iriomote Island. Here I found hundreds of hermit crabs, nestled together in tightly knit communities along the sandy bank of a river. The morning rain had finally let up, but thick cloud hung all around, turning the aquamarine waters of the East China sea into a dreary hue of charcoal gray. The guides back at the guesthouse later informed me that a handful of explorers each year traverse the western tip of the inaccessible island by following the sandy beaches at low tide for a couple of days before darting into the jungle along a ridge to connect with the isolated port town of Funauki. One day perhaps, I dreamed, one day.

The remainder of my rest day involved an impromptu lunch with some migrant sugarcane farmers, followed by a short hitch that left me at the terminus of the Iriomote Grand Traverse I’d cut short on the previous day. I can only imagine this to be some kind of omen. Perhaps I will be back here in the not-to-distant future to complete the traverse.

The next morning, I awoke to another day of warm sunshine and clear skies. A peak would definitely have to be scaled this afternoon, and I was torn between either Utsun or Geeda waterfalls. Both had their challenges. While the trail to Utsun was clearly marked and well-tramped, it was rumored to be infested with river leeches. Geeda, on the other hand, had no distinct trail but at least it was free from the blood-sucking worms. Deciding I’d had enough bleeding for one trip, I went for the latter, soliciting climbing advice from my trusty guide Masato before jumping on my rented bicycle for the long journey to the trailhead.

The biggest advantage to having one’s own transport is that you can stop wherever you like and explore secluded inlets. This I did with liberal indulgence, not arriving at the entrance to Geeda until just before 2pm. To my utter surprise, a well-worn path weaved through the jungle. Just when I was starting to wonder if a trail had finally been built, the path teetered out, right in the middle of the river! I was warned that this was a sawa-nobori route. As much as I love river climbing, I was completely unprepared gear-wise, but rubber sandals would have to do. I spend most of the initial climb trying to avoid slipping on the moss-covered rocks. The river banks, while providing a dry alternative, proved to be slow-going. I was better off just sticking to the middle of the river, where hidden rocks threatened to break my toes.

After 15 minutes of climbing  I saw a family of 3 approach from upstream. The father led, followed by his 8-year old son. Rounding out the group stood the young, attractive wife, all of whom were fully suited in the latest climbing gear. “No wonder they were smiling,” I shrieked. A mental note was made to buy some wetsuit booties upon my return to Osaka. Continuing upstream, I hopped from bank to bank eying for the best approach. Eventually, the roar of Geeda’s might 3-tiered beauty came into earshot. The family told me to climb the trail on the left bank of the river. After scurrying through the jungle for a few minutes, I found a piece of red tape dangling from an overhanging branch. Time to see what this river has to offer.

The route was fairly easy going to the top of the first tier. I sat on the rocks admiring the views out to sea, and thought about what life must be like to live on this island. Would I climb up here every week, or save it for once a month? Would I ever get bored of living on this island? Could a night hike to this location be possible? The scenarios replayed over and over in my head like a Talking Heads CD on repeat.

Climbing to the second tier, however, proved to be a challenge beyond belief. Climbing up to the base of cliff, the path involved climbing vertically up the roots of a small tree before grabbing a rope and pulling oneself up and over an incredibly large boulder. Once over the that boulder you can drop down to the flat place at the top of the falls, where the final tier flows down the rock face before plummeting straight below. Here the views out to sea were even more mesmerizing than before.

The path from the 2nd to the true top of Geeda waterfall turned out to be the trickiest move yet. After a short scramble, the trail abruptly vanished at the base of a near-vertical cliff face. There appeared to be a faint trace shooting straight up the damp, moss-covered rocks, but that would be impossible with my current set-up. For one, I had no rope or harness. And second, I was in sandals. If I slipped here I’d surely break a few bones or worse. Sometimes you just need to be content with the views at hand. Wisely, I stepped back away from the death trap and back down to the bottom of the first falls.

A congratulatory swim was definitely in order. I stripped, jumping head first into the frigid waters. The return trip back to the start of the hike came much easier than the approach, thanks largely to my newly formed strategy. Why try to navigate over slippery rocks when you can just swim your way back? Thus, I simply tucked my dry clothes into my back and marched through the waist deep waters. At one point I tripped over a rock, falling face first into the refreshing waters, which normally wouldn’t have caused much concern except for the camera mounted on my shoulder strap! As I pulled my camera out of the waters, I tried to think about how the guesthouse staff would react when I told them the dehumidifier would be required again?

Once back at my bicycle, I left my camera in the sun for about 10 minutes, which seemed to do the trick, for I had a functional camera once again. Tomorrow the ferry would take me back to Ishigaki island, but I knew that my newly formed relationship with Iriomote was just beginning. I still needed to see Utsun waterfall, have another crack at the Grand Traverse, and head up to Mt. Komi, the highest peak on the island. Hmmm…..

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Once back at the guesthouse, I hit the showers and noticed a strange black leaf stuck to the top of my foot. “That’s no leaf”, I screamed, running towards the common room to find the staff. After dashing my foot with disinfectant, the leech eventually stopped feasting on my blood and shriveled under the intense heat of the cigarette lighter. Despite all of my numerous hikes and climbs, leeches were a first for me.

The next step after cleansing was to try to dry out my camera. Again, the staff at Mariudo rose up to the task, hooking up a dehumidifier to slowly extract the moisture from the inside of my camera. Would it do the trick? The next day I opted for some snorkeling to get my mind off of the jungle, and my trusty guide took care of all of the underwater photography, leaving an extra day of drying time for my camera.The coral reefs surrounding Iriomote Island are top notch, and we had the entire place to ourselves thanks in large part to the frigid waters.

The following day, it was back into the jungle to not only test out my camera, but to also test my navigational abilities, for I was attempting to do part of the Iriomote Grand Traverse. The tourist boat departed from Urauchi port at preciously 9:30am, where it sailed alongside the dense mangroves of Iriomote’s largest river. I could have done without the minute explanations and the deliberate slowing of the vessel to please eager camera wielding tourists. Just get me to the trailhead, and fast!

Once off at the boat landing, the boat operator informed me that I’d best return on the 12:40pm boat, as there were unlikely to be any boats operating later. You see, in the off season, visitors are few and far between. I had exactly 2 hours and 40 minutes to make it as far upstream as I could in order to check out trail conditions for others attempting the full traverse. The things that I put myself through just to maintain a website that is little more than an obsession.

Concrete and stone framed out the initial start of the approach, and the large swaths of exposed topsoil further on clearly showed the immense popularity of this path in the busier summer months. I was glad not to be sharing the path with any other souls, for I’d quickly passed the half a dozen other elderly strollers as soon as I disembarked. Even though the map times said to allow 45 minutes to reach Mariyudou waterfall, I was sitting at the overlook in a little over 15 minutes. Sweat trickled down my brow, mixing awkwardly with the sticky remnants of spider webs I’d severed on the hurried stroll. Just past the lookout, I was shocked to see the path down the falls roped off. Perhaps this was a temporary thing in the slow winter months? I made a mental note to double check the path on the return trip to the boat landing and continued up to Kanbire falls.

Kanbire is an impressive roar of gushing water, tainted somewhat by the careless graffiti carved into the boulders of the lookout. From here the path immediately became treacherous. While the route was clearly marked with red tape, the wet, moss-covered rocks made hiking on an ice rink seem easy. I grabbed a downed tree branch from the underbrush, moulding it into a makeshift hiking stick and carefully picked my way though the maze of slick mush. Several times I found myself airborne, only to be saved by my quick reflexes. Eventually the path flattened out and crossed a tributary of the main river, where a rope was sturdily slung across the chilled waters.

Once clearly above the waterfall, all signs of civilization quickly vanished and I found a magical wilderness of crystalline waters, perfect potholes carved into the flats as if by some extraterrestrial force, and the sounds of the jungle. Further upstream, it became apparent that I’d have to enter the jungle in order to proceed further. Low and behold, stuck to a nondescript branch lie a tattered red ribbon. I’d successfully found the start of the traverse.

Time check: 10:45. I’d need to turn around by 11:15 if I had any chance of guaranteeing myself a ticket back to civilization. Surprisingly, the trail was incredibly easy to follow, for every 200 meters there stood a numbered trailmarker with distances and destinations clearly labeled. I continued upstream in the dense but sunny jungle, halfway contemplating whether I should actually do the full traverse or not. Two things stopped me. One, I had not registered my intentions with the police nor anyone for that matter.

Two, last year one hiker became lost, and the resulting search party failed to locate the missing individual. Instead, they came across the bones of another man who’d gone missing nearly 10 years earlier. The jungles are clearly not a good place to tempt fate, so I did the only logical thing and turned back at preciously 11:15. Once back at the river bank, I took my first break of the entire hike. Out came the tuna and crackers, followed by a handful of cashew nuts. A fearless crow crept precariously close to my dining table, threatening to run off with my provisions. The crows in the Yaeyama archipelago have a reputation for opening unattended bags and making off with anything in a plastic bag, food or not. A friend of mine lost a cell phone in this manner on a snorkeling mission. Beware not of human thieves.

On the return walk the crowds swelled five-fold, meaning there’d surely be a later ferry than the one I was aiming for. Oh well, too late to continue into the jungle. Back at the Mariyudou junction, I slipped under the roped off section, took 3 steps and landed firmly on my backside. Surely this was the reason for the trail closure, I quickly surmised. Unfazed, I continued down the hugely overgrown path and ended up at the river’s edge, above the waterfall. Surely, someone must have either seriously injured themselves by falling down the stairs, or perhaps ventured a little too close to the fall’s edge and was swept downstream. Trails in Japan simply don’t close unless there’s been a fatal or near fatal accident.

I made the 12:40 ferry with 30 seconds to spare, collapsing on the plastic seat and reflecting on my marathon effort. I really need to slow down this lightning speed or else I may end up with some permanent muscle damage. As for the camera, I quickly adjusted to the decreased functionality enough to sufficiently document the scenery. A day off was certainly in order though.

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The ferry pulled into Uehara port after a fierce battle with the seas, contrasting vastly with the sunny skies of Ishigaki I’d just left. The rain poured in buckets as the staff shuttled me to my room at the guesthouse. Perhaps this rain were an omen of things to come.

I spent the few remaining hours before dinner examining maps and asking the staff loads of questions about possible routes. With so many possibilities, I decided to take it one step at a time and start the proceedings with some river kayaking.

Early the next morning, Masato drove me to the river bank, pulled my rented kayak into the waters, and bade farewell. Armed with a hand-drawn map of the area, I was to maneuver through the mangroves until reaching the trailhead for Pinaisaara waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Okinawa. I set off in good spirits upstream, trying to get the hang of the most efficient paddling motions. The trees hung near inches from the surface of the tidal waters, as I fought both the wind and the current for momentum. All alone I crested, looking for other kayaks to guide me. Perhaps they’d start after me?

Alas I reached what I think is the correct boat landing: a series of small wooden steps with metal rings embedded. As I disembarked the vessel I somehow jostled the edge of my secured backpack, sending my rather pricey and barely 6-month old compact digital camera straight into the murky waters. I froze in horror – all silent including my heartbeat, before reflexively diving my right arm into the meter deep river to retrieve it. Salvaged but surely the damage was done.

I hung my new paperweight off the chest strap of my pack in hopes that some of the electronics would start to dry before short-circuiting. I set off to climb to the top of the waterfall with nothing to shoot with save my 2 megapixel cell phone camera. I shot away as best I could, as I needed the photos to help me with the write-up of the hike on my other site.

Soon I reached the edge of the river bank above the waterfall, and waited, for I knew not the best way of fording the river. After 20 minutes, a guided tour showed up, so I simply sat back and naturally observed the footwork of the guide. Shortly after the clients safely crossed I too had followed in their footsteps and sat atop the might 60-meter vertical drop. Clouds prevented a clear view of the East China Sea beyond, but at least I could have a bird’s-eye view of the vast jungle spread out before me.

After re-crossing the river, I opted to put on my trekking shoes, since I’d made the steep ascent and river crossing in my sandals. The extra foot protection made the tricky descent more manageable until I’d once again reached the river flats. From here it was simply a matter of rock hopping and trying to pick up the unmarked trail to the base of the falls. Even though this is one of the most popular day excursions on Iriomote, absolutely no signposts or tape marked the trail. Perhaps this was a deliberate effort by the guides in order to not make their jobs obsolete. Indeed, on this particular day I rain into 4 other groups, all of whom had guides. I was the only one going solo, but my vast mountaineering experience and path prediction skills proved worthy for, after a creative 20-minute venture, I too found myself bathing in the mist of the roaring aquatic whirlpool.

Retracing my steps back to the kayak, I slipped on a moss-covered rock and bounced once again on my bruised buttocks and opened up a gash in my left shin that had me winching in pain. The ghosts of Ishigaki certainly followed me on the ferry over to Iriomote.

Once back at the river bank, I struggled to locate my kayak. Apparently, the smart thing to do is to hang your life jacket in a tree adjacent to your kayak to make it easy to find. What was my life jacket doing in my kayak?

Eventually I did locate what I thought was my correct kayak, and started the 30-minute cruise back to my starting point. Despite my troubles with the camera and the open wounds, things couldn’t be better. Indeed, less than 10 meters in front of me, a crested serpent eagle swooped down across the river and perched itself in a neighboring mangrove. I pulled the kayak to a halt, sat quietly, and observed. What couldn’t be documented with a camera would have to stay with me in memory.

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3 mountains in 3 days. What a way to rid oneself of cabin fever after a week of relentless rain. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go, regardless of what the low pressure system may have in store.

Up through the jungle to Mt. Omoto, Okinawa’s highest peak. Despite the trail being officially off limits to hikers, I run into two other groups defying the Do Not Enter signs. Here on Ishigaki Island the locals have a more relaxed approach to rule abiding.

Into thick cloud and strong winds. No use sticking around here, so back down the peak I trudged. Losing traction in one section proved costly, as the track sent me completely airborne and onto my rear end. After bouncing off a few rocks, I cleaned the exposed flesh on my palms and attended to the laceration on my right buttocks. Omoto was not letting me off easy.

Back in town, I longed for a rest day but to no avail, as a local mountaineer lent me her Okinawa hiking guidebook and up into the jungle I swam, through the swollen stream and into a forest of bamboo grass to the summit of Maetake.

The path, barely 30cm across, involved  an awkward slouch coupled with an uncomfortable hacking motion with both arms. Reaching the high point, I climbed a boulder, stretched the camera as high as my extended arm would allow, and fired away, hoping something would come out.

When would this crazy weather end? The forecast showed a stationary front positioned directly over the Yaeyama archipelago. A winter rainy season perhaps?

Day 3, and no choice but to head up another peak. Fatigue set in quite early, as I slothed my way through ankle-deep mud, doubling the allocated map times. At least the views were unobstructed this time around, and the rain held off until I had safely hitched a ride back into town.

The next morning, I awoke to a rare sight: sunshine! I raced on the foldable bicycle to the nearest beach, hoping to catch Ishigaki’s emerald green sheen before the next squall hit.

The trials and tribulations of Okinawa’s second largest island. I still had two more peaks on my Ishigaki list, but a change of scenery was in order. On to Iriomote island, Japan’s final frontier.

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