Shinetsu Trail: What was in my pack?

I already wrote about my gear following my Yakushima Trek (read here), but Kiwi Sig Other thinks it’d be interesting for y’all to see what it looks like and how I pack. I’m just a beginner backpacker (lifetime 3 overnight backpacking trips) and made my gear choices based on other peoples’ great blogs and Youtube videos. On the Internets, newbies often post about all their gear and ask a more experienced community for a shakedown, but I haven’t ever weighed my stuff since I don’t have a scale and I think the key is probably to get out there with all your gear and figure out what works and what you can live without.

Overview

Here’s pretty much all the stuff I brought on the Shinetsu Trail, minus food and clothing worn.

IMG_2262.jpg

All the things in my pack for the Shinetsu Trail. How did I fit it all in there? With food, too!

From left to right, top to down- ish:

  • ULA Circuit pack, Sea to Summit Ultrasil Packliner (used this to protect sleeping bag and clothing from rain and also put food in here because of paranoia about bears and ants), some extra grocery bags to use as trash bags, a pair of disposable chopsticks as emergency eating utensil (I also carried a titanium spork thrown in my food bag), Montbell potty trowel attached to bag by cheap 100 yen store carabiner (also emergency eating utensil?).
  • Hiking poles with small draw string sack to cover tips (polite when using public transit in Japan).
  • Stuff generally stuffed in mesh pocket or otherwise attached on the outside of my pack: hat, sunglasses, potty kit (hand sanitizer and pocket tissues), tenugui (Japanese version of a bandana), small bottles of sunscreen and bug repellant (need better bug repellant, the stuff in the blue bottle was useless).
  • Stuff for camp: camp cookset, windscreen, swiss army knife, small ~300ml Thermos (this is my luxury item and I love it), Montbell Versalite Pack 15.
  • Water system: 1L PET bottle, 2L Sawyer Squeeze bag, Sawyer Squeeze filter, coupler for backwashing the filter.
  • Stuff in ziplock bags: First aid kit, electronics, toiletries, glasses. Not pictured: baggie for paper stuff. Details below.
  • Packed clothing: rain jacket, microfiber towel (I got this awesome sweat towel from volunteering at the Tell charity run. It is more absorbent and dries faster than a tenugui. Hit up Ben to see if he has any left…), merino wool Buff, glove liners, spare undies, spare socks, Uniqlo 100 weight fleece, Uniqlo Ultralight Down vest, Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm top and bottom for PJs, tyvek drawstring bag used as clothing bag.
  • Big stuff: sleeping pad (cheap foam pad from the Amazon trimmed down with kitchen shears with four folds on the bottom separated so that the smaller section can be used as a sitting pad – Thanks for the advice, Ken!), sleeping bag, tent, tyvek groundsheet, tent pegs and cord for guylines in small ziplock. (Read more about my “Big Three” in my previous gear post.)
  • Not pictured: phone and minimalist wallet were carried in one of the side hip belt pockets.

Further Breakdown

First Aid Kit

I took Wilderness Advanced First Aid  with WMA Japan in May (hope to finally write up a post about that experience soon), which led to beefing up my first aid kit. This is what I threw together for now.

IMG_2213

What’s in my kit (roughly top to bottom, left to right):

  • WMA Field Guide and SOAP notes
  • a few packs of sterile gauze, blister patch and a few bandaids
  • tampon, ankle brace, stretchy bandage, surgical tape, vet wrap, duct tape, syringe for irrigating wounds (repurposed Sawyer filter backwashing syringe)
  • gloves, Advil, antihistamine, small tube of topical steroid for itchiness, small tube antibiotic ointment (I also intend to carry a small dropper bottle of iodine), a few safety pins (also good for hanging laundry on backpack).

This is a work in progress. I’ve got a swiss army knife and some other things in my pack that double as first aid tools. As with anything else in the outdoors, it all comes down to experience and your kit is only as good as your knowledge, so I highly recommend getting trained in Wilderness First Aid if you want to spend any extended period in the outdoors.

Here are some links I found useful about building your own first aid kit for hiking:

Electronics

img_2212.jpg

Self-explanatory: iPhone charger, earphones, earplugs, spare batteries for headlamp, headlamp, external battery that charges my iPhone 5 SE 3-4 times.

Toiletries

IMG_2224

Self-explanatory: Hotel disposable toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturizer, contact solutions, contact case, glasses (getting Lasik soon to so I won’t have to bring all the eye stuff).

Honestly, I didn’t use that face cream until after I finished the trip and I forgot to bring lipbalm. It’s probably generally humid enough in Japan in the summer that you don’t need to bring any moisturizer, sunblock will be enough. Here’s something I read recently that provides good perspective for women on how to let go of the need to groom and look good all the time: http://www.foxintheforest.net/be-wild-love-yourself/.

Paper things

IMG_2216Forgot to include this in my overview photo above, because I was using the contents to write my Shinetsu Trail blogpost. I carried a book, maps, a small journal and a pen in another ziplock.

Cook-set

PBBN7100

Playing matryoshka with my camp cooking gear

I bought a new 750ml titanium cookpot for solo-hiking, but when Genna decided to come along, I realized that now I have the perfect two person cook-set, because the smaller pot weights next to nothing and packs neatly in my old 900ml cookpot. My two-person cook-set consists of:

  • Snowpeak 900ml Aluminum Cook Set
  • Evernew 750ml Titanium Pasta Cooker
  • Windscreen – Aluminum tempura splatter guard (didn’t even have to cut it down, just folded it up!)
  • Fuel canister
  • Lighter (back-up matches in first aid kit)
  • Tiny titanium stove and stuff sack
  • Mesh sack that came with smaller cookpot (the smaller drawstring sack holds everything tightly together so the lid of the larger cookpot doesn’t bang around)

Here’s what cooking dinner looks like:

IMG_2024.jpg

All Packed Up!

IMG_1998.jpg

Ready to go in the morning!

Oh yeah, I actually made the last minute decision to clip some 100 yen shop flipflops to the outside of my pack. It was definitely nice to have camp shoes (especially after a swim), but they are not essential. Up in the air on whether I would bring them again.

An Armchair Adventurer’s Reading List

IMG_1423.jpg

While I was still chained to my desk bored to death, I started reading a lot of outdoor adventuring books. I made a category on my Kindle titled “Adventuring” that made me happy. Here are the four books that most inspired me. (Click the photo of each book for my Amazon affiliate link.)

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)


Edward Abbey’s angry and irreverent 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang would spawn a generation of eco-terrorists, but if you read Desert Solitaire, a collection of stories/essays reflecting on the two seasons he worked as a ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) you will come to understand why Abbey was so angry.  He loves the desert and it’s disappearing, sacrificed in the name of progress and development, what remains tamed and caged up for exploitation by “industrial tourism”. Abbey’s life was full of contradiction and in many ways he’s a problematic person to hold up as a hero, but his poignant descriptions of the desert, its plant, animal and human life, its water, weather and geology are the most beautiful prose I have ever read. I can finish reading this book and then just start reading it again from the beginning. More often I just flip to a random page and start reading. It’s on my Kindle, but I also own a paperback, this last copy I purchased from the information center in the actual Arches National Park when my cousin Eileen took me winter camping in Arches for my birthday because she knew I loved Desert Solitaire. She made fun of me for buying a new copy when I had the book on the Kindle I left back in Salt Lake, but I got to read the first chapter describing his first night in the park by the red light of my headlamp while snuggled into my sleeping bag at Devil’s Garden Campground. An hour or so later, Eileen did the same when she got back from her night hike. So, it was totally worth picking up an extra copy. And since I have a hard copy, maybe I can lend it to you.

Thru-hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail by Carrot Quinn (2015)


Everyone’s heard of Wild by Cheryl Strayed. But I think Carrot’s self-published account of her 2013 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is better. Wild is more about Strayed’s personal issues, while Carrot’s book is a vivid picture of what trail life is like. Carrot’s book made me think “maybe I can hike the PCT too” and prompted me to set the goal of hiking the JMT this year. This isn’t just another run-of-the-mill trail journal turned self-published book, because you can tell from her writing that she’s one of those people who has always been a writer and has been honing her craft for a long time. You can read more of her stuff here.

Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1700 miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson (1980)


It’s one thing to embark on an adventure such as hiking the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Te Araroa, or even trekking in Nepal or climbing Mount Everest. People have done it before, you can read about it on the Internet, hire a guide. If you have the right preparation you know you can probably do it.

It’s another thing to decide to camel-pack across the Australian Outback with no one else but your dog, an adventure that requires starting from figuring out how to get your foot in the door with some very unpleasant characters to learn how to work with camels.

Davidson struggles with sexism, racism, feeling like a sell out when she funds her trip by allowing National Geographic to write a story about it, among other things. What I like about the book is she doesn’t really portray herself as a likable person. She’s misanthropic. She went on the trip to be alone and resents National Geographic, even though they are funding her, and feels hounded by media coverage. Her adventure is from an era before social media, but she intensely dislikes how the beautiful photos the cute National Geographic photographer takes of her inevitably change her journey and make it feel less authentic and personal to her.

(There is also a 2014 movie version of Tracks that I have not watched yet. Maybe she’s softened up because the Davidson in the book would be mortified by the idea of having her journey Hollywood-ized.)

The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness by James Campbell (2007)


Journalist by trade, James Campbell writes this loving and sympathetic biography of his cousin Heimo, the last hunter-trapper still living with his wife and two young daughters almost year round in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also an elegy to a certain way of life. If you loved the Little House on the Prairie books and romanticize about how the pioneers were so self-sufficient and could live off the land, this book is about the last American family actually living that way. I sometimes say that my dream is to live in a cabin in Alaska, somewhere inaccessible except by biplane, and this book tells of how hard that kind of life would be.

Five Days on the Shinetsu Trail

The Shinetsu Trail is an 80 kilometer trail from Mt. Madarao to Mt. Amamizu along the ridge that separates Nagano and Niigata prefectures. I found out about it while hanging around Iiyama Station waiting for a Shinkansen when I was living in Nozawa Onsen. In Japan, it’s a rare “long trail” designed for multi-day trekking and not peak-bagging. It is not high elevation (the tallest peak is Mt. Madarao at 1382 meters) and there is not very much elevation change. There are no Hyakumeisan and no fancy mountain huts along the trail. Instead, the trail crosses many historic mountain passes between Nagano and Niigata, used for trade and travel between the domains of Shinshu and Echigo once upon a time, some of which have now become roads which provide easy access to various points of the trail. Some local minshuku down in Iiyama valley are signed up to provide accommodation for hikers on the Shinetsu Trail and will drive you to and from the appropriate trail heads each day. Or there are six designated tent sites along the trail. Four are barebones sites with pit toilets and a water source maintained by the Shinetsu Trail Club, an NPO, and two are existing commercial camp facilities.

Since my interest in the Shinetsu Trail was to use it as a practice hike for the JMT, I planned the hike as a 5 day 4 night tent camping (“tento-paku” in Japanese) backpacking trip and my friend Genna from Nozawa hopped along.

This is the story of how it went down.

Day 1 — Monday, June 19

Course: Chiroru Trailhead (チロル登山口) → Mt. Madarao (斑尾山) (start of Shinetsu Trail) → Akaike (赤池)

Distance: 11 km

Genna and I catch the Hakutaka 553 Hokuriku Shinkansen departing Tokyo 7:52 and arriving in Iiyama at 9:43. I had planned for us to catch a 10 AM bus from Iiyama Station to Madarao Kogen Hotel to start the hike. But, when we arrive at the bus stop in Iiyama, it turns out that the 10 AM bus only runs on weekends and holidays. Rookie mistake. So, we get a ride from a concerned taxi driver who warns us about mama bears with their cubs.

Since we take a cab, we are able to get the driver to drive us all the way to Chiroru trailhead (where the main lift ticket office is for Madarao ski resort in the winter). The climb up Mt. Madarao is basically straight up the ski slope, steep and hot, with no cover and, frankly, not very fun.

IMG_1975

I climbed the last bit to the peak from the top of the highest chair lift twice last winter for a backcountry tour. I thought it would be interesting to see what the mountain looked like in the summer. Everything looked totally different. The last time I was up there we hiked to the right of a huge cornice.

2017-02-13-PHOTO-00000047

Hiking up Mt. Madarao in February

Last winter, our guide Andy from North Nagano Outdoor Sports had explained that the snowpack on Mt. Madarao is very stable because the short bamboo (sasa) covering the mountain creates a great bonding layer for the snow. There were many bamboo shoots poking out on the hiking path but nothing tender enough to pick and eat.

At the fork right before the peak, we run into two sprightly young guys (college students?) with sleeping pads strapped to the outside of their packs. We run into them again loitering around the signboard at Akaike when we finish our first day’s hike around 4 in the afternoon. The boys pressed on and I found out from Instagram later that they thru-hiked the whole trail in 3 days and 2 nights.

It is an easy hiking day. We get to the top of Mt. Madarao to begin the trail just before 11:30 AM and reach our campsite at Akaike before 4 PM. We hike through beech (buna) and cedar (sugi) forests and couple small marshes, one full of skunk cabbage (already past flowering) and the other full of frogs that sings a chorus for our lunch. They were so loud!

IMG_1977

Official start point of the Shinetsu Trail

IMG_1978

Lake Nojiri

IMG_1976

Mt. Myoko – looked so cool! I want to climb Myoko now…

IMG_1992

Idyllic Akaike (That little building had running water and flushing toilets!)

After we set up our tents, Genna wades into Akaike for a swim. I sit at the edge icing my ankles saying, “I’m sketched out by unknown bodies of water.”

Genna goes, “Hope there aren’t any monsters.”

“You mean like that?” I point at a huge arm-length white koi swimming straight towards her, freaking Genna out.

My second hiking fail of the day is when I pull out my camp cook-set and realize I brought an empty fuel canister instead of a full one. Good thing Genna has brought a 230g canister that ends up comfortably lasting us the entire trip.

At night, the stars are so bright above our campsite. Each time I wake up without moving from my sleeping bad, I see the Big Dipper was hanging a bit lower as it descends toward the to horizon.

Day 2 — Tuesday, June 20

Course: Akaike (赤池) → Katsuraike (桂池)

Distance: 20.1 km

I wake up at 5:30 to a lot of condensation on the inside of my tent. I use my tenugui to wipe off the condensation, then wring out the tenugui and use it to wash my face on the way to the toilet. We cook breakfast and make coffee and set off at about 7:30 AM. We have 20.1km to cover in a day and neither of us has ever hiked that far before.

We find a beautiful panorama of Mt. Madarao, Mt. Myoko (妙高山) and Mt. Kenashi (毛無山) from a clearing just past Numaike (沼池) / Nozomiko (希望湖). So we take a snack break (second breakfast!) to enjoy the view and discuss that we should’ve camped there instead. For next time!

IMG_2005

After Wakui (涌井), most of the trail is on forest road (林道) with little cover on a hot and sunny day. 31 degrees when I check my phone. We break for lunch and put out damp tents to dry at Tomikura Gap (富倉峠) around noon. Just past Tomikura Gap are sweeping views of Iiyama Valley. Apparently, this is where famed warlord Uesugi Kenshin, daimyo of Echigo province (present day Niigata), set up camp to battle his rival Takeda Shingen who had conquered Shinshu (present day Nagano) during the Sengoku period (16th Century).

IMG_2013

Around 2PM, we are hot, sweaty and exceedingly grateful to reach a nice little pentagonal hut perched on the ridge near the top of Kuroiwayama ( 黒岩山) where there is a nice cross breeze. We strip down to sports bras to dry our t-shirts in the cool breeze.

We’d been a bit intimidated by the distance in the morning, but since most of the trail was forest road or old trading routes (graded for horses and ox carts), the trail was pretty flat the whole day and we arrive at our second campsite at Katsuraike about 3:30PM. We take a brief swim in Katsuraike to cool off (too hot and sweaty to care about monsters) and then sunbathed a bit to dry off. The forecast for Wednesday was rain and cloud cover began to come in at dusk. At Genna’s first report of hearing a mosquito, I zip myself into my tent for the night.

Day 3 – Wednesday, June 21

Course: Katsuraike (桂池) → Sekida Gap (関田峠)

Distance: 11.4 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km to campsite

I wake up to a large tick clinging to the screen door of my tent looking like a kid trying to lick ice cream through a store window. Nope, I think, and flick it off with my finger into the grass somewhere. It’s a rainy morning but luckily there’s an empty rundown old house at the campsite serving as a makeshift shelter. In the shelter, we hang our tents to dry and cook breakfast. We get a late start to the day around 9AM after the rain lets up a bit.

IMG_2030

Getting water at Taroshimizu spring (太郎清水)

My rain jacket wets out almost immediately and turns into a sauna suit. The first 3.5km of the trail after Katsuraike is a tough uphill climb to the top of Togari Onsen Ski Resort with two small stream crossings along the way.

IMG_2032.jpg

When we reach Togari Onsen Ski Resort, we climb onto one of the ski lifts to dry off and cool down.

IMG_2033

Togari Onsen Ski Resort

Then there is a bit of a climb up the ski hill. Shortly after we get off the ski slope and back into the trees again, the rain stops. The clouds lift first over Iiyama valley and the wispy clouds hanging over Nozawa Onsen and the Chikuma River (千曲川) were so pretty. Thanks to the rain, we’re able to see frogs and mushrooms, snails and slugs on the trail. So, all in all, I’m actually glad we had to hike in the rain.

The narrow knife ridge up to Mt. Nabekura (鍋倉山) is definitely the highlight of the trail. We could see all the way to Naoetsu (直江津) and the Sea of Japan on one side and all the way up and down the Chikuma river valley on the other, all at once! Though the rain had stopped, it was still extremely windy from the storm and I had to remember to pay attention to my feet and not fall over.

IMG_2048

Nagano side

IMG_2055

Niigata side

Since the ridge is so narrow and windy, at some point near 1PM we simply squat straight down on the trail and eat a well-deserved lunch. We rest again at the top of Mt. Nabekura and again at Mt. Kurokura (黒倉山), where the sun comes out and we are able to dry our tents and put away our rain jackets.

Yesterday it was 31 degrees but today the temperature was in the low teens. I wore my thin leggings and merino wool long-sleeve hiking shirt (which dried like a champ), but otherwise probably didn’t need to bring these extra clothes

We detoured off the trail to Chayaike (茶屋池) which was worth it because it was a very pretty pond and had a lovingly maintained toilet.

IMG_2057

Our campground for the night, Green Pal Kogensou (グリーンパル光原荘) had apparently not opened for the season yet. It was still very windy when we arrived that we spent a lot of time looking for the most sheltered tent site, only to have the wind die down by the time we got our tents set up. We cooked dinner on the deck of the main green building at the campground with a view overlooking the mountains of Joetsu and the Sea of Japan.

IMG_2061

Day 3 on the Shinetsu Trail was green tunnel and killer vistas, what I imagined it would be like hiking the ridge between Nagano and Niigata. Day 1 was tromping around Madarao Kogen; Day 2 was mostly road walking; Day 3, we got to the good stuff.

Day 4 – Thursday, June 22

Course: Sekida Gap (関田峠)– Nonomi Gap (野々海峠)

Distance: 18.9 km on Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km from campsite

I was thinking while hiking that there would not be much to say about Day 4, except that we started to see snow on the trail: snow patches tucked in shady areas, snowmelt ponds and muddy depressions where there had probably been snow until very recently.

Previous days we noticed that if we came upon a muddy bit, there would be a lot of flies. Well, today was pretty much all muddy, what with yesterday’s rain and the recent snowmelt, so there were a ton of flies.

The trail became challenging but monotonous; a lot of slippery, muddy ups and downs and “limbo trees,” what we decided to call tree branches/trunks crossing the trail at inconvenient height to either duck under or step over. There were great sweeping views of Niigata, but not as dramatic as yesterday. You couldn’t really see the sea because it was quite hazy without yesterday’s rain.

IMG_2075

We emerged at Nonomi Gap just as a group of retirees were being loaded onto a minibus. (They were a hiking group from Osaka thru-hiking the Shinetsu Trail in six days, staying two nights at Madarao Kogen and three nights in Togari Onsen.)

The bus driver asked where we were going and we were able to hitch a ride to our campsite 2km down the road at Nonomi pond (野々海池).

IMG_2081

Skunk cabbage blooming at Nonomi pond

The campsite looked nice enough. But as we put our tents up, we attracted a swarm of black flies. And then, they started to bite. The taps at the indicated water source were not running (probably turned off to prevent pipes from freezing in the winter), so we had to go down to the lake to get water, while being tailed by a vicious swarm of flies. Genna daringly waded into the pond with a plastic grocery bag to get less scummy water to fill the Sawyer Squeeze bag with and we both had to sacrifice ourselves to some flies to filter 4 liters of water for camp. Teamwork!

Our hardship turned out to be unnecessary, because on the way back I stopped by the toilet and found out the hand-washing tap by the toilet was running. It makes a good story (did I mention Genna almost stepped on a snake, I screamed my death scream and the nice guy working on getting the campsite ready for the season hopped in his k-truck to check if we were okay?), and I guess there had to some Type II fun on our trip.

Flies were still swarming our tents, so we boiled a pot of water, split it in two and literally dove into our tents. There must’ve been around 200 flies swarming the fly of my tent. The sound of the flies flying into the fly of my tent sounded like rain. I killed the 5 that got inside my tent when I dashed in. Then, there was nothing to do but eat and get ready for bed. I was pretty happy I didn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom at any time that night.

Day 5 – Friday, June 23

Course: Nonomi Gap (野々海峠) → Mt. Amamizu (天水山) → Daigonji Kogen Campground (大厳寺高原キャンプ場)

Distance: 6.2 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus ~5 km to get to the trail and off the trail from our campsites 

I wake up to a brilliant symphony of birdsong. And only 8-10 flies still hanging around my tent. I have not left my tent since 6-something yesterday evening and contemplate getting up to go to the toilet. I check if Genna is awake yet and then go back to sleep. I wake up again and get ready for the day by packing up everything except what I need to wash up and make breakfast.

Having confirmed that Genna is up, I work up the courage to exit my tent, go to the toilet, wash my tenugui and brush my teeth. Flies do not follow me, and things are looking good. But, when we start boiling water for breakfast, the swarm reappears and breakfast is another split the hot water and dive for tents affair. After we’ve finished eating our breakfasts, it’s a non-stop dash to take down tents, pack up and leave, barely stopping at the toiler sink to fill up on water. We have to keep moving or the flies will catch up. I think we’re on the road around 7-ish, but I didn’t keep track because our priority was just to beat the flies. We look like Pigpen from the Peanuts comics, being followed by a little cloud of flies.

Up the trail from Nonomi Gap we reach a sunny clearing looking down over Niigata where the trail hooks 90 degrees to the right. We stop to make some coffee and dry our tents. It’s okay for a bit and then we start getting bitten again. We’re just finishing packing up when the group of senior citizen hikers from yesterday appears. As we move on ahead, I overhear their guide explain that our choice of coffee spot is the northernmost point of Nagano Prefecture.

IMG_2086

Misaka Gap, final pass before Mt. Amamizu

IMG_2084

View of Niigata from Misaka Gap

Then it’s more up and downs through muddy bits and the most significant snowfield we cross on the trail (still pretty small) and before we know it, we’ve reached to top of Mt. Amamizu, the official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail. It’s only 10AM. We take a few photos, finish our coffee and get moving again before the flies gather too thickly.

IMG_2088

Another uphill. “Guess what day it is?” “Leg day!”

IMG_2090

IMG_2091

Finish! Official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail.

Down toward Matsunoyama trailhead, we meet an old man picking bamboo shoots with bear bells that sound like pretty wind chimes. In 80km, we’ve walked a bit backwards in the spring season, despite having come down in elevation. At the trailhead, we meet to bus driver that gave us a lift yesterday and chat for a bit about their group and he points us in the right direction for our last campsite at Daigonji Campground.

We decide to road-walk rather than take another trail to the campsite after I ask Genna the rhetorical question, “Have you had enough nature yet?”

We get to the campground just past 11 and the manager is not in yet. One of the guys working there cutting grass can’t believe we’ve walked all the way from Madarao and keeps saying “sugoi desune!” and pulls out some folding chairs for us to sit on. I ask if the restaurant is open. It is. So, instead of waiting for the manager, we go to the restaurant and have the most beautiful and delicious hiyashichuka (cold summer ramen noodles) I have ever seen in all my years of living and traveling in Japan.

IMG_2178

IMG_2129

We put our hats back on for this photo cuz our hair was so greasy and gross. 😛

We also have two beers apiece which get us nicely buzzed since we haven’t had alcohol since??? Then we check in and ask about taking a bath, but the guesthouse is not open yet, so we can only use the shower in one of the cottages. We get the key to a cottage, which has a nice deck with a breeze. I do some laundry in the shower and hang it on the deck to dry and write the last of my trail journal lying on the deck in my underwear. It’s so nice. The perfect temperature, shade, no flies, breeze; a beautiful day. We chill on the deck of the cottage until we get kicked out of the cottage for the next guests to use the shower.

IMG_2139.jpg

After the hike, we chilled for the rest of the day and the next at Daigonji Campground doing nothing except laying around eating the rest of our food.

IMG_2140

Our view during dinner at Daigonji Campground

Post-hike Reflections / Advice

I was discouraged from doing this hike prior to July 1 by the Shinetsu Trail Club because they hadn’t completed train maintenance until last weekend and there was still a bit of snow and felled trees on the trail. Except for our last camp site, none of the tent sites we used were officially open. It wasn’t a problem because no one else was there and there were toilets and water sources at each camp site. I think the trail would be beautiful in earlier spring green, perhaps from May.

I’m glad I did not wait until July to do the trail because it was already really hot. It’s not high elevation, so it really did not cool down at night either. I only had condensation inside my tent the first night. In terms of warm layers, all I should have packed was a 100 weight fleece. I tried sleeping without my long johns on one night but since I use a quilt, my thighs were sticking uncomfortably to my sleeping pad so I had to put them on.

The prime season for hiking the Shinetsu Trail must be Autumn. There were so many varieties of Japanese maple lining the trail it must be very beautiful for fall colors.

IMG_1983.jpg

Out of season red leaves. A teaser for fall?

The Shinetsu Trail is still not so well-known among Japanese hikers. It’s refreshingly undeveloped, but well-maintained and adequately marked. Even though there is very little infrastructure on the trail after Togari Onsen, you are never more than a few hours walking to a town if you need to bail or get help. (I also had cell phone coverage the entire time.) It was a great trail to do a beginner long-distance trek. Perhaps because we were hiking before the official start of the season, the only other hikers we saw were the two boys the first day and then the group of ~16 retirees from Osaka that gave us a lift on the end of the fourth day. We did see a few other people during our hike doing forest road maintenance or picking spring mountain vegetables.

Matsunoyama Onsen near the end of the trail is a very cute little hot spring village and I’d probably try to stay there next time because Daigonji was still pretty much the middle of nowhere. Good thing Kiwi Sig Other showed up with a rental car so we could get back to civilization. It’s probably pretty easy to hitchhike down to civilization from the trailhead as the only people around are friendly locals who know about the Shinetsu Trail. The magic onsen water cured the itchiness of all my fly bites. Not bad for one of the Three Famous Medicated Onsen of Japan.

Contact me if you have any questions about hiking the Shinetsu Trail!

Day Hike from Tokyo: Seihachiyama (清八山)

Ah, springtime in Tokyo. The time of the year when you seek an easy weekend day hike to get a nice view of Mt. Fuji while it still has a snow cap. I hiked Seihachiyama (清八山) with friends on May 20 and it was the best view of Mt. Fuji I have ever seen. Unlike a lot of day hikes from Tokyo that purport to offer a Fuji view, the view from Seihachiyama is completely unobstructed. Besides the killer views, what I liked about this hike is it is accessible directly from a train station, the trail is well-graded for a Japanese trail and it was not crowded at all. Unlike the Okutama area, the Otsuki area in Yamanashi on the Chuo Line apparently offers enough hiking options so that hikers coming on the morning trains from Tokyo are well-dispersed even on Saturday. (Our same group hiked Mt. Takagawa (高川山) from Hatsukari Station (初狩駅) to Otsuki Station (大月駅) last April.) It’s definitely my favorite area for day hikes from Tokyo now.

This is the hike I would take friends visiting from abroad on if they say they want to see Mt. Fuji. (I will also offer it as an alternative for those poor misguided visitors who want to climb Mt. Fuji. Please read “Why You Should Never Climb Mount Fuji”  if you still need to disabuse yourself of any romantic notions of climbing Mt. Fuji.)

Access: The hike begins and ends at Sasago Station (笹子駅) on the JR Chuo Line. We took a Chuo Line rapid from Shinjuku Station which departed Shinjuku at 7:07AM and arrived at Sasago at 8:59AM, which places this hike squarely in the range of within 2 hours from Tokyo.

Distance: 13 km

Time: 6-7 hours at a comfortable, not-rushed pace. (No need to rush because trains are reasonably frequent from Sasago Station.)

Difficulty: Easy. Trail is well maintained, pretty soft and flat underfoot and there are no rocky scrambles except the last few feet leading to the top of Honjagamaru. Last part of the trail coming down was a bit steep since it often seems like Japanese trail crews have not heard of “switchbacks” so wear proper footwear for traction and ankle support.

Map: This map is a photo of the trail map in front of Sasago Station. Red arrow marks Sasago Station.

Seihachiyama Trailmap.jpg

The Hike: We basically followed this plan from Yamareco: https://www.yamareco.com/modules/yamareco/detail-365365.html. Starting from Sasago Station, we went west along the Route 20, turned left after crossing Jinego River, went through Oiwake Tunnel and walked up the forest road past a power station to the trailhead. At the trailhead, there was a fence with a net entrance you had to untie and open and close and retie behind you to prevent deer from entering an area where they are trying to restore vegetation. Then it’s a straightforward uphill to the top of Seihachiyama (1593m). We took a leisurely lunch on the top to enjoy the view. After the peak, the trail follows the top of a ridge to Honjagamaru (1630.8m) and then starts a mellow descent through some nice shady woods. While you follow the ridge, the trail is really nice, easy walking. Then, we forked left back towards Sasago Station, crossed a forest road, and continued down a soft but somewhat steep trail to the station.

Onsen: There is a public day onsen facility Sasago Onsen (笹子温泉) near where we turned off Route 20 to begin the hike. We didn’t have time to check it out since some of us had to boost back to Tokyo.

Photos:

IMG_1474

The hike begins among idyllic Yamanashi inaka

IMG_1479

After the forest road, there is a forest restoration area that is fenced off from deer. The short trees in this area give you an alpine feel and great views of the surrounding mountains.

 

IMG_1481

Postcard view of Mt. Fuji from the top of Seihachiyama (1593m)

IMG_1488

View of Mt. Fuji from another lookout just 15 min beyond the peak of Seihachiyama

Yakushima: Gear List and Gear Reviews

What hiking blog would be complete without a post about gear? On my Yakushima trip, I finally got to test out my “big three” pieces of gear that I collected in anticipation of my JMT hike.

(Disclaimer: I’m testing out some Amazon affiliate links in this post. So, yeah, I’m really cool and you want to be just like me. So buy all the same things I have so I can make money and never have to go back to a desk job.)

Big Three

IMG_1061

I believe this is the most popular pack for PCT and AT thru-hikers. I met a guy at the hostel in Kagoshima who had hiked the AT and who was carrying the same pack. It comes in purple, so I was sold. I have long torso, so I ordered regular length with a small waistbelt. When I carried it back from the US it hurt my back weird and I was worried I got the wrong size. However, I moved the waist belt up as high as it will go and now it fits fine. When I put everything in the pack, it was heavy to lift, but once on my back it didn’t feel heavy. I guess that’s what you want in a pack right?

I did lose my 1L Nalgene bottle from one of the side pockets in northern Kyushu (probably from putting it on a luggage rack on the train), but aside from that functionality seems good.

IMG_1210

This tent appealed to me because it has no tent poles and can just be squished into its stuff sack, or anywhere. Also it is very roomy for a one-person ultra-light tent (no leaving pack outside under vestibule) and at $180 + $30 for seam sealing, it was cheap compared to other tents I was considering.

Some online reviews mention condensation issues, but I did not experience any, despite the rainy and humid conditions on Yakushima (but it wasn’t cold anywhere I used it). Other reviews mention a learning curve for pitching the tent right. The tent sets up with a trekking pole and minimum of 6 stakes. I got an extra stake and guyline to create more headroom and stability in the wind. I practiced setting the tent up once in Yoyogi Park before I left for my trip. Then I had a crash course in setting it up in a thunderstorm when I got to Yakushima and then a crash course setting it up in the rain with no stakes using rocks and concrete blocks when I arrived at South Village. At South Village, the next morning I did some adjustments to pitch the tent a bit higher to make the floor float properly and get more air flow, but I never got wet and the tent didn’t collapse overnight when I just hastily pitched it in the rain. The silnylon is a bit stretchy and billows in the wind but it’s quiet (doesn’t make any slappy noises), and since I put in an extra stake for headroom, the billowing didn’t bother me at all and I slept great. I was a bit worried about it not being freestanding, but now I’m not. This is a very comfy tent for people like me who like having good ventilation. May not be as good for people seeking warmth from their shelter (but not sure any tent provides that). Due to the shape, even though this tent has almost as much floor space as many 2-person ultralight tents, most of that floor space does not have headroom, so it really is only a 1-person tent, just with tons of room to spread out your gear.

If I buy a two-person tent in the near future (so Kiwi sig other can join me on some adventures), I’m considering the Tarptent Double Rainbow just because I like the name. I aspire to reach this level of stoke in the outdoors!

Perhaps my greatest enjoyment in life is sleeping, and this quilt is so light and warms up so fast it’s like sleeping in a cloud. I used this as my primary comforter all winter in Nozawa, when I figured I’d practice living without heat. After the first night in Shintakazuka Hut, I woke up and put on my still damp hiking clothes from the day before. I didn’t feel particularly cold even though I could see my breath in the darkness of the hut. Later in the day chatting with other hikers who had stayed at Shintakazuka, they complained it had been cold at night and that they had to get up and put on more layers. I wore a normal cotton T-shirt and some Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm tights as PJs. I was never cold, so I guess my quilt worked great! I’m going to get a thermometer so that in the future I actually know how cold it was to gauge whether this sleeping bag is sufficient for the Sierras in early October.

The quilt was great for a place with climate as varied as Yakushima. Camping at subtropical sea level, I could unzip it flat and just put a corner over my belly. Here’s a great video about why quilts are better than sleeping bags:

For this trip I used the quilt with a cheap imitation Thermarest Z lite foam sleeping pad I got off Amazon.

All my campsites were flat with no pokey things, and I was pretty comfy. With my superpowers of being able to sleep anywhere, I can even side sleep on a cheap foam pad. Listening to people blow up air pads and have to faff with deflating them in the morning at the huts makes me think I will just stick with a foam pad. It was also super convenient to just throw down and mark my spot on the ferry.

IMG_1234

The only annoying thing is having a bulky thing strapped to the outside of your pack when the trail is super narrow and overgrown and you have to climb under trees or out of holes like on the Onoaida Trail, and I’m thinking of chopping it down a little so it packs better.

Footwear

I hiked in my Brooks Cascadia trail runners, partly as an experiment and partly because I was travelling to Yakushima following a yakimono tour in northern Kyushu and clomping around in hiking boots would’ve been annoying for the other part of my trip. The good thing about hiking in trail runners was that Yakushima is really wet. Because most of the island is a giant piece of granite with a thin covering of soil, wherever there is trail, there is likely water running down it. The hiking your shoes dry thing advocated by Andrew Skurka really works. When I pulled into camp early the second day, I put my shoes in a patch of afternoon sun and they were completely dry in less than an hour. On the other hand, on the third day, going down the treacherous Onoaida Trail, my ankles really suffered from lack of support.

Kitchen

I bought a super cheap tiny canister stoveand aluminum cook set from Amazon to try out.

IMG_1009
The tiny no brand Made in China stove worked great. I came up with a routine to boil 600ml of water at dinner and breakfast. I would pour 300ml into my little Thermos for a hot drink (coffee in the morning, herbal tea at night – actually one night I made umeshu oyuwari from some homemade umeshu generously offered to me by another hiker) and then use the remaining 300 ml for the hot part of my meal (instant ramen at dinner, two packs of instant miso soup for breakfast). So I’m now considering upgrading to this 700ml titanium cook pot.

Clothing

I brought way more clothing than necessary, but I used everything.

My basic hiking outfit was:

  • Long-sleeve Kathmandu merino wool hiking shirt (purchased in NZ)
  • Uniqlo Heattech leggings
  • Synthetic capri sweatpants I bought for bouldering
  • Darn Tough hiking socks (I wore through my two beloved pairs of Smartwool hiking socks over the winter so I replaced them with two pairs of Darn Tough socks to see which brand is more durable.)
  • A Gap sports bra and some synthetic sport underwear from Target

For outer layers I had:

  • Mountain Hardware fleece – This thing is pretty heavy, but very warm. Kiwi sig other purchased it for me secondhand from a gear exchange shop in Colorado Springs. I could’ve brought my Uniqlo ultralight down parka instead, which would have been lighter and less bulky for similar warmth, but I considered that Yakushima is really wet. I rolled this up at night and used it as a pillow, and for that use I was grateful for its bulk.
  • North Face lightweight rain jacket – Debated bringing this or a real Goretex hardshell. But lightness and packability won out. I was blessed with amazing weather so didn’t end up regretting my decision.
  • Uniqlo ultralight down vest – Extra puffy layer just for camp.

PJs/camp clothes:

  • Extra pair Darn Tough socks
  • Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm leggings
  • Tokyo Snow Club T-shirt – represent!

On the first day of hiking, going upward in elevation, I was really sweaty when I showed up at camp and couldn’t wait to get into dry camp clothes. (In the morning, putting on cold, damp hiking clothes was fine; they warmed up and dried right away when I started hiking.) The second day, hiking at high elevation, I didn’t get sweaty and probably would’ve been fine sleeping in my hiking clothes. But all in all, I think I’m going to be a hiker that carries PJs. The sleep comfort is worth it!

Other weather protection:

  • Baseball cap – frontwards for sun, backwards when no sun (totally hit my head on a tree branch that was obstructed from my view by the brim)
  • Merino wool Buff – I like to wear this as a light beanie; it was needed for covering ears when hiking above tree line where it was really windy
  • Snowboarding glove liners – Gloves were needed above tree line. These cheap Mizuno “breath thermo” ones  really do stay warm when wet. However, they totally get destroyed by velcro on my snowboard jacket, snowboard boots, etc. Not a problem for hiking, fortunately. (I also have a breath thermo balaclava which I really like because it is really thin and doesn’t get too wet and gross when you breath through it.)
  • Sunglasses
  • Tenugui – bandanna/sweat towel

Onsen kit: (That’s right! A third set of clothes! Totally not ultralight hiking! Brought this stuff in anticipation of having two chill days at the hostel.)

  • Extra underwear and sports bra
  • Extra short sleeve synthetic t-shirt (I actually had two extra t-shirts so that in case I ended up hiking in a short sleeve shirt I’d still have a clean shirt at the end.)
  • Extra tenugui to use as towel
  • 2 sets single use packets of shampoo and conditioner
  • Shea body butter

Other

Water system – Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter and one of the 32oz bags that came with it. I used a 1L PET bottle as “clean” drinking water bottle but cooked with unfiltered water out of the Sawyer Squeeze bag. With this set up, I could carry 2L of water, which I never did except at camp. I carried about 500ml when I was hiking, but frankly, you don’t have to carry ANY water on Yakushima. It’s flowing out of everywhere. And no one was filtering the water either. I just filtered to practice using my filter. (Monkeys and yakushika were hanging around near the huts and I’m sure pee and poo in the water sources so…)

Trekking poles – I would have died on Onoaida Trail without trekking poles. I have PaceMaker Stix Expedition Trekking Poles. Not the lightest or most compact, but they have flip locks and cork grips and cost less than 50 bucks.

Toiletries:

  • Tsubaki (camellia) oil doubles as face oil and hair product – Luxury item! (I use this face oil made by the agriculture union on Toshima, one of the Izu islands that looks like a little cupcake floating in the sea. Why pay LVMH for a brand name when you can get it straight from the producer way cheaper. It also makes cool Tokyo omiyage since it’s technically a product of Tokyo.)
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • chapstick, sunblock
  • Potty kit – Hand sanitizer and 2 packets of pocket tissue (also had to use pocket tissue to wipe down cook pot, as you’re not allowed to wash your dishes on the trail)
  • Glasses, contact case, contact solution – I want to get Lasik.

Other camp goods:

  • headlamp
  • eye mask and ear plugs – Used ear plugs to block out thunderstorm the first night, probably don’t need eye mask on the trail since everyone sleeps when it gets dark and wakes up before light but may need it for travelling (hostel/ferry) so will probably still carry it.
  • first aid kit (advil and antihistamine, electrolyte tab, bandaids, blister patch, ankle brace)
  • Swiss army knife – not used, but good idea to have right?
  • journal, map and pen
  • nylon eco-bag – I used this to carry stuff around camp. I want to replace it with a tiny, ultralight backpack like this one so that I can use it to carry water and some essentials when I drop my heavy pack to go off on a side trail.
  • Some extra ziplock bags and trashbags to keep things dry in case it rained

I feel like gear wise I was very prepared. The first night I pulled out my headlamp and it wouldn’t turn on, but I was prepared with spare batteries. After this hike, the only things I would add to my kit are a thermometer, a proper orienteering compass (I have a crappy one stuck on my key chain), and a small packable backpack. As a final note, on the way back to Tokyo, Jetstar let me check my pack in (on a domestic Japanese flight) with my sleeping pad and trekking poles just strapped to the outside. (I left my fuel can and lighter at the hostel along with my unused wag bags for the next hiker.)

Yakushima: Choose-your-own-adventure-land

So, you’ve read about my Yakushima adventure and want to plan your own. This post provides information about my trip that may be relevant to your trip planning.

Yakushima Hike Map

My Yakushima adventure

My Yakushima trip was very spur of the moment. I had already purchased a plane ticket to Fukuoka for a Kyushu ceramics tour and then decided to attach Yakushima to my Kyushu trip. This was literally the first time I just went traveling without knowing where I was going to sleep every night.

I used as reference http://www.yakumonkey.com/ and http://www.yakushimalife.com/. But once I was on the road I didn’t have reliable Internet, so I bought the Yama to Kougen Yakushima hiking map (山と高原 is the series of maps used by most Japanese hikers) when I got to Kagoshima and it became the primary resource I really used to plan my trip. The map comes with a little handy guide with trail descriptions and model routes for day hikes and multi-day traverses. It also has campsite and hut information and phone numbers for emergency, lodging, transportation, etc. It is completely in Japanese.

Why I like to call Yakushima “Choose-your-own-adventure-land” is it is a really easy place to go with no plans. According to the Internets, the campsites are rarely crowded and no reservations are required (or taken) for the mountain huts. (Of course, I would avoid Golden Week or any Japanese public holidays.) There are six mountain huts. Two are located close to a trailhead and four are centrally located high up in the mountains around Mt. Miyanoura. The two located near the trailheads — Shiratani Hut and Yodogo Hut — make it possible to catch a ferry from Kagoshima in the morning, take a bus to a trailhead in the afternoon and stay at a hut the night you arrive. (I didn’t need to bring a tent, I just wanted to test out the one I bought for the JMT.) All trails are connected and lead to Mt. Miyanoura, and the centrally located alpine huts mean there are plenty of places to retreat in case of bad weather.

Itinerary

My plan when I arrived on the island was:

Day 1: Get oriented. Camp in Miyanoura.

Day 2-4: Hike for three days staying 2 nights in mountain huts.

Day 5-6: Chill at South Village youth hostel with friends.

Curio beach rest day

Kurio Beach rest day

Food

I purchased ~3500-4000 yen worth of food for my 3-day hike from a grocery store in Kagoshima, consisting of instant ramen, instant miso soup, tea, instant coffee, nuts and chocolate, bread, tuna, granola biscuits and cheese. I would recommend purchasing food on the mainland because there is more selection and it is cheaper. However, there is a relatively large supermarket at a shopping center very close to the Miyanoura tourist info center.

After the hike I spent maybe 4500 yen on food in 2 days while staying at South Village. We bought stuff from a grocery store in Kurio and went out to a nice izakaya for Brig’s b-day.

Transportation

I had to take the jetfoil to the island because the normal ferry was under maintenance when I departed. The jetfoil cost 8400 yen and takes about 2 hours. Website here.

On the way back I enjoyed riding on the normal ferry — Ferry Yakushima 2. It costs 4500 yen and takes about 4 hours. It’s a nice ferry with a gift shop, cafe, various seating areas, and library, which I appreciated because I didn’t bring any reading materials. I borrowed a book and learned about the geology on Yakushima. I also struck up a conversation with a 70-year-old hiker (we identified each other by our backpacks) from Fukuoka who has been to Yakushima over 60 times and plans to make it to 70 trips by the end of the year. He gave me a lot of great tips for my next trip to Yakushima. There was also an amazing view of Kaimondake, Kyushu’s little Mt. Fuji, from the ferry.

There is also a municipally run overnight ferry that is 3000-some yen. My friends took it and said it was okay. It’s the cargo ferry and docks overnight at Tanegashima. The issue with the overnight ferry is that it doesn’t leave from the main ferry terminal in Kagoshima and it’s a bit of a mission to get to the right ferry terminal.

Jetstar flights between Kagoshima and Narita can be had from about 6500 yen each way.

On the island I relied on the bus. There is a bus that goes pretty regularly on the main road most of the way around the island, maybe once an hour. For hikers, there are four buses a day to Shirataniunsuikyo from Miyanoura, and two buses a day to Yakusugiland from Anbo (the other main town on the island). For an idea of bus fares, here’s what I actually spent:

Bus from Miyanoura to Shirataniunsuikyo – 520 yen

Bus from Hirauchi to Kurio beach – 500-some yen each way

Bus from Hirauchi to Miyanoura Port – 1870 yen

Lodging

The first night I ended up illegal camping (oops) at Oceanview Campsite. There isn’t much in the way of facilities there, but it was free.

The 2nd and 3rd nights I stayed in the mountain huts. These are free, but I paid the recommended donation of 2000 yen for overnight campers in the national park.

After my hike, I spent two nights tent camping at South Village youth hostel. It was 1080 yen per night for “camping” with access to a well-appointed guest house with kitchen, dining and lounging areas, big screen TV, washers/dryers, bathrooms, showers and private hinokiburo! The staff were really nice and I definitely want to stay there again. (Actually, I would love to work there…) The website says they only take reservations for 3-nights or longer, but you can stay there for a shorter period of time depending on availability.

For Kagoshima lodging I stayed at Green Guesthouse Kagoshima. A capsule is 2300 yen/night (single sex dorm was full when I went). It is just okay. The building shakes when large trucks go by. Reception wouldn’t accept my takkyubin in typical inflexible Japanese service manner. (I get that they are small and don’t want everyone to send their luggage ahead, but I sent my sleeping pad and trekking poles to arrive the day I checked in and after I checked in they still wouldn’t just receive the package for me. I had to wait for redelivery in person.) Wifi was spotty. But it’s less than 5 min from the ferry terminal, so would probably stay there again if going back to Yakushima on a solo trip.

Moneys

In summary, for 6 days, 5 nights on the island, I spent around 20,000 yen not including the cost of getting to and from the island. Including cost of getting to and from the island from Kagoshima, staying a night in Kagoshima (which you have to do because of ferry times unless you take the overnight ferry) and the cost of flights to and from Tokyo, I spent about 50,000 yen on my trip to Yakushima.

Yakushima Hike Day 3: Off the Beaten Path

When everyone’s packing up and leaving Yodogo Hut in the morning I catch dad from Morioka and inform him that, after sleeping on it, I have decided to take Onoaida Trail (尾之間歩道) and end my 3-day journey at Onoaida Onsen (尾之間温泉). I thank him for the confidence boost. If he thinks I can make it to Tachudake and back down to the 3-something PM bus out of Yakusugi Land, I should be able to make it down Onoaida Trail to the south of the island in good time. It’s going to be all downhill, right? I loved feeling like I was the only person on the trail yesterday so I’d like to go off the beaten path, I say. Before I really looked at any maps, my initial idea had been to hike north to south since my friends are staying at South Village, and I think there will be a sense of completion to say I hiked north to south across the island to meet them. He thinks its a fine idea and since we have both been hiking faster than the standard estimated course times thinks I’ll make it to Onoaida Onsen in 5 hours, which means I could probably finish before it starts to rain. We bid each other farewell and good luck.

IMG_1126

Yodogo at dawn

I arrive at Yodogo trailhead in less than an hour, use the toilet and ask the ranger about the weather. He asks me where I am going. I say, Onoaida Onsen, I hope to make it there before it starts to rain. The trail is long but you should not miss Janokuchi Falls (蛇之口滝) on the way down, he advises.

IMG_1129.jpg

Yodogo Trailhead

IMG_1130

Onoaida Trailhead

I study the trail description. 8.5 km down to the junction with Janokuchi Waterfall and then 3.5 km to Onoaida Onsen. “It takes about 6 hours and 30 minutes to walk down to Onoaida-onsen Spa.” Easy-peasy.

IMG_1131

Description at Onoaida Trailhead

“Onoaida” means “between the ridges”. The little trail guide that came with my map, says Onoaida Trail is impassable if the water level at Tainokawa crossing (鯛之川出合) is high, there are numerous stream crossings and the trail may not be well-marked, GPS is advised. It has not rained in the past two days, so I figure I’ll be fine. As I hoped, the trail does not look well travelled, but I identify a set of fresh boot prints, and it is reassuring to know that at least one other person thinks the trail is passable today.

According to the hiking etiquette book I received at Shirataniunsuikyo (白谷雲水峡)trailhead, if you use trekking poles, you are supposed to put rubber caps on the tips of your poles to protect the environment. I didn’t bring rubber tips with me and though 90% of the other people were using rubber tips, no one had called me out so far, not even any of the licensed guides. I figured that staying safe and not spraining an ankle was more important than following the rules, so I used my poles with their normal carbide tips anyway, but I did try to keep my poles on the trail, on wooden boardwalk or gravely or hard rock surfaces and away from any tree roots or moss covered surfaces. This was no longer possible as the trail seemed to consist entirely of tree roots or moss covered surfaces.

IMG_1142

It’s a few minutes past 7AM when I start down Onoaida Trail. By 8:30 AM, I reach what must be the lookout point to Nogidake (乃木岳). According to the map at the top of the trail, that places me about 3 km in and more than a quarter of the way down the trail. I’m making good time.

IMG_1148

Nogidake?

So far Onoaida Trail is like a better version of Shirataniunsuikyo, with a lot of interesting mosses and fungi and other plant life.

About 9:15 AM I’m at the first stream crossing, I assume it’s Tainokawa and that I’ve made it another kilometer as I climb up the other side.

Then it’s an endless repetition of climbing down to a small stream, rock hopping across it and climbing up the other side. Except the streams get bigger and bigger as I head down.

The trail is well-marked with pink tape, though sometimes I reach one piece of tape and must spin around, tiptoe or duck down to find the next piece of pink tape. A few hours in I find myself turning a corner peering around for the next pink tape, locating it and exclaiming, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

A sign along the trail explains that Onoaida Trail is an old logging route from the Edo Period (circa 1600), when yakusugi roof shingles were contributed by the locals to the lords of Satsuma Domain and up to first Toyotomi Hideyoshi and later the Tokugawa Shogunate. Since yakusugi are so large, they were cut into shingles at the site where the tree was felled and bundles of shingles were carried out of the mountains by people on foot. “Think of the labor of the men who laid out the stones of the trail,” exhorts the sign. A large part of the trail is a jumble of moss-covered stones. The trail description calls these “moss covered stone steps” which sounds very romantic and benign, but in reality, they do not resemble steps at all, they are slippery and there is no where to put your foot flat. In sections, it is obvious the trail has washed out leaving a red mud pit to climb around, or if that is not possible, down into and out the other side. I also climb over or under felled trees (at one point I almost have to take off my pack to get through). I slip and fall and scrape up my palm, bang up my shins, twist each ankle more than a few times and will later develop a giant bruise on my hip. (Later I learn that since it was a high snow year, the trail is probably in especially bad condition.)

It’s 1PM, I have been telling myself that I will break for lunch at the resting pavilion by the fork to Janokuchi falls but it is nowhere in sight. I’m starting to get worried. I’ve stopped observing the plant life along the trail and stopped taking photos.

I’ve already been hiking for seven hours, six on this god-forsaken horrible not-trail.

There’s a rustling in the brush and four young guys, probably in their early 20s and judging from their accents probably English, appear about 10 feet down the steep trail from me. The forest is so dense you can only see that far ahead.

“How much farther to the waterfall?” I ask hopefully.

“About one-and-a-half hours,” is the reply.

I can live with that. They say they are headed to Yodogo Hut for the night. I tell them I came from there and it’s beautiful. “This is a hard trail isn’t it? Does it get easier past the waterfall?”

“Not really,” says one of them and they proceed to tell me about how the trail is collapsed, they had to climb around it in part. Something inside me collapses in disappointment. I’d been hoping that at least the section of trail from Onoaida Onsen up to the waterfall would be better maintained since that should be the route for a day hike.

“It’s the same up ahead,” I say. “And there are a lot of stream crossings. You guys are the only people I’ve seen on this trail all day and I started at 7 am.”

“That sounds awesome!” one of them says and they plow on.

After they pass, I feel reassured that I am getting close to the waterfall and going to make it out of the woods before dark. Then, I start to feel bad that I didn’t emphasize more that its taken me over 7 hours to get here. Even if I am slow, I am going downhill. It’s going to be hard for them to make it to Yodogo Hut by nightfall; it’s already 1 PM, and it gets dark by 7 PM. Then, I rationalize: there are four of them, they looked like they had the right gear and they are young; they’ll survive.

Finally at 3:15 PM, I reach the pavilion at Janokuchi fork. I drop my pack and trekking poles under the pavilion, drink the rest of my water, stuff some granola cookie things in my face and take a break by running (okay walk briskly) to Janokuchi Falls. Without the weight of my pack, scrambling and hopping is a lot easier.

IMG_1185

A welcome sign of civilization!

 

I’m at the falls by 3:45, spend a few minutes snapping pictures and head quickly back.

I’m still hoping to get a quick onsen before I have to catch the bus. I’m already going to miss the 3-something bus I initially intended to catch, but there’s another one at 5-something.

I’ve started talking to myself. I’m praying to the weather gods out loud: “Thanks for all the awesome weather this trip so far. Thank you for holding off the rain. Please keep holding off the rain.” I’m cheering myself on: “Go team! Good job, Ankles. That’s it, Knees. Just hang in there for another hour. We’ve all been together 35 years and no one has failed us yet. Guess what? We are pretty bad ass! I promise to take good care of you. (When this is over.) We’re going to the onsen!”

The four guys were wrong. The trail following the fork to the waterfall is much easier. Wider and obviously much more travelled. Once you descend a certain elevation the trail becomes loamy and soft, as there is actual soil (including 1 meter of volcanic ash from a nearby explosion 6300 years ago) around the perimeter of Yakushima. The vegetation becomes subtropical and there are palm trees and interesting tropical looking flowers.

IMG_1182

At 5:30 PM, I emerge from the bush into the parking lot of Onoaida Onsen. Finish! I sit on a bench in front of the building for a minute and check my bus schedule while the stray cats fed by the guy at the front desk mill around. Great! If I’m in and out in 20 minutes I can totally make the bus.

IMG_1209

Onoaida Onsen

Onoaida Onsen is written up as “very hot, I don’t know how locals manage to get in” even on Japanese review sites because the spring water comes out of the ground at 49 degrees (Celsius) and the bath is about 46 degees. Whatever, I spent the entire winter bathing almost exclusively in the soto-yu at Nozawa Onsen (average temp around 45) and now think normal onsen temp of 40-42 degrees is nurui (not hot enough). The atmosphere is also a bit similar to the soto-yu at Nozawa Onsen. You have to bring your own soap and towels and while there are a couple shower nozzles, they are exclusively for hair washing. I wash myself like the locals using the bucket method with the hot water directly from the tub in the manner I picked-up in Nozawa. Onoaida Onsen is very barebones but the current wooden building is relatively nice and new and I liked it a lot.

As I’m leaving the onsen, it finally starts to rain. Finally, my rain jacket comes in handy. It’s a 20-minute walk down the road to the main road that circles the island. I make it to the main road just as a bus is about to pass. I flag the bus down, but it’s not the right bus! Turns out I read my bus schedule wrong and missed the bus I wanted to catch. It’s about 6:15 and the next bus going as far as Hirauchi (平内) isn’t for another hour. It starts to rain harder and I retreat to an abandoned vegetable stand alongside the road for shelter to consider my options. I guess I can wait for an hour as it grow dark, or… I can hitchhike?

I’ve never done this before, but I stick out my thumb and the third car picks me up. My driver is a super cool single-mom artist who lives in Hirauchi and makes hand-dyed and hand-sewn clothes. She says she’s originally from Shizuoka but drove down and across Japan looking for a new place to live and when she got to Yakushima, she knew this was the place for her. She drops me off at the hostel and gives me her number to keep in touch.

I check in to South Village and contemplate staying in a bunk instead of setting up my tent in the rain, but a bunk is three times more expensive than a campsite and campers get access to all the same common facilities. I’ve also hauled my tent for three days all the way across the middle of the island. The campsite is composed of raised wooden platforms, so I give myself a crash course in setting up my tent with concrete blocks and rocks instead of stakes. I manage to do okay. My friends Tina and Brig left me a nice note in front of their tent that they went to Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen. I go to the guesthouse to use the hair dryer, do a load of laundry, and forage for some food. Brig and Tina get back, we all eat dinner together and then watch Kiki’s Delivery Service on the big screen TV in the guesthouse. We turn on the heater. It’s basically glamping. We retreat to our tents at about 11 pm and I look forward to not hiking anymore tomorrow.

Date: April 20 • Start: Yodogo Hut • End: Onoaida Onsen • Distance hiked: 13.2 km
Achievements Unlocked: survived Onoaida Trail • survived not showering for four whole days • hitchhiked for the first time ever!

Bonus: Here’s a map showing the hike I completed. (Kiwi sig other thinks this makes my story make more sense.) Trip data and gear reviews to follow.

Yakushima Hike Map