March 29 was a huge train day where I took bullet trains all the way from Aomori on the north tip of Honshu via Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka to Kagoshima on the south tip of Kyushu, basically the length of mainland Japan. It took only about 12 hours and cost almost the value of my entire JR Pass.
I then took the ferry (15000 yen round trip) south to Myanoura on Yakushima, the largest of the Osumi Islands. Yakushima (pop 13,700) is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The island’s mountainous interior is home to the world-famous yakusugi, Cryptomeria japonica, or ancient cedar trees. The most popular hiking is to Jomon-sugi, a monster of a Jakusugi estimated to be 3000 years old. One trail is 19.5km round trip and must be started at 4AM but I took the shorter, and more beautiful trail closer to Miyanoura that goes to different trees. This area has been logged since 1600 (for shingles), and there are only a few large cedar trees in a broadleaf forest with wonderful moss and streams. We saw many habituated deer and a small troup of macaque monkeys. The large creek is gorgeous with granite boulders and streambed and waterfalls. These cedar are not as big or nice as the western red cedar of British Columbia. Most of the lower tree has no bark, the trunks are rotten, and branches sparse and at the top.
I spent some time with a young couple from Canada teaching English in junior high and high school and were on holidays during their spring break. They had been here for 3+ years and had lots of interesting observations. Most schools have native English teachers but the kids have little interest in developing communication skills. The least interested are the best students who know they only have to learn grammar and speaking is not tested. Poorer students are often to the ones at least willing to try. Japan has a “no fail” policy and students are moved on even if they never attend school. Dropping out before graduation is not rare approaching 20%. Few of the Japanese couples they know are happily married with of marriage affairs common for both men and women. Despite this divorce is rare and people stay in awful relationships forever. Work keeps the men away from home.
After one night on Yakushima, I took the train north via Fukuoka to Beppu (pop 121,000) on the east coast of Kyushu. It is the onsen capital of Japan. One of the highlights is a hell area – hot spring features like mud pots and geysers not for bathing. These have all the appearance of mini-amusement parks. If you have been to Yellowstone, you will find them disappointing. i went to my first onsen, Takegawara, in a wooden building dating to the Meiji era near my hostel in town. Bathing is simple – bring your shampoo, soap, razor and wash cloth, sit on a small stool beside the pool and have a bath pouring hot water all over with a small bucket. Then soak in the pool. Very nice. The baths are sex segregated and nobody wears clothes. Cherry blossum time is in full swing.
Up at 5, I caught the 5:30 train to Hiroshima, checked into my hostel and took the bus 50km north to Sandan Gorge, an 11km return walk up a ravine in a National Park. Waterfalls, swimming holes, forests and fresh air are the attraction. True wilderness is impossible to find and I have developed a yearning for at least a taste of nature. I had a great three hour walk without another sole in sight all day. Five nice waterfalls came down into the gorge with a large creek filled with boulders, rapids and pools.
The next morning, it was a short train ride NE along the coast to Onomichi, an old seaport town on the mainland side of the Shimanami Kaido, a chain of six bridges linking it across six small islands to Imaban on Shikoku, a large island. After a short ferry ride to the first island, it is a 70km cycle through small towns taking about eight hours. One then catches a bus back to Onomichi. The recommended route is well marked and fairly flat except some thigh burning up to each bridge entrance. The highlight bridge is the last one, Kurushima-Kaikyo, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at over 7kms.