The sun crept over the horizon and struggled through the trees surrounding the hostel. My eyes creaked open and took in my surroundings. Childhood memories from my days at the Mosquito Lodge filled me with longing. In particular, the one night we spent catching mice. All night those mice just kept coming. There were cheers all around whenever one was caught. The whole situation seemed to turn into one huge celebration, but it wasn’t all that great for those that wanted to sleep.
Today would be the first free day to explore so my wife and I decided to take a different route that would take us to a beach on the Northwestern edge of the island. The rest of the group was already gone by the time we woke because they had to take a bus to another bus into the place they wanted to explore. As I observed before, the bus transit system on Yakushima is not as convenient as it is in the rest of Japan. At least based on my experience.
As I waited for my wife to get ready I decided to wait in the common area. When I sat down I was able to meet many people. There was a girl from New York backpacking through Japan for a month, a Japanese couple with two children from Tokyo on vacation, a young couple from Germany also on vacation, and a retired couple from France. There were all sorts of languages being thrown around but English was definitely the most used. Sometimes I feel I have an unfair advantage because English is my first language. Somehow it has become the travel and business common tongue.
I tried to converse in French by I failed miserably. They just started using English with me. That’s usually the way things seem to go with me when I try other languages. I must try harder.
What struck me most about the experience was that I was communicating with many new people. We had some great conversations. I mention this because as time passed in Japan, I found it difficult to hold an engaging conversation with some people. It gave me the impression that I am unlikable, boring, an asshole. Maybe I am. I’m sure everyone has at least a small piece of negativity in them, but I think there comes a time with some people when you exhaust common ground to talk about. I know you can create new common ground but that is easier said than done. Clashing schedules, clashing food, and clashing interests just don’t cultivate long-lasting relationships. Perhaps it’s a weakness of mine. But, my encounters that morning gave me new energy. It was with this feeling that my wife and I left to catch the bus.
We walked back to the main road. The night before was pitch black, no streetlights, only the light from our phones to show our path. But now it was full light and the plants were amazing. Neither my wife nor I had ever been so far south. There were palm trees everywhere, even what appeared to be fern trees, with their fronds uncurling like enormous fiddleheads. Then we saw a huge succulent-like looking thing that resembled aloe. Except I never saw any aloe like that before. It seemed to be reaching to the sky, at least a good ten meters tall. It was so huge and amazing! Plants like that just don’t exist in my hometown. Sure, we have some huge trees but those are supposed to be tall. Regular plants are supposed to be small and short.
A misty rain began while we waited for the bus. Not the kind of rain that actually gets you wet, but enough to realize it was raining. The bus came and we took our seats. There was an elderly woman sitting in the front seat carrying on a lively conversation with the driver. We had about an hour ride ahead of us so we used the time to familiarize ourselves with the schedule and future plans.
But first, we needed something to eat. Nothing appeared to be open as the bus wound its way through the nearest settlement. But we remembered there was a Drugstore Mori across from the airport. Not the most exciting breakfast concept but nothing else appeared to be open; it was Sunday after all. We departed the bus a little past the store into a wicked strong wind that drove the misty rain through us like sharp needles. We struggled our way to the entrance but it looked closed as well. Another failure. But to our fortune, an employee came out and unlocked the doors as we neared. Perfect timing. We rushed inside to take refuge against the driving rain.
As I’ve thought about the nature of Yakushima I can’t help but feel guilty that we stopped at Drugstore Mori, which is most likely the only chain store on the entire island. But what else were we to do? The only other places we saw were omiyage shops and what appeared to be closed restaurants and stores. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot during my time in Japan. Do I brave it and go into this random shop or just stick with the familiar? That, I feel is the greatest weakness when you’re unfamiliar with a language. It is easy to miss the hidden gems that could offer a wonderfully satisfying experience. It’s my own fault, really. I didn’t know the language. But I still feel guilty.
While at the store we loaded up on a protein heavy, easy to carry breakfast. I was not happy. One of my favorite things about traveling is to taste the local fare. But on this particular trip the island of Yakushima seemed to be working against us. We left and waited for a while in the driving mist, watching a small plane taxi and take off from the airport. It was such a relief when the bus finally arrived and we settled into its strangely comforting embrace.
Here I was able to see the sights of the island from the bus. Or rather, how people lived on the island. From my observations, Yakushima’s economy didn’t appear to be very strong. Many of the houses looked run-down and out of repair, a scene that is all too similar to some of the older, small locations and villages around my hometown. It’s a poverty that I’ve seen and known. Survival is not a question and there’s a roof overhead but escape is nearly impossible. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. But first-world poverty has a certain look to it.
The bus dropped us off at our original landing point on the Northern point of the island. We browsed the omiyage as we waited for the next bus to Inakahama beach. It soon arrived and we hopped on. The clouds broke, letting the sad sun shine through. Whereas, the East coast was cold and flat, the Northwestern side revealed to be warmer and full of mountainous terrain. The beautiful blue sky and the warmth of sunshine felt so good. The bus wound its way along sheer cliffs skirting the ocean shoreline. This side of the island felt like a completely different climate. Nature seemed more prolific here.
Finally, the bus driver asked us if we wanted to disembark. Our beach was on the horizon. We jumped off and walked a few meters up to find the beach. A magnificent white sand beach with turquoise water revealed itself. It felt like we had found a secret beauty of the island. The trees got all the attention but this hidden gem of a beach was totally worth the journey.
The waves lapped quietly on the shore. Inside, I could feel my tied up stress uncurl and wane. After a few moments I realized what it was all about. I must be a water person. It’s something I never thought to question before. I always lived near water, whether it was Lake Superior, the Atlantic Ocean, or a major river. Even Hita is blessed by the Mikuma River. But what I realized was that what my soul needs is not a river, but a great body of water.
Almost two whole years I had spent away from a great body of water. Two years of stress and fuddled thinking were washed away by that powerful water and those relaxing waves. Two hours of exploration up and down the beach discovered some ancient lava flows that reached out into the ocean like giant fingers. We wound our way barefoot through the towering monoliths, admiring each one’s unique story.
It was about then that the clouds started rolling in. The sky darkened a shade followed by a light mist. We trudged our way with sore and weary feet from the rough sand up to the bathroom area/entrance to the beach.
While washing our feet, we noticed the family from Tokyo making their way up from the beach. We said hello and exchanged pleasantries.
Now, what’s about to follow is perhaps the most eclectic collection of bad decisions, bad luck, and spectacular displays of kindness I have ever had the pleasure to experience.
But first, let’s take a small step back to the morning:
Cue early morning light. Small cups of fruit flavored yogurt, black coffee, and burnt toast. Fade in the retired French couple and myself. Layer on a slice of awkwardness. It wasn’t the break of dawn but early enough to mean that a few people were still sleeping. Others were awake at dawn and long gone. I munched on the last dregs of my bag of peanuts.
They asked me where I was from. The conversation visited the usual subjects, work, where do you live, why here? But then came the interesting question. What are your plans today?
That’s a good one because I didn’t know. I’ve never really touristed before.
They told me that the western side of the island is quite beautiful. They told me that one could rent bicycles and ride along the coast. It was very beautiful and only about 25 km or so. A nice two to three hour ride.
Such a great idea!
Back to washing our feet:
A little fun with waves. Magical!
The couple from Tokyo came over and asked our plans. Well, we were going to get to the next little town to rent bicycles so we could ride south along the west coast path through the UNESCO site. It was raining but we figured it would let up. It was always raining somewhere on Yakushima. We figured it wouldn’t be so bad. Besides, we had our trusty 100 yen ponchos from Daiso. They would certainly do the trick!
We started pulling on our ponchos to walk to the station where we could rent bicycles. The mother came over to us and offered to give us a ride because of the rain. Right then it wasn’t really raining. Just sprinkling really, the normal stuff. But she insisted on giving us a ride. We felt pretty bad because she had to leave her husband and children behind for a while. I’ve always been embarrassed to accept charity. It was also impossible to refuse. She brought us to the next small town nestled in a horseshoe valley surrounded by steep mountains inland but open to the ocean. She dropped us off at a service station with an army of red mountain bikes lined up outside.
We thanked her and went in. A kitty with no tail played with us as we sat for a while in dusty old chairs. It felt like nobody had been there for a while. The cat purred and rubbed against us; a brindle cat it was. An unexpectedly long time passed while the guy processed our paperwork. Normal in Japan. All paperwork seemed to take forever. I’m still not sure if it is true or not. I just know how it felt. Finally, he motioned us outside and lead us to the bicycle army. The rain had lessened to little more than a mist. They sky was still dark but it didn’t look threatening. Boy was I wrong about that one. One among countless things that I’ve been wrong about in my life.
We got on our bikes and made sure they worked. The gears shifted and the brakes seemed to work. We adjusted our seats and handlebars to our liking. We donned our cheap ponchos and biked away, ignorant of what was to come.
You see, the brochure called it a bicycle trail. We expected to go for a way along the road and then merge onto a path through the woods. What we found was the mountain road that snaked along the rocky, craggy western coast. Up and down it went.
Then it happened. My wife started complaining about how difficult it was for her to stop her bike. At first, I thought it was because she wasn’t familiar with the way the brakes worked. She had never ridden a mountain bike before. Bringing a bicycle to a stop down a steep hill can be harrowing at best. It wasn’t until she flew by me with her feet scraping the asphalt did I realize the seriousness of the situation. She managed to stop safely whereupon we inspected the brakes to discover both front and back were gone, stripped down to a greasy gray stub that stained my fingers.
To add to the fun/adventure of the situation, this was also when we noticed a few things:
1. There was no electricity running along this road, which meant no street lights or the ubiquitous roadside vending machines Japan is so famous for. We had half a bottle of water and a Snickers bar between us.
2. There was no path. If there was one we completely missed it. Mountain road it was then, up and down and twisty and narrow.
3. It was raining now. Hard. It wasn’t windy but the rain was pouring steadily and we were soaked to the bone.
4. We had no idea where we were along the path. The last sign we passed was a while ago and said we were one-third complete. Which meant we must be more than halfway by now.
All of which raised new questions as we took a short break under thick branches and split the Snickers and the water.
Do we give up and wave down a vehicle for assistance? We couldn’t call for help because no signal. Do we head back? Or go ahead?
Something fell in the forest behind us. We looked up and saw two eyes staring at us. Yakushima monkeys. The same ones we were warned about. I froze with the candy bar in my mouth. Another one showed up. Oh my! There were like six of them! We decided to move on. Our sense of adventure (fear) was at its peak, besides, how much worse could things get? Right?
My chivalrous self decided that I couldn’t allow my wife to ride such a dangerous bicycle. My shoes were more suited to scraping along the road after all.
So off we went.
Things chugged along. Slowly creeping up the hills together from our lack of food energy. Me careening like a madman down hills, scraping my shoes along the asphalt periodically to check my speed. It was a narrow road. There was very little traffic but the risk of meeting a vehicle, or a bus, along a blind turn were substantial. There would be no way for me to stop.
Luck was on our side for a while. The turns were sharp but the inclines and declines were gradual. We started coming across tour groups wandering around a large bus parked on the side of the road. We had a fun time illustrating that I had no brakes on my bicycle.
Still we continued. On through the rain. On through the hills. Onwards forever and ever it seemed.
All seemed to be under control when my body turned on me. An old knee injury sparked up, making pedaling nearly impossible. By this time we figured we were about three-quarters complete. We had no idea where we were though because the signs never showed up again. I suddenly looked forward to going downhill because it didn’t hurt my knee. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. I’m pretty sure my stubbornness insisted that we finish our adventure under our own power no matter the circumstances. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not but it certainly is a thing.
Suddenly, the up and down stopped and the road widened. The trees thinned out, showing the crashing waves on the coast far below. It was pouring by this time and the wind picked up, lashing us and our cheap ponchos in the wind.
Desperation took hold. The end must be near! Must be. We just had to get there. We stopped at the start of a long decline. The road was wide and open. Only fools would be out in this weather. Us. I decided to go for it. I took a deep breath and let the bicycle coast down the hill. My speed picked up quick. I put my feet down to control my speed, sprouting two waves in my wake. My poncho flung out behind me like a superhero. I was and am no superhero. Definitely not.
A long, slow turn curved to the right and straightened into another straight stretch. I could see the ocean looming forever. Rain pelted my eyes. Wind lashed at my body.
A left turn.
People crossing the road!
A bus parked on the side of the road waited for a group of migrating tourists; their rain suits and umbrellas looked so kind.
My speed seemed to increase. An unbroken line of tourists stood between me and the next turn. To the left was a ravine. To the right were trees. I planted my feet to slow but there was no way I would stop on time. The noise from my shoes got their attention. My hands gripped the handlebars and the useless brakes.
A few looked my way from under their umbrellas.
“Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” I yelled. I took the risk of removing a hand from the handlebar to make the symbol for passing through. A small break formed in the line.
I passed through at speed and yelled thanks. I don’t know what they heard or what they saw. In hindsight, the sight must have been strange and comical, in the moment my body and possibly my life was at great risk. I could only focus on what was coming next.
Another turn. Rain pelted my face. Waves and rocky crags loomed closer, wind nudged me around. My poncho fluttered behind.
The descent continued.
I would like to say the whole thing was brave. I would also like to say I did something cool.
It was stupid.
If there was ever a time to ask for assistance it was then. But I made my stubborn decision and completed the journey through rain-soaked madness. My knee-pain prevented me from enjoying the final leg along the flat coast but we finally managed to arrive at our destination. We got a little lost looking for the station and had to ask for directions but we did. We made it! The sign shone like a beacon in the overcast sky.
We walked our red bicycles up to the front of the building that turned out to be a small convenience store, parked them, and stepped gingerly into the vestibule. I looked at my wife. We were a sight to behold! Soaked from head to toe, hair in complete disarray, cheap white ponchos hanging limply down our bodies jutting out in the back from our backpacks.
We ripped off the ponchos.
There were a few people inside. They tried their best not to stare but it was difficult not to. I didn’t and I still don’t blame them, because we must have been a sight. Soon one of the most incredible acts of kindness ever was about to happen. Out of pity or kindness I don’t know. Nor do I care.
We waddled to the counter and I pulled out a wadded, drenched receipt to turn in the bicycles. I thought I kept it safe but we were too wet. Everything was soaked. The cashier managed to figure it out while my wife started shopping. She found some towels which were a sight for sore eyes, magical almost.
She asked about the bus stop. They told us we probably wouldn’t make it.
But, they would give us a ride to our hostel! They were going that way for a delivery. A bit of fortune shined our way.
Remembering the fiasco of no food the prior evening, we decided to stock up. By the time we checked out they were ready to go. The rain came down harder than ever and the wind blew gale force. We profusely thanked all in our presence and entered the comparative security of the little white delivery van.
I never even thought to say anything about the bicycle brakes. Probably should have. Not that it would have made a difference. The rental was only 1000 yen and the danger was over. We had conquered this little slice of adventure. They would easily discover the lack of brakes.
Thus a legend was born!
At any rate, apart from a leech sucking on my ankle, knee pain, and some wonderful conversations that evening with the married air traffic controllers from Germany, the young lady from New York, the couple from Tokyo, things smoothed out from there.
Sleep like death came.
The rain poured.
Daylight breached the clouds and a new day dawned with a clear, blue sky. Waves lashed on the ocean a few hundred meters away. There’s not much else to say. We returned home by boat and a few busses. Then we inserted ourselves back into the grind, a little older, a little wiser (maybe a little more foolish), and full of the remarkable kindness of strangers.