Wednesday, October 23, 2019

How to have a bad time in Yakushima

All the best intentions can go to naught if you've committed any of these mistakes:

1. International Flight / Weather Roulette
Boats and planes to/from Yakushima get canceled pretty frequently. From June through October, expect about 9% of JAC flights (This is the JAL branch that flies to the islands around Kagoshima) to be canceled. Fog can force any flight to turn back before touchdown, and storm systems can create rough seas for several days.

I strongly discourage squeezing Yakushima into a packed itinerary without one or two buffer days between travel from Yakushima and any international flights. For domestic travel, JAL and ANA are usually very helpful rearranging flights, but international carriers are usually not so accommodating.

2. The Day Trip
Every time someone tries to make a day trip out of Yakushima, a fairy dies. Yes, if you calculate it perfectly, it may just be possible to take the first boat/plane in and high-tail it to the moss forest and back in time to catch the last boat/plane out. But this isn't an amusement park ride where the whole point is to stand in line for ninety minutes in exchange for 90 seconds of bliss. Don't you want to give the forest time to seep into your pores and infiltrate your spirit?

3. Accidental Super-Seclusion

Yakushima has one main road that follows its roughly 100-km circumference. To travel from the Northwest corner to the Southwest corner by public bus requires about 80 km of travel.

If you look at a map, you'll see that the Yakusiland, the Yodogo/Yodogawa Trail Head, and the Arakawa Trail Head for Jomon Sugi are closest to the town of Anbo, and Shiratani Unsuikyo Park is closest to the town of Miyanoura. Most people/restaurants/shopping/buses are to be found on the EAST side of Yakushima, clustered around the villages of Miyanoura, Koseda, Anbo, and Onoaida. If you stay in-between villages or on the more remote WEST half of Yakushima make sure you understand the bus schedule and have a plan for food and transportation.

4. The typhoon/monsoon experience
There are typhoons and there are Typhoons. Some of them aren't too strong and, to some extent, Yakushima can be nicely calm just after a typhoon before most of the tourists come back. However, if it's a strong typhoon, it would be reckless to put yourself in danger by leaving mainland Japan. With very few exceptions, outdoor activities are canceled when a typhoon is imminent, and roads usually need to be checked once the winds have died down. Typhoon season lasts from July through November.

Monsoon season lasts from mid-May through the start of July (usually) . As the monsoon season picks up, torrential roads make trails and mountain roads unsafe and hiking is often canceled. However, this is also the sea-turtle egg-laying season, so many people are happy to take the risk for a chance to see the sea turtle miracle. (Reservations and/or transportation arrangements or accommodation near an egg-laying beach recommended.)

Before you go thinking that you can avoid all storms by visiting outside of monsoon and typhoon season, note that we can have blizzards in the mountains from November through April.

5. City Slicker Nostalgia
You want your 24-hour ATMs,  wifi, western toilets along the trails, a taxi to take you a kilometer, vegan or gluten-free meals, credit-card purchases, and a guarantee that you can do a certain hiking route in a certain time frame. If you want all that, you're going to have to book Sankara. (No disrespect for vegans! Veganism just isn't well-known in this culture with only a tiny strip of arable land.)

6. ¥100 Rain Gear
Why spend all the money and time to come to Yakushima and not put out ¥1500 for two-day rain gear rental?

7. No Licence = No Car Rental.
According to the JAF website at time of writing, regular drivers' licenses from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, Estonia, and Taiwan are valid in japan, BUT YOU MUST CARRY AN OFFICIAL TRANSLATION (available from JAF: ).

Many other countries are party to the Geneva Convention. If your country is not listed above, but is part of the Geneva Convention, in your home country, you can apply for an international driving permit. (The process is usually fast and painless, but you CANNOT DO THIS IN JAPAN.) You'll need to carry this, your passport, and your driver's license to drive in Japan.

Bonus: The no-show
By canceling without notification, you could be endangering the lives of others.
Therefore, as a matter of courtesy and safety, please, always contact your host when you need to cancel (rooms, tours, car rentals, etc.). Otherwise, not only is your host losing money on your booking, they are often very worried that you are lost in the mountains. Hotels will often call the police to instigate search/rescue procedures when guests do not return. Other times, hotels hesitate to call the police because they've had other guests fail to show up and assume it's nothing.

Anything I've forgotten? There's a lot to do on the island, and even without a solid itinerary, you can have an incredible experience. Just try to avoid the above mistakes!

Sunday, October 6, 2019

PonPon Sungun Burger

If you're driving around the southwest side of Yakushima, your lunch stops are pretty limited, but fortunately, Kurio boasts both a wonderful soba restaurant and a weekend burger joint that the American in me craves. And Sungun Burger isn't just a burger stop—the owner is also a shoemaker and you can browse the adjacent leather shop in this clever, fun-for-all-ages building as you wait for your burger!

For around ¥1000 you can get a drink and a burger., and you can choose pork, beef, or even wagyu! (Sorry, no vegan yet at time of writing.)

Expect to pay upwards of ¥20000 for a stylish pair of custom PonPon shoes, hand-made from quality materials. (Photo coming soon.)
Ponpon❤Sungun Burger
Location: A short walk north from the swimming beach in Kurio. (30.2682, 130.4226)
Hours: 11am-ish to 5pm-ish. Weekends only. (During the week, the shoe shop moves to Anbo.)

*Hours are subject to change, so please check the website

Thursday, June 20, 2019

I'm not your mom (or dad) and neither is mother nature!

Look what treasures were left!
(Re-posted with permission.)
Several times a year, I sign up for "toilet patrol" duty and I usually come back with a grudge. This is the glorious job of hiking up the trail to lightly clean and inspect the huts and toilets. We do a little light maintenance work on the trail when we can and pick up litter along the trail, too. It would be fun, enjoyable work if we didn't also pick up the crap people leave behind (both in the huts and in the toilets).

The root of the problem is usually ignorance and poor preparation of both international and domestic visitors. So, I'm going to start off with a short list of some of the stuff I've personally had the pleasure of schlepping down the mountains, and then I'm going to follow up with a short quiz on mountain manners.

Things people carry up and leave behind (in no particular order):
  • Hats/socks/towels/shirts/glasses/lens caps (The late Douglas Adams would ask, Do you know where your towel is?)
  • Sleeping bags (If you've got the energy to carry a big, bulky bag up a mountain and the money to leave it behind, you could have rented a compact bag! )
  • Air mattress (And with battery-operated inflater-fan, too!)
  • Prayer flags (Disrespectful in so many ways!)
  • Christmas decorations (An emergency shelter is not your home. Santa does not come here.)
  • Fuel for camp stoves (Try leaving it at a rental shop, your accommodation, or an information booth, or even with the airport authorities.)
  • Used disposable toilet bags (The whole point of the bag is for you to carry it back with you!)
  • Chopsticks/toothpicks/rubber-bands/candy wrappers/drink cans/food packaging (Part of being thankful for food is not leaving behind the evidence.)
  • Orange peels, carrot peels, seeds/pits (Yes, these are contaminants that cannot naturally be found in the mountains of Yakushima. If you want to be Earth-friendly, ask your accommodation back in town to take your compostable waste.)
  • Rubber sandals (I swear these multiply like rabbits!)
  • Broken umbrellas (Trust me, I hate carry back broken umbrellas as much as you do!)
  • Cigarette butts (Leaving behind cigarette butts is the environmental equivalent of the American middle finger.)
  • Wallets/keys (Obviously accidental. The paperwork is atrocious, though! Check your room key with the front desk of your accommodation.)
  • Problems (Just kidding! You're welcome to leave your problems behind!)
The only things I am happy to pick up are chocolate bars and rubber tips for hiking poles that I can pass on to other hikers. Metal points damage trails.

Quiz Time
Okay, here's the quiz. Let's see what you know:

Question 1) Mountain Toilets

In every mountain toilet in Yakushima—excluding disposable toilet booths and the toilets in the Shiratani Unsuikyo Hut—what are you allowed to dispose of?
Check all that apply:
❏ a) Human waste
❏ b) Dissolvable toilet paper
❏ c) (Facial) Tissues
❏ d) Wet wipes
❏ d) Food scraps
❏ e) Disposable toilet packs
❏ f) Sanitary napkins
❏ g) Tampons
❏ h) Diapers

You should have checked a) and b) ONLY! 
In Shiratani Unsuikyo Hut, toilet paper and feminine hygiene products are separated. Feminine hygiene products can also be disposed of in buckets at toilets at trail heads and on the train tracks, but not at toilets at other mountain huts. Except in Shiratani Unsuikyo, or unless the toilet is clogged or it is otherwise posted, please dispose of toilet paper in the toilets.

Question 2) #TooGrossToPost
Who gets to fish out c) through h) and carry it out?
a) A hazmat team that works for the forestry agency.
b) Locals.
c) Nobody has too; it's automatically sorted.
d) Nobody has too; it all gets buried in the mountains.

b) Locals, including me. It's not part of the job description, but, yes, I HATE YOU! (No, I don't. Yes, I do!)

Question 3) Mountain Manners #LeaveNoTraceInYakushima
When you go hiking in the mountains in Yakushima, which of of the following actions are okay?
Check all that apply.
❏ a) Rinsing out dishes/cups.
❏ b) Making campfires.
❏ c) Taking a dump near the trail or a water source.
❏ d) Defecating (even urinating) in the bushes near popular trails.
❏ e) Defecating/urinating in a disposable toilet booth without a disposable toilet pack.
❏ f) Damaging tree bark.
❏ g) Stepping off the trail to avoid mud/puddles.
❏ h) Leaving behind "art" like finger-painting in the clay, stacking stones, creating faces in the leaves, etc.
❏ i) Collecting fallen leaves or rocks to bring home.
❏ j) Flying a drone (of any size) so long as it's away from people, buildings, and roads.
❏ k) Feeding the deer, as long as you feed them special food like "deer senbei."

None of those acts is okay!
a) Soap and food/drink leftovers can kill the moss and attract bugs. Also, do you know where that stream goes?
b) The wood in the forest is NOT YOURS TO BURN! But you may use portable gas stoves.
c) GROSS AND DANGERUsing dish soap.OUS! Are you trying to spread disease?! I hope I never meet you!
d) In the past, off-trail defecation was the norm, but it got out of hand, and the town of Yakushima doesn't want to take chances anymore. I highly encourage hikers to bring a disposable toilet kit—available at information booths, rental shops, and even in the ¥100 store last time I checked—so that you are never caught off-guard. They work great for car sickness, too!
e) I have a special hate for people like you.
f) There are thousand-year-old trees along the trails. I see people scraping their boots on the roots, absently picking at the bark, or kicking/trampling parts of the tree to get close to the trunk. While some trees (like tall stewartias, which I hug all the time) are fairly resilient, Yakusugi trees are not. Some Yakusugi are just barely scraping by, and the damage you inflict today could be a death sentence served a hundred years hence.
g) Stepping off the trail to avoid mud/puddles makes the mud puddles grow even bigger.
h) Okay, maybe I'm not 100% innocent here, but a lot of people go to the forest to get away from evidence of people.
i) Much of Yakushima is part of special conservation zones where this is illegal. Also, there's the old adage about if everybody did it. . .
j) Actually, you can fly drones in most areas as long as you abide by basic safety rules AND HAVE PERMISSION OF THE LAND OWNER. In a national park in Japan, that means you need the permission of the forest agency (I'm not going to go into the details because I personally find drones obnoxious. If you're scheduled to hike with me and you want to use a drone, then you can ask me by email.)
k) Deer senbei is only in Nara. Most animals in Yakushima do not know about human food and we want to keep it that way, thank you.

Question 4) Smoking
Where/when are you allowed to smoke on the trail in Yakushima?
a) Anywhere in Yakusugiland and Shiratani Unsuikyo, as long as you are not walking and you are not around other people.
b) Along the trail to Jomon Sugi, but only at designated areas at the Arakawa Trail Head, behind the Kosugidani rest area, next to the toilet building at the end of the train tracks, and behind the hut beyond Jomon Sugi.
c) Anywhere along other trails, as long as you are away from other hikers.
d) All of the above, but you must bring a portable ash tray.


d) All of the above, but you must bring a portable ash tray.
However, most smokers do not realize how obvious the smell of cigarettes (even e-cigarettes) is to other hikers and how far the smell travels. You know how you can smell the toilets before you can see the toilet building? It's like that.

Bonus Question: Park Donations
How can you donate to park/trail maintenance in Yakushima?
Check all that apply.
❏ a) Make park donations at the entrances to Shiratani Unsuikyo Park and Yakusugiland.❏ b) Ask to donate at an information booth.
❏ c) Look for collection boxes along the trail.
❏ d) Leave change at mountain shrines.
❏ e) Pay-pal or credit card form on the Yakushima Town home page.
❏ f) Donations are already included with your bus ticket in 2019.

a) and b) only.
Please note that money collected in Shiratani and Yakusugiland stays in those parks and is not pooled with money collected for other trails. If you donate at an information booth, you are welcome to ask for a receipt.
Wrong answers:
c) Collection boxes along the trail have gone out of style (although you may still find a couple).
d) Metal coins (particularly zinc-containing one-yen coins) are bad for the environment and hardly worth the effort of carrying down from shrines. If you want to donate to a shrine, please do so in town. On the other hand, please do not remove offerings that have been left at shrines.
e) If you'd like to donate online, please comment or message me so I can suggest this feature to the town council.
f) Because of a long-term robbery incident reported in 2019, we are not currently actively asking for donations, even when you buy a bus ticket to the trail head. This activity is scheduled to resume in July, 2019.

Well, that's my rant after returning from toilet duty. I hate to pass on my bad mood, so to lighten things up, here's a picture of a monkey sitting on a fungus:

I'm sure I'll be adding to this post when my next round comes up. Thank you everybody for doing your part to make Yakushima evermore pristine and beautiful!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Renting a Car

Renting a car gives you the freedom to tour the island and access to trail heads that you just can't get with a bus, and light "K"-class cars are a wonderful option for navigating narrow mountain roads.

    1. Driver's Licence
    2. Official Translation of Your Driver's Licence: You need this if your license is from Taiwan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Estonia, Monaco, or Slovenia. Your license is perfectly fine in Japan, so long as you also carry an official translation. Check with your country's embassy. Otherwise you can get one through the Japanese Automobile Federation for ¥3000. Do this before you come to Yakushima.
    3. International Drivers' License: Everybody else who has been in Japan for less than a year does not need a translation, but does need an international drivers' license. This is issued (usually for a modest fee) in the country that issued your drivers' license, NOT JAPAN. You will need to get it before you leave home.
    4. Passport

Where to Rent:

You have a lot of choices here, from national companies like Times and Toyota (which, I am told, may be able to provide a navi/GPS system in foreign languages) and discount companies like Niko-Niko, regional companies like Nansei (which, I believe, has an English-speaker working in Yakushima), local companies like Matsubanda, and tiny companies like Kuriyama and Shinjiyama (which doesn't employ English speakers, but offers most of the documents in English). Many of these companies offer pickup and drop-off from the ports, and let you leave the car at designated locations on the east side of Yakushima. However, at the time of writing, none of these companies are open at night. You will have to return the car during business hours or pay to keep it until the morning. 

Extra costs:
  • Get the extra insurance. This usually costs around ¥1000/day and while it may not cover some things like tire punctures, when I think about the number of scrapes my guests have incurred, I can definitely say it's worth it.
  • Plan your last gasoline stop. Remember that gasoline stands also close at night (9 at the latest, but earlier for most places). If you want to return your car before the gasoline stand opens, (for example, if you are leaving Yakushima on the first boat out, or if you're going hiking early in the morning) you're going to have to pay extra in advance. In fact, most rental shops may not allow this if the gasoline calculation is too complicated.
  • Maybe you don't need a GPS. If you have someone sitting in the passenger seat with a smartphone, you should be fine. Anyways, there's only one major road that goes around Yakushima, and it may be better to rely on directions than on GPS for the smaller roads.

  • Rules: Left side of the road, obviously. If you've never driven in Japan, I advise reviewing basic signs like Stop and No Parking. If you have trouble finding a parking space for a store, or if you're not sure if a parking lot is public or not, just ask.
  • Seat Belts and Child Seats: Everyone is required to wear seat belts. Children under 6 must use child seats (or junior seats), which car rental shops can provide upon request.
  • Hazards: In addition to wildlife and pedestrians, (Pedestrians always have the right-of-way!) there is often a lot of construction, often with temporary traffic lights that you'll need to stop for. In the winter, roads in the mountains can get icy when the temperatures drop. It's best to just avoid icy/snowy roads here.
  • The West Forest Road and interior roads often go down to one lane, so you'll need to be ready to stop at all times and confident in reversing around turns.
Road Closures:
  • Arakawa Trail Head: From March through November, you may not drive to the Arakawa Trail Head (to hike to Jomon Sugi). There's just too much traffic, so you'll have to park at the Museum (near Anbo) and take a shuttle bus instead.
  • West Forest Road (西部林道/Seibu Rindoh): Due to shifting ground, this road is closed at night from 5pm to 7am.
  • Rock-slides, weather-warnings, ice, and snow can also cause unscheduled road closures.