Monday, March 4, 2013

Exterior Mountain #2. Aiko-Dake

Just a few meters back it was warm and sunny . . .
(Photo by Mitsuhashi-san)
My hiking partner looked at me and said, "You're wearing jeans??"
It was a balmy day for January -- T-shirt weather -- and I'd climbed Aiko Dake before, so I answered without hesitation, "Yeah, why not? If it gets cold or rainy, I'll just head back down."
Famous Last Words in Yakushima. 
On this particular day, the peak was covered  in snow drifts and ice. Fortunately, we didn't need our spikes (neither of us had brought them, anyways), but the ropes to assist the steep climb were iced over and my hands turned numb even inside my double-thick (but finger-less) fleece gloves. The wind blasted us on the peak, and I looked longingly down towards the sunny coast below as my partner took pictures. If he was trying to break my patience, it worked, and I graciously accepted a pair of disposable heat-pads so I could descend the rope course before my hands froze stiff.  

Aiko-Dake, I thought, 
you got the best of me again.

"Is that ice up there?"
Aiko Dake is one of Yakushima's most climbed minor mountains, after Mocchomu Dake and Tacchu Dake, perhaps because there are several legends about "Aiko." The one I'm most familiar with says she fell in a river, but was saved and then adopted/abducted by monkeys, leading her boyfriend to commit suicide. At any rate, if you attempt the climb, maybe you'll agree that this mountain has a real penchant for heartbreak.

The trail head is well marked: Just follow the signs (in Japanese) from the big strangler fig tree next to the main road in Koseda. The trail is also well-marked with pink tape.

The first, and easiest
 of the ropes.
But. . . in about 4 km  the trail climbs from 180 m to 1200  m above sea level without the up-down typical of most of Yakushima's trails: Mostly, it's just the up. There are no vistas until you reach the top, and along the way, there's one water hole . . . which was dry twice when I climbed Aiko Dake (once in November, once in January). Then, just when you think you're nearing the peak, you instead cross a small valley. On the other side await several ropes and a scramble (a rather scary scramble in high winds, fog, or icy conditions) to the top.

An internet search says this stump
is named "Shirube Tree."
Along the way, you'll pass one old, named stump, but the placard is almost completely illegible, and it's easily dwarfed by Yakusugi stumps in other parts of the island.

So why go through the trouble?

From the moment you leave the trail head, I personally find this area has a very casual, walk-in-the-woods feel. It's a bit hard to explain, but, partially because of the lack of deep moss forests, Yakusugi, and unusual boulders, I find this trail mentally relaxing. But I think most people might enjoy it for the following reasons:

First, there's the view from the top. Both times I went I was greeted by fast-moving clouds and ephemeral glimpses of Yakushima's interior, including Tacchu-Dake (the candle stone), the Inrepresents aterior Mountains, and the Odate dam where Yakushima generates electricity.

That MIT diploma is
not helping right now. . .
Second, the forest is a good example of a "typical" Yakushima habitat. If you're a Japanese-speaking plant-lover you'll notice that the results of a count of tree species posted on signs at every 200 meters of elevation change. (I admit these signs baffle me: I can't quite match the numbers or the illustrations with what I see, and I look forward to the day I can walk the area with someone from the Forestry Agency. But I think the overall idea is that the count changes with elevation.) The forest is full of broad-leaf evergreens, which may explain why it's part of the Natural World Heritage Area.

There are of course a few deer and probably some monkeys. (How else can I explain a yuzu* fruit I found near the trail?)

The shrine at the peak,
called a hokora.
Third, (maybe this should be first), it's one of the mountains with an active tradition of annual pilgrimages. The local school children also (are compelled to) climb it. (That said, I would not bring kids on this hike. The scramble near the peak can be quite dangerous.)

The perfect tree for an afternoon nap
on the way down.
And finally, if you're looking for a challenging hike, I think you'll enjoy the physical exertion. The ropes are fun and the trail has fewer protruding roots and rocks to slow you down compared to most of Yakushima's trails.

Just be prepared: Even when weather at the bottom is spectacular, Aiko-Dake may be hiding heartbreak conditions at the top.

Peak Elevation: 1235 m
Trail Head Elevation: 180 m
Map time: ~5.5 hours round trip
Bus stop: Koseda (The trail head is about a half hour's walk from the bus stop.)

*Yuzu is a kind of citrus with a great smell. It's a popular fruit to throw in the bath tub, but it does not grow near the trail to Aiko Dake.

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