Wild Japan: an explorer’s guide

Snow Monsters of Zao; Tohoku Japan
Snow Monsters of Zao; Tohoku Japan

Wild Japan: an explorer’s guide to the islands, mountains, forests, and other natural settings in the land of the rising sun is now online at https://medium.com/@aaronpaulson/wild-japan-an-explorers-guide-to-the-islands-mountains-forests-and-other-natural-settings-in-ae8c216934d0

Check it out for first-hand suggestions of where to trek in Japan!

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Nagasaki Photo Drift

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Nagasaki Harbour

Nagasaki’s long and complicated relationship with the outside world blends into the diorama of hillside houses that sweep back from the long harbour, and the distinctive, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of this small city. In fact, reminders of this vexed history make Nagasaki popular with tourists: Japan’s oldest Chinatown; the landlocked, newly reconstructed houses of fan-shaped, manmade Dejima island; the churches and monuments to Japan’s first and largest Christian population; the ruins of undersea mining colonies on islands such as Hashima in Nagasaki Bay; the memorials to the city’s H-bomb victims and survivors.

As far back as the 2nd century CE, before there was a unified country called Japan, The islands of Iki and Tsushima, near the site of present-day Nagasaki, appeared in classical texts as the earliest Japanese “kingdoms” to be in contact with China and mainland Asia.

Skip forward some 1200 years, to Japan’s first contact with Europeans and the “Christian century” — from 1550-1650 — which followed. By 1571, Nagasaki had been developed into a port city to handle all the traffic with the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, and the so-called Nanban, — “Southern barbarian” — trade commenced. The Portuguese introduced new technology and culture such as guns, Christianity, and popular food such as castella (sponge cake), and tempura — called in Portuguese “peixinho-da-horta” — as well as silk and other forbidden luxury goods from China.

After the initial culture shock wore off, many of these Portuguese imports were keenly embraced. Not least was Christianity; by 1580 Nagasaki had become a Jesuit colony. In 1587, however, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi nationalized the port as part of his campaign to unify Japan. Fearing the foreign influence of the Jesuits, a series of persecutions of Christians led to the crucifixion of 26 Christians in 1597, the “26 Martyrs of Japan,” and the banning of Catholicism in 1614. Where previously trade with the Portuguese had dominated, attention now shifted to the Dutch and English, who apparently acted more as merchants than missionaries. The Dutch introduced badminton, beer, billiards, chocolate, and coffee to an apparently receptive audience, since all of these things are still popular in Japan today.

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Oura Catholic Church

Nevertheless, Nagasaki continued to be a hotbed of Christianity, and by 1637 ongoing religious persecution helped foster the Shimabara Rebellion and subsequent policy of national isolation, the subject of Shusako Endo’s historical fiction Silence — soon to be a feature film by Martin Scorsese. By 1641 the meddlesome Portuguese Catholics were expelled, and even the sober Dutch Protestants were confined to Dejima – the subject of David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The situation vis-a-vis foreign influence must have improved, as by 1720 the ban on Dutch books lifted, turning Nagasaki into a center for rangaku “Dutch learning.”

Nagasaki became the focal point for Japan’s foreign contact and modernization: in 1858 the port opened to foreign trade, and in 1859 the Scotsman Thomas Blake Glover – no relation I can detect to Crispin  or Danny Glover  – arrived from Shanghai in time to be an arms dealer to the Emperor’s army which defeated the Tokugawa shogunate and brought about the Meiji Restoration – a period of Japanese history captured in The Last Samurai. Glover went on to introduce steam locomotives and western-style warships and shipbuilding to Japan, as well as to develop the first coal mine in Japan at Takashima, and founded Kirin Brewing Company. Glover’s hillside estate overlooking the harbour is now a tourist attraction.

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Nagasaki Peace Park

By the late 19th century Nagasaki had become a hub of western technology and industry, including such heavy industries as shipbuilding and railways. Thus, unlike Hiroshima, by the end of World War Two Nagasaki was very definitely a strategic target in the sights, so to speak, of Allied bombers. Nevertheless, the city was still only a secondary target on August 9, 1945, when an H-bomb was exploded over the city.

Unlike the flat, open river delta that Hiroshima was built on, Nagasaki is relatively sheltered by its setting among foothills and so many more buildings, including churches and the harbour, survived the bomb. It’s said that the residents of nearby Gunkanjima island saw the explosion from their apartments.

Rebuilding focused on foreign trade, shipbuilding, and fishing. Memorials to the bomb victims were created from the rubble, such as the one-legged torii gate at Sanno Shrine, and in new buildings such as the Atomic Bomb Museum – the counterpart to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum.

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Gunkanjima “Battleship Island”

Today, the city is popular with tourists from China and further abroad, as well as with expats looking for an alternative to Japan’s drab urban sprawl. Nagasaki’s newest “attraction” lies just offshore: the abandoned coal mining facility on Hashima, so-called Gunkanjima “Battleship Island.” But that is the stuff of another story…

 

Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places

花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”

A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido —  Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada,  foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.

Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.

But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.

Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:

Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.

Hachijojima
Hachijojima

Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.

Continue reading “Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places”

Japan Photo Hike: Aso-Kuju National Park

Koyo Autumn Leaves and Volcanic Landscapes

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range

And so, once again autumn spreads a red and yellow kimono across Japan, from Hokkaido in September in the far north to main-island Kyoto and Tokyo in mid-November and December.

Every year, R. — my wife and travel companion — and I head to another part of Japan for some fresh air trekking and a little koyo autumn foliage photography before we nest in our winter love seat. Last year we doubled layers for the cold and scrambled around Senjojiki, a cirque scooped out of the Chuo Middle Alps. The year before, we bopped about Mount Yatsugatake in Yamanashi prefecture in the South Alps.

This year, memories of a springtime photo trip to southwest Iceland still fresh in our heads, we decided to head somewhere more… volcanic as a backdrop to our koyo photography. After all, Japan has something ridiculous like 110 active volcanoes, 7% of the world total, with many more, including  Mount Fujisan, just waiting to wake from a dormant state. In fact, R. and I have already visited a couple of volcanic “hot spots,” so to speak. But the koyo season has already come and gone at Asahidake in Daisetsuzan National Park on north-island Hokkaido. And, closer to Tokyo, some restrictions still remain on the approach to Owakudani, Hakone’s “valley of hell.”  

Instead, we settled on Aso-Kuju National Park in the centre of Kyushu island. Although Kyushu is a little too far south to get the dramatic changes in foliage of main-island Honshu and especially Hokkaido, the yellow xanthophylls, orange carotenoids, and red and purple anthocyanins should be just about hitting their peak in late October, when I have some time off. What’s more, of the active volcano ranges in the park, Asosan erupted in September of this year and as of early November remains at Alert Level 3 (do not approach the volcano), while Kujusan continues to smolder away but remains at Level 1 (“be mindful that the volcano is potentially active”).

Asosan, the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest on Earth, may only be 1592 metres (5223 feet) above sea level, but its caldera is about 120 kilometres (75 miles) around: big enough to host houses, gas stations, all 28,000 residents of the town of Aso… at least for now. The crater at Nakadake has been acting up since 2013. Last November, just two months after the fatal eruption of Ontakesan killed 56 trekkers, it entered a “new eruptive phase.” Then, on September 14, it erupted again, “sending a plume of thick black smoke and ash about 2.1 km (1.2 miles) into the air and disrupting flights.”

When our flight arrived at Matsumoto airport on Kyushu in late October, Asosan’s Alert Level remained at 3: the ropeway and hiking trails to the crater at Nakadake remained closed, though we could still get a hazy view from Daikanbo of the Asosan massif: five summits which, when seen from the right angle, are said to resemble the Buddha in repose. Or a reclining woman. Judge for yourself…

Mount Asosan 阿蘇山

Asosan
Asosan
Asosan
Asosan
Nakadake, Asosan
Nakadake, Asosan
Asosan
Asosan

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range 九重連山

Asosan only makes up one part of Aso-Kuju National Park. To the north, in the direction of the famous onsen hot spring resort of Beppu along the scenic Yamanami Highway, the Kuju Renzan mountain range dominates this part of central Kyushu. Kujusan, the titular peak of the range, is the highest on the island at 1791 meters (5876 feet). 

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range

Ama-Ga-Ike Pond 雨が池

From the parking lot at Chojabaru Visitor Center, R. and I followed an easy trail a few hours to Ama-Ga-Ike Pond.

Boardwalk, Ama-ga-Ike Pond
Boardwalk, Ama-ga-Ike Pond
Autumn Colours, Ama-ga-ike-Pond
Autumn Colours, Ama-ga-ike-Pond
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Susuki Pampas Grass
Susuki Pampas Grass
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range

Bogatsuru 坊がつる

A couple hours’ easy hike brought us to the Bogatsuru susuki pampas grass highlands surrounded by the Obunesan and Kujusan mountains.

Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan

Hokkein

We stayed two nights at Hokke-in, a rustic and ramshackle mountain lodge on the edge of the Bogatsuru, beside a hot spring river the colour of skin milk. Most of the other trekkers were locals – older and fitter than us. And angrier, apparently, as they stamped through the outbuildings leaving doors ajar, slippers tossed akimbo, and jostled for the shower in the onsen bath.

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Hokkein

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range 九重連山 — up close and personal!

R. and I spent a couple of days trekking about Taisenzan, Heijidake, and Mimatayama, neon-bright Gore-Tex bugs scrambling on some surprisingly steep, rocky trails – often following riverbeds dry in autumn.

Kuju Renzan
Kuju Renzan
Kuju Renzan
Kuju Renzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan

We missed the peak of the koyo season by a few days, but at its best the gnarled, stunted highland forests of still held some of the maple-tinted honey light of autumn.

On some of these tougher trails and vertiginous slopes we witnessed the opposite of the boorishness at Hokkei-in, behavior that Professor Curtis W. Marean calls “hyperprosocial behavior:” “a genetically determined propensity for cooperation with unrelated individuals.” Trekkers, alone or in pairs or small groups, keenly read each other’s situation: ability, energy, fear, relative precariousness of position on trail or slope, and adjusted accordingly, passing or allowing to pass, stepping aside, warning or encouraging, accordingly. It encouraged me to see that, at least when the situation warrants it, people are in fact capable of empathy with complete strangers – even if we later drop that care and keep each other up half the night talking and slamming doors in a mountain hut in a grassy volcanic highland in the middle of an island in southwestern Japan…