Friday, November 25, 2016

the tale of the unknown island* (2 of 3)

If you've missed episode 1, maybe you'd like to give it a go before you keep reading here. You done? Okay, let's go.

holy morning light on a creek along the Sh--- trail.

Day 2 - getting up early (bis):

"We left, unsure of what had just happened. Unsure of what would likely happen afterwards, too. We walked in silence along the dirt road, breathing deeply the scent of the teatrees, all the way down to the littoral road. We headed North with the first light of dawn on the ocean and after a while we got to the crossroads we were looking for, with a rusty tin sign for "our" trailhead: the Sh--- Valley. It was our second day on the Unknown Island and it was just past 6am"

At that point, we decided to stop for breakfast, took our backpacks down and got the Trangia ready. So while the water heats up, we'll explain a little bit of the history of this magical place and of our plan for the next few days: home of a unique transitionnal primary rainforest, this island is probably the most preserved natural area in Japan and one of the richest forests in the world. During the Edo period (1603-1868), a very wise Shogun decided to protect the beautiful specimens of Japanese red-cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) by strictly forbidding cutting trees. People were only allowed to re-cut and collect the trees already fallen on the ground. Period. This probably limited the development of the island, but made it a unique wildlife sanctuary. It also means most of the trees you'll come across on the Unknown Island are at least 4 centuries old and the whole forest grew to a level of biodiversity, richness and density that is seldom witnessed where human activity exists. So, we wanted to go on a pilgrimage, that is to say: we wanted to go whorship the very very very old and sacred trees this place is famous for. Some of them (1000+ years old!) can be found inside an Interpretation Center & Park, for paying tourists to visit. Close to the big hotels on the East coast, it's expensive, crowded and you need to book in advance. Three reasons for us NOT to go. Then, there is the real-life sanctuary: very deep in the heart of the dense forest who inspired Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime, there is a group of 3000+ years old red-cedars. The shortest hike to get there takes about 5-6 hours, plus the way back. You need a taxi or shuttle to get to the trailhead and it's packed with guided groups of tourists doing the roundtrip. Thanks but... no!

the long way up, but you know: long as I can see the light...
Now, according to the very few quality hiking maps available, the Sh--- Valley trail was a long and steep option to connect to the main trail "only" 3-to-4 hours away from the sanctuary and starting very close to the sea, just about 40 minutes walking from our crappy-scary guesthouse. How is that even possible? You'll see, Wallis is the best planner/project manager you can dream of. All you have to do is say "Wallis, we need to find a way to get to the sanctuary without paying for the shuttles, without hiking among the crowds and without having to do wild backcountry camping in this super-clean super-pure super-fragile paradise" and wait. She'll spot the half-abandoned, half-forgotten trail, she'll find and book an ideally-located 20€ guesthouse nearby for the previous night and a free moutain shelter at the other end for the following night! What's still up to you to do then, is to take the lead of the resulting strenuous 10-hour hike on an un(t)raveled trail hauling a 25kg backpack and making sure you don't lose the way and she doesn't lose the faith... Now that you've got the big picture and that we've had plenty of time for our Genmaicha and cookies, we're ready to go. Tighten your boots and take a deep breath!

After the warm-up start and breakfast, the first hour was steep and got us worried: we found an abandoned trail in really poor conditions: difficult to follow, covered in fern, dead branches and moss, as well as extremely wet and slippery. The backpacks were heavy and our progression very slow, stopping often to check the map and the few topologic references - basically, the creeks around us and crest lines above us. But the weather was fine and the temperature nice. The undergrowth was beautiful and changing fast. The overall sensation was of a something dramatically alive. First, alive as in "layers and layers and layers of life stacked on top of each other". But then, alive as a whole: a dense, soft, bright and warm whole. Finally, alive as in "a presence", the awkward, lasting impression of not-being-alone. Like a presence. Not scary yet a that point, but a presence. When our trail merged with what the main branch of the Sh--- valley trail, the path became slightly broader and clearer, but also much less steep. That's when we met, and walked together with, a Japanese girl possibly in her early-thirties, also carrying a big backpack and also going to the sanctuary. We went in silence at more or less the same pace, but without taking the stops at the same time, as she apparently valued to be hiking on her own and not as part of any group, team or party.

multi-layer, dense, deep, green lush of the transitionnal primary rainforest ; inhabited woods with a unique presence ; giant mammoth-tree.
Through a short and steep section, the trail took us to a pass with a stunning viewpoint from a rock terrace, where she said she would stop for lunch. We left her and went on down for another 40 minutes or so, until the end of 'our' Sh--- valley trail, which merged into the "main trail". We had lunch there, seeing how different it was and counting the hikers who passed along: not exactly seagulls** yet but, you know, it was midday and a bit late already for people who intended to get all the way up to the sanctuary then back down to their hotel. People with sneakers and a 25cl bottle in one hand... Well, actually, yes: seagulls! Many things were different on the main trail, though: an ancient railway through an area of forestal exploitation during the first half of the XXth century, it was flat and extremely comfortable to hike - which was much appreciated because our seagulls were just warming-up but we had a good 6 hours in the legs already. The aligned, "young" replanted trees were thin and tall and the undergrowth much scarser, but it allowed for much light and fresh air in.
exhibiting signs of human activity and some old-fashion 'haunted' flavour...
There were also many red-bottomed macaques (Macaca fuscata), sure enough lured by the perspective of easy food and cheap entertainment: big colonies of 20 or more individuals settled by the side or in the middle of the trail, sleeping and grooming each other lazily. They apparently tolerated the hikers and let them go in total indifference, as long as the poor humans kept passing them along without showing the slightest intention to slow down: any attempt to stop or - say - take a picture, ended with the males raising shoulders, showing teeth, screaming and aggressively chasing you. Not funny at all... After an hour or so along the easy trail, things got tricky again: the trail climbed uphill, narrow and uneven. Many tourists were giving up, sitting around and waiting as their guides continued with only the bravest. We took a serious pace, left many behind despite our backpacks, knowing the way was still long: they were getting tired and we were still 'warm'! Then we met our young fellow hiker from the morning, who was happy to see us and to show us the famous and special place standing in front of us: inside the huge stump of a giant tree dead long ago, was a natural 'cave' with a tiny temple and a very picturesque hole. We waited for our turn while eating some dry fruits, then took some due pictures before starting again. This deadtree was a turning point for many more people, as well as the unofficial entry to the sanctuary: as the ranks of hikers were depleting, the size of the trees was increasing. The trunks around us were becoming impressive, the undergrowth of ferns and moss was growing again in depth and colour intensity... Over the next hour, we'd see our first few 1000+ years old red-cedars!

the cave, the temple and "our friend" inside the giant stump ; our first big big tree ; the loveable hole and ; some strange fruits...
It was close to 4pm when the light changed suddenly. It faded and became warmer. The very few people we still met were coming down and back (and were a bit f---ed, if you want my humble opinion, as they were the last seagulls and their way back to the coast was longer than the hours of light left). Nobody was climbing up but the girl and the two of us. And the magic happened: there was this warm light and all the moist in suspension in the air vibrating like a cocoon around us. The colours were incredibly intense, vivid. The beauty of every single leaf, of every mushroom, was magnified, making everything more real, more alive. Life was pulsating everywhere around and it was impossible not to feel a part of it all: the sounds of the birds and insects, the breeze touching our skins, the perfect patterns of the intertwined lianas and roots - like some Leonard Cohen written in organic matter. Allelujah! It was a mystical experience. It was beautiful and blissful. The closest to tripping on acid, but without the acid. Maybe we humans lost sensitivity long ago, but that was the "normal" esthetic extasis of experiencing a deep connection with Nature? Maybe such a high dosage of Nature is the only way to re-connect and feel this? Or maybe you were just extremely tired and hypoglycemic, you damn' tree-hugging hippie! Now, according to Mr. Huxley, that's pretty much the same.

the Holy Moment, caught in pictures: magical light under the trees ; one of our first massive cedars ; a colony of friendly 'Miyazaki style' shrooms.
We finally got to the first 1000+ years old red-cedar. It was so big there was no way we could take a damn photograph. It was so big we couldn't even look at it properly, because it wouldn't fit in our limited, unperfect visual field. You would never ever hug a tree like that. You wouldn't touch it. Never would need to. What hugging a regular tree would cause you to feel, such a tree could induce from meters away! Back to where you belong - and beyond - in less than a second, human being. And this was not meant to be offensive, just strikingly intense. Looking a that tree, I couldn't help thinking on a 1000 year scale: WW2 ; WW1 ; Napoleonic wars ; slave trade ; great plague ; conquest of the Americas ; Inquisition ; wars of religion ; crusades... only to name the Western European burden. This tree was so remote it was somewhat separate from humanity, but within its lifespan there was so much it had witnessed of human kind, of our miserable and bloody mess.

if it makes any sense at all, a picture of a 3000 y-o tree.
At the same time and to be fair, it was not judgemental at all. It was, indeed, unconditionnally loving and nurturing: its bark was home for communities, there were entire cities under the surface of its skin, whole countries at its feet and systems of continents slowly moving along its branches. Before we realized it, there was the sanctuary: after this first tree, a second one came in a matter of minutes. Even bigger. Then a couple more, which were called 'the husband and wife'. A sign in Japanese and English explained that about 400 years ago, they had merged through a major branch, 8 meters above the ground and were now connected. Why? How? What for? Pointless questions: because they did. The light was getting dim, we didn't have much time left. Nobody was talking. Nobody was thinking of the destination, the camp, dinner. All mental noise was gone. Just sounds. Birds, insects, the breeze. We kept walking like in a dream, so absolutely tired and overwhelmed - in a state of shock. We passed a fifth tree: thicker, older, grey. Huge. Images of over 1000 years ago: the Alhambra, the gothic cathedrals, Angkor Wat...Then - finally? - we got to a large set of wooden stairs, climbing all the way to a big terrace: in front of us stood the  Y--- S---, the patriarch, the silverback. 27 meters of circonference at its base, about 6 meters in diameter. Not even an impressive figure. It was so humbly beyond figures. The scientists gave him about 2600 years, the legend over 3000. Again, same flow of parasite thoughts, only on a bigger scale even: the Romans ; Jesus ; the very concept of BC ; the Greeks ; wait a minute, Buddha? The carvings of its bark would be as old as some Sumerian cuneiform scripts. How was that already? Like some Leonard Cohen written in organic matter. Enough vain thinking, we came back to seeing, feeling, experiencing. Felt ridiculously small and meaningless. Felt insanely priviledged to be there. Felt like crying. Felt cold and exhausted. We suddenly noticed a party of three was there, in a silent conversation with it, too. At some point we all left together, the six of us, with the last beam of light. We hiked the last 10 minutes to the Sh--- Hut, the nearby free-access mountain shelter. Another great priviledge for a handful of insignificant, random human beings. It was past 7pm: it got dark immediately and the air was cold under the trees.

Night 2 - sleeping tight:

After checking there was still some room left (three spots were free on the ground floor inside - the higher, warmer spots were all occupied already!), we spread our mattresses and sleeping bags before going back to the wooden platform in front of the shelter. Outside, we changed our clothes for some clean, dry, warm ones and hung the wet ones to the night breeze. Our "friend" had escaped the company of humans putting up her tent 20 meters away and disappearing inside right away. We respected that she valued being on her own and at the same time, appreciated the silent communion with the other people: this natural proximity of individuals who realize the gift they share.

the Sh--- Hut, aka the coolest, cardboard, sustainable, upcycled mountain shelter ever!

We cooked in silence and had a quick dinner, seeing how the party of three was in fact a very young mountain guide taking care of his couple of clients: taking all kind of stuff from his backack, he was cooking a romantic and gorgeous sukiyaki for them, while showing them some videos about the Unknown Island on his tablet: 5* service! After over 10 hours of a demanding hike, about 2000 meters of cumulated elevation gain, hauling heavy backpacks and witnessing the most strikingly beautiful and intense wilderness in our entire lives, we could say we were drained, worn out, exhausted and deserved to rest a little bit...

That was Day 2 and at about 9pm, we were sleeping!

To be continued...


* Any resemblance to a short story written in Potuguese by Jose Saramago was on purpose and is an invitation to (re)discover this lovely little new classic!

** About the "seagulls": it's a concept of ours (even though many hikers know them too), that we love. Seagulls apparently exist on all continents. Seagulls never fly too far from the coast. So when sailors see some seagulls, they know land is close. Well the same happens on hiking trails in the mountain: there are those people whostart at 11 or 12 or even at 3pm. They wear Converse sneakers or flipflops, carry no backpacks, walk around with just a small water bottle in their hand, with a French Bouledogue or a bowling bag under their shoulder. You usually meet them while you're coming down and they definitely mean you're very close to the trailhead! THey even have their own tag on this blog...

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