Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kagoshima by the Skin of my Teeth

this is the last of the entries I wrote, or mostly wrote, on the train to Tokyo. It's the most fun of them, though! ^_^ Er. The most fun to read, not to experience.

October 7th, 2011.

It was a three-day-weekend. One should know better.

I began my journey into well-paid-for hedonism by taking off work early. The situation was nearly perfect: with four morning classes, then lunch, I should be basically free to go once lunch was finished on Friday afternoon. I would have been, but for speech contest practice all the damn time. But, begging out of that, and giving my heartfelt yoroshikus to those in charge, I slipped off while the third years took their tests in what would have been, for me, a post-lunch fog of dreadful sleepiness.

Having left work early, I enjoyed enough time to finish packing and preparing my house for departure, distracted only a bit by the re-Japanated Miriam.

She is only a little distracting.
On a good day, it takes 45 minutes to get to Himeji, so I made sure I had at least an hour and 15. I wanted to be on the 4:30 bus to the airport, although since domestic flying in Japan suggests you check in at least 20 (twenty) minutes before your flight is scheduled to leave, I figured that in a pinch, the 5:30 would get me there at 6:50, which was just enough time for my 7:15 flight to Kagoshima City.

Oh, naivety.
I made great time until about halfway up the bypass highway, when I met traffic so hideous, it drove me to exit and try my hand at the surface roads instead. Riddled with stoplights, they were not much better. I watched 4:30 arrive but blocks from the bus station, aware that I still had to park and walk to the gate anyway. Shit. Oh well, there was still the 5:30.

I parked in the cheap section and dragged myself and my bag to the bus terminal. 4:48. Fuck it, I thought, I’ll go have a donut and eat this banana I carried along with me for some reason. The donut was subpar. I sat around for a bit, took a call about speech contest skit preparation from my former vice principal, and sat around a bit more before I heard some kind of announcement regarding airport buses. I couldn’t understand enough of it to know what was going on, but I did see that my bag was the only one in the airport bus line. It was 5:15 I poked my head out the door to see if I could see the airport bus, worried that the announcement had said “Well if there isn’t anyone who wants to take the airport bus, we ain’t sendin it!” No, it was far worse than that.

An oldish bald dude appeared as if from nowhere, and asked me where I was going. When I said Itami, he asked me what time my flight would be. He did all this in more than passably good English. I told him 7:15 and he said regretfully, “I don’t think you can take your flight. The highways are very crowded.” Well no shit, I had seen that myself in attempting to make it to Himeji on time. Of course. “You should take the shinkansen,” he said, “that is the best way. Only take shinkansen.” I thanked him and went outside to try to call my Wervs, in distress over the idea of spending 200 bucks on a shink ticket to Kagoshima when I’d already thrown 110 on a flight thinking I was saving money by doing so. At this point I was wondering, should I even go? Was it worth it, after a week like the one I’d had, and before the week I knew was to come? Was this a sign that I should just give in and take a damn rest for goodness sake?

I didn’t have her number in my phone, so I texted her instead with a plea that she give me a call.

But then it dawned on me that the little old man might have been talking not about taking a shink to Kagoshima, but rather to Osaka, and from there getting myself to the airport via train. Trains run at the same speed no matter how road traffic is going. With this revelation, I looked around to ask him, but he had vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared.

I power-walked to the train gate at Himeji station and asked a train guy what the fastest way to Itami was, and how long it might take. He gave me a wishy-washy answer that amounted to, I’m not sure you’ll get there as soon as you want to.

I dithered for exactly one minute more, then thought, fuck it, I will be way more upset if I don’t at least try my best to get my ass on that plane. I can deal with whether or not to take a shink to Kagoshima and spend a ton of extra money once I have really missed my flight, because I haven’t really missed it yet.

And thus began my training for the hit TV show, The Amazing Race.

I bought a nonreserved ticket from a machine and hotfooted it to the platform, taking the first Nozomi to come down the track. I was on my phone’s browser for the entire duration of the half-hour ride, figuring out exactly how to get from Shin-Osaka to the airport. Turns out, you have to take the subway from Shin-O, then connect to the monorail from the subway.

Thing is, connections never mean you hop off one train and onto the other. Usually they involve walking through a station, then through a tunnel or walkway of indeterminate length, then into a new station, where you wait on a platform for the next train to come. It takes way longer than anyone (I) ever reckons because all that time, one is in motion; so while time spent on a train is felt as time passing, time spent moving to a train is less easily felt. 

But I knew, this time, that it would be there, and would make all the difference. So I jogged from the shink/JR area all the way across Shin-O (which I quite thankfully know rather well by now) station and to the red subway line, bound for the outskirts of the city. I never got a seat on any of the trains that came after, but that’s how weekend (especially long weekend) travel is. I texted Wervs to tell her it was giri-giri (going to be close!).. Then I jogged (with all my shit on my shoulders, mind you) from subway station to monorail station, a farther jaunt than I liked. Then I basically bolted down the walkway from the monorail to the airport doors, aware that by then it was 7:00 and my flight was leaving in fifteen minutes, and holy shit.

I ran haplessly past a lit sign that proclaimed the check-in for my flight was officially closed and called out to a woman who looked like she was on her way somewhere. “To Kagoshima!” I whimpered, helpless against the motion of time.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked, moving toward a check in counter, “Do you have ID?” I basically threw my driver’s license at her as I shifted my bags. “Is this okay for carry-on luggage?” I asked, still panting, still sweating.

“It’s fine,” she confirmed, “gate 23, go!”

The line at security was too long for me to wait in. I showed my “hi, my plane leaves in ten minutes” boarding pass to someone near the line and she pushed me to the front, asking the pardon of people behind me, who nodded sagely, perhaps pitying, perhaps silently tsk-tsking this panting, sweaty foreign girl-child.

Once through security, I jogged the remaining length of the airport (because gate 23 was, for some reason, at the end of the entire thing) to find the tail end of the plane’s boarding line still being processed. I dropped into my airplane seat, wishing I could take off my shirt. Since domestic flying allows you to take along a water bottle (provided they take a smell of it, and why shouldn’t they, when you can take all those things on a train and go to the same place?), I chugged some water and sent a quick text to Wervs to tell her I had made it.

Having no checked baggage let me waltz out of the airport as soon as we landed, and I was one of the first in line awaiting the bus back toward the city center. I stuffed a combini egg-salad-and-ham (yeah, I dunno either, Japan) sandwich into my face because in the mad dash I had had no time for such trivial things as dinner. From there, Wervs met me and we took the bus back to her apartment, where I plopped down onto her couch and passed out into oblivion.

So you would think that at this point, we were done. Wervs had it under control from here. Yeah, we thought that too.

We had reserved tickets on the 10am Toppy speed boat to Yakushima. We figured if we left around 9, that should give us plenty of time to get to the port and sort it all out and settle into our seats before the boat sailed. It was all going to be perfect: our hostel was right next to the port on the island, and we could rent a car just meters from the dock. It was all going to be just. perfect.

So we got out of the house at 9, and we got the 9:10 bus toward the city and the port, and by 9:45 Wervs was getting antsy, but I was old hat at this game by now, and I, without knowing exactly what bus stop we wanted, or exactly how far that bus stop was from our current location, or thereafter exactly how far it was from bus stop to port, was convinced that we would make it. We would make it or… well, we would make it. The bus stop appeared. 9:50. Time to start jogging again.

Wervs said, “there’s always one in a few hours.. and it only takes an hour longer on the water..” I began to jog. “I can’t run!” she insisted, her hiking boots hindering her. I didn’t know what to say to that. I might have said “I’m sorry,” I might have said “I know,” but whatever I said, I kept running, sure that if even just one of us made it to the counter by the water, they would hold the boat long enough for both of us to climb aboard.
I kept glancing at my watch and what I saw there was encouraging. It was only 9:55 and the port was in sight. We would make it to the island in time to spend more than just the night there, today.

At the counter, Wervs presented the paper she’d printed out regarding our reservation. The woman began asking if we’d already paid for the tickets, and we explained we hadn’t, and wanted to pay her now.

If you didn’t pay for them,
she explained, they don’t exist. She pointed to a line of kanji-ridden Japanese that must have spelled out what she said next. You have to pay within 4 days of making the reservation, or it gets canceled automatically.

We glanced at each other, then turned back to her. “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s buy new tickets.”

I’m afraid the 10am boat is sold out.

Naturally. Another exchanged glance. “So we’ll be on the 1pm?”

That one is also sold out.

A breath. The 3:15 would get us to the island around sundown, just in time to not do anything outside or see anything interesting. But what else could we do?

The next available opening is the 3:15, she pointed out on the schedule, would you like a reservation there?

We readied our cash. Since we’d been getting round-trip tickets, and our returning boat reservation had also been canceled, we had to settle for the only open boat coming back on Monday, the 7am. If anyone cancels for the 1pm, we will notify you and you can take those seats, she offered helpfully.

“That would be so great!” I enthused, shrugging some of the run-to-the-port sweat off my brow.

We shouldered our shit and began to back away from the counter, but just then she called out to us again. Apparently, something was changing.

There is another possibility, it seemed like breaking news, there are two spots.. they are very narrow and uncomfortable. But these were the faces of two young women who did not give a crap about that, at this point. All we wanted was to be on that boat. Let me perch atop my baggage in the aisle for all I care.

In the spot where they write the seat number on the ticket, she wrote something like “ho 2” and “ho 1” on ours, and an attendant jogged (yes jogged) us out to the dock to catch the boat as it was just about to leave. 

The cabin attendant led us to our seats. One was the jumpseat in front of the back door on the first floor; the other was the jumpseat in the back of the second floor. They were pretty uncomfortable, but I just couldn’t believe our good luck that there were exactly two such fold-out fake chairs on the boat, and someone thought to let us use them. I wondered again if this was what it felt like to be on The Amazing Race.

Add Wervs has a brighter, more open jumpseat; mine was wedged behind the last row of chairs on the first level.
From Kagoshima by the Skin
By 12:45 we were on the island. But… Yakushima has two major port cities (I say that like they are major port cities.. they are the two ports on the island, and perhaps the two largest cities there). One is Miyanoura, location of our hostel and biggest little city on the place. The other is Anbo.

Guess which one we're at.
From Kagoshima by the Skin

There was, however, an Orix up the road from the port, so we began to walk. We passed a small rent-a-car company and paused, considering it, watching the old dude in charge set groups up with little k-cars. We thought maybe the other place might be cheaper, so we began to haul our stuff in that direction. As soon as we came to anything even remotely like a hill, and my phone told us we still had a five minute walk ahead of us, I stopped to question the wisdom of this venture.

“If we rent from here, we can return it right here, next to the port we’re leaving from Monday morning,” I reasoned, “so even if it’s a few bucks more, I don’t mind paying for that kind of convenience.” Not after all we’d been through.

So we went back. But now, most of the cars were gone from the lot. We watched as a group of five dudes too the last white-plate in visible range. The old guy looked us over, a bit wary. “So you got a Japanese license?” he asked. I proudly threw it on the counter, and was rewarded with a “subarashii!”

I pointed out the 48-hour rental rate and asked if that was what we’d get for a k-car. He said, we have no cars left. This was no problem.. we could just go to Orix, although I was a little pissed that by wasting time, we’d let the nearest-to-Anbo-port car rental get away. But before I could regroup, he went on, so we’ll give you a discount! He then yelled to a younger guy walking around the tiny car lot, hey, clean up that car, would you? And thus we were given the company crap car, and at a discounted rate.

At this point, we were so happy to be in the island, and free. We drove to Miyanoura and checked in, then spent the rest of the daylight hours exploring via the one main road that rings the island, about a three-hour drive around, although we also made some stops. We stopped at a few overlooks, a couple beaches, and some waterfalls, and enjoyed the winding forest path portion of this “main” road.

When we got back to the hostel, the dude there assured us that the hike to Jomon-Sugi (the like 7000 year old tree) was indeed possible, if we woke up at about 5 and got our early. We didn’t even have to discuss that: not bloodly likely; we were going to take it easy (at this point that meant sleeping the hell in), because we were on vacation, dammit.

Sunday, we rolled out at our leisure to explore the hiking trails of Shiratani, famed for being an inspiration to Miyazaki’s work Princess Mononoke.

Overall, I’m going to let the photos do most of the talking for me after this point. The island is pretty much amazing, and my only irritations were that, because of that, it’s pretty popular, so the trails were kind of crowded (of course our timing has something to do with this as well). They do take pretty good care of conservation up in there, though, and the sights were totally breathtaking. Everything in that forest was alive. The trees were alive (even the dead ones), the rocks were alive, the moss and river and mud were all alive. I can see why the used to think of it as a forest full of gods.

At some point a guide-type guy told us that in the old days, when the rulers of Kagoshima used to get their cedar planking from Yakushima's forests, the island's forests were barred to women: only men, and I believe he said important men, were allowed in to work in the sacred space. 

There are no photos of the onsen adventure on principal; I feel bad because it was wervs’ first onsen experience, and it was the most crowded naked space I have ever been in. I’m pretty comfy with onsen etiquette by now, but it’s not the kind of place I would have wanted to be a first-timer.

And that's how I did Yakushima! 


  1. Thanks for using my rock quote wervs. :) I love this entry! We need to have another adventure! Where to next?

  2. Amazing! What an adventure!(Remember you were born lucky, so things just happen for you)