The job of leading our merry band of thirteen for about 55 miles through the mysteries and wilds of Japan’s Kunisaki Peninsula fell to a remarkable young man, Mario Anton. His way of getting us going after stops along the way was this lovely phrase: “Ikimasho!” (Japanese for “Let’s go!”)
And go we did. A little known fact about Japan is that more than 70% of its land mass is undeveloped wilderness, largely forested. Beautiful. This is because the volcanic terrain is intense: heavily raked by deep valleys, lots of precipitous ridges. At least, that’s the case on the Kunisaki Peninsula, on the northeast quadrant of Kyushu (the large island south of Honshu, which is home to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and other major cities).
In some places pre-set chains are set to help the faint of heart to climb, although experienced climbers can rock-scramble with joy. It is outright stunning. And for those who enjoy off-the-beaten-track places, we didn’t see another western face for days. (In fact, functional illiteracy—both written and spoken—would make solo travel here very difficult without a guide.)
The Kunisaki Peninsula was a main center of Buddhism a thousand years ago, according to Mario. The remoteness and rigor of the terrain was attractive to early Buddhist monks seeking a place to meditate and practice their ascetics. Thus, our routes, beautiful in their own challenging way, were also often along ancient pilgrimages and boasted many small and large temples. We also had the opportunity to visit one of Japan’s most important shinto shrines, Usa Hachiman-Jingo. A melding of the two main Japanese religions has meant that at many Buddhist temples, one also frequently finds a shinto hallmark: the iconic torii gate.
We mostly stayed at traditional japanese inns, called ryokan, where we slept on tatami-mat flooring on futons, and wore the oh-so-soft yukata and haori (overcoats) to meals after our traditional Japanese baths (often in onsen, or mineral hot springs). Stay tuned for future blogs on both the meals and the toilets of Japan!
We changed up the routine on day 9 by taking the 20-minute ferry across the Seto Inland Sea to Himeshima Island. There, the most intrepid of us (myself included, of course!) climbed to the highest point, Yahazu-dake (267m/875ft). The next morning, we visited Sennin-do, “a shrine set in a classic fashion at the end of a small, precipitous peninsula overlooking the sea,” [source: WalkJapan literature] before returning to the mainland.
On many of the sunny, cloudless days we enjoyed, we had excellent views from various perspectives of Yufu-dake, which at 1583m/5,193ft was often prominent on the skyline. Our final day of trekking took us to its higher peak from a pass at 750m/2,460ft, although those who were interested walked all the way back down to town through gorgeous autumn-colored bamboo grasses, thick cedar forests, and beautiful hardwood stands. Of course, we sauntered among the many tourists along the main street of the resort town of Yufu-in, looking like the mountaineers we felt we were. A cold beer followed!