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An eight-day hike on Japan’s Kunisaki Peninsula

 

The Kunisaki Peninsula is an isolated mountainous region deep in rural Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Shamus Sillar recently experienced its misty and mysterious delights, on an eight-day hike with travel company Walk Japan.

I’m standing in a dank, dark forest on a mountainside in the Kunisaki Peninsula – as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get in Japan – watching my tour guide machete his way through wild bamboo in order to find our hiking trail again.

It’s exciting stuff. I’m a city-dweller, after all, so this nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark is a welcome change from my normal 9 to 5.

For tour guide Paul Christie – a Brit who first came to Japan in 1987 and whose fluency in the language is almost frightening – it’s not so pleasing. Not simply because he’s doing all the work (I did offer to help, honestly!), but because the overgrown trail hints at a recent scarcity of customers for his business, Walk Japan.

This year’s tragic tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis had an adverse effect on so many industries, and tourism was one. Just last month, Time ran a story with the headline: “Is Post-Fukushima Japan Safe for Tourists?” Happily, the article concluded with: “There may not be a better time to go.” And the good news for Paul and his team is that the second half of the year has seen business steadily building again.

It’s not surprising. Praise for Walk Japan has grown more lavish each year since its inception in 1992. National Geographic labelled it one of the 200 Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth. The author of Slumdog Millionaire recently did one of the walks and wrote: “A trip to this inspiring nation is an experience not to be missed.” In 2010, my own parents joined Walk Japan’s flagship tour, the 12-day Nakasendo Way (following an ancient highway between Tokyo and Kyoto), and described it as probably the best thing they’ve ever done – no idle words, considering that my Dad has been to Antarctica and the Everest base camp.

Now that I’m back from my own Walk Japan experience – the 8-day Kunisaki Trek – I know exactly where they’re coming from.

THE WALKS
Each Walk Japan tour has a difficulty rating: the higher the number, the harder the walking. The aforementioned Nakasendo Way is a 4; some days cover 25km, but it’s generally flat and easy going. (My parents were in their early seventies when they did it.) The Kunisaki Trek is a 5: distances are shorter (averaging 10km a day), but it’s more technical, with several rocky scrambles and the occasional rope or chain to contend with. Even so, anybody who is reasonably fit and okay with heights should manage the week without a problem.

Helpfully, Walk Japan arranges for guests’ luggage to be collected each morning and chauffeured to the next night’s accommodation. For the actual walking, you only need a day-pack with a few essentials (water bottle, camera, jacket, coins for the vending machines which pop up in the unlikeliest of places…).

Each of the eight days includes some breathtaking trails and sights; the following are just a few of the highlights.

Day 2: Forests and moss (10.5km)
There’s no mucking about on the Kunisaki Trek. After I meet Paul at lunchtime on Friday, we’re straight onto an express train from Japan’s fifth-largest city, Fukuoka, into the empty, emerald-green countryside. The first big walk kicks off at 9am the following morning. Starting at a serene lake beneath rice paddies, the path plunges into a forest of cypress, cedar and oak. Old stone kilns can be glimpsed, once used for turning timber into charcoal. Two impressive Buddhist temples are highlights of the morning; the second one, Tennen-ji, hosts a festival of devils and fire around the lunar new year.

After a sublime soba-noodle lunch, a scrambling ridge climb takes us up to atmospheric Mumyo-bashi, a short, arched bridge with no rails and a daunting drop on either side. The 360-degree views of valleys and peaks are stupendous.

The day’s hike ends with a 3km stroll along a whisper-quiet country road to a hotel with its own restorative hot springs.

Day 4: Gardens and gulls (6km)
Following a few nights in the mountains, we suddenly descend to the coast for a 20-minute ferry ride on Japan’s Inland Sea. The destination is Hime-shima (“Princess Island”), a tiny but fascinating place, famous for prawn farming, a Shinto festival featuring people in fox costumes, and a unique kind of work-sharing programme among the population of 2,500 that would make Marx proud.

A two-hour stroll around the island takes us past colourful fishing boats and verdant veggie plots, and up to a headland where a tiny shrine juts out over the water.

Back at our ryokan (traditional inn), the cheery middle-aged mistress of the house, Michiru, serves so much fresh seafood I can barely pull myself off the tatami mats at the end. She’s a hoot, too, cracking jokes left, right and centre. As I’m taking a few notes on my iPhone, it auto-corrects her name to “mischievous”. Perfect.

 

Day 7: Clouds and craters (10.5km)
At the back end of the tour, we say goodbye to the Kunisaki Peninsula for the quaint, folksy town of Yufuin, full of small art galleries and tree-lined streams. But there’s a sting in the tail for anyone who thinks the walking is done. It’s called Mount Yufudake (1,583m).

The ascent begins in rolling fields before passing through a forest emblazoned with autumn leaves. Above the tree line, things get tougher, and the final 90-minute trek around the crater of an extinct volcano is a great test of cardio and calves. At the top, the views of Kyushu go on forever, interrupted only by a thick mist rising up from the valley and enveloping us in its eerie whiteness. Then it’s back down the mountain to the hot springs for which Yufuin is famous.

THE MONUMENTSReligion looms large on the Kunisaki Trek. Though the peninsula is now a forgotten corner of Japan, it was an important centre for the earliest form of Buddhism in the country. Even today, monks in the area engage in a sacred pilgrimage from time to time, as they have from the eighth century AD, standing on hilltops and blowing notes on conch-shell horns.

The Kunisaki Trek essentially follows their route. When you’re walking, it seems like you pass a shrine, temple or other monument every 20 minutes; many are modest in scale, but a handful – including the following – are sizeable and spectacular.

Day 1: Mighty shrine
The week begins in impressive style with an afternoon at Usa Jingu, a stunning Shinto shrine that tour guide Paul says is not well known in Japan, despite its age and historical clout. The huge gate (torii) is painted traditional vermillion; the main hall is designated among Japan’s National Treasures.  

Day 5: Holy water
Impossibly mossy steps lead up to Monjusen temple; it’s said to be among the hundred best visual scenes in Japan. If the priest is around, he’ll offer to “purify” you, by which he means thump you across the back and shoulders with an ancient scroll while chanting. (More fun than it sounds.) After the corporal punishment, we duck into a hidden cave at the back of the temple, where we sample some holy spring water dripping from a seam in the rock. The water is said to make you more intelligent, though my wife says she hasn’t noticed any change.

Day 6: Cliff carvings
The walk on Day 6 comes to a dramatic close at the foot of the largest and oldest cliff carvings in Japan, the Kumano Maigaibutsu. The carvings feature two Buddhist deities, six- and eight-metres high respectively. The irritated fellow wielding a sword on the left is Fudo Myo-o; on the right is Dainichi Nyorai, the Great Solar Buddha.

THE FOOD & DRINKS
While the natural surroundings are breathtaking, the culinary side of the Kunisaki Trek lingers just as long in the memory. It’s all extraordinary, from the sashimi of locally caught fish to the stunning pickles and condiments of regional specialties. Even the humble miso soup is taken to the next level: in the mountains, it comes laden with wild mushrooms; on Hime-shima, it’s filled with fresh clams.

The challenge of the unfamiliar is fun, too. The only time I baulk is when faced with something that I dub “The Whelk”. It’s pictured here. After I’ve swallowed it, the woman serving our meal says, “You are a man among men!”

And then there’s the ever-excellent sake, including a few varieties made in the local area. Some nights it’s served in a timber cup, overfilled on purpose so I can drink the runoff straight from the saucer. One night it comes in a regular glass, albeit one printed with a haiku of happy optimism:

“A glassful of drops,

Each drop is tomorrow’s dreams,

Sip your dreams in drops.”

By the way, if – like me – you have a tendency to toast people with the Italian words “cin-cin”, bear in mind that in Japan this sounds like “penis-penis”.

THE COMMUNITY
Throughout the week, Paul proves to be an expert on Japanese history, language and culture. He is particularly knowledgeable on Kunisaki’s walking routes, and the region’s flora and fauna. In fact, he has lived on the peninsula, in a peaceful valley, since 2002; the Walk Japan office is a restored farmhouse just a short drive from his own property. From there, the team not only manages the logistics of its Japan-wide tours, it also coordinates a hands-on effort to assist the local community.

Like most of the country’s rural areas, Kunisaki faces an uncertain future as young people increasingly seek the allure and opportunities of the city. During our eight-day walk, we regularly pass overgrown fields and abandoned houses. I’m introduced to Moriyama-san, a local who is paid by Walk Japan to help with the rehabilitation of farming land, including some areas that Paul himself has bought. When we drop by, he’s up to his ears in tangled thickets of bamboo; once cleared, the fields will be replanted with native trees and orchards full of citrus, chestnuts and plums. A small vineyard is in the works, too.

One thing that might well aid the reinvigoration of this community on the Kunisaki Peninsula is a nascent alternative-lifestyle vibe that seems to be brewing. Another Walk Japan guide, Mario Anton (his parents are American but he was born and raised in Japan), also lives in the region, where he runs an organic café and helps to promote local artists and musicians.

Ironically enough, the disaster of March could play its own part in all of this; already a few Japanese families have made the move from Tokyo and other parts of the northern half of Japan to Kunisaki. The promise of fresh mountain air and healthy produce in an area steeped in cultural and historical riches will surely attract many more.

Take the Trek
The Kunisaki Trek runs from Friday to the following Friday at various times during spring and autumn (currently, departure dates of 23 March, 6 April, 19 October and 2 November are listed for 2012). Groups are kept to 12 or fewer people, on account of the modest size of the inns along the way.

Visit www.walkjapan.com for more information about all of Walk Japan’s itineraries – the famous Nakasendo Way, the Shogun Trail, the Mount Fuji Circuit and more. Note that a number of shorter tours are available, including highly acclaimed city tours of Tokyo and Kyoto, and a four-day version of the Nakasendo Way.

To ask about itineraries or to make a booking, visit www.walkjapan.com/contact .

Getting There
Singapore Airlines
flies direct to Fukuoka (six hours). You can arrive on a Friday morning in perfect time to meet the tour group at Fukuoka’s main station, Hakata, at 12.30pm.

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