Climbing Mount Yufu
by Jordan Mounteer
On the island of Kyushu, one of the better known hotspot getaways would have to be Beppu. The island, which is one of the more volcanic places in all of Japan, features a number of volcanoes and hotsprings (or traditional onsens), but no city is more renowned for it than Beppu. The town, which is perched on a hillside looking out into the Seto Sea, has dozens upon dozens of onsens situated among the winding streets and precarious hills. There’s one that even has red water, and by and large most tourists wind up here and stay here – which is a shame, because a short drive (or bus ride) away, up and over the mountains to the west, is another iconic location. Yufuin, as it is known, does see its share of visitors, but they tend to be exclusively Japanese who already have some knowledge of its existence. Up and down the streets are plenty of shops and interesting stalls, ranging from outdoor restaurants to a recreation of Kiki’s house from the Miyazki film Kiki’s Delivery Service, to hobbyist entomologists who pit their giant beetles against one another.
But the highlight, for me at least, was the towering Mount Yufu which looks down on the town and surrounding countryside. It’s a rather tall mountain by Japanese standards, reaching a maximum height of 1583 meters above sea level. It’s actually considered a stratovolcano and has two separate peaks right next to each other, and for nature lovers and hikers it’s an excellent opportunity to get the blood moving and to reach a mountaintop with an incredible view that encompasses both Yufuin and Beppu. Of course, getting to the top is no easy feat, and I found this out the hard way. In fact, there are two possible ways to approach the peaks depending on your fitness level, your knowledge beforehand, and how willing you are to be adventurous. The majority of people tend to park off the main road on the way from Beppu to Yufuin, and from here a well used trailhead winds around the eastern approach of the mountain before turning into switchbacks.
However, if you’re a bit braver there’s another way to get to the top. Following the main road out of town, there is actually an old creek bed (which may be quite full in spring) which winds straight up the mountain. It took some asking around in poor Japanese to get my bearings, but an old man who was out gardening pointed me in the right direction. The actual trail starts just behind a fence – which when I hiked it had a small notification indicating it led to Mount Yufu – and then passes through a bamboo grove before leading right into the shade of a forest. It’s a very steep climb all the way up, but at each switchback I was rewarded with an expansive view of the town below. The further I climbed, the better the views got, but pretty soon I was sweating through my shirt and wished I’d brought more water.
At one point the trail finally opens up a bit more, and is quite easy to follow. Here you’ll find some old plantations to walk through. Since much of the area had been logged in the past, the trees here were all in lines, and I could tell they’d been planted by human hands. Unfortunately, it is around here that I lost the trail. As the trail leaves the forest and opens out onto grassy knolls, the signage becomes a bit harder to read if you haven’t passed this way before – or, if you’re like me, and just can’t read Japanese very well.
Nevertheless, by this time you can see the top of the peak right above you. Opting to get to the top as quickly as possible, I decided to simply beeline straight up. This is by no means recommended, even among expert hikers. With my mark in mind, I began to climb steadily upward and eventually entered another bit of forest. This was more open and full of moss covered boulders, and the forest floor was layered with a brown carpet of leaves. Eventually it became so steep I had to climb on my hands and knees, and it became quite dangerous as the terrain switched yet again. On the final ascent, the ground was covered in tall grass that was quite slippery. If you happened to miss a step or slip, and you weren’t holding onto a ledge or a branch, you could have easily slid all the way back down to the treeline. With my heart pounding in my ears I kept moving upward, hoping that there were no poisonous snakes in the grass. Thankfully the wind picked up a bit and stopped me sweating, until at last I popped out on the actual trail (the main one used by tourists).
I was quite surprised, getting to the top, to see how many people there were! There were at least a hundred people lounging in the small saddle between the peaks, taking a breather or eating lunch, and they all seemed quite appalled at my condition – or perhaps it was the fact that I had emerged like a wild man from out of nowhere. I followed some of the men to the second peak, which is a bit harder to access because it does require some scrambling over rocks and shimmying along a cliff face. Fortunately for my weary legs there was a chain anchored to the rock to hold onto, and with one final effort I stumbled out onto the top of Mount Yufu. A few of the men congratulated me in Japanese and snapped a photo with me while I looked fondly out across the panorama. Brown peaks blurred toward the west, and I could see that Yufuin looked to be on a fertile green floodplain. Behind me, towards the ocean, I could faintly make out Beppu as well, and the mist off the waters gave the impression of staring into infinity.
I sat down, exhausted but proud, and admired the scenery for what felt like several hours. I knew that soon I would have to go back down again in order to catch the last bus back to Beppu, but it was hard to find the motivation to leave. Something about being on the top of a mountain, the fresh air, the feeling of being above it all, stuck with me. All I could do was smile.
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