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JAPAN

The call of the mountain

Kaimondake peak.

Kaimondake peak.

From the summit of Kaimondake peak, the entire Lake Ikeda

From the summit of Kaimondake peak, the entire Lake Ikeda

The scenic beauty in southern Kyushu is enhanced by the people's hospitality and the quality of the onsen

When the mountain called me, I flew south. The mountain in question - Kaimondake peak in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture - dubbed "Satsuma Fuji" has an almost perfect, Mt Fuji-like circular cone shape. The moniker also derives from the mountain’s location - Satsuma is the old name of Kagoshima.

As Kaimondake peak rarely accumulates snow even in winter, people can enjoy climbing it all year round.

The first day of my visit was spent at Unagi Onsen hot spa in suburban Ibusuki, where Saigo Takamori (1827-1877) - a Kagoshima native and one of the most influential people in Japanese history - is said to have stayed to improve his health.

Various local speciality dishes, cooked with sulphurous spa water and steam direct from the hot spring, can be enjoyed at the Unagi-Kohan minshuku inn.

The next morning, Noriyasu Fukunaga, 53, the inn operator, directed me to the starting point of a trail up the mountain.

"Since Mt. Fuji was registered as a Unesco World Heritage site, the number of climbers [at Kaimondake peak] has increased," Fukunaga tells me.

The start of the trail, which leads to the mountain’s summit 924 meters above sea level, is located near a park on the northern side. From here my climb begins, the weight of my backpack resting comfortably on my shoulders.

The forest's quiet this morning, with just the sound of the wind and my footsteps to be heard. I note with amusement that someone had attached a sheet of paper to a fallen tree, with a warning for walkers to "mind your head." I say aloud, "Leave me alone. Even if I hit my head out here, surely I wouldn’t complain!" There's no reply.

In any case, as I breathe the cool, clean air - so different to that of towns and cities - I feel somehow revived.

I have heard local primary school children climb this mountain on school trips. After the fifth stage, though, there are many rocky patches. There are also ropes and ladders in places to help climbers through the more difficult sections. Completing the ascent is a suitably satisfying challenge.

As the mountain faces the ocean, it is dotted with spots where climbers can enjoy beautiful views. It is said that even Yakushima island, south of Ibusuki, can be seen, weather and other conditions permitting.

After about a two-hour climb, I reach the mountain summit. Spread directly before me is Lake Ikeda, blue and clear, while in the distance a plume of volcanic smoke seeps from Mt Sakurajima. After the previous day's rain and the dawn chill, trees around the summit are decorated with white frost.

"I didn’t imagine I could see silver thaw in Kagoshima," says an excited Yuki Noritomi, 33, who comes from Fukuoka and introduces herself as a mountaineering enthusiast. I meet others around the summit as well - a local man who climbs the mountain once or twice a month for good health, and members of a university cycling club on an expedition across Kyushu.

"If you never climb Kaimondake peak, you're stupid. If you climb it twice, you're also stupid." So goes local wisdom, which I hear echo many times and presume to be a joke, although it may not be entirely. There is certainly something about this mountain that makes people feel like reaching its summit at least once.

After my descent, I enjoy the typical recreational pursuits - visiting a hot spring, and drinking beer. There are many public bathhouses offering a good atmosphere in Ibusuki. I choose Yajigayu Onsen, which started operations in 1892. The bathhouse also has long-stay accommodation facilities for hot-spa convalescence.

Seeing many locals entering the bathhouse with warm greetings in familiar tones - "Konbanwa" (Good evening) and "Tadaima" (I’m back) - I join them to relieve the fatigue of a long day’s climb. "Doko kara kita ne?" (Where do you come from?) comes the friendly welcome, in local dialect, extended even to this stranger visiting for the first time, warming not only my body but also my soul.

Because its source is shallow and easily influenced by air temperature, the heat of the water is a little higher in the evening and a little lower in the very early morning.

"The water in our baths is a living thing," says Ikuko Togo, 68, the bathhouse’s proprietress. "Its temperature changes. Its colour also changes."

On the last day of my trip I visit Uomidake peak, said to look like Diamond Head in Hawaii, and also Lake Ikeda, said to be habitat of the legendary monster Isshii. After enjoying somen nagashi, a local speciality with somen noodles served in cold water rotating in a doughnut-shaped vessel, I stop by a sunamushi onsen, to experience a hot sand spa.

I have a feeling I could only have enjoyed this trip more if I had brought a travelling companion. Accepting my fate as the stupid man who climbs the mountain twice, I vow to return.

If you go

_ Thai Airways International operates daily flights between Bangkok and Fukuoka - a gateway to Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Kyushu. Kyushu Shinkansen trains run several times per hour from Hakata Station in Fukuoka, taking as little as 80 minutes and costing 10,170 yen (Bt3,186). Ibusuki is accessible by bus. The starting point of the Kaimondake trail is a 30-minute drive by car from the town.










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