“Oh, if you want to pee you can just do it out the front door,” my host Yuki says as he gives me an introductory tour of the house and points out the powder room — merely a pit with a long drop and an unconnected toilet pedestal covering the hole.
I had just arrived with a friend named Henry on the island of Yakushima, which lies in the East China Sea about 190 km south of Kagoshima in Kyushu. It is famed for its wild virgin forests, including many specimens of yakusugi (Yakushima cedars more than 1,000 years old), amazing wildlife and dramatic coastlines — but it also rains a lot: 35 days a month, or so the saying goes. The day we arrived at this outpost of Kagoshima Prefecture was no exception, and there were two more days of torrential downpours forecast.
So, come rain but no shine, I had embarked on my debut “couch-surf” — courtesy of CouchSurfing.com. Over the past eight years since it was set up, this not-for-profit enterprise has come to be well known in the backpacking community; indeed, it has become something of a phenomenon.
The simple principle on which the site operates is hospitality exchange. It facilitates this by providing a platform on which people can offer accommodation or merely their services as a local guide, and through which discerning voyagers can contact them — all, of course, fee-free.
The site boasts more than 3 million users in more than 240 countries, which has allowed it to practically revolutionize the average backpacker’s trip.
No longer is scouring “Lonely Planet” and the Web for the cheapest hostel able to cut it as the “authentic experience.” Now, you haven’t really been there (and done it) until you’ve had sake where the locals swig it or lathered up in a public bathhouse away from the eyes of other tourists.
With a trip to Kyushu in mind less than a disorganized week ahead, it seemed the perfect opportunity to test this backpacker craze — and my chance to experience “the real Kyushu.” So I signed up on the website, and searched for hosts in Yakushima, Kagoshima and Nagasaki.
Out of the several hosts to whom I sent requests, one Yuki in Yukushima was the only respondent able to accommodate me. His profile was minimal in its content. There was a blurry picture of a man with a dog in the distance, while under types of people he enjoys it said: “d***heads”; and as for education, well, “f*** it” was his succinct criterion. I could only hope that this guy just had a skewed sense of humor.
Though we were still largely in the dark regarding Yuki’s offer, one email and phone call later Henry and I embarked unwittingly on our way. After hopping a bus at the island’s airport, we soon reached Yuki’s place — bearing cakes brought from Tokyo and several beers to break the ice. Straight off, our host let slip as we crossed the threshhold: “Tonight we will be going deer hunting. Is that okay?” Slightly bewildered but feeling either too polite or too intimidated (or both) to ask questions, I cautiously nodded our agreement.
The house, under lush overarching foliage, was set on the edge of a village and surrounded by tiny paddy fields. As well as the long-drop toilet, the bath was a lethal nightmare due to the house having no hot water on tap. Consequently, the water in the metal bath was heated by a fire below — and what faced the intrepid bather was similar in feel and look to a boiling cauldron.
The bath, though, was on the backburner for now and, and after a quick cup of tea and an introduction to two of Yuki’s friends — one of whom had a swastika tattoo on his ankle — we were shoved in a van along with a collection of baseball bats and large knives. It was at this point that it tardily crossed my mind this crew could be serial murderers: inviting foreigners to the island and then dragging them into its wilderness areas to do the unthinkable.
However — thankfully for us — they were actually just going deer hunting, though in our then mild state of panic it never occurred to us to ask if they were licenced to do so. Panic turned to horror, though, as we beheld their method — which was to drive fast round the country roads’ tight bends in order to surprise and ram any deer that hadn’t hightailed it. Once a shika had been struck, Yuki’s right-hand man would jump out and chase the injured animal with a baseball bat in the hope of finishing it off to take home for dinner.
Yuki kept this up for two hours. In that time he had sadly hit five deer, all of which had escaped a blow from right-hand man — though they could be heard wailing in the distance as they melted away into the forest.
Despite returning empty handed from what was almost certainly an unlicensed — and thus, I now realize, an illegal — hunt, Yuki still played the hospitable host and cooked the deercurry-rice he’d promised after producing a haunch of most likely road-killed venison from the freezer. If I am painfully honest, the curry was delicious and the meat was beautifully tender.
However, unnerved by the evening’s surreal events, after the meal I sprawled out on the floor surrounded by maps and bus schedules, determined to get away and go hiking. Yuki quickly pointed out that I would be barmy to embark on a trek in the rain. Instead, he said, “You two come with my friends and I tomorrow; we’ll do something and I’ll drop you off to go hiking the next day.” I was somewhat reluctant, but Henry was keen and I didn’t want to appear too uptight.
The next morning we headed out and stopped by at his friend’s house. Made of mud and camouflaged within a copse, it gave the impression of being a treehouse. Inside spoke of a rudimentary lifestyle with no running water and just enough space for a small campfire in the middle to cook on. The house had been built by a couple from Argentina who left it to the free-spirited people of Yakushima to occupy. The current occupiers, Saori and Eisuke, had been living there for six months, but were hoping to move on to Okinawa soon. They too, like Yuki, were unemployed and seemed to get by doing odd jobs and living a thrifty lifestyle.
After reminiscing over a cup of tea about a trip to Amsterdam, Yuki and his friends decided to go on a mushroom-picking jaunt. As they rummaged in the farmer’s field, Henry and I stood on the sidelines — but were told to shout if the farmer came out with his van.
Upon our return, Saori slaved away finely chopping the mushrooms and many cloves of garlic to create quite a nice aroma over the fire for their mushroom omelette. The finished product looked far from the egg omelette I had envisaged, but more of a gray mush.
Nonetheless, Yuki gobbled up his portion, snapped his fingers, and declared that we must be off to a memorial service being held for a friend who had tragically died in river rapids earlier in the summer. And, surprise, surprise, he added: “It’s a hippie village where we’re going.”
The memorial was taking place in an apartment above a ramshackle cowshed. I climbed the ladder to find people passing around what smelled and looked like sweet-smelling hand-rolled cigarettes while swaying in a circle to the drumbeats. It was akin to being in the Himalayan foothills, where yoga and Buddhist spiritualism are the norm and everyone has dreaded hair and is clad in loose, flowing clothes.
Henry and I awkwardly swayed as we attempted to “feel the moment.” Most people were talkative, but Yuki and his friends looked like they’d been tranquilized, which made conversation limited. Then a bit later, it was no big thing for them to just curl up there for the night — for us it came as another unpleasant surprise to have to sleep on the bare floorboards among fish bones and scraggy, wailing cats.
The next morning, despite being called “crazy” and “insane” because of the continuing rain, Henry and I insisted on escaping Yuki’s grasp to find the numerous ancient cedars we had heard about — perhaps even the oldest one in the world, the so-called Jomon Cedar that’s thought to have been a sapling around 5,000 B.C.
However, despite our eagerness to leave that strange society, our determination to seek out aged cedar trees soon wore off when the rain started seeping through our coats as we climbed on up slippy forest tracks.
Our plan had been to stay overnight in one of the unmanned mountain huts, but in view of the weather, a warm hotel and a hot-spring onsen bath had now come to sound much more appealing.
Notwithstanding our surely unique experience, couch-surfing is a growing business. In 2011, CouchSurfing.com was bought by a venture capitalist firm for $7.5 million — presumably to squeeze revenue out of the previously not-for-profit setup.
Many competitors — including Airbnb.com — have sprung up offering similar services. Valued at a not-unwhopping $1 billion in light of $112 million investors paid for a 10 percent stake in summer 2011, what Airbnb.com offers is billed as “sophisticated couch-surfing” — and yes, it allows hosts to charge a fee for use of their accommodation.
There is also Tripping.com, a relative newcomer which offers a similar service to couch-surfing, but enables video chats for hosts to interview prospective guests. It makes for a crowded marketplace in which many more travelers will hopefully be able to find unexpected and probably unforgettable experiences — though hopefully not of the Yuki persuasion.
Getting there: Flights between Tokyo and Kagoshima with Skymark Airlines are around ¥11,000 each way. A return ferry to Yakushima from Kagoshima is ¥7,400. For more information and to find your host the way we did, visit www.couchsurfing.com.