Photo/IllutrationTwo guides, front left, lead hikers down a mountainous area amid torrential rain in Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture, on May 19. (Jun Kaneko)

YAKUSHIMA, Kagoshima Prefecture--Even as local guides played a pivotal role in getting stranded hikers on Yakushima island down a mountainous area to safety, there was already talk about changing the rules on starting hikes in bad weather.

Taro Watanabe, 42, director of a Yakushima guide association, worked with other guides to assist hikers on May 19, holding onto their hands and shoulders, while waterfall-like muddy stream waters raged above their heads.

Some 314 people were stranded overnight on May 18 at a starting point on a trail to see the thousand-year-old Jomon-sugi tree and on tour buses to a government-designated forest of cedar trees and trails.

According to Watanabe, about 30 guides in total climbed to the mountainous area on Yakushima island on the day. Of these, 26 guides were at the Arakawa starting point where about 200 hikers were stranded. Watanabe himself was guiding six hikers when the bad weather hit.

In response, the guides divided assistance roles among themselves.

For three buses at the starting point, four or five members were assigned for each vehicle. A team was assigned to search for safe routes to descend, while another team exchanged information through social networking services with guides in the town office building, who also took an active role.

For female climbers, female guides were assigned to accompany them.

While some hikers reported suffering injuries such as a sprained foot or hypothermia, no major injuries were reported, thanks to the guides' assistance.

In the aftermath, a local effort to revise the criteria for guided tours on Yakushima has started, focusing on whether to conduct them even if the weather forecasts have not reached warning levels.

Under local and other rules for guides to climb the mountainous area, it is stipulated that tours are not allowed if weather advisories are issued.

As of the morning of May 17, a heavy rain warning had not been issued, but “weather information mentioning the possibility of heavy rain” was posted.

Watanabe started his tour with hikers around 5 a.m. on May 18. He saw the mention of possible heavy rain.

But he decided that the forecast for the time period of heavy rain was delayed from the day before. In addition, only light rain was falling upon his group's departure, which made him decide to continue.

Although Watanabe said he didn’t regret his decision, “I will continue to have a conflicted feeling that I led hikers into such a situation.”

On May 20, the Yakushima Tourism Association’s sub-committee for guides held an emergency management committee meeting to discuss future measures including criteria for conducting tours.

“We might need restrictions such as one to limit entering the mountains at an early stage when there is a forecast (for deteriorating weather conditions),” Koji Araki, the Yakushima mayor, said the same day.

(This article was written by Tsuyoshi Takeda and Minori Kiwaki.)