Finally, at long last! I made it to the green island of Yakushima, tucked snugly away below Kyushu in the South of Japan. It’s a chunk of land covered mostly in sugi (cedar) trees, and awesomely huge ones at that, with sage-old weathered limbs gnarled and warped bearing thickets of leaves, all the way up to the highest point on the island – one massive climb at 1935m!
Now designated a World Heritage site, it is said to rain 35 days a month, and as such is pretty much a fantasy land for moss-lovers like myself. The wet greenery sparkles and twinkles; it glistens and glows around you, even along the well-trodden tourist routes. This is one heck of a forest, and if I may be cliché about it, really did contain something magical that captured me. It was every bit as beautiful as I pictured it. But enough fantastical waffle. You want pictures! And stories! Right? Read on…
I should add, most pictures are taken by me on my Ricoh GX100 (superb little compact digital camera!) as well as some photos by my friends Ikumi and Yuhei on their own digital cameras.
Day 1 – Shiratani Unsuikyo
2nd September 2008
A 3.30am start. Myself, my host sister Ikumi and host brother Yuhei left the house in Kumamoto in the dark of the early morning and began on our way. We were to reach the port in Kagoshima by 6am, locking up the car in the parking area and going to wait inside the main building. A lazy atmosphere enveloped us there, with a few small shopkeepers beginning preparation for the day, laying out the newspapers and boxes of souvenir manjuu and rice crackers and wheeling out the stands adorned with Hello Kitty trinkets and Yakushima-related phone straps. I browsed them for a while killing time, imagining what grand sights awaited me on the not-so-distant island that could inspire the sale of miniature plastic tree trunks to hang on one’s phone.
The waiting room was facing out onto the sea, dotted with a few small boats, fishermen and a hefty jet-foil (Toppy) awaiting our departure. The early morning sun cast rays of light onto the water, so that they reflected onto the ceiling of our waiting room and danced curiously above us. Slowly, more and more sleepy people began to take the seats around us, their attention fixated on the lonely television screen held aloft at the front of the room or their morning papers. Fukuda was announcing his sudden resignation as the Japanese Prime Minister.
It wasn’t long before we boarded and took our seats, packed snugly together on the ground floor of the boat. I wasn’t best pleased at the tinned-sardine-like setup, so I quickly moved myself to the adjacent side to settle in peace and play on my Nintendo DS. To get myself in the mood I played Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, which basically involves a lot of sailing and island exploration. There weren’t any huge talking trees in this one though, much to my disappointment. I figured I’d have to wait until I came face-to-face with Jomon-sugi to do that. Jomon-sugi is popularly known as the oldest tree on the island; an estimated 2000-7000 years old up very high in the mountains. You won’t be hugging this beast either – it has a trunk circumference of 16.4m!
After a brief stop and a glimpse of some jellyfish surrounding our boat (alas, I wasn’t in time to snap a picture), we ploughed on to Yakushima. Once there, we hired a rental car, snagged a load of leaflets for the island and popped into a nearby shop to rent hiking boats for Ikumi. Before long we were trailing the mountain roads up towards a brilliant blue sky and marvelling at the wilderness around us. Nothing but sea and trees, cut apart by a few winding roads disappearing into the foliage. How on earth they managed to build these roads is beyond me, it must have taken a long time… Yuhei made an interesting observation along the way, that there were two visibly different types of trees covering the mountains at different heights. I would never have noticed! It was cool having him along as he studies about plants at PhD level and as such has an insanely large amount of knowledge about them!
Due to the large amount of tourists that Yakushima gets, wooden boardwalks and staircases have been constructed at various points along the way. I guess this prevents soil erosion and helps protect the exposed roots of trees from the heavy feet of walkers. This was especially true of the route to Jomon-sugi (the second day). The route through Shiratani Unsuikyo to Mononoke Hime no Mori (the Forest of Princess Mononoke – said to be the inspiration for the Miyazaki film of the same name) was a fairly tame one, but still a challenging uphill stroll at at points. Oh, and it was wet. Wet, wet, wet. Not that this was a bad thing. Actually, I’d feel a little odd if I went to Yakushima and had no rain after all I’d read about it.
Being in the forest meant we were sheltered from most of the heavy rain, but everything was damp and slightly humid. Even wearing our waterproof coats didn’t help us much because it was too hot inside them, meaning we sweated. There was little option but to get wet then, but in a way this was good. It felt like I was being assimilated in the vastness of nature. Drop after drop, I let my hair get soaked until it stuck to my head and water trickled down my face.
Okay, so fundamentally I’m weird and I like rain, but it really felt something sublime to be consumed by all that moisture. It made me realise once more that the planet is alive. It becomes so easy to think that all the trees and other plants we see everyday are just ‘part of the landscape’ and to take them for granted. But come here and you’re in the middle of a living, breathing ecosystem that has been this way for thousands of years. It’s easy to why Miyazaki pictured spirits and tree sprites living here, as the place feels so untouched and still at times that you wonder what’s watching you. Because something definitely is. If it weren’t for the other walkers to keep you company it might even get a little spooky…
Our path through the forest was intersected several times by mountain streams. Usually the flow was very gentle and nothing but a mere puddle to step in, but sometimes we caught glimpses of minature waterfalls and pools full of crystal-clear water that had collected there. Boulders of all sizes lined our route, aged grey and covered with a musky green moss. When the sun got the better of the rain, we were treated with fantastic paintings – scenes of green and brown with dashes of filtered golden sunlight and black shadows between the boughs of fallen trees.
Musky green rocks and delicate mountain streams weren’t all! Occasionally we’d come across something even more alien – orange trees! I actually missed this on my way around (probably because I was off excited about some fabulous moss somewhere), but the Yuhei-cam got this next shot. It shows a gnarled tree root entwined with a fallen log. Rather strange. And what’s with that colour?
Apart from the odd couple clad in rainbow-coloured waterproofs, we didn’t meet many people at all on our walk up. Perhaps because we took the longer, scenic route? But once at the rest hut (in which you can stay overnight, although it did smell quite bad due to the realities of a natural toilet), we found groups of people. I didn’t enjoy hanging around the crowds, so we quickly ploughed on to reach the area signposted ‘Mononoke Hime no Mori’, snapped the standard pictures and began back down. I guess the crowds were inevitable at points and although a little disappointing, the moments of soiltude more than made up for it.
You’ve read this far and I haven’t yet shown you any grand cedar trees! There were several along the route, but me being engrossed in the moss kept forgetting to snap good pictures of them. Yuhei didn’t fare any better, busying himself with alien roots and the wandering deer in the forest. In any pictures I did take of the towering giants, I forgot the most important part – the person. I’d forgotten one of the most basic points in photography; when taking pictures of big objects, include a subject or well-known smaller object to bring the size into perspective. Luckily Ikumi was on hand to fill the gap! Behold!
And that one was only a baby tree of several hundred years, if I remember correctly. Here’s another collossus:
Ho hoo…I almost forgot one of my favourite discoveries of the day. Can you guess? Well, yes, the deer were nice. No, I didn’t spot any Yakushima monkeys today. Any more? No! But a frog would have made my day! Alas, I didn’t see one. Okay, here it is:
And a closer look:
Not impressed? Well, after seeing green, green and dark green for most of the walk, I was overjoyed to spot such a colourful little fungus. It made my day.
We spent the evening relaxing in the Youth Hostel and planning the specifics for our next day’s walk. It was to be a tough one – up to see the Jomon-sugi and back again, with time to spare for a dragonflies, wooden jellyfish and a huge waterfall. And did I mention the stump with a hidden heart? Read on!
Day 2 – The iron road to Jomon-sugi
3rd September 2008
Today was the *big one*. The daddy of them all. The Jomon-sugi. It was always going to be a bit of a let-down after the wonders of forest yesterday and for all the hype it’s received, but the treck certainly wasn’t a disappointment. It was long though; about 4 hours there and 2 or 3 back, with some serious staircases to navigate!
The road to Jomon-sugi is made up of two parts. More than half of it is along a disused railway track, originally set down for carrying logs back down the mountain when it was still legal to perform logging here. The other half is a struggle, up steep slopes to reach the misty spot where the tree sleeps. Fortunately (or not so, depending on your take), the second half of the path is mostly wooden stiarcases. How these were build so far up is beyond me, but without them it would be a muddy, treacherous scramble to the top. It also does wonders for the soil and tree roots, and doesn’t ruin the atmosphere as the stairs are made of wood.
It was about 5.00am before we left from the starting point of Arakawa dam, and there were plenty of people already there when we arrived. All sorts of people would be climbing with us, including a group of 60-year-old ladies all singing merrily and carrying hiking sticks! Try as we may, we couldn’t quite get the same feeling of tranquility as yesterday as we constantly keep meeting other walkers. But still, some things were better, including the most awesome dawn rays of light that I have ever seen or photographed myself. 木漏れ日 it’s called, in Japanese. ‘Light filtering from beind the trees’. Spectacular.
Most of the first half of the walk was relaxed and uneventful, save for the few breathtaking scenes like the one above. The real forest began once we reached the end of the railroad and took a steep right, heading up into the dense forest. Our first stop was Wilson’s stump, the remains of a huge cedar which is believed to have fallen naturally many years ago. Go inside the stump and you’ll see it has an open top, looking out onto the heavens. But a well-known secret (at least in the Japanese magazines offering trips to Yakushima) is the heart-shape one can find there. When I first walked in and looked up, I was disappointed.
Wait a minute… If I squint my eyes and turn my head this way..? No? How about looking through my legs backwards? It wasn’t happening. Armed with my tripod (which came in *very* handy for getting good shots in the shadowy forest), I was determined to seek out the heart that I’d seen pictured in the magazines. At last I found it, at a very low angle viewpoint in the corner of the stump. Thank goodness for the 24mm wide-angle lens on my Ricoh GX100. I really could have done with an 18mm though…
Chugging on, we all got separated, going at our own paces. Yuhei disappeared off into the distance and I left Ikumi behind in my walking. We would occasionally meet up when stopping and starting, usually from taking pictures, and again at the mid-point of our walk when we finally reached Jomon-sugi after several hours. I was glad Ikumi was there, as she came through with another good comparison shot of me and the Jomon having a one-to-one. (Actually, in the picture I am trying in vain to dry and keep my camera from dying as the rain splished-sploshed down harder than ever…)
And another, successful shot of mine after many attempts in the rain. The clouds were descending and it was getting awfully misty at this point. But it made the old tree look even wiser than before. Although a grand sight to behold in itself, it was more of a ‘we made it’ than ‘wow, it’s amazing!’ feeling when we arrived.
I’d have liked to continue onto the summit, but we wouldn’t make it there and back down again in the same day. Yuhei did have a try though, mistakenly thinking we were going further than we were. He did have great luck in being able to see a huge toad on his own little adventure which I shall be forever envious about. Here is the whopper:
Ikumi and I were much busier skygazing as the rain finally quelled and we munched on bread and snacks brought for lunch. An eerie sight greeted us; more alien appendages and twisted limbs breaching the white sky:
Here is another brilliant shot of Yuhei’s that I couldn’t leave out. I love the composition, the mist and the mystery it captures in the forest. I was tempted to use this as my cover image, only it’s not green enough to symbolise Yakushima ^^;.
Trudging back down the mountain was more of an ordeal than a sampling of the delights of the forest. By now our legs were groaning and we were just a little too moist for comfort. The amount of walkers doubled and tripled, meaning lots of waiting for large groups to pass us on the way down. If there was only one real downside to the whole trip I would have to say it was this. As the locals complain, there are too many tourists that come to see the great trees.
Despite the rain having calmed down, my camera was now crying from me having got it so wet and refused to focus properly for a while. The LCD also went funny around the edges, but luckily went back to normal once dry. For the final picture taken in the forest, I had to put up Ikumi’s nice shot of one of the deer freely roaming around.
It was around 3.00pm by the time we sat down in the car and breathed an exhausted sigh of relief. Despite being an easy-to-navigate walk and having plenty of time, it was still not a stroll in the park! But however exhausted we were, the day was not over yet. I’d read about a tiny little shop called ‘Flowers‘ somewhere on the South of the island selling hand-made goods (click on the link for the cute website). They are all created by one lady who lives on Yakushima and uses the wood of naturally-fallen Yakushima cedar trees to make all manner of necklaces, braclets and other small ornaments.
The shop caught my eye in the guidebook I was carrying as the logo was a jellyfish! How could I resist nabbing one of these little fellas?
From there it was onto Ohko-no-taki, a tremendous waterfall further around the island. I tell you, the spray from sitting at the bottom of it was marvellous! So refreshing I could have sat there all day, had I not spotted movement above me. High in the sky, silhouetted against a vivid blue backdrop were dozens of dragonflies! Was it their mating season or something, or do they naturally conglomerate above waterfalls? It was a pretty startling sight to see!
And one more bit of wildlife. A little blurred, but a trip wouldn’t be complete without a Yakuzaru sighting! Apparently they have sharp teeth. Not this little fella’ surely?
That pretty much brought day 2 to a close. We were off diving the next day, so we had a cheap okonomiyaki dinner and crashed into bed at the Youth Hostel for our last night.
Day 3 – Diving around Yakushima
4th September 2008
Just a half today today, but enough time to get some diving in! I hadn’t been diving for several years, after being put off by a painful experience some years ago because I couldn’t clear my ears properly (most likely due to a cold at the time). But the time was ripe for another plunge! Ikumi and Yuhei hadn’t dived before, so we signed up to a nearby dive school with a discount from the Youth hostel and got picked up about 8.30am.
Our instructor, Kanno-san gave us the hour briefing, running through safety measures and basic hand signals, before we donned our wetsuits and tried fitting our masks. We even got special Japanese-style gardening gloves to wear in the sea to avoid injury! He told us there are some pretty dangerous sea slugs in there :P. Perhaps the coolest thing though was the board he brought to write on. Why I haven’t seen this being used on my previous scuba diving tries is beyond me. It’s much like one of those old etcher-sketchers that you write on with a ‘pen’ and slide a bar down the side to erase it. So Kanno-san used it to write amusing messages to us underwater and explain some of the things we were seeing.
There was an abundant of life around the bay. We saw 3 types of sea slug – one of which looked and acted just like a lump of charcoal the size of a banana. The second one – the ‘dangerous’ one – shoots a suggestive white goo when squeezed. Kanno-san warned us not to try it – get the end wrong and the white stuff with not come off! Yet he proceeded to squeeze it anyway until it let off an angry burst. The last of the sea slugs didn’t look like it was alive at all. It was a tube. About the size of two rulers long, stretchy and hollow. I would have thought it a piece of seaweed, had it not stuck to me with its little spines when I handled it!
Aside from sea slugs, we saw plenty of fish, including a little bit of coral and its resident clownfish, none too happy at me coming closer. It stared me right in the face as it defended its nest! Downright grumpy it looked too! I also saw a small shoal of baracuda-looking fish (apparently of the same family as the baracuda), a puffer fish (which disappointingly swam off in the other direction rather than puffing up for me…) and lots of colourful fishes swimming around. One other interesting creature was called the ‘Christmas Tree Worm’ which comes in a variety of colours and sits popping itself out of rocks. When you go to touch it, it suddenly shoots back inside its hole! So cool ^_^. Take a look at the image I found below:
The dive was over before I knew it and I am left eager to do it again as soon as possible. I did also manage to pick up a souvenir too! An uninhabited, really pretty shell about 3cm long. Kanno-san remarked that it was typical of a diver’s find, as the colours and structure were still in great condition. Most shells that wash up on the beach are white or damaged because of clashing with other debris.
Before our ride home, we had time to spend in the gift shops and to grab lunch. We checked out of the Youth Hostel and walked to the nearby shop to quell our appetites. Seeing as I’d come this far, I splashed out my last yen on a surprisingly cheap but tasty 飛び魚 (tobiuo – flying fish). The sashimi was very good, but I was a little surprised when I looked behind the decorative leaf to find its big eye staring back at me! Definitely recommended if anyone reading this is going to Yakushima!
So that about brings this adventure to a close. I for one was extremely satisfied with Yakushima and am eager to go again in the future. Great hiking, great diving and amazing sights. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it. Next time I’ll have to take the road less travelled by and see what I can discover for myself.
As a final note, check out this website. The guy paints great fantasy pictures of Yakushima and Jomon-sugi. He calls himself the 縄文じいさん (Grandfather Jomon) and captures the imagination Yakushima inspires very well I think ^^. Visit his website: Jomon artwork