It's difficult to use the word
"untouched" in Japan, a land where nature always seems
to get a little "improvement" at the hands of man. But,
the southern paradise of Yakushima can truly be described as untouched.
Kate Crockett explores the virgin forests and ancient cedars of
this Unesco World Heritage listed island.
The dining room chatter at Yakushima youth hostel
is on one general theme what physical exertions people have
undergone that day. Some have been diving, others caving and some
gorge scambling or climbing. But, time and time again the conversation
returns to what most people have come to the island for the
Yakusugi Yakushima's celebrated, world heritage listed, ancient
cedar trees. More specifically, one tree is under discussion
the Joomon Sugi the oldest cedar tree in the world.
Less than four hours by ferry and a short hop
by air from Kagoshima, Yaskushima is a hikers' paradise. Its mountainous
interior is criss-crossed with picturesque trails through ancient
forests and foaming river valleys, of the kind that inspired Miyazaki
Haiyao's animation Princess Mononoke. The youth hostel is, as always,
packed to the rafters, and in our six-mat room already accommodating
five it looks like the next person to arrive is going to
be sleeping in the oshire, Doraemon style. Many are here on a two-night,
three-day package which includes a guided hike to the Joomon Sugi,
for around 24,000 yen. It's a convenient package for those workers
making the most of their three-day annual leave, but it is possible
to visit Yakushima and, indeed, hike to the Joomon Sugi on your
own steam for a lot less.
The JNTO information in English advises that "it
is recommended for a beginning climber to have a guide" and
that "it is preferred to have full mountain gear". Well,
my full mountain gear consisted of trainers (sneakers), a raincoat
and plastic trousers from the 100yen shop. Other essentials
in my backpack were Choco-pie, Pocky, a bottle of lemon iced tea,
a camera and lots of film, and a bento conveniently delivered
to me on the bus ride up to the hike starting point. I had also
registered my hike with the hostel manager and would check in on
my safe return.
Arriving by bus at Arakawa tozanguchi at 6:25am
you'll be just in time to join the lengthy queue for the toilets.
It's about this time that many of the tour groups set off, so make
it a quick stop, as this is the best opportunity to get ahead of
the hordes. Abandon your map if you've been fortunate enough
to find one in English you can't go wrong on this trail.
For the first two hours it follows a railway track once used by
loggers cashing-in on Yakushima's valuable natural resource. Picturesque
narrow bridges span the Arakawa as the track snakes up the valley,
giving rise to some fantastic photo opportunities.
About 30 minutes into the hike is the first point
of interest en route: Kosugi Dani, a former settlement which was
home to more than 500 loggers and their families, from the 1920s
until logging was banned here in the 1970s. It's a nice spot to
stop for breakfast. Sleeper by sleeper the trail weaves deeper into
the forest, past the gateway to a path leading into the mountains
to Miyonaura-dake the island's highest point and passing
the first notable giant cedar the Sandaisugi a third
generation tree which has grown over the stumps of the first two
trees. But even this tree is a staggering 500 years old.
After two hours of looking down at your feet,
watching your step on the inconveniently spaced rail sleepers, your
neck will be thankful for the break at the Ookabu Hodoo Iriguchi
the entrance to the Great Stump Path. Here you can also take
a quick toilet break remember, those tour groups will be
hot on your heels.
A flight of narrow wooden steps followed by a
few metres of rock-scrambling signals the second stage of the hike,
and it's all uphill from here on in. Don't despair if you haven't
got the protective gloves handed out as standard-issue to the tour
groups, you really don't need them unless you're worried
about breaking your nails.
The initial scrambling gives way to a series of
convenient wooden platforms and paths zig-zagging through the forest.
In places these are replaced by the natural steps of the sprawling
tree roots and fossil bearing-rocks, worn smooth by the scores of
boots tramping over them daily. Along the path there are puddles
to jump and small streams to traverse, but the variety makes for
any interesting hike.
cavernous Wilson's Stump is about a third of the way up. This hollow
cedar stump is worn, rotten and mysterious its sprawling
roots carpet the clearing in every direction and it is so big you
could fit at least 20 people. There is a shrine inside and a stream
disappearing into a hollow with a loud echo. The worm's-eye view
up through the roof into the towering forest laves a real impression
of the size of these extraordinary trees.
For the final hours' climb, the trail is peppered
with impressive cedars, such as the grand Daioosugi (Big King)
a staggering 3000 years old and and the husband and wife
cedar, with their curious connecting branch that seems to neither
begin nor end at either tree. The wife is slightly younger than
her husband, at a youthful 1500 years compared to his 2000.
Excited murmurs and a crowd of people announce
your arrival at the extraordinary Joomon Sugi - scientifically proven
to be at least 2600 years old, and thought to be up to 7200 years
old judging by its size. Its knotted trunk and gnarled branches
curl their way upwards, while lush-green, new growth sprouts in
every direction. This tree has seen the entire forest evolve around
it and it is breathtaking.
It is possible to be back in Kosugi Dani within
four hours albeit with very wobbly legs where you
can have a well-earned, refreshing paddle in the cool waters of
the Arakawa. After the bridge, take the path down the riverbank
and hop over the magnificent spherical boulders into the centre
of this spectacular gorge. From there, it's a short scoot back to
Arakawa Tozan Guchi and, if you've timed it right, to the 5pm bus
back to civilisation and a hot steaming bath.