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Jan 2004
Issue 044

KS Classifieds combined with Kansai Scene this issue!


Yakushima

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.

The 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.


Text & Photos: Kate Crockett

NEW! :: CINEMA LISTINGS

Up to date cinema listings guide so you always know what's on, where and when!

NEW! :: EVENT LISTINGS

Festivals, performances, shows, gallery openings...your guide to what's coming up in the next few weeks.

:: FEATURE

Hard Knock Life
The Midori group peers thrugh the tarpaulins of Kyoto's homeless community.

:: TRAVEL

Ski Suki?
The lowdown on some of the best ski resorts in Japan for folks who want to get a jump on the ski season.

:: STYLE

Beauty by Coro
Time to dress up for the holiday season.

:: SPORT

J Soccer Monthly Review
Soccerphile.com's Sanborn Brown on the latest action in Japanese soccer.

:: TECH

Top games on the horizon
The lowdown on what's hot and what's going to be in the gaming world.


:: FOOD & DRINK

Outback Grill
Sizzling steaks and blooming onions in Umeda.

Kitahorie's Covent Garden Social Club
A Canadian Cheers in the middle of Kitahorie.

:: NEWS

Some of the news you won't see printed elsewhere, plus the best of the rest.

:: ART

Ikko Tanaka retrospective and Angkor Wat rubbings, plus other art listings for December.

:: LIVE

Ya La Tengo, John Mayer, Clarence Gatemouth and many more incoming live acts...

:: CLUB

ELLEN ALLIEN vs DJ MAYURI @ Club Two, Carl Cox @ Under Lounge and more...

:: FILM

Pixars' Finding Nemo, the much anticipated The Last Samurai and many more...

:: PROFILE

William Kremer A member of the Midori Group, and co-director of "Kyoto Poverty".


Not to miss in Yakushima

Hirauchi kaichu onsen
Low-tide reveals this marvelous seaside onsen and, for two hours either side of that, you can enjoy a hot bath with the waves crashing on the rocks and cool sea spray. This place really comes into its own at night when you can gaze at the sky awash with stars - even the shooting kind. Night bathing also has obvious advantages, as this is a mixed-bathing onsen. But you might want to take a torch for the walk down to it.

Shirataiunsuikyo
The inspiration for the setting of Miyazaki Haiyao's acclaimed anime Princess Mononoke, this enchanting moss-carpeted forest and valley is 800 metres up in Yakushima's interior. A series of interesting trails traverse the area on paths originally created by local clans 400 years ago. Tributaries flood the paths and there is some rock-scrambling involved, but this area really does have some of the island's most interesting hikes.

Ooko no taki
This 88m waterfall is "designated" (isn't everything here!?) one of the 100 best waterfalls in Japan and is an impressive sight. A path allows access to the base of the falls where the plunge pool also has the rather dubious accolade as "one of the 100 best bodies of water in Japan". Either way, it's a nice spot for lunch, and the pictu-resque Seibu Rindo, a narrow, winding forest road (which, thankfully, the tour buses can't manage), is not much further up the coast. Apparently it's also the best place to see the islands famous Yakushika (Yakushima deer) and Yakuzaru (Yakushima monkeys).