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Yakushima Island: Land of the Kami
By Catherine Pawasarat

Kami may refer to the divine, sacred, spiritual and numinous quality or energy of places and things.” 

The small isle of Yakushima separated from the larger island of Kyushu about 15,000 years ago, and significant parts of this island look as though they have not changed very much since. Though mainland Japan is still blessed with breathtaking natural scenery, more often than not pristine portions extend only to the edges of a camera frame before they are accented by electric wires or corporate signage. The many unspoiled, primeval panoramas on Yakushima are therefore all the more exquisite. Even for the stout of heart, Yakushima’s natural beauty inspires tear-welling awe. 

One of the central beliefs of Japan’s native, animistic Shinto religion is that all forms of nature – a river, a mountain, a tree, a rock -- are associated with a kami, or deity. This belief in kami forms the foundation of Japan’s nature-oriented traditional culture, as reflected in ikebana arrangements, kimono fabrics and design, poetic allusions, and so on. 

Many non-Japanese are seduced by this traditional expression of deep esteem for nature, and upon arriving in Japan, feel bewildered, awash in neon and concrete. They may wonder: Where has this erstwhile nature-loving culture gone to? 

The island of Yakushima is a soulful antidote to this troubling question. Here, the sense of kami in the mountains, rivers, stones and trees is immediately apparent. Located just a 40-minute flight away from southern Kyushu, in 1993 a tract of this small island was designated the first of Japan’s two natural World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. 

A mere 501 km2 in area, Yakushima boasts unusually high biodiversity for an island its size. This is due largely to its broad range of elevation: Yakushima is home to more than 30 mountains over 1,000 meters high, and the tallest, Miyanoura, is 1,935 meters above sea level, lending the island the nickname, “the Alps in the Ocean.” Warm and humid, some of the mountain areas receive up to 10,000 mm of rain a year. (Yakushima residents will tell you that it rains 35 days a month.) 

This means that, while you can circumnavigate the island in a car in about four hours, a three-day hike across it will take you – in a very steep, upwards direction -- from coral reef-lined beaches to sub-tropical forests, then through misty warm and cool temperate rainforests to sub-alpine grasslands. The forested continuum throughout nearly 2,000 vertical meters is regarded as the best remaining in East Asia. The ancient warm-temperate broad-leafed forests are also the best remaining example of what once covered much of southern Japan, but has fallen prey to population pressures and overabundant public works projects. 

The World Heritage area covers 107 km2, more than 20 percent of the island. “The World Heritage area is particularly steep, so though people logged the island since the Edo period [1601-1868], this part is relatively untouched,” explained Reiji Higashioka, ecological administrator at the World Heritage Center on Yakushima.

What constitutes a World Heritage site? There are four possible qualifying criteria, and Yakushima qualified under two: It was recognized as "an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and communities of plants and animals." Yakushima’s World Heritage area was also deemed to "contain superlative natural phenomenon or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance."

For the general public, Yakushima began to come into its own in the 1990s. In 1989 a jetfoil service was inaugurated between southern Kyushu and Yakushima, increasing the ease and convenience of access for tourists. Tourist numbers have nearly doubled since then. At the same time, the era of biodiversity gave context to the island’s uniqueness. According to Japan’s Environment Agency, “From a geological quirk, there are over 1,900 species of plants and trees on the island.” 

With 300 species of fern and more than 600 species of moss, much of the forests’ undergrowth is covered with a plush, radiant emerald carpet. When turning a bend in the forest paths, even a logically-minded person might find herself half-expecting to chance upon a party of faeries. In fact the abundance of moss on moist Yakushima takes much of the credit for the island’s often otherworldly fauna. Moss grows here on nearly every surface above a certain altitude, providing a fertile base for seeds to germinate and for plants and even trees to grow. Consequently, here large trees seem to balance magically atop huge boulders, hugging the stone sides with tentacle-like long roots. 

Yakushima’s natural bounty offers an array of remarkable attractions: beaches, waterfalls, wildlife (Yaku deer and macaque monkeys may be frequently seen in the forests, or even from the road) hot springs, rivers, forests, mountains and subalpine meadows. But there is no question that the local luminaries are the Yakusugi, the Yakushima cedars. 

Once revered as sacred, these Cryptomeria japonica are located in soil-poor, rocky areas with relatively little nutrients and light. The trees’ growth is stunted, resulting in twisted, bulging shapes that graphically illustrate a dynamic growth process. The grain of this wood is so tightly compacted that resin levels are extraordinarily high, and consequently the trees’ resistance to decay is legendary: Today, since cutting down Yakusugi is prohibited, wood from trees that have been lying on the forest floor for up to 300 years is used to make the wood crafts and furniture for which Yakushima is famous.

Resistance to decay also means that, though the average age of Cryptomeria japonica is 500 years, many cedars on the island exceed this. However, only cedars older than 1,000 years qualify as Yakusugi ; anything younger is a kosugi, or “little cedar.” The Yakusugi throughout the island’s forests are lovingly marked with their chief characteristics (including name, probable age, special features, sometimes with date of discovery, etc.). Names vary from the romantic “Couple Sugi” (for two giant cedars that look as though they have held hands … er, branches, for more than a millennium) to the likes of “Great King Sugi” and “Epoch Sugi.” The latter cedar’s trunk and branches are home to 40 species of plants -- large ones, not moss and mushrooms and such, but rather a cypress and rhododendrons.

Without a doubt the main attraction of the island is the Jomon Sugi, named for the Jomon period (12,000 – 200 B.C.) to which this cedar supposedly dates. Though only 25.3 meters tall, estimates of its age range from 2,170 years old (according from tests on a sample from its trunk), to 7,200 years old, judging by its gigantic 16.4-meter girth. It is arguably the world’s oldest tree. Getting to Jomon Sugi is, appropriately, a pilgrimage of sorts, as it is reached only at the end of a five-hour, 800-meters (in elevation) hike up. This is by the easy route. 

On the way there, hikers pass the Wilson stump, named for the American botanist who discovered it in the early Taisho period (1912-1926). Though felled hundreds of years ago, what’s left is still astonishing: There is space equal to ten tatami mats inside the stump, where a small brook magically appears and disappears. A diminutive shrine inside pays respects to the spirit of the tree.

Off-season visits are highly recommended. “During the summer, several hundreds of people a day go up that path to Jomon Sugi,” a local Jomon veteran (five hikes up to the old tree) related. What’s more, to get up the mountain and ensure a safe return before nightfall, the masses all have to depart at more or less the same time, between 5:30 and 6:30 am.

“It’s a problem during peak times like national holidays in May and August. If people would spread out and go to other places on the island besides Jomon Sugi, it would be fine,” said Higashioka at the World Heritage Center. Consequently, the government does not advertise the hikes to the ancient tree, and instead is trying to promote the island’s many other attractions. “We don’t yet fully understand the impact of so many people, it will take some time,” he continued. “We’re just trying to educate people so they take care of the environment.” Unlike much of Japan, the typical Yakushima visitor is an independent traveler, and numbers are restricted to the limited number of seats available on planes, jetfoils, and ferries to the island. Bus-tour hordes are not a major risk factor at this point.

Today Jomon Sugi rises in the frequent mist 10 meters or so away from a fenced viewing platform, to protect its roots and immediate environs from ardent admirers in heavy boots. On the platform in the off-season, tired strangers readily share thermoses of hot tea and snacks, compare sore joints and distances traveled, take photos. Under the ancient shadow of Jomon Sugi’s kami, friends are easily made.

After the walk down, the local onsen beckons to weary legs. Costing only 200 yen, it is built of wood and stone, similar to the baths at expensive onsen resorts on the mainland. Here, just as elsewhere on the island, locals are surprisingly friendly and talkative, and glad to share their island’s unique treasures. “I have traveled a lot, but I get to Osaka or Fukuoka or Tokyo, and I miss it here, I have to come back,” shared a local elderly woman. Indeed, Yakushima island is a special place, I assented. “No, no, I have to come back here, to this onsen. It’s one-of-a-kind,” she explained, pointing to bubbles rising from beneath the large pebbles that make up the bath floor. The hot water isn’t piped in from the nearby thermal spring, as is usually the case; The baths are built literally right on top of it.

More than perhaps anywhere else in Japan, the residents of Yakushima demonstrate the recognition that they are the custodians – not the masters – of the nature around them. Minimal signage throughout the island points out unique phenomena like stump regeneration, or gently reminds visitors to leave Yakushima’s beauty for future generations (“Please take only photos home with you.”). Tours to sea turtle nesting sites on Inakahama and Maehama Beaches -- the most significant nesting areas for loggerhead turtles in the Northern Pacific Ocean -- begin with a visit to the local museum to learn about the turtles’ awesome travels from Yakushima to as far as Mexico or Vietnam. The local museums are unusually good, and the museum designers obviously had studied modern interactive museum design, still unusual in Japan. 

Tourism provides new lifeblood for Yakushima, whose primary industries of agriculture, forestry and fisheries cannot keep its younger generations on the island. Though the resident population is only about 13,000, annual tourist visitors exceed 155,000, with 40,000 yearly on the spectacular hiking trails of Shiratani Unsui Gorge alone. “We get lots of foreigners, too, two hundred a year,” said the man selling tickets for 300 yen at the entrance. Shiratani’s trails take visitors through pristine forest, over sparkling streams and along roaring rivers. 

Somehow, developers seem to be getting it right on Yakushima. Though the name “Yakusugiland” denotes a theme-park mentality that is all too common on the mainland, in fact, this area of easy and moderate hikes through accessible, recreational-use forest is beautifully done. Kagoshima prefecture declares that it intends to dedicate Yakushima to environmental studies. With its impressive research facility and World Heritage Center, numerous quality museums and a center for environmental design, one gets the amazing feeling that it could actually happen.

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