We stare at the tree. Its gnarled and knotted trunk only hints at a history that stretches back almost 2,000 years. At its base it is eight metres around, and its branches stretch higher than 20 metres towards the light that comes from a break in the forest canopy. According to the sign near the tree, the Buddhasugi (or Buddha cedar) has 10 other plants living on it. It is its own community.
We are on one of the shorter trails in Yakusugi Land, a 270-hectare nature reserve sitting at 1,000 to 1,300 metres above sea level on the island of Yakushima, part of the O¯sumi group. The only places further south in Japan are the Satsunan Islands and Okinawa. It means this tiny outcrop of land with its soaring mountains has an enticing number of ecosystems, from subtropical rainforest near the coastline to subarctic moors. For much of the year, its highest peaks are capped with snow.
These cedar forests, once a valuable source of roofing shingles but protected for the past six decades, are Yakushima’s most famous natural feature. Some of the trees are thousands of years old – from here in Yakusugi Land you can take a 12-hour round-trip trek to the 7,000-year-old Jamonsugi – but this one is revered.
“They say the enlightened can see Buddha in the tree,” says guide Cameron Joyce. I squint and look closer. “I can see a pug,” he says, pointing to a twist in the trunk.
“It looks a bit like the creature that bursts out of people in Alien,” I tell him. Fair to say there’s a long way for me to go in the enlightenment department.
We amble off and stop to study a huge stump, one of the relics of long-ago logging. It is covered in mosses of different varieties, tiny ferns and scurrying insects. It’s as if a miniature forest has sprouted in the space of less than a square metre.
“Look behind you,” Cameron tells me. “See those two trees? They were planted when this one was cut down.” Even a hundred years ago, the loggers understood the importance of protecting this environment. And it has paid off in spades.
“There are about 600 species of moss here, so the Princess Mononoke animators used 600 different shades of green [in the film] to recognise that,” Cameron tells me. Studio Ghibli’s ties to the island have been one of the drawcards for the 300,000 or so tourists who arrive here each year.
“Ninety per cent of the tourists are Japanese,” he continues. “Westerners are a bit of a combination. Some hike, others dive, but there are also the comic book dorks who know about the island’s connection to Studio Ghibli.”
We are circumnavigating the island by car, a journey that, should you decide to tackle it without stopping, can take three hours. It’s only about 130 kilometres around, but there’s plenty to take in along the way, including the island’s two towns. Most people live in Miyanoura, but even during mid-afternoon its streets are quite deserted. Anbo, close to the hotel where I am based, is even smaller, but has a few restaurants and stores, including the island’s oldest craft business, Kashima Kougei, where woodcarvers work their magic on fallen cedar.
Considering the sparse population it’s a surprise to stop at Ohko-no-taki Waterfall and find a busload of kindergarteners – boys in blue shorts, girls in red – has beat us to it. With their teacher in the lead, they scramble across rocks towards the almighty torrent of water. As they squeal and tussle, we follow the path back towards a deserted beach covered in black stones. Kites soar above the waves, the cloudless sky a vivid blue behind them.
The locals joke that it rains 35 days a month on Yakushima, but the weather during early autumn is spectacular. Down by one tiny port, the warm water has the clarity of vodka. A man is sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of the concrete, basking in the sun and staring out to sea. Another is on his boat organising his fishing lines. My decision to leave my swimmers at home was a big mistake.
About 90 per cent of the land on Yakushima is protected, but some of it was given World Heritage status in 1993. Of course, there are plenty of regions in Japan that have achieved the UNESCO tick of approval, however most are recognised for their cultural and historical significance; Yakushima is one of the few identified for its natural splendour. While there are about 1,900 species of plants here, 94 of them are endemic. There are also four endemic mammals, including a macaque known as Yakuzaru and a species of sika deer. These two beasts are unexpectedly good buddies and, because they have no natural predators, neither gives a good goddamn about people and their cars.
We come around a bend in the road to find a family of macaques sprawled across the bitumen picking through each other’s thick coats. A lone deer walks among them.
“I once saw a male deer walking back and forward in front of three teenage monkeys,” Cameron tells me as we sit in the car observing them. “I thought, ‘He wants them to jump on his back,’ so I started filming on my phone and, sure enough, one of the monkeys jumped on to the deer and started grooming it.”
Lest you think him a fibber, it’s not at all uncommon and many locals tell similar stories. Pity none of them bother to warn the long-distance cyclists who decide to take on the island circuit about the monkeys. As we’re observing them, a bike rider appears in the rear-vision mirror.
“They don’t like bikes very much,” says Cameron. “Probably because bikes are quiet and sneak up on them a bit. We’ll just wait here a minute and see if this gets interesting.”
It doesn’t, but my guide has a wicked sense of humour, which is probably not completely unexpected. Cameron is originally from Rotorua, but has lived in Japan for years, first in Tokyo but then on the island when his wife became pregnant and they couldn’t imagine bringing up a child in the city.
Friends of his, who were hired to carry out a search and rescue mission on neighbouring volcanic Kuchinoerabu Island, told him about Yakushima and its incredible hiking. He organised a solo eight-day trek soon after and by the end of the first day was making plans to move here.
It is rather like a tiny version of New Zealand – rugged landscape, rainforest, gorgeous beaches with black sand on one side of the island and white sand on the other. DNA tests have also revealed that the oldest inhabitants of the islands are related to Polynesians. “Japanese people don’t really know about that, but it means I don’t get too homesick,” Cameron says.
We wind up our day with organic matcha soft serve at a teashop called Hachimanjyu Chaen, and a local tip for dinner: friends of Cameron’s own a bar called Riverside Cafe Sanpotei.
Louis Armstrong is playing when I walk in. There are thousands of CDs piled in both rooms and the barman hands over an English menu. The local delicacy in these parts is tobiuo (flying fish). The evening before I’d had it fried as part of the expansive set dinner at Yakushima Green Hotel. “Don’t eat the head or the bones,” the waiter had told me as he set it on the table. He seemed impressed when he came back and I’d demolished not just the fish’s body but also its fins and tail, leaving just the head and backbone. (Not quite as impressed as when I ate a small bowl of ‘turtles’ feet’, which are, in fact, a type of goose barnacle called kamenote.)
Flying fish is caught seasonally by fleets of two or more boats. Often men will jump into the water to set the fish ‘flying’ into nets stretched between the vessels. At Santopei, flying fish comes in fishcake form. There’s also juicy fried chicken and cocktails created using local liqueurs made from passionfruit and the big, sweet oranges called tankan.
The following morning, armed with nothing more than some scant instructions on how to catch the bus, I head towards Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine. As the bus labours slowly towards the snow line, I count eight other visitors on board, but they quickly disperse once we arrive at the ticket stand.
The Yayoisugi cedar trail is practically deserted. At first all I can hear is the thundering river, but it soon fades into the background. With no one coming up behind me, I decide to slow right down, taking in the sights, smells and sounds of my surroundings.
Although the forest is immense, you begin to see the details – the way the sun backlights moss on a stump, the glimmering web of an orb spider moving in the breeze, a single azalea bloom that hasn’t realised it’s November – when you slow your pace to a virtual crawl. The trickling of water fades, but I occasionally hear a crash in the bush. No matter how hard I look, I can’t see anything, and start to suspect the kodama (tree spirits) people talk about here are real.
Finally I reach the Yayoisugi. It’s growing sideways out of the hillside but has warped towards the sunlight. It is thought to be 3,000 years old, which I calculate in a more human way. If there is a new human generation, say, every 30 years, this tree has outlasted more than a hundred of them. Contemplate that, I think to myself before heading back down the mountain.
AirAsia flies from Australia to Tokyo Haneda Airport via Kuala Lumpur. From there, take an ANA flight to Kagoshima, and the Tane Yaku Jetfoil from Kagoshima New Port to either Miyanoura or Anbo. You can book tickets with Direct Ferries.
Overlooking the ocean and on the outskirts of Anbo, Yakushima Green Hotel has Western-style rooms, but book one of the spacious tatami rooms, complete with balcony, for a proper taste of the local lifestyle. The hotel has manicured gardens, indoor bathing facilities and a gift shop. Dinner here, a kaiseki affair that includes sashimi, shabu-shabu and local flying fish, is a must-do, but needs to be booked in advance. Double rooms start at about AU$240 a night, including a Japanese-style breakfast.