Yakushima Island: I Came to Meet Japan’s Oldest Living Creature
“My advice is to turn around right away,” our guide said. “We are way behind schedule and you are clearly having difficulty.”
What he said was perfectly true. My knees and ankles barely functioned. The sole of my left climbing shoe was pounding and one of my middle toes had lost feeling.
Worse still, I had trouble climbing from a moss-covered rock to tiny wooden steps without swaying like a drunk.
“I’m fine,” I lied. “I have never felt better.”
Of course, I felt deeply sorry for the guide, to deal with someone like me. If I fell and hurt myself, that would be his problem. Already this week, he had carried an injured young woman on his back for hours. I would probably double his weight.
We were on the island of Yakushima, two hours by jetfoil from Kagoshima, which is the southernmost city of Kyushu.
I came here to meet the oldest living thing in Japan, the Jomon Cedar.
It was a mission I was determined not to fail, no matter the cost in blisters, various bruises and damaged pride.
It turns out that luck was already on our side. Yakushima, thanks to its sudden rise in sea level, is the wettest place in Japan.
As the locals say, it rains 35 days a month. Torrential downpours are frequent, leading to canceled flights to and from the small airport and canceled hikes for would-be tourists, who cannot access the mountain without a permit.
Enter the world of Hayao Miyazaki
Our trip happened in the middle of the rainy season, yet—a miracle of miracles—on the day we booked our hike, not a drop of moisture fell from the sky. The deer frolicked. The monkeys were chatting. It was like stepping into the magical world of a Hayao Miyazaki movie.
In fact, the resemblance is not accidental. The great anime creator came to Yakushima in the mid-1990s and used the ancient cedars as inspiration for the mystical forest scenes in his masterpiece, Princess Mononoke.
There are several possible hiking routes to follow, ranging from gentle slopes and well-marked trails to overnight stays on the heights of the mountains, the highest in Kyushu, in order to see the sunrise.
Decision time for us came at the Wilson Stump, named after British plant hunter EH Wilson, who visited Yakushima in 1914.
All that remains of what must have been a huge tree is a cavernous hollow the size of a sumo ring. The rest was delivered in 1590 to the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who used it to rebuild a temple in Kyoto.
Inside the stump is a small shrine, a spring, and an opening that somehow resembles a heart. Looking through it confers luck in love, or so they say.
Would that also confer luck in climbing, I wondered. It is from this moment that things get very complicated.
Fit people should be able to make the round trip to Jomon Cedar in 10 hours. In the end, we got there in 13 and a half years.
Meeting with the cedar of Jomon
For the last two hours along the tram track, my feet acted independently, without any instruction from my brain. Various joints threatened to come loose. I enjoyed every minute.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Being in the presence of the Jomon Cedar is an unforgettable spiritual experience – both humbling and uplifting. This is why so many people from all walks of life and walks of life – including some like me who are in no condition to do so – make this pilgrimage.
Luckily, the great tree god was in a forgiving mood and chose to ignore my temerity.
How old is this tree?
The Jomon cedar is so called because it began its stay on the planet during the Jomon era, which spanned from 14,000 BC to 300 BC.
How old is this tree exactly? You’d have to cut the trunk to find out, and that can’t be done until the tree dies of natural causes – which may not happen for a long time.
The conservative consensus says it is “over 3,000 years old”, although more aggressive estimates put it at 7,200 years old. If the latter, it would be older than Stonehenge and the oldest pyramids.
In the first case, it would have existed before Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and King David walked the earth.
Like an aged human being, the Jomon cedar bears the marks of its long life. The trunk is gnarled and lumpy and a large branch was torn off by a typhoon a few years ago. It’s not that tall at 25.3 meters, with a trunk circumference of 16.4 meters – the body shape of a rugby prop rather than a basketball player.
Slimmer, sleeker cedars have fallen victim to the elements and, most dangerous of all, human activity.
The ancient cedars of Yakushima
About 80% of Yakushima’s ancient cedars have been felled and turned into furniture and building materials for dwellings, shrines and temples.
In the Edo period (1603-1867), the people of Yakushima paid their annual tribute to their feudal lord, the Shimadzu clan of Kagoshima, in the form of wood rather than rice, which was difficult to cultivate.
Then, after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Japanese government prioritized logging in order to build housing for the large number of people whose homes had been destroyed. There was a repeat after several Japanese cities were flat bombed in the later stages of the Pacific War.
The use of modern tools, such as power saws, meant that tree felling that would have taken weeks in the Edo period could be accomplished in hours.
The government even established a logging village of 500 people halfway up the mountain, with a school, post office and barber shop. A ‘torokko’ tram system linked the logging areas to the port, located eight kilometers away and 1200 meters above sea level.
There are images of trams racing down the mountain to sea level with lumberjacks riding mighty logs like cowboys riding broncos.
Logging stopped in the early 1970s. Nothing remains of the village which once echoed with young voices singing the moving words of the school song. The area containing the oldest trees is now a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site.
The lack of any conservation effort so far seems odd from our vantage point. But, as our guide said, in difficult times, people come before plants.
It is only when the lower and middle levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have been satisfied that society becomes concerned with the higher levels.
The survival of the ugly
Ironically, the Jomon cedar survived the two devastating phases of tree felling not because it was revered, but because it was considered worthless. Its wood was too old and twisted to support the roof of a temple or make a smooth table for a shogun’s concubine.
The same goes for the other venerable survivors – the hollow-trunked “Great King”, “Mother and Child” and “Husband and Wife” cedars, two close trees whose branches have gradually merged over the centuries.
Sometimes being ugly and uncooperative is a winning strategy.
Even so, being a cedar in Yakushima is hard work.
Island’s complex climate
Unlike neighboring Tanegashima, which is mostly flat, mountainous Yakushima is the product of an underwater eruption.
This gives it a very varied climate – as hot as Okinawa at sea level, as cold as Hokkaido at 1800 meters. Vegetation is stratified by elevation, with cedar and other trees competing in relatively narrow bands.
Volcanic rock means trees cannot sink their roots deep into the earth. Instead, the roots spread widely but into shallow soil, leaving the trees vulnerable to landslides, storms and heavy snowfalls. We saw several uprooted trees, such as the 2000 year old “Old Man Cedar” which toppled over ten years ago and now sits on the lower side on the slope with its roots hanging sadly in the air.
The Jomon Cedar still stands, dominating the area with its girth. It may have lost a branch or two, but there is new growth on its upper branches.
Civilizations came and went as the wind stirred its leaves and its thick dark trunk grew thicker and thicker.
Will our civilization be different? I would bet on the tree every time.
Pilgrims who come from so far offer the tree-god “ichi rei” – a respectful bow. All will return to their daily lives knowing that they have seen something wonderful.
Author: Peter Tasker
Find the author’s essays on JAPAN Striker on this link.