Back to nature on Yakushima Island

by Catherine Pawasarat

If you live in urban Japan, probably the only sky you see is sliced up by powerlines; trees grow in tiny parks hemmed in by concrete buildings and polluted expressways. Whatever happened to Japan’s traditional love of nature?

You’ll find some of it on the small isle of Yakushima, where Japan practically jumps out of ancient history, back when people on this archipelago called their home a “land of the gods.”

Though Yakushima is just far-flung enough to make it off the beaten path, its unique ecology is internationally renowned. In 1993, UNESCO selected about a quarter of the island as the first natural World Heritage site in Japan. (Today, there is one other, the Shirakami beech forest in northern Honshu.)

The island is a compact 501 square km (you can circumnavigate it by car in about four hours if you’re not tempted to stop and explore on the way). But it has unusually high mountains, with the tallest, Miyanoura, at 1,935 meters above sea level.

The mountainous nature of Yakushima was what saved its primeval forests. Parts of the island were simply too steep or otherwise inaccessible to make logging worthwhile.

The sharp variations in elevation also make for lots and lots of rain — some areas get around 1,000 cm annually — and a diversity of ecosystems that is unusual in such a small area. A hiker climbing upward will encounter, in this order, enchanting coral-edged beaches, sub-tropical forests, warm and cool temperate rainforests, and sub-alpine grasslands.

There are some scenic trails of varying difficulty throughout the Shiratani Unsui Gorge — clear streams rushing between gargantuan boulders alternate with uninterrupted forest land, where you can catch a glimpse of the occasional deer or macaque.

But what Yakushima is really known for is its Yakusugi, the giant cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) that are more than 1,000 years old.

The Yakusugi were once revered as deities, and it’s easy to see why. Growing high up on the mountainsides in rocky soil, exposed to harsh winter winds and little light, these wide-girthed trees are gnarled and bulging, as though every centimeter of growth was hard-won.

The island celebrity tree is Jomon Sugi (cedar), named after the Jomon Period (12,000-2,000 B.C.), to which some believe the tree dates. It could be the world’s oldest tree — estimates of its age range from 2,170 years to 7,200 years old. To protect the tree’s roots and water supply, visitors view the ancient tree from a viewing platform about 10 meters away.

The hikes to Jomon Sugi take from five hours to three days, depending on where you start, and afterward, you can rest your tired leg muscles at the local onsen on the southwest side of the island.

Not far from the onsen is another wonderful hot spring set right into the rocky beach, unisex and al fresco. Though swimwear’s a no-no, locals maintain that the tradition is about serene relaxation, rather than naked partying. Time your dip with the tide so that you can have a hot soak while the cool ocean waves wash over you.