The glories of Yakushima

by Edan Corkill

There’s a film you should see before you go to Yakushima, an island off the southern coast of Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu. It’s more informative than the average guidebook or, for that matter, the island’s World Heritage-listing citation from 1993, which misleadingly talks about “the sacred values of (its) ancient forests of Yakusugi (cryptomeria).”

The fact is that little on Yakushima was ever considered sacred, and none of it is perfectly ancient. Everything was touched, in some way, by logging, which was carried out industriously throughout the Edo Period (1603-1867) — when locals paid taxes to their feudal lord in Kagoshima in the form of wood roof shingles — until the last chainsaw fell silent in the 1980s.

That’s not to say Yakushima does not possess a grand and beautiful wilderness. With its mountains lapped by warm currents from the south and soaring to almost 2,000 meters, the island boasts a truly extraordinary environment. Where else can you be surrounded by hibiscus flowers while regarding a backdrop of snow-capped mountains?

It is these two opposing perspectives of Yakushima — as a resource ripe for exploitation on the one hand, and an awe-inspiring natural wonderland on the other — that are captured in the 1955 film “Ukigumo” (“Floating Clouds”), by director Mikio Naruse.

Of course, the film is about much more than just the island. It’s about love and infidelity, making mistakes and making amends — or not making amends. The main character, Kengo Tomioka, is an official with the national government’s forestry agency. He arrives on the island in the 1950s with the largely unspoken desire to rediscover a freedom that he knew only in Indochina, where he did forestry work during the war. Yakushima, the film implies, was as foreign and as ripe for exploitation then as Japan’s wartime acquisitions.

Scenes from the film (if you’ve seen it) assail you as you hike through the island’s mountainous forests — as almost every visitor does. There are many trails in designated walking parks, such as Yakusugi Land and Shiratani Unsuikyo, and there’s also the one-day trek up to the famed Jomon Sugi, a giant cryptomeria some say is up to 7,000 years old. There is one scene in the film when the roar of the wind in the trees melds with the beating of the rain to form a kind of biblical howl. Hike in Yakushima and the chances are you’ll hear it for yourself.

People on the island say it rains 35 days a month there. Talk to the manager of the Hotel Yakushima Sanso, an old establishment in the village of Anbo, and he’ll tell you that the saying originates from the novel “Ukigumo,” on which the film is based. He’ll even show you the room where the authoress, Fumiko Hayashi, stayed in 1950 as she penned the very words. Room 201 is perched above the Anbo River and looks out on the mountains to one side and Anbo Harbor on the other. Be sure to ask for it when you make a booking.

Some locals dispute the idea that the 35-days-of-rain description originated from Hayashi’s book. They say it predates her, like another saying on a similar theme: It’s alright to forget your lunchbox when you go out for the day, but don’t forget your umbrella. The lesson is, of course, that Yakushima gets a lot of rain — around 4,000 millimeters per year around the coast, and up to 10,000 in the mountains, in fact.

If you’re keen to experience the island’s beauty, but hope to keep a respectful distance from the elements, then a recently opened resort hotel might be the answer. The luxury Sankara Hotel & Spa on the island’s southern coastline boasts just 29 hotel rooms and secluded bungalows that step gracefully down a gentle slope at the foot of the island’s central mountains. Its director, Jiro Sato, who has built, designed and managed hotels from Vietnam to Barcelona, says the real key to the hotel’s success will not be the access it provides to Yakushima’s natural wonders, but its cuisine.

“The secret is the quality of the water,” he said. “The usual problem with seaside resorts is that you can’t get good-quality water, and you can’t make good food without good water. Yakushima has so much water that we can get all of ours from natural (and replenishing) aquifers.”

The other “secret” is the hotel’s three leading chefs — who between them have several decades of experience in Paris and also luxury hotels, such as the Grand Hyatt, in Tokyo. From behind a broad glass window that separates their kitchen from one of the resort’s two restaurants, they banter in French as they whip up a diverse range of culinary delights: shrimps tempura-ed in kadayif pastry, chilled Tanegashima yam potage with fresh foie gras, Yakushima orange tart, and much more.

From Sankara, in the island’s south, you will want to take a drive westward along Prefectural Route 78, which links with Route 77 to circumnavigate the island. After about 40 minutes you will get to a section of the road on the island’s northwest coast, known as Seibu Rindo (Western Forestry Road). It’s the only part of the road that still traces the same route as it did when it was first surveyed in the 1910s — as an access route for logging vehicles. It’s now part of a nature reserve, which means it abounds in two of the island’s most famous inhabitants: deer (a small variety known as Yakushika, or Yaku deer) and monkeys (Yakushima macaques). Drive slowly — you’ll need to creep around the occasional oncoming vehicle anyway — and you’ll see the wildlife on all sides.

But, as you drive — or hike — past the monkeys, deer, giant cryptomeria trees, waterfalls and countless other natural attractions and vistas the island has to offer, you will always find reminders of man’s impact.

It might be the fact that you’re using a trail initially built for logging, or it might be the trees themselves — many of the cryptomerias are so-called “second- generation” specimens that have germinated and grown on top of stumps left behind by Edo Period loggers. Or, indeed, it might be vestiges of the island’s human exploiters themselves that you find — including the Kengo Tomioka character in “Ukigumo.”

As one local explained: “There is not a rocky escarpment or deep gully on the island that was spared. You can always find marks left by axes.”

But he said that more in awe of his ancestors’ tenacity than in despair.

The fact is that Yakushima’s inhabitants have been living off their mountains and timber for countless generations, and it is that rich history of interaction — visible in the trees themselves — that makes the island such a fascinating place to visit.