Aside from the feral horses and the splendid views from Cape Toimisaki, southeastern Kyushu is known for its “living fossils”: the cycads.

Cycads, one of the world’s most primitive seed-bearing plants, growing wild on the storm-torn coast of southeastern Kyushu.

One of my main reasons for visiting southern Kyushu was to see these plants in their natural habitat. At first glance cycads (sotetsu, Cycas revoluta, also known in English as the sago palm or false sago) may look like palms. In fact, although their foliage is palmlike in appearance, “sago palms” are not related to palm trees at all.

Cycads are a group of very primitive woody plants. They first appear in the fossil record 240 million years ago, and reached their peak about 200 million years ago during the Mesozoic period. It is reckoned that structurally the modern cycad has changed little since then.

Cycads represent the second-largest group of gymnosperms, which also includes conifers and the maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba), but cycads are considered the most primitive living seed plants. They are found in tropical and subtropical zones worldwide; there are estimated to be 17 species from East Africa to Australia, southern Japan being the northernmost edge of their range. Individual plants can live to a great age, 1,000 years or more.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema ringens) blooms under the cycads on the Osumi Peninsula.

Cycads are dioecious, i.e. male and female flowers are borne on different plants. Flowers appear between June and August. Like many native Japanese plants, sotetsu became very popular during the Edo Period. Numerous dwarf, variegated and crested varieties are still cultivated.

Toimisaki Shrine is right on the edge of the rocky seashore at the very tip of Cape Toimisaki, off the main tourist trail. This small shrine is dedicated to protecting these ancient cycads. Right around the shrine the cycads are pruned annually, but on the sheer cliff above it they grow happily without human interference. The southern coast of Kyushu may be semitropical, but it is very exposed to sea winds and typhoons. It is wonderful to see the cycads thriving in such a harsh environment.

Cycads are not tall plants; they attain heights of 1-3 meters (cultivated plants may reach 5 meters), with a stout trunk but few if any branches. Their leaves are pinnate, 50-150 cm long, each leaflet or pinna 8-20 cm long. Young leaves, soft and covered with wool-like hair, become rigid and lustrous as they mature. The tough, waxy upper surface helps protect the plant against the salt-laden winds.

Giant spleenwort (Asplenium antiqua) at Amamizu-teien in Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture

Seeing sotetsu on Cape Toimisaki was a surprise, though — no map or nature guide had mentioned cycads on this cape. So much for guides! Actually, I’d had my sights set on Cape Hizaki, which on a clear day is easily visible directly across Shibushi Bay from Toimisaki.

Cape Hizaki is the eastern tip of the Osumi Peninsula. Part of the Kagoshima Space Center is located on an isolated part of this cape. To reach Cape Hizaki I traveled along route 220, passing through the town of Shibushi, turned off at Osaki on to route 448, and headed for Uchinoura. Just beyond Uchinoura is a bridge spanning a river estuary; I crossed it and turned left.

Then I was on a truly narrow and little-traveled road. Eventually a left turning headed down toward the sea, where it ended. A small sign greeted the traveler: “Sotetsu — designated as a national monument.” A five-minute walk on a steep path led to a rocky cliff, at the top of which, among the trees, there is a tiny shrine (as on Cape Toimisaki) to protect the natural sotetsu and biro habitat.

Biro is the Japanese name for the Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis var. subglobosa). This is a genuine palm tree, and on Cape Hizaki grows in a dense colony right on the edge of the cliff. On the rocky coast these fan palms grow 2-3 meters high; farther south, in Okinawa, they grow to 15 meters. The stout trunk is straight and has distinctive rings; the large, fan-shaped leaves are up to 1 meter wide. Robert Brown Murray, Baron Livingston, described the genus and named it Livistona.

In spring jack-in-the-pulpit blooms in the dappled shade beneath the fan palm trees. Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema) is an arum, like the popular calla lily. In Japan alone there are some 42 species of arum, and there are 150 known species worldwide. The arum on Cape Hizaki is musashiabumi (Arisaema ringens), a perennial that grows in woods close to the coast. The dioecious flower is highly developed and complex: The outer part is a large, showy modified leaf known as a spathe, or bract, which on this species has dark purple vertical lines running down it. The spathe conceals the spadix, the main inflorescence of the flower. Each plant has two three-lobed leaves.

On my way to Cape Hizaki I had passed through the town of Shibushi. The map I was using indicated two Japanese gardens, Amamizu-teien and Hirayama-teien. These two small gardens date from the mid-Edo Period.

Amamizu-teien makes interesting use of local sea stones. In the rear of this garden there is a dry stone waterfall as well as a sanzon-ishi-gumi. This is a three-stone triangular arrangement that represents the familiar Buddhist icon of a Buddha accompanied by two bodhisattvas.

Hirayama-teien, a short distance up the street, was a temple garden up until the Meiji Era. On the hill overlooking the garden there used to be a castle, but it was removed during Meiji and ownership of the garden passed to the Hirayama family. Now a different family live here, but they welcome interested visitors. Just ring the bell.

The garden gate, covered with climbing fig, is built on an exposed natural stone base with cut stone steps on top. Inside I saw a giant spleenwort fern (tani-watari or otani-watari, Asplenium antiqua). The vivid green fronds are large, 70-100 cm long by 7-12 cm wide. This spleenwort fern is native to warm temperate areas like the southern Kii Peninsula and the southern parts of Kyushu and Shikoku. In nature it grows on tree trunks or rocks.

In the tiny side garden you can see wonderful specimens of little club moss, or spike moss as it is sometimes called (iwa-hiba, Selaginella tamariscina). This hardy evergreen fern grows from Hokkaido right through Honshu, Kyushu, down to the Philippines and west to east India. The fronds, each 5-12 cm long, have a delicate appearance. Like the sotetsu, the spleenwort fern became popular as a potted plant during the Edo Period and numerous cultivars were developed.

The best map I’ve found for locating the hidden places is “Touring Mapple 1:120,000 Kyushu,” published by Shobunsha 1,500 yen). Printed expressly for touring, this small-size map is packed with essential information. Discoveries are waiting to be made.