Some Very Old Trees

Alongside Miyonoura Ko, Yakushima
Wind: North west F4 moderate breeze
Weather: Sunny, cool

Today was “sugoi”, which translates as excellent or brilliant. I was expecting it to be raining all day, just like the other 34 days of the month, but today must be the 35th day, for it turned out a clear, sunny, and cloudless.

It didn't start that way however, and when I awoke with the alarm at 6.30 this morning it was still dark though verging on grey, the skies were overcast and I could hear a steady patter of light rain strumming on Sylph's coachouse. I had breakfast and then packed my large backpack with everything I thought I might need for the day, on the expectation that I was going to end up wet and cold. I included foul weather gear, two changes of socks, a spare pair of shoes, water, oranges, chocolate bars, a torch and light weight sleeping bag (just in case I missed the bus or got it into my head that I wanted to go further), and a box of waterproof matches. However one concession I did make towards keeping the weight down was to bring only a slim book.

Packed and dressed, I found I had some time to kill, so I visited the tourist centre to enquire whether I should purchase an all day bus ticket. Initially the man said no. Looking at my plan he told me that I would be using two different bus companies so buying an all day ticket would in fact cost a little bit more. But then he had a closer look at my plan and suggested a few changes, so that the all day ticket would in fact be the cheapest option. I am glad I took his advice because in hindsight my plan that I had formulated last night would not have worked out very well.

I caught the bus just outside the tourist information centre at 8.41 which took me along the north-east coast road for about eighteen kilometres to the town of Gochemae, where we arrived some 35 minutes later. Here I changed buses for the service that would take me into the interior of the island, and in particular to “Yakusugi Land”. I am not sure how far we travelled, I would guess as the crow flies about another fifteen kilometres, but in time it took a bit over an hour, and in distance with all the steep winding roads it was perhaps another 25 kilometres or so. I definitely felt like I was getting my money's worth from the day ticket, especially as I was the only passenger in a large forty seater bus.

From what I can work out pretty much the entire interior of Yakushima is virgin rainforest, largely uninhabited. However there were some large power lines running down the centre of a huge valley. My guess is that there is a hydro-electic power station somewhere up in the mountains, so of course the interior is not entirely untouched.

As the bus climbed higher and higher it was clearly getting colder, though from within the interior of the heated bus I could only tell by the occasional clumps of snow that lay on the roadside, and, as we got close to our destination, I could see the mountain top, the peak of which was covered in a thin layer of snow.

My first stop was Kigensugi. Kigensugi is a 3000 year old cedar tree. I was told it was right beside the road, so when the bus stopped, Kugensugi being the end of the line, and not being able to see the tree, I assumed that I just needed to walk a little further on up the road. After about five minutes and no sign of the ancient tree I decided something was wrong. As the bus only waits for twenty minutes before it heads back down the mountain, and not wanting to be left up the mountain for several hours, I turned back to the bus, annoyed that I had not seen what I had come for. I found the bus pulled over to a siding and went and spoke to the driver, but communication problems defeated me. I gave up and went to get back on the bus but the driver said no, and managed to make me understand that I should walk back down the mountain. I gathered that the tree was a short walk back the way we had come, not further up the road as I had assumed.

In fact Kigensugi turned out to be only a hundred meters back down the road, the bus stop even had a sign indicating the same but, to my non-Japanese mind, the sign was not all that clear, nor indeed did I even see it when I first got off the bus. But the tree . . . how does one do justice to a 3,000 year old tree? It wasn't all that tall, the sign beside it said 19.5 meters. Its circumference (at breast height) was a little more impressive, at 8.1 meters, and it certainly looked old. A board walk ran around it to give its visitors an all round perspective. Its trunk was gnarled and wrinkled, and its head looked rather bald, like the top half had fallen off half a millennia or so ago. Perhaps it had. While there is no doubt that the tree was beautiful, perhaps the most impressive thing about it is just the knowledge of its age. It is difficult to comprehend something living that long when our own time span is a mere three score and ten, and that expectation only reasonably assured to those of us fortunate enough to have been born into the developed world within the last 100 years. 3.000 years ago humanity (from my Western perspective) was in the bronze age, the age of heroes, the Trojan Wars were near contemporary events, and Homer's Iliad had not yet been written. I think looking at something that has lived this long, meditating on its significance, and concomitantly our own insignificance, is where most of the wonder lies, it heightens the consciousness of our own fragile mortality.

With too little time to contemplate these matters further, life is indeed short for us humans, and the bus had a schedule to keep, I stepped back on board, the bus returning the way we had just come. I got off twenty minutes later at “Yakusugi Land”, the main event for my day. Despite the name bringing forth images of a theme park, Yakusugi Land is actually a nature reserve, with a number of other old trees to see and some beautiful trails to walk. With plenty of time to kill before the next and only bus back to Goshomae, I opted for the longer walk, advertised as requiring 150 minutes. This turned out to be a generous estimate and as I marked off the waypoints I worked out that it allowed plenty of time to stop and view the scenery along the way.

It was a great little hike, undoubtedly much as one would expect of a world class heritage listed rainforest, and probably perfect for my current level of fitness, or lack thereof. Hopefully I will get the opportunity for more hikes in the weeks ahead, and will be able to improve my cardiovascular fitness before the next long ocean passage. I will not attempt to describe the walk in any detail, as I am sure I would only trot out a bunch of clichéd old tropes, such as burbling mountain streams, cascading rivers, green glades dappled in sunshine, rich mossy surfaces trickling drops of moisture, tiny leaves steaming water vapour where patches of sunshine fell, grand gnarled old trunks, fallen logs, the forest floor a web of intertwined roots, etc. . . . rather, suffice to say that I was in no way disappointed. One aspect of the walk that did intrigue me was, as we got further away from the main paths, the creative improvisation of the walkways. The keepers of the forest have used materials to hand in diverse and imaginative ways, resulting in pathways very much in sympathy with the environment, and they added greatly to my enjoyment of the hike. It is getting late. I took lots of photos, I will attempt to post some of them within the next day or so.

All is well.