Roots of Japan

Yakushima

Have you ever heard of Yakushima?

It was registered as Japan's first World Heritage site on December 11th 1993, together with Himeji Castle, Hōryū-ji Temple and the Shirakami Sanchi Mountain Range. Yakushima and the Shirakami Sanchi Mountains are also the setting for the hugely popular Studio Ghibli animated movie “Princess Mononoke”. An island of Kagoshima prefecture, it has an area of 504.29 km2 and a population of 13,178 (2010).

90% of the island is forested with mountain ranges 1,000m - 1,900m high. One of these, located right in the center, is Mt. Miyanoura-dake. It has an elevation of 1,936m and is one of the “one hundred top mountains of Japan”! The mountains are collectively called Mt. Yae-dake and they also have the nickname “the Alps of the Sea”. Since ancient times, three mountains, Mt. Miyanoura-dake, Mt. Nagata-dake and Mt. Kurio-dake have had “Ippon Houju Dai GonGen” images worshipped as objects of faith at the summit. Yakusugi cedars, known for their longevity, are also worshipped as sacred trees.

So, how long has the island been in existence, creating an area so abundant in nature?

Its beginning dates back 15 million years ago to the Cretaceous period, the last period of the Mesozoic Era. Yakushima was still on the sea floor, but movement in the earth's crust during the Mesozoic Era created cracks in the seabed. Afterwards, during the Cenozoic era, granite rose up by orogenic (mountain forming) movement and rock began to appear at sea level.

It's still not clear exactly when people starting living on the island but several ruins found from the Jomon / Yayoi Period show traces of life from around 7,000 years ago. These days humans co-exist with the abundant nature of Yakushima, they value it and are careful not to cause damage. However, history shows large-scale logging activities did occur on the island.

The first tree to be felled was 500 years ago when, by the order of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, building materials were to be supplied for Kyoto's Hoko-ji temple. By the Edo period (1603 - 1868), the Shimazu clan, who were facing financial difficulties, imposed a tax that would see Yakusugi cedars felled as substitute for rice. By 1640 full-scale deforestation had begun.

From this point in time until the end of the Edo period, it is said that 50 - 70% of all the Yakusugi cedars were cut down. What remains are the young Yakusugi cedars called Kosugi (less than 1,000 years old) that create the rich nature of Yakushima today. However, logging continued even after being designated as a Natural Monument in 1924 and after being incorporated into a national park.

At the beginning of the 1980's, logging was completely banned. Yakushima was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve during a time of environmental awareness. This was the first step on the road to becoming a World Heritage site. As mentioned above, Yakusugi cedars were originally revered as sacred trees. The reason for this is to do with their longevity.

An average cedar tree lives for around 500 years, but many big Yakusugi cedars are more than 2,000 years old. This is due to the island's granite-based soil. Yakusugi cedars grow slowly on the less nutritious granite and have a very tight grain. The climate and topography of Yakushima means that moist winds from the ocean turn to clouds and rain as they meet the mountains, bringing heavy rain “35 days a month”. As a result, the trees contain a high level of resin, have anti-bacterial properties and are resistant to rotting.

Famous examples of these trees include the Jomon-sugi and the Kigen-sugi. In particular, the Jomon-sugi is estimated by some to be over 4,000 years old, while others say over 7,000 years! The famous “Wilson stump” is thought to have been cut down approximately 500 years ago. Yes, this is a stump of a Yakusugi cedar that was cut down around 500 years ago under the order of Hideyoshi Toyotomi.

However, it hasn't decayed and it is a sight that continues to draw many visitors. Could this not be the very reason it is known as a sacred tree? There are tours you can enjoy around this area but, as it's necessary to climb for about 8 - 10 hours, so make sure you are in reasonably good health.

Here we would like to introduce plants other than Yakusugi cedars and animals living in the area. Yakushima could almost be classed as subtropical, but as mentioned earlier, there are mountains close to 2,000m above sea level so a variety of plant life can be seen that extends all the way to the subarctic. It has the most northern Banyan tree forest in Japan and a number of plants bearing the name “Yakushima”. Also, the plants in Yakushima are smaller than in other areas, such as wild grasses or dwarf bonsai plants, and are therefore considered to have great ornamental value.

How about wild mammals? “Yakuzaru”, Yakushima monkeys and “Yakushika”, Yakushima deer are unique subspecies of Japanese macaque and Japanese deer that exist only in this geographic region. From ancient times the island has been on the migration route of various whales. Although the number of species that can be seen are fewer than before, even now you can still see dolphins and whales.

The island faces problems in its efforts to preserve the beautiful natural environment and the diversity of animals and plants. Peak season in Yakushima is March to November, the off-season is December to February. Particularly during long holidays such a Golden Week or Silver Week there can be as many as 800 visitors a day!

So, what kind of problems are they facing?

1/ Toilet facilities stretched beyond capacity
During extended holiday periods, long lines often form at toilet facilities. It seems with so many people using the facilities, there are also problems with bad odors and malfunctions. An attempt to enforce the introduction of portable toilets is being made, but this still fails to find a primary solution to the problem of over usage and bad manners. Traces left by these outdoor toilets are having a negative effect on the natural environment.

2/ The loss of its majestic atmosphere
As the number of visitors increases, there is a problem with crowding at particular places of interest. At such a historical place it's a natural emotion to feel strongly that you want to have a look, even just a glimpse. But, considering they are sacred trees, perhaps it is better to just face the Yakusugi cedars and quietly take in the atmosphere?

3/ Conservation of the natural environment
Some tourists care about the natural environment of Yakushima, and then there are those who do not. Deciding to wander off the path to satisfy their own curiosity, they end up ruining the surrounding vegetation and exposing the ground. Perhaps they think, “It's just me walking there... it'll be all right” But, because so many people think like this, the current situation on the island is deteriorating.

4/ Safety Management
Due to increased media exposure since it was registered as a World Heritage site, many people from Japan and abroad now head for the Jomon Cedar trees. However, as mentioned earlier, it is a mountainous climb of 8 - 10 hours and the walking distance can be as much as 20km return. It's extremely dangerous to think that it's an easy trip, dressing lightly, and trying to push through with little physical strength on a tight schedule, etc. Accidents are occurring more frequently with the increase in tourists who lack proper safety awareness. So, to all of you wishing to visit Yakushima in the future.

We recommend you be aware of safety issues before you leave, this way you are sure to have an amazing trip and you’ll be glad you went! People on the island might be able to help you too. But really, it is important that each and every visitor is safety conscious. Yakushima, an island nurturing life and watching over humans for thousands of years. Let's not destroy the island's air of mystery but instead continue to protect it for future generations!

It is my opinion and summary. Please acknowledge that there are various opinions.