Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top Eleven Misconceptions about Yakushima

Top Ten Eleven Misconceptions about Yakushima.
Deciding to outdo everyone on the top-ten bandwagon, I've put together the first eleven misconceptions about Yakushima to pop into my head this morning.

11. It rains all day everyday.
Ukigumo, the movie
Of course not! Hey, we get snow, too!

There's a famous saying that, In Yakushima, it rains 35 days a month, which was supposedly penned by Fumiko Hayashi. In fact, when she was researching for her 1950s romance novel, Ukigumo, Hayashi visited Yakushima for only a few days. Apparently, it was a rainy, cold visit. But she's not the one to come up with this phrase! This was something people who lived on the island already said.

In truth, the weather is quite changeable. Especially during the monsoon, there can be days of rain, but drive around the island, and you're likely to find a patch of sun. While some parts of the interior are known for getting nearly 10 meters of rain in a year, some coastal areas see about the same amount of annual rain as Kyushu.

Not a care in the world. . .
10. The animals are friendly because people feed them.

Please, don't feed the animals!

There are definitely a few individuals that ask for handouts, but most of thewild animals here do not know the taste of human food, and we'd like to keep it that way. The reason they don't run at the sight of people is that they have no natural predators and are pretty used to seeing people. This is especially true in popular hiking areas away from the lower forests where they are hunted.

9. Logging stopped when Jomon Sugi was discovered.
Points for positive thinking, but wrong on several accounts:

First, people in the Edo period knew about Jomon Sugi. They even logged its neighbors. And then Jomon Sugi was relegated to the status of legend until 1966 when it was rediscovered.

Replanted sugi forests
must be thinned.
Until around that time, the idea of hiking for recreation didn't exist, but the 1970's were a decade strewn with changes in ideology. Environmentalism. . . Preservation of traditions such as mountain pilgrimages. . . . Even so, logging was the means of life for many of Yakushima's residents, and it continued through the decade. It took the persistent voices of youth returning home from the mainland and leading officials by the hand into the forest, as well as a big typhoon that washed out an area cleared by logging, devastating the town below, before logging came to an end.

That said, certain kinds of logging still continue in Yakushima, which leads me to. . .

8. There is no logging on Yakushima.

Actually, certain kinds of logging are permitted.

The old, mature forests are not logged. However, communal forests are used by residents for their daily needs (such as firewood), and replanted forests must be thinned as the trees grow up. Today this timber is both shipped to Kagoshima and used locally.

7. Yakusugi souvenirs are fake.
Yakusugi one-use chopsticks
Ouch! Do you think we're scamming tourists?

When you buy wood products in Yakushima that are labeled 屋久杉, you can be pretty sure they are genuine Yakusugi wood. This is wood from trees upwards of 800 years old. These trees have 6 times as much oil as a typical sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) tree, so even once a tree dies or is cut down, much of the wood remaining in the forest does not rot for hundreds and hundreds of years. Some of this wood (called domaiboku, 土埋木) is brought down by the Forestry Agency and auctioned each year.

6. Yakushima only has two small towns and not very many roads.
Not quite. If you're looking for a deserted isle, try one of the volcanic islands nearby.

The biggest town is Miyanoura.
While the population on Yakushima has shrunk from 24,000 to less than 14,000 people, we have a very good infrastructure, including a prefectural road that wraps around the island connecting 23 communities and a damn that provides electricity for residents with enough to spare for high-tech chemical manufacturing.

5. Yakushima is a tropical rainforest.
Close, but not technically tropical.

Definitely sub-tropical
Parts of Yakushima are certainly rainy enough to be considered tropical rainforest. In fact, Japan generally enjoys a rainforest climate. And thanks to warm ocean currents and southern winds, Yakushima's coast hardly ever sees snow, but Yakushima lies well above the Tropic of Cancer, and the interior gets so cold there that the forest opens up to bamboo grass around the highest mountains.

4.The old Yakusugi trees like Jomon Sugi are the reason Yakushima became a World Natural Heritage Site.
Right track, but that's not the whole picture.

About 20% of Yakushima
is designated World
Heritage Site.
Thousand-year old trees were definitely a factor in the World Heritage decision, but not the only factor. Just as important is change in vegetation from sub-tropical along the coasts to sub-alpine just a few kilometers away in the heart of Yakushima's mountainous interior. This vegetation includes large swaths of deciduous evergreen forests, which used to dominate much of East Asia, all the way from Eastern Nepal to Tokyo. What remains of these forests is disappearing fast, and Yakushima is one of the biggest citadels left.

That said, this island is indeed a paradise of (Yaku)sugi trees.  Some people even think the sugi forests here may be the only natural, unplanted sugi forests anywhere.

Beech Trees in Shirakami Sanchi,
3. You can see beautiful beech-tree forests in Yakushima. 
I think this is an honest mistake. 

Yakushima was registered as a World Natural Heritage Site at the same time as Shirakami Sanchi, a beech forest in Aomori and Akita. During the last ice age, when Yakushima was connected to mainland Japan, many northern species spread down through Kyushu and populations of Japanese Ash Rowan, for example, thrive in the temperate climate of Yakuhima's interior. However, beech trees are not one of the species that reached Yakushima. Had beech trees reached Yakushima, they probably would have pushed out many other species, including sugi, because, unlike light-loving sugi, beech saplings can thrive in dark, shady forests.

However, other trees in the beech family including oaks and chinquapins abound.

2. Yakushima is a volcano.
Do you think my parents would let me live on a volcano?
Plenty of neighboring islands,
like Iojima, are volcanic.

Yakushima was formed by a pluton of granite. That means that a big bubble of magma rose up through the mantle, but stopped short of breaking the surface. It cooled and hardened slowly underground something like 15 million years ago, and continues to rise today as the surrounding sediment wears away. So while there are many volcanic islands in the area, Yakushima itself is mostly granite, an igneous rock, and, strictly speaking, not actually volcanic.

1. That whole deal about Jomon Sugi being 7,200 years old is a myth.
The truth is nobody knows how old Jomon Sugi is.
After Jomon Sugi was (re)discovered in 1966, an instructor from Kyushu University calculated that it should be about 7,200 years old based on its girth. This is a typical conventional method which takes into account environmental factors and a growth rate that slows with age.

But there's two problems with this estimate.

How old is Jomon Sugi?
First, Yakushima (and most of southern Kyushu) was covered by 1-2 meters of pyroclastic flow when the Kikai Caldera exploded about 35 km northwest of Yakushima. Carbon-dating first placed this event at about 6,400 years ago, but this estimate has since been corrected to about 7,300 years ago. It's still difficult to imagine that a sugi could grow a hundred years after that event, but I don't think it's inconceivable.

Second, the carbon-dating data does not fit.

Since trees this big/old are often hollow, age-estimates based on girth were about the best anyone could do. . . until carbon dating. Ages based on carbon-dating of the innermost wood are expected to match up with girth-based estimates. For example, Dai-Oh Sugi, the second-biggest tree in the vicinity of Jomon Sugi was estimated to be about 3,000 years old based on girth, and this was supported by carbon-dating. But Jomon Sugi. . .

The oldest dated bit of Jomon Sugi is a measly 2,170 or so years old, and that bit is pretty damn close to the middle of the tree. Move a bit to the right or left and the wood is much younger. This data is available to viewing in the Yakusugi Museum, so you can see it for yourself.

So why is this tree so big? There's a handful of trees around Yakushima in the 3,000~4,000 year-old category. None of them are close to as big around as Jomon Sugi. There are no other trees in the 4,000-years-and-up range. Tree scientists even guessed that Jomon must be several trees stuck together, but DNA analysis demonstrates that that's not likely either.

Nobody knows the answer.

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