Thursday, November 29, 2012

Allure of the Exterior Mountains

Gazing out from Mt. Ishidzuka
Just as hiking the Interior Mountains is an awesome experience, hiking the Exterior Mountains is a humbling experience.

Traditionally, Yakushima's mountains are divided into the Interior Mountains (Called the Oku-dake, these include the highest peaks.) and the Exterior mountains. (Called the Mae-dake, these mountains hide the Oku-dake from sight of the coastal towns.) In the past, islanders visited the Mae-dake quite frequently, but rarely approached the Oku-dake. The Oku-dake were considered the sacred realm of the gods, peaks for a select few pilgrims to visit annually. Daily needs for wood and forest products were filled from the Mae-dake.

Interior Mountains viewed
from Aiko-dake

View from Taiko Iwa . . .
bit obscured by clouds, but try
Googling images of Taiko Iwa.

Mae-dake seen from
across the valley
And then came the logging boom.

And then the tourism boom.

Now, I think, the pattern is reversed. The trails across the Oku-dake--including Mt. Miyanoura (Kyushu's highest peak), Mt. Kurio, Kuromi-Dake and a few other peaks--are well maintained and easy to follow, with wooden boards and ropes where needed. Popular trails can see hundreds of people a day.

But not so many people visit the Mae-dake. I suppose that although the trails are rougher, they just don't make for good boasting stories. The intense trail up Mt. Mocchomu. The treacherous trail up Aiko-dake. And the allure is a bit more subtle than the "360-degree ocean view" offered by Mt. Miyanoura.

Personally, though, I don't think it's possible to appreciate the grandeur of the Oku-dake without stepping back. Visitors to Shiratani-Unsuikyo's lookout from Taiko Iwa will understand what I mean. To stand on one of the eastern Mae-dake peaks and gaze across the valley at the magnificent Oku-dake is truly a humbling experience.
As if you've jumped into the middle of a deep and vast ocean, you feel incredibly small.

This sensation is ridiculously hard to capture in a picture, but if you fancy experiencing it firsthand, check the weather and do a little homework first: Not all of the Mae-dake offer views of the Oku-dake, and some clouds and fog can cover up the splendor from any peak. Also, despite being lower than the Oku-dake, they can be just as (or more!) dangerous. Taiko Iwa in Shiratani-Unsuikyo is probably the easiest way to enjoy the view I'm talking about, and--since it's located well into the interior of the island--experienced hikers can continue on to access the Oku-dake trails directly from Shiratani.

With a little help from the weather, the view of Mt. Miyanoura can be every bit as moving as the view from Mt. Miyanoura.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Jomon Sugi in the News: Poor Health and Clone-Naming

Jomon Sugi's been in the news a couple times this month.

Folks enjoying Jomon Sugi from the observation deck.
Jomon Sugi: Possibly the oldest tree in Japan.
First the bad news: Jomon Sugi had a checkup on November 6 and failed terribly. The big branch (1-meter in diameter!) that leans out towards the observation deck is hollow near it's base and seems destined to fall, quite possibly this winter if we get much snow. Last week they posted a warning sign, and yesterday they closed the front half of the deck where people like to take pictures.

Since Jomon Sugi is hollow, it's age cannot be determined, but it may be the oldest of all sugi, possibly one of the first to grow on Yakushima after the super-volcano that buried southern Japan up through Tokyo exploded 7,300 years ago. Jomon Sugi survived Edo-logging and went undiscovered by 20th century clear-cut loggers until 1966. Surely the publicity around the discovery of this ageless tree (first called "Oh-Iwa Sugi") helped environmentalists in the fight that shut down Yakushima's logging villages in 1970.

The branch in question is right in front of the observation deck.
The front-middle branch of Jomon Sugi
is rotting and may soon fall.
But now Jomon Sugi may be killed by our ignorant love for it. Jomon Sugi's troubles started when people began trampling its roots to get close and take strips of bark or carve their initials. To restrict access, an observation deck was built and monitoring cameras were erected. (That's why most pictures show only one side of the tree.) Naturally, the view of Jomon Sugi was obstructed by brush and small trees, so these were cleared away (a ridiculously careless move, in retrospect). The soil then began to wash away, and all attempts to replace it with sand and artificial supports failed in Yakushima's incessant rain. Replacement seedlings had to be planted where the former trees and brush used to be, and a fence had to be erected to keep the deer from eating these. I'm told that before they cut down those shady trees that offered protection from the sun, Jomon Sugi used to be a darker color. But now, exposed to sunlight, the near side of the trunk has turned to its current shade of pale gray.

Back in Japan's bubble days there was even serious talk of building a cable-car up to Jomon Sugi. I imagine that would have sealed it's death.

The stump of Okina Sugi, which
fell in 2010. Could Jomon Sugi
meet a similar fate?
The first undeniable sign of trouble was a large limb--over a thousand years old!--that fell off in the winter of 2005. This is commonly blamed on the heavy snow that year, but I imagine a tree the circumference (>16m) of Jomon Sugi needs every food-making limb it has. Especially  once the core starts to rot away life becomes a battle between rot and growth. When the trunk is too hollow and frail to support the tree, it can end up like Okina Sugi, a 2,000-year-old tree that fell over in September of 2010.

Maybe an optimist could consider this as natural pruning, but two branches in ten years? . . . I'd like to think this tree could live forever, but I feel inclined to suggest you visit Jomon Sugi before it's too late.


In happier news, the Yakushima Environmental and Cultural Center is hosting a competition to name twelve clones of Jomon Sugi. These were grown from the limb that fell in 2005. Send a postcard with your name, age, address, and phone number along with the clone name and reason to the Culturual center at Miyanoura 823-1, Yakushima-cho, Kumage-gun, Kagoshima-ken, 891-4205. Deadline is December 24, 2012.

Original Article:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fall flowers and other colors

I had the great opportunity to join a group of plant-lovers the other day. I hadn't appreciated what a treasured role Japanese plants play in Western horticulture, but now I feel really stimulated to learn all the species names and families as a way to connect with folks around the world!

Fall may bring red and gold leaves to mind, but there's quite a few flowers and fruits as well:

Pink: Near coastal towns, roadsides are overflowing with wild hibiscus. Since it's already November, I think this is Hibiscus makinoi (サキシマフロウ), but it could be mutabilis.

Yellow: My walk the other morning into the low, exterior mountains was also full of color. This is Yakushima and Tanegashima's endemic Ligularia Farfugium hiberniflorum (カンツワブキ).

Orange and ever-so-pale lavender and blue: The lower mountains are also home to Sarcandra glabra (left, センリョウ), an important plant for New Years; and the occasional Lasianthus fordii hance (middle/right, タシロルリミノキ), which is in the coffee family. I wonder if a hybrid could be created with blue coffee beans?

Purple and white: The endemic Tripterospermum distylum (left, ハナヤマツルリンドウ) and the endemic variety of Parnassia palustris (right, ヤクシマウメバチソウ) near Mt. Miyanoura.

Pure white:  Ainsliaea apiculata (キッコウハグマ) from the daisy family, which we passed on Mt. Eboshi last week.

Red: Winter strawberries, Rubus buergeri (left, フユイチゴ)and Japanese Rowan, Sorbus commixta (right, ナナカマド), which will have some lovely foliage as well as berries.