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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Torrential rains interfering with your visions of Princess-Mononoke hiking? Then it must be time to go on a waterfall hunt! I can't list all the waterfalls in Yakushima, but here are seven of the most easily accessed!

1. Oh-ko no Taki (大川の滝)

This powerful waterfall with an 88-meter drop was selected in the  1996 list of Japan's top waterfalls. Located at the end of the bus line in the southwest, it takes some time to visit, but it's worth it after a good rain shower! It's a popular destination among folks who arrive in Yakushima in the early afternoon and are planning to buy a multi-day bus pass, but have nothing on the agenda for the remainder of the first day. From the parking lot or bus stop, you walk up deeper into a steep gorge, where the waterfall fills the valley with a misty wind. The illusion that it's breathing makes for a spiritual experience at night. In the daytime, you can approach the water as close as you dare, but be aware that the rocks are slippery and every once in a while someone gets injured or even falls in. The grandeur fades during dry spells, but after typhoon-style heavy rains, the gorge fills up and the waterfall is unapproachable.

2. Toro-ki no Taki (トローキの滝)

This waterfall is at the mouth of the Tai River, the same river that forms Senpiro no Taki, and it dumps directly into the ocean. To get a good view you'll follow a short path and look back from the end of a cliff that juts out toward the ocean. To get a better view you'll have to hire a sea kayak guide.

3. Ryuujin no Taki (龍神の滝)

This waterfall is also located on the Tai River, between Toro-ki and Senpiro. The view isn't so great, but if you're driving to Senpiro no Taki, you ought to make a point of driving past this one on the way.

4. Senpiro no Taki (千尋の滝)

The impression made by a smooth cascade of water over a fall into a V-shaped granite valley is both tranquil and stunning. When I say that Yakushima is literally a clump of rising granite, this is what I mean. You'll immediately understand what makes rivers in Yakushima so dangerous. Unfortunately, you cannot go close to the waterfall for that reason. If you're lucky, a bit of rain and sunlight will produce a rainbow in the mist at the bottom of the fall. This waterfall is located in the southeast, a couple kilometers uphill from the main road. Oh, and you're advised to see the Toro-ki and Ryuujin first, because they'll fail to impress you once you've had a glimpse of Senpiro!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Yawaraka: Essential oils from Yakushima

Along the trail I often stop by an old log, probably from a Yakusugi cut down in Edo times and now covered in moss and draped with the roots of other plants. From appearances, it looks like any old, rotten log, except that a section of moss has been scraped off to reveal the fresh wood underneath. Fresh. . . even after hundreds of years in the forest. I brush my fingernail across the small spot rubbed clean by other guides over the years, and lower my nose to take a whiff of the pine-like scent of cryptomeria. Most of my Japanese clients appreciate this scent as the soothing, familiar smell of wooden architecture, and everyone agrees that after walking for a couple hours along the railroad tracks, it offers a refreshing sensation.
Yawaraka: Essential oils
from the forests of Yakushima

The aromas of the forest are believed to relieve stress, heighten alertness, perhaps even ward off senility, and in this country of mountains and forests, it's no wonder that one of the latest trends in Japan's aroma industry is a shift from foreign florals to comfortingly familiar forest scents. In Yakushima, the small company leading trend is Yawaraka.

Founded in 2012, Yawaraka is an enterprise born of the incessant rains and powerful sunshine that nurture the ancient forests of Yakushima. The headquarters is built along an open stretch of the main road, but the bustle of traffic disappears as I step inside the foyer and close the door behind me.

Instantly, I am transported to a world of moss and mist as I am enveloped in soft forest scents -- so different from the haute pretences of floral perfumes.  Warm lighting, the tingle of music, and soft chatter spilling out from the private aroma therapy room add to the sensual experience.  Yuka, the manager, and the staff greet me and ask after my boyfriend, who has worked with them in the past.

Tasteful display of
essential oils
I run my eyes and nose over bottles of essential oils labeled cryptomeria leaves (the scent of walking through a Japanese sugi forest), cryptomeria trunk (the scent of fresh architecture, or a wood factory), ginger, tankan orange, and Japanese cinnamon. This last one intrigues me. It is the minty, vaguely medicinal smell of a wild laurel that grows rampant in the woods outside of town. However, I am told, it is not yet cultivated, so workers must toil to retrieve enough material from the woods to make the oil. Furthermore, the scent of the pure oil is so overwhelming that it must be mixed with other scents, such as mint. Nevertheless, it is a scent that many of my clients love so much that I often stop the car to pick a leaf or two for them to carry in their pocket.

Yuica: Essential oils from
the forests of Japan
On one end of the display, I am surprised to spot bottles labeled yuica. This is a nationally recognized brand renowned for harvesting familiar forest scents from throughout Japan and mixing them with rice oil as a carrier. By coincidence I used to work in a lab engaged in preliminary research on the stress-reducing effects of their products.

On the right side of the room is a low table, where patrons can browse and select scents to create personalized concoctions, sort of like selecting trees to grow in a mixed forest and recreate the island atmosphere.

On the left side of the room is a display tastefully depicting the process through which the essential oils are distilled, but today, the staff asks if I would like to see the factory in the room next door. Outside, several racks of ginger are drying in the sunshine. Inside, several crates of tankan oranges are waiting to be peeled. The back of the room is dominate by the distillation machinery.

Distilling the magic.
The distiller itself looks a lot simpler than I had imagined. It is easy to see how
plant material is steamed in the right side and the resulting vapors are collected on the left side in a jug. After the jug fills up with clear floral water, the essential oils sold in the main room are syphoned from the top. It takes a lot of raw material to produce a few ounces of essential oil.

Yuka opens a large refrigerator to show me smaller jugs of dark, murky water. This is the water that boils up through the raw material but simply condenses and falls back down without making it to the jug of floral water on the right of the distiller. It is called "thick water" or "deep water," and although it is essentially a waste product, it contains many molecules released from the raw plant matter, and the company is exploring its potential uses. I like it. As I visit different companies around the island, I continue to encounter the theme of minimal waste and intuitive use of byproducts.

In addition to selling aroma goods and treatments, Yawaraka also offers workshops, helping visitors and residents and visitors alike to experience harmony with nature as they create hand-made products or learn therapeutic care.

Yawaraka is located about halfway between the port of Miyanoura and the airport near the Shimo-Makino bus stop. Prices start around 1200 yen to blend your original aroma spray. Essential oils are more expensive and vary with tree species. Please check business hours because the scent lab is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and "s.p.a." treatments are also not available on Thursdays.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Etiquette for hikers in Yakushima

This sign means you can
use your toilet pack here;
but you cannot throw it
World Heritage status brings both pride and concern to the residents of Yakushima. The people here are known to be friendly and open, but also have a deep sense of duty and responsibility rooted in harsh terrain and unforgiving weather. In fact, many businesses are hesitant to except foreigners, because they are afraid that they cannot handle the responsibility. What if you get caught in the rain because you misunderstood the bus-stop? What if you have trouble eating Japanese-style food or using a Japanese-style toilet? What if you take a wrong turn in the mountains because the sign is in Japanese? What if an emergency occurs and they don't know how to give you necessary instructions? In big cities, you are expected to fend for yourself, but it's different in rural areas where it's custom for people to look out for each other. In fact, the biggest thing you can do to ease interactions for future visitors is Stay Safe:
  1. Always let someone know where you are going and do not cancel reservations without notification.This should be obvious anywhere, but on Yakushima, how do we know if you are lost in the mountains or just out drinking?
  2. Do not try the most difficult trails first, especially if you are hiking alone. Most people I talk to find that hiking here takes longer or is more difficult than they expected.
  3. Watch the weather forecast and/or ask if your plans are okay given the anticipated weather. Have a back-up plan in case inclement weather holds you up. In extreme winds, ferries and planes may even be cancelled.
  4. Plan to arrive at mountain shelters during daylight hours, especially if you are not carrying a tent. Safety aside, you will disturb everyone who has already settled down for the night. Also, during high season, the shelters can fill up fast.
Additional Hiking Etiquette:
Half of my job as a hiking guide is to take care of my clients, the other half (the half they don't pay me for) is making sure they aren't a nuisance. The following guidelines are printed numerous places in Japanese, but for some reason they never got around to the English:
  1. Buy and use a disposable toilet pack. Honestly the Japanese don't even do this, but it's a big problem because urine does not evaporate in 100% humidity. Before gaining World Heritage Status, hikers were expected to do it naturally, but things got quite nasty. Moutain toilet facilities were not designed for current loads, and the contents of shelter toilets must be carried down manually. Do you really want to make someone else carry your crap?
  2. If you use hiking poles, put rubber caps on the ends to protect the environment.
  3. Do not throw out anything along the trails. From spitting out toothpaste to cleaning dirty dishes to dumping half a bottle of sports drink or throwing out orange peels.
  4. Do not inadvertently feed the animals buy leaving food (and tobacco!) products where animals can get to them.
  5. Do not smoke around others on the trail. On the route to Jomon Sugi you can smoke at designated spaces at the 1) the trail head, 2) behind the shelter in Kosugidani Village, 3) next to the toilet at the end of the railroad tracks, and 4) by the toilet at the hut beyond Jomon Sugi if you make it that far. In Shiratani, there is a smoker's alcove above the toilet in the parking lot.
  6. Understand what it means to share narrow trails. On your return hike, yield to hikers on their way up. If the trail is crowded, keep members of your party close together. Watch that you aren't blocking the trail.
  7. Do not eat your lunch or sprawl out for a midday snooze at crowded spots where people are trying to take pictures. (Wilson's Stump, Taiko-Iwa, Jomon Sugi)
  8. Stay on the trail. This is both for safety and preservation. 
  9. Don't load up on stinky sunscreen and bug spray if you don't need to. You'll probably want sunscreen if you are hiking on a sunny day in the interior mountains, but for areas like Jomon Sugi, Shiratani, and Yakusugiland, the forest canopy provides natural sunscreen equivalent to something like SPF 30. If you're hiking with bug repellent, wait until you see biting bugs (black flies, horse flies, mosquitoes) before applying it.
  10. Pay park entrance donations. (Yes, I know there back routes into the parks. Access is not restricted because it is assumed you wouldn't try to bulk the 500 yen entrance donation.)
  11. Treat the land with respect. These are sacred mountains. Since ancient time, before this island was scarred by logging and codified by World Heritage status, people have been climbing these mountains to commune with the gods.
Sea Turtle Etiquette:
Sea turtles may be large, but they are easily disturbed and scared. Especially during nesting season (Late April~July) and hatching season (through the end of summer), please take care when visiting sandy beaches. :
  1. Do not walk near or in front of mother sea turtles. Stay out of sight at least until mothers finish digging their nests.
  2. Do not use lights near turtles that have not finished digging their nests and do not use flash photography.
  3. Watch where you step when there may be babies on the beach. At the same time, you don't want to confuse them by shining a flashlight away from the ocean.
  4. Give sea turtles priority. It's nice to walk on the beach at night, but during season, the turtles need their space.
If you'd like to see the sea turtles laying their eggs, or the young clutches scrambling down to the waves, but you don't know how to act around them, just make a reservation at the Nagata-Inakahama Sea Turtle Museum. There are other beaches where you can also see them, but please do so under the guidance of local residents. And before you go, how about reading up on proper behavior:

Etiquette Around Town:
Money: Know that only a few establishments are prepared to except credit cards. Pay at the front in restaurants, and expect to pay in advance at small accommodations. Do not try to change bills larger than 1,000 yen on the bus. Do not tip, although an offer of gas money may be appreciated if you happen to catch a ride.
Rain: Check that your backpack cover isn't full of water when you board the bus. To avoid mold, try not to leave wet things lying around your hotel room. For your own sake, you may want to bring a second pair of shoes to use when your hiking boots get muddy. It's perfectly fine to ask to borrow an umbrella.
Standard Japanese etiquette: Of course I can't list everything here, but you probably know to wash before entering the baths and ask permission before taking photos of other people.
Peculiar to Yakushima: Wear a towel but not a bathing suit at Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen or Yudomari Onsen.  Do not kill spiders: They are the protectors or the island. Stop by an information booth if you would like to go over your itinerary when you get to the island. They may not speak great English, but they try to be of great assistance. And if you have any problems during your stay, let the folks in the information booth (not the Information Center; that's a private company) know.

No matter what activities you engage in, please also remember that this is the land of the gods, not some place to show off your machismo. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Arisaema serratum: Toxic, sex-changing perennials with pitfall-trap flowers and blood-red berries.

Arisaema serratum, the Japanese arisaema, is one of the most conspicuous flowers along the trail from late March through September.  It may be the perfect flower for the Gothic gardener. Visitors inevitably point to the flowering stalks or the clump of bright red berries and ask,

"What's this flower?"

"That plant is a member of the same family as taro."

"Can you eat it? Those berries looks pretty big."

"Well. . . something, probably deer, do sometimes munch on the flowers, but if you eat it, oxalic acid molecules the shape of little needles will probably tear up your throat so badly it hurts to breathe."

"Oh. . . What's it called?"

"In English, we just call it the Japanese arisaema, but look at the coloration of the stalk. Does that remind you of snake skin? The Japanese call it mamushi-gusa, the pit-viper weed. Still want to try eating it?"

While A. serratum (synonymous with A. japonicum, but that's another can of worms!) can be found throughout Japan and is one of the most conspicuous flowers around here, there are some 30 species of arisaemas in Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido, and over 150 species of arisaema worldwide, but you do have to get away from the cities to find them. People in the Northern hemisphere may be family with jack-in-the-pulpit.

The Toxin: Raphide

Alocasia odora,
Elephant's ear looks
similar to taro.
This genus is in the Araceae family. The Japanese know this family best for taro, or satoimo in Japanese. This is a delicious tuber, but it is not eaten raw because of the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. If you've ever had a kidney stone, then you can probably blame the  formation of calcium oxalate within your body. (Note: I don't believe this is related to ingestion of calcium oxalate.)  Needle-shaped molecules of calcium oxalate, called raphide, are produced by many plants to deter foragers. Side effects of ingestioArisaema thunbergii Blume subsp.n can range from tingling in the tongue and mouth, to inflammation of the throat so severe  that the victim has trouble breathing. In the past 50 years, there have been no records of anyone dying from eating A. serratum in Japan, but there have been several hospitalizations. There is another member of this family, Alocasia odora, called Elephant's Ear in English, that visitors often confuse with taro, with similarly unpleasant consequences and a trip to the hospital. The Japanese name for Elephant's Ear is kuwazu-imo, meaning inedible potato. Other plants containing raphide include philodendrons and schefflera, that, together with Elephant's Ear, are often used as ornamental plants in the West. If you want to try the tingling, without hospital bill, then look for the fruit of the monstera plant, also a member of this family. (Oh, but Do Not attempt to eat the rind like the fool I was!)

The garden variety of Monstera is both beautiful
 and tasty if eaten properly.
Pitfall-trap Flowers

Of course, the reason these plants stand out so much are the shape of the pitfall-trap flowers. Carnivorous plants are famous for pitfall traps, but arisaemas simply use them as a pollination strategy. In the case of arisaemas, these organs are composed of a central stalk, called a spadix, the lower half of which is covered in tiny flowers, and a surrounding vase-like leaf, called a spathe. Insects crawl down the spathe to the flowers and have a hard time getting back out. Male plants have an opening at the bottom of the spathe, so that insects will cover themselves with pollen as they crawl down the length of the flower to escape. Female plants are not so generous.

Male flowers:
Left: Male flowers on the spadix. Right: Opening for insects to escape

Female flowers:
Left: Female flowers. Center: No opening for insects. Right: Insects trapped inside.

A. thunbergii subsp. urashima
with a beautiful array of
 leaves and an extended spadix.
One of the beautiful species of arisaema in Yakushima is called A. thunbergii subsp. urashima. The spadix has a long extension used to lure insects inside. This whip-like extension has been likened to a fishing rod, perhaps the fishing rod of Urashima in the legend of Urashima and the sea turtle kingdom. (I imagine this works the same way fly tape does:  Just try hanging a piece of string from the ceiling and open the window. Flies apparently like to land on long, skinny things.) Because of the shape of the flowering organs, Arisaemas are sometimes referred to as cobra lilies. However, true cobra-lilies are an unrelated species that captures insects for the purpose of eating, while, in the case of Arisaemas, insects become casualties of pollination and their dead bodies simply accumulate inside female flowers.

Sex-Changing Habits

Fruiting A. serratum
Okay, so I still haven't touched on what many botanists consider the most interesting trait of arisaemas: Labile sex-changing, the ability to change sexes based on growing conditions. Arisaemas are perennials that die back every year, although the underground tumor, called a corm, can continue to produce flowers for 20 years or more.  Apparently, a small corm tends to produce strictly male flowers, but when the corm grows large enough, they produce only female flowers. The reverse, although rare, is also possible. So imagine a large female specimen producing a bunch of berries that will likely fall to the ground uneaten and later spring up as males around the mother plant.

Find Them before They Find You!

An unusual specimen of A. serratum with
two stalks. A week later one flower has
been lopped off and has bite marks. Were
the deer confused by the twin stalks?
A. serratum is especially common along roadsides and mountain trails up to elevations around 900 m. The stalks start popping up in February and even after the flowes wilt, the bright, blood-red berries will remain, uneaten until after summer ends. (A. serratum is so abundant, that it got all the attention when I was training, and I ignorantly assumed it was the only Arisaema on the island! Well let me make up for that oversight now!) Look for A. urashima in the spring, from coastal plains and along the trails up to around 800 m. A. sazensou and the rare A. longipedunculatum can also sometimes be found along trails in late spring to early summer. Elephant's ear grows abundantly at low altitudes, and monstera is often found in gardens.

A. longipedunculatum


Information about sex-changing of arisaemas is discussed in depth in
  Kinoshita, E. 1987. Sex Change and Population Dynamics in Arisaema (Araceae). I. Arisaema serratum (Thunb.) Schott. Plant Species Biology 2:15-28.

and a review is given by
  Srivastava, P. and Banerji, B.K. 2012. Gender biasing in Arisaema – a unique and rare phenomenon. Current Science, 102:189-193.

A casual overview of A. serratum in Japanese with a photo of  dead insects inside a fruiting flower can be seen at
A. sazensou .

Examples of toxic plants containing raphides from .

Species identification:
  初島住彦監修, 屋久島の植物(新版). 2001:南方新社
  片野田逸朗, 九州野山の花. 2004:南方新社

It makes my head spin, but if you really want to debate names, i.e. A. serratum versus A. japonicum, then you can look up
  邑田 仁、大橋 広好. 2009. 牧野富太郎とマムシグサの分類(日本植物分類学会第7回東京大会公開シンポジウム講演記録 「牧野富太郎博士の植物研究とその継承」)  [Taxonomic history of Arisaema serratum and A. japonicum] 分類9(1):37-45.

Toxicity information and counts of poisoning incidents (I understand why little kids might eat them, but apparently some adults mistake the blood-red berries for corn? ?) are listed in  
   Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare: 自然毒のリスクプロファイル:高等植物:テンナンショウ類 (visited on April 17, 2014).

*edited on 1/15/2015 to correct the synonym Arisaema urashima to A. thumbergii subsp. urashima.
A. serratum

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tankan Oranges

From that oranger-than-orange color to the rich, delectable flavor, tankans are my favorite citrus, no questions.

I can remember my dad sitting in our backyard when I was growng up, eating oranges until supper time, a pile of rhinds slowly growing beside him. I've turned into my dad.

This year, the farmers have just celebrated the end of their harvests, and the tourists are scrambling for the last few available boxes of premium fruits. Fruits lacking in appearance will go into jams and juices. It seems like a good time to consider the question: What exactly is a tankan?

The last of the Tarumi #1's
waiting for  selection
and shipment.
By the Wikipedia definition they originated from a spontaneous hybrid of a tangerine and a naval orange. Tankans were first introduced to Japan from Taiwan, and production in Yakushima started in earnest 55 years or so ago. Today, they are one of Yakushima's main exports, and the harvest season is from February to early March. So just when Japan could use an extra dose of vitamin C to fight off the flue season, the tankans come into season, said to be packed with twice the vitamin C of mandarin oranges.

Okay, who do these belong to?
Somebody left this odd pair
at the bus stop.

The little fruit covers would be
cute even if they weren't pink!

Don't forget ponkan tangerines!

"Correctly" peeled tankan rhind.
You can find two strains of tankans in Yakushima, although few people could identify them at a glance. There is the zairai, or heirloom, variety, and the selectively bred Tarumi #1. The zairais hit the market well before the warmth of spring has come. They have an intense flavor that I love, but many people are turned off by the abundant seeds. The Tarumi #1 is sweeter, usually bigger, easier to eat, and has very few seeds.

But even within each strain, there is a lot of variation depending on growing conditions. I asked a grower at the end-of-harvest dinner about this and learned the following: Fruits growing near the bottom of the tree tend to have more nutrients, and therefore have more concentrated qualities, while those too near the top may be watery, or have a big, bubbly appearance. Later, while trying my hand at fruit QC, I learned that the vibrant orange color depends on exposure to direct sunlight, and those growing in the partial shade of a leaf or two develop a nice gold-to-orange two tone skin. Flavor and nutrition content also depend on exposure to sunlight.

So if sunlight is good, what's the deal with all those socks? Hehe. Those covers are meant to keep the  brown-eared bulbuls from pecking holes in all the fruits. I don't know if it works or not, and not everybody uses them, but they sure look cute!

I should also mention Yakushima's other big citrus export, ponkan tangerines, which have been grown in Yakushima for 90 years. If the Tarumi #1's aren't mellow enough for you, then ponkans, harvested in December through January may fit the bill.

And finally, how to eat a tankan: It's hard to go wrong, but the general opinion is that it's easiest to peel it from the bottom and work around in a circle like you would peel an apple.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Sanbon Sugi gets a physical.

If you've been following my blog, you may know that visitors can no longer see Jomon Sugi from the "front," because a health exam a little over a year ago found that the overhanging limb is hollow -- as it may have been for hundreds of years -- and was deemed hazardous to those standing below. But just how do you go about evaluating the health of a tree that's older than Jesus?

This January, I went to the local Forestry office and asked. Fully expecting to be shown a stack of papers and research reports, I was thrilled by the answer:
Why don't you come along and see for yourself?

The Patient: Sanbon Sugi
The next examination coming up was for a tree named 三本杉 -- Sanbon Sugi, or, literally, Three Sugi Trees, in English. This tree isn't on the list of milleniarians, but, according to the head of the research team, it received its name well before any of its famous Yakusugi associates. Not only does this threesome of inosculated (I'm impressed if you don't have to google inosculation!) trees stand along the
That's a bottle of
Mitake shochu behind
the inscribed stone.
Kusukawa Trail used by Edo-period loggers to access Yakushima's interior, but it's a holy tree. In fact, there is a small shrine recognizable by the carved stone nestled among the trunks. Over hundreds of years, the tree has grown up around this stone, so that the dedication is only partly visible.


Sanbon Sugi, measurement sticks
in place.
Once there, the head scientist bowed to the shrine, and then they set up tools for standard measurements, laying out tape measures and standing a ten-meter-high pole next to one of the trunks. We all backed away and tried to estimate the height of the tree -- not an easy feat in a dense forest. I counted out 24 meters to a space where I could see both the top and bottom of the tree, and then took out my cell phone (got to love smartphone apps!) to measure the angle. Others estimated how many ten-meter poles would be required to reach the top. The team leader, a local well-versed in both about nature and local lore, took out a surveying device that looked a bit like a mini-telescope that measured both and angles to calculate height. Most estimates fell around 24 meters, although both my cellphone and the surveying device gave something closer to 30m. The leader jotted down the height and environmental conditions and sketched the tree on the long form he carried.

Circumference is measured at the highest point 1.3 m above the ground.

Coins removed and returned
to the shrine. Did you know one-yen contain aluminum, which is bad for the environment?

Soil Observations: Testing the firmness of the soil. Note the book of swatches on the ground.
The next measurement was circumference (and thereby diameter) of each trunk. This is measured at 1.3 meters from the ground, so that the sprawling roots don't overblow the measurements. Then parameter of the roots. What trees (epiphytes) had taken up root on Sanbon Sugi. (It's not easy to identify a plant that's 12 meters up the side of another tree trunk!) and what plant species were growing in the area. The depth of hollow openings above the roots. A sound-test for hollowness. (All three trunks are hollow.) Estimating how far the branches extend in all directions. The presence of fungus on decaying limbs. (The form called for identification of the fungus, which is something I couldn't do with the fungus in front of my nose, and this fungus was probably 15 meters above. サルノコシカケ, polyporaceae, seemed like a good bet.) Things like that.


Lunchtime was the most interesting for me. I'd racked up a bunch of questions I wanted to ask, but found it was much more interesting to let the group talk about things I hadn't even considered.


In the afternoon we started the soil measurements, which take the most time. A couple holes were dug and the leader expertly documented the soil layers including color, granularity, stiffness, and a bunch of other factors I didn't understand. Apparently these things have been recorded for soils all over Japan, and you can look up the color in this little booklet that must be the world's most expensive book of swatches (to untrained eyes, just like you get for free from the paint store!) to find out the stage of erosion. While the leader concentrated on that the rest of the team took turns boring meter-deep holes by dropping a weight on the end of a sharp-tipped pipe. With each drop, the pole sank a few milleters or maybe even a couple centimeters, and the depth was recorded. The weather forecast had called for partly cloudy skies, but it was much chillier than most of us had anticipated, and I found myself cheering for the pole to sink faster as a shivered and waited.


While the team was documenting all the flora in the area, (omg, they're supposed to know the names of all those ferns?? Wow.) a family of monkeys -- apparently aquaintances of our leader -- stopped by to chat as they foraged nearby.


Sanbon Sugi (according to Yakusugi Museum texts)
Height: 23.4m
Circumference (of largest trunk): 4.9m
Elevation: 550m

Special thanks to the kind and knowledgeable folks in the forestry office and at the Yakushima Forestry Conservation Center.