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
  http://www.fukuoka-edu.ac.jp/~fukuhara/keitai/mamushigusa.html .

Examples of toxic plants containing raphides from
  http://www.petpoisonhelpline.com .

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