Saturday, December 5, 2015

929 Jetfoil: Airplane in the Sea

You can get to Yakushima by airplane. Or you can go by ferry. Or you can go by something in between: The Boeing/Kawasaki 929-115 JETFOIL, also known as the "Airplane in the Sea."

Also known as the High-speed ferry (高速船), Toppy (a local word meaning "flying-fish"), Cosmoline, and Rocket, you can buy your tickets on the Japanese website.

Let's not get this confused with a hovercraft. While both hydrofoils and hovercraft work on the concept that a boat can go faster if it can get it's haul out of the water, that's pretty much where the similarities end.

Boeing touts their passenger hydrofoil craft as "smooth," "fast," and "as quiet as a conventional auto ferry." Because it rides mostly above the water, it creates much less wake than conventional boats, and the way it "platforms" across the water gives a very stable ride without all the sea-sick rocking. I think it feels like riding in an airplane that never takes off.

When Boeing launched the $6 million (now a used one costs more like $8mil) 250-seat, 45-knot/50mph 929 craft in 1974, they called it the JETFOIL, the marriage of jet-engine propulsion and lift from wing-shaped foils. It's just like a jet airplane except that it works with jets of water and the foils are underwater.

This copy of a drawing printed in the April 1973 issue of Popular Science, after Boeing announced the JETFOIL project, shows the position of the hydrofoils. Although they live up to specs, they never became as popular in the states as the article's author envisioned*

When "hullborne," it can turn on a dime and even pull into port almost sideways! Once the 929 leaves the dock and starts to pick up speed, aft and forward "wings" are lowered below the craft. Then it "takes off" and becomes "foilborne." (I'm not sure that's a real word, but you'll see it if you ride the JETFOIL.) It uses an automated stabilization system and flaps to steer, and gives a very smooth ride as it platforms across waves up to 12ft/4m. (12ft is quoted from a Pop Sci article, but I've experienced it! It's true!) Quoting from Popular Mechanics:

To give an idea of the Jetfoil's tremendous power, her twin engines consume 450 to 500 gallons of jet fuel an hour. It takes as much fuel to do 20 knots on the hull as 40 knots on the foils--dramatic evidence of the efficiency and economy of hydrofoil travel. *
For more hydrofoil basics, check out Hydrofoil World.

My conception of a hydrofoil "platforming" across the waves.

I'd never heard of a JETFOIL before my first trip to Yakushima, and if you haven't either, that's not surprising: Only 45 have ever been built and most of these are in service in east Asia. Boeing got out of the business in the 1980s, and the most prolific builder is currently Kawasaki of motocycle and jetski fame. They have a cute webpage with routes and FAQ of 929s running in Japan. (I guess it wasn't worth paying the web-designer to bring the 929 page up to par with the Ninja Z.) You can see the whole line-up of Kawasaki-made 929s on this Chinese page, and if you look at the list of former operators on Wikipedia, you'll see that some of the current Yaku Tane fleet had a glamorous past: Rocket 2 was a royal Saudi yacht called the Prince AbdulAziz II, Rocket 1 was called the Emerald Wing, and Toppy 5 was commissioned by a Mediterranean operator and called Princess Teguise. Each Yaku Tane boarding pass stub features one of the boats, so you can save your ticket stubs and collect the whole fleet!

Of course, there are a lot of other hydrofoil craft. A plethora of pictures of
historic and modern hydrofoil crafts have been gathered in a post on Dark Roasted Blend. Apparently, passenger hydrofoils were quite popular in the Soviet Union where Rostislav E. Alexeyev developed the first commercially viable passenger craft (called the Raketa, or Rocket, just like some of the Yaku Tane boats). Then he took things a step farther and developed the notorious Ekranoplanssuper-sized planes that utilized the "ground-effect" to cruise just above the water.

An article from The Register points out that you can see an ekranoplan in Google Maps at 42.8817 47.657.

During their history of operation off of Kagoshima the 929s have only been involved in a couple incidents of hitting "obstacles" . The most recent occurred in 2012 when Toppy 1 was said to have hit a whale (. . . and no one has a picture of said whale? By the way, Toppy 1 got some new paint, was renamed the Seven Islands Tomo, and now runs between Tokyo and the Izu islands.) So enjoy the ride, but wear your seatbelt!

After all this online reading about hydrofoils, I'm left with one question: When can I get my Rinspeed Splash?

*Kocivar, Ben. Jumbo Jetfoil will be super-fast, super-smooth. Popular Science, April 1973, p. 76-78, 152.
*Kulkopf, Bjorn. Ocean Flight by Jetfoil. Popular Mechanics, April 1976, p. 75, 186.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Filmy Ferns - Not everything in the Moss Forest is moss!

This Japanese cypress in Shiratani
sports a glowing crown of filmy ferns.
The spot called the "Moss Forest,"
wouldn't look so mossy without
its filmy ferns .
Leaves so thing the light shines
through are supported by
a network of viens.

Several species can
be found in Yakushima.
While hiking through Yakushima's old-growth forests, look up at the spreading branches of ancient trees, caked with layers of spongy green moss. But look again. Is moss the only thing up there?

From towering tree ferns reminiscent of a prehistoric jungle to large forked sprays fit for New Years decorations, ferns abound in Yakushima from the coasts to the mountains. However, when hiking through the dark and damp, lush and mossy forests, one of the most prolific, visible, and very beautiful families often goes overlooked:

The Filmy Ferns

I suppose it really shouldn't be a surprise that this family is often clumped together with unrelated mosses by the casual hiker. Many filmy ferns have leaves that are roughly the same size and shape as a sprig of moss such as Plagiochila pulcherrima (ウツクシハネゴケ, literally "beautiful feather moss"). And filmy ferns have similar growing habits: They thrive in moist places. On humid days, the leaves fan out, and on dryer days, they shrivel up.

If you look up at the sky through the leaves of a filmy fern or moss, you can see sunlight seeping through. Beautiful. Both mosses and filmy ferns seem to glow in the sunlight, especially after a good rain. The body of these translucent leaves is (with few exceptions) only one layer of cells thick.  They lack a waxy epidermis and pores (stomata) that allow many so many plants to breathe without drying out.

There are about fifteen species of filmy ferns recognized in Yakushima. Of these, seven species belong to the genus Hymenophyllum. They are easily confused with each other, and I can't yet keep them straight, but let's not confuse them with mosses!

If you are not sure what is moss and what is a filmy fern, you are in good company, but if you consider the size of the leaves, it becomes immediately obvious: This simple vascular systems of mosses they can (usually) only support leaves on the scale of millimeters, or less. One leaf of the filmy fern Hymenophyllum barbatum (コウヤコケシノブ) is roughly the size of a whole specimen of P. pulcherrima, consisting of hundreds and hundreds of leaves.

Another difference is the stems. Again, because of lack of a vascular system, mosses don't tend to have long dangly stems between leaves, but the leaves of filmy ferns are connected by creeping, threadlike stems, and one plant can cover quite a large area.

 No matter how much area they cover and how dense they grow, both mosses and ferns readily dry out and shrivel when a dry spell comes through, but will perk up again with a little rain. Many people feel that the Moss Forest is most beautiful when the sun comes out right after a shower and shines through all those refreshed layers of green, but after a couple days of sun, the effect is lost.

Close up of part of a leaf. The body of the leaf
is one cell-layer thick.
The forest comes alive when the
filmy ferns catch the first rays
of morning light.
Like moss, filmy ferns rely on moist

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Nomado Cafe

The colorful, heavy plastic sandals sold here
are the footwear of choice of many locals. 

Nomado cafe hardly needs an introduction. Despite being located on the main road well outside of town, it is quite well-known around the island, and with good reason.

Opening the door reveals a friendly atmosphere. Photos from Southeast Asia and books on Yakushima, as well as various ceramics, glassware, hammocks, and plastic sandals to buy add to the light and colorful interior. Seating has the relaxed feeling of an eternal brunch-time.

The menu is limited, but not for want of variety. This isn't the typical cake&coffee cafe. Two different lunches -- a spicy minced chicken and a curry with a tropical flare -- for hungry guests, and for everyone else there are specialty-flavor gelatos and a drink menu with an extensive line-up of teas.

I happened to have already eaten lunch, so I opted for a sweet chai tea and honey-milk gelato made with local honey. Tasty way to brighten up any day!

Nomado Cafe
Location: 565 Hara (30.2434,130.5746) Just west of the Dobuchigawa (泥渕川) bus stop.
Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 11:30am to 5pm. Lunch served until 2:30pm.*

*Hours are subject to change, so please call the restaurant or check ahead. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Getting to Yakushima

This topic has been done by many others, so I hope you'll forgive me for leaving out the details.
Basically, there are four ways you can get to Yakushima using public transportation.

1. Fly with JAL Commuter Service.
Expensive, but fast and sometimes more reliable than sea travel.
Direct flights are offered daily to/from Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kagoshima. Folks flying from Tokyo can transfer in Kagoshima. Book 75 days in advance or look for campaign discounts for savings of over 50%. Transfers in Kagoshima are fairly hassle-free, and the Yakushima Airport is so tiny it feels more like a bus station. Most likely you'll fly on a DC8-Q400, which is a 74-seat prop plane that feels a lot smaller than it is. Although the planes are pretty reliable in rain and moderate wind, they cannot land in Yakushima if there is too much fog. (And you can't leave Yakushima until the plane you want to board lands!)

2. Skim across the water on a Toppy high-speed ferry (jetfoil).
See my post about Jetfoils!
Not as expensive as flying, and slightly more flexible.
As of writing, seats cost 16100 yen round-trip. Note that the schedule changes with the season, but the ride usually takes around two hours. Boats go to both the communities of Miyanoura and Anbo. You can also do a day-trip to the neighboring island of Tanegashima. The website is currently in Japanese, but try this link: .Unfortunately, I cannot do it for you at this time unless you are booking a hike with me, but I do hope to offer this service, soon!

As a bonus, sometimes you can see flying fish if you crane your neck towards the rear of the craft. Because the jetfoil can travel straighter than the contour of the waves, you probably won't feel seasick unless the waves are several meters tall.

3. Stretch out on the Yakushima2 Ferry.
Cheap, easy, relaxing, but slow and not so reliable.
It's cheap (8900 yen as of writing), you don't (usually) need a reservation, and you can take lots of luggage, but the schedule doesn't fit everyone's needs, and the boat doesn't always run. The boat departs from Kagoshima at 8:30am and gets in to Miyanoura at 12:30. Then it departs again for Kagoshima at 13:30 and gets in around 17:40. The boat may be delayed or canceled in strong wind or waves. Sometimes it is docked for repairs for several days, so check the website.

You can relax in the lounge, order noodles, watch for flying fish from the deck, or even take a shower if you need to.

4. Travel like freight on the Ferry Hibiscus.
Dirt cheap, but it takes a long time, and it feels in no way like a passenger vessel.
First, you'll need to take a train to Saka no Ue Station and catch a taxi from the cab company next door to the station. There's a sign for the bus stop, but I don't see any sign of a bus. Also, bring food and bedding if you need it because the boat departs at 18:00 and gets in to Yakushima at 7am the next morning. You'll have some carpeted floor space to sit on in a room with a television, blankets, and mini-pillows, but that's all. From Yakushima it leaves at 8:20 and gets into the port near Kagoshima at 14:40. (You'll want to call a cab from there.) Cost is 3600 yen each way at time of writing. Keep in mind this is mostly a freight ferry, and it feels like it.

Perhaps even more importantly than getting to Yakushima, is leaving from Yakushima. Please keep in mind that flights and boats may be delayed or canceled due to weather. I strongly advise that you keep a buffer of several days before travelling internationally after you leave Yakushima. Also, if you go scuba-diving, you'll want to keep that in mind when booking flights, too.

Pack List for Day Hikers

Much of this is going to seem pretty obvious to experienced hikers, but there's a few things you may have overlooked if this is your first time in Yakushima. 

Pack Essentials
Backpack: A rain-cover highly recommended, but don't expect the rain-cover to keep your pack dry if it rains sufficiently; instead, take plastic or ziploc bags for your valuables. You can use a garbage bag as a cheap pack-liner.

Breakfast & Lunch: Depending on where you are staying, you can order a boxed breakfast and boxed lunch (called a bento) the evening before the hike and pick it up before you board the bus. Ask at your accommodation. Note that there are no trash-bins at the trail heads nor along the trails.

Disposable Toilet Pack & Toilet Paper: Can't go five hours without a toilet? Then you probably want to invest 250 to 500 on a toilet pack to use at a booth in the mountains as well as some toilet paper, but remember that you'll have to carry the contents back to the trail head with you. Disposable toilet packs are also highly recommended for crowded days and for folks going on two-day hikes. The nicest disposable toilet booth on this trail is shortly after Daio-Sugi (大王杉), before entering the World Heritage Site. There is no toilet booth at Jomon Sugi.

Map: You can get a black-and-white printout of the trail from an information booth. Especially if you are not hiring a guide, please bring a map!

Water Bottle: 500ml~1L is fine for most day hikes, but you may need more if you sweat a lot or if the weather has been dry. You can fill up just about anywhere the water looks clean. I don't recommend drinking the water immediately below a mountain hut, bathroom, in front of Wilson's Stump (because there used to be a toilet-pit nearby), or at lower elevations around towns. No filters or tablets necessary.

Watch: Watch your time. For Jomon Sugi hikers, plan to reach the end of the train tracks by 10am at the latest and note any bus connections you need to make at the end of the hike.

Headlamp: In the summer months, it may be fine to leave the trail head at daybreak, but if for some reason your return is delayed, you don't want to be walking back in the dark.

Light spikes and eizen: If the forecasted low is below 8 degrees, there's a good chance of encountering ice. Light, slip-on spikes work great on the railroad tracks heading towards Jomon Sugi, while light-eizen are advisable for snowy conditions. If you hire a guide, usually he/she will have these for you.

Hiking poles: Poles can be a hindrance if you're not used to using them. If you are young and do not have knee problems, I think it's easiest to have both hands free to grab tree roots and trunks on most trails. However, poles can be quite useful when there's snow on the trail, and they can take a lot of pressure off your knees if used properly. Please put rubber caps on your poles to preserve the trail.
Umbrella: Use of an umbrella is not advised while hiking. However, some people do use umbrellas while walking the train tracks from the Arakawa Trail Head towards Jomon Sugi. Please be aware that the tracks can get slippery, and, please, don't use it while crossing bridges! It is nice to have an umbrella for lunch and break times, and in case you have to stop along the trail.

Sunscreen & Sunglasses: Most people are fine without sunscreen for forest hikes such as Jomon Sugi or Shiratani Unsuikyo trails. However, if you are hiking in the interior mountains, you may need these.

Bug Repellant: Especially for hiking above 500m altitude, I don't think you need it. Sometimes there are bugs around toilet areas, horseflies in summer months, and there can be quite a few leeches on minor trails, but I recommend avoiding these areas if you can't tolerate the bugs.

Trash Bag: Use it as a pack-liner, or use it as gloves if someone should injure themselves and start bleeding. Finally, use it to carry out your trash.

Camera: Bring a plastic bag or ziploc just in case. If it's raining, consider taking pictures on your way back from Jomon Sugi. I've seen cameras stop working after several hours of mist. (Even waterproof cameras can be affected by humidity.)

Cell Phone: Just like the camera, safeguard your cell phone from rain. You may get a clear signal around mountain tops, between the Jomon Sugi observation deck and Takatsuka Hut, and a couple other places along the trail. But otherwise you may want to turn it off or set it to "air-plane mode" to protect it and keep the battery from draining as it searches for a signal.

Winter Gear: An axe and other preparations are advised for hikers above the tree-line in the winter, but I do not take hikers when I believe conditions may be dangerous. I've never heard a a successful snowshoeing expedition in Yakushima. Be aware that in such conditions the road to the trail head may freeze.

Rain Gear: Think 6-10 meters of rain in a year and 100% humidity. This trail is pretty hike-able in all but the worst conditions, but weather changes fast here, and the weather forecast for Yakushima is not intended to cover the mountain trails. If the a good storm catches you in a garbage-bag poncho, you may feel like garbage. Beware of "water-resistant" clothing, which is not intended for ten hours of rain, or one hour with over ten centimeters! Also, if you are hiking with others, realize that you may have to wait in the rain for others in your group.

Breathable waterproofs like Goretex are highly recommended. If you don't have both pants and a jacket, stop by a rental shop the afternoon before your hike, and pick up a set for 1,000 yen.

Hiking Boots/Shoes: Flip flops seldom last the whole way, and they're no good with nail heads and mud. Waterproof hiking boots or grippy trail runners are great. Sneakers are okay but slippery. Expect your shoes to get muddy. No matter what you wear, if there's enough rain, it's going to end up inside your shoes.

Pants: I know everyone loves their jeans, but soggy jeans are not fun. (If you're planning a backpacking tour of Japan, I suggest a pair of fast-drying synthetic pants that take up half the volume and weight as a pair of jeans, and if you wash them at night, they'll be dry (or nearly dry) in the morning.)

Shirt: Synthetics dry faster than cotton.

Extra Clothes: Essential in cooler months, an extra fleece or a change of clothes is also nice for the ride back after a rainy hike.

Gloves: Don't expect them to keep your hands dry, but many folks hike with gloves for comfort and/or warmth.

Hat: To keep the rain out of your eye, and also to keep warm in cooler months.

First Aid Kit: Everyone has their own style. Bandaids, gauze, medications, and tape are a good place to start.  If you hire a guide, of course, your guide should be carrying a kit.

Especially if you are hiking on your own.

Compass: If you get lost, I recommend staying where you are (or going uphill to try and make cell phone contact in some cases) and blowing your whistle, but there are often stories of folks who bump their heads, get turned around, and head the wrong way, or just make a Marker Tape:wrong turn at the trail head.

Marker Tape: This is for emergencies only. If you get lost and resort to using marker tape, please tell someone so that it can be removed lest others follow your mistaken footsteps.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Craft your own Yakusugi Chopsticks

These days, it's hard to find a restaurant that does not use disposable chopsticks, but how making a pair that could outlast you? It's the perfect Japanese gift with a personal touch, it doesn't require a lot of time and money, and there are several studios around the island set up for guests to make chopsticks. Crafting a set of chopsticks will also give you a bit of incite into the properties of the Yakusugi wood. Oh, and you can do it even in bad weather.

Of course, if you don't have time to make your own, you can always buy a set. either way, you'll probably want to keep in mind two things:

1. Practicality
Yakusugi wood (and Japanese cedar wood, in general) is not hard like ebony, but rather flexible, and the chopsticks should be quite strong and durable so long as the grain runs the length of the stick. In fact, Sugi no Ya displays unusual chopsticks that have been purposely crafted to match the curve of the wood, each chopstick fitting perfectly against its partner. Because a craftsman's hands will tend to naturally follow the grain of wood, hand-crafted chopsticksweather straight or curvedare more valuable than bulk-machined chopsticks. It probably goes without saying that, although burly wood with gnarled, twisted grain is highly prized in artistic pie

Chopsticks of varying prices.
The set on the left has the
most expensive price tag.
2. Aesthetics
Yakusugi is known for very fine grain, and basic chopsticks are priced according to how well they show off this grain. For chopsticks with a square cross-section, finely grained wood can be cut at an angle so that the grain is visible on all four sides of the stick. Some people also favor wood that is ripply or dark with oil, or otherwise unique.

This spring, I watched two chopstick-crafting sessions, one at Takeda Sangyou, and one conducted by Mr. Sennin of Sugi no Ya. The methodology and final products could not have been more different.

Takeda Sangyou
At Takeda Sangyou, participants start with two perfectly-cut blocks of wood with beautifully fine, straight grain. Three grades of sandpaper are used to shape and polish the blocks into chopsticks that look just like the ones sold in the gift shop. This is a task that doesn't require more physical prowess, and there's not a whole lot that can go wrong. The chopsticks are then dipped in fixative, blow dried, and packaged, just like the ones in the store. If you like neatness and precision and you want a gift that is easily appreciated, or you're afraid of a chisel, I recommend Takeda Sangyou.

**Update: Takeda Sangyou has replaced chopstick-making with hand-polishing of premium pieces of Yakusugi wood, so that you take something home that is more like a gemstone than a stick. You can still see the factory, but the polishing is done in the relaxed setting of an indoor annex.

**Update: I plan to upload information on the Higashigawa workshop near Anbo soon.

Participants in Mr. Sennin's workshop start with two blocks that have been hand-split. The grain may not be fine nor perfectly straight, but each set possesses a bit of individuality. Participants use a chisel--which takes a bit more finesse than sandpaper--to shape the chopsticks, and then buff the completed set with a brush-like tool made of reeds. If you're a fan of the "wabisabi" aesthetic or you want a bit more of a challenge, I recommend Mr. Sennin.

Caring for your chopsticks:
Care depends on how the chopsticks are finished. For example, because Yakusugi oil does not solidify, chopsticks that have not been fixed will need to be oiled every so often, so ask when you make or buy chopsticks.

There are several places around the island where you can make chopsticks. Most prefer that you call a day or more in advance and make a reservation.

Takeda Sangyou (武田産業)
Price: 2700+ yen depending on the wood
Time: Unlimited during business hours, reservation not required.
Location: Takeda Sangyou, Anbo 650-18 (30.3225,130.6569)

Sennin-san (仙人さん, workshops at two locations)
Price: 1100 yen
Time: 40~50min.
Location: Senin Mura, Mianoura 2567-2 (30.4109,130.56752)
Session Times: 9:00am or 2:30pm
Location: Sugi no Ya, next to the airport (30.3822,130.6594)
Session Times: 10:30am, 1:30pm, or 16:00pm

*Times and prices subject to change. Please inquire at each location to make a reservation.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mother-of-Pearl Accesories from WaRaku--and you can make one yourself, too!

Dr. Tagami said he spent
about two weeks on this
piece. Incredible!
The word Yakushima has been written with many different characters over the years; one of these "spellings" is 夜光島, with the characters for yakougai, the green turban shell known as a source of exquisite mother-of-pearl. I first ran across these characters shortly after arriving on the island, and I henceforth assumed that Yakushima had a long tradition of shell crafts. My assumption was further bolstered by an exhibit of finely carved mother-of-pearl figurines at last year's cultural festival. So the other day when I passed small flyer for carved mother-of-pearl accessories and a try-it-yourself workshop offered I decided to stop by and find out what this was all about. My assumptions, it turned out, were completely wrong. Mother-of-pearl crafting is just getting started in Yakushima!

Hard to forget seeing
something like this!
The address on the flyer was for Minshuku Waraku, (A minshuku is like a private inn, or a bed&breakfast, or a spare room that the owner rents out to guests.) which is just behind the new roast-beef lunch stand in Anbo. Waraku is a bit unusual because in addition to the owner's family and visiting guests, it also houses the owner's medical practice. Dr.  Tagami, it turns out, is a professional bone-setter.

Anyways, only when I pulled up to Waraku did I realize that the accommodation, the medical practice, and the mother-of-pearl accessories that I'd spotted in select  gift shops had anything to do with each other. After Dr. Tagami beckoned me out of the rain and into the foyer, I immediately spotted the figurines and carved shells from last year's cultural festival on the counter.

A hunting knife with a handle
fashioned from Yakusugi wood
and a Yakushika deer antler.
"Wait, are you the one who made these pieces?" I asked. I did a double-take when he said one of them would have taken about two weeks of spare time. I had assumed it would have taken years. He also explained that there really aren't many folks working with mother-of-pearl on the island. He was pretty much alone when he started dabbling in mother-of-pearl six or seven years ago. After his first piece, Dr. Tagami himself just kept receiving more large green turban shells and requests for various pieces, and so he just developed from there. What about the 夜光島 characters? It seems that there was a time when Yakushima was a major source of green turban shells for the Kinki region.

What about the tools? Do you need special tools for carving things like this?

He says the equipment is a lot like a dentist's drills, just less expensive. Would I like to see? He invites me to walk either through the doctor's office or around the veranda to his little workshop.

Clients often bring materials
available to them.
The workshop is chock-full of turban shells, abalone shells, coral, deer antlers and skulls, fragments of quartz and pieces of Yakusugi. There's an anvil and a DIY forge blocking the entrance, large fans, and sets of drills and bits and grinders and polishers, but indeed, nothing too high-tech. In fact, a pretty descent setup for mother-of-pearl work can be put together for under 50000 yen, he says. He explains that he's been experimenting with syntheses of different materials available in Yakushima and hopes to produce truly original goods.

His work is presently available in two shops: Honu (in Mugyo), and also in Hirauchi. (Oh dear, the name of the place has slipped my mind. I'll post it soon!) But he likes to take special requests, and he's excited when people come in to learn how to do it themselves.

I have to admit, I would never
have guessed he's a doctor,
until he started working!
Perfect. Because this is rainy season, and, believe it or not, I don't like hiking in the rain for days on end. Usually, he suggests that folks plan to spend several hours and go home with three pieces: First, he shows them how it's done from start-to-finish by creating a piece as they watch. (It's kind of hard to talk when you're working with the fan on.) Second, he cuts out a piece, and lets the client polish it. Third, the client creates a piece on their own.

He offers to show me and asks what shape I would like. Uh. . . how about a star? He searches around for an appropriate piece of shell and turns the fan on. Then the magic starts. He works quickly and methodically, exchanging drill bits and drills and polishers, and proving that the chaotic-looking workshop is in fact highly ordered. His hands do not shake or falter as his fingers work right next to the cutting edge. A few minutes later he has produced a highly polished star. 
Accessories made by Dr. Tagami. He made the star while I watched.

A simple piece like this, he explains, might sell for 500 yen in a shop, but he can't give a set price or time frame for clients without knowing what sort of pieces they hope to make. It's obvious he's not in this for the money, though. Anyways, the workshop is small, so only one person can work at a time, and he recommends that no more than two folks visit together.

Reservations are not necessary, but it's a good idea, because, of course, he has his other business, too. ^^

I was amazed by the precision and speed with which Dr. Tagami worked, and I'm excited to think up my own idea and try my own hand. Two words: DIY and creativity. Mother-of-pearl craft may not have a long history in Yakushima, but perhaps the tradition is just getting started.

Yakushima Minshuku WaRaku (屋久島民宿和楽)
Location: Anbo 739-146 (30.3262,130.6575)


Monday, June 22, 2015

Isaribi - Authentic Yakushima Cooking

Alright, I'm going to be bluntly honest: If you're looking for a quiet, peaceful dinner, you should probably go somewhere else, and if you eat at the counter, you should be prepared for a bit of clamour from the kitchen. (One could argue a bit of clamour shows how close the staff are to each other.)

But the food is so darn good it makes up for all the fuss and then some. Isaribi is extremely popular, and you'll want to make a reservation during the tourist season. It's hard to visit Yakushima without being served a flying fish fried whole or broken-neck mackerel sashimi, (and you can eat those here too! In fact, the mackerel is very good!) but this is my next recommendation to excite your taste buds. Very Japanese, very Yakushima, and very good.

Closing a rainy day with an original
fish&yama-imo porridge (left front)
and ocha-dzuke!

The menu has a rather skillful English translation, although I don't think English does Japanese cooking justice. Set meals run around 1400 yen, or you can order several individual dishes. There's a lot of tempura, a lot of sea food, some ocha-dzuke (rice, topping, and tea that you mix together and eat like a porridge) dishes, and a whole bunch more. Many dishes incorporate locally popular foods like mackerel or gooey grated Japanese yams called yama-imo. The chef often watches proudly from the kitchen to see your reaction to your first bite. I never let him down.

Location: Miyanoura 2450−64 (30.4205,130.5813), on the main road near the high school.
Hours: 5pm-21:30pm (I believe.) Closed on Wednesdays.*

*Hours are subject to change, so please call the restaurant or check ahead.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Abridged List of Yakusugi

If you're reading this, chances are you have also heard about Yakusugi, the Japanese cedar trees (Cryptomeria Japonica, or sugi in Japanese) on Yakushima that have grown to an age of one to three thousand years--perhaps even older!

Where can we see them? How many are there? What makes the famous Jomon Sugi special? What makes them different from normal Japanese cedar trees? I could write a book trying to answer all these questions, but for now, let me answer the first. (To find out more, the Yakusugi Museum is a great place to start. In fact, most of the measurements and estimates listed below are quoted from Museum publications.)

In Edo times, loggers cut down 50 to 70 percent of the large old-growth Japanese cedar trees on Yakushima, and countless more were felled in the 20th century. Those that were spared were too remote, not of desirable quality (Remember that Edo-period loggers were looking for straight, easy-to-split lumber, not beautiful burl!), or set aside for other reasons. (For example, trees in recreational forests like Yakusugiland or Shiratani were spared the axe in the second half of the twentieth century.) Of the Yakusugi left, especially noteworthy or easily accessible Yakusugi (as well as a few others named after people) have been given names. I should mention that over the years as logging villages have closed and Yakushima's network of trails has developed, some of these are no longer so accessible and others have fallen down. There are also many noteworthy non-Yakusugi trees that have been given names (such as Sanbon Sugi and Nidai Oh Sugi in Shiratani) and quite a few fabulous Yakusugi without official names. I have excluded most of these from this list.

So, without further ado, here are some great places for encountering Yakusugi Trees and the named Yakusugi you are likely to see there. *Yakusugi* set in asterisks are those I personally recommend.


I can't overstate how much this wonderful recreational forest park outshines its name. With short trails for non-hikers and longer trails for experienced hikers, this is a fantastic place for hiking, especially if you want to see Yakusugi.
  1. *Buddha Sugi, 仏陀杉* (est. 1800 years old, 8m circumference)
    This is my favorite tree in the park and can be accessed by a brief stop off of the 50-minute course. Gnarled and hollow and home for many other trees, the original tree does not have a lot of leaves left. I seem to recall hearing that in the early days of the park, it was popular among students to climb into the hollow space, but the tree is obviously too elderly to sustain such abuses.
  2. Sennen Sugi, 千年杉 (est. 1000 years old)
    Easily accessible on the 30-minute course of walkways and stairs, this relatively "young" Yakusugi marks the size of a thousand years. A Japanese wheel tree wraps around the trunk as if to show visitors how big an epiphyte can grow.
  3. Hige Chourou, ヒゲ長老 (est. 100 years old, 9.5 m circumference)
    Named by an elementary student during the celebration of 10th anniversary of World Heritage status, this tree's name means something like, "Beardy elder." With a beard of moss and fern, it blends in quite well with the surrounding forest.
  4. Tenchu Sugi, 転注杉 (est. 1500 years old, 8.2m circumference)
    The typhoon winds that blow through Yakushima's mountains almost annually and occasional lightning strikes are not favorable to tall trees, and at a height of around 34 meters, this is one of the tallest Yakusugi.
  5. Oyako Sugi, 親子杉 (Two trunks, both est. 2600 years old, 9.0m and 6.3m circumferences)
    The name meaning "parent-child" is great for these two trees that have grown together. One of the trunks is dead, but it remains standing next to the other. If you're with a friend, try to capture the enormity of the double-trunks by having them walk a few meters farther along the trail and take your photo while you stand by the sign placard.
  6. Mitsune Sugi, 三根杉 (est. 1,100 years old, 9.3m circumference)
    This tree looks like it is standing on three legs. Perhaps the tree first grew atop of another tree's stump that has since disintegrated. You'll find a lot of similar examples of spaces left by decay, but this phenomenon is particularly obvious in the case of Mitsune Sugi. Unfortunately, it doesn't lend itself easily to photography.
    If that's not enough to quench your appetite, there are also trails leading the prepared hiker out of Yakusugiland into forests inhabited by many more Yakusugi:
  • *Shaka Sugi, 釈迦杉* (est. 2,000 years old)
    A hike up to Tenmon no Mori and Tacchu Dake passes this beautifully whitened tree by a stream. There are a few Yakusugi on this trail, but this one definitely stands out, even though it has no sign.
  • Oda Sugi, 小田杉 (est. 2,500 years, 8.2m circumference)
    Close to Shaka Sugi, this is another of the Yakusugi Trees that hikers to Tenmon no Mori and Tacchu Dake will see. Like Shaka Sugi, it has no sign, and it is easily missed. In fact, I've just realized that I don't seem to have a single photo of it!

  • *Yamato Sugi, 大和杉* (est. 3~4,000 years old, 10.2m circumference)
    Hikers who want to be alone in the deep forest will enjoy the winding trek to one of the largest remaining Yakusugi. (Although you might find the journey quite hellish if you have weak knees!) I suspect that it's location in a valley has protected it from winds over the millenia and allowed it to gro to it's current stature. With a height around 35m, however, taking photos is quite a challenge.

Roadside Yakusugi

Even visitors who cannot walk can see two Yakusugi trees. Both of these trees are located next to the road between Yakusugiland and the Yodogawa Trail Head.
  1. *Kigen Sugi, 紀元杉* (est. 3,000 years old, 8.1m circumference)
    I believe this old Yakusugi is about 6 kilometers beyond Yakusugiland, and people riding the pubic bus can even take a leisurely stop at Kigen Sugi before visiting Yakusugiland. A walkway leads down and around the tree, taking visitors within an arm's length of its majesty. Although it may look full of life, a closer inspection reveals that the trunk is home to many other trees including rhododendrons and a sizable Japanese cypress, but ropes have been recently strung up to make sure that the only leaved branch belonging to the original Yakusugi hit someone if it falls down.
  2. Kawakami Sugi, 川上杉 (est. 2000 years old, 8.9m circumference)
    Located beside the road between Kigen Sugi and the Yodogo Trail Head, this tree was named after the engineer who spared the life of this tree by demanding that the road be built around it. Thank you, Mr. Kawakami.

Yodogo/Yodogawa Trail Head

This is the trail head hikers use for day-hikes to Mount Miyanoura, and while there aren't any large trees among the highest mountain peaks, there are a couple not to far from the trail head. Yakusugiland is definitely a better bet if your goal is to see Yakusugi, but so many people come to Yakushima for the purpose of climbing Mount Miyanoura that I think especially the first of these is worth mentioning.
  • *The Yodogo Sugi, 淀川杉*
    The Yodogo Trail is not known for Yakusugi, but about five minutes (maybe ten if you're hiking slowly) up the trail you will pass one beautiful beast on your left. It doesn't have an official name nor a sign, so most people just call it the Yodogo Sugi.
  • The Onoaida Sugi, 尾之間杉
    Much of the Onoaida Trail is too low in elevation to see Yakusugi, but about five minutes (maybe ten if you're hiking slowly) down the trail from the Yodogo Trail Head stands this tree. Like the Yodogo Sugi, it has no official name, but it's sometimes marked on maps as the Onoaida Sugi. It' a splendid tree, but it has no sign, and if you hiked past it without noticing, don't sweat it; hopefully your travels will take you by more Yakusugi.

Oh-Kabu Trail and the Takatsuka area, including Jomon Sugi

Jomon Sugi is the most famous tree in Japan, but a hike there also takes you to a beautiful forest full of Yakusugi trees. Although the trail above Jomon Sugi that continues (in about one or one and a half hours) to the Shin Takatsuka Hut passes by no named Yakusugi, the forest there is also full of many beautiful Yakusugi Trees.
  1. *Jomon Sugi, 縄文杉* (est. 2,170 to 7,200 years old, 16.4m circumference)
    I'm going to have to give this tree it's own blog post because no one can explain the size of this tree and no one knows how old it is! Carbon-dating suggests that it's not much older than 2,000 years, but no other trees in Yakushima come even close to this size. There is another Japanese Cedar of bigger girth in Niigata, but that tree is said to be only 1,400 years old. Although a day hike to Jomon Sugi is 20 to 22 kilometers long, it is one of the most popular destinations in Yakushima, and the trail is highly maintained. For obvious reasons, you are not allowed to touch or approach Jomon Sugi.
  2. *Daiou Sugi, 大王杉* (est. 3,000 years old, 11.1m circumference)
    This is the tree that lost it's crown when the Jomon Sugi was discovered. But its impressive spreading roots captivate hikers in a way that defies comparison to Jomon Sugi. Even though you cannot approach the tree, it's easy to tell that the trunk is hollow. However, carbon-dating has been used to check the age estimate of 3,000 years. When you pass by, notice how the branches reach south towards the sunshine.
  3. *Meoto Sugi, 夫婦杉* (est. 2,000 and 1,500 years old, 10.9m and 5.8m circumference)
    These two trees are conjoined by a long limb, as if holding hands. It is said that the limb was originally extended by the younger tree on the left. I enjoy watching the view of Meoto Sugi and its epiphytes change through the seasons. Many people consider this a very auspicious pair of trees.
  4. Niou Sugi, 仁王杉 (Agyou, 8.3m circumference)
    This tree is next to the trail by the upper-half of the railroad tracks. It is the younger of two trees that stood like a temple's guardian Nio-sama statues; however, it's companion, said to be born around the time of Christ, fell down during a typhoon in the year 2000. I often hear that the remaining tree is probably around 1500 years old, but I can't find a source for that. If you look closely, you will see a large protrusion about halfway up the tree, and you'll see a root leading down and several trunks growing up. It appears that this tree is a conglomeration of Japanese cedars.
  5. Kodakara Sugi (Unofficial name)
    Today, this is the biggest tree on that most hikers on the route to Jomon Sugi will touch. Please be careful with your shoes around the base of the tree! It does not have an official name, but it is affectionately called "Ko-dakara." In English, I might call it the Fertility Tree. Imagine that hole above the burl is a belly-button. . .
  6. (Unnamed)
    I've never heard of a name associated with this tree, and most hikers don't see it because it is on the "nature observation path" above Wilson's Stump. If the staircases are too mundane for you, this is a fun path to take, and you'll get to see this beautiful tree.
    There are also a couple noteworthy stumps along this trail:
  • Wilson Stump, ウイルソン株 (est. 3,000 years old, 13.8m circumference)
    Experience one of those "bigger on the inside" places. Legend has it that this stump was cut down by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to build a large Buddha statue in Kyoto, but it was most likely cut down by Edo period loggers within the past 300 years (judging from the age of the Japanese Cedars growing around it). The famous plant hunter, Earnest Wilson did not discover this stump, but he documented it after visiting Yakushima in 1914. It was named after him in gratitude for his work that brought attention to the importance of the Yakushima's forests. This is one of the few trail-side stumps that visitors are allowえd to enter.
  • Okina Sugi, 翁杉 (est. 2,000 years old, 12.6m circumference)
    What a shame that this tree--covered in so much moss and so many viney roots that th feeling of age inspired its name, which means grandfather--fell down in the fall of 2010, three days before I first visited the island! Nobody saw it happen, and there was no typhoon or strong wind at the time, but a look at the trunk will show you how rotted and hollow it was. (And you really have to wonder if a trail should pass over the roots of such an elderly tree.)

Shiratani Unsuikyo Park

Most famous for the moss forest that inspired the movie, Princess Mononoke, and the Taiko Iwa Lookout, Shiratani is also home to several grand old Yakusugi. The park offers three trails, so hikers can choose the trail that suits their tastes and fitness level as well as the weather. (Shiratani sometimes floods in heavy rain!) Each of these trails passes by a Yakusugi tree.
  1. Yayaoi Sugi, 弥生杉 (est. 3,000 years old, 8.1m circumference)
    My colleague tells me this used to be a splendid Yakusugi and a favorite among visitors twenty years ago, and pictures from 40 years ago also attest to this tree's former glory, but that all that attention has taken its toll. The beautiful one-hour walking course that passes this Yakusugi makes it accessible to visitors unable to hike farther into the park.

  2. *Nanahon Sugi, 七本杉* (8.3m circumference)
    If you'r headed to the famous "Moss Forest," you'll pass this Yakusugi on your way there. The name draws attention to how the main trunk must have snapped long ago, and in its place, the branches have grown upwards, crowning it with five or six massive limbs. (Maybe there were seven branches at one time, but no matter how you count, you won't get seven.)
  3. *Bugyou Sugi, 奉行杉* (8.5m circumference) My favorite tree in the park. It has an ancient air and is covered in so many other plants that it is hard to see the few leaves still sprouting from its higher branches. On the opposite side from the sign are two holes that guests often say remind them of eyes. These are marks left by loggers who, for some reason, had second thoughts about cutting down this tree. It is located on the Bugyou Sugi Course that can flood in heavy rains.

Ryuujin Sugi

A hike up to Ryujin Sugi passes through forest that has been heavily logged in the 20th century, but to be alone with the cicle of huge trees and stumps clustered around Ryujin Sugi is a powerful experience. Highly advised alternate hike if you're thinking of hiking to Jomon Sugi but prefer more solitude.
  1. *Ryuujin Sugi, 龍神杉* (est. 2,000 years old, 11.0m circumference) The name of this tree means Dragon God, and I think you'll agree that it's a well-deserved name.
  2. Raijin Sugi, 雷神杉 (est. 2,000 years old, 11.6m circumference)
    The "Lightning God" Yakusugi may be less famous than Ryuujin Sugi, but it's also incredibly huge.
  3. Fuujin Sugi, 風神杉 (est. 1,500 years old, about 3m around)
    Notice that I didn't say that the circumference of the "Wind God" Yakusugi is 3m. That's because only one side of this tree is remaining! Is it alive? Hmm. . . It somehow reminds me of a waterfall.

  • Nearby Stumps
    There are also a couple of huge stumps in this area. While I haven't seen any official names or measurements for these, I think they are definitely worth mentioning!


The beautiful but strenuous trail up Mt. Mocchomu should be done in daytime by well-prepared hikers. (When the fog rolls in, finding the way back can prove treacherous.) It is a steep but fantastic hike that shows off Yakushima's vertically distributed flora.
  1. *Bandai Sugi, 万代杉* (est. 3,000 years old, 8.6m circumference)
    One of my favorite trees, resting among the roots of this old tree is an experience none of the other named Yakusugi trees can offer. Please be kind to the tree and try not to injure its roots with your hiking boots. It's impossible to miss when hiking to the peak of Mocchomu.
  2. Mocchomu Taro, モッチョム太郎 (9.4m circumference)
    Up the route from Bandai Sugi, signs point to this tree that can be spotted easily from the trail. It makes a wonderful contrast to Bandai Sugi. There is also another Yakusugi on this mountain called Hanako, but Hanako has slipped back into the realm of legend as the trail that used to pass by is no longer in existence.

Hanayama Trail

Fabulous trail through one of the most pristine forests in Yakushima, but it takes some planning. It's usually done as part of a two- or three-day hike across the island's interior. Even though I've only listed one named Yakusugi here, there are plenty of large, impressive trees!
  • *Dairyuu Sugi* (7.1m circumference)
    One of the most contorted Yakusugi on this trail. It's not very tall, and it's branches arch precariously overhead. Compare this to the rather straight and soaring Yakusugi at the Hanayama Hiroba further up the trail.

Of course, these aren't the only Yakusugi in Yakushima! But these are the ones most people come to see. Other trails, such as the trail to Anbo MaeDake (left) also pass by great Yakusugi trees. I hope you will find a tree with which you fee a special connection.

(The circumferences and age estimates I've listed hear are mostly sighted from documents published by the Yakusugi Museum, but a few I just found on the Internet. Circumference is measured at a height of 1.3m from the ground.)