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.)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Cycling in Yakushima

Just like hiking, there are many options for cyclists visiting Yakushima. There are several places you can rent bicycles round the island and if you do a little homework, you'll surely find a ride that fits your style.

Cycling Activities:
From simple transportation between your accommodation and the store, to watching the sunset and the see turtles lay their eggs after the buses have stopped running, to blissful rides through the forest, bicycling is a popular (although exhausting with all these hills!) means of getting around, but for those seeking more, here are a few suggestions:

The West Forest Road (Seiburindou)
On the West side of Yakushima, the road narrows and winds right through the World Natural Heritage Site. (Yes, Yakushima is one of the few places you can drive or cycle through a World Natural Heritage Site.) Cars and tour buses can also use the road, but traffic is less than in other parts of the island and drivers are careful because the road is very windy and this area is particularly famous for deer and monkeys. Large troops forage, frolic, and relax along the road and in the surrounding forests. The road climbs up to an elevation of about 300m, but even if you have to get off your bike and walk part way, most people agree: It's worth it. In fact, you'll want to jump off your bike regularly to watch the animals. But please, do not feed them, antagonize or intimidate them, and don't leave your lunch unattended! (And avoid eye contact with the monkeys.) No matter how docile they may appear, they are wild animals, so please watch for defensive/aggressive behavior and back off if you need to.

I suggest packing a bento lunch, rain gear or sunscreen, water, and a portable-toilet pack, then taking a bus to Nagata where you can pick up a rental cycle. (You'll want to place a reservation to make sure one is available.) UFORTUNATELY RENTAL SERVICES NEARBY HAVE BEEN CUT IN 2016.Shortly after departing Nagata, stop at the lighthouse, and then continue climbing up the hilly road at a leisurely pace, stopping wherever you like. Eventually, you'll hit the road's highest elevation and begin a long descent. Be careful not to let your bicycle get away from you; pump the breaks gently to keep them from overheating and failing. After you cross the Segire River and leave the World Natural Heritage Site, you'll come to Oko Waterfall, where you can use the rest room as well as relax in the cool mist of the powerful falls that gained Oko status as one of Japan's Top-100 Waterfalls. You can return your bicycle at the shop in Kurio, or continue on.

Bicycle Tours*
Cameron, the friendly hiking guide over at Yakushima Experience offers bicycle tours. He'll pick you up with rental cycles and take you on a tour of the western side of the island (including the West Forest Road) ranging anywhere from 25 to 50 kilometers and from three to seven hours depending on your tastes, although he emphasizes a leisurely pace with plenty of photo opportunities and wildlife viewing. Staff will meet you on the other side to take you back with the option of stopping by a hot spring. Prices range from 12500 yen per person for groups of four or more to 17000 for solo riders.

Annual Cycling Event*
Enjoy aid stations, police support, photo opportunities, point-of-interest stops and more as local volunteers cheer for you and hundreds of other cyclists making their way around the 100km parameter of the island. Half (50km) and family (20km) course lengths are also offered, but this is not a timed raced. Rental cycles may be booked out, so reserve your space as well as  a bicycle (and a helmet!) or bring your own. In 2015 participation fees ranged from 3,000 yen for the short course to 9,500 yen for the full course, and applications were due the month before the event. The Cycling Yakushima event is held annually in February, so check the calendar!

Challenge Routes
The main road that wraps around Yakushima is just over 100km around and climbs up to an elevation of about 300m. If you're looking for a crazy (as in, maybe you want to see hour far you can go until you drop dead) challenge you can cycle up to the trail head at Shiratani Unsuikyo Park (650m el.) or Yodogawa (1365m el.). Please note that cyclists and pedestrians are not allowed on the turnoff leading to the Arakawa Trail Head for Jomon Sugi from March through November.

Renting a Bicycle*
  • You Shop: If you are a serious cyclist, you'll enjoy a trip to the YOU Shop in Anbo. The owner welcomes foreigners, and you can rent anything from 21-speed cross-bikes and mountain-bikes from 800 yen/day to road bikes for 3,000 yen/day. They have both overnight and hourly rates, and if you bring your own pedals, they'll even install them for you.
    The You Shop offers both mid-range cycles (middle) and high-end cycles (right).

    The You Shop is open daily from 9am to 6pm and rents helmets and rain gear to customers who are renting bikes.

  • Midori no Kaze (formerly Mori) Rental Cycles are basic multi-speed bicycles that can be picked up and dropped off at different locations around the island for 800~1050 yen per day depending on the quality of the bike. Pickup/dropoff points open between 6:30 & 9:00am and close between 5:00 & 7:00pm. If you keep a bicycle past closing time, you will be charged for two days. 

  • In clockwise order beginning in Nagata, cycles can be picked up and dropped off in the towns of

    • Nagata, at the Marusou Gasoline Stand,
    • Issou, at the Higo Gasoline Stand (closed on Sundays),
    • Miyanoura, at Uchida Gasoline Stand
      or the Yakushima Kankou Center (30.430,130.5689, NOT the Tourist Information Booth. The Kankou Center also offers cross bikes which must be returned to the same location),
    • Koseda, at the Nanpou Gasoline Stand,
    • Anbo, at the Midori no Kirameki (Mori no Hidamari) Gift Shop,
    • Mugio, at the Botanical Research Park,
    • Onoaida, at the Hidaka Gasoline Stand (Closed on Sundays),and
    • Kurio, at the S-Mart convenience store,

    UNFORUTNATELY, MOST RENTAL LOCATIONS HAVE BEEN CUT AS OF SUMMER 2016.  as well as at a few other locations. Check for the latest locations and call first or make a reservation to make sure that a bicycle will be available for you, especially if you plan to pick one up from a smaller location.
      Please note that insurance is not included with these bicycles, and you are liable for up to 15000 in damages. These bicycles are meant to handle loads up to 85 kg. If you don't have your rental receipt when you return the bicycle you will be charged an extra 500 yen.
  • Yakushima Kankou Center: As an extension of the Midori no Kaze bicycle rentals, the Yakushima Kankou Center in Miyanoura also a high-quality tear (green bicycles in the righthand photo) for 1500 yen/day, but they must be returned to the Yakushima Kankou Center.
  • Accomodations with bicycles: Quite a few accommodations offer free or charged rental cycles of varying quality. For example, the Portside Youth Hostel in Miyanoura allows guests use of a bicycle for up to a half hour, and Tashiro Annex (also in Miyanoura) and Iwasaki Hotel (Onoaida) even have motor-assist bicycles available for rent. Some accommodations are even part of the Midori no Kaze system.
    Bringing your own bicycle
    Shipping your bicycle from Tokyo to Kagoshima costs around 30000 yen, and you can't do it (as far as I know) from the airport. However, I have seen folks assembling bicycles outside the airport in Yakushima. You cyclists never cease to amaze me!

    If you're doing a bicycle tour of Japan, then come by ferry (Yakushima Ferry 2), and you can bring your bicycle aboard for an extra 900 yen each way at time of writing. (You'll need to be at the port in Kagoshima before 7am, and during Japanese holidays, you'll need a reservation. Every so often, the ferry is also docked for routine inspection, so you'll want to check before you make your plans.) You can also take your bicycle if you are stopping by the flatter neighboring island of Tanegashima, in which case you can use the Ferry Hibiscus.

    Wherever you go, you may have to contend with rain, and even though the speed limit is between 30 and 50 kph almost everywhere, the roads are narrow and often do not have a shoulder. You'll have to contend with rental cars and skilled-but-brazen bus drivers along with the regular traffic. And, of course Yakushima is hilly. Please check the breaks when choosing a rental cycle (Front and rear breaks may be backwards of what you are used to.) and remember to use front and rear lights at night.

    *Hours, prices, and locations are subject to change, so please check with respective businesses when you make your plans.