Sunday, April 24, 2016

Yakusugiland - Overlooked Beauty

Straddling the powerful Arakawa River,  at the foot of sacred Mt. Tacchu and Mt. Ishidzuka, flirting in and out of the layer of clouds at an altitude of 1,000 m, is Yakusugiland, a natural park where visitors can hike the moss-lined trails among thousand-year-old trees.

This park is home to both the "easiest" trails of sidewalks and wooden steps as well as access to full-scale mountain hiking and multi-day hikes down trails marked by bangles of pink tape. It is one of the rainiest places in this rainy island, easily receiving around 10 meters of annual rainfall. I highly recommend Yakusugiland to those hiking on their own because you can venture deeper and deeper into the forest into less maintained territory yet turn back at any time, and the bridges are constructed to make the park hike-able in all but the worst weather.

However, people often read, YakusugiLAND, and are immediately reminded of an amusement park and turned off. That means that although bus tours often visit the 30-minute course, most of the park is undeservedly empty, and a tranquil paradise for those who seek serenity.

*All trails can be quite slippery, and even icey in the winter. After a dry spell, the walking may be relatively easy, but especially after a good rain, when new moss starts to grow on the wood planks, the trails become more slippery.

*Check the map often, because trails within the park curve back to the entrance, but trails leaving the park do not.

Yakusugiland is operated by the Yakushima Recreational Forests Department, (a branch of the Forestry Agency's Conservation Center. I don't know if all of these have official English translations.) which also operates Shiratani Unsuikyo. During park hours from 8:30am to 4:30pm, the entrance donation for 300 yen (set to rise in 2017) includes a postcard and map of the park. You can also visit the gift store by the parking lot and use the indoor break room on the second floor. The toilets are open 24 hours and users are asked to make a 100 yen donation. Cell-phone service through Docomo (AU may follow soon) is available at the main building.

30-minute trail: 
Sennen Sugi is a Yakusugi
embraced by Trochodendrons.
In addition to the sidewalks and wooden steps lined by moss, ferns, and trees hundreds of years old, enjoy walking "through" both a spruce tree (Tsuga sieboldii) and a Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), and crossing two large foot bridges over tributaries to the Arakawa River. You'll see trees growing atop boulders and other trees and atop stumps and trunks cut down inEdo times, including the pair known as "Futago-Sugi" which are two trees that have melded (inosculated) together. Cryptomeria growing on the remains of other Cryptomeria are called "second generation" trees.

For just a little more exercise you can descend the staircase to the tree called "Sennen Sugi." This is a tree that was, for whatever reason, spared by Edo-period loggers and is said to be about 1,000 years old. Japanese cedars that reach this old age in Yakushima are collectively called Yakusugi trees. The wood has very dense tree rings and can be composed of 20~30% (or more!) resin and extractives.

On the far side of the suspension bridge, just before the exit, there is a staircase down to the river,  but be forewarned that is is usually EXTREMELY slippery and should not be descended by casual strollers.

50-minute trail:
A trip to Yakusugiland is hardly
complete without seeing the Buddha Sugi.
Yakusugiland's 50-minute trail is a wonderful option for those who want to venture further into the forest, but are not comfortable walking on rugged terrain, or don't want wade through the mud in downpour conditions. In addition to all the features of the 30-minute walk, you can walk down to the Arakawahashi Bridge, a suspension bridge over the powerful Arakawa River. Although the 50-minute trail does not cross this bridge, it is worth stopping here to admire the river. You will also want to make another small detour to the Buddha Sugi, a Yakusugi tree that is estimated to be around 1,800 years old. Notice that this tree is hollow and much of it has lost its bark and leaves, but it is adorned by many other plant species (epiphytes) that make their home in its branches. There is a small shelter by the Buddha Sugi where you can take a short rest to enjoy the forest.

80-minute trail:

Yes, this is the trail.

In addition to all the features of the 30-minute and 50-minute walks, you will finally leave the sidewalk and boardwalks. Expect a lot of mud if it's raining, and note that the wooden planks, roots, and logs you will be walking on can get quite slippery. I encourage guests to grab on to the flora if it helps keep them upright. Shortly after turning away from the 50-minute trail, you will even find access to the river. Of course, it's usually quite slippery where fewer folks walk, and it's not safe to approach the river during/after heavy rains, so please use good judgement. You will also cross two more bridges, another small shelter with benches, and an area noted for satsuki azaleas that burst into bright pink flowers along the river banks in the summer. This is a good trail if you want to venture beyond the boardwalks and get away from the crowds, but don't want to commit yourself to a longer hike.

150-minute trail:
In addition to most of the features of the above trails, you'll see more Yakusugi trees and many more large spruce and fir trees, and you'll begin to feel that you're really in the middle of an ancient Yakusugi forest as you leave the sidewalks and boardwalks far behind. The trail makes a prolonged ascent as it winds towards the trail head for folks climbing to Mt. Tacchu. This trail head is located at another small shelter just after a disposable-toilet-pack booth. (These are booths erected so that you can use the toilet and carry the waste back with you for proper disposal. You can purchase toilet packs at the park entrance or in many other locations around Yakushima.) You'll wind around the dark and lush lonely forest and begin to wonder if this is really the same park you entered before rejoining the other trails.

Longer Options:

If you are going to Yakugusiland by bus and you are a fast hiker, or if you want to spend a longer time in Yakusugiland, then then you may want to bring a lunch with you (No food is sold at Yakusugiland.) and venture beyond the border of the park. Just keep an eye on the time so you don't miss the bus back or get caught by darkness. For example, if you're looking to spend four to five hours, follow the trail to Mt. Tacchu until you get to Tenmon no Mori and the tree known as "Shaka Sugi" just downhill beyond. There are no signs marking Shaka Sugi, but it is at a small stream only a few minutes beyond Tenmon no Mori. In the days of Edo-period logging, spirits were believed to inhabit the large trees, and there was a custom of planting a seedling for the spirit to move to whenever a large tree was cut down in this area.

My favorite Japanese wheel tree
at Tenmon no Mori
Shaka Sugi
Fit hikers with six to eight hours can hike all the way up to Mt. Tacchu (el. 1497 m), which is crowned by a 40-m tall natural monolyth. Or, in slightly less time, you can hire a guide to hike the 8-km round trip to Yamato Sugi, which is said to be three to four thousand years old and is located along the Hana no Ego Trail. (You don't have to hire a guide, but there aren't many signs along the way, and there certainly is the potential for getting lost. If you do go on your own, look for the signs for Yamato Sugi just after the sign marking the World Natural Heritage Site.)

About the Park
The Name:
Yakusugiland is often overlooked simply because of its name. But don't let the name fool you. The park was established in 1974 and was named by Hisao Takada, one of the great mountain men of Yakushima, who worked from a young age in the logging village of Kosugidani, and has done a lot to keep the memory of this era alive. When asked what he thought about Jomon Sugi's age being estimated at 7,200 years, he said that's crazy. It must be a marketing stunt. He thought Jomon should be popular because of its inherent aesthetic beauty, and I think he'd be annoyed if anyone thought of Yakusugiland as a Disney-type theme park. One of my own guests recently commented that if it was a theme park, they'd be sued for liability because of the rugged terrain.

The Location:

At an elevation of 1,000 meters (about a 30-minute drive into the mountains from the closest town of Anbo), the park bares the hallmark signs of Edo period logging: Leftover stumps and axe-marks everywhere. It was spared in the 20th century, and although it is not part of the World Natural Heritage Site, it is definitely beautiful enough to be included, and it is part of the important buffer zone surrounding the World Natural Heritage Site.

In the Area:
Kigen Sugi: At the end of the bus line.
If you go to Yakusugiland by bus, you'll want to continue past the park entrance to the Kigen Sugi bus stop at the end of the line. Spend a few minutes reveling in the shadow of Kigen Sugi, a Cryptomeria estimated to be around 3,000 years old, and then catch the bus when it goes back down, and, this time, get off at Yakusugiland.

Ryujin Sugi: Jomon Sugi's Alter Ego

Ryūjin Sugi, a one day hike to the tranquil realm of the Dragon God Tree.

This is the hike I often recommend to highly experienced hikers who are intrigued by the idea of "Jomon Sugi," but don't like the idea of sharing the trail with dozens or even hundreds of other hikers. In fact, I often think of Ryujin Sugi as Jomon Sugi's darker sibling, the one the parents lock in the bedroom when the college recruitment team comes to visit Jomon.

The destination of this hike, Ryujin Sugi (龍神, the Dragon God), is 11 meters around and estimated to be on the order of two thousand years old. Along with its two companions Fujin Sugi (風神, the Wind God), and Raijin Sugi (雷神, the Thunder God)—it and a cluster of enormous stumps it rises like a phoenix from the ashes above an area wrecked by logging and strewn with plots of young replanted forest. While a circumference of 11 meters is far short of Jomon's 16.4 meter girth, the impression of power is very different from the placidity of Jomon Sugi.

Much of the hike leads up the old stone path through evergreen deciduous forest. A thick canopy shades a dark, lush forest with a very open forest floor. However, the mature forest is broken up by plantation forests of young cryptomeria, and the contrast couldn't be more pronounced.

The details:
A sign at the gate. It's a beautiful
trail, and there are a few mileage
markers along the way, but don't
expect any English :)
The trail is on the northern side of Mt. Takatsuka, the mountain on which
Jomon Sugi is located. To get to the trail head, first head to the Comprehensive Nature Park, (総合自然公園, sougou shizen kouen. Park is a bit of a misnomer. It's mor like a nursery and gardens.) which is bike-riding distance from Miyanoura. There's a spacious field for parking by the river, or, if you're brave enough, you can drive 3.3km up the gravel road near the back of the parking lot. Then you'll arrive at a gate and you'll have to park the car next to the road. Continue another 1km by foot up the logging road to reach the official trail head. Altogether, from the gate to Ryujin Sugi and back is a 13 kilometer round trip with a map time of 8 to 9 hours.

Looking north from the logging road,
you can see the mountains visited
annually by pilgrims from the
towns of Shitoko, Isso, and Yoshida.
The route follows an old, moss-covered stone path for most of the way with a brief jaunt along abandoned train tracks. It's an easy trail to follow, but not recommended for folks with bad knees. You'll be hiking from an elevation of 200 meters to around 1260 meters. That's quite a bit more climb than the trail to Jomon Sugi.

Stream crossing!
As you can see on the map, there is also one big stream that you will cross twice on the way and again on the way back, so I can't recommend this trail in heavy rains.

There's no sign of giant trees until you near the end of the hike, but instead the trail weaves between beautifully matured broadleaf evergreen forest and young plantation forest. I've heard there may be plans to make the area more accessible, as it really is a beautiful forest even if you don't want to hike all the way to Ryujin, and evidence of logging communities brings the history to life.

The stone trail weaves between broadleaf evergreen forest and plantation forest.

Then, near the end, you suddenly find yourself in a very tranquil, old-growth forest. The peace and sanctity feel a world removed from the hubbub surrounding Jomon Sugi on the other side of Mt. Takatsuka. There are no fences, no counters, no observation cameras. Indeed, there's only a small wooden deck and a placard that says, simply, Ryujin Sugi.

From top left: Fujin Sugi, a stump, Raijin Sugi, another stump.

Once you get back to the parking lot at the Nature Park, there's a tiny public bath (heated spring water) called Yu no konoYu across the way. Because only several people can bathe at a time, it's a good idea to call in advance and make a reservation, but even if you don't have a reservation it's worth a try.

Destination Elevation: ~1260m
Trail Head Elevation: ~200m 

Length: 13 km rouondtrip (including 2.2 km walking up the logging road beyond the gate)
Map time: 6~9 hours round trip for experienced hikers. Because there are so few people on the trail, I do not recommend it for inexperienced hikers.
Getting to the Trail Head: If you don't have a car, take a taxi from the town of Miyanoura. If you're really fit and you give yourself a couple extra hours to walk up the gravel road, you go as far as the Comprehensive Nature Park by bicycle.
Toilets: There are no toilets. There are usually not many hikers on this trail, but I still suggest you bring a disposable toilet pack (available at many shops and information booths in Yakushima).