This little week of sharing far away places I have loved is nearing its end, and I realize that, so far, I have only written about places that feature a lot of man-made elements. Of course, the places that make a person feel most truly alive, most deeply inspired, and most full of absolute awe are often places with no buildings, or decorations at all. Today I would like to bring you to such a place.
The island of Yakushima is like a cloud-veiled emerald in the seas south of the southernmost tip of mainland Japan. It is the wettest place in the country, and a place where snow rests in the mountains part of the year (they are almost 2,000 metres high) though the surrounding oceans are never cold. Sea turtles nest on the island, there are hot springs to bathe in, and coral reefs to swim through, but what most people come to see are the giant, old-growth forests of cryptomeria trees. Not long ago I mentioned in another post the fascination that Japan has with nature, and so maybe you'll understand how one tree, Jomonsugi, could become famous there.
It is believed by many to be the oldest tree on earth. Estimates for its age range between 2,000 and 7,000 years. These days, in southern Japan you will find its image on billboards and splashed across the sides of buses. Though the tree lives a 4 to 5 hour hike (each way) from the nearest road, people, even those of considerable age, make the mostly up-hill trek just to lay eyes on it.
But before you get to the island of Yakushima, you must take a long ferry ride, which brings you through clouds and fog, past the smoldering, active volcano that sits at the tip of Japan, Sakurajima.
(Smoke rising from Sakurajima)
Our trip down to this island was rather spontaneous. Back when we lived in Japan, we went during the May holiday week, known as "Golden Week". The night before, having no plans as to how to spend our time off, we happened to learn that the potentially oldest tree in the world was sitting in a mossy mountain forest not too far south of us to be impossible to reach. We were up and packed in a few hours time, leaving a message for a friend saying that we were heading off to this island we knew almost nothing about, and to let someone know if we hadn't made it back in a week. We may have slept a little in the train.
The morning after that, we were up early again. We were staying in a sort of Japanese-style bed and breakfast (a Minshuku), and the man that ran the place came into our room to wake us and tell us we had to leave then if we wanted to see the tree. He came out to stand at the bus stop in the dark with us and tell our bus driver where to let us off (the whole bus laughed at us, getting put on the bus like children with an overprotective grandfather). Still, we really liked our sweet lodgings-man, who despite his tough retired-gangster appearance, went out searching for us frantically when we were late to dinner one evening, and supplied us with endless cups of tea.
Unlike other times we have wandered on forested mountains, we did not get lost even once this time, for everything had been marked, and little paths had been left for us to follow. The beginning of the pathway to Jomonsugi was along an old train track.
After a few hours of walking, we came to the huge, hollow stump of what must have been an enormous tree.
Inside was a small Shinto shrine.
(View up from inside the tree stump)
In Japan, you will often come across a rope with paper lightening bolts attached to it, or tall doorways called 'Tori', even in extremely remote places, which denote the sacredness of a tree, stone, area, etc. During our time in Japan, many of our best moments were passed at Shinto shrines. I remember a night we spent at a festival in a shrine up in the mountains of our town, where there was masked dancing and cauldrons of shoju (Japanese barley whiskey) being heated over a fire in the middle of the floor. The place was filled with our neighbours, and the Shinto priests in their gowns and hats, all celebrating together. Shintoism still remains a mystery to me -- despite the fact that it was all around me for the year I spent in Japan, sometimes even ringing bells and clapping my hands, wishing things and throwing coins between the slots in front of shrines -- but it is a lovely mystery.
A Tori by the path
When we first started walking there were other people in front of us and behind us. But as the day wore on and everyone found their own pace, we were mostly alone in the woods.
Thought, sometimes less alone than we thought.
The island has a special species of deer, the Yakushika. They are found nowhere else in the world, and are the size of an average dog. Without any natural predators, they are not shy, and we saw quite a few of them in our travels.
There is also a type of monkey, Yakuzaru, which exists only on the island.
Moss flourishes here as well. There doesn't seem to be a way to capture the greenness of the island. As mossy and green as these photos seem to me now, I remember our disappointment with them at the time. Yakushima is a wonderland of intense, mossy greens.
And it is not only the trees who are giants, there are also sections of massive boulders.
(I am in this photo, in the centre at the top of the boulders)
A good thing to do at lunchtime, after having walked since dawn, is to cool your feet in the icy mountain waters of an emerald green river.
And look up up up.
Or all around really.
And then, finally, near the top of the very highest mountain on the island, is the object of our little pilgrimage, Jomonsugi. Every moment of this trip was a gorgeous wonder and a moss covered blessing.
(For scale: Jomonsugi is about 25m tall and has a circumference of approx. 16m)
Even as our ferry left the harbour a few days later, clouds seemed to be descending on the island from every direction, wrapping in close around it and hiding it, so that only a few moments from shore, the island already had the feeling of a thing dreamed, more than visited. But an island of giant trees, tiny deer, rocks the size of houses, mist, and moss, surrounded by that gorgeous sea -- what could that be but a thing from a fairytale?