Enchanted island of emerald forests and mist-cloaked mountains, where gnarled cryptomeria trees stand guard, just as they have for thousands of years. . .
The old trees known as Yakusugi are cryptomeria (Japanese cedars, called sugi in Japanese) that have defied the common standards of their species. With only shallow soil and pure — and hence nutrient-deficient — water, the cryptomeria of Yakushima's interior grow slower than in the rest of Japan. Anywhere from 18% to 40% of the weight of the wood is resin, allowing the trees to live for thousands of years without rotting away. The wood is highly valued for its tight grain and high oil content which is only found in trees of at least several hundred years of age growing on mountains at at least several hundred meters in elevation. Unfortunately, most Yakusugi tree have been logged, and those that remain are mostly over 800 or 1,000 years old. In fact, many people say that a Yakusugi is a tree in Yakushima that is over 1,000 years old. Others say they are the trees that were rejected by loggers in Edo times for being too gnarled, twisted, hard, or rotten. Many of these trees bear battle-scars called tameshigiri where Edo-period loggers made a test cut with an ax. And so the Yakusugi trees have stood, for hundreds or even thousands of years, like giant keepers of the forest that could do nothing about the destruction around them.
In Edo times, an estimated 50~70% of all Yakusugi trees were felled to make shingles to pay taxes to the ruling Shimazu clan. A typical tax burden would have been 600 shingles per man every year, and men would spend up to twenty days out of the month in the mountains. Leftover shingles ould be traded for rice. I imagine that it must have been a very harrowing task. Until the mid 17th century, the interior mountains were considered the realm of the gods, and not a place for loggers to venture. A confuscious scholar named Jochiku Tomari prayed and consulted with the Shimazu clan before logging was allowed to begin in earnest. Even then, loggers would plant new trees to replace the ones they felled so as not to upset the god that might be residing in one of the giant trees.
To fell one of these giant tree by ax could require a week of work, and the loggers would therefore build a platform and cut the tree above the spread of roots. They left behind huge stumps that became sunny pedestals ideal for new trees to grow. This is why there are so many "second generation trees" in the forests today.
Protections for Yakusugi trees were installed as early as Meiji times, but it seems that conservation efforts were ignored in times of war. When heavy, oversized chain saws were introduced in the mid 20th century, the task of felling a Yakusugi tree was reduced to minutes, and logging carved ever deeper swaths in the forests.
Today the Yakusugi are firmly protected. Because their wood is highly valued for its beautiful burl and high resin content, stumps and scrap logs abandoned by edo-period loggers are brough down from the forest and sold at auction. In the past this has been done by both train and helicopter. Now it is only done by truck where reforested areas are being thinned, and the practice is slowly being abandoned.
Jomon Sugi is the most famous tree in Japan, but it's not the largest, and it's probably not the oldest either. So why all the fuss? Jomon Sugi means different things to different people. Maybe it's the wabisabi asthetic of this worn and withered giant, so gnarled that Edo-period loggers made no attempt to fell it. Maybe it's the journey to get there: The 22km hike to get there and back puts it just within reach for fit, but non-athletic day hikers.
But imagine it's the mid 20th century, the heyday of logging, and tree after tree is being toppled by chainsaw. But there is a legend, a relic from a hundred years ago, about a tree, far bigger than any other on the island, so large that it takes 13 people with outstretched hands to encircle it, and no one alive knows exactly where it is, although it's somewhere in the mountains, above the logging operations. And imagine there's a man, named Teiji Iwakawa, who works at the town office, and he's determined to find this legendary tree. He's so determined that he spends seven years searching. And then, in 1966, he finds it.
Estimates about its age have varied radically, from Teiji Iwakawa's calculation of 6900 years, to an upper limit of 7,200 years--a very shady calculation possibly influenced by metaphysical beliefs but nevertheless adapted by the Ministry of the Environment--to a rough guess of 2~3,000 years by Hisao Takada, Yakushima's visionary woodcutter. Since the tree is hollow, we can't know its exact age, and carbon dating can verify only 2,170 years.
The journey to Jomon Sugi is not for everyone. The trek along 8.5 km of railroad through forests that have had a mere 40 years to recover from logging can be frustrating for hikers who want to dive right into the heart of nature. And perhaps the trek is most meaningful after having spent a little time in Japan and seeing the relationship between the Japanese people and cryptomeria. I think you'll feel it in your gut if it's your time to do this trek.
Tips for seeing Yakusugi:
- Hike between 600m and 1500m of elevation.
- There are many ways to see Yakusugi, so pick the route that fits your style, be that a bus ride to Kigen Sugi, a hike through the ancient conifer forests of Yakusugiland, a journey back in time to the Jomon Sugi, a lonelier hike up a less-maintained trail to a less famous giant, or even a stop at Nanahon Sugi on your way to the Moss Forest.
- Be kind to the roots and bark.
- Some of the Yakusugi you can touch. Others you must view from a distance. Too much love can damage a tree, as evidenced by the Yayoi Sugi in Shiratani Unsuikyo. Be respectful: People in Edo times believed that gods resided in these trees.
- Know your camera.
- The iPhone 6s and cameras with HDR settings to adjust for backlight are ideal if you want photos of the whole tree, otherwise you don't need a special camera.
- Check out Yakushima's giant stumps, too!
- Some of the Yakusugi felled in Edo times were of truly massive proportions. The best known is Wilson's Stump, which has an estimated age of 3,000 years.This stump is on the way to the Jomon sugi.
- Look for ax-marks called tameshigiri on stumps and living Yakusugi trees. These are test cuts loggers made before deciding whether or not to complete the job.
- Second-Generation Trees
- Crytomeria trees need lots of light, and the stumps left by Edo-period loggers created sunny pedestals where newly germinated trees can grow. These new trees are called nidai sugi, second generation trees.