The road to preservation. . .
World Heritage status was conferred to 20% of the island of Yakushima in 1994, but the road to conservation has not been an easy one, and locals know that they and their descendents can never let their guard down. It seems horrific that the mountain forests considered sacred were ravished in the Edo period so that islanders could pay taxes. At least the method of logging--the slow and tedious felling only desirable trees, leaving behind a large stump, and often replanting a sapling--was not as horrid as the methods to come in the 20th century. And every once in a while, the government would encourage people to look to the bounty of the sea if the bounty of the forest seemed to be diminishing.
|When, over 100 years ago, Wilson entered this stump of a tree felled at the age of 3,000 years, there was already a shrine to the tree spirit.
After the Meiji Restoration, in its efforts to become more like Western governments, most of the mountainous land of Yakushima was nationalized--stolen by the national government depending on your point of view, but in exchange the government built roads around the island and promised to employ and involve locals in forestry decisions.
In 1914, the plant-hunter Ernest Wilson came during one of this expeditions. Several islanders guided him in the mountains and he surveyed the flora and took photographs. It is said that he encouraged locals to protect these forests, and perhaps he was the first to have any inkling of their international value.
Shortly thereafter, a segment of forest in the still well-preserved western interior was set aside as an area of preservation and research. However, this is also the era that saw logging begin to burgeon. Railroads carved deeper and deeper into the mountains, attacking the heart of the island from all sides. Logging camps and villages were wet up, culminating in the village of Kosugidani, which had schools and baths and a post office to support a community that swelled to 540 in 1960. Charcoal was sent to Kagoshima to support the war effort. After the war, chain saws supported post-war reconstruction and the new economy. As viewed from the coastline, the once-forested mountains went bare! Conservationists battled against people whose livelihoods depended on logging, and visionaries like the woodcutter Hisao Takada understood that natural resources should be managed for posterity. When half of the village of Nagata was destroyed by a landslide triggered by logging in the late 1970s, the conservationists scored new momentum, and they were able to protect the western side of the island.
The World Natural Heritage site was registered as a spidery shape that ranged from the highest peaks to down to the western shoreline. It was a big of a tradeoff--including some areas with recent logging and even a public road--in order to cover the vertical expanse of the island, and it was with little fanfare that Yakushima made history as one of Japan's first World Natural Heritage Sites.
Locals today will tell you that the battle isn't over. As replanted forests mature, they must be thinned and cultivated despite an unpromising market. And it's not just the forests: Visiting divers don't know how the coral reefs were even more astounding and the fish more abundant before sediment washed down from logged areas.
- Museums: The Yakusugi Museum in Anbo is our best museum displaying all things Yakusugi. For Japanese-readers, there is also a small history museum in Miyanoura.
- Hikes: Many hikes pass through areas of heavy logging before reaching more ancient forests. Do not be perturbed by less-than-virgin forests. The logging is part of the island's history that must be remembered. The hike to Jomon Sugi passes through the heart of former Kosugidani Village, although only the foundations of buildings remain.
- Religious buildings: Unfortunately, many of Yakushima's cultural assets were destroyed in World War II, but notable shrines and temples which were rebuilt include the Yaku Jinja in Miyanoura, which was listed in the original national registry of shrines over a thousand years ago, and whose inner shrine is at the top of Miyanoura Dake. Over 500 years ago, the Kuhonji Temple was founded by Nichizou Shounin who fostered Buddhism to Yakushima and to whom we attribute the modern form of mountain pilgrimages. The shrine where Jochiku Tomari—the godfather of logging in Yakushima—is interred is in Anbo, at the mouth of the river. There are so many temples and shrines around the island, I can't begin to describe them all! There is even a church where the Italian missionary, Giovanni Battista Sidotti, landed in 1708. In this period of Japanese isolation, he was one of the first missionary scholars to be received with respect during his imprisonment.
There is so much more that I simply can't detail here: The origins of the name, Yakushima, in the Chinese word for eastern barbarians; cultural influences from the Ainu people, the Ryukyu islands, and the Taira clan; the sites of former castles and skirmishes with neighboring Tanegashima (where matchlock firearms were first introduced to Japan); air raids in WWII; tungsten mining and iron refining, . . . . . . . . .