Hiking Incredible Ancient Forests and Getting Lost in Japan

I stood on the edge of the parking lot for the Shiritani-Unsuikyo hike, an 8-10 kilometer hike up Mt Miyanoura. It was June; hot, muggy, with cicadas buzzing from within the dense cedar and moss forest that covers nearly all of Yakushima island.

All around me, gaggles of elderly Japanese couples, friends, and tour groups tested their hiking poles and boots, getting their energy up for the long climb to see Jomon-sugi, the oldest tree on the island. I looked with some trepidation as gleeful Sexagenarians vanished into the forest; I was not really a hiker, and here I was setting off on a 6 hour hike straight up a mountainside.

Earlier that year, my grandmother passed away. She had been an artist, a nurse, and most formidably, a mountain woman. She got engaged on Mount St Helen after hiking in saddle shoes during a rainstorm and climbed many other of the formidable Pacific North West mountains, including Mt Hood and Mt Rainer (the photo of her, my grandfather, and my 19 year old father before that hike sits on my desk). As she got older, she settled for reading books about climbing and the majestic peaks she would never see. Her memorial service was scheduled for a few months later: it was to be a hike up Mt St Helens with the entire clan to scatter her and my grandfather’s ashes at the summit.

I am, at my core, an ocean person. While I can appreciate the soaring heights and delight at pictures of snowcapped peaks just like anyone, you will primarily find me at sea level. But I was not about to miss the hike with my family in September. So, when my 3 weeklong trip to Japan to attend a close friend’s wedding had an open week, I jumped at the chance to visit Yakushima and hike its famous moss and cedar forest trail.

A 4-hour ferry ride south from Kagoshima, Yakshuma is home to both tropical waters and temperate forests, most importantly the ancient forests of Cryptomeria japonica, or yakusugi, the Japanese cedar. On this small, round, volcanic island, the cedar forests are dense and wild, covering most of the available land. They are so twisted and dense, that in the past, loggers only harvested the straightest tress, leaving the gnarly ones alone. Which means some of the oldest trees on the planet live in these forests. And I was aiming to visit one.

The Shiritani-Unsuikyo hike, also a UNESCO world heritage site, was a total beginner’s hike, according to my guidebook. It was a little long and covered some elevation, but there were no dangers to speak of, and it came highly recommended for even the earliest of novices. As I looked around at all the grey haired obaachans (grandmothers) around me, my confidence grew. I am not a hiker, but I was ready to spend a couple hours leaving them in my dust.

Whoever wrote the guidebook must never have dealt with a beginner as beginning as me. What few hikes and trails I had climbed usually had clear paths, smoothed from so many feet across them. And I am from Southern California, so I was used to the occasional rock or crag to scramble up. But they do not call this the moss forest for nothing.

The hike’s path was mostly green roots and scuffed mud, sometimes only visible by following pink markers tied casually to tree branches and roots. The forest was wet, lush, dense, and quiet, leading you through tiny waterfall streams, boulders covered by roots of who knows what, and everywhere is green green green. The pink markers take you under twisted cedar branches, over fallen logs, and through patches that seem untouched by man. At some points of the trail, there were ropes strewn along the near vertical climbs. Red faced, gasping for breath, I shuffled to the side as genki (energetic) grandmothers bolted past me up these cliffs.

I spent most of the hike in the vicinity of a high school field trip. Japan is a tremendously homogenous country, so a 5’9” American woman stands out. I had also taught English for 2 years just about 10 years ago, so the shy “hellos” and textbook questions were like little nostalgias. We spent the 5 hours shouting hellos and how are yous across the forest at each other and took photos for each other at the look out.

I did not end up meeting Jomon-sugi, the eldest of the cedar trees, which is estimated to be somewhere between 2,000 and 7,000 years old. I visited several of the younger trees (only several thousand years old) but had to head back before dark, leaving Jomon-sugi to wait for me another time.

There is something so regal and reverent about giant old trees. To stand so tall and sturdy through the messy, bloody changes of human history, to see us all change, and yet surely seem exactly the same.

Yakushima is also the largest nesting ground for the endangered Loggerhead sea turtle in the North Pacific. Two days before my hike, I took a bus to the other side of the 194 square mile island to stay near the Umigame Kan, the sea turtle conservation center. The bus stop ended up being half a mile from my hotel (no wonder the bus driver looked so bemused as I dragged my 3-week trip-sized suitcase off in the middle of nowhere) and I arrived to the hotel to the dismay of the hotel keeper, who was in the middle of serving dinner. To make matters worse, when I had booked the hotel, I had gone with the no-food option. I figured I would enjoy exploring restaurants and not be tied down to a certain meal at the hotel, thinking fully of the continental breakfast style. Except, this hotel was much more like a ryokan, a more traditional Japanese hotel that serves full course meals for dinner and breakfast, usually home made by the hotel keeper. And here I was, showing up later than expected and I had refused to eat her food. Not the best first impression.

But I was determined to make the best of it and find some great dinner. I asked her what restaurants where in the area and, were her manners anything but impeccable, she would have laughed in my face. Optimistic guidebook strikes again. Turns out, there were not any restaurants to speak of on this side of the island. But she did point me in the direction of a grocery store, just a short walk away.

I walked for well over an hour, wandering around like a fish out of water in the tiny town that seemed to have nothing but beautiful, ancient countryside houses. I finally found what I thought was a convenience store. except, it was more like someone’s house that had become the dumping ground for a surplus of chips. I bought some crackers and beer, and the shop keeper walked me down the road and pointed me in the direction of the grocery store. Except, when I got there, it was closed. Thankfully, a gaggle of young people in a battered truck pointed me in the direction of the lone gas station, which had a small shop attached. All they had was air conditioning, popsicles, beer, and instant ramen, which at that point seemed like the best gift I could have asked for. I took my giant bounty the long walk back, made up the instant ramen, walked out of my room straight onto the beach, sat on the dunes, and enjoyed the most satisfying of meals staring at the turquoise blue water.

At 10pm I walked the short walk down to the turtle center. Umigame Kan has been around for decades, doing the painstaking work of monitoring sea turtle nests, protecting them from poachers, wild animals, and weather, in the hopes of helping the struggling populations survive. I have spent years as a marine animal rescuer myself, and even though most of the lecture was lost on me (my Japanese was pretty rusty), I recognized the devotion of the volunteers to these charismatic reptiles.

After a bit, we got the call – a large loggerhead was laying nearby. And we were in luck, as this was a unique case. After climbing carefully down the pitch black beach and moving quietly across the dark sand, we gathered around an old man, a sea turtle, and a tripod. Apparently, this turtle had an injury to her shell, and could not position herself well enough to properly lay. The man, grizzled and chatty, was a former egg poacher turned conservationist. He now used his extensive knowledge of the local turtles to help them, and he had known exactly how to strap the turtle into the tripod to allow her to lay.

We laid down in the sand, mere feet from this giant beast (sea turtles apparently go into a bit of a trance when they lay, meaning we weren’t disturbing her as long as we were quiet), and watched her lay egg after egg after egg. She was impressively large, probably several decades old. She had been born on this beach and would continue to return to it to lay. Of her 50 or so eggs, only a handful would survive into adulthood to carry on her legacy. And the volunteers of Umigame Kan spent night after night like this, sitting with strange shelled creatures, determined to help them carry on.

Another afternoon I took a visit to one of two open air, natural hot springs on the island. A long time visitor to Japan, I was used to hot springs and bathing with others, but usually in an established bathhouse. The guidebook reassured me of this one: there are changing screens and the baths are segregated male and female, and, while it is a little exposed, you are not really ever just out in the open.

Those changing screens ended up being a handful of flimsy bamboo the height of my ribs, and any separation of genders was up to how quickly you could identify just who is back was soaking up the water. I’m not shy about being in the buff so this didn’t really bother me, but I do wonder how many people went home with stories about the tall foreign lady wandering around lost in the hot springs, peeking behind screens to find just one spot by myself. But find one I did. There is nothing like bathing naked outside, with a view of the rolling waves, with the crisp sea air chilling you just enough to make the lukewarm water seem piping hot.

My best meal of the trip happened after getting off at the wrong bus stop and wandering in the rain for half an hour. I came upon a beautifully done traditional izakaya (bar/restaurant) that focused on the specialties of the island. The wife of the chef sat me at the bar, and as I puzzled through the menu (traditional also meant the menu was exclusively in Chinese characters, kanji, which I’m extra rusty on), the chef suggested that he take over the menu items and I just relax. Always the best choice. That night, I had tempura bamboo shoots, deep fried oysters, pickled local vegetables, the real local specialty, a fried flying fish. The fins were like chips, crunchy and salty, and the meat was perfectly cooked.

My dinner companion was a quiet, unassuming civil servant who had been shipped to the island for his two year post (most civil servants rotate through different cities within a prefecture every couple of years to keep things fresh and share knowledge throughout the jurisdiction). His family was back on the mainland. He liked the island and found it beautiful, but he did sigh wistfully over not having much to do. I guess you can only go to seaside hot springs so many times.

The rest of my time on Yakushima was filled with such moments of quiet reflection. From the car rental assistant who was so worried when I showed up 5 minutes late to drop off the car that he had left 3 messages on my phone, to the woman who gave me a cedar omamori (protection amulet) after I spent an hour in her store choosing a few sweet smelling cedar blocks to bring home, that countryside kindness carried me through. I dove on coral reefs and saw an ancient World War II bomber engine, now a home to eels, corals, and groupers. I drove into the most rural side of the island and watched monkeys and deer spill out onto the deserted road, without a care for where I wanted to go. Life moves at a slower pace on the island, with less worry for little things, much like ancient trees can only stretch and rise, regardless of the noise around them.

Japan is a country of many spirits, and they are ancient in Yakushima. Ancient, wise, and gentle. Across four days, I paid my respects to those that wander such a wild place, hoping they could carry well wishes to loved ones in the beyond.


Marine Conservationist

Canon Purdy Productions

Fast Five

1. Three hours early to the airport or running to the gate? Running to the gate every time.

2. Pretzels or Lotus Biscoff cookies? Biscoff! But I will eat every last pretzel too.

3. Excel planned trip or just wing it? Wing it! But family trips force me into excel.

4. Favorite continent? Asia for its familiarity (thought I have only really visited a few countries), South America for its allure (never been!)

5. Dream destination? Patagonia

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