A ways back I had a conversation with some people about where to visit in Japan over coffee and chocolate. There were the usual suspects: Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo. None of them places I wanted to go. I’m sure there is plenty to do and see, I just don’t have the interest or the drive to make it happen. I wanted to see natural destinations rather than the man-made ones. Luckily, I live on Kyushu, which has numerous natural destinations to visit.
The places to see came pouring out. Mount Aso, Takachiho, then Yakushima.
What’s this Yakushima?
At it’s most simple it is one of Japan’s UNESCO natural heritage sites. There are mountains full of ancient trees, primeval forests and turtle nesting beaches. One of my friends worked there studying turtles. It reminded me of Isle Royale in Lake Superior and sounded like the right place for me. Thankfully, another person in the area wanted to go, and it would soon become a reality.
Mountains rose out of the ocean as we approached the island. The sky was overcast and the dark clouds threatened rain. I was told that it rains 400 days a year on Yakushima, so I wasn’t exactly surprised.
The boat slowed down and I was able to finally feel the reality of it all. For so long I had looked at pictures and talked with people about the fabled island.
It’s the home of Joumon Sugi. A 4,000 year old cedar tree. It’s the type of thing where stories begin and become legend. There’s the Shiratani Unsuikyo area. That’s the place where the Princess Mononoke story originated, not to mention the place where Studio Ghibli went to do research for the movie. Apparently, there are landscapes in the film that were directly inspired by reality. These stories and more framed my perception of the island. Even with all that I was given, all that was shared, the reality was much different than anything my imagination was capable of, especially since my last two years was influenced by my time in convenient Japan where you’re never far from a convenience store or vending machine.
But first, a little backtracking. As my feet landed on the island I began to realize that I had never done this before. Not the island. Of course I had never been there. It was the first time I had ever been on a trip specifically to sightsee. I’m almost 36 years old and I’ve never gone on a sightseeing vacation. Almost daily I hear stories about it but it was something I had never experienced.
I should have been excited but all I could think about was the commercial nature of such a place. I was torn between the pure nature and the string of omiyage shops. But enough of this existential nonsense. I pushed away my over-analytical brain so I could focus on enjoying the experience.
Yakushima is a fairly small island, coming in at around 500 square km and has a population density of 26/km. To compare, my home county, Houghton, is 3,339 square km and has a population density of 14/km. It is arguably the smallest piece of land I have ever been on separated by open ocean. It made me feel good. My primal instinct kicked in, prepared for hard effort that is so far removed from the everyday sedentary life that plagues so many in our modern world. Memories of Deer Camp flooded my brain. Two weeks of no electricity, no running water, and nothing but the wilderness to keep company. The struggle for life and death, starvation and survival, welled up inside my guts. I could almost feel the hair on my legs and arms rise in response. The tree-covered mountains pulsed a slow invitation to me. Mist crawled over them. I had to be there.
We caught a bus that took us up to Shiratani Unsuikyo. It wove its way through mountain roads that got thinner and thinner as we ascended. At some places the road was washed out and the mist became thicker as the altitude increased. If the bus went off the edge, it would end up being the trip of a lifetime, most likely the last one for us all.
It can be frightening to place your well-being in the hands of total strangers. On the surface it isn’t really anything. Millions of people everyday do it without a second thought. Airplanes, boats, taxis, busses, trains, and so on. Those professionals have great responsibility. I thought about this because of the recent ferry boat disaster in South Korea. The news playing on the ferry we took to the island covered the sad event non-stop to the dismay of many passengers. I was just another passenger to the driver but he held my life in his hands.
We met a few cars coming down the hill but everything went well. Shiratani Unsuikyo sits at around 650 meters or so above sea level. The mist we had seen covering the mountains disappeared from sight, instead invaded our skin deep into our innards. It wasn’t so much cold as sharp. Maybe sharp is the best. Not warm. Not cold. Just sharp.
As we walked from the bus stop I noticed what appeared to be a small hydroelectric generator behind glass in a small building. I learned later that it powered the area. Not only that but a large portion of the island is powered by hydroelectric. Cool little factoid.
The generator was powered by a crisp mountain stream. The water was bitter cold and clear to the bottom full of magnificent colors. Near the stream was the entrance cabin. A map of the area laid out some of the basic hiking paths along with the average time. We didn’t have much time to explore since the last bus back to town left around six. We decided to play things safe by spending more time exploring one of the shorter paths and then branch out from there.
We followed the path up the rushing river. Huge stones were bashed by the unforgiving water. Water flowed into caves and spit out the other side with falling vengeance only to rest the next moment. The huge rocks were patient, stoic, at the unending onslaught. I felt compelled to jump in but my logic thankfully won out. It would have resulted in an incredibly uncomfortable time. We enjoyed the water and the moss covered trees.
After a while we found ourselves led away from the river up the side of the mountain to Yayoi Sugi. It’s the easiest to see of the named trees and the third most famous. Things are done like that in Japan. Everything is rated and you have to go somewhere to see a specific thing. Or maybe it isn’t just a Japan thing and it’s just something I notice now that I’m considered a traveler.
As the path led higher up the mountain there were no other hikers around and a comforting, misty rain began to fall. Moss covered everything. Trees, rocks, an old bench, nothing was safe from its touch. Moss crept up trees that wrapped around and into each other, creating a symbiotic relationship that reminded me of the basic tenants of pluralistic society. It seemed as though everything was thriving. It was pure beauty and infused me with a cleansing power I hadn’t felt since I came to Japan two years ago.
But I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of unease. Or was it discomfort? Anyway, it was a feeling deep inside me that I couldn’t put my finger on. As we continued our ascent up well-traveled paths, sometimes cordoned off from the forest by the wooden look concrete fences Japan is so famous for, stone pavers created an easy to traverse path through the pristine, almost primeval, forest. My unease suddenly dawned on me. We were in a forest but we weren’t IN it. Barriers stopped us and told us where to go, subtly forcing us to fall in line and have a uniform experience. It is something I’ve been battling with for a long time since I arrived in Japan. A core feature of Japanese Zen is the concept of balance. It’s a wondrous concept that I struggle every day to find. Japan has an uncanny balance with nature. It can be difficult at times to draw a hard line where buildings end and nature begins, and vice-versa. It is awesome.
But as I traversed that path through the forest I felt I was seeing the ugly side of Zen. The hand of man infiltrated this place and I couldn’t unsee it. It was the same feeling I experience in zoos when I see proud animals crushed under the oppression of cages. This forest was a zoo. I felt guilty. I was part of the problem. Now bear with me. This was the particular line of logic I used to explain the unfamiliar sensations rumbling inside me. Maybe I was as simple as me being overcome by the pure power of nature.
The rain continued dribbling through the thick canopy as I struggled to make sense of my feelings. We kept walking until we finally came upon Yayoi Sugi. A steep climb up narrow wooden stairs brought us to the majestic monster. Twenty-six meters tall with a surprising girth and said to be 3,000 years old. It is perhaps the most ancient living entity I’ve seen. It’s made its home for all those years on a steep mountainside. I’m afraid my words can’t do it justice, just as photos can’t quite capture it. It stands majestic in so many ways, rising through the canopy with no thought about who or what surrounds it. The root system is particularly magnificent, flowing down the side of the mountain like a wooden waterfall. I felt an insatiable urge to touch it. So I bent down and stretched my arm through the fence. I know it was wrong because if every person that walked by touched it, there wouldn’t be much left. I am only one, and I don’t make much of a difference, but one turns to two and two turns to four and so on. I was wrong but I had to contact that magnificent creature.
I didn’t feel any massive boost of power.
I felt no insurgence of new meaning in my life.
I did feel calm.
Nature is like that. There is incredible power in Mother Nature, but I find it to be a raw, calm power. One with absolute empathy for the whole but not a care for the individual. The tree didn’t care that I touched it. In the grand scheme, my touch was completely inconsequential. Three seconds compared to the many centuries it’s been watching meant nothing.
But it meant something to me. What? I’m not quite sure. Maybe I just explained it. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I’ll never understand. It doesn’t matter. I won’t say it changed my life. It did. Every second changes our life. I won’t say it infused knowledge or understanding. It did. Every moment our eyes and heart are open is good.
That moment will live on inside me. The drizzling rain that permeated the air. The smell of fresh air infused with the aroma of rich soil and cedar. The love of my wife as she absorbed the scene in her own special way. Droplets of water dripping from the canopy overhead. The snap of a digital shutter and Japanese being spoken nearby. My breathing. The ache in my right groin. Blood rushing through my body from the recent climb.
It was only a few moments. Gone. But not forgotten.
We circled up and around the tree along the path. It felt like our mission was complete but we still weren’t satisfied. We talked about our feelings as we descended the path. This natural “zoo” was prohibitive. People are brought to and ferried along the correct path. The only way to look at things. It’s at once beautiful and sad.
Everywhere humanity has made a mark. I don’t think it is bad. It just is. But I still struggle with it. I see nature as a magnificent space where humanity has struggled for eons to carve out a special space. Humanity has created some of the most amazing things but they still pale in comparison to the accomplishments of nature, which humanity tries to take partial credit for by creating paths and other natural zoos or parks.
Please forgive me. I know I am being overly cynical. I am grateful that me and countless other people are able to see nature in a comfortable way. I guess I’m a little selfish that way. You see, the guided/preferred/manipulated/coaxed experience is not unique. Perhaps it is because I am from America and we are supposed to be all about individualism. Perhaps I’m insatiable in that respect and nothing is ever good enough. Maybe it’s my hometown that is buried even further in the bush. But, I now have a shared experience with all those other people that have seen Yayoi Sugi. We can talk about it and have relatively similar experiences. It’s a good thing. It is. It is in how we interpret that experience that makes the difference.
The experience is homogenized, McDonaldized, manufactured for the masses. One size fits most and the rest are subtly coaxed into submission. I know. I know. Anti-establishment rhetoric. Blah. Blah. Blah. Yakkity-Schmakity.
The fact that I had such a soul-rending experience proves the value of the experience. I was able to see a magnificent natural creation, be guided there by the hand of man, and feel the irony of it. I can’t stress enough how wonderful the experience was because now I can explore these feelings of misbalance that I’ve been struggling with since my landing in Japan.
The balance between man and nature is defined uniquely be each culture, or (shall I even say it?) each individual. A core part of me wants to understand. It’s my natural curiosity. In the end it is useless in the larger picture. But even a small sliver of understanding is an improvement from nothing.
Stay tuned for part two of Yakushima.