Jomon Sugi

South of Kyushu, on the small island of Yakushima, lies the recently commissioned UNESCO World Heritage Site, home of Jomon Sugi.

Jomon Sugi, one of the largest and  oldest cedars in Japan.  Actually, it appears that it’s not actually a cedar, but anyway, it is still a big tree, and it is located in a forest which is considered to be spiritual for the Japanese.

Emi suggested that we come here before my classes officially started because she had never been and because she found a good deal as this is not the popular season to visit the site.  Emi had also quit her job, after a year of suffering through it, and was looking forward to a chance to relax before she started her new one.

When I read about this hike, the only real informationa bout it was that it was a 10 hour hike, with the last few kilometers being quite strenuous. In a effort to add to the pool of knowledge, I’ll show some pictures. In order to start the hike, you have to get to the museum parking lot. The island has a single highway along the coast, and the museum is located just off this highway near the town of Anbo. We rode the bus “system” (can it really be a system when there is only one line?) there, so I can’t give exact directions. You could, however, rent a car, or hire a guide (who will supply a car). In any event, you’ll have to board a bus (or taxi) at the museum because they don’t allow cars beyond this point (because there is no space for parking, and the site is very popular). The bus is kind of expensive, but there isn’t much of an option because there is just no other way to ferry in the large number of daily visitors.

I have to admit that I was a little worried setting off on this trek because everyone was decked out in serious hiking gear, and I was sporting jeans. Usually I will avoid hiking in cotton (the death fabric) because once it gets wet, it will never dry, but I didn’t pack for Japan thinking that I would need to do much hiking. We were lucky because it was a beautiful sunny day, but I was told by the guides that we met that this kind of weather was basically unheard of, and that the island is officially the wettest part of Japan getting rain every day. So if you go, expect to get soaked. The fact that the other hikers were dressed to do a glacial assault, however was still off putting, and it wasn’t until I realized that many of them were wearing gaiters that it finally dawned on me that these people had never been hiking before and had prepared for this hike by cutting out a photo of a mountaineer and taking it to their local sports shop.

The actual hike starts out pretty sedated with a stroll along some railroad tracks which are of the type used for mining, not large trains. Actually, this hike is a little annoying because you have to walk down the middle of the tracks, between the rails, and this is hard on your feet as the ties are not even with the rail bed. Stepping from tie to tie is amusing, but also tiring. The upshot is that you’ll need something amusing when you start because you will be stuck behind a line of about 300 people all sauntering along in single file.

Normally, the hike would continue like this until the difficult section later up the trail. In our case, however, a tree had recently fallen across the tracks necessitating a detour up and over the affected section of track. This section quickly separated the weak from the strong, and the long trains of tourists broke up into something a bit more manageable from a hiking perspective.

The trail has two halfway points (on the way up), one for time, and the other for distance. The distance halfway point passes completely unnoticed along the tracks, which after the detour, had the added comfort of planking added between the rails. The halfway point in time occurs at the beginning of the difficult section. I took a picture of the first section, thinking that the trail would level off afterwards; it didn’t. The whole trail is a mixture of rock, mud, and roots with shored up from time to time with small logs; that is, when the trail engineers decided that they didn’t need to build a Ewok trail of stairs and platforms a few feet above the ground. I usually hold man made trails like this in disdain because it turns the experience of hiking through nature into a stroll through a theme park, but I’ll make an exception in this case considering that the terrain would be otherwise impassible except to serious hard core hikers. This part of the hike was not a stroll by any stretch of the imagination.

That having been said, I have to say that there were quite a few elderly people on the trail and, while not moving as fast as everyone, they were definitely moving along at a good clip. I hope that I’ll be in that good of shape when I’m their age. The amount of effort that this people went through to see this tree should give you an idea of how important it is to them.

Reaching the end was actually anticlimactic, in a way. Emi and I had just started up from a snack break when we spotted some people from our bus. “Oh no! They were on our bus and they are already on their way back!” sighed Emi, who felt that she was making really slow progress (despite passing a lot of slower groups). However, the end was right around the corner, literally, and still nowhere near the ridge-line, for, in my imagination, this tree stood commanding a view as majestic as the tree itself. It doesn’t, the tree is part way up the side of a small valley-canyon. Don’t get me wrong, the tree is impressive, and I’m glad I made the journey.

The return trip took as long as it did to get there. This was because Emi was tired and the trail had not gotten any easier since our journey up it. This meant more breaks and a lot more careful foot placement, which I was fine with; an ankle sprain at this point would have meant hiking in the dark. We made good time on the rail section, which made up for the care during the return trek.

To my hard core hiking friends, I’ll say that doing this as a high speed hike would have been frustrating as there are so many people to pass, and even if you got ahead of them, you’d have to face them all again, head-on, on the return trip. With no people, the hike might be reduced by a few hours, but I don’t think that there is any time when there are no people.

Over all the hike was beautiful and rewarding. The 20km was tiring, but do-able. This was a total success for Emi’s first real hike, and I think was positive enough to mean that we will have more in our future.

Look forward to next time when I talk about driving on the wrong side of the road.

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One Response to “Jomon Sugi”

  1. Noah Says:

    Hi Mike, I’m catching up on your blog finally. Cool picture, and yeah you can probably leave out the part where you’ve seen a billion redwoods bigger than that in CA. In Japan cryptomeria hold a similar spot to coastal redwoods in the Pacific northwest, you have to drag people to see them.

    And yes as you pointed out they are not technically cedars. Cryptomeria are pretty infrequently used as bonsai at least in the US but if you do it right they look like miniature redwoods: http://bonsaibark.com/2010/03/16/johnny-uchidas-superb-saikei/ (this is a saikei my sensei did).

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