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A lush island paradise of mountains and ancient trees


A lush island paradise of mountains and ancient trees

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It is known as the ‘alps of the sea’, a natural gem that lies about 60 kilometres off the southernmost tip of mainland Japan, where some of the world’s oldest trees have been able to survive for thousands of years.

Yakushima is a circular-shaped island, with a circumference of 130 kilometres, and with a central mountain range that has peaks that rise up to almost 2,000 metres.

Yakushima has to be on the list for anyone on the hunt for a paradisiacal escape.

Situated in the southern part of Kagoshima Prefecture, the island is famous for its many hiking tracks, to admire the rich flora and fauna and go deep into undisturbed forests.

The island, which has a population of roughly 14,000, is also popular for its natural hot springs (onsen), diving and fishing.

And, before heading deep inland into the forests, visitors can enjoy the coastal treats: the subtropical flowers, including bougainvillea and hibiscus varieties, as well as lush banana and papaya trees.

About a fifth of Yakushima was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1993 and the land registered for protection includes part of the Yakushima National Park.

The island was among the first sites in Japan to be included on the World Heritage list.

Some 90 percent of the island is mountainous land covered in tropical forests of bright green, with moss-covered floors.

The climate ranges from subtropical along the coast to cold temperatures in the mountains.

Many visitors to Yakushima are attracted by the world-famous ancient Japanese cedar trees, which are thousands of years old.

The trees are known as Yakusugi (Cyptomeria Japonica) and most of the older ones have been given individual names.

Some of the trees can be viewed after an easy walk from a main road but others require a trek of several hours into the forest.

The Yakusugi Museum is also worth a visit, to find out more about the ancient cedars, including the oldest known as Jomon-sugi.

Different estimates put the age of the tree at between 2,170 and 7200 years old.

For those not able to make the long hike to see Jomon-sugi, the museum has one of its fallen branches on display.

The Jomon-sugi Millennium Branch, which itself is 1,000 years old, came down in 2005 and has provided more clues about the longevity of the tree.

For example, the high resin content in the Yakusugi is thought to protect it from decay and damaging insects.

Jomon-sugi has become an icon for Yakushima, with many visitors setting themselves the challenge of viewing the tree with their own eyes.

There is a viewing platform in front of Jomon-sugi, to keep visitors at a distance and avoid any damage.

The tree is 25.3 metres high and the circumference of the trunk is 16.4 metres.

Geology buffs will have a fascinating time here, with so much to observe in terms of how the natural environment has evolved.

Yakushima’s nature is described as a microcosm of Japan.

The island is estimated to have been formed about 15 million years ago when a subterranean mass of granite magma lifted up through what is know as the Kumage Strata.

When many foreigners think of Japan they picture the hustle and bustle of big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.

But, increasingly, the country’s dreamy island retreats such as Yakushima are becoming popular destinations.

It is easy to see how the misty and lush green forests on Yakushima provided inspiration for the animated masterpiece Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki.

Getting to Yakushima island is easy.

As well as taking traditional express and normal ferry services from the mainland, there is a good airport on the island with regular services.

There are direct flights from Fukuoka, Osaka and Kagoshima.

Once on the island there are different transport options including buses, bike/car rentals and taxis.

It is possible to explore the island at your own pace, but there are also guides available and organised tours are possible.

Another highlight on the island for many is the Senpiro-no-Taki waterfall, just one of the many sights of natural beauty.

The average annual temperature on Yakushima is 19.4°C and it rarely falls below 12.

Other highlights include the Yakushima Environmental and Cultural Village Centre, the Sea Turtle Centre, Yakusugi Land, the Shizenkan Museum, the World Heritage Centre and the Environmental Culture Research Centre.

Also, almost everywhere you go on the island there are impressive sculptures made out of the local cedar trees.

Amazing works of art are created out of wood that is thousands of years old and it’s possible to visit shops and centres where the objects are crafted.

One wood centre worth visiting is called Takeda Kan, a factory and shop that has been in operation since 1962.

The manager, Tomohiro Kaneda, takes great pleasure in showing visitors around and explaining the intricacies of his craft.

It is possible to spend hours looking at the many different products and sculptures, including everything from kitchen utensils, tables and cupboards to large animals.

Kaneda also explains the history of hundreds of years of logging on Yakushima and how strict controls are now in place to protect the natural environment.

Working out the age of a tree by looking at its rings is another treat.

Kaneda explains that each ring represents a year in the life of a tree, with the white rings formed in warmer months and the black ones in colder periods.

The rich history of Yakushima is captured within the sculptures and products.

It was during the Edo period in Japan that large numbers of Yakusugi were cut down.

But the forests were restored with Kosugi, the younger generation of the great cedars.

After years of massive logging the island has attempted to bring in sustainable forestry practices.

Many of the products on sale come from trees that have fallen naturally.

There is a whole variety of accommodation on offer on Yakushima.

Visitors can choose from bed and breakfast-type lodgings to expensive hotels.

Some of the most popular hotels on the island can be found at this website and this one.

The Sankara Hotel and Spa in Mugio is another perfect example of where tourists come to be pampered in a natural setting.

This was given a 2016 Travelers’ Choice award by the travel website TripAdvisor.

Experiencing the different culinary delights on Yakushima is also a must.

Most of the good hotels and restaurants use fresh local produce from the mountains and the sea.

Locals say visitors should not miss treats such as the “tobiuo” flying fish, the “saba” mackerel, wild plants such as “warabi” and “zenmai” and the local fruit including citrus varieties, passion fruit, papaya and bananas.

The Sankara hotel, for example, also offers a wonderful fusion between the best of local cuisine and French cooking.

Some useful links:

Official Yakushima tourism website

Yakushima – Japan National Tourism Organisation

Yakushima World Heritage listing

Guardian travel article on Yakushima

Yes Yakushima

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