HIKING THROUGH YAKUSHIMA’S CEDAR FORESTS
Yakushima is famous for its lush vegetation, precipitous mountains, waterfalls, temperate rainforests, and ancient cedar trees. Today we got to experience a little of each of these things with a visit to Shiratani Unsuikyo, or “Rain-cloud Valley”.
As glorious as the day turned out to be, it didn’t start out that way. We got no sleep last night and woke up tired and cranky. So cranky, in fact, that we decided we needed to find another place to stay. The guesthouse we had booked for our 4 night stay here is above a fishing shop, and is really, really basic. We booked it because it was cheap (i.e. $30AUD per person per night), and given that it is currently Golden Week, everything else was either booked or stupidly expensive (e.g. $300AUD per person per night). Unfortunately it seems you get what you pay for; the whole guesthouse smelt like fish, and there was 1 toilet and 1 Japanese-style bathing room to be shared between 5 rooms (which last night meant between was 12 people – too bad if you had to pee in a hurry!).
We had rock-hard bunk beds to sleep in, and the walls were paper thin. It was the complete lack of sound proofing that was our undoing – we could here every word spoken by our neighbours last night, as well as every fart, every burp, every cat yowling in the night, just everything! And as our room was right by the front door, every time the door opened and closed, our whole room shook and shuddered. For those who like to rough it, this would seem like the whinging of a spoilt brat. We’re in an isolated, incredibly beautiful part of the world, and I’m complaining about lack of sleep…. Yup. Lack of sleep is my arch nemesis. Well, that and heights. Without sleep I am useless and cranky. So cranky that Shane decided we had to find another place to stay (i.e. he couldn’t stand the idea of putting up with 4 days of me like this). Lucky for us the one hotel in town had a cancellation and was really happy to sell us the room at a reduced rate, which is AWESOME as it means I get to sleep like the spoilt, precious princess I am for the rest of our stay here. Such happiness and joy!
Once our little accommodation issue was resolved, and with a couple of coffees in us, we caught the local bus up to Shiratani Unsuikyo Nature Reserve to do some exploring. This area is close to Miyanoura and very accessible for day hikers* like us. It is also beautiful.
*That is: we like to do hikes that go for a up to 8 hours, but then retreat to the comfort of civilisation and a warm shower for the night. If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’m not the camping type. My rule is: if I have to dig a hole to poop in and/or carry my own poop around in a bag, I’m not going. What am I, a bear that I have to sh#t in the woods?!
Just the drive up to Shiratani Unsuikyo was spectacular. The nature reserve is almost 1,000m up and the views from the bus as we wound our way higher and higher up the mountain were amazing. We could see all the way down to Miyanoura and the port, as well across valleys and mountains.
The hike we did is one of the shorter ones available at Shiratani Unsuikyo; it takes you through some areas of the forest that were logged during the 1600s (and are therefore somewhat cleared of trees and a little more accessible), and up to Yayoi-sugi (Yayoi = Iron Age; sugi = cedar*). Yayoi-sugi is an ancient cedar tree that is one of the oldest and largest trees in Japan. The name of the tree derives from its age – it’s believed to have sprouted some 2,300 years ago during the Yayoi Period or Japanese Iron Age (i.e. about 300BC).
*The Japanese cedar, known colloquially as ‘sugi’, are often used as a symbol of Yakushima. Trees younger than 1,000 years are known as ‘Kosugi’; older specimens are known as ‘Yakusugi’.
The forest that we walked through to reach Yayoi-sugi was typical of the temperate rainforest seen at this altitude – very green and mossy, with ferns and epiphytes everywhere. Talking to a guide at the nature reserve today we learnt that altitude has a huge impact on the flora of the island: at higher altitudes the climate is temperate, with grasses dominating the landscape and snow falling in winter. Whereas at lower altitudes the climate and vegetation are more sub-tropical and tropical. The entire island can be divided up into strata, with plant and animal distributions changing as the altitude changes.
We were even lucky enough to have actual sunshine during our walk through the forest today! Given it rains 10m a year here, dry sunny days are very rare. The sun shining through the trees painted everything bright green, and when came out into the open, the blue skies above us just added to the beauty of the forest.
It was a great way to spend the day and we can’t wait to see more of this incredible island! Tune in tomorrow folks to see what corner of Yakushima we explore…