The Living Island – Part Two

Posted by on Nov 30, 2011 in Kagoshima, Travel Volunteer Journey | 3 Comments
The Living Island – Part Two

“Sleeping is giving in, so lift those heavy eyelids,” so sing Arcade Fire, but this morning if it had been up to us – or more specifically: me – we would definitely have raised the white flag. In my humble opinion, 5am starts are not conducive to a good morning, especially when the blog is only rounded off some time around 1am the night before. But that was exactly the position we found ourselves in today, so instead of listening to our minds and bodies, we followed the eclectic Canucks advice, and stepped out into the cool darkness of the pre-dawn.

Of course the fact that there was an enormous forest-shaped carrot in front of us made it a good deal easier. In theory at least. Trekking is a funny business: really it’s no more than complicated walking, but it requires a very specific type of fitness, and strength in muscles that are seldom used by the average man – or travel volunteer for that matter. So we set out on the muddy Tachu Dake trail well aware that what lay ahead would likely be much more challenging than the “moderate” rating given to it by our affable guide Junichi Aida.

They say it rains “35 days a month” in this central part of Yakushima and this morning was definitely on the moist side. But then that’s what makes these woods so special – the moisture feeds the moss which blankets the entire place, clinging to humongous trees, dead and alive.

One of the island’s most famous features, the Japanese cedars have been here for a very, very long time. Deeper into the island, the oldest tree lurks: the bold Jomon Sugi whose age is estimated to be 7,200, though some people put it at a third of that. There’s no disputing that the trees around here are old – extremely old, by any standard, which hasn’t escaped UNESCO’s attention either: a vast area where no logging has ever thought to have occurred  has been designated a world heritage site.

Unfortunately, on our route to Tachu Dake, we saw that not everywhere escaped Man’s axe. In the Edo Period, people pillaged the forest for wood and it was the very oldest trees they targeted first. Today the fat stumps still stand as chunky reminders of what not to do. Meanwhile, other, younger trees have seized the opportunity to gain an advantage, pushing the moss aside and planting themselves into the old stumps, using them like ancient vases.

The dampness and the darkness under the canopy are a photographer’s worst nightmare (Katy didn’t risk bringing her usual kit), but like our fatigue, frustration about photography seemed to dissipate the further we trekked. Scrambling over slippery roots and gripping ropes to drag ourselves up the more testing rocks, it wasn’t always fun – and if this was moderate, well we’d hate to see anything more difficult. But we’ve had worse, and then we weren’t compensated by the intoxicating aroma of the cedars, or the cool breeze from the valley below.

Tired and a little muddy, after more than three hours, we finally found Tachu Dake, a colossal monolith that looks out across the rolling verdant valleys below. This gargantuan chunk of granite sitting atop a mountain is the worth the trip alone – which was just as well because we couldn’t see a thing from the platform at it’s fat base.

We sat, and thankfully we waited because then the wind picked up, and, to paraphrase Gandalf, the grey rain-curtain of the world rolled back – and then we saw it: a far green country, and beyond, the silver sea.

Before long the void claimed it once again and we sat there, unsure if the whole thing had been anything more than a mirage. Whatever it was, though, it was unforgettable.

Our time in Kagoshima prefecture was made possible by:

The wonderful Hakusuikan an elaborate onsen-resort by the sea in Ibusuki. It was there we tried the sand-bath, but that’ just the start of their story. With a long list of celebrity clients, the place has history – not least in it’s world class museum where it seems the entire history of Chinese pottery is detailed with a priceless collection. Really amazing stuff – especially 5,000-year-old jug!

Absolutely everyone at the Sankara Hotel and Spa. If Yakushima hadn’t been loaded with so much to do, we’d have dedicated the entire blog to writing about this superlative haven on the edge of the tree line. Luxury hotels can occasionally feel stuffy and the staff unsettlingly servile – it couldn’t be more different here. It’s a real compliment to the staff to say that we felt like we were their friends, while also staying in one of the nicest hotels in the entire country. Also, we’d like to especially thank Tsutomu Seshimo, the head chef who stuffed us to bursting with an excellent selection of French-Japanese fusion cuisine that we won’t forget in a hurry; and the brilliant Tomohiro Kaneda, for an excellent tour of the island, impeccable service and great conversation.

Our trekking guide Junichi Aida for his expertise and unending patience with our slovenly pace heading up the mountain. If there’s a man who knows more about the myriad trails that criss-cross Yakushima, we’d like to meet him. One small complaint, though: Jun did make us feel extremely jealous with his stories of honeymooning in Alaska.














  1. Darren B
    December 1, 2011

    Looks like an amazing experience in Kagoshima prefecture. Definately off the beaten track

  2. Junichi Aida
    December 1, 2011


    I loved the very last sentence !

    I guarantee that you would love that precious wilderness.

    Well, come back again in the future.

    We will have wonderful time up in mountains for days !!

    Good luck, Jamie and Katy.

    • Katy & Jamie
      December 7, 2011

      Thanks Juni, we are saving our pennies already! Hope to see you again one day.