Picturesque Japan: Yakushima

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A journey to one of the world's oldest cedar trees


With over 90 percent of Yakushima  covered by mysterious forests, this island to the south of Kagoshima Prefecture can boast of over 1,900 species and subspecies of flora.

But the one tree that it  can be really proud of is what is thought to be the world's oldest cedar tree.

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This majestic tree is speculated to have looked over the island for between 2,500 and 7,000 years, which is why it is called the Jomonsugi, Jomon referring to Japan's first era after the stone age and sugi being the Japanese word for cedar tree.

Little wonder then, that Yakushima island became one of Japan's first World Natural Heritage Site in 1993, along with Shirakami-Sanchi in Aomori and Akita Prefectures.

Despite its age, the Jomonsugi was only discovered in 1966. That may sound like ages ago to some, but would be just like a blink of an eye to this ancient tree.

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Since its discovery, scientists and artists alike have been intrigued by the Jomonsugi and Yakushima, and Ghibli Studios's epic "Princess Mononoke" comes to mind as a work of art that was inspired by the island's magical forests.

Scientists speculate that the Jomonsugi and other flora and fauna on the island, somehow managed to survive a giant volcanic eruption of 7,300 years ago, which is said to have dramatically changed greater Kyushu's vegetation. That could be a valid explanation, as for some reason Yakushima's nature is significantly different from that of Kyushu.

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Although the island's population hasn't changed much over the years, Yakushima has become a popular tourist destination with more and more visitors that come to pay pilgrimage to this ancient tree every year, so don't expect to be the only visitor. Especially during the Golden Week (a Japanese holiday season in May), up to 1000 people a day come to trek to the Jomonsugi, which is located at 1,280m altitude.

Be prepared for a journey that takes the average walker around 10 hours. It is worth the sweat as you pass myriads of ancient trees in obscure shapes, waterfalls and springs with amazingly clear water, and cute deer and monkeys can be spotted on the way. Still, keep in mind that this course is not recommended for inexperienced hikers.

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The epic journey to this Mother Tree starts with the Anbo Trail, which stretches along a disused railway through the forest.

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The railway first leads you to Kosugidani, a village deep in the mountains that was abandoned in 1970. Now, 45 years later, nature is slowly reclaiming the village with moss and plants growing on remains of buildings and abandoned roof tiles.

After passing Kosugidani, you reach a difficult uphill trek called the Okabu Trail leading directly to the Jomonsugi. The path is often steep, and consists of a mixture of dirt footpaths, boardwalks and wooden steps.

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Nothing beats the sense of accomplishment once you finally reach the Jomonsugi site after all the hard trekking. Leaving an impact just as massive as its trunk's diameter of of 5m, the Jomonsugi is a sight to behold. Take your time and  be mesmerized by this ancient tree!

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Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: Unkai Terrace

Spot Information

Name: Yakushima

Access: From Kagoshima, 30 minutes by plane, 2 hours by speed boat, 4 hours by ferry.

Jomonsugi trek starting point: Arakawa-tozanguchi (reachable by car or taxi from Ambo Village)

Official Information: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-708.pdf

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