Yakushima - Alps on the Ocean

Yakushima Island, Japan

Julian Ryall tells us all about his experience in Yakushima - a forest-covered island to the south of Kyushu.

From a distance, Yakushima appears to rise like a green cone from the ocean. As the aircraft approaches, the squalls that come and go over the flanks of its mountains obscure the greenery and the waves crashing at the bottom of the sea cliffs turn the water white.

Everything here seems to revolve around the element from which this World Heritage Site emerges, 60 km south of Cape Sata in Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu's most southerly prefecture.

The nearly-14,000 residents of this ancient island are proud that it has been recognised by UNESCO and are less interested in exploiting its unique environment than protecting it. Not many other communities, for example, would impose firm limits on the number of visitors arriving to witness one of the most important events in the island's annual cycle. 

Every year, between May and July, dozens of loggerhead turtles make the torturous climb up the beaches on the western coast of the island to lay their eggs. And every year, visitors are closely monitored to ensure that they do not interfere. 

Roughly circular, the entire island is dominated by a series of peaks that rise more than 1,800 meters above sea level. At 1,936 meters, the tallest of them all, Mount Miyanoura-dake, is the highest mountain in Kyushu. Described by some as the "Alps on the Ocean," the extremes of altitude and beaches that are washed by the warm waters of the Kuroshio Current mean that Yakushima experiences climatic extremes that range from subtropical mangrove swamps to sub-zero temperatures atop the mountains in winter. 

One element that is constant throughout the year, however, is the rain. Local people like to tell visitors that it rains 35 days every month and it comes in every conceivable form - from fine, misty drizzle that floats out of the heavens to torrential downpours that drench anyone caught out in the open. 

The geography and climate have combined to create some stunning scenery, such as the Senpiro-no-taki waterfall, which has carved a V-shaped chasm on the southern side of the island and pours over a massive granite boulder, or the Ohko-no-taki falls, where the cascade tumbles nearly 90 meters into a plunge pool. But nothing on Yakushima is more breathtaking than the Yaki-sugi cedar. 

The first cedar trees start appearing at an altitude of around 800 meters, mixed with oak, beech, hazel and camphor trees, which are replaced above 1,200 meters by fir, spruce and other conifers. But none of them are as long-lived as the cedars.

Thirty of the largest and oldest cedars have been catalogued by the Yakusugi Museum, with the biggest named the Jomon-sugi cedar. Experts estimate that it is at least 2,600 years old and may even have started growing on the flanks of Mount Nagata-dake 7,000 years ago. Its trunk, twisted and gnarled, rises more than 25 meters above the forest floor and its girth at chest height is in excess of 5 meters. 

Not far away is the base of a tree that was felled around 400 years ago as a gift to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the feudal lord famous as the great unifier of Japan's rival political factions. Named Wilson's Stump - after Dr. Ernest Wilson, the British plant collector who revealed the existence of the cedar trees of Yakushima to the rest of the world - it has a diameter of 4.4 meters and a stream bubbles up from beneath its roots.

Hiking in these pristine mountains has long been one of the main attractions for visitors to the island, and the routes can be very strenuous. The remedy for that, of course, is to relax with the locals in the Hirauchi Kaichu onsen, a series of pools amid the seashore rocks near the village of Hirauchi that are fed by a natural hot spring.