I had traveled Japan before leaving it for what could have possibly been forever almost 5 years ago now. All of the things I missed out on or the few that I didn’t get to do sufficiently formed a sort of white whale for me. Little by little I’ve chipped away at what I thought was too good to have missed out on, and found a lot of new great things on the way. But the most poignant was probably missing out on Jomon Sugi.
Jomon Sugi is a somewhat incredible tree dated about 7000 years ago, located deep in the forests of Yakushima. It was supposedly one of the main factors that stopped the lumber industry in that area which is one thing the island definitely has an abundance of. Trees and mountains, but there’s no real way to sell mountains so it had to be trees. As much as going to Jomon Sugi is about the tree itself, it’s also largely about the journey there which is surprisingly more treacherous than people let on.
As I mentioned before, I’m not a hiker, and my previous failure to see much of Yakushima was half due to not being prepared at all, and half due to not having time. The bus for Jomon Sugi leaves at 4:48 from the main part of town and comes back at 5:10. As someone who checks out a lot of photography and film development stuff on the internet, I know everyone wants you to use or assumes you already use all the fancy toys they have. Lists for seasoned hikers on the area seem pretty overwhelming, but at the very least you need boots, a rain cover, and a coat that’s good in the rain. You will encounter some kind of rain unless you’re incredibly lucky, but it seems torrential downpour will stop you from ever reaching the end, so I’d avoid any day like that. There’s a toilet at the beginning of the trail and the middle as well so I’ll leave the decision up to you in whether or not you’ll need a portable toilet, which is thankfully not AS disgusting as it sounds.
Yakushima has famously inspired Princess Mononoke of previously most famous anime movie fame, and a personal favorite. However the inspiration seems to go generally a bit farther than that, Zelda for instance usually involves great old trees that sometimes look witheringly similar to Jomon Sugi. Yet even if you don’t care about any of these sorts of things, there’s definitely a special atmosphere to the hike to and location of Jomon Sugi. It even could be broken down easily into some separate parts.
The trail starts with walking on the boards under the old rail tracks, it moves quite slowly since you can’t really step in-between the boards for the most part. It also involves a few scary icanfalltomydeath bridges and a small cave. It’s a tough part when you’re following a line of people, but if you’re quick getting back you can enjoy the industrial clash with nature of it all.
The next part of the tracks is longer but is a much easier walk since you’ll now be walking on a long line of boards on top of the boards holding the tracks in place. This starts pretty much when you reach the old elementary school grounds that were in the area. This path gets a bit less industrial and starts popping up with names trees every few hundred meters. I would recommend holding off any pictures til your walk back unlesss you’re worried about lighting or rain.
Finally there’s the most modern bathroom in the whole area which starts the part of the trail that gave me a limp for several days. Walking up and down rocks and sometimes branches with a few brief parts connected by stairs. This is where those hiking boots are necessary. There are still often death drops to the side and I lost count of the times I thought “This is the perfect place to break an ankle.”
After Wilson’s stump, it gets a bit easier, but really only a bit. In my experience, going into Wilson’s stump on the way back was far better, but my friend and I made amazing time, especially for non-hikers. It’s still a long way from wilson’s stump of going up and down hills via rocks and sometimes stairs. A short while after Wilson’s Stump there’s a sign declaring the rest of the forest to be mostly untouched. While I found it a bit cheesy, this is probably the part of the journey where you’ll start to really feel the atmosphere of the foggy old forest. It was around that point I really started appreciating the journey.
Sadly and thankfully there’s no way to go up to Jomon Sugi. Reaching it a bit before noon, we had the pleasure of seeing it mostly uncrowded so the worries that it will be like most good things in Japan, crowded af, can be put to rest.
The walk back was the second best part of the hike. If you’re making good time, on your way back all of the places that were filled with tourists and obscenely rude guides will be almost entirely free of other people. This enables you to have some actual emotional attachment to the landscape.