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Friday, Aug. 18, 2006
Navigating through a lost world
By CHRIS COOK
As the single flashing beam of the lighthouse struggled to make itself seen in the misty half-light, the Toppy 2 high-speed ferry bumped its way across the waves on the east side of the island of Yakushima, southeast of Kyushu.
Within minutes we were safely inside the concrete-fortified port of Anbo, umbrellas at the ready. Looking out from behind Toppy's steamed-up windows, our first view of the island was of dark, towering concrete harbor walls protecting us from monster typhoons and killer tsunami, and sheets of rain being buffeted, almost horizontally from one side to the other, by a strong wind.
Was it the rainy season? Was it just another normal day on Yakushima? Whatever, we had arrived.
The island -- where it rains, they say, for 35 days (!) a month -- is famed as much for its precipitation as for its ancient Japanese cedar (sugi) trees, some of which are reputed to be thousands of years old.
Although part of the island has been designated a World Heritage Site (a section within the Kirishima-Yaku National Park), there is plenty of concrete and construction on display: diggers and cranes and concrete-making plants compete with an abundance of forest, and even the back-of-beyond Seibu Rindo, the road which sweeps up, down and around the as-yet fairly unspoiled and picturesque western parts of the island, has not escaped these monstrosities working to "protect" the coastline or the forest or waterfalls.
"Base camp" during our stay was at the luxury Iwasaki Yakushima Hotel, lost in the greenery at the top of a snaking hibiscus-lined driveway near Onoaida, a town in the island's southwest.
The hotel is superbly positioned. On one side, it has commanding views of the imposing southern flank of the island's craggy mountains, and on the other, the green and the blue of trees and ocean (or, for much of our stay, the uniform gray of sheets of rain and low cloud!).
Aside from the large and luxurious hot spring that the hotel boasts, there is an unusual attraction in the lobby: A towering five-floor-high replica of one of the island's huge sugi trees has been constructed from synthetic resin at the cost of over 7 million yen.
The trunk looks lifelike, with as many man-made epiphytes growing out of the trunk as you'll see when you hike through Yakusugiland, one of the island's main tourist attractions, where ancient trees, moss-covered boulders and generally unadulterated nature can be experienced.
Here, real-life parasitic plants festoon the trees among the cloud-shrouded and rain-infested highlands. For instance, the gnarled Buddha cedar, reputed to be a "young" 1,800 years old, has such shrubs as rhododendron, ilex and camellia popping out all over, and a dizzying array of ferns, mosses and orchids growing out of the bark.
Out of the many large cedars -- Futagosugi, Butsudasugi, Daiosugi, Kigensugi, to name a few -- pride of place goes to the Jomon sugi, which is estimated to be anywhere between 3,000 and 7,000 years old.
With its moss-covered understory and mist-enveloped trees, Yakusugiland is about as near as one can get to an enchanted forest in Japan. It was for us: Quietly walking along the well-kept trails, we marveled at the vivid greenness of moss-covered boulders and fallen trunks, at the crystal clear waters tumbling in the streams and the soothing bird song from unseen creatures who have the fortune to call this place "home sweet home."
From the visitor center/gift shop -- an ecofriendly log-cabin affair with banks of solar panels on the roof -- there are a number of courses that can be taken to explore nature's paradise on the roof of the island: the easy 30-minute one, the medium 50-minute one, the 80-minute and the 120-minute one pass by some of the famous trees, but not the Jomon sugi.
Another natural attraction occurs during the spring, when turtles haul themselves out of the sea to lay their eggs. Perhaps the best known site for this spectacle is along the northwest coast at Nagata Inaka-hama Beach, one of several sandy beaches on the island where turtles nest.
Two or three species can regularly be found during the breeding season -- the large loggerhead, the smaller green sea turtle and the olive Ridley's.
For 10 years now, a band of about 20 local volunteers have manned a turtle observation and information center, next to the main road north out of Nagata town. Here, every evening between May 15 and July 31, tourists and island residents are invited to view a short video of the turtles and learn about the breeding cycle of these rarely seen marine creatures.
On the night we arrived, in steadily falling rain, 30 or more people had gathered to watch the video and listen to Yukihisa Omuta, a local volunteer, give a short talk on the turtles at Nagata Inaka-hama beach.
"The females arrive during the spring or early summer and after mating with a male -- or males -- haul themselves up onto the beaches after dark and dig a hole with their flippers in the sand," he said. "In this chamber they deposit their eggs -- the size of Ping-Pong balls -- which are then covered and incubated for about two months by the warmth of the sand."
Each year, 700 to 800 loggerheads and smaller numbers of green sea turtles return to the island to breed. A few years ago, Omuta said, a rare black turtle showed up one night at the beach, an event which caused great excitement among turtle conservationists on the island.
After Omuta's introduction, which he illustrated with photographs and the carapace of a long dead specimen, we were escorted to the beach by another volunteer to watch, at our feet, a female loggerhead turtle laying its clutch of eggs in the hole she had excavated.
It's kind of a stealth operation: no torches allowed (they scare the turtles) and no talking (too much chatter can spook the egg-laying female).
Omuta, one of many locals who volunteer their time during the egg-laying season, said that in a good year "several hundred turtles come to nest on the beaches near Nagata Inaka-hama."
Fortunately, for them, they are jealously protected and are seen as a valuable attraction, unlike at some other touristy places in Japan where these ocean wanderers end up as canned meat or merely as an object to hang on someone's apartment wall.
If Kagoshima Prefecture is noted for its local specialties -- tonkotsu (local black pork meat and bones marinated in shochu and stewed with miso [soybean paste] and vegetables), and plentiful mikan (mandarin oranges) during the winter months -- Yakushima has its own secret, too: cakes and cookies made from tankan, the island-grown oranges.
Yakushima may not yet be on the gourmet map of Japan but one interesting lunch spot which we visited was a seafood restaurant (Yakudon,  46-3210) near Anbo Port which specializes in flying fish.
The menu read like a who's who of the flying fish world: flying-fish sashimi, shio-yaki teishoku (a set meal of salted and grilled flying-fish), sauteed flying fish, flying-fish fishcakes -- and guess what the catch of the day was? Yep, flying fish!
Getting there: From Kagoshima Port, the Toppy 2 high-speed ferry takes 2 1/2 hours to reach Anbo or Miyanoura, a port on the island's north coast, or a slower, once-a-day ferry, which takes about four hours to reach northern Miyanoura Port. Alternatively, there are five flights (40 minutes) a day from Kagoshima Airport operated by Japan Air Commuter (toll free number:  25-5971).
Tourist information (in Japanese): Yakushima Tourist Association (0997) 49-4010 or Yakushima Tourist Center in Miyanoura (0997) 42-2081. Japan National Tourist Organization has information in English on its Web site at www.jnto.go.jp or at www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-708.pdf