Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
“When I first came to Yakushima, it would have never crossed my mind that I would soon learn the old Japanese craft of carving Yakusugi wood. I was a fisherman; out on the ocean every day to catch flying fish,” says Clive Witham, who, awed by the beauty of Japan’s largest trees, the endemic Yakusugi cedars, decided to move to the island with his family. An acupuncturist by trade, he didn’t stick out amongst the crew – there are only a handful of jobs by which to make a living on Yakushima so his mates on deck were pastry chefs and salesmen now trawling the seas.
His neighbors at the time, the Kashima family, have the longest tradition of working Yakusugi wood on the island. Passing their workshop every day, he struck up conversation on their trade. Until one day they invited him to learn. “The nature of this wood is unique. It has oil in the grain that protects the tree from the harsh conditions on Yakushima – and creates beautiful patterns throughout the wood. What you make from Yakusugi will last forever. It is the most durable wood I know,” shares Witham. Chopsticks, cups, plates, tables, cabinets, and sculptures, even the bathrooms up in the mountains – most things on Yakushima were once made from the wood. Simple everyday items are turned into a piece of art that tell a story of thousands of years. “Only wood collected from the forest ground can be used by the craftsmen. Yakusugi cedars can get thousands of years old. Some of the logs we worked have been laying there for hundreds of years. But take off the surface and underneath lies perfection.”
“Cryptomeria japonica is the only species in its genus and endemic to Japan. The wood is highly resistant due to the presence of terpenoids”, explains Laura Jennings, a botanist at Kew Gardens in London. “These terpenoids also make the wood very aromatic. Surprisingly, the Yakusugi is a conifer and a softwood, but the wood that the craftspeople use on Yakushima has been naturally seasoned on the forest floor for decades.”
Yakusugi crafts are sold in the island's workshops and a few select stores across Japan. Everything made from this wood is crafted by hand by one of the families on the island and will last you a lifetime. It comes at a price though – not only to honor the labor the craftsman put into producing a unique piece with care and passion, but also to account for its rarity. Yakusugi only grows on Yakushima. They are Japan’s tallest and oldest trees. And the craft of working Yakusugi is dying. Logging operations are prohibited now. Only allowed to collect what is found on the ground, the island will run out of fallen logs in the near future.
The trees, which are the origin of the beautifully marbled wood, are a breathtaking sight and they are more than just part of the scenery. “Surrounded by the trees you can feel their presence. If you spend some time with them you will realize that they have personalities,” explains Witham. Cameron Riki Joyce, a New Zealand native who runs an established tour business on the island, agrees. “The trees have awareness. But they live on a different time scale. Imagine their heart beats just twice a day. Things move slowly for them.”
Many of the impressive wooden giants have been given names, most famous the Yomon-sugi which at about 7,000 years is a Methuselah, albeit on its last breath of life. Younger examples in full sap of their best years at only a couple of thousand include the Ryojin-sugi, Daiyo-sugi and the Yayoi-sugi. “The Ryojin-sugi used to be popular a decade or two ago. It is very accessible and the path to it has recently been cut open again. Make sure to visit it late in the afternoon when most tourists head back and the monkeys come down from the mountains to play. You can get right next to it,” says Witham about his favorite tree. Joyce recommends visiting the Daiyo-sugi. “It is on the path to Jomon-sugi and about the same size yet healthier. It is a powerful tree! It is defined by its size, majestic shape and an overall big presence.” What made these trees so exceptional? “The wonderful ancient Yakusugi are partly so long-lived and tall because unlike animals they can grow continuously. And their morphology is exceptional. Conifers have a single growing point, so they grow ever taller rather than branching sideways,” explains Jennings.
And there are thousands at which to marvel on Yakushima. “The two main trails with the most famous absorb most of the tourists at all times,” knows Joyce. But wander one of the other paths and you will encounter deer, Japanese macaques, dewy mosses dotted with tiny mushrooms and the ever-present giants that seem to hold the island together. Yakushima is a granite rock in the ocean with very little topsoil. The trees embrace the ground with thick, spreading roots that submerge the rocks and anchor the tree on the granite. “The trees here do weird things. They often grow together, into each other. Their bodies blend into each other as the arm of one tree grows right through the trunk of another,” says Joyce.
Nature is dominant on the island. No one lives above 200m and no central road crosses the island. The respect people have for nature is inherent in their lifestyle and in their craft. This humbling spirit might be lost in modern Japanese society, but as long as they are carved, every piece of Yakusugi woodcraft is engulfed in it.
Yakushima is accessible via ferry from Kagoshima, Kyushu. With mild winters, the travel season is year-round with the exception of June when the island gets so drowned in downpours that even some of the locals leave.
Yakusugi crafts can be bought at:
2402 Awa, Yaku-cho, Kumage-gun, Kagoshima Prefecture 891-4311
“Yakushima – A Yakumonkey Guide” by Clive Witham is a comprehensive guidebook on the island. The 2014 e-book edition can be bought for roughly 1,000yen on yakumonkey.com or as a paperback on Amazon. The website is also a dedicated Yakushima guide.
Yakushima Experience Tours
Cameron Riki Joyce can take you to Daiyo-sugi, a stream filled with fireflies and a waterfall that rivals the natsukashii magic witnessed in Ghibli movies.
Phone: 0997-46-3075 / 090-7820-3592
- Written by
- Mareike Dornhege
- Clive Witham, Cameron Riki Joyce, and the JNTO