Yakushima is a sub-tropical rainforest clinging to a volcanic island, with 10 times the rainfall of the rainiest place in the UK. The ferry is eerie and empty; we sit in the corner booth of a deserted coffee shop. The ofuro is empty, the noodle bar closed. We lie on the deck in the sunshine and read David Copperfield, hoping to see a whale and muttering about how little wildlife there is compared to the Scottish islands. Towards the end of our quiet voyage, we are disturbed by a portly fellow from Okinawa. A wide-brimmed hat sat on top of his heavily tanned head, and jiggled slightly when he spoke, which together with his slightly bottom-heavy appearance, gave the faint impression of one of those toy clowns that you can’t push over. He had helped us out at the ferry ticket booth back in Kagoshima, so we got up and he pointed out to us the outline of Yakushima against a thin sea mist. While the island draws closer, we chat, and find that the Okinawan is an entomologist at Ryukyu University, tracking the spread of an invasive ant species through the Southern Islands. Promptly, he disappears, and returns with a textbook on ants and a small jar of formaldehyde (in a breast pocket) containing the species in question. Soon, the nearer ridges of the island darken, whilst the valleys remain steeped in mist. It’s a little bit like the opening island shots in any of the Jurassic Park Films.
We ask the Okinawan about what is essentially an American occupation of Okinawa, and he is reasonably balanced, disliking the noise and crime that they bring, but aware that around half of the island’s economy is based around the US military. The Americana that has followed them to Okinawa (drive-ins, malls, and diners) apparently draws tourists from the Japanese mainland. We ask what he would recommend seeing in Okinawa, and he recommends staying away from the bases and seeing the less spoiled North, where you can see remnants of the Ryukyu kingdom. There is a street that he warns about visiting repeatedly, explaining that it is nice during the daytime but that there are regularly guns fired by US servicemen at night, without telling us what town it’s in. He tells us that with all the construction for the military bases their reefs were destroyed. I feel a strange mix of anger and shame when I hear that.
We arrive in blazing sunshine, hire camping gear, and take a bus to the island interior. A winding mountain road lifts us further away from the coast, and we are the only people on the bus. Outside we see gnarled Cryptomeria, occasional explosions of cherry blossom, and the radioactive green of new beech leaves. The forest suddenly envelopes the road; we see sika deer and Japanese macaques at the side of the road, and right on cue the national park sign. We begin hiking through the jungle, which is fairly dense but has astonishingly maintained plank footpaths. Even here the Japanese have beat back the wilderness. Despite my initial instinctive scorn at this ‘mollycoddling’, I was soon thankful for it, as hiking in a jungle is insanely tiring. 4km is quite tough, rather than a stroll. We take a detour to see Yayoi sugi, an ancient Japanese cedar. The sugis are given names if they are over 2000 years old, and there are around 100 named sugis on Yakushima (plus doubtless some undiscovered ones). It is amazing to look at a living thing that was here, waiting, in this exact spot, while Rome rose and fell. That they have stood here, indifferent, through all the triviality and gore of human history. That they were 1000 or so when Genghis Khan sent the Middle East back to the dark ages (it never really recovered). Their forms are twisted, their bark is sagging, and their trunks are mostly hollow. Their gnarled, dead white limbs poke up out of the forest, like broken fingers. Finally I understand what bonsai are trying to imitate. The ancients.
We walk through streams and trees, and startle a deer before reaching the mountain hut where we are staying. The only other inhabitant is a crouched Japanese man, stoking up an illegal fire and rubbing his hands together. We dine on stale garlic bread, bananas, and peanuts, then sleep, serenaded by our companion’s sonorous snores. At 6am we are awoken by keen hikers, eat yoghurt with muesli, and begin waterproofing: it is raining domestic mammals out there. The forests of Yakushima are almost monochrome; everywhere is green. Bornean rainforest feels almost like a cathedral, with a high ceiling, huge straight pillars, and a drab understory of logs/pews. The trees in Yakushima are gnarled, twisted, and low. The higher light levels and high humidity allows moss to cover absolutely everything. Boulders and roots alike are felted with emerald green, until it becomes unusual to see the grey of stone, or the brown of wood. Wood itself does not seem to be quite solid. It behaves like a viscous organic sludge, rippling in every direction, and dripping off the huge rocks that litter the mountainsides. You can almost see the forest sliding chaotically down the hill, branches colliding in slow motion. Princess Mononoke was set here, and Yakushima has the same timeless feel, and used to have the logging.
Rain in a rainforest is a completely different creature. It begins suddenly, and gets so hard that the air becomes a strange grey with the amount of water falling through it. You have to laugh as it sort of pours down over you, and fills the air with loud low hiss. The saying in Yakushima is that it rains 35 days a month. We have brought umbrellas (hiking in the rain with an umbrella is strangely comforting, I promise), and weave them awkwardly through the tight forest, very thankful that our faces are dry. A tattered and soggy map is lying in the mud, which we pocket. Soon the path has turned into a small river, but we are headed upwards so think that we will be safe up there. Three-quarters of the way up, the lightening starts. Thunder booms through the thick air, huge and hollow. It is the loudest storm of my life. We stride onwards, faces lit periodically white, counting the delay between light and sound. The noise and speed of the thunder increases, until I feel like we’re in ‘nam. A signpost to Taikoiwa rock points left, and we head for the viewpoint. The gradient is enormous, and it is dark, like early night, at 9am. There is an animalistic joy in struggling, scared, through the forest. We put our umbrellas down at the rock, and I walk out to see thick air and flashes and the ghosts of ridges in the distance and the sudden realisation that I am the highest thing in a very wide radius. One photo for posterity and I run back, terrified.
There is a tremendous sound, a high jagged ripping sound that is devastated by the thunderclap, which seems to shake up from below. We plunge back through the forest, descending with the water, and wondering how far you need to be from a tree that’s struck by lightning.
Walking along the lower trail, we see a thin Japanese man in a bandana and a purple wind breaker haring towards us. After making the snap judgement that he doesn’t still think that the war is on, we stay put and he tells us pantingly (in Japanese) that he has lost his map. Me and Lune exchange glances, and we give him the fragments of his map back, as well as a new one (we brought spares). He thanks us and we munch peanuts to give him a bit of a head start, to avoid that awkward side by side race-but-not-a-race feeling. Presently, he returns, and tells us that he is scared, and asks if he can come with us. You probably have to live in Japan for a little bit to understand quite how unusual this is. Imagine a British person walking up to you in the middle of the countryside and asking (to walk with you, but let’s exaggerate) move in with you. We say that we are scared too, and agree, exchanging peanuts as a sign of our bond. The stream alongside is now a roaring river, and the rain keeps on falling, while the sky keeps splitting. We see a boulder the size of a house with a small hollow beneath it, and crouch in there, feeling safe for the first time in a while. Our new companion, Tsubasu-san, is on holiday, and works in a bagel shop in Tokyo. Our voices are thin and excited as the world outside rages, and I feel safe with tonnes of damp grey stone above me. A return to the hut is discussed, as the path looks like it may be impassable further on, but we wait a while and the rain starts to slow. Emerging, we descend clumsily through the still heavy rain, and see two guys heading in the opposite direction. I assume they couldn’t get through, but they have come from our destination and this encourages us to carry on. By this point, Tsubasu-san has distinguished himself as a singularly fast and maladroit hiker, who must lead the group. We are happy to follow through the puddles and branches, pointing out the pink electrical tape that marks the trail the couple of times he tries to lead us into the uncharted jungle. We both blocked out this section of the hike a little, but I do remember that it was a miserable trudge.