The sacred giants of Vakljsh Ma

Although in Japan the national tree is sakura (Prunus serrulata, cherry blossom), the fundamental garden tree is kuro-matsu (Pinus thunbergii, Japanese black pine) and the official fruiting tree is kaki (Diospyros kaki), one can safely say that the most planted tree is sugi (Cryptomeria japonica, Japanese red-cedar).

Regardless of the latitude, Cryptomeria japonica is among the ever-present elements of the Japanese landscape, just like the rice paddies or vending machines. The reason for its success lies in its extensive use in the nation’s forestry plantations, making up 40% of the forests. This means that, as 70% of the country is forested, more than one quarter of Japan has sugi growing on it. Its timber is valued for its strength and fragrance, second only to Chamaecyparis obtusa. Since an obsessive monoculture is rarely a cheerful affair, to plead Cryptomeria’s case we should remember that this monotypic genus is endemic to the archipelago, where it exhibits distinct and geographically-influenced varieties.

Observed from a distance, Cryptomeria resembles Sequoiadendron giganteum, displaying a dense oval crown and slender inner branchlets spreading horizontally. Upon closer observation, Cryptomeria distinguishes itself by having a harder bark and smaller, scale-like needles. They are both, however, superlative trees and surely the sugi avenue in Nikko competes with and perhaps outdoes in grandeur the redwood avenue at Benmore Botanic Garden. Unusually for a conifer, Cryptomeria shows the ability to sprout new growth from old wood. Such character is much praised by the Japanese, known for their fondness of severe corrective pruning (or ‘butchering’, as Reginald Farrer said once). The temperament of sugi has led to a unique coppicing style, known as daisugi, which is one of the horticultural specialities of Japan.


There are several ancient Cryptomeria trees in Japan; the great sugi of Kayano, Sugi no Osugi at Otoyo and Hokisugi at Nakagawa are all national monuments that date back well before Christ. However, since in Japan, Christianity is more usually a backdrop for an exotic wedding rather than a spiritual understanding, we should take as our touchstone the native Shinto religion, which traces back to the Jomon period of the Japanese prehistory. As one would expect, a Jamon sugi is also registered and inhabits the southern isle of Yakushima, where stands of primeval sugi forests survive. Last March, I decided to go and pay my tribute to the sacred giants.

The ferry approached the oceanic isle at twilight. The sun was descending in a turquoise silence, whitened by waves crashing the coastline and brumes streaming out from the mountain ridges. There was an air of something supernatural to it. From my tourist leaflet, I learnt that the island of Yakushima encompasses 200 square miles, just smaller than the Isle of Man. Unlike the Celtic isle though, Yakushima is severely mountainous, displaying peaks of up to 1,900m in height that have earned the isle its nickname the ‘Alps of the Ocean’. The isle is deluged by the highest rainfall in Japan ( up to 10,000 mm per annum). Such distinct topography permits a staggering variety of habitats and climates. Ascending from sea level, there are humid subtropical coasts and mangroves, savannahs along the estuaries, warm temperate evergreen woodlands, cool coniferous forests and subalpine grasslands. Within a few miles, one can step from the coastal mangroves (Kandelia candel) through adventitious roots of Ficus microcarpa, translucent minute fronds of several different filmy ferns and epiphytic orchids to hardy prostrate forms of Pieris and Rhododendron on the windswept summits. Virtually all the plants of the Japanese archipelago could be grown on this small island.

Some of the more ornamental endemic plants have contributed significantly to our gardens. Lagerstroemia fauriei, a white-flowering crape myrtle introduced by John Creech in 1961, gave birth to a new lineage in its group, remarkably resistant to powdery mildew; the hardy azaleas found on the summits (Rhododendron degronianum var. yakushimanum for most literature, but unresolved taxon according to The Plant List) became the ‘top of the line’ in rhododendron breeding in the USA and Britain in the 70s, and last year the selection R.’Koichiro Wada’ was voted the world’s best rhododendron by the RHS Rhododendron Group. To make a long story short, over 1,200 plant species (not including the bryophytes) luxuriate in this unique treasure-trove of flora. As I approached its coastline, Yakushima appeared to me to be floating mysteriously in the vast ocean’s waters like a botanical Noah’s ark.

Stairway of bouldersStairway of boulders

The alarm sang at 4:20am in the morning, though everything was still embraced by the darkness. After two buses and an excess of coffee from vending machines (I hope my mum in Italy won’t read this) by 6:30am I was at the Arakawa trailhead, 600m above sea level. A dim daylight finally started revealing the surroundings, the crisp air glancing on the silver seedheads of Hydrangea petiolaris rambling in the half-shade.

The trail consisted of an old logging railroad, devoted to naturalistic pilgrimages after the cessation of deforestation in 1954. I had the impression I was now on the set where King Kong was filmed; fortunately for me though, there were only small macaque monkeys stalking me through the shrubbery. They added to the feeling of a tropical forest (as well as helping to propagate the vegetation by storing fruits and seeds in their distinctive cheek pouches). The atmosphere was dyed in a veil of various shades of green, with only a few plants varying from the dominant colour. My memory returns to the purplish red petioles of Daphniphyllum macropodum, the superbly beautiful cinnamon-brown barks of Stewartia monadelpha, the yellow-eyed red inflorescences of Camellia japonica and the scattered white trunks of some skeletal Cryptomeria, whose barks had been stripped away by the harsh elements. The focus was on the green spectrum: chartreuse mosses springing back to life after dormancy, a deep understory of viridian ferns and omnipresent Smilax bracteata; new, jade­green growths of Eriobotrya japonica and Litsea japonica; flickering emerald hues illuminating the evergreen Lauraceae (Neolitsea, Persea and Cinnamomum species).

At around 800m, the old railway sleepers marking the trail suddenly ended as the path turned into a stairway of boulders and gnarled, fused roots. Such was hiking through the virginal Yakusugi forest. My footsteps became more cautious as the boundaries that separated the domains of humans from those of the gods were overstepped. Around me, there now stood a cathedral of trees – majestic embodiments of the gods – towering Cryptomeria like obelisks in veneration of Chthonic deities, colossal stumps like plinths upon which the monuments of that forgotten mythology once rested. Was it all real? Or had an arcane enchantment returned a sinful city into the green belongings of pristine nature? The rest of the dendrological population arched below the Cryptomeria in graceful reverence; conifers of considerable proportion such as Tsuga sieboldii, Abies firma, Chamaecyparis obtusa and Torreya nucifera were mere humble valets in the realm of Cryptomeria. Exquisite angiosperms such as Distylium racemosum, Euscaphis japonica, Clethra barbinervis, Illicium anisatum and Styrax japonica appeared like emissaries from distant lands.

Old logging roadOld logging road

The vegetation had turned abruptly from laurel-leaved woodland to primeval Cryptomeria forest. A bewildering array of woody species germinated and grew on the stumps or trunks of trees felled long ago. There were cases of third-generation sugi growing on the top of their ancestors. While observing that endless chain of existence, the renewal of life from one generation to the other, I felt an inner sense of peace and hope.

I climbed a further 200m, where a scene revealed itself that was worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. In front of me and a group of other jaw­dropped trekkers was a mammoth Cryptomeria stump. This was the famous Wilson’s Stump, the remains of a huge specimen that was felled over 400 years ago to provide timber for a Buddhist temple in Kyoto (it was estimated that the tree was about 50m (164ft) tall: one can imagine the noise when they felled it). At the time of its discovery, the stump was covered in undergrowth; Wilson himself thought it was a cave until he ventured inside and discovered its true nature. I did the same. Inside the dendrological whale, a natural water spring flowed and the wood was still sound despite its old age and the high humidity. Yakusugi stumps are known for their resistance to decay, caused by the packed growth rings and build-up of resin created by the cold, fogbound environment.

Giulio Veronese at Wilson's StumpGiulio Veronese at Wilson’s Stump

Ernest Wilson visited Yakushima in 1914 after repeated expeditions to China. He was so impressed by the magnitude of the island’s forest that he called it “a wonderful cryptogamic kingdom”, adding that “not even on famed Mt. Omei, in western China, have I seen such a wealth of this vegetation”. Growing up in the ‘black cities’ of Birmingham and London, he was aware of ecological conservation matters well before his time. He considered Yakushima to be a pristine ecological model; on his return to the West he expressed concerns about its state of preservation. His papers made the isle known to the world, starting a process of preservation and evaluation which eventually led to the cessation of logging and the designation in 1954 of Yakusugi primeval forest as a Special Monument Area.

Once I had paid my tribute to the stump and its excavator, I proceeded with my ascent. Finally, at 1,300m, I arrived before the Jamon sugi, the emperor of the forest. This is the largest Cryptomeria in Yakushima (height 25.3m; diameter 5.22m; trunk circumference 16.4m), estimated to be 2,600-7,200 years old. The tree emerged from the ground like an ancient golem of granite, sculpted by the chisels of centuries. Access was restricted to an observation deck, built at a distance of 15m from the tree; considering the nature of the Japanese, I was inclined to think that the structure was intended to serve as a photo spot rather than an actual preservation system. I joined the tourist queues and took my shots of the giant, encountering considerable difficulties in framing its entire volume (my thoughts went to the Sanderson camera that Wilson bore with him, perhaps prohibitively antiquated but equipped with tilt-shift lens).

An information panel taught me that thirteen different woody species grow on the Jamon sugi. It is a little forest of its own. Among these epiphytes were various Rhododendron species, Sorbus commixta and saplings of Cryptomeria. A plant that showed a particular affection was the monotypic Trochodendron aralioides. The botanically-intriguing wheel tree was noticed by Wilson too, who wrote that, in combination with Cryptomeria, they “have a curious predilection for one another. They grow upon the same old dead stump or trunk in close embrace to ripe old age with the Cryptomeria towering above its neighbor and shielding it from wind and storm”.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, there was no chance to observe the peculiar ivy-like inflorescences of Trochodendron aralioides, nor the chance to reach the summits where hardy dwarf forms of Rhododendron, Pieris japonica, Buxus microphylla and Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii thrive. So numerous and diverse is the island’s flora that the floristic year is a multifarious festival whose final curtain never goes down. Sitting on the fragile edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Yakushima is an invaluable microcosm that calls for perpetual investigation and protection.

Questa e ii genere di posto dove uno puo sacrificare una la urea in fisica o matematica e darsi al giardinaggio, per diventare una guida turistica.


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