x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Yakushima, Japan's fertile fantasy island

Trek through Yakushima's ancient rainforests, a Unesco Natural World Heritage Site that inspired one of Japan's most famous anime.

Turtle nesting beach of Yakushima Island Kagoshima, Japan. Getty Images / Gallo Images
Turtle nesting beach of Yakushima Island Kagoshima, Japan. Getty Images / Gallo Images

"In ancient times, a land lay covered in forest, where from ages long past dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts who owed their allegiance to the great forest spirits, for those were the days of gods and of demons ..."

So boom the opening lines of Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli's classic 1997 anime. It's a strange romantic tale, but moreover a clash of man and nature, of technology versus tradition. It's a work of high fantasy and magic, and yet bizarrely for a hand-painted animation, some of its origins come from our real, comparatively dull world. Specifically the ancient, smothering forest is based on that which Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki saw when holidaying in Yakushima, a small verdant island in the Pacific Ocean 60km off the coast of Kyushu.

Japan is made up of almost 7,000 islands, but none is like Yakushima. Situated on the edge of the palaearctic and oriental biogeographic zones, it has a unique climate that fuels a huge range of flora. Despite being just 24km in diameter with a predominantly rainforest climate, Yakushima's highest peaks are above 1,800m and regularly receive snow in winter.

Those peaks also act like a beacon for rain clouds, which are attracted like fat moths to flames before they snag and burst, making Yakushima the wettest place in Japan. Because it lies farther south than Marrakech, Morocco, when the summer sun roars through the whole island swelters - the average humidity never drops below 65 per cent.

The heavy rain, tropical heat and steep slopes combine to make it an incredibly fertile place. As the island rises cone-like from the ocean, the rainwater runs from the hills, often gathering in plump waterfalls. Yakushima is a living island, and though there aren't any demonic boars, it's little wonder Miyazaki found inspiration here.

There are no boars but, as I discover on a drive around the south of the island, plenty of other fauna. The macaques and siki deer found here are very similar to those found in the rest of Japan, but grow smaller and are considerably more skittish. Back on the main island of Honshu, in places like Nara, deer are regarded as sacred and endlessly fed by tourists; similarly, Nagano's monkeys famously enjoy a hot spring and pose lazily for the cameras. Not so on Yakushima, where the subspecies are much more wary, much more wild. However, thanks to the whisper-quiet engine of our Toyota Prius, my driver Tomoyuki Umeki is able to sneak up on some of the timid deer. Ironically, their numbers are said to be rising so fast that they are damaging the forest at an unsustainable rate. Devastation is rarely wrought by anything so cute.

"Unfortunately, it's the wrong time of year to see the turtles," says Tomo, as he insists I call him, of the loggerhead turtle population that comes to Yakushima to breed. Around 4,000 adults start arriving in May, making it the biggest concentration of the endangered population in the North Pacific. Then, between July and September, the hatchlings begin their fraught, clumsy dash for the sea.

Tomo is a chief butler at the spectacular Sankara resort. Built on the fringes of Mugio, one of the few towns on Yakushima, it is the most luxurious hotel on the island. Importantly, there is a spa with a long massage menu - trekking is the primary reason people visit the island, but such is the topography that even a moderate hike is punishing to the untrained. Worse, as the peaks are deep in the heart of the island, most hikes require a dawn start.

How Tomo can be so upbeat at 5am the following morning is beyond me, but he's there to hand me a packed lunch, wish me luck and hand me over to Junichi Aida, my guide for the day. Practically blind with fatigue, I shake hands, climb into his 4x4 and immediately fall back asleep. An hour or so later, we've reached the start of the trek. They say it rains "35 days a month" on Yakushima, and today is one of those. There are some obligatory warning signs about smoking, but the environment is so damp that, short of napalm, it would be impossible to start a forest fire here.

Junichi explains the plan to me while I battle a fit of yawning: we are to head for Tachu Dake, which is three hours away. This means quickly leaving the tarmac and heading into the real Princess Mononoke territory. There are 1,900 species of plants in Yakushima, of which almost 100 are endemic, but by far the most spectacular are the giant cedars, or sugi, trees that are so fragrant we can smell them before we see them.

After an hour or so of walking I can no longer tell if the gloom is caused by the cloud, the sun not being fully risen or the thick canopy above. We stop for a brief break and for Junichi to point out the remains of one of the great sugi. These days it's a colossal slippery table on which several smaller plants are hitching a lift. It's been a stump for around 300 years, but before it was chopped down by Edo-era forces looking for quality timber, it could have been as old as 2,000 years.

"We call any of the cedars over 1,000 years old a yakusugi," says Junichi.

It's sad, I say, to see something so mighty reduced to so little.

"Yes," says my guide, "But they didn't get them all."

This is very true - indeed, Yakushima's most famous attraction is the magnificent 25m tall Jomon Sugi, one of the oldest trees in the world. Because its core has rotted, scientists have struggled to accurately determine its age: the upper end of speculation puts it at 7,200 years (which would make it the oldest tree in the world by more than two millennia) while most people agree it's at least 2,170 years (which would put it in the top 20 or so.) Whatever the case, its survival was one of the key factors that saw Unesco inscribe 20 per cent of Yakushima's wilderness as the first Japanese entry on its World Heritage List, ahead of Kyoto's temples, Nikko's shrines and even the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park.

These days, the tree receives 500 visitors a day in peak season, despite the brutal 10-hour trek required to go up and back. Some argue that the paths should be widened and improved to cope with the 90,000 people who visit each year to see the "grim titan". Others say this would simply increase the number of people scrambling up the slopes. For his part, Junichi is glad that Yakushima's greatest treasure is not easily won.

But Jomon Sugi is not our goal today. We push on through furry green corridors that lead us up through the trees. Everything is wet, everything is growing. We stop to refill our water bottles from a stream and, as I catch my breath, I have a chance to look at a fallen log, carpeted in moss and periscopes of shoots beginning their inexorable journey to the sky.

It's as vibrant as Miyazaki would have you believe. I even find his kodama, jittery little spirits that, in the film, are guardians of the trees. In the rainy real world, they appear whenever a camera's flash goes off, the blinding light catching droplets as little white circles.

As predicted, after three hours we reach the top of the canopy and start traversing along a vast ridge. The air is cooler up here, the sky brighter. Ahead I see Tachu Dake, a gigantic granite monolith poking out above the greenery like a giant's bald spot. This is the kind of thing the Neanderthals would have worshipped. Owing to the fact it means I get a prolonged sit-down, I know how they feel.

Junichi and I sit at its base to look out across the jungle and to tuck into our packed lunches. Some minutes later, a few more tourists arrive, dressed like shop windows and their gear so new I can't help but look for the price tags. Everyone sits breathless for a moment, peering out like blind moles into the grey beyond. And then, for the briefest of seconds, it clears and we see the forest below, waves of green rolling out to meet the endless blue of the distant ocean. Then a cloud rolls back and the void returns. But we know what we saw, even if it was just for a moment: magic.

If you go

The flight Return flights to Osaka from Dubai with Emirates (www.emirates.com) cost from Dh5,430, including taxes. Return flights with Japan Airlines (www.jal.com) from Osaka to Yakushima cost from 30,780 Japanese yen (Dh1,400), including taxes.

The hotel Double rooms at Sankara Hotel and Spa (www.sankarahotel-spa.com/en; 00 81 997 47 3488) cost from 50,573 yen (Dh2,300) per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast.