On Location: Yakushima – Day Three (Standing Before the King)

(The “Journeys in Japan” featuring Yakushima will be broadcast on September 17th. For details please go to their web site. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can download for free the NHK World app and watch all their programs. )

To the few early arrivals at the viewing platform of the Jomon sugi, it must have been an odd scene. Kikuchi-san led me up the wooden steps where my entourage of TV crew and their porters stood doubling the number of people gathered before the ancient tree. Mr. Sasaki’s video camera lens was watching me like a mantis and Mr. Ohkawa’s great fuzzy cocoon of a microphone swayed overhead.

“The Jomon sugi,” said Kikuchi-san with a smile that seemed to originate in delight and shared accomplishment. Allow me to introduce you to our revered monarch whom you have traveled so far to meet.

I walked to the rail, aware of Mr. Hatanaka’s avuncular smile (“just be natural”) and the sense of duty behind it. This was an important shot for the program – my genuine emotions expressed as I set eyes upon this monumental tree. The video camera watched me. The porters and other crew members stood by indifferently. They had already seen the tree and now they stood aside and let those working get their job done. I glimpsed a few women – likely in their sixties – and a couple of young men, and perhaps one or two others in the background.

The viewing platform was set slightly above the sloping forest floor and had two decks connected by a bridge corridor. The best view of the tree would likely have been along that bridge; however, ropes crisscrossed at the entrance to the bridge and a sign hung on the ropes stating that entry was not permitted. Thus the best view I had of the tree was a side view with some small trees and their leaves partially obscuring the view. I was not standing before the throne of the mountain king but off to one side. This first feeling of disappointment threatened to spoil the moment. So, I set my eyes upon the great trunk of the tree with its soft cedar bark spotted with the warm light of the dawn and I tried to let a natural emotional reaction germinate that would sprout a few words worthy for the camera and mic.

There was an initial moment where I simply studied the small portion of the tree that was visible to me. From my safe distance (protecting both the tree and the tourists) I could not get an impression of the full size of the trunk, which was partially obscured by its much younger neighbours. And I could not look up and admire the full height of the tree or its gargantuan branches. I saw only this massive swelling of knobbly bark that coated the living tree, a tree that had been occupying this part of the forest for uncountable millennia. I was suddenly struck by the age of this tree. Perhaps it was an impression created by my knowledge of its age or perhaps it was an impression I got by viewing the tree with my own eyes. Whichever it was, I felt a sudden up-welling of emotion within. Like Verne’s Axel and his vision of eons passing in reverse, I felt as though I could envision time encapsulated within the bark, as if the great swollen mass were a temporal vault. If I could touch that bark I would be able to touch thousands of years recorded in a living thing. It may have been from this impression only – my imagination running free – but the more I took in the sight of this ancient giant, the stronger the feeling of a presence filled my thoughts.

Yes, this tree seemed to exude a feeling of presence. I could find no other way to describe it. The tree was here, defying every period of Japanese history as its life strode across the pages of human recorded time. Whatever wars had been fought, whatever leaders had risen to power and fallen or perished, whatever innovations had furthered human society closer to advanced culture and civilization, whatever technology had permitted human beings greater comfort and greater ease of slashing away at the bosom of the natural environment, all this time the Jomon sugi had stood upon its mountainside on this island and continued doing little more than growing older and larger. I felt as though we were all nothing more than some noisy insects buzzing below the great lofty limbs.

“I’m slightly speechless,” I managed to utter. “This tree has a presence. There is definitely something magical about it.” A satisfactory remark. One porter commented that having no words was the best compliment.

Once the scene was over, the other tourists snapped a few photos as I set up my tripod, and soon the crowd had dispersed. The crew had gone down to eat a quick breakfast and Kikuchi-san and I were left on the viewing deck. I dearly wanted to cross the ropes and look upon the tree in full view. However, the ropes were there because one of the massive limbs of the tree was going to break off soon and when it did it would possibly fall on the part of the platform that was cordoned off. On my own I would have taken the chance but I knew it was Kikuchi-san’s duty to watch out for my safety as well as the safety of the tree and the environment. I couldn’t ask him to shirk his duty and responsibility and permit me to enter the danger zone.

The call came that it was time to press on. I turned my back on the great tree, wondering if any parting words of respect were necessary. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. I couldn’t touch the tree. I couldn’t get the best view. And in the contrasting shadow and light of the forest sunshine, I wasn’t even able to get any satisfactory images of the tree. All I had was my impression of a very ancient living thing and that my short life was very busy in comparison. It was time to move on to the next thing.

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