Kenshi Tetsuka’s house would have been called a dump in the neighbourhood where I grew up, but out here on the green, forested slope of a mountainside on Yakushima, I found it to be quite enchanting. The whole thing had been constructed of wood thirty years ago by Mr. Tetsuka himself, and in Yakushima’s damp climate, the house had become mottled with the colours of various lichens and mosses and whatever other woodland growths had made a home upon the surface of the weathered wood panels.
There was a litter’s worth of cats and a litter of sea shells around the house. Ferns grew in normal size except for a tree-sized species that looked to me like the tree ferns of New Zealand. The forest hung over the back of the house and a slope dropped away in the front with a view through the trees to a neighbour’s house some hundred metres away. Through the windows I could see books lining every visible shelf, and there were shelves anywhere a shelf could have been affixed between two walls.
Mr. Tetsuka had moved to Yakushima thirty years ago from Iruma City in Saitama. He lived here on the mountainside with his wife in a house with only enough electricity for lights and an old record player for some even older jazz records. The most modern of things in the house were his computer and CD player. Mr. Tetsuka didn’t have a TV.
We were here on his patio sipping herbal tea served by his wife and talking about the Yakushima white pine, known in Japanese as the yakutane-goyo (ヤクタネゴヨウ). Yaku and Tane come from Yakushima and Tanegashima respectively and are given as a prefix because these are the only two places in the world where these trees remain growing. Goyo (五葉) refers to the five needles that grow in each fascicle. The trees have become a concern because they are dying, and Mr. Tetsuka and his colleagues have been researching the possible causes and cataloguing every tree on the island, by no means an easy task because the Yakushima white pine prefers a habitat of cliff environments. So far, they have recorded 200 trees on Tanegashima and 2,000 on Yakushima.
Our taxi van drove along the Seibu Forest Road, the stretch of Yakushima’s circumnavigating highway that narrows and winds along the steep granite slopes that plunge directly into the ocean. In places, the granite bedrock emerges from the forest cover like the talons of some colossal bird dipping its toes in the sea. We stopped at one curve in the road and got out, and Mr. Tetsuka directed our attention to some granite cliffs that rose into the cloud cover while passing beams of cloud-filtered sunlight moved across the vertical landscape. Standing out clearly from the thick green forest cover were numerous white tree skeletons. All of those white trees, Mr. Tetsuka told us, were dead yakutane-goyo. He said that here on the west side of the island the damage was particularly bad.
What was killing off the trees? It had begun to escalate within the last 20 years or so, he explained. There were a couple of plausible reasons such as pine beetle infestation and Yakushima’s explosive deer population which meant more deer were nibbling the saplings. But Mr. Tetsuka and his colleagues had set up air quality testing stations at three elevations on the island and had found that a more worrying element was most likely the cause. When we had told him about our climb to the summit of Miyanouradake and all the feather rime we had seen, Mr. Tetsuka had said, “Oh, I wish I could have a sample of that feather rime. You see, the wind comes from the Asian continent and any particulate matter borne on that wind would be frozen in the ice – evidence of what we have been trying to prove. We are quite certain that the reason for the sudden increase in tree deaths is because of pollution coming from China.
Mr. Tetsuka explained that the usual pine trees found in Japan have two needles sprouting from each fascicle. The yakutane-goyo has five. These five needles act like a catcher’s glove that trap particulate matter in the air. These minute particles then lodge themselves in the stomata of the needles – those tiny pores through which gases and water vapour can pass, allowing the tree to breathe. In other words, China’s industrial air pollution was suffocating Yakushima’s white pines.
We drove on and came to a stop once more. Here we all got out and Mr. Tetsuka told us that he was going to lead us from here up into the forest to show us some of the yakutane-goyo. This was part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and ordinarily visitors are not permitted. Mr. Tetsuka had been granted special permission to lead us into his research area for the Journeys in Japan program. He reminded us not to damage anything intentionally and to take great care not to damage anything by accident. After saying a short prayer to the mountain gods, he led us up a steep slope leading through the brush at the roadside and soon we were ascending the crest of a ridge extending down mountainside.
Thinking of what I had seen of Yakushima’s forests so far, I was puzzled by the openness between the trees here. There was no thick mossy carpet, and no ferns and flowers were sprouting up everywhere. The leaf strewn forest floor supported only three kinds of undergrowth: the thorn-bearing bush of about 20 to 30 centimetres high, and two other types of bushy undergrowth that were well-spaced apart. Mr. Tetsuka pointed out the lack of vegetation variety and said that it was because of the deer. Since the creation of the UNESCO site, the hunting of deer became illegal and the population as been increasing. The deer strip away everything from the forest floor except for the plants that are too bitter, poisonous, or covered in thorns.
Though a man with a thick head of grey hair, Mr. Tetsuka was spry and agile as he lead us up the mountainside. We soon came to a most bizarre tree. It looked like a biology experiment had congealed and a tree with parts resembling a spider’s anatomy was sprouting from the grotesque formation. It was in fact all one single tree called ako (Ficus superba var. japonica). Ako grow around other trees, slowly sending out parts that are neither roots nor branches that grow together and form a net around the host tree. The net gradually thickens and the individual strands grow thicker as the ako drains nutrients from its host. At last the host dies and the ako tree by this time has secured its own roots in the forest floor and can support itself. Eventually the host tree decays and a hollow basket that looks like some science fiction horror creation remains with the ako tree standing up from it. We came across a yakutane-goyo with an ako attached to it, already creating its network of choking strands. The ako is actually a tropical tree but parts of yakushima provide a comfortable climate. As it was, that particular plant was a little higher up than usual and the yakutane-goyo a little farther down than usual. The two trees met at their extreme borders. A kind of fig tree, the fruit of the ako is eaten by monkeys but the seeds have a sticky covering that adheres to the monkeys’ fur. Monkeys will swipe the sticky seeds from their posteriors with their hands and wipe them on the trunks of trees where the seeds will then germinate and the ako sapling will begin its attack.
Another tree we encountered was responsible for providing the forest floor with a rich environment of bacteria, which in turn provided food for fungi and microscopic organisms living in the soil that were essential to a healthy forest.
At last we came to Number 77, the largest yet recorded yakutane-goyo. Mr. Tetsuka told us that when they started recording the trees they assigned each tree a number, and this tree was number 77 of over 2,000 trees. In girth and height and probably age too, this tree was superlative to all the others. It grew at the edge of a small cliff on the ridge, one side with thick roots slithering into the forest soil and the other side clinging to the rock face and plunging roots straight down to the steeply-sloping forest floor below. Here we busied ourselves with photography and filming. Mr. Tetsuka picked up a sprig of five needles and produced a small magnifying lens from his pocket. He handed them to me and I looked at the needles through the lens and saw tiny yellow spots on the green needles. Those spots, he explained, occurred after a stoma had become plugged. Thinking about the clouds rising from the crater of Kuchinoerabu-shima, which was within view of Yakushima’s west side, I asked if volcanic gasses could also be a factor. Mr. Tetsuka said no. Especially on a day like today when the pollution was crossing the South China Sea, the trees were in danger. I said I had seen a lot of haze over the water. Wasn’t that just sea mist created by the warm air of the approaching spring? No, that was air pollution.
I took some interest in the rocks around the tree. They looked like limestone. I asked Mr. Tetsuka about it but he said there was no limestone around here. He named another kind of rock in Japanese that I did not know. I looked at the rocks again. They definitely looked like limestone. Perhaps there were two words in Japanese each one for a different kind of limestone and I had used the wrong one. I’d have to check that out. Later I found that there was only one word and I had used the correct one. I have since checked some photos I took in the museum I visited back in 2013 and according to the map of Yakushima’s geology, there are some mudstones and metamorphic rocks in that area. The rocks I saw, however, didn’t match the appearance of the samples I photographed in the museum, but also didn’t match the museum’s limestone sample either. I should have written down what Mr. Tetsuka had said.
Back at his house, we were invited inside. Books lined every space except for where a collection of jazz LPs and CDs lined the wall by the sound system. I noticed that Mr. Tetsuka’s books looked really old.
As we sat around the small pit in the living floor, Mr. Tetsuka started a fire. There was a black kettle suspended over the flames in which water was to boil for tea. Above that there was a basket with cheese that was hanging there for smoking. The fire burned and the smoke drifted up into the rafters. I looked up and saw many thick and somewhat unsettlingly large spider nests. I asked where the smoke went out. Mr. Tetsuka replied that the smoke went out naturally. Weren’t the spiders bothered by the smoke? Apparently not. I had always imaged that spiders could be smoked out of a cave with a fire but now it seemed my assumption had been incorrect. I looked over to the bookshelf and inquired about the aged look. If he had moved here only 30 years ago, why did his books look to be over 150 years old? “Graduation,” Mr. Tetsuka said. “You’ll notice that the oldest-looking books are at the top while the newer-looking ones that still have some colour are at the bottom. This is because of the smoke. And since the smoke changes the colour of the upper books more, the aged-appearance graduates.”
The water boiled over and splashed into the hot ashes. Smoke billowed and ash flakes danced all around. My eyes were stung. I had flashbacks to sitting around a campfire as a child when the wind would change direction and blow smoke in our faces. “I never thought,” I said to Mr. Tetsuka, “that I would experience the campfire feeling in someone’s living room.” Everything in Mr. Tetsuka’s house looked smoke-tarnished and weathered. I wouldn’t wish to live in such a house, but it was indeed enchanting. I said to Mr. Mori that I would enjoy the opportunity to spend time photographing inside the house. He agreed with me having had the same idea.