Trees are some of the oldest known living organism on the planet. Surviving on this planet for 385 million years, only a handful of organisms live longer lives, mostly sponges, coral, and bacteria. Trees have survived nearly every disaster this planet has seen and there are trees on this planet that have been alive for millennia. While the trees themselves cannot speak, the record they contain inside their bark help modern scientists understand what the world looked in ancient times. For the record the oldest living human on record was 122 years, a mere speck of time to some of these trees.
Japan’s oldest tree is known as Jōmon Sugi and is located on the north face of Miyanoura-dake, the highest peak on the island of Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tree is a Cryptomeria tree (or Yagu sugi) and is amongst the largest of the old-growth trees on the island. No precise dating of the tree has been performed but it is believed to be between 2,200 years old and 7,000 years old. If the tree is at the lower end it would not be the oldest Yagu sugi tree in Japan but conservative estimates place the age at around 4,000 years old.
The tree is accessible from a trail near the Arakawa Dam and requires a hike of nearly five hours to reach. The hike to the tree, which is moderately strenuous, is becoming more popular as more visitors come to the island every year and for some Japanese citizens it is considered to be a pilgrimage. Hundreds of hikers use the trail on weekends and national holidays and these visitors have forced the Japanese authorities to install a viewing deck rather than allowing visitors to go up to the tree. Viewing the tree was further complicated in 2013 when one of the limbs was in danger of falling which prompted the removal of most of the viewing deck to protect the root system. The tree was also vandalized in 2005 with vandals stripping about 4 inches of bark from it. The tree sits at about 1,300 meters in elevation (about 4,260 feet).
Yagu sugi trees are often called cedar trees by westerners but the tree species is a part of the cypress family. Cryptomeria means hidden parts and the species in Japan is the only one of its kind in the family. The relation to the cedar comes from an old English translation which gave the tree the name Japanese cedar.
There are other points of interest on the hike like the abandoned logging village of Kosugidani and Wilson’s stump, which is another large Yagu sugi tree that was cut down 400 years ago and one can walk around inside of the hollowed-out stump. The hike is one of the most scenic in Japan with beautiful vistas of the forest, waterfalls and bridges but Jōmon Sugi is the star attraction.