Yakushima is the wettest place in Japan with annual rainfall between 4 metres around the coast of the island and 10 metres in the mountains. It is famous for its ancient moss-covered forests, abundant waterfalls and rivers, island-adapted wildlife and providing inspiration for the Studio Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke. The forests also inspired the artist Yuko Takada to write and illustrate a book called Water Forest (J. 水の森; Mizu no mori). I bought this striking publication, which is entirely in Japanese, when I visited the World Heritage listed Yakushima in 2017. The sublime watercolour illustrations capture the intensity and beauty of life in the forests on the island. It is this celebratory book that I chose as the first to read in my quest to learn the language of Japan. In doing so I felt even closer to these remarkable rainforest ecosystems.
The full-page illustrations in Water Forest tell most of the story, supported by carefully selected text. In addition to some words on the wrap-around slip there are 13 lines to read, spread across 38 pages of illustrations. Thirteen evocative lines of text bring the Yakushima forests to life…..life that is born from drops and drops of water.
My post starts with the Japanese text of the book and wrap-around, as I did when I started reading.
しずくが落ちて 広がる 波紋
ながい ながい 時のうえに
無数の苔が 森を おおう
まがリくねった 木の根を ささえる
前面で本の折り返し: 森は、ー滴の しずくから 生まれる
Japanese is a mixture of hiragana and katakana (which I can read) and kanji (which I am slowly learning). Most Japanese use about 2,000 different kanji in everyday communication. A single kanji character can have multiple meanings, depending on how it is pronounced and the context in which it is used. As such, translations and interpretations can vary. Mnemonics, or memory devices, are often used to remember kanji. Some are quicker to pick up than others.
Step by step the nature of the Yakushima forests were revealed as I translated the Japanese in Yuko-san’s book to English. This is her, and their, story.
Ripples that drop and spread
Life is born
Will eventually take shape
Go to the light
The forest is expanding
Innumerable moss covers the forest
Support the roots of a twisted tree
The darkness of the forest
I hear the sound of water
A book by Takada Yuko
Published by Aninome Studio
Book wrap-around on front: A forest is born from a drop of drops
Book wrap-around on back:
Painter Yuko Takada, the first picture book that draws imagination in the forest of Yakushima
The vibrant energy of the forests and interconnectedness of life is celebrated in Yuko-san’s book. The senses are invigorated. The numerous rivers and waterfalls on Yakushima bring the sound of water to the fore. Please take the time to watch and listen to this 30 second video taken during my visit to the island. The waterfall’s power and persistence is mesmerising.
The ancient moss covered forests of Yakushima are intimately connected to this water. The water forests provide homes for myriad species and spirits and are a drawcard for lovers of nature, hikers and Studio Ghibli fans. The fans follow in the footsteps of Hayao Miyazaki whose trip to the island influenced his (and his lead artists) ideas for the critically acclaimed Princess Mononoke.
Princess Mononoke has a strong environmental theme related to the impact of logging on forest ecosystems. Yuka-san’s book also has a strong environmental theme I believe through illustrating the beauty and value of the water forests. As a resident of Yakushima, nature has become part of her being. The final double-page illustration of Water Forest, shown below, has one word – Ikiru (J. 生きる). It translates as live, or to live. The subtropical rainforests of Yakushima bustle with life and are well deserving of their World Heritage listing as a Site of Natural Beauty.
When I bought Water Forest little did I appreciate the role it would play three years later. The sparse text was perfect for my first attempt to read Japanese. Having a personal connection to the story helped as well. My home of Tasmania is an island and also has water forests, of the cool temperate kind. The evolutionary significance of Tasmania’s rainforests is my story of these remarkable forest ecosystems. It is a scientific one, one complementary to those told by Yuko-san and Studio Ghibli.
Afterword: Yakushima is located around 135km south of Kagoshima, the southern-most city in Kyushu. The prospect of organising ferry tickets, accommodation and transport to visit the island in 2017 was a little daunting for someone who didn’t speak Japanese at the time. YESYakushima, an English-language tourism venture with strong local connections, came to my rescue. I would recommend their services.