Yakushima and Yuko-san: celebrating the forests born from drops of water

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 front cover of Water Forest, with the darker wrap-around slip at the bottom, invites readers into the wondrous world of nature on Yakushima. The hard cover Anonima Studio used for the publication works very well.

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.

水の森

しずくが落ちて 広がる 波紋
ながい ながい 時のうえに
命が 生まれる
やがて かたちになる
光に むかう
森が ひろがってゆく
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
森の 闇
森の うごめき
水の音が きこえる
光が ふりそそぐ
生きる

著書 高田裕子
発行 アノニマ・スタジオ

前面で本の折り返し:  森は、ー滴の しずくから 生まれる
背中に本の折り返し:
屋久島の森に想像をまじえて描く 画家・高田裕子、初めての絵本

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.

The kanji for forest, represented in black, can be envisaged as three trees – a useful learning device. 森 appears several times in the Water Forest book and is now a familiar friend. Image source: easyjapanese.org

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.

WATER FOREST

Ripples that drop and spread
Long time
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
Forest moving
I hear the sound of water
Light flutters
Live

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 was raised in the forest by white wolves. The small white figures lining the branches and ground are tree spirits, known as Kodama. They are a sign that the forest is healthy. Today visitors to Yakushima bring Kodama replicas to place in their photos. Image source: ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com

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.

5 thoughts on “Yakushima and Yuko-san: celebrating the forests born from drops of water

  1. Congratulations Jann, this book sounds like the perfect choice for your first Japanese text! So many connections to you and what you love about this intricate planet on which we live. I haven’t watched Princess Mononoke for a few years so I’ll have to go back and watch it again and I will think of you and your quiet persistence to embrace the Japanese language, which is an admirable pursuit!

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    • It was perfect. Because of the the coronavirus restrictions, my choice of books was limited to my library at home. Most of the publications I have in Japanese are specialist texts with complex kanji. So I was delighted when I rediscovered the Water Forest story amongst the hundreds of books on my shelves. My pursuit to embrace the Japanese language has been a long one, as you know. Reading this book and taking online lessons are both milestones and motivation to continue. The challenge now is to find a second book at a suitable level. It is sure to be waiting for me somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Evocative of time and place, both your writing and the author’s, Jann. You’ve piqued my interest in this book. I visited Yakushima in 2004 and believe it to be the most stunningly beautiful natural spot in Japan (that I have seen so far). It has a magical ‘beginning of the world’ feeling. And yes, it rained, but the flying fish sashimi and Three Peaks shochuu in a little shop near Miyanoura port pushed back the clouds every time. Thanks!

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    • My pleasure Simon. Yakushima is a special wondrous place with a fascinating history. Yuko-san’s book is available through Amazon Japan if you would like to buy a copy. Being absorbed in her beautiful imagery of the water forests is a delight. Rediscovering the book bought back fond memories of the island, including the flying fish that I was served for dinner (:-)). Luxuriating in an onsen on the edge of the sea was another wonderful experience there. I would love to visit Yakushima again.

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