Yumi Asano, Nature Conservation Tour Guide of Shiretoko

Nature Conservation Tour Guide with Stuffed Animals

Yumi Asano is a kind of woman who projects an image of being active and gets attention easily when she talks.
It was November, 2003 when I first met her at the Ninth National Gathering to Bridge between Forests and Citizens 2003 in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the Japan’s largest island located to the north of the main island. She was lecturing about a theme “How to Play with Bugs” at one of its working sessions called “Getting Along with Forest Life.”
I was impressed to see her talking earnestly holding high up a big stuffed ant over her head. It seemed that she had a strong will to convey something to audience through her lectures. The stuffed ant was elaborately designed, and she used it to explain that ants have constricted waists.
I guessed from her lecture that she made the ant by herself. There was also a stuffed springtail. She said she made them morphologically same as real bugs and animals. They were more like accurate replicas than stuffed animals. She explained about ants’ constricted waists to the audience using these animas. The audience then nodded and laughed while she was lecturing.

Leaving for Shiretoko

Asano belongs to Shiretoko Nature Center of Shiretoko Nature Foundation. She usually used the stuffed animals to explain visitors about natural environment of Shiretoko. I thought it would be fun to learn about nature with those authentic-looking animals.
I was also interested in characters of the place. It is famous for Shiretoko One Hundred Square Meters Movement and is a pioneering land in nature conservation movements in Japan. It is now on the UNESCO List of World Natural Heritage Sites and remains one of the most valuable natural environments in the world. It is also one of the major tourist spots in Hokkaido with a number of huge hot-spring hotels.
I left for Shiretoko in the end of March of 2006 when drift ice was still there to find out how they conserve its natural environment and how to find jobs related to its conservation.

Utoro with Drift Ice

I exchanged some e-mails with Asano before I left for Shiretoko. I asked her when to visit there in early spring, and she recommended to come in March to see drift ice or in leafy month of May.
I arrived at Shiretoko on a sunny day in the middle of March on her advice. When I checked weather report in Tokyo, they said temperature of Shiretoko was minus two degrees Celsius during the day and minus twelve degrees Celsius at night. I thought it would have been bitterly cold. It was sunny and comfortable actually when I got there. I felt the warm sunshine through the cold air, and the blue sky was so clear and bright.
There was no ice in Abashiri which is about half an hour drive from Memanbetsu Airport where my airplane landed. They said the ice disappeared a long time before I arrived there. There were sightseeing ice breaking vessels “Aurora” docked at the harbor quietly.
It is about two hour drive toward Shiretoko Peninsula from Abashiri to Utoro, where the Shiretoko Nature Center is. I passed the central area of Shari town, which covers north area of the peninsula, and drove along a coast toward Utoro. . The ports in Utoro were still blocked by drift ice. White massive ice covered the sea so far as to the point where buoys would have been set to show the area in which people are allowed to swim if there was a bathing beach.
There were some places on the ice where people gathered. They say people dive under the ice. If they are lucky, they can watch cliones, known as sea angels. It is a new highlight of experiences in natural environment of Utoro at this time of year.
A couple of huge hotels are built in the center of Utoro, which are as luxurious as those in Tokyo. I was amazed to see those brand-new hotels standing contrastively in the great natural environment of Shiretoko.

Shiretoko Nature Center

The Shiretoko Nature Center that Asano works for is located at about seven kilometers away from the central area of Utoro, which is the entrance of the sightseeing area of Shiretoko. It stands at a fork of a national road leading to Cape Shiretoko and a road to Shiretoko Five Lakes, which is closed in the winter months. I was anxious about driving in the snow, but that concern proved unfounded. There is a youth hostel beyond the Nature Center, and roads to get there were completely cleared off.
The center is a base for providing information of sightseeing in Shiretoro. It has such a fancy video facility called dynavision where natural environments of Shiretoko can be shown on the large screen.
The building of the center belongs to Shari town, and its administrative operation is delegated to the Shiretoko Nature Foundation. The foundation was established by the local town, Shari, in 1988 to conserve natural environment of Shiretoko and to make use of it in harmony. One of the projects that the foundation is currently working on is to have research studies on the nature of Shiretoko, including “Survey of Brown Bears Behaviors”, for example.
The foundation is often commissioned by public organizations such as Ministry of the Environment, Hokkaido Government, and Shari town to do surveys on natural environments and conservation works.
The foundation runs four main projects: research studies, conservation and management; dissemination and public education; natural reproduction; and facilities administration and operation. The organization has an administrative director, a secretary-general, a deputy secretary-general, and below them are general affairs and management section, dissemination section, research on conservation and management section, and natural reproduction project section.
According to the project planning for the fiscal 2003, twenty four staff members are working for the foundation. Of these members, twelve nature conservation tour guides, five researchers and three natural reproduction members work in the field.
Asano’s title is a nature conservation tour guide of dissemination section for information.
Profiles of each member are described in the project planning papers, including a powerful lineup such as a person who lived in a village in Indonesia where people earn livelihoods by catching whales, and a person who learned hunting of caribou with the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic.

Tour to Furepe Waterfall

When I arrived at the Shiretoko Nature Center, Asano welcomed me in a grass green uniform.
All of the nature conservation tour guides looked well and smart in the uniforms. I asked her to show me around. There are three different tours at that time of the year, and I decided to go to see Furepe Waterfall. It is a waterfall flowing from piers facing the Okhotsk Sea. I thought I would have to keep walking if I chose other tours to go into forests. Therefore, I wanted to go to the waterfall and interview Asano while watching the Okhotsk Sea of winter.
I wore snow shoes that she prepared for me and started walking. They are sometimes called western kanjiki. Rings are equipped on their bottom to create more surface areas and to support your weight, and they enable you to walk on snow. The snow shoes and equipment for cross-skiing are rented at the center.
Many of those who work for the Nature Center use Ainu kanjiki. While Kanjiki used in Japan’s main island have saw-edged parts on their bottom to grasp snow, the Ainu kanjiki do not. Therefore, you can walk more lightly with them. One of the reasons why the members of the center prefer them to snow shoes is because the former are in themselves lighter than the latter.

Attracted by Natural Environment of Doto, Eastern Hokkaido

Asano had been working as a nature conservation tour guide going on three years at that point. She said there were still a lot more to learn. She is from Hachioji, Tokyo. Farming community was still there, and she liked playing in the fields of Hachioji when she was little.
She started thinking about what she should do in the future when she entered high school. She wanted to find a job that is related to natural environment. At that time, she could only think of a veterinarian who would be able to make his/her living after he/she learns about wild animals and nature at college. She decided to major in Agricultural and Environmental Ecology, Department of Agro-Environmental Science at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine.
She spent her college days in Obihiro and totally fell in love with natural environment of Hokkaido, which is completely different from that of the mainland in terms of scale. Especially Doto, the eastern Hokkaido where Kushiro and Shiretoko are located at, was so inviting for her.
In spring, flowers bloom in moors as if they wake up after their long slumber. After short summer come fall with golden leaves. Then harsh winter comes. While Asano experienced turning of the seasons, her interest in nature itself gradually changed. As time went by, she became sure that she wanted to live there making a lifelong commitment to its natural environment.

Turning to Be Insects Girl from Kaiju Girl

Asano and I saw some tourists on our way to the Furepe waterfall. She seemed to know them and explained them snow condition of the season. “A lot of repeat visitors come at this time of year,” she said after they passed us. Some events for tourists sponsored by Utoro are held by the beginning of March in time for drift ice season. When they are all finished, large parties leave. Instead, a number of people who just like natural environment of Shiretoko and visit there several times a year increases instead.
After a while, students of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine carrying large scopes and tripods walked past us.
Asano and I talked about many things along the way. I told her about Tomio Nonoyama, who went so far as to Africa just to look for monsters and now lives on the Island of Yakushima (Yakushima, located to the south of Kyushu, is on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites). I thought that nature conservation guides differ greatly depending on where they work. Many of the guides on Yakushima are freelance, while many of those in Shiretoko belong to some organizations.
“I used to be a kaiju girl, too,” said Asano. “It is one letter away, though,” she added. She belonged to a research group to study harbor seals in university and graduate school and was absorbed in doing a research on seals. Kaiju means both marine animals and monsters in Japanese, but here she meant the former.
In Hokkaido, seals get into fishing nets and damage fish that are caught in them. There is a strong link between living environment of seals and that of human beings.
Asano did a research on the ecology of seals, and she also did a hearing investigation at fishing villages about the coexistence with seals and human beings.
Through these activities, she realized that she was not just interested in animals or insects as a single individual in natural environment but in a whole ecosystem. She found a big theme there, which is how human beings can co-exist with other living things.

When I’m in university, I researched on the ecology of seals, and I also engaged in activities to tell people that there are seals living in Hokkaido. We had exhibitions in towns where their habitat are found and at aquariums. We studied and tried hands-on exhibits, where people can directly touch items on display, and interpretation, which is to explain people about nature, culture, history, and messages behind them.
In my research, I compiled old search records from the perspective of what makes seals disturb (Disturb: to get off reefs .and dive into the sea. If seals often disturb in the breeding period, it can affect their nurturing).
At that time, some organizations came to think about relying on seals to promote tourism. Then I started looking for ways to gather a large number of tourists and show them the seals without giving a negative impact on them, which means without making them disturb. I draw upon whale-watching tours and the like.
In Akkeshi, people use fishing boats of local fishermen to tell tourists about their fishery industry. And at the same time, they were trying to show them seals living around Daikoku Island (Daikoku Island is one of the nation’s most popular breeding areas for harbor seals, and up to 300 of them get on shore of the island). I sought with the people in Akkeshi how we could bring about eco-tourism, and I sometimes got into a boat and guided the tourists. Through these activities, I realized it is important that doing research and conveying knowledge of nature produce a synergistic effect on tourism.
While I studied ecologic science at university, I was thinking about becoming a teacher. I worked part-time at some high school for the handicapped for three years to get experience. I felt that I wanted to work as a bridge between nature and people including the handicapped through conveying and teaching my knowledge. I was beginning to know where I wanted to go in the future
I then tried to find out if I wanted to be a high school teacher to teach students how interesting nature is, to be a tour guide to convey its interests extensively though I would have had less time to contact with nature, or to go on to a doctor’s course, get a career in research and to live a life as a researcher.

Anxiety about Getting a Job

The Furepe Waterfall was frozen and looked as if bluish white ice pillars were climbing up the black piers. We saw the students of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine who walked past us a while ago. They set the tripods and were watching something through the scopes. They said there were Steller's sea eagles. The Steller’s sea eagles are one of the most valuable animals that represent Shiretoko. The students let me watch them through their scope. I saw one of them standing still in a small space of bold cliffs. It looked like a well-made craftwork with a beautiful beak.

Asano visited the Shiretoko Nature Center when she was still not sure what she really wanted to do in the future. There are only a few organizations in Japan where staff members do research studies and also give explanations of natural environment to tourists at the same place. She became interested in the center and attended volunteering seminars that were hosted by the center. It was her turning point in her life.

(Comments of Asano)

I attended the volunteering seminars and learned “interpretation” there. They were good opportunities for me to enhance my skills, because I wanted to make my living as an interpreter in Hokkaido. I also thought that maybe I could hear about getting a job not from people of the center but from other attendants.
As I said, only a few organizations in Japan do research studies and give explanations of natural environments to tourists at the same place. I knew only two of them, the Shiretoko Nature Foundation and Picchio Wildlife Research Center, and I was trying to get a job at either of these two. So, when I attended the seminars, I wanted to look over the Shiretoko Nature Foundation beforehand and see if it is a good place to work for.
I started giving lectures as my field work since the fiscal 2003.


Tomio Nonoyama, Nature Conservation Tour Guide on the Island of Yakushima

Meeting with an Explorer of Monsters

Toward the end of the year 2003, I heard about this tour guide on the Island of Yakushima. (Yakushima, located to the south of Kyushu, is on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, and is famous for its yaku-sugi cedar trees.) They say he once went to Africa to look for monsters. Looking for monsters, and what’s more, as far away as to Africa! And Yakushima! I’ve met many people with quite unique backgrounds, but I felt this man definitely stood out from the rest. “He surely is something!” I thought.

As soon as I got his e-mail address, I sent him a message. I received in no time a reply written in quite common language. It said he had his own website. I said to myself, “Looks like the explorers of monsters are rather IT-oriented. Well, it may not be surprising. They might even be making the full use of the state-of-the-art information technology.” With these thoughts, I opened the designated website. It was that of Tomio Nonoyama, a nature conservation tour guide working on the Island of Yaskushima.

This is the man who went all the way to Africa just to find out monsters. I carefully perused the website. I came across a picture of a roasted monkey and a picture-story showing monsters. As I had expected, it surely had strong impact.

That definitely induced me to go to Yakushima and see him at any cost. I left for the island after consulting him several times to adjust our schedules.

Nature Conservation Tour Guide on the Island of Yakushima

That was how I ended up spending the New Year’s Eve of 2003 with Tomio Nonoyama, the nature conservation tour guide on the Island of Yakushima.

Yakushima is one of the most valuable places in the world in terms of the natural environment in a good state of preservation. Gigantic cedar trees such as jomon-sugi and yayoi-sugi, which are estimated to be several thousand years old, are still growing there. Nonoyama’s job is to show to tourists and mountain climbers from across the world the island’s natural environment living in symbiosis with these trees.

There are many kinds of guides, but Nonoyama is more of a mountaineering guide.

Nature on this island is not necessarily friendly to tourists. Mountain-climbing equipment is indispensable. They also need to bring rainwear with them, not to mention mountain-climbing boots, even for a one-day trip. Preparing for rainy weather is a must, because the island is one of the regions of the highest rainfall in Japan.

There are two guided nature conservation tours on the island. One is to go and see the jomon-sugi, which is said to be 7,200 years old, and the other to visit the Shiratani Unsuikyo Valley, where you can appreciate the bracing atmosphere preserved in and around a primeval forest.

It would take more than ten hours even for good walkers to complete a round-trip to and from the jomon-sugi. The Shiratani Unsuikyo Valley tour, on the other hand, can be reached and looked around in a couple of hours depending on the route your group will follow. This does not mean that shorter tours are of less value than longer ones. In fact, if you have to choose either the jomon-sugi or the valley, the latter is rather strongly recommended because its guide will have enough time to explain the natural environment and history of the island.

“GOLGO13?” That was my first impression from him

We arranged to meet in front of a condominium in Miyanoura. It was a rainy day, and Nonoyama’s orange jacket stood out brightly against the cloudy sky. I heard later that the jacket was a uniform provided by Native Vision that he belongs to. The Native Vision is one of local travel agencies of Yakushima which organize eco-tours on the island.

What impressed me most about him was that he kept himself straighten up. He looked as if he was a blue-collar worker, a mountain climber or a self-defense personnel. As I knew his profile, it may not be surprising that I received the impression of the first two, but that of a self-defense personnel might have come from his half-frozen expression. I thought he was slightly nervous about doing an interview.

Or he just did not open himself up to a stranger, because he in fact is the man who went all the way to the U.S. to participate in such hard military discipline-like survival training. He reminded me of a leading character in the Japanese famous cartoon “GOLGO13,” who is a world class hit man,

Leader of Children

We left the parking lot of the condominium, and Nonoyama drove me to a starting point of a trail up a mountain.

“Yakusugi is supposed to be over a thousand years old. In Yakushima, trees between ages of one hundred and less than a thousand are called kosugi and are distinguished from the Yakusugi. Less than hundred-year-old cedars planted near foot of a mountain are called chisugi in specific”.

Nonoyama explained me about Yakushima for half an hour along the way. He looked quiet but talked quite fluently in fact. “Guides can’t be quite,” he said. He actually likes talking and teaching.

In his undergraduate days, Nonoyama acted actively as a leader who took children for camping. I thought his experience at that time is of use in working as a guide now. The children must have had much fun camping with a leader like him.

While climbing, we stopped at every point, and Nonoyama explained me about nidaisugi and Toboku Koshin. The nidaisugi is a second-generation cedar grown on an original tree, and the Toboku Koshin is the way cedars change their generations. He also explained me how people of the Edo Period fell the yakusugi, mountain trails that they used to move out the fallen trees and so on. Information of this kind may be found in a guide book, but it was still impressive to hear on site. Although it was not easy at all to walk along mountain paths with steep ups and downs in rainy weather, I very much enjoyed the climbing.

Helping Others Commune with Nature

I remembered my elementary school days. As I was not active at that time, an annual field trip to mountains was a pain in the neck and always made me gloomy. Mountain climbing was incorporated into school activities in the name of development of children’s physical strength, but I did not understand what in the world is the fun of just following mountain paths with mass of rubble. Those mountains that elementary school kids could climb were limited, and not many could be overlooked even from the top of the mountains. Along the way, teachers always used set phrases such as “Keep up with others!” or “Hang in there!” Mountain climbing was nothing but a pain for me.

I still doubt how effective it was to climb a mountain once a year to develop physical strength. I did not like mountains and nature anyway. If I had met a tour guide like Nonoyama then, I would have thought differently. Tour guides can help people get acquainted with nature.

Understanding Nature is Protecting Nature

Rat-a-tat! Tap-tap! “Now listen carefully. They are different. This tree has a hollow inside,” said Nonoyama angrily by the yayoisugi, which is a kind of symbolic cedar trees called the yakushigi on the island.

About four years ago, someone has entirely cut out a part of the yayoisugi near its root. The part is square-shaped, and is as high as one can reach with his/her hand. Its lower part is now rotten and hollow already. Things seemed to have carried out at night, and no one has witnessed the act.

“This tree may fall in less than ten years,” said Nonoyama. “The person who has done this might not have thought that it would cause much trouble, because the cut part is not so big. He also might not have never imagined that it would cause this much damage to it. But, it does actually. The tree is inclined and its weight is supposed to be supported by the rotten part. It can’t bear full weight that long, and it’s just a matter of time before it falls.”

He is upset that natural environment of Yakushima was injured. He just does not blame the mindless person but thinks further. “He would not have thought of giving a fatal wound to the yakusugi. This would not have happened if there is someone to teach him about the tree and raise his awareness for nature.”

Nonoyama keenly feels the importance of the tour guides’ roll to understand the nature of the island and to convey their knowledge and experience to the others.

Road to Africa

It was eight years ago when Nonoyama came to Yakushima. After graduating from department of political science of Komazawa University in 1986, he left for Congo, which is located in the inland of the African continent. He went there with his friend to look for monsters with some amount of money earned by doing a part-time job.

As countries of this area are not yet settled, their regimes change often and even their names change sometimes. Let me call the country of that time that Nonoyama and his friend went “Congo.” Very few Japanese were found there.

Although Nonoyama graduated from the university, he had no intention of working for a stable company and still worked as a daily worker instead. As he was brought up in an industrial region near Tokyo, he never had a problem in finding manual labor. He had worked as such since he was in high school.

I have no idea why he went on to university though he was not interested in finding employment. Attending university, however, does not mean that you have to take a position at a company. University is a place to gain knowledge, to build relationships, and to take chances. Experiences at university will never get in the way no matter how you work.

While in university, Nonoyama spent most of his time taking part in exploring club activities and volunteering to take children for outdoors. He, of course, paid his university and earned his living by doing day-labor jobs. One of his current dreams is to build a school for kids to have them enjoy outdoor activities.

Although Nonoyama and his friend went so far as to Africa to look for monsters, they ran out of money before they obtained permission to enter the area and ended up going back home so easily. A year later, an explosion club of Waseda University heard about them and planned an expedition to Africa. Nonoyama joined their expeditionary team. For more information, I recommend you to read “MBEMBE, the Phantom Monster” written by one of the team members.

In this book, Nonoyama is described more of a superman than anything. He took care of other members who became sick in an unfamiliar surrounding, made portable toilets outside all by himself, and rarely had upset stomachs.

Outdoor life is just a kind of life styles for him.

Going back to Africa for NGO Activities

Nonoyama’s attending the expedition led him to become a member of a Japanese NGO “Action for greening Sahel” operating in Africa. He spent the end of the year 1988 (?) in Republic of Chad and Burkina Faso trying to spread improved furnaces (Republic of Chad and Burkina Faso are both in Africa. Let’s check them out on a world map).

For countries in Africa where desertification is a serious problem, it is a matter of life or death to effectively use wood for fuel. The advanced furnaces that Nonoyama tried to prevail were twice more efficient than conventional ones. It, however, was not easy to convey their good points to people in Africa. He then came up with the idea to use picture-cards to show them how convenient the new furnaces were compared to the old ones.

Those cards of his own making are still available to see. Every character is charming and well-drawn. They are not bad at all for an amateur, and I made a compliment to him on his drawings. “I like cartoons and monsters since I was a kid. I do a painting, too,” said Nonoyama proudly.

He is the man who likes monsters since he was little and went as far as to Africa just to look for the real ones.

Student members of the explosion club of the Waseda University seemed to have age-appropriate ambitions. Nonoyama, on the other hand, embarked on an adventure a year before with sheer curiosity like a boy. Such a pure-hearted person may not be suited to work in a Japanese corporate community, so it might have been quite natural for him to live as a casual worker.

Unpopular Picture-Cards

Nonoyama’s picture-cards were not so popular among people of Africa at the beginning, because they were not familiar at all with the cards. Even in Japan, young generation may not have seen them, neither. There is not a concept of picture-cards in African culture in the first place. Many Africans might have thought of him as a Japanese who was trying to tell them something using some drawings with the help of an interpreter.

His performance might have looked clownish just as his exploration of monsters in Africa with a little bit of money he made from his day-labor jobs was.

Sometimes, people think of those who are pure and do their utmost at everything as ridiculous. That is because they fear them at the bottom of their hearts. They fear that something may happen to defy their common sense.

I am not sure if picture-cards later came to be recognized in the African society. There are a number of NGOs in underdeveloped regions using drawings and voice transferring in order to communicate their opinions to residents, who have different languages and cultures and are illiterate in most cases. I should say that Nonoyama took a good approach.

Learning from Teaching

Nonoyama learned much from his experiences of spending a few years in spreading the improved furnaces. He found out that even the conventional ones with low combustion efficiency can be used as light at night, and thick smoke rising from them keep harmful insects away.

Civilized countries do not necessarily have the best culture among the others. Each culture is one and only. His experience of having had a hard time in Africa communicating with people by use of picture-cards gave him well-balanced ways of thinking that it is important to improve conventional culture, develop new one’s good points and get the best of the two; and to promote better culture than the old respecting its advantages.

“I went to Chad two years ago and saw people using my furnaces. I was impressed,” said Nonoyama. He seemed to be proud that his furnaces were still used even now.

He did not quit making picture-cards. He is now working on new ones to bring them to Africa next time. He looks really happy.

Yakushima, a Terminal of Journey,

Nonoyama first came to Yakushima eight years ago. He arrived there to complete advertising campaign of the NGO “Action for greening Sahel,”and then remained on the island. Beauty of its natural environment made him decide to live there. He felt that its virgin forests have atmospheres that are similar to those of Africa.

Fortunately, there were offers of work in construction at that time, and Nonoyama, who had trained himself through casual labor, was highly appreciated there. He lived in his friend’s barn at that time. He found out later that his friend offered him there as a sleeping place only half seriously, but Nonoyama was deeply impressed and lived there for two years or so.

After a while, he happened to find about 5950 square meters of land on sale at a bargain price. He bought the huge land for children to have them enjoy outdoor activities there in the future. He built a house at its corner almost all by himself.

He used to work temporarily as a guide or carried luggage when TV crew came to the island until he officially became a nature conservation tour guide six years ago. He gained knowledge he needed to be a guide from this experience and older guides. He now gives guidance to the younger generation as a director of Association of Guides of Yakushima.

Favorite Things are not Always Easy

Nonoyama seems to have had such an eventful life. He also had luck meeting people at perfect timing and got help from them to overcome ups and downs and to take the next step. “People often say that I’m lucky,” he said.

Yet I was not envious of him. His life with careers as a day worker, a NGO volunteer and a guide, his calling, is certainly extraordinary. Not many people can live like that except him. He was already philosophical about life when he was in high school and decided to work as a daily-rated worker. Besides, he had enough techniques and physical strength to survive even in jungles of Africa. I thought he was gifted with power.

His words, however, helped me understand him a little better.

“I’ve been just doing what I want to do. I’ve never tried anything that I didn’t feel like doing. I’ve made it somehow, because I was lucky to have met people who are kind enough to help me out. I only did things that I was interested in, but they were not always easy to do. Doing fun things doesn’t mean that you can do it without any trouble.”

Those who have never frustrated in their lives would not say that they got help from the others. Those who think that they only did what they wanted to do are ready to take responsibilities for everything that would happen to themselves.

Three days after my interview, Nonoyama left for Burkina Faso. He was going to spend two weeks there to investigate a project with the purpose of spreading charcoal. Nature conservation tour guides on Yakushima suspend operations from December to the end of February. During the off season, Nonoyama set out on a trip to do whatever he wanted to do.

How to Become a Nature Conservation Tour Guide on the Island of Yakushima

Every year, more than twenty thousand tourists and mountain climbers visit Yakushima to see its valuable natural environment, which is designated a World Natural Heritage site. It is guides’ job to show visitors the appeal of the island that is quite different from other places in the world.

I heard that there are about a hundred guides living on the island, and around seventy percent of them are from outside. I asked Nonoyama, who came from Yokohama City and has worked as a guide for eight years now, how they became the guides and what should be done to become them.

A Job without the Need of a License

Currently, no license is required to be a nature conservation tour guide on Yakushima, which means anyone can work as a guide. There, of course, needs to be tourists who want to be guided. Nonoyama belongs to an organization called Native Vision and is offered a commission from travel agencies and hotels through it to guide their clients. As he has a long career, he is personally asked to be a guide sometimes.

Two other organizations of tour guides like the Native Vision are there on Yakushima. There are also many independent guides, and they would make more than one hundred guides in total. More than seventy percent of them came from outside the island. They somehow came to Yakushima after all. It may be the easiest way so far just to come to the island and look for opportunities to be a guide.

Qualities of a Guide

There must be some qualities to be a tour guide on Yakushima. Physical strength is required at least. Nonoyama goes directly to his working place, which exactly is a trail up a mountain, and goes home directly from there. In season, he spends his time in mountains almost everyday whether or not it is rainy or hot and dry. The guides need to adapt themselves to a life style like Nonoyama’s.

Another job of the guides is to protect security of tourists and mountaineers while climbing. Every year, a couple of alpine accidents usually happen on Yakushima, and the guides sometimes need to go down mountains carrying injured people. In fact, there was a woman who could not walk in the other group of tourists while I was climbing, and the guide who was leading the group went down the mountain with her on his back. Women may not be too heavy to carry, but there are more men than women actually who tend to give up on the way. Nonoyama carried five people down from mountains during the last season.

The guides cooperate with each other to continue guiding when they have to climb down mountains with injured people. Most of them carry compact two-way radios with them to contact each other in mountains. Guides need to be certified to use wireless transmission.

Being Studious, Talkative, and Good with People

I thought, while interviewing Nonoyama, that the guides have to be fond of studying. They definitely need to know where to go and what to see to show tourists the great natural environment of Yakushima, and they should be able to explain about vegetation of trees, not to mention that of yaku-sugi. Knowledge of history and culture of the island is required to introduce them appeals of the island where people live since the dawn of time.

The guides should be always aware of the nature of the Yakushima and are eager to study more and more about it, so that they can be better guides on the island, where human activities and its nature should be protected and co-existed in peace.

Income, Outgo, and a Lifestyle of a Guide

Currently, it costs between ten thousand and fifteen thousand yen per person to hire a guide on Yakushima. As at least five people are usually included in a group, a guide can earn a good income per day. However, it is still not a secure job, because there are less working opportunities in winter. Besides, it includes physical labor so that the guides need to get rest and protect themselves. Sometimes tourists come to the island with guides from outside the island, and it can be very competitive.

About nine hundred people emigrate to Yakushima every year for the last twenty-three years. A lot of people are attracted by its charms.

Waves of change are coming gradually to the traditional course of the island with increases in numbers of tourists and emigrants. Those who want to live there should be aware that it has now entered a phase of change.