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.

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