This is Dan’s diarised account of the trip, supported by funding from the Friends of Bedgebury Pinetum, extracted from the Spring/Summer Bedgebury Magazine 2015.
4th October – 6th October
After arriving in Tokyo, I spent the rest of the day acclimatising (Japan is 8 hours ahead of the UK). I had made the 13-hour flight in the company of Tom Price Gardens, Curator at University of Oxford Botanic Gardens, and Ben Jones, Curator of the Harcourt Arboretum (Oxford University Botanic Gardens). There had been a weather warning that a super typhoon was due to hit on the 5th or 6th (Typhoon Phanfone) so we were told not to travel until the 7th. As it turned out, the typhoon hit further up the coast (providing plenty of dramatic news footage for the UK) but we did have torrential rain and big winds all day on the 5th and on the morning of the 6th so we were still unable to start our journey to the first seed collecting site. In the afternoon of the 6th, we visited the Imperial Palace in the centre of Tokyo. There we saw an amazing example of Niwaki (cloud pruning) on the hundreds of Pinus thunbergii outside the main wall. These distracted us so much that by the time we had found the main entrance, the Palace had closed!
Today we travelled from Tokyo to Chiba City to pick up our car from where we headed down to the Boso peninsula and to the University of Tokyo’s Chiba Forest. This is where we were to be based for the next few days. We were greeted by our host and guide for the visit, a Hisamoto-san research associate at the University of Tokyo, who talked us through the species target list and the itinerary for our visit.
This was our first day of collecting seed and we were all quickly kitted-out in wellies, hard hats and anti-leech spray! Chiba Forest is a mix of planted commercial forest, experimental plots and natural forest. We were collecting from the latter, where the forest was mixed deciduous and evergreen in a warm, temperate, coastal mountain range which rose to about 300m and was located right next to the Pacific Ocean. Collections were made on the west side of the forest, along the Godai Forest Road. On the way, it was great to learn about some of the new species we encountered and to see some of the more familiar species that are grown at Bedgebury, such as Abies fima (Momi Fir) and Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple). It was also a chance to familiarise ourselves with some of Japan’s wildlife. The spiders were amazing and Black Kites often soared above us. I did not enjoy the leeches so much! We made some good collections for Bedgebury Pinetum, the Millennium Seed Bank and Oxford University Botanic Gardens today, our main aim for the day.
Today we conducted surveys on Mt. Sengen and the Godai Forest Road, these being two of the major objectives for the trip. The team conducted ‘Rapid Botanic Surveys’ to support research developed at Oxford University. This is a new methodology for the assessment of biodiversity hotspots, based on global species distribution.
In addition to surveying, we also had to collect herbarium specimens for all the different species we encountered. Herbarium specimens are dried, pressed, material from the plant that provide us with a ‘DNA snapshot’ and a visual representation to assist us with future identification and scientific study.
Today our aim was to find Pinus parviflora (Japanese White Pine). Once fairly common in the forest, its numbers have declined dramatically in the last 30 years due to the Pine Nematode (Bursaphelenchus xylophilus) which causes a tree disease called pine wilt. We were taken to two trees that have, so far, survived unscathed but we were too late to collect the seeds. We then travelled to the far end of the forest where we saw some huge Tsuga sieboldii (Southern Japanese Hemlock) and made good collections of the endemic Torreya nucifera (Kaya Nut).
In the morning we walked into the forest and collected a few specimens before returning to the forest lodge for lunch. The best part of the day, however, was visiting Seichoji Temple in the afternoon and admiring the 1,000 year old Cryptomeria amongst the beautiful, ancient buildings.
After a successful first half to our trip, it was time to embark on the second leg of our journey. The highlight of the day was the crossing over the Tokyo Bay. The crossing starts with a drive over a 4.4 km long bridge before the road just vanishes into the ground and you find yourself in a 9.6 km long tunnel underneath the bay (the fourth-longest underwater tunnel in the world). We eventually reached Chichibu City in the late afternoon and met up with our guide who explained the plan for the week and showed us to our forest lodge. This week we were going to be self-catering. This gave us the opportunity to experience a Japanese supermarket which proved quite amusing! We recognised very little of the food and none of the language, but pork and rice seem to be ubiquitous and so they sustained us for the duration!
Our forest lodge really was out in the sticks but we could not have been in a more beautiful location, set amongst steep-sided mountains that were covered in pristine forest. Even better, the forest was just starting to display its autumn colour. All seemed perfect until we received the news that another typhoon was due to hit us late the following afternoon!
Today we headed to The University of Tokyo Chichibu Forest which is nearly 6,000ha in size (approximately five times the size of Bedgebury) and is part of the wider Chichibu-Tama-Kai National park. The tree-covered mountain rises to 2,000m and drops sharply into deep valleys giving a dramatic landscape view. Unfortunately, the weather was not really favourable! The mountains were shrouded in patchy mist and cloud and, with the imminent arrival of typhoon Vongfong, we knew our day of collecting would be cut short.
Our guides drove us up a zig-zag path that climbed through the forest. It was a virtual sweet shop of species! I saw numerous choice plants that I would love to have in the Pinetum. We set up base and started to explore on foot. It was clear from the start that the steepness of the mountain sides made the walking treacherous so we paired up to explore. It was good to see both Tsuga sieboldii and Abies firma but this was really broadleaf country. Huge old Fagus japonica and Quercus crispula clung to the mountain side and in the gaps between them we saw Clethra barbinervis, with its fiery red autumn colour and mottled bark. I think my absolute favourite was the endemic maple Acer distylum; unusual for the genus in that it has big lime-like leaves (pictured above) that, at that precise moment, were glowing golden yellow (I had to have a quick hug!). We could tell that our guides were quite keen to get us back to the lodge before the weather started to turn. Later in the day, whilst we were sitting in the comfort of our lodge, the rains arrived!
Because of the rain, we were not surprised when our guides would not allow us to into the forest because of the risk of landslides. We were therefore confined to camp for the whole day, cleaning seeds and sorting out herbarium specimens, an essential if less exciting task!
Today, the weather finally abated and we were able to go back into the forest. We had persuaded our hosts to enable us to collect one of the area’s botanical stars, the critically endangered birch Betula chichibuensis (named after the area we were in). To get to it, we had to hike for three hours up and down steep mountain tracks about a foot wide, as well as crossing rivers and scrambling up rocks in the pouring rain. However, it was well worth the effort when we finally reached our destination. Perched on the side of a narrow ledge was a small group of this incredibly rare birch, complete with seed capsules that we were able to collect. There were some huge old Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) that we were able to collect too. As the mist cleared, we were offered stunning views out between the trees to the surrounding mountains. Perfect! On the walk back we tried to get some cones of a huge, old Tiger-tail Spruce (Picea torano) using a throw line. After much swearing because of the fading daylight and the difficulty of the task in hand, we had to call a halt to one of the best days in the field I have ever had!
Today was my last day in Japan. After a quick morning visit to a patch of forest on the outskirts of Chichibu, I headed off to the airport negotiating the rather complex Japanese rail network along the way!
During our visit to Japan, we had seen some stunning scenery, met some lovely people and made over 100 collections of seed. As the flight took off, I got a chance to see Mt Fuji from the air - a wonderful end to an extraordinary trip!