Yakushima: A Magical and Mystical Island in Japan
Yakushima – My Favorite Place in Japan
Kagoshima also serves as the gateway to Yakushima, a small and mystical island that’s covered in moss and home to Japan’s oldest tree – Jomon sugi (it was the inspiration behind Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film “Princess Mononoke”). I did a great day hike to the peak of Kuromidake, which affords 360° views across the island, then overnight in a local inn run by an elderly lady on the outskirts of Miyanoura.
Japan may be a small island country, but it is so full of wonderful and diverse places that it can be difficult to know where to start, especially if your time is limited. However, having now visited Japan several times, I can firmly recommend that Yakushima should be on the list of any nature lover! I love this place as a getaway to recharge my batteries and get back to my roots.
Yakushima is a small island in the Kagoshima region which is covered in untouched cedar forests, that have been protected by the Japanese people for hundreds of years, and are now protected by a UNESCO World Heritage designation.
On the island you can go hiking through the cedar forests, climb dramatic peaks, swim at the feet of waterfalls, and dive off pristine sandy beaches, all while feeling like civilization is a million miles away. While Yakushima feels like a wilderness, you definitely couldn’t be just anywhere, it has a distinctly Japanese feel about it, which only adds to the serenity.
Here is what you will find on Yakushima.
The island can be reached by boat from the nearby mainland port of Kyushu. The island itself is ringed by small, traditional villages that are served by a single main road that connects them. The cedar forest interior is largely undeveloped and untouched, and cannot be explored by car. There are bus services that circumnavigate the island, bt its pretty irregular. I prefer to rent a motorbike or a bicycle as a better way to imbibe the island.
The Cedar Forests
The island’s main attraction is hiking through its pristine cedar forests at its heart. They are always hushed, and often mist-shrouded, which really makes you feel like it is just you and nature. The island’s wet climate also means that everywhere you look, everything is an unbelievable and incredibly vibrant green.
There are various well-marked trails leaving from near all the villages, that generally take between one and five hours. You can also hike across the entire island in about two days, including time for camping.
The most spectacular hike to do is a twenty kilometre round trip from the Arakawa trailhead to Jomonsugi, an ancient cedar tree (yakusugi) estimated to be around 7,000 years old, making it one of the oldest trees in Japan, and in the world. If you are feeling disconnected from your roots, this magical place offers somewhere that you can ground yourself again. Touching the tre I felt like I was connecting with the roots of the Earth.
If you are looking for more challenging hikes, you can make your way up Mt Miyanoura or Mt Nagata, which mix granite outcrops with the island’s distinctive green hue. The peaks offer amazing views of the greenery of the island below and out over the sea. Mt Miyanoura in particular is considered sacred by the locals and they often make spiritual pilgrimages up the peak. As you navigate the trail, you will understand why. For me this was a great place to do some meditation and deep thinking.
The island receives plentiful rainfall. This not only leaves the island richly green, but also creates some pretty spectacular waterfalls. Many of these can be reached by kayak, and after the hard work of getting there, you can relax in pretty tranquil pools at the base of the fall. My favorite waterfall on the island is Ooko-no-taki. It was an adventure to get there, and bathing in the nearby pool was regenerative.
Yakushima is an island, so naturally, it has beaches, and they are pretty pristine. They are great for sunbathing, swimming, and also diving and snorkeling as the waters are very clear. Some of the best diving and snorkeling is near Nagata Inaka-hama as the reef is home to a huge variety of species. It is also here where the local sea turtles lay their eggs, and it is pretty magical to observe the hatchlings in the summer months.
If you need even more relaxation than all these natural beauty offers, the island also has a number of rustic once (hot baths) looking out over the sea. I think that the best, with the nicest sea views, are at Hirauchi and Yudomari.
While I was on the island I really enjoyed eating natural, fresh food, that felt very restorative. It is worth visiting the Yakushima Fruit Garden, a farm that is home to hundreds of tropical trees. There you can sample local papayas, oranges, mangoes and guavas, which also make their way into local restaurants.
This is an island, so I always eat seafood when I am here, picking fresh catch based on the recommendations of the waiters. The fish always feels clean and fresh, and with distinctive Japanese flavors.
But of course, it is not all clean living. Make sure to taste the local vodka-like spirit shochu. I certainly developed a taste for it.
Japan is known for both its fascinating culture and spectacular landscapes of dramatic mountains and colorful trees. For me, I feel like Yakushima is the natural beauty of Japan intensified, as everything else is stripped away and you are left with pretty much no barriers between you and the wilds of nature. The island is exciting, adventurous and restorative all at the same time. That is why it is my favorite place in Japan.