The emerald island of Yakushima sits 135km south of Kagoshima and, despite already visiting here with my family in April, the mossy mountains called me back for another visit.
My first impression was Kong Skull Island. As the Yaku Ferry 2 sloped into the dock I waited expectantly for Kong to burst out of the wall of deep green forests and tumble down the mountainside towards us. My second visit had me rocking up to the island in quite a different way, via the overnight Hibiscus ferry.
This ferry travels from 6pm until 7am after docking overnight in Tanegashima for the night (Yakushima travellers can’t exit at this port). While the lodging was… basic… it was definitely a new experience. I also got to see one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life so that’s a bonus.
Information about transport and basically everything else Yakushima is available from YESYakushima here. They even helped me to rent a car without any cost.
Yakushima’s roots run deep, all the way back to the Jomon era.The island was sustained by agriculture and fishing, so it’s no wonder Yakushima’s flying fish are famous. It was only later, when local attitudes towards the island’s cedar forests changed that the lumber and higari (cedar roof tiles) industry bloomed.
Today, the island is a well-known hiking spot, whose lush scenery is one of a kind (my friend literally recognised the island from the shades of green in a picture I uploaded!) They sell countless artisan cedar products, kodama gifts and my all-time favourite citrus: tankan.
The first UNESCO World Heritage site has worked as inspiration for the magical forests of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and the Dremuchij Forest from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Bonus fact, Yakushima is also the birthplace of Tekken’s own daddy-issue-riddled, constantly shirtless tragic hero, Jin Kazama.
We stayed in Miyanoura the first time I came to the island so this time my friends and I stayed in Anbo, at La Isla Tasse. One of my friends chose the accommodation and I was so impressed. The rooms were lovely, they had jacuzzi baths (which I obviously used) and they did an amazing Japanese-style breakfast for 500 yen, it was even tailored to my veggie needs.
Speaking of routes- hiking on the island is a dream. During my visits I hiked the trails in the Shiratani Unsuikyo Gorge, both the Mononoke no Hime course (the Ghibli fan in me had to) and the cedar trail. We also managed to squeeze in a couple hour hike in Yakusugi land which I’d definitely advocate.
I really enjoyed the flexibility that hiking in Yakushima offered, you could do anything from a 20 minute hike to a full day trek to Jomon Sugi, the island’s (and possibly the world’s) oldest tree with some experts finding it to be 5000 years old. This number varies from 2,000 years old all the way up to 7,500. Other hikes include Wilson’s Stump, Mt. Miyanoura and basically any trail marked on the uninhabited side of the island.
After all that hiking in the lush rainforest it’s safe to surmise that I was a ball of sweat. A disgusting glob of BO. Keeping with the Ghibli theme, I was Spirited Away’s stink spirit and just like my animated cousin, I needed some high quality natural onsen water. Once again I wasn’t disappointed.
Yakushima has slotted itself into a pretty high spot on my onsen list. There are some amazing onsen here and the natural quality water does my skin wonders! There are two places on the island, one actually located in the sea and the other right by it, both with amazing views of the blue curling waves. On my first visit I tried out the in-sea Hirauchi Kaichu onsen, as I’d heard more about it and it’s rare underwater hot spring. It was so relaxing and there were only a few people there as we arrived close to the cut-off time (2 hours before and after low tide are recommended for the in-sea onsen).
My second visit was quite a different vibe altogether and some leery traveller dudes hindered the experience. For that reason we tried the by-the-sea Yudomari onsen; it was smaller, quieter and had a breathtaking view. You can find it pretty close to Hirauchi Kaichu, with better parking. Both locations are beautiful, one of a kind and memorable, it’s just the luck of the draw on what vibe you experience while you’re there.
If clambering through mossy forests or getting that naked body silky smooth at onsen isn’t your thing there’s still so much to do. On both of my visits I managed the 3.5 hour drive around the whole island, getting to see the wild monkeys and deer on the forest road (I would definitely recommend renting a car if that’s an option).
There are also tide pools, a fruit farm (which was closed when we visited), Pocohontas-level waterfalls, a surprisingly giant and amazing Botanical Research Centre; they even gave us fresh fruit to try before we left. Kayaking is another option, but we didn’t get round to that.
The two main beaches are north of the main town, Miyanoura; Isso Beach and Nagata- Inakahama Beach. Inakahama is my favourite, it’s a sea turtle beach, the water is clear blue and there’s an amazing view of Kuchinoerabu-jima, an island holding 173 people and an active volcano.
There’s also cedar polishing at a newly opened store: Yakushima Bless. You get to polish the cedar wood yourself and hand-make some quality products (e.g. mini vases and incense holders. Awesome おみやげ idea. Plus the guy who works there is super interesting and speaks amazing English. I caved and bought a fancy bar of tankan soap. I just can’t refuse that Yakushima zest.
Speaking of おみやげ Yakushima is full of おみやげ shops, selling some really beautiful looking gifts, often handmade by the local businesses on the island. One of these places is Asensu, a small gift shop on the bottom of the island. The shop sits right next to the owner’s workshop and is packed full of insanely cute carvings and sculptures.
We were lucky enough to be able to visit Yakushima’s summer festival too. Like every festival I’ve visited during my year living in Japan it was beautiful, heartwarming and stomach-filling. We watched dances, hula, singing and fireworks surrounded by food and drink stalls and families.
I recently read a blog post about Yakushima that posed quite a different view of the island than my own. The post discusses some very interesting points about the island’s accessibility, expense and hikes. It was good to read from a perspective of the island that’s different to my own and the post itself is well-written, informative and detailed.
While I do disagree with some points in this article, I definitely agree that Yakushima is not a day-trip destination, but I don’t think I ever expected it to be. It’s a small rural island, with no convenience stores (VERY rare in Japan), sitting 2 hours away from the closest mainland port and it only developed electricity and a sewage system from 1960’s/70’s. Life on the island is slow, but that’s a big part of its charm.
That being said I really enjoyed reading this blog. It’s always cool to read experiences from people in a similar position to myself- living and travelling as an ALT in Japan. I’d recommend reading about the writer’s intensive trip around Kyushu, my home-island, here.
Yakushima is a rich island in every sense of the word. It’s full of lush forests, wildlife, amazing food, onsen and very interesting and welcoming people. Almost every person I met had an interesting story about their life here and I’m sure I’ll be back again to hear how it turned out.
What’re your thoughts on Yakushima? Is it somewhere you’d want to visit? Let me know!