Japan Uncovered: Yakushima
Where, When & Why
Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan // Spring time // Turtle beaches, millennia old cedar trees, & worth-the-pain hiking routes (I'm no expert hiker that's for sure!)
I toyed with the idea of continuing this mini-series with a deep dive into the hustle & bustle of Japan's big city life but the magic that lies outside city limits was too much to resist. Escaping the craziness of Japanese cities is made easy with the Shinkansen and internal flights, as I touched upon in Part One, and the spots on my hit list included Nagoya, Nikko and Kamakura - each wildly different and wildly beautiful - but we're starting this journey into remote Japan in Yakushima; a eco-paradise very navigable on a solo adventure. Ready for a little off-the-beaten track magic? Let's go...
Remote rating: 8/10
What's so great about it?
I have this thing with Yakushima. Its natural beauty surpasses almost anywhere else I've ever visited; the hiking trails are lush with vegetation, there are trees which are over a thousand years old and the beaches are completely unspoiled. If you choose your time wisely you might even experience turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. You will need special precautions to see them and guided tours are available.
Registered as UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1993, it's one of the few places I've visited that I can't shake no matter what I do or where else I visit. Joshua Tree had a similar effect, possibly due to the spiritual and almost fantastical ecosystems each vastly different place is home to.
Now, I'd never heard of this small island before I fell in love with the Studio Ghibli classic, Princess Mononoke and found out that this was the place to heavily inspire the movie due to its unequivocal beauty, diverse ecosystem and wildlife. Perfect if a little friendly one-upmanship among fellow anime enthusiasts is your bag. Don't forget to pack your Kodama!
Scroll down for my sample itinerary!
Okay, so where is it & how do you get there?
Yakushima is one of the sub-tropical islands making up the Kagoshima Prefecture, it sits off the southern tip of Japan’s Kyushu island and is surrounded by the East China Sea & Philippine Sea on either side.
This almost indescribably beautiful island is accessible by mildly terrifying propeller plane or ferry from Kagoshima. Both modes of transportation have their merits however the ferry would have been far more enjoyable had the local older gentlemen not shotgunned the window seat and insisted on shutting the curtain. There are two ferry options from Miyanoura Port to Kagoshima: one takes approx. 1 hour to reach Kagoshima, the other about 4 hours and this is reflected in the fare price.
As per Part One, an internal flight from Tokyo Haneda saved time and money allowing the balance between travel and exploring to shift in my favour. It's worth reiterating that domestic flights are cheaper for tourists so obviously I upgraded to first class when we flew over Mount Fuji, the air hostess escorted us to a window on the other side of the plane to give us a better view.
It important to note that I had my big backpack with me and it was no problem on either small aircraft. Check with your transport provider for any restrictions before you travel.
I'm in, but how do I get around?
Hire a car if your budget allows so you have the freedom to actually see the full spectrum of scenery the island offers and reach parts of the western coast buses simply can't reach, including the shores of the UNESCO borders. Be prepared to navigate passed many local residents, Yakuzaru & Yakushika, both native to and only found on Yakushima. The latter outnumbering their human neighbours! As with all wildlife, treat them with respect and don't feed them. Remember: take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.
I went with Navi Car and was collected at the airport (read: shed on a landing strip with the sea mere metres away) by a gleeful rep who took us to collect our Toyota Yaris. I might have preferred something a little more substantial given the gradient on some of those roads but our weekend whip worked out great, giving us no issues whatsoever.
There is a bus service on the island but from research it can be very temperamental depending on weather conditions. The incline is very steep in places and barriers between road and sheer drop didn't seem top priority so this should come as no surprise given the & shoulder seasons wet.
Where should I stay?
In high season options are broader so as I was there off-peak I opted for Guesthouse Yakushima, a £16 a night traditional Japanese style hostel where I learned a night on a tatami is a lot more comfortable than anticipated - except maybe after a monster hike! They were fairly strict with rules & regulations such as the no-brainer for no smoking but also eating or drinking in your dorm is forbidden to keep giant centipedes at bay. Not going to argue with that.
Hot tip: pick up some ramen from the main shops in town.
If I returned I think I'd give JR Hotel Yakushima a whirl for a little variety due to it's on-site ocean view onsen.
What am I taking with me?
I'd say there are six things you should not leave home without:
Yakushima: A Yakumonkey Guide was gifted to me by a hostel-mate and it provided a wealth knowledge about the island's natural history and how best to explore the steep geography. When they say "90 minutes of relentless uphill climbing" mark my words they are not over egging the pudding. Pick up a copy here & check out their website for comprehensive coverage.
Comfortable shoes, e.g. hiking boots and trainers, because you won't get to the summit of Japan's highest peak in pumps.
Lightweight rain jacket. This is the wettest part of Japan after all and the weather can change rapidly.
Your camera; we were armed with our iPhones and a Nikon DSLR.
International driving permit if you're hiring a car.
Yen because good luck finding a 711, let alone one with an ATM.
What am I eating?
Being subject to shoulder season and focusing all my energy on exploring meant I lived off instant ramen bowls and snacks for the two days on Yakushima. There are restaurants and cafes, and although residents survive on fresh seafood vegetarians & vegans needn't instantly cross visiting here off their list. There are a couple of spots to ensure your dinner has done no harm. Both Sankara Hotel and Spa and Moss Ocean House have veggies & vegans fully covered.
Sample two day Yakushima Itinerary
Pick up an early flight from Tokyo Haneda and collect your hire car. Check in to your hotel/hostel & drop off your luggage. Get straight back into your car and on the road clockwise.
This is a once in a lifetime kind of place so stop everywhere that you think is beautiful, making sure it's actually safe to stop, i.e. not one the curve of a hairpin bend, you're going to experience a few of these! Driving the circumference of the island takes 2.5 hours without stopping, plenty of time to smash the mostly lower-land essentials in a day.
Driving clockwise around the perimeter, these are the main spots I saw.
Okonotaki Waterfall // Located in the south west, this is a handsome waterfall is considered one of Japan's top 100, plus it's only a few minutes walk from the parking area and easy to reach from the main road.
Nagata Lighthouse // A fairly eerie entity but one with unrivalled coastal views.
Inakahama, Nagata Beach // It is highly ill-advised to try swimming here as the riptide is treacherous and the beach unmanned by lifeguards. However, as an important nesting area for green and loggerhead turtles it is one of the places to experience the special event of them coming ashore to lay their eggs. During this season you have to book a special tour first. Check out Yakushima Umigame Center or Yes! Yakushima to book.
Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park // Banyan trees can be found throughout the island but Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park is definitely the easiest way to see them. Home to 300 year old Banyan trees, this peaceful roadside attraction is something out of a fairy tale and often overlooked by visitors despite taking under an hour to see in full. Stock up on sweet local delicacies from Mam's Cookie Studio while you're in the area.
** I recommend a pit stop in the town where the main port is to stock up on basics as amenities are a rarity everywhere else on the island. This point is a good time to chuck it into your itinerary.**
Yakusugi Cedar Land // Head inland to reach the start of the trail but be very careful on these roads as the sheer drop is merciless, and the barriers fairly flimsy looking in places. Easy-going, wooden decked trails guide you through Kodama worthy greenery in anywhere from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours depending on which trails you take. Yakusugi is always open and admission costs 300 Yen.
Experience a sunset drive as you head back to your hostel for an evening of ramen, questionable TV & excellent conversation* with fellow explorers.
Day two was all about hiking so armed with our Yakushima Guidebook we took to the Yodogawa Trail for a full day climbing up, and up, and up in the forests. Once we'd dropped our Australian hostel-mates off at the Miyanoura Port first to catch their ferry while they taught me all about Bunny Island.
Go hiking along one of the many breathtaking (literally and figuratively) trails. I did the Yodogawa Trail, but here are some other top trails to get you going. As a novice hiker, Yodogawa helped me sleep better than I have in years and hurt more the next day than a long hack on a Shire horse.
There are many different trails to take depending on fitness and ability so I urge you to check out Yakumonkey for the lowdown on everything on offer. Any time you go hiking, by yourself or with a group, make sure you've notified relevant mountain authorities before you head off. Solo travel is exhilarating but your safety is paramount and no one looks after you better than you.