In Praise of Road Walks: Circling Yakushima

You may ask – why would anyone desire to spend three days walking on the road having to watch out for cars when some of the most intriguing hiking trails in the World are almost as readily available with a short bus ride? Well, the answer is a very simple one for me: I sometimes just want to walk. I want nothing else, no beautiful scenery to distract me, no slippery rocks requiring me to watch my every step, no uphill climb urging me to stop and look down at the beautiful scenery, no foggy rivers to cross and take my breath away. I sometimes just want to keep my head up, look ahead and put one feet in front of the other without having to watch where I put it. I only want to focus on the act of walking but not all those other things that come with it. I love getting faster and faster with no trail signs to watch and embrace that state of mind where you feel like you leave one worry behind with each step you take forward. And I am lucky to say that it works every single time for me.  I am always a more content person both during and after the walk with whatever distressing thought I had before feeling a lot less important.  

During my latest two months stay in Yakushima, I occasionally felt the need for a walk without any advance planning, no extra transportation to take me to the trail head but using just my legs. It was however not until that one Monday morning when I left my room in Miyanoura at around 6am and stopped only after reaching Anbo with a 3 hours road walk (the second biggest town of Yakushima, 40 mn bus ride away from Miyanoura) that the obvious occurred to me: I could turn this into a multi-day affair and walk the 100 kms long road circling the island. Yakushima is a wonderful island with some of the best hikes that I have ever seen (moody, misty and at times haunting landscapes all over) but it sometimes gets tiring to arrange the transportation to get to the trail heads if you do not have a car.  The buses do not run very often. So you in most cases need to wait for at least couple of hours for the first bus to take you back to the town once you finish your hike and there are numerous trails, which cannot be reached with public transportation.  So a walk around the island without having to worry any of these logistical issues felt like what I really needed for a break. I decided to do the walk right after the day I would get back from a quick trip to Tokyo for a legal conference. The timing turned out out to be great as those three days took away all the anxiety the trip to Tokyo left with me (after having spent my months in various islands in Thailand and Japan). I also made the hard decision of leaving my camera and lenses behind for the sake of more freedom and focusing more on the walk instead of photography. I still used my phone camera to get some shots like the ones you see on the right column but as you know mobile photography is a lot less time consuming and distracting affair.

Day 1: Anbo to Hirauchi – Rocket Launch and a Forgotten Wallet 

Even though I intended to start the walk as early as 6am, there were some logistical issues (lockers at Anbo port not being available before 7am to leave behind my Tokyo luggage) and I could only leave shortly after 7am. My aim for the day was to cover the part between Anbo and Kurio (a walk of 6.5 hours according to Google Maps) and then take the bus back to Hirauchi to stay at South Village Hostel (they have private rooms as well in addition to 2/4 beds dorm rooms). Planning your walk around the island is a very basic process (there is only one road circling the island) but you are very much limited by the availability of the accommodation along the road. While I had been advised by Jennifer Lue that there was basic accommodation available in Kurio, South Village looked far more appealing with its cozy decoration, secluded location and close proximity to two ocean side open air onsens (Jennifer is the owner of Yakushima Life and a great hiking guide based in Yakushima offering her services both in her native language English and Japanese. She recently published a book to accompany you during your trip to the island outlining the trails and the things to do in Yakushima titled – Yakushima: A Verdant World Between Sea and Sky). It took me around 3 hours to reach Hirauchi/South Village from Anbo. I wanted to make a quick stop there to check-in and then continue the walk to Kurio.  I am glad that I did as I only then realized that I forgot my wallet in the bag that I left behind in the lockers at Anbo port. The kindest lady at the hostel lent me 2000 Yen (she wanted me to have extra money in case i could not find my wallet and the buses are really expensive in Yakushima if you do not have a bus pass) for me to take the bus back to Anbo to get my wallet. It was probably the luckiest thing since my trip back to Anbo coincided with the rocket launch (IBUKI-2) from the space station in the neighboring island of Tanegashima.  While I had foolishly thought that day launch would not be too exciting, it was one of the most moving technological things that I got to experience in my life. Rocket launches are probably among the most amazing technological achievements of human kind, yet they have a strangely emotional feel to those. I still cannot explain the sadness that dawned on me when the rocket got out of the view thinking of its very lonely journey ahead. You can also watch the video of the launch. Soon after the launch, I got back to South Village, settled my debt and checked out my comfy, all wooden one bunk bed dorm room. Since it was late to complete the leg to Kurio, I decided to take a quick 30 mn walk to the ocean side onsen. The onsen greeted me with a very moody ocean, splashing waves, a mind blowing sunset and unfortunately two visitors enjoying the onsen in their swimwear.  You are not supposed to wear anything in a Japanese onsen and those rules are in majority of the cases very strict. I decided to skip my dip since I had no swimwear with me and I did not want to be the only one naked.  The evening ended with a short but very fulfilling talk with a Japanese man who spent better part of his life in USA.  I always prefer a good engaging talk of 30 minutes a day over many other forms of human interactions, which usually tend to last much longer. 

Day 2: Hirauchi to Nagata – Seibu Rindo Forest Path

After eating my banana and drinking two cups of coffee in the silence of the common kitchen of South Village, I set on the road at around 6.40am.  While Google Maps showed a 10 hours walk for the day ahead, the second days walk to Nagata took me around 7.5 hours. However, I think I pushed it too much (as I could not find any place to fill in my water bottle and got very thirsty & luckily had been offered water during the last hour of the walk by the kind folks I met at South Village who happened to be driving by) and could take it little bit more slowly. The second day was with no doubt visually the most pleasing day of the walk as it covered the Seibu Rindo Forest Path, a beautiful drive/walk included as part of the Natural Heritage Site.  You are at all times accompanied by beautiful cliff views and you never feel lonely being surrounded by island monkeys and deers. The road is quite narrow so the buses (except for some tour buses) are not allowed and the cars are rare/drive slowly – making it probably the safest part of the walk in terms of the traffic. The forest path involves a gentle climb but it is well worth it taking into account the beautiful ocean view. After walking for nearly 8 hours on a very sunny day, I made it to Nagata at around 2.30pm to be greeted by two Taiwanese travelers who spotted me twice during the past two days while they were in the bus.  They gently offered me a beer and I can confidently say that it felt like the best beer of my life! The evening was resumed at the old style Japanese house now serving as a hostel eating the crackers that I bought at one of the two small shops in Nagata. The hostel could easily serve as a set for a horror movie but I really enjoyed its very spooky yet traditional vibe. You can check out the tips section below for the details of the hostel. 

Day 3: Nagata to Anbo – Final Day

On the morning of the last day of the walk, I enjoyed the silence of the house while drinking my cup of coffee (or two) in the downstairs living room. The only other guest at the hostel already left at around 4am. He was maybe off for a peak hike or in a hurry to catch the obligatory bus to famous Jomon Sugi trail. There was a beautiful cloud show in the early morning merged with the active volcano Kuchinoerabu, which happened to be well – active on that very fine morning! I spent a good 40 minutes enjoying the scenery and watching the fisherman just focusing on the sea without paying any attention to the attention seeking Kuchinoerabu.  I as expectedly felt considerably more tired on the last day of the walk.  While I still had enough energy in the initial four hours leg to Miyanoura with a stop at Isso Beach, I almost had to drag myself for the final 3.5 hours leg between Miyanoura and Anbo despite the long lunch break at the park in Miyanoura. The last day ended at around 4pm in Anbo where I happily enjoyed my cup of coffee at Mos Burger. As a reward, I decided to skip Anbo (and the uninspiring and quite depressing hostel where I occasionally crashed during my long stay in Yakushima) and stay again at South Village with a plan to visit the nearby local onsen Onoida the next morning. While the sleep did not come easily on the ending night of the walk, I felt very relaxed the next morning while taking care of my sore feet at Onoaida Onsen. After these three days, I somehow felt like I earned my stay in this beautiful island – Yakushima. There is no doubt that I will be back to the island but there is also no doubt that I will do this walk once again – maybe in the reverse direction the next time!

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Where to Leave Your Luggage

There are medium size lockers at Anbo Port (good for most carry-on size luggage) and you can rent those for 300 Yen (you need 100 Yen coins) for – well – almost unlimited time (I left mine there for three days and there is no time sensitive automatic unlocking). My luggage situation was a little bit complicated due to Tokyo trip so I had to use the lockers. Howver, you can in most cases leave your luggage at your last accommodation in Yakushima and they will usually not mind.  Japanese people are very good at not giving you a hard time for those simple logistical issues, which can become big issues in any other country. 

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Where to Sleep

The answer really depends on your starting point and well also on your budget.  Since I started in Anbo, my first night was spent at wonderful South Village (well worth organizing your itinerary accordingly so that you can stay here). On my second night, I had one of the most interesting accommodation experiences that I have ever had in Japan at Suishodama Hostel in Nagata.  It cost me around 2500 Yen a night and I really enjoyed the kind of spooky but very traditional atmosphere of this old style Japanese home. I highly recommend that you stay at least one night in Nagata as it is probably the most scenic town in Yakushima with the views of volcanic island Kuchinoerabu and Mount Nagata in the background (looks as majestic as Swiss peaks). There are no proper grocery stores but two small shops in the town where you can get some basic food (noodles in the case of Japan) and only one restaurant serving dinner (when I was there in the last week of October).

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Onsen Breaks

One of the most rewarding parts of circling Yakushima is the number of onsens spread out on the road including very scenic Hirauchi and Yudomari ocean side onsens and my favorite (well the only regular onsen I have been to in Yakushima) Onoaida onsen sitting at the trail head of the beautiful Ja no Guchi Waterfall hike.  If you do not want to pack a towel during your walk, you can get a small one at Onoaida for 200 Yen. Be ready though, the water at 50C is very hot but a great cure for your possibly soar feet after a long hike!