Circling Yakushima: In Praise of Road Walks

Circling Yakushima on foot? You may ask – why would anyone desire to spend three days walking on the car road in Yakushima 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 simple: Sometimes, I 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, and no foggy rivers to cross and take my breath away. Sometimes, I just want to keep my head up, look ahead, and put one foot in front of the other without having to watch where I put it. I only want to focus on the simple physical act of walking but not all those other things that come with it.

Two women in a tide pool in Yakushima Japan

I love getting faster and faster with no trail signs to watch. This allows me to embrace that state of mind where you feel like you leave one worry behind with each step that you take forward. And I am lucky to say that it works every single time. I am always a more content person both during and after the walk, whatever distressing thought I had before feeling a lot less important.

This is the diary style account of my three days circling the island (for a more detailed post on various real hiking options in Yakushima in addition to practical tips on how to get to the islands and where to stay – please refer to my main post on hiking in Yakushima.)

Circling Yakushima

During my latest two-month stay in Yakushima, I occasionally felt the need for a simple walk without any planning, and no extra transportation to take me to the trailhead but by using just my legs. However, it was not until one Monday morning when I left my room in Miyanoura at around 6 am and walked for three hours straight until I reached Anbo that the obvious occurred to me: I could turn this into a multi-day affair and walk the 100-kilometer long road circling the island.

Yakushima is a wonderful island with some of the best hikes that I have ever experienced (moody, misty, and at times haunting landscape scenery all over), but it can also be a demading island. Relying solely on public transportation to reach the trailheads can sometimes be challenging. The buses do not run very often. In most cases, you have to wait for at least a couple of hours for the first bus to take you back to the town once you finish your hike. There are also numerous trails, which cannot be reached with public transportation. Given all this, a walk around the island without having to worry about any of these logistical issues felt very much like the walking break that I needed.

I decided to do the Yakushima island walk right after the day I would get back from a quick trip to Tokyo for a legal conference. The timing turned out to be great as those three days took away all the anxiety that the trip to Tokyo left me with. I also made the difficult decision of leaving my camera and lenses behind for more freedom and focusing on the walk instead of photography. I still used my phone camera to get some shots like the ones you see in this post, but mobile photography always feels more freeing than carrying a full set of camera equipment.

Day 1: Anbo to Hirauchi – rocket launch and a forgotten wallet 

Even though I intended to start the walk at 6 am, there were some logistical issues (lockers at Anbo port not being available before 7 am to leave behind my Tokyo luggage). So I started the walk a little after 7 am. My aim for the day was to cover the part between Anbo and Kurio (6.5 hours walk according to Google Maps) and then take the bus back to Hirauchi to stay at the South Village Hostel.

Since there is only one road circling the island, planning your walk around the island does not involve much route-related complexity. However, you are very much limited by the availability of the accommodation along the road. While I was advised by Jennifer Lue of Yakushima Life that there was basic accommodation available in Kurio, South Village looked far more appealing with its cozy decoration, secluded location, and proximity to two ocean-side open-air onsen.

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. During the check in process, I realized that I left my wallet in my bag stored in the lockers at Anbo port. The kind 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 expensive in Yakushima if you do not have a bus pass) for me to take the bus back to Anbo to get my wallet.

My wallet mishap turned out to be not such a bad thing. My obligatory return trip 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 a daytime launch would not be too exciting (and so still planned to go ahead with the walk), it was about to happen right when I got back to Anbo. So I of course stop to watch it and it turned out to be one of the most moving technological events that I got to experience in my life. Rocket launches are probably among the most amazing technological achievements of humankind, yet they evoke strangely emotional feelings. I still cannot explain the sadness that dawned on me when the rocket got out of view, thinking of its very lonely journey ahead (you can 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 bunk bed dorm room. Since it was late to complete the leg to Kurio, I decided to take make the 30-minute walk to one of the nearby ocean-side onsen of Yakushima. I am glad that I did – what a view it was.

Hirauchi 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, not even a swimwear. So I decided to skip my dip since I had no swimwear with me and did not want to be the only one naked. The evening ended with a short but very fulfilling talk with a young Japanese man who spent the better part of his life in the 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 kitchen of the South Village, I set on the road at around 6:40 am.

While Google Maps showed a 10-hour walk for the day ahead, the second day’s walk to Nagata took me around 7.5 hours. I might, however, have 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 whom I met at South Village and happened to be driving by) and could take it a little bit more slowly.

The second day was visually the most pleasing day of the walk as I walked on the Seibu Rindo Forest Path, a beautiful drive/walk rightfully inscribed as part of the Yakushima UNESCO World Heritage Site. Island monkeys and deer kept me company, and the beautiful cliff views justified the necessity of the uphill sections. Seibu Rindo is a narrow road wherethe buses (except for some tour buses) are not allowed. The private cars, although allowedon the road (except for night time), are rare, and the drivers drive very slowly – making this section the safest part of the walk in terms of the traffic.

After walking for nearly 8 hours on a very sunny day, I made it to Nagata at around 2:30 pm to be greeted by two Taiwanese travelers who spotted me twice during the past two days from the bus. They gently offered to buy me a cold beer, which to this day still feels like the best beer of my life!

I spent the night at the traditional 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 further details.

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. 

Hiking Yakushima

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 hour leg between Miyanoura and Anbo despite the long lunch break at the park in Miyanoura.

Nagata - Yakushima

The last day ended at around 4 pm 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 final night of the walk, Onoaida Onsen that I visited early the next morning sure helped me to relaxed.

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 and I will, at some point do this walk once again – maybe in the reverse direction the next time!

For more tips about hiking in Yakushima, you can check out my post about my first hiking trip to Yakushima – account of my hike to Mt. Miyanoura as well as my Yakushima photo gallery.

Accommodation during island walk

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). For more detailed information on where to stay in Yakushima outside the island walk – you can refer to my main post on Yakushima.

Where to leave your luggage in Yakushima

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. 

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!