Yakushima: Land of Beautiful Hikes

Please refer to the second section of this post on practical tips on how to get to Yakushima, where to stay and hiring a guide. I have been to UNESCO World Heritage Site Yakushima three times now with the last two trips comprising of month long stays. The below narrative is from my first trip but the practical info is periodically updated. You can also check out the photo gallery on my site as well as the separate post about my experience circling the island on foot and a post about my multi-day hiking to Mt. Miyanoura.

Yakushima: first encounter

I wish it did not take me four visits to Japan to finally make it down to the mystical Yakushima Island. If I visited the island earlier, it would definitely find a room in my every Japan itinerary and join the list of places I – in an almost embarrassing fashion – keep visiting repeatedly such as Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland and Lofoten Islands in Norway.

Embracing the rain in Yakushima

To get to Yakushima, I took a four-hour Shinkansen ride departing from Osaka and bound for the southernmost city of mainland Japan – Kagoshima. While you can also fly to the island either directly from Osaka or from Kagoshima, I decided on the train and the jetfoil (between Kagoshima and Yakushima) combo since I got a Japan rail pass. The ocean scenery accompanying us during the entire jetfoil ride did not allow me to finish any chapters in my book, and within 80 to 90 minutes into our super fast ride, the island made a shy appearance under a thick layer of clouds. Very dark clouds indeed, the kind of clouds that signified nothing but heavy rain. While I would normally take it as bad news, I was aware of the fact that the annual amount of precipitation is what made this island very green and mystical. 

Leaving Miyanoura - Yakushima harbour, I read in other blogs that you start missing Yakushima as soon as the ferry takes off and it was also my experience

Yakushima is the wettest place in Japan and ranks very highly in the list of worldwide destinations in terms of the average annual precipitation amount. For me, rain becomes an acceptable and almost desirable weather event in those cases where it is responsible for the unique beauty of the region I am visiting. Take the example of the Scottish Highlands – it sounds a little bit strange when you hear fellow travelers complain about the rain in Scotland when the rain is the only reason behind the amazingly lush landscape that makes the region beautiful, unique, and desirable. The same applies to Yakushima and its moss forests. Furthermore, encountering the rain in a nature destination opens the door to mystical scenery, sounds, and moments, which are much more engaging than a rainy day in a city.

Beautiful nature, not necessarily inspiring architecture

As soon as our jetfoil docked at Miyanoura Port (the biggest town in Yakushima), I was glad to be trained enough not to get upset about the uninspiring architecture you may encounter in many places in Japan including its remote island towns such as Miyanoura. 

After four visits to Japan, I learned that those uninspiring buildings and doors open to more inspiring interior spaces and people. This disconnection between nature and the mainstream architectural choices in Japan is very different than another big love of mine, Scandinavia where the architecture and choices of design blend in perfectly with nature, and that connection between the two grows even stronger as you travel further north where the nature gets wilder. This is in my limited experience not the case in Japan, no matter how close you get to nature. 

I have been to the northernmost island Hokkaido, the small villages along Kumano Kodo, and also the Japanese Alps, and it is rare to come across buildings that feel like a modest extension of the natural scene you are in (unless you are in an area where the traditional architecture is preserved on purpose such as Shirakawa in Gifu or old postal town of Magome located on Nakasendo trail). 

Instead, you will in many places likely encounter concrete buildings looking detached from the surrounding nature (I wrote more about why I think Japan is not beautiful). The architectural scenery in Miyanoura is no exception. Alex Kerr, the author of Lost Japan: Last Glimpse at Beautiful Japan, heavily criticizes the construction policies in Japan and the country’s growing detachment from nature over the last few decades. His book is a must-read for anyone looking for an alternative perspective to some of the concepts that fascinate us about Japan (take the example of the section where he, through a reference to his friend, notes that the game parlors (“pachinko”) may be the only authentic venues left in Japan).

The islanders and their love for Yakushima

Thanks to the abundance of high-quality websites focusing on the island and its hiking trails, planning your trip to Yakushima is easy. Even a quick browse through those various sites is sufficient to ensure you that Yakushima is the right choice with the sense of attachment Yakushima guides feel to this mystical island jumping out of their websites. There are many hiking tour companies and individual guides offering their services year-around. You have the option to join group tours or customize your own. Subject to the specific weather and trail conditions, you can also obviously hike without a guide if you are experienced enough. I chose the guide option, and I feel lucky that her schedule permitted and I got to hike and tour around the island with Jennifer Lue of Yakushima Life. Right from her first response to my hiking inquiry, I knew that I was in the right hands.

I chose Miyanoura as my base in Yakushima mainly because of the frequency of direct jetfoil services between Kagoshima and Miyanoura. The other main alternative to Miyanoura is Anbo, which is less frequently served by the direct ferry but seems to embrace the small fishing village vibe more than Miyanoura.

Even though I initially felt a little bit worried about the quality of accommodation available in Yakushima, my worries faded away within seconds once I arrived at Minshuku Iwakawa, which turned out to be a great little gem with immaculately clean rooms, common areas, and a very reasonable room price (USD 30 a night for a mid-size room during low season). You should, however, make sure that you select the “new building” option when you book. Their old building did not look as inviting. My tatami room at Iwakawa and the modern downstairs kitchen had all the amenities I needed to keep myself entertained after my usual waking up time of 4-5 am – a water boiler and good wifi connection to blog and do some legal work. After settling into my room, I enjoyed an evening walk in Miyanoura followed by a quick but tasty dinner at a yakiniku place.

Yakushima island tour

The next morning, Jennifer came to pick me up from Miyanoura even though she lived down in Anbo, which is around a 25-minute drive from Miyanoura. The plan for the day was to drive around the island to make a full circle and cover the entire 100 km, visit an ocean-side shrine – Yahazu Daké Jinja, stop for short forest walks to get close to famous monkeys and deers of Yakushima (that as Jennifer pointed out are somehow all more easy going compared to their fellow species living elsewhere, but you do still need to give a respectful distance), check out a lighthouse on the way, get a soba lunch at a very beautiful village restaurant surrounded by greenery (Matsutaké) and visit some of the many beautiful waterfalls of Yakushima.

Brave villagers of Nagata

As we drove around the island, I quickly reached a mental state which is very common for me if I am thrilled about a place. At every single stop we made, I was sure that we were now at my favorite place on the island. The feeling of being amazed kicked in right away with a visit to the ocean-side shrine and continued with the numerous waterfalls we visited during the day. So Ohko Waterfall was my ultimate favorite in Yakushima until I saw Senpiro Waterfall, which lost its title as soon as I laid my eyes on Toroki Waterfall. Looking back at the day now, I think the ocean-side shrine was my true favorite along with Tokori Waterfall, which is the only waterfall joining the ocean in Japan. The ocean-side shrine and the surrounding scenery reminded me of the scenes from the latest Scorsese movie “Silence” telling the story of Jesuits in Japan (which is to my surprise filmed in Taiwan and not in Japan).

Books about Japan - Walking in Yakusugiland in Yakushima - the density of plant and tree population was quite high making me feel like swimming my way through the trees, such a great feeling

Jennifer`s in-depth knowledge about the island (which is now all reflected in her book about the island – a Verdant World between Sea and Sky) that she kindly shared throughout the day made me feel emotionally more connected to the island. Her story about the people of Nagata (a small village in Yakushima) who revolted against the forestry policies of the Japanese Government and won a legal battle against the Government struck me not only because it involved a legal fight but it was also among one of the rare happy ending stories in its category. I tried hard to stop myself from getting very geeky about it and asked her all the boring details about the legal aspects of the ordeal, which are probably only entertaining for lawyers who have worked in that specific field including myself (do not ask for which side though).

Land of safe walks

At the end of an amazing day, Jennifer dropped me off at my accommodation right before dinner time. I this time decided to check out the trendier Panorama Restaurant which is pointed out by Jennifer as a pretty good place to have a relaxed meal and some wine. She turns out to be right. Panorama has a Scandinavian vibe with its very simplistic design. The staff working at the restaurant is also very friendly. I enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and a (rare) chicken, which was delicious but a little too small to call it a proper dinner (so do not turn down the rice offered along with the rare chicken unless you want to leave the restaurant still feeling hungry).

Mt. Miyanoura Yakushima

The walk back to Iwakawa took much longer than I originally anticipated just like every other evening walk that I take in Japan. The street lighting coupled with the colorful lanterns hanging in front of restaurants made it very difficult to not stop for photos or just to enjoy the dim but colorful street lighting. I also found myself watching the traffic lights, which kept following their regular routine in vain on an empty street where there were no cars to stop or no people to ensure safe passage for. These are some of the strange visual pleasures that I enjoy in life, which require an environment where you as a woman do not feel nervous to wander around alone at night. Japan`s status as one of the safest countries in the world surely helps with my endeavor. 

One of my favorite essayists Craig Mod who has been living in Japan for decades makes the following remarks about night walks in Japan in this captivating essay titled Need to Walk – “yet the ability to safely walk alone, especially at night, is, for most cities, largely a luxury available only to men (and even then, there are always parts to be avoided). Which is why Tokyo night walks are especially alluring and evocative, seemingly a societal miracle — a city nearly devoid of violent crime, almost no back alley or poorly lit path is off limits. It’s one of the few, true, metropolitan spaces where the right to a safe walk is a nearly universal, indiscriminate, day or night, red light or financial district alike”. Craig Mod talks about Tokyo in his essay – a megacity with a population of around 15 million people. So you can imagine how the night walks feel even safer in much smaller towns in Japan. I sometimes think that I keep traveling all the way to Japan just to safely walk.

Shiratani Unsuikyo: Miyazaki and the famous Moss Forest

The second full day on the island was entirely devoted to Shiratani Unsuikyo (白谷雲水峡) – the white valley of clouds and water. Shiratani, along with the Jomon Sugi trail, is the most famous trail in Yakushima. It is home to the moss forest, which has reportedly inspired the anime master Hayao Miyazaki for Princess Mononoke. Even though the nice Scandinavian couple whom I met the night before at Panorama Restaurant and had an engaging chat with did not sound too thrilled about the hike making me keep my expectations low, Shiratani Unsuikyo turned out to be a great hike with a moderate level of difficulty, offering wonderful scenery and addictive river sounds (I wish there was a musical compilation on iTunes such as “Sounds of Yakushima”. You can, however, check out the album “Where We Need No Map” by Andi Otto including a composition titled “Ode to Yakushima”). 

Yakusugiland

The trail at Shiratani also rewards us the hikers with an amazing viewpoint at the end of the hike. I do not think I fully realized the grandness of the Yakushima landscape until I had the benefit of looking at it from Taiko Iwa. While the views were worth the hike, we, unfortunately, did not run into any of our animal friends that we were surrounded by during our forest walks the day before. Jennifer noted that while Shiratani used to be a great spot to hang out with the island deers, the deers deserted the area about three years ago for reasons still unknown, and they are yet to be back.

Scenes from Shiratani hike in Yakushima

While we encountered many hikers along the route on our hike to Taiko Iwa in the morning, Jennifer took me through a different trail on our way back, which was less crowded. In my experience, it is rare for a hiking guide to keep that perfect balance between feeding you with information about the area, and also allowing you to have silent moments to enjoy the scenery and the walk. Jennifer is such a natural at keeping that balance perfectly. So there were many periods during which we walked in silence enjoying the river sounds and the scenery and to later get engaged in a captivating discussion about Yakushima or the world in general when we both felt like it.

Yakusugiland: deep into the dark forest

I was on my own on my last day on the island. Now that Jennifer was gone, I had to rely on public transportation, which is available but limited, especially during the low season (link to the bus schedule in Yakushima). Yakusugiland – named after the general idea of a theme park, felt fortunately much more special and secluded than the place that it was named after, Disneyland.

Hikes in Japan

There are many different trail options available in Yakusugiland where you can take short walks of 30 minutes or cover the entire main trail in around 2.5 hours. I chose the 2.5-hour trail, which took me through several beautiful suspension bridges. I was all alone on the track until I ran into a Japanese family at the far end of the track who looked at me as their savior. They wanted to have their family photo taken but forgot to bring their tripod. Once the photo session was over, we said goodbyes, and I was once again all alone on the trail. I took my time sitting by the river and thinking that I had come back to Yakushima but for a longer visit the next time (and I did – Circling Yakushima and Hiking Mt. Miyanoura.

How to get to Yakushima

There are various sea and air options to get to Yakushima. The timing ranges from a mere half-hour plane ride from Kagoshima to an overnight container ship ride again from the outskirts of Kagoshima. I used all the options. Let`s start with the three different sea options to get you to the island.

Jetfoil to Anbo and Miyanoura 

This is the fastest sea option and it can also beat the airplane if you are already in Kagoshima (since the Kagoshima Airport is another 40mn bus ride from the city center). This option is pricy compared to other ferry options and costs nearly as much as the plane. One way ticket costs 9,200 Yen and you get a small discount if you purchase a round trip ticket. You can either take the jetfoil to Miyanoura or Anbo. In the case of Anbo, the jetfoil stops at Tanegashima making the trip a little longer. Depending on the stops – it takes somewhere around 1.50 to 3 hours. You can check out the current schedule from this website. Some of the hiking companies in Yakushima will offer free booking guidance if you book a hike with them. I never had a reservation for the jetfoil and always found a seat. However, you are highly recommended to be more cautious than me if you are traveling during busy seasons.

Slow ferry to Miyanoura

Called Ferry Yakushima II is the most pleasant way to get to Yakushima from Kagoshima in around 4.5 hours. While this so far turned out to be my favorite option, it requires you to arrive in Kagoshima the night before since the ferry leaves around 8 am. This option gets you to Miyanoura.

Overnight freight ship – Ferry Hibiscus to Miyanoura

The overnight freight ship called Ferry Hibiscus was definitely one of the most interesting travel experiences of my life. You get on the ship at around 6 pm from Taniyama Port located on the outskirts of Kagoshima. Do not expect a romantic cruise ship experience. You sit on the floor in the common areas with all the other passengers. Each passenger gets a blanket. The ship first stops at Tanegashima about three hours after embarking and stays there for the night. Passengers to Yakushima are not allowed to get off the ship but at that hour, I do not think there would be much to see and do in Tanegashima in any case. The ship leaves Tanegashima very early in the morning and gets you to Miyanoura in Yakushima at around 7 am. If you are lucky and the weather permits, you can get out to the deck and watch the sunrise or even morning rainbows like I did (you can watch a short clip from my morning at Ferry Hibiscus). Nothing can beat this option in terms of the pricing with 3900 Yen/one way and saves you a night nights accommodation cost as well. Please note that the ferry leaves from Taniyama Port and not from central Kagoshima. You need to leave at least two hours before the ferry departure time from Kagoshima if you plan to take the bus. There is a convenience store near the ferry terminal where you can get your food for the night.

Airplane

JAL offers direct service to Yakushima from Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kagoshima. I only flew once from Kagoshima and you can get a ticket for around 10,000 Yen if you book in advance. The airport in Yakushima is located between Anbo and Miyanoura and is served by a public bus. This option sometimes works better if you will be flying out of Kagoshima to your next destination. It allows you to cut the travel time between Kagoshima ferry terminal and 1000 Yen airport shuttle cost.

Where to stay in Yakushima

If you have a car, you have many options including many beautiful cottages located around the island. If you have no car like me – it is better to stick to Miyanoura or Anbo, which are both served by public buses. I stayed in many different places in Yakushima but chose Miyanoura during my first visit, which is the biggest of the two towns and home to a large selection of restaurants & more frequently served by the direct ferry from Kagoshima. 

For my longer-term stay on the island, I rented one of the houses that Mike and Keiko rent out for both short and long stays. I can safely recommend any of their houses, which are all nicely decorated and very well equipped. Their hospitality is one of the main reasons that I am soon planning my fourth visit to Yakushima.

For short stays – you can also consider the new building of Guesthouse Iwakawa – modern/clean/cheap. I paid USD 30 a night in February for a decent-sized private room with shared but immaculately clean bathrooms & kitchen area. You can also get a nominal discount if you are staying for more than two weeks. One downside of Miyanoura is that there are not many daytime cafes to hang out or work at and this may be an issue if you are planning an extended trip during which you would not go hiking every day and have no car. Getting breakfast outside of your accommodation can also be a little challenging but there is a big grocery store, which opens at 9 am (you will probably leave much earlier than that though for the hikes so it is best to get your food for breakfast/hiking the night before).

One other place in Yakushima that I cannot recommend enough is South Village Hostel located in the Southern part of the island. This is a more secluded place and it requires a car if you have only a few days on the island as the limited schedule of public buses makes life quite hard. The hostel is also close to two ocean-side onsen as well as to Onoida Onsen (frequented by locals) and those make a good before-dinner walk if you have not already hiked enough during the day. 

Where to eat in Yakushima

To be honest, you can safely ignore all the food suggestions here as I`m someone who can barely notice the difference between ready-to-eat supermarket foods (those are so good in Japan!) and restaurant-cooked ones. With this disclaimer to keep in mind, here are a few places that I liked in Yakushima for the atmosphere:

(1) If you are doing the circular island tour, the soba place Matsutake located in Kurio is a great place surrounded by greenery. I really enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere in this traditional place located on the Western side of the island right by the Kurio River. You can also use the public bus to get there (2) Panorama Restaurant in Miyanoura (@panorama_yakushima ) is – with its Scandinavian vibe and shared tables – a great place to have some wine – they also serve the sashimi version of the famous flying fish of Yakushima and their rare chicken dish is also good. (3) Yakinuku Ippudo in Miyanoura is a fun barbecue place where you cook your own food. It has a quite cozy interior with its all wooden decoration. (4) Cottage Davis, last but not the least. This gourmet-style restaurant located in the Southern part of the island (a very scenic location) is run by a British-Japanese couple and they offer an amazing lunch menu with a set price of 1200 Yen from Thursday to Sunday. They also offer dinner on those days except for Sunday and I heard that they have a great wine selection.