Yakushima is an UNESCO Nature World Heritage protected island, about 60 km off the coast of Kyushu. It’s said to have been the inspiration for Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, but most importantly, it is home to some of the oldest cedar trees in Japan and a variety of endemic species. The trees are even more valuable since many in the other area of Japan that has comparable trees were destroyed during the 2011 tsunami/earthquake.



How to get there:

You can fly directly from Tokyo, Osaka or Kagoshima. The most common way to get to the island, however, is by boat. You can choose between a ferry that takes 4 hours, the very speedy (under 2 hrs) jetfoil or a slow overnight ferry. The jetfoil (“Toppy”) is the most expensive option at around 15,000 yen return, but also your most flexible. The day we returned, it was quite stormy and all boats except the jetfoil were cancelled (and the ride back was VERY bumpy).

It’s recommended to buy your tickets for the jetfoil in advance for weekends and holidays. We visited mid-week and bought our tickets two days in advance when we got to Kagoshima. Both times we took the boat, many people seemed to buy their ticket on the spot just before departure, too.

Where to stay

There are some seriously expensive 5 star onsen hotel resorts on the island, if you are looking to really blow some money. There is also a youth hostel close to the port at Miyanoura. For everybody who falls in between those two ends, staying at Yakushima means staying at a minshuku, or old fashioned Japanese guest house. You can imagine them like a B&B in Europe, although some will also offer other meals or have an integrated café. The best thing about them is that you can usually look forward to a home cooked Japanese breakfast!


I love to stay in minshuku because it really forces you out of your foreigner bubble, yet you have more privacy than at a homestay. We stayed at Minshuku Kaisei I in Miyanoura, a 10-minute walk from the ferry terminal. The place was sparkling clean and our tatami room even had its own small bathroom (many minshuku have shared facilities only). The owner speaks minimal English but they had lots of information about where to go and how to get there. She also offered to order bento boxes for anybody going on a longer hike.

What to do and see
 
On our first day, we arrived mid-afternoon and paid a visit to the tourist centre/Ecological information centre by the port in Miyanoura, which features a great introduction to the island as well as a very poetic short movie showcasing the stunning scenery of the island.

Now, if you are a serious hiker – and I mean, you have brought all that technical gear and hiking equipment – Yakushima is a dream. There are hikes from 6 hrs up to three entire days, where you can sleep in a mountain hut.

We aren’t quite that outdoorsy, and were content with one of the longer routes (1-3 hrs) in the unfortunately named Yakusugi Land. It conjures images of Disneyland, but don’t worry – it was not crowded at all and is simply an area within the nature reserve that has very well maintained trails, the easier ones also accessible for the less able and elderly.

After our hike, we paid a visit to the nearby Yakusugi Museum, where you can learn all about the trees and the island’s history. The museum floor is made of lots of wooden “tiles” which move a little while you walk with them, adding an interesting haptic dimension to the experience. Their English audio guide was very good, too. What we ended up liking the best, however, was the photography exhibition and exhibition about local communities (Japanese only) at museum’s lower floor.
 

After lunch (see below), we decided to complete the day by attempting a round drive of the island, stopping over at the Ohki no Take waterfalls (well, literally, the big waterfall). The most amazing part of the drive was the dark and narrow forest path, where countless Yaku deer and monkey crossed our road. They seemed very confident that this is THEIR forest and took their sweet time letting us pass. Now that drive was really like something out of a fantasy movie (if people rode cars through remote Japanese islands in Disney movies)!
We used the websites Yes! Yakushima and Yakumonkey to research information about the island. These websites will show you hundred more things to do an see in Yakushima, especially if you enjoy long hikes, surfing and cycling.


What & where to eat

For lunch, we popped into a small restaurant in the second biggest town on the island, Anbo. There isn’t an awful lot of choice to eat outside Miyanoura, and places are only open for lunch from 11.30 to 2 pm, which last orders taken at 1.30 anywhere we looked. So rather than looking for a specific place, go with anywhere Food-wise, Yakushima is famous for flying fish and black pork. Celine had the pork, which like other “black pork” we had in Kagoshima and Jeju island in Korea, didn’t taste special. Flying fish was finished already when we arrive for lunch, so I made do with chicken. Portions were giant and the ladies were really surprised to see foreign visitors!

Miyanoura town itself has two supermarkets that also sell ready-made foods (there are no convenience stores on the island), and some traditional as well as “western style” places for lunch and dinner.

For dinner, we stumbled across a bar/restaurant called Panorama, hidden away in a back alley of Miyanoura. Stepping into there was like being transported from the remote island to a hipster area of Tokyo, minus the crowds. The modern, open space is clearly inspired by the island’s natural terrain, as is the menu. However, the place is run by a young couple who even went through the pain to hand-draw an all English version of their extensive selection of western and Japanese booze (beer, wine, sake, shochu and umeshu of all flavours, whiskey and cocktails). I loved it because similar places in Japanese cities can be very noisy and smokey affairs, while Panorama felt so easy going and homey.

How to get around

Now this is where it gets tricky. It takes only 3-4 hours to drive the loop around the island, but if you are relying on public transport, your options are severely limited as there are not many buses. If you want to do one of the longer hikes, it pays to get a guide who will also organise your transport.
We decided to stay only two nights and rent a car for the main day. All guest houses as well as the tourist info office will help you organise a car –  we paid under 6,000 yen including insurance for a day. That’s a great deal, especially considering a bus pass is 2,000 per person and does not get you very far.

Apart from some roads leading up to hiking trails, there is only one road in Yakushima, which loops around the island. If you were to drive it straight through, it would probably take you 3,5 hours, but what’s the fun in that? We managed to do a 9-5 trip, visiting all the places I mentioned above, including a 1,5-hr hike (the forest path is closed after 5 pm, rightfully so!). If you have only limited time and/or are not an avid hiker/tree hugger/beach bum, this is probably the best way to see the island.

We had been warned about how the road condition really deteriorates in the south and west of the island, but found a very smooth road in very good condition. Yes, it’s narrow and single profile in some areas, but I’ve seen far worse roads in Ireland, Italy, England and even Germany! The driving was smooth apart from the 26 km stretch of the Seibu Rindoh forest path, where there were lots of deer and monkeys just hanging out by the road. We drove VERY slowly and were a bit freaked out we would hit a dear, but it was quite a magical ride!


Yakushima reminded me of why I love travel in Japan so much, probably more than I can every enjoy living here. The one thing you can always count on, no matter where you go in Japan, are the kind and high-spirited people. You might think it’s all concrete and city lights, but this small island nation offers a lot of variety, especially once you leave the beaten path.



A random Kyushu sunset, taken from the bus!

November was a fantastic month! We moved around constantly for 3 1/2 weeks, but it all went by in a flash. I got to practice LOTS of Japanese with people in Kyushu, too! It's so much easier to improve your language skills in a place where you don't really have any other options (there were virtually no western tourists outside Nagasaki, and even there, very few).

Make no mistake, it was an exhausting month and we are both happy to hibernate a bit and focus on work for the next two months.

Hong Kong
 
This time, we stayed at a serviced apartment near Tin Hau, which gave both of us a bit more freedom (for fun + work). Mostly, we spent time catching up with family, eating a large variety of foods and buying random electronics. We also went on a little hike to the Dragon's Backbone, a first for HK local Celine!

Seoul & Busan

Accomplished: Visited all five of Seoul's Royal Palaces
I can never get enough of Seoul! We just spent a week, as we really had no specific plans for Korea this time. We ate lots of Korean foods and ended up visiting some historical sites and museums I haven't been to in my previous three times in the city. In addition, we met a friend who lives there and of course could not escape the lure of all those silly Korean cosmetics shops. My face will be SO moisturised this winter!

We also spent three days in Busan, where everything seemed to fail. When we wanted to go on a hike, it rained. When we wanted to go to the bath house/spa, it was the only day in the month they were closed. When we finally found the hike, we found the trail limited and the way back almost impossible to find. Nevertheless, we managed to meet up with a couchsurfing friend we hosted a few years ago in London.

Kyushu - Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Yakushima

laughing at Dutch people in Nagasaki
From Busan, we took to the ferry to Hakata/Fukuoka, where we were welcomed with a good grilling by the Japanese immigration officers, who wondered why we were in Japan again after just three weeks ago. I had assumed that they would question me and assume I'm an illegal English teacher, but they seemed to be much more interested in Celine. Once I told them that we "are partners" and "live together", they let go of us, but not without asking me if I had any illegal drugs first.

We went straight for the next train to Nagasaki, because Fukuoka is not exactly a very exciting or lovable place from my experience. Nagasaki turned out to be quite different from what I expected, much smaller and more provincial than I thought. The tourist attractions are all a bit overly garish and fake for me, although the Dutch related history parts were interesting. Of course, we visited the atomic bomb related sites and museum, which is a little bit more politically sensitive than the one in Hiroshima when it comes to Japan’s war crimes.

On we moved to Kagoshima, by bus, because trains are seriously expensive in Kyushu. I love this southern island so much; the climate is almost sub-tropical and the landscape always seems more lush and unspoilt than other parts of Japan. The sunset on the bus was amazing.
Kagoshima - Would you dare to live opposite a VERY active volcano?

Kagoshima surprised us not with volcanic ash, but with a lot of amazing food and vibrant nightlife which I had not expected at all at this end of the country. People in Kyushu are a bit strange - 50 % of them are welcoming and excited to talk to travellers, 50 % seem to be freaked out if they have to interact with a white foreigner. 
We stayed at a very cute traditional guest house on Yakushima

Our last stop was Yakushima, a UNESCO protected natural world heritage island which is famous as the inspiration for Princess Mononoke (which I've never watched, but of course it needs to be mentioned).


We rented a car and managed to do a small hike (most there are for the serious hiker, from 8 hrs to 2 days) while driving around the entire island.

After two days, it was time to catch the ferry to Kagoshima and our flight...


Back to Osaka!

For the next 8 weeks, we're in Osaka, in a flat that suddenly feels way to big after all those small Japanese hotel rooms. It's the longest we'll be in one place since we set off from London in June 2015. Osaka has long felt like a second home to me, and since I've lost touch with London more and more, maybe even like  my first home.


We were considering staying here for the long run, or at least a year or so, but it looks like life has something else in store for us...


There are some things I will never learn. Like the fact that sulphur is supposedly amazing for your skin and health, but also, that it stinks like rotten eggs.

So, I thought it was the most amazing idea ever to visit one of the most famous onsen towns in Hokkaido, Jigokudani, which is part of a national park and located about halfway between Sapporo and Hakodate. 

Welcoming devil shrine
... until we got off the train and the smell of rotten eggs hit me. In all honesty, unless you are a serious hiker who is out to explore the surrounding national park, I am not sure if I would recommend this place. We visited in high season, early October, and found a very sleepy onsen town - in the creepy and neglected way, not in the charming atmospheric way, plus the walk ways around the "Hell's Valley", the much photographed area, crawling with tourists from tour buses. 

We had expected a day of hiking, but what we found were completely covered tour buses. Yes, the landscape is fascinating - for twenty minutes or so - and the walk around the forest is somewhat nice, with a quiz on some interesting trivia about the area, but we felt a bit disappointed. This wasn't quite the magical, remote Hokkaido we had been promised by travel bloggers and brochures. 

Overall, I would say: Skip this one, there's much better to be seen in Hokkaido. Unless you are physically handicapped or with children, then I would expect it one of the best things to do in the often inaccessible part of the country.

Or could it be that some places are popular simply because they are easy to access?



Hell's Valley, with strange rocks that formed from the sulfur that's boiling underneath


Steaming lakes and puddles abound throughout the area

The highlight of our trip: The natural footbath. We skipped the full body egg onsen.

I can't help but think even the devils seem a bit disappointed


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