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.