By Karyn Lo
I’ll confess, I am one of those people. One of those people who have a terrible love for Ghibli films. For me, I have a soft spot for the older Ghibli films…One of which is Princess Mononoke. When I heard of the forest that inspired Hayao Miyazaki is on the other side of Japan, and after a conversation with that pesky travel bug, I figured another trip to Kyushu was on the table! (For Metal Gear fans, the forest also inspired parts of MGS3. Boom.) Be prepared for a post full of green pictures.
Before I start my usual rant though, I thought it was worth mentioning that I usually try to keep these articles to Aomori, so we can explore the magic of our own backyard. Aomori is a fantastic place to do local road trips no matter the season! However, this time I really wanted to share one of the best places I have been to in Japan, which just happens to be on the southernmost tip of Kyushu.
So, without further ado… Introducing… Yakushima!
Yakushima is an idyllic island on the most southern side of Kyushu, and has been an UNESCO site since 1993. There are absolutely no convenience stores on the island. Let me repeat. No convenience stores.
The island is host to many native animals, such as the Sika deer and the Yakushima macaque (not koalas). When driving around the island, often you’ll see these animals chilling out on the middle of the road and making you feel like an interloper. During the summer months, you can watch baby turtles hatch and make their way to the ocean. There are also coral reefs, but I’d highly recommend making it down to Okinawa for some scuba diving.
For the main attraction!! If you enjoy gentle hiking, then Yakushima will be heavenly. The forests mainly consist of ancient Japanese cedar, and famously the trunks are covered in a thick layer of moss. It’s absolutely gorgeous early in the morning, so I’d recommend starting any hikes as early as you can. Jōmon Sugi 縄文杉is a famous tree found on the Kusugawa hike/Arakawa trail (about a 4 hour hike) that is said to be more than 6,000 years, and up to 7,000 years old. Often people bring little ‘kodama’ to place on the moss covered rocks and branches to take photos with. Though it has to be said – please don’t touch the moss as much as you can!
Final mention – there is a main road that loops around the exterior edge of the island. There are plenty of things to see if you drive along the road, such as waterfalls, lighthouses, volcanic bedrock, no convenience stores… and it takes about 4 hours to drive a full loop. Most notably, the west side of the island is a one lane road. This road is probably the most scenic part of the island, without taking the hikes that radiate towards the center of the island.
Here are some hiking courses I’d like to recommend, from beginner to more advanced.
Course 1: Yakusugi Land (4 courses, from 30min to 3 hours)
Access: Bus Anbou ~ Yakusugi Land, 2 round-trip services per day, about 40 min. 740 yen
Course 2: Shiratani Unsui-kyo Gorge (3 courses from 1hr to 5hrs)
This is the hike you’d want to do to see the famous ‘Mononoke’ forest. If you walk all the way to the top, you will be treated to a beautiful island view while perching on a ‘Lion King-esque’ rock (Taiko-iwa).
Access: Bus Miyanoura – Shiratani Unsui-kyo Gorge, 5 round-trip services per day, about 30 min. 550 yen
Course 3: Round trip to Jomon-sugi (10 hours)
Access: Bus Miyanoura or Anbou – Yakusugi Shizenkan. Change to Arakawa Tozan Bus and get off at Arakawa Tozan-guchi. If you want to make it a day trip, you want to take the first bus that leaves Yakusugi Shizenkan at 5:00 am. The ride from Yakusugi Shizenkan to Arakawa Tozan-guchi is about 40 min., 870 yen
You can fly into Yakushima aiport via Fukuoka, or take alternative ferries from Kagoshima. The price varies on how fast the ferry is, with the JetFoil being the fastest and most expensive, Ferry Yakushima 2 being medium priced but runs in a loop once a day, or the overnight Hibiscus Ferry being the cheapest and most unreliable. Just be careful if you choose to take the ferry, as there are two ports (very far from each other) at Kagoshima, and the ferries are weather dependent.
Why not do a small trip around Kagoshima? Sakura-jima is another volcanic island, and is beautiful during the summer seasons.
On another note… ever been to hell? Beppu is the onsen heaven of Japan – and boasts of the 8 hells of Japan!
Finally, for those Ghibli fans… there is a ‘Laputa Road’ on Mt Aso that is still relatively unknown by tourists. On cloudy days, the mountains look like scenes from the Laputa film. Also worth a stop in Kumamoto Prefecture too!
Having a car on Yakushima is a good idea – the public transport isn’t very convenient. And watch out for those ferry departure times! Often the weather can get bad and ferries can be cancelled for the day.
Also, just a warning… Yakushima may be in the southern parts of Japan but even during warmer months, there can be snow on the top of the mountains. Be prepared! Yakushima is also very rainy. Very rainy.