Imagine a lush mountain forest covered in moss, featuring the most ancient cedar trees in the world and almost permanently bathed in a deep mist. Welcome to the island of Yakushima.
Yakushima is one of the Nansei Islands, an archipelago in the south of Kagoshima prefecture, in Japan. Considered an unspoiled natural beauty with more than 1900 species of plants, it was designated the first UNESCO world heritage site in the country, in 1993.
Since then, tourists have been visiting the island, lured by the opportunity to enjoy an authentic experience in an isolated natural environment but also, looking for a taste of true Japanese culture, a traditional lifestyle that is still alive on the island.
Junichi Aida, a JMGA mountain guide living in the island since 1998, says the number of travelers from abroad is always increasing and he has seen a record number visit this past April. “Many people visited Japan to see cherry blossoms (sakura) and decided to include Yakushima in their itinerary. We received visitors from US, Europe, Singapore, Southeast Asia and even from countries like Serbia and Russia”, Junichi says.
Despite its tropical appearance and the fact that it’s the wettest place in Japan (locals often say it rains 35 days a month), Yakushima is a four-season destination. You’ll find spring cherry blossoms and snow in winter.
Want to find out the best Yakushima locations and things to do? Pack your raincoat (you will need it!), and let’s go for a hike in the ultimate Japanese wild paradise.
Top hiking trails in Yakushima
Getting lost in the island’s wood trails is definitely one of the best things to do in Yakushima. Here are the two of the main hiking destinations that deserve a visit:
- Shiratani Unsuikyo. This unique mossy forest inspired the famous animé film ‘Princess Mononoke’, by Hayao Miyazaki. Consider joining Junichi for a 1-day hiking trip traversing some less-crowded spots.
- Yakusugi Land. The forest of ancient cedar trees. There are several hiking trails you can take here, from an easy 2-hour trail to a deeper immersion in the forest.
You can also combine both destinations in a 2-day hiking trip. In this case, the guide will decide where to go first depending on weather conditions.
Besides, those in a good shape can join a 2-day trekking tour leading to Jomon Sugi, a big cedar tree with a 16.4 m circumference. According to scientists, it could be 7200 years old!
Another option for adventurous hikers: an 8-hour itinerary starting from Yakusugi Land and trekking to Mt Tachu, a peak with a 40 m rock pillar on the top.
From there, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the ancient forest which most accurately represents the essence of Yakushima. You’ll also get to see the sea and Tanegashima island. For the Japanese guide, “Yakusugi Land is THE forest of Yakushima. The thickness of tree trunks, their height! I believe the more mature a forest is, the more spaces there are between trees”.
Since ancient times, Japanese people have valued the beauty in spaces. They find mystery and potential in them. This concept is known as yohaku no bi and it’s often reflected in drawings and Japanese gardening.
Traversing Yakushima’s trails is not only a touristic but also a spiritual journey, a special way of connecting with nature in its purest form.
Beyond hiking: other outdoor activities in Yakushima island
You can explore Yakushima from different perspectives. A great plan is going on a half-day trip with a local guide, navigating the clear waters of Anbo river in a kayak. You’ll see the ecosystem where the islanders live in: Laurel forests with evergreen trees, like the typical Japanese tea trees.
Adventurers traveling during the warm months and not afraid of getting wet can also enjoy a traditional activity known as Sawanobori (similar to canyoning, except it consists of climbing upstream!).
Finally, those interested in local fauna may definitely appreciate sea turtle watching. Between May and July, more than 2000 turtles come to the coast for the egg laying season. August is the time of hatching and the period of baby turtles.
How to get to Yakushima
- From Osaka (1.30 hrs) and Fukuoka (1.10 hrs) there are direct flights to Yakushima Airport.
- From any other spot in Japan, including Tokyo (1.35 hrs), you should take a flight to Kagoshima first and then approach the island by plane (30 min), high speed ship (2.30 hrs) or ferry (4 hrs).
Where to stay in Yakushima
You can find several types of accommodation in Yakushima: guest houses, Japanese style hotels or occidental style hotels. Here are some of the most popular places to stay (in the order you can find them on the island as you go clockwise around it from the north).
- Seaside hotel Yakushima (Miyanoura)
- Yakushima Youth Hostel (Miyanoura)
- Yakushima Green Hotel (Anbo)
- Guesthouse Manmaru (Anbo)
- Sankara hotel & spa Yakushima (between Anbo and Onoaida)
- Shikinoyado Yakushima (Onoaida)
- JR Hotel Yakushima (Onoaida)
- Yakushima Iwasaki Hotel (Onoaida)
- Yakushima South Village (between Onoaida and Kurio)
How to move on the island of Yakushima
Yakushima’s villages lay mostly on the coast. A road circles the whole island and connects all the towns.
Generally, people use rental cars to move around the island. However, you need to book them in advance and they’ll be delivered to ports. If you prefer to use public transport, you should know that buses run once every hour or 1.5 hours. You can also take taxis on the island.
The most popular forests are located in the central mountainous area, and are also connected by roads.
Are you planning a trip to Japan? Yakushima needs a spot on your bucket list! Away from the hustle and bustle of big Japanese cities, this unique natural setting offers a glimpse of the ancient (and still alive) traditions of a fascinating country.
You can contact local guide Junichi Aida for one or several guided adventures in the island of Yakushima. For more suggestions on outdoor activities in Japan, you can also check this article about packrafting in Minakami, an exciting mountain destination near Tokyo.