Hiking the lost world of Yakushima (屋久島)

Having visited Tokyo a couple of years ago and enjoyed our trip immensely, we knew that we would one day like to return to Japan to explore the rural beauty the country has to offer. Luckily, we did not have to wait long. A recent trip to visit relatives in Hong Kong afforded us the opportunity to spend some extra time in Asia – and right away we knew we’d want to return to Japan. Seeing as we wanted to experience the Japanese countryside this time, we decided to visit the southwestern part of the country: Yakushima (屋久島), an island south of Kagoshima (鹿児島市) in Kyushu (九州).

Up until September this year we’d never even heard of Yakushima. By chance, a friend visited the island over the summer and told us the following:

  1. This fairly small island (with a circumference of around 100km) contains some magical-looking, moss-covered forests with thousand-year-old cedar trees (which apparently inspired the setting in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke);
  2. Part of the island has been designated as a UNESCO heritage site since 1993;
  3. Yakushima is great for hiking.

All this sounds right up our street, we thought! So off we went to sort out travel and accommodation arrangements…

[Travel notes: Coming from Hong Kong, we flew to Kagoshima first, then took a 3-hour ferry to get to Miyanoura port on Yakushima. We picked up our hired car near the port. While on the island we stayed in a minshuku, a traditional Japanese-style family-run lodging. We booked everything online. Booking the ferry was the least straightforward, as the website was in Japanese only – we even had to supply our name in katakana.]

So, at 6:45am on a cloudy November morning, we left our hotel in Kagoshima to catch the morning ferry to Yakushima. As the ferry pulled away from the port, we were granted a closer view of the smouldering Sakurajima (桜島), an active volcano that provides the iconic backdrop to Kagoshima. The gentle bobbing movement of the ferry sent us to sleep, and we woke up just in time to see the mountains of Yakushima appearing above the horizon.

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A view of Sakurajima from the ferry

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Miyanoura, Yakushima

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Enjoying our sushi lunch before our walk

After alighting the ferry at the port in Miyanoura (宮之浦), we became immediately aware of the quietly idyllic atmosphere surrounding us. Given that we only had just over 48 hours to spend on the island, we wasted no time picking up our hired car, and drove straight to the trailhead of Shiratani Unsuikyo (白谷雲水峡). En-route, we picked up a few boxes of tasty sushis from a large supermarket. Shiratani Unsuikyo is a much advertised beauty spot with multiple well-marked trails. Looking at the map we knew that we should be able to walk the combined routes in under 4 hours.

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On the way to Shiratani Unsuikyo

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Shiratani Unsuikyo trailhead

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The admissions hut at the trailhead

After paying a small contribution fee, we set off on our walk. A series of signposts and pink ribbons tied to tree branches guided the way. To begin with, the walking was easy on paved paths and stone steps. Streams and waterfalls provided a constant soothing background sound. Half a mile in, the forest started to reveal its true beauty, as the terrain got tougher, and the paved trail gave way to stones and tree roots. The direction, however, was still clearly marked by pink ribbons, and we rarely had to refer to the route map. Right away, we were impressed by how the trails were managed in Yakushima. At first glance, the trail seemed to be a natural feature of the land itself: the trail path itself was made entirely from natural materials, such as local rock and wood, with minimal visual and environmental impact to the surroundings. However, looking more carefully, one realised that extreme care had been taken to maintain and perhaps even enhance this sense of nature: every piece of rock and every wooden beam has been precisely placed to assist one’s progress. (It is this uniquely minimalist yet considered approach that I suppose seems to characterise so many aspect of Japanese life after all.)

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Shiratani Unsuikyo trail

The most noticeable feature of forest trails in Yakushima is the abundance of giant ancient cedar trees, dating back thousands of years. Many are long dead, but their high resin content means that the trees would not easily decay and some get to stand tall still, maintaining their majestic forms. Often, next-generation trees grow on top of dead stumps with roots forming around them. When the dead stumps decay, they effectively create a hollow in the trees sitting above. This creates an amazing display of “legged” trees in the forest, and the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail path even goes through some of these giant “legged” trees sometimes!

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Giant cedar

The unique landscape was not comparable with anything we had ever experienced, and before we knew, we’d spent more than 3 hours in this mysterious forest.

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Mysterious atmosphere in Shiratani Unsuikyo

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Shiratani Unsuikyo’s moss-covered landscape

As mentioned earlier, Yakushima is great for hiking; there are numerous routes offering hikers opportunities of going up its mountains or deeper into the forests. (For longer hikes, a number of very basic mountain huts are available for weary hikers to spend the night; we came across one during our first hike in Shiratani Unsuikyo.) Before our trip, we had wanted to walk the famed Arakawa trail, but after some last-minute research we realised this would not be possible during our short stay on the island, since access to the start of this trail is by bus only during the months of March and November, and we would have had to get up at something like 4:30am to in order to catch the bus! So, on our second day, we opted for a walk in Yakusugi Land (屋久杉ランド). Despite its name, it is not a theme park, but is another massive cedar forest. As we drove up to the trailhead, the heavens opened, and we were reminded of Yakushima’s claim of being the wettest place in Japan. After a one-hour drive through some incredibly narrow, windy track, we arrived at the entrance of the national park. Although the rain did subside after our car reached a certain altitude and the sky cleared a little, it seemed likely that we would get wet some point during the day, so we made the decision to put on our waterproof layers.  (How right we were, but more on that later!)

For this walk, our plan was to follow the official trail loop and then walk an extended steep uphill section to the peak of Tachudake (太忠岳) at a height of 4911ft. Similar to yesterday’s trail, the beginning was easy but it wasn’t long before the terrain became more challenging. Still dominated by giant cedars and moss-covered rocks, the scenery was subtly different from yesterday’s, as this time much of the trail involved contouring a steep valley. In addition to the steepness, the wet rock and the high humidity certainly made the hike much harder than yesterday. That said, the rain and the mist did very much add to the atmosphere. We reminded ourselves that dramatic landscape is usually sculpted by water, so as ramblers, we must not complain about the rain if we were to enjoy hills and valleys!

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Yakusugi Land

After a mile, we left the Yakusugi Land loop to make the ascent up to Tachudake. The initial climb was not too steep, but it was sustained. As we gained height, the tree cover started to become thinner – cedars disappeared and pine trees began to take over. As a result, the air immediately felt less humid. We could even catch glimpses of the blue sky. Soon, a signpost informed us that we were 1km from the top. At this point, the gradient started to become steeper, leading to some sections which require a bit of scrambling (with in-situ rope for assistance). Eventually, we arrived at the base of a massive boulder which was supposed to be top of the mountain, but we could not really get a good view of the boulder itself. That is what tends to happen with mountain tops – from afar, they look remarkable and they draw you in, but when you are there, it is often just like anywhere else.

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Yakusugi Land’s tree-root lined trail

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Near the top of Tachudake

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Yakusugi Land

Given it was around 2pm when we arrived at Tachudake, we did not linger long before making our way back down to rejoin the Yakusugi Land loop. As we approached the last mile of the loop, the heavens opened, and we encountered rain of biblical proportions! Desperately wanting to get back to our car to dry up, we jogged the rest of the way, overtaking a couple of nature-appreciation groups. Our minshuku did not have an onsen, but a hot shower would do!

Perhaps we’d visited Yakushima during its off-season, but during both our hikes we encountered just a handful of people. To be honest, this actually made the experience much nicer, as we felt that we were truly at one with these magical, ancient forests!

On our last day, we didn’t have time to go on another hike. Instead, we circumnavigated the island by car, passing small villages, stopping to admire a pristine beach here, a lighthouse there, and catching tantalising glimpses of rugged mountains that we did not have time to trek. Along the tortuous Seibu Rindo Forest Path on the west side of the island, we encountered native monkeys and deer almost at every turn, seemingly unbothered by the humans driving past in their cars!

There are many incredible places on Earth, but very few can be described as enchanting. The forests on Yakushima feel very much to have a life of their own, evoking a special feeling in those who set foot there.

 

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