Escape to Yakushima
Note: This story appears in the Japan issue of Lodestars Anthology, an independent magazine-meets-journal for curious travelers, available for purchase here. The magazine is stocked locally in Tokyo at the Daikanyama T-Site.
For those visitors to Japan whose first glimpse of Nihon is the baffling urban sprawl of Tokyo it can be difficult to imagine that anything lies beyond the seemingly endless miles of tangled train lines and concrete facades. Japan’s capital is inconceivably vast – there’s no arguing that – but the true amazement comes with the eventual realization that it’s but a teeny, tiny percentage of the country’s overwhelmingly natural landscape.
I’ve spent the majority of my residence in Japan escaping into the wilderness. Every weekend poses an opportunity to cross a picturesque hiking trail off my checklist. But in an archipelago of more than 6,500 islands, most of which are dominated by rugged mountain peaks and thick evergreen forests, some require a bit of effort to reach. Yakushima is one such destination.
Situated two hours by boat off the coast of Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu, just getting to Yakushima is an adventure in itself. “Toppy” jetfoil boats (named after the region’s beloved flying fish) float above water as they transport you to the country’s first UNESCO-protected island. If it weren’t for the distinctly Japanese buildings lining the arrival port I would have questioned if our boat had somehow wandered off course and landed in Hawaii.
Imagine a planet Earth untouched by man. Primeval forests so dense that it’s impossible to tell one tree’s branch from another, their gnarled trucks intertwining in a desperate battle for survival. Waterfall streams that gush from the crests of craggy granite cliffs, their icy depths shocking to the touch. Yakushima is a place where wild monkeys and deer outnumber people, rivers flow with pure drinking water and there are more shades of green in the flora than there are words available to describe them.
Despite its popularity among Japanese, the mysterious isle is lesser known in the international tourist circuit. This, combined with its remoteness, poses a challenge for the English-speaking traveler. To make the most of our visit we enlisted the help of a local guide, Cameron, who led us on an exploration of the island’s surreal terrain, from balmy sub-tropical white sand beaches to ancient alpine sugi (cedar) forests.
It was a 48-hour haze of mystical discoveries. We took flying leaps into turquoise swimming holes, whose crystal clear waters we shared only with iridescent dragonflies. We marveled at the 600 different varieties of moss that blanket the forest floor, encasing the massive trunks of 1,000-year-old sugi. We traversed an otherworldly coastline of lava fields and dramatic rock formations, their timeworn surfaces licked smooth by the ocean. We felt as if we’d stumbled through a portal into an alternate universe; one that we had no inclination of leaving.
For those who seek respite from the florescent glow of Tokyo’s neon lights, Yakushima offers an escape of storybook proportions. Woodland creatures included.
If you go
Book a tour guide to make the most of your trip. You can find our guide, Cameron Joyce, at Yakushima Experience. Cameron will work with you to create an itinerary that covers your interests, whether it be guided multi-day hikes or leisurely sightseeing. In addition to providing transportation and delicious bento lunches, he is full of fascinating stories and local knowledge.
If you prefer to go it alone, be aware that public transportation on Yakushima is quite limited. You'll need to secure an international driver's license (prior to arrival) to rent a car on the island.
The cliffside JR Hotel Yakushima makes for a wonderful resting spot. Its remoteness on the island's south shore made us feel that we'd traveled to the end of the Earth. You won't need to worry about a lack of restaurant options here, as the hotel provides both breakfast and dinner (they'll even prepare a bento lunch for hiking, if you ask). The onsite onsen overlooking the ocean is a perfect way to end a long day of exploring.
High speed ferries run daily from Kagoshima to Yakushima (approx. 2.5 hrs; 8,400 JPY or 75 USD). If you are traveling during high season, such as Golden Week or Obon, it is recommended that you purchase ferry tickets in advance here (use the Google Chrome browser to help with translation).
Kagoshima is reachable by both air and rail (Shinkansen included) from destinations across Japan. The city's tourism site has a useful access guide here.
Hyperdia is handy for mapping routes by train if you are traveling to Kagoshima domestically.