Yakushima is a gorgeous natural wonder in southern Japan. Much of the small island is a protected World Heritage Site and is largely untouched by industry and tourism. Those who make the journey are welcomed by a myriad of landscapes, from forests to mountains to beaches. The sites below can be visited by doing a popular trek across the island, which takes about three days, or by hiking from various points around the perimeter.
Yakushima is probably populated by more sugi (cedar) trees than people. These are fiercely revered and protected. On the island is a park called Yakusugi Land where casual visitors can see trees that are over 1000 years old. However, the most famous sugi tree requires a rough hike to reach it, but it’s worth it. Known as Jōmon Sugi because it is said to be as old as the Jōmon Period, which took place from 14,000-300 BCE, even conservative estimates place this tree’s age at a minimum of 2000 years old. The massive, ancient tree is truly impressive to behold.
This forest looks like something out of a fairy tale, and in a way it is. The mossy, magical forest in the famous Japan-made Studio Ghibli film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) was based on this place in Yakushima, so it’s become known as ‘Mononoke Hime no Mori’ ー ‘the Princess Mononoke Forest.’ It’s actually called Shiratani Unsuikyo and is even better in person than on film. Moss covered stones, twisted tree roots resembling tentacles, and towering cedar trees come together to form the fabric of this mythical forest.
This peak is the highest in southern Japan, so if you have the time and energy you’ll want to check out the view from the top. The trek is strenuous and at times treacherous – parts of it have to be scaled using rope – but it’s worthwhile. The mountain is located right in the center of the island, so the panoramic views allow you to see Yakushima in its entirety as well as the ocean around it. The hike can be done in a day or as part of the trek across the island.
A view that rivals the top of Mt. Miyanoura is the one that greets those brave enough to perch on the edge of Taiko iwa, a massive stone that sits high above the island in Shiratani Unsuikyo. Taiko iwa, which means a rock that looks like a giant taiko drum, protrudes from the mossy tangles of the Princess Mononoke Forest and hangs upwards of 1000 meters over the gorge below. Yakushima is a tropical and rainy place, so the view is often foggy but always dizzyingly magnificent.
Most of the trees that draw people to Yakushima are alive, if not ancient, but this popular tree is hollow and dead. What makes it so special is not only that many people can fit inside the stump at once, it is also that upon looking up and out of the hollow trunk at a certain angle, the opening forms the shape of a heart. Though it may sound corny, it’s actually a very beautiful and peaceful place and a must-see experience.
Beautiful beaches, majestic mountains, fairytale forests, and now a marsh in the mix – Yakushima truly has everything. This peat marsh is said to be 2600 years old and has many kinds of interesting flora, including mighty cedar trees. During certain times of the year, the area is home to hundreds of blooming flowers. There is a boardwalk built over the wetlands so that visitors and hikers can easily explore and pass through the marsh.
Communal bathing is one of those ‘only in Japan’ experiences; here it’s even more unique because of the remoteness of the island and rareness of the opportunity. Hirauchi Kaichu is an outdoor onsen, or hot spring, like many others that scatter the archipelago. However, this onsen is only usable at low tide. It’s also co-ed, another rarity. Many bathers will enter wearing a towel, while others will bathe in the nude as is the local custom. Don’t let this deter you! The views from this oceanside natural spring are breathtaking.