Yakushima Island
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Yakushima Island

Once upon an Island

If “life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale”, as Hans Christian Andersen suggested then a trip to the enchanted island of Yakushima is definitely a chapter.

Yakushima. It’s a magical never never land but not too far far away. A week is better but a weekend is doable. In fact from Tokyo it’s a quick 1 1/2 hours flight to Kagoshima, then a 30 minute propeller-fueled rock and roll of a jaunt to the island – if you have weather like ours. Or you could take a ferry. However you get there the spectacular beauty, pristine nature, the dazzling fusion of mountains, water and beaches is beyond breath-taking.


** Just a quick note... this is a pulled feed from a 2010 blog post we did about Yakushima while we were on assignment for a domestic magazine. This information is now 10 years old. And the images are just happy snaps. For our fine art landscapes from Yakushima please take a look around THIS website. And to read the blog post from times past - you can read it here.


The following is the superbly unedited version of a series of travel pieces we just finished on our Yakushima experience. It’s both a blend of what will go to print and our own journalling voice, which generally, we know, is best cut – a lot. But here on the blog the waffle may fill in the background for the photos galore which we would love to share. We took more than 1000. All terrible. We’d blame the weather. But we were just having too much love of life to be conscientious.

We travel so frequently, domestically and abroad, and always have the best of intentions to share and post our routes and the inevitable trouble that ensues along the way. To combine our photos with words, as we’ve done in the past at our 2 Girls blog. Alas simply time and so much workflow has prevented this recently but in an effort to work more towards this kind of media…that we LOVE…well, we’re more than making it up for it now.

About Yakushima

Yakushima rises dramatically from the ocean to almost 2000 meters. It is best known for the dense, unique 12km-squared core forest that covers most of the island and its magnificent old growth Japanese Cedars, cryptomeria trees. It is a hiker’s paradise and the secret is out with more than 90,000 walkers on the trails last year. The remarkable Yakusugi trees, some thousands and thousands of years old, cement Yakushima’s current status as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site since 1993.

Nature here, packs a punch and during any stay it will more than likely rain. Locals say it rains 35 days a month. In our case it was more like 40. The sheer volume of cascading seasonal spring water was simply staggering, so clean its drinkable direct from the source. From trickling streams to thunderous falls, it is certainly Japan’s wettest place and one of the world’s rainiest. But the rain brings a special kind of power and tranquility to the primeval show.

We walked in waterfalls for a week

It’s a travelers and a photographer’s dream. Even if you arrive in the middle of a blackout. Which of course is what we did after our flight over was finally cleared after being delayed due to ‘invisibility’. We picked up a rental car from a local outfit Matsubanda, from the very sweet man proudly displaying the ‘Tayior’ sign. Better to go local and much cheaper than the national brands (check out ToCoo! to compare prices and book easily online).

A little yellow-plater is more than enough to get around, and will help on the narrow one-lane mountain roads when the big Green Triangle shuttle bus is coming the other way. There are also several alternative transport options; buses, taxis, cycling and legs.

Rain Rain Rain

The rain was bucketing down on arrival and as we headed down the coast to Anbo. We were surprised with the lack of road rules and the flashing traffic lights. Slow and easy going. It was only when we arrived for the first of many, many visits to the bakery, that we realized the shop was in complete darkness, save for the flashlight dangling above the front counter, fastened hastily by a skipping rope and duct tape.

Main point though, it was enough to illuminate the maple buns which would become a daily necessity and the lovely smile of the elderly staff, informing us the power at least on the eastern and southern parts of the island had been off since the morning. Perhaps knocked out by the fierce weather and that it was highly unusual and very taihen and that they we were working on it now.

The Unique Environment of Yakushima

This was Yakushima in off-season and rainy season, so not at all unexpected. Changeable weather, was de rigeour. As long as you’re prepared for it, keep updated on current forecasts and check in with the local guide/tourist ‘kanko” center there should be few issues and few people. Whenever the rain stopped briefly, there were mist and rainbows. Clouds rolled in. Covered, then just as quickly exposed the multi mountain tops. When it came again there were sun-showers and fierce thunderstorms.

Accommodation

We headed off in search of our first accommodation, of which there are plenty of options on Yakushima mostly studded along the hydrangea blooming coastline. From campgrounds, to minishiku’s, more upscale hotels and the finest luxury, there’s something to suit. We wouldn’t know it but we were to experience it all. Tokyo was a world away as we checked into the family-run, super friendly Morinokokage; charming log-cabin cottages, replete with wooden swings and an inside hammock. Roomy, cozy with all the basic comforts, aircon, toilet, tv and separate bath. The power came back.

A Guide to the Otherworldly Island of Yakushima

Time for a nap then it was off in search of food. And of course we found it from, of all places, the Happyland Supermarket. We motored home with a monster of a rain shower following us the whole way. Back to the cottage just in time for a right royal thunder and lightning spectacular which we sat outside and watched before horizontal rain drove us back inside.

Swaying away in the hammock we referred to the fabulous new Yakumonkey Guide to Yakushima. This is the first comprehensive guide to Yakushima in English published in 2009. It provides invaluable information on everything the island has to offer, from the natural wonders, to local delicacies, the best onsens and all those little local little things we generally have to pantomime to get the low down on. Bus timetables, lockers to store heavy packs, food options; it’s the ultimate Yakushima reference plus the section on the islands’ many hiking trails is exhaustive and much appreciated.

Planning the trek

The original plan was the 3-day traverse trek starting south at Onoaida working steeply north to explore Yakushima’s seductive, spiritual interior, peaking at Kyushu’s highest mountain Miyanoura dake, then exiting after visiting the mother of all Cedars, Jomon Sugi.

There are many options for those wanting a more relaxing, less active experience, not so much into long hikes or with less time who would like to soak in the beauty of Yakushima. Jomon Sugi is accessible in a 1-day 10-hour hike. Then there are plenty of shorter walking courses starting at 30 minutes on walkways that require no special gear, particularly at Yakusugi Land.

Drive-by options also abound, and with a rental car, motorbike or cycle an afternoon exploring the blind, dramatic bends of the Seibu Rindo Forest Path is well spent (no buses are allowed here). This 26 ½ km stretch of wonderland wilderness road on the west side of the island takes you inside the World Heritage Protection Site. An amuse bouche of the island’s delights.

Get Supplies

We did our odd jobs today, buying food and supplies for the hike, checking out the drug store, Best Life Denki and the photo shop just in case we need anything. Lunch was at the lovely Smiley Café, where we did in fact meet some beaming new friends, among them the sweet Satoco and her fabulous secret postcards.

The gear

To cut down on our gear we rented packs, sleeping bags and other essential equipment from the very helpful, English speaking staff at Nakagawa sports in Miyanoura, Yakushima’s largest town just north of the airport and a helpful point to get orientated.

Then a friendly visit later to the guide center in Anbo and we were informed that the trail planned for our first hiking day was inaccessible due to its’ bad condition and the bridge we needed to cross on the second day following the Yodogawa trail was also closed due to damage sustained this rainy season. So time for a re-work.

A local guide

A local guide is advisable but with common sense well-equipped hikers with experience, a good map, basic awareness of walking in the mountains do not necessarily need one. If you do hike outside an organised group it’s suggested you fill in a Tozan Dake, climbing form, which details your route and is submitted to the local authorities.

You can do this at the police station or guide/tourist center. You simply need to check in upon your return so they don’t mount a full-scale rescue mission…It’s a no brainer that we made sure we did.

And we’re off. Almost.

One last night in the cottage and a big pack while watching the soccer. Were we really going to need all this stuff? No, but let’s lug it anyway. As long as we have food (at least 3 weeks worth…), wet weather gear and the cameras we were set. Then we tried them on. Our BP days may be behind us…so damn heavy. So channeling Coco, we made sure before leaving to take at least one thing off/out. iPad stays. There would be no Seinfeld re-runs in the hut. This caused quite a lot of debate. The champers got ditched too, at the last minute. What were we thinking?

Woke early morning to cloudy skies and eager intentions. Quick cottage brekky then it was off.

The Trekking Starts

We decided to start at our journey from Shiratani Unsuikyo, then meet up with the popular Aragawa trail (now only accessible by buses, due to the sheer volume of people and the need for an eco solution). This is a longer but certainly more scenic route over the Tsujitoge Pass which meets up with the Okabu trail wandering up to Jomon Sugi. Here a night in a one of the 6 mountain huts was planned. The next day we would mount Miyanoura, stay another night in a newer hut, then return for some beach time and exploring.

Yakushima’s famous monkeys

We set-off in sprinkling rain after leaving our car in Shiratani’s lot. Met Yakushima’s famous monkeys on the panoramic drive up, marveling how fast and high we were already in the misty mountains. We were welcomed to the path by an hysterical screeching macaque. Signs of things to come. For sure. Or he could have just wanted the bunch of bananas in my pack. There are clear rules promoted for hiking in Yakushima, including bringing back all your trash.

Shiratani Unsuikyo

If your time in Yakushima is limited then at the top of the list must be a visit to Shiratani Unsuikyo. It is a landscape beyond dreamy, and truly the stuff of fairy tales. Startling green rare moss meets tangled roots, ancient cedars play with light and ferns, rain makes random waterfalls, broad-leaf evergreens stand tall. The power of nature and an affirmation of our place in it easily recognized.

Leeches

200 meters in and we met our first and actually last leech of the hike. Then it was shortly thereafter that I had my first meltdown because the pack was a nightmare. But we soon got used to it and having such eyecandy to indulge in lessened the pain – somewhat.

Princess Mononoke

We followed the Shiratani creek simply bulging with water until we crossed a bridgeless river, which I promptly fell in. But we still got the shot and saved the camera. The rain was relentless after this which made it slow going with 15+kg packs. Revered filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was so inspired by this place, his Princess Mononoke masterpiece is based on the area. Here in the primeval forests of Shiratani is pure splendor. An Enid Blyton landscape, it was almost cliché when we met the first of many petite picture-perfect Yakushika (deer).

Any pixies and fairies and it would have been too much… Lunch was huddled under the Tsuji grotto, then it was an easy descent to meet up with the Aragawa trail which follows the old (still in use) railway tracks to start the climb to Jomon via the Okabu trail.

Oh the rain…

It was pouring.

The trek to Jomon is not a walk in the park, but it’s not technically difficult, well-signed, just slow going, has the potential to be dangerous and is certainly slippery in places when wet. It’s not to be underestimated. With so much water at times our path was a waterfall, indeterminate from the over-flowing creek we were following.

Wilson’s Stump

On the way we met very few hikers, intertwined cedar trees some 3000years old, and a big stump called Wilson, where with the rain coming down we tried to get the classic heart shot inside. From here the path becomes a series of walkways and wooden platforms and steep steps leading up to Jomon.

Jōmonsugi in Yakushima

We had it to ourselves when we arrived late in the rainy afternoon. We exchanged a few words and marveled at the 7200 year old national treasure almost 25 meters tall and 16 meters wide, with 13 different species sprouting from the weathered exterior. Thinking of all it had endured and all that had transpired during its life.

To weary to do much more we laid down in the rain, looked up and took the shot from that angle.

Then it was off to the Takatsuka mountain hut 200m further up for the night.

Takatsuka mountain hut

Hut is a relative term, it was more like a concrete garden shed, which supposedly sleeps 20. But in comfort terms 10 would be a more realistic number. Missing the cottage, we shared it with 9 new friends, soggy waterproofs dripping from the ceiling but it was semi-dry and it was shelter. We crawled into sleep after we cooked a hot and welcome dinner (packed pepperoncino, not too bad…).

Then just as sleep came and something certainly with 4 rodent legs streaked through the hut and our gear the most terrific thunderstorm lit up the night for hours. While I lay there warm and dry I couldn’t help but think of Jomon Sugi in the face of it all. What a tree.

Still Pouring

Morning and it was still pouring hard. Restless night. Back ache. Enviously stealing glances at the group next to us and their very comfy looking sleeping mats…Discovered the camera was foggy and possibly broken due to water damage, will deal with it when dry.

A quick chat with our fellow hikers and a local guide and we decided to re-think our hike to the top of Miyanoura dake. The weather was not on our side, they advised, and it was exposed at the peak with few trees to provide any shelter. Wait it out or keep moving? Time to head back.

There was even more water if that were possible on the route home. Realized my lovely Columbia hat was gone…lost to the woods…but where? Probably somewhere up near the beautiful Jomon falls, but there was no-way we were heading back. Jomon, wear it well. I’m sure some fellow hiker has her draped on a railing somewhere, to add to the collection of hand towels we pass now and then. I loved that hat. It rained until we arrived at the end of the railway tracks. But then it miraculously just stopped.

Echoes of Japan’s Ancient Past

The Woodlands of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece “Princess Mononoke”

And… we’re back.

We took our time photographing and exploring the remaining areas of our 22km tramp, thankful nature turned us back – as when the fog rolled in it couldn’t have been more magical. Fell in the river again, but it was worth it. Trace fell down 200m before we finished the whole hike, almost shattering the Nikon. Around my original meltdown point, actually.

Limping and weary from those big old waterlogged bags we finally finished. Upon arrival at the car park, we were saturated and satisfied beyond words. Before long we had the onsen of dreams soaking our weary, water-logged bodies at the Hot Stone Spa in the Yakushima Green Hotel. A world away from yesterday.

Time to celebrate

We quickly called Yui at the cottages and got another night, it was like heading home. Discovered Anbo’s 2nd bakery and I’m sure we had a maple bun or 3. Cracked open the champers and started the big dry. And discovered that Yakushima has almost as many coin laundries as inhabitants. Love that combined 25kg washer/dry and the shoe washing machine and neighboring shoe dryer.

We recovered fully the next day by exploring the island by car. First stop was to wander through the magnificent Bayan Trees and of course completely forget to bring the mozzie repellant. Tried some island tastes from the back of the local fruit and veggie truck.

Yakushima Turtles

Then skirting the exterior, we followed backwoods lanes until dead ends, taking in the bountiful waterfalls, and beaches. Locals extended warm hospitality, directions when lost and egg sandwiches when restaurants were closed. We chilled out on the northern beaches around Nagata where loggerhead turtles come to lay eggs from May-July. You can only see the turtles by making a reservation to one of the nightly tours.

Or you could just as easily be mistaken for one when an entire tourist group descends on your reverie and you awake to find them taking pictures of yes, you. A rainy ride home and a quick detour to see the Pillow Lava Field. But a bit too much of a downpour to get decent images from. But picturesque all the same, and simply just no one around. A relaxing day, clearly coping with recuperation.

Chasing Waterfalls

Our next day took us down south with all kinds of wonderful waterfalls to the right. Glistening and gushing from those lush hills.

All worth a visit.

Sankara Hotel and Spa

None more so than a night or three in the opulent luxury that is the new Sankara Hotel and Spawhich was next. An exquisite experience and simply a must-stay to complete the Yakushima sojourn. One night mountain hut the next night first-class private villa or signature suite, with your own personal butler. Sankara is eco luxury at its finest and certainly the most luxurious accommodation available on the island. It opened in March this year and is firmly based on the concept of a modern day ryokan with all the trimmings; attention to detail, impeccable guest care and dedication to service.

With a stunning infinity pool facing the Pacific Ocean, two fine-dining restaurants plus poolside service and a full-service spa, this Asian style resort is at the forefront of high-end eco tourism and simply a world of indulgence.

Mango farms and rainforests lead you to Sankara’s entrance which is situated on elevated ground surrounded by more tropical rain forest and features 5 suites and 12 two-story villas, one villa to each floor. It is the vision of Jiro Sato, the designer of Sankara, with plans underway for more hotels of this caliber in Japan and beyond.

A commitment to Yakushima

There is a definite commitment to Yakushima and the local community at large as guests are asked to donate 500yen to an environmental fund and all Sankara staff are registered as residents and pay local tax. Styled in collaboration with a French designer based in Bali, Sankara is a blend of Thai, Indonesian and Japanese influences.

And it was gorgeous.

The little touches

And it’s the little touches as well as the extraordinary service that’s remembered. Guests are welcomed with a cool drink upon arrival in the fully-stocked glass-walled guest library. Fresh passion fruit and champers. Oh. So. Us.

We had a wonderful interview with Kieko-san, the head butler and were then escorted throughout the resort via eco-friendly carts. A quick freshen up and photo shoot of the room where I fully tested the amenities…with from boar-bristled biodegradable toothbrushes, to organic herbal teas.

There was natural bamboo toothpaste, a divine day bed for lounging, herbal bath balls and decomposable trash bags. Tea cups from Kyoto’s famous Oku café feature as does Sankara’s branded-natural spring water, and the finest, eco-designed, beauty products. Hybrid Prius’s are available to rent by the hour. Would have been great, if I ever get my license. Luckily, I have Trace.

Oh the food

We then toured the property and took in all the signature suites and facilities. So want a toilet and bath with that view…Loved poking here and there and photographing it all.

Then it was dinner time. And the food. Beyond divine. Sankara has its own herb garden, tended to by Executive Chef Chiharu Takei and his stellar kitchen. The inspired French-Japanese menu focuses on utilizing local organic, fresh ingredients to serve up simply stunning looking and tasting fare, all of very generous portions, totally customizable.

In collaboration with local farmers and producers this is fine dining, island style. Chef Takei with experience from Joel Robouchon in Paris to Marounouchi’s Mikuni will prepare dishes according to guests’ tastes, dietary needs and requests.

We ate and ate and ate

We sampled/gorged on everything. Kagoshima beef and fois grois. The most impressive white aspara, flying fish, creamy soups, all executed with style and grace. And just lovely service from new friends. It was swish.

There’s an impressive wine list. Don’t even get me started on desserts…at least 11 were sampled.

The rooms

Sleep was easy in the heavenly beds under the gentle swick-swack, click-clack of the teak ceiling fan. Who can even remember the mountain hut, now?

Morning bought grey skies, misty mountains and an ash sea. Sankara has its own series of hiking courses behind the property and we set off early to enjoy rummaging about and just seeing what we could see. We chose the longest course and it was dark in the forest as the early rays of morning were yet to penetrate.

Little creeks and mini-falls popped up here and there. And it was slippery. And so of course I had a rather spectacular fall again, which I cannot blame the balance issue of a backpack on. This was all me and slick mossy rocks. But always worth it, as the end of the trail we discovered a riverscape muse which we played in. Until of course our tummies were rumbling as loud as the water.

The next morning

Breakfast was an equally enjoyable taste sensation, the prettiest salad and condiments and baked goods to fill a patisserie paired with Chef’s original Sankara jams. And they gave us the remaining treats to go.

The Sankara Spa

Then it was off to experience Japan’s first Bangkok-based Asia Herb Association Spa. 90 minutes of sublime massage by very talented therapists, Mai and Asako. It was combined with a steamed herbal ball treatment, containing 18 different kinds of organic herbs. As a bonus your bliss can continue as they give you the herbal balls to take home. Dreamy.

The sun popped out for the briefest time, long enough to get the pool shot we needed, then it was sadly time to leave Sankara, its Sanskrit meaning ‘bounty of heaven’ just as applicable to Yakushima. Will never forget the staff lined-up to welcome us and just as deeply bowing as we departed.

The road that laps around the island’s perimeter

For the remainder of the day we visited Ohko-no-Taki in the South West, an especially impressive duo of falls. We dedicated the arvo to the Seibu Rindo Road, mentioned above and frolicked with deer and several monkey troops. With Trace displaying her rather spectacular and varied macaque oratorical wrangling skills – naturally from the car. She made few primate friends.

Finally blue skies

Blue skies and sun-drenched beaches played out in front of us, with a very pretty lighthouse on the point. Would love to do some sessions here. Ubiquitous souvenirs were selected, including coveted bottles of the famous Mitake Shochu which are limited to 1 bottle per customer (if they catch you…) We indulged in passionfruit, and the citrusy ponkan and tanakan which Yakushima is famous for and appreciated the workmanship in the many handicrafts fashioned from old cedar stumps and remnants.

Of course just as soon as the sun appeared showers too came. But what resulted was the most glorious rainbow. We chased that pot of gold until we ended up in a tea field next to the goat farm, for this doubly special shot…

The last day

Our last day took in a quick trip to the Yakusugi Museum which was welcome and informative, if not only to try lifting the 20kg chainsaw leftover from logging activities and to see a real branch which fell off Jomon Sugi several years ago.

We hit the rails at Yakusugi Land, following the museum, in heavy rain with few breaks. Muddy and soggy…again we stopped for an onsen at the JR Hotel and of course choco tarts from the nearby cake shop. My internal sweet-tooth radar working overtime this trip.

And to finish off

All clean and a couple of 100yen foot massages later, we set off to gawk at the mixed seaside hot springs featuring the local oldies, further down the coast. From a distance. Dinner was yummy Yakiniku after we failed to find any famous black pork and the two restaurants we wanted to try were both closed. But bbq and a cold beer will do it anytime.

Then Yakushima was done, but not before some truly tremendous Engrish souvenirs from the airport were purchased and finally some black pork from Kagaoshima.

Yakushima is simply a little island so full of spectacular natural wonders and mesmerizing beauty, equaled only to the many varied ways of experiencing it. As Poet, W.H. Auden penned, “the way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” We did.

Location: Yakushima.

Keywords: Japan (84), landscape (24).

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