Yakushima: Mystical Forest Island (Part 1)

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Tired feet at the top of the trail

It’s finally April, which means a number of big things here in Japan. First, it’s almost cherry blossom (sakura) season, a frantically busy time where everyone does their best to spend as much time under cherry trees as possible. The buds haven’t bloomed just yet, but it’s coming, and everyone is feeling the need to get outside and embrace the warmer weather.

April also means the start of the new school year. Teachers have been transferred, new teachers and staff will arrive soon. The students are all off on spring break, which means most of them are actually at school for club activities or to keep studying… Yes, after two years it’s still hard for me to get over this particular culture shock.

But for me, April signaled the true beginning of the end. I have four months left in Japan, and this will be my last semester teaching. I’ve got a bucket list a mile long, with not nearly enough money or time to get through everything, but that won’t stop me from trying. And one of the biggest items on my list, “visit Yakushima” has just been checked.

Yakushima is part of the Osumi Islands of Kagoshima

Yakushima isn’t usually the first place people think of when planning a trip to Japan. To be honest, I’d never even heard of it before I moved here. But when I started researching places to go in Southern Japan, this little island quickly moved to the top of my list.

Located off the southern coast of Kyushu, Yakushima is technically part of Kagoshima prefecture. It takes about two hours to get there via high-speed ferry, and the island itself has a population of about 14,000. The draw of Yakushima has always been its dense cedar forests, full of “yakusugi,” trees which are estimated to be between 1,000 and 7,000 years old. In the past these forests were heavily logged, but since the 1960s there has been an extremely successful conservation program in place, and the forests have regained much of their grandeur.

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Welcome to Yakushima!

Annin and I set out for Yakushima early Friday morning, taking a 7:45am ferry and arriving with plenty of time to start exploring. We picked up our rental car and drove straight into the mountains for what I thought would be a light walk to acclimate ourselves. We went to Shiratani Unsuikyo, one of the most popular hiking spots on the island. It’s probably most well known as the inspiration for Miyazaki Hayao’s “Princess Mononoke,” and indeed when we spoke with a park employee at the entrance he pointed out the specific spot on the map that tourists have named the “Mononoke Forest.” Looking at the map, it became clear that I had confused a few different trails, and this was a bit more of a hike than we had intended. But we had full water bottles, hiking books and plenty of “genki” spirit, so we decided to go for it.

Shiratani Unsuikyo, despite being a popular destination, felt serene. The forests reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, with giant trees and deep green moss over everything. The trails we used were originally logging trails, made in the Edo Period (1600s – 1860s) with found stones and bits of wood. They’ve been maintained amazingly well, and the first hour and a half of the hike was smooth sailing. The final part of the trail is an added loop up to Taikoiwa, a massive rock peak from which we were told there might be a good view of the island, depending on the weather. After a very short discussion we decided we might as well give this last leg a shot, and took the steep path up.

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The view from the top

Taikoiwa did not disappoint. Despite gray skies and overall gloomy weather, the view from the top was lovely. The valley was completely filled with mist, and we felt on top of the world.

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Our hike back down was quiet, which was wonderful. There’s truly something magical about the forest in Yakushima that put me completely at ease. There were several moments along the trails where I felt the need to stop and just soak it all in. In Japanese, I think this is sometimes called “shinrin yoku” or “forest bathing.” It did indeed feel like a mental cleanse, and as we made our way back to the trailhead I felt refreshed and ready to take on whatever the weekend had in store for us.

After running into a friend of a friend on the way back to the car (it’s a small world!) we made our way to our hostel, Tomarigi. We were a bit apprehensive, since we’d booked one of the cheapest hostels on the island, but our worries disappeared as soon as we met the owner. I swear, I have never met a nicer woman in my life. She showed us around and we felt instantly at home. We planned out the next day with her help, then decided to wash up at a local hot spring followed by dinner at a surprisingly trendy cafe down the road.

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It was a great start to a fantastic trip.