Yakushima: The Island of Princess Mononoke and 1000-Year-Old Cedars

Yakushima: The Island of Princess Mononoke and 1000-Year-Old Cedars

While I don’t write about destinations on this blog too often, every now and then, I visit a place that I absolutely think deserves an article. Yakushima, an island off the coast of mainland Kyushu in Japan, is certainly one of those places.

The island’s ancient forest with thousand-plus-year-old Yakusugi cedars has been an inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s animated movie “Princess Mononoke.” Yakushima is a must-visit for nature lovers. But, it’s also a great place to go to for people like me – someone who doesn’t think a ten-hour hike is an enjoyable activity but wants to be proven wrong.

The Best Way to Get to Yakushima: Ferry or Airplane?

Being located 60 kilometers off the coast of mainland Kyushu, Yakushima can be accessed by sea and air.

Japan Air Commuter connects the following cities on mainland Japan with Yakushima:

  • Kagoshima (30 minutes): several flights a day starting at 7,500 yen (70 dollars) one-way
  • Fukuoka (60 minutes): one flight a day starting at 12,000 yen (110 dollars) one-way
  • Osaka (100 minutes): one flight a day starting at 16,000 yen (150 dollars) one-way

As for getting to Yakushima by sea, there are three options all of which connect the island with Kagoshima:

  • Toppy & Rocket Jet Foil (2 hours): half-a-dozen departures a day incl. some via Tanegashima, 9,000 yen (85 dollars) one-way
  • Yakushima 2 Ferry (4 hours): one departure a day, starting at 4,500 yen (40 dollars) one-way
  • Hibiscus Ferry (overnight): one departure a day, overnighting on the ferry in Tanegashima, 3,800 yen (35 dollars) one-way

The best way to get to Yakushima for you will, of course, depend on a variety of factors including your overall travel plans and budget.

If you are going from Tokyo or other large city and are not interested in (or do not have the time for) sightseeing in Kagoshima, the easiest, and if booked in advance also fairly affordable, way is to fly. The main reason, besides the speed, is the fact that you will save yourself the hassle of having to get from Kagoshima airport to Kagoshima port.

Japan Air Commuter Yakushima Airport
Japan Air Commuter offers flights to Yakushima from Kagoshima, Osaka, and Fukuoka.

On the other hand, if you are traveling on a budget or will be spending some time in Kagoshima city, then the jet foil or Yakushima 2 ferry will be a good option for you. As an added bonus, you might get a chance to see some of the sea wildlife in the area such as dolphins on your way.

Finally, taking the overnight Hibiscus ferry is a great option if you are on a tight budget as it will get you to Yakushima at 7AM leaving you a full day to explore the island while saving you one night at a hotel along the way.

Where to Stay in Yakushima: Minshuku Yakusugi-sou?

There are plenty of options when it comes to accommodation in Yakushima regardless of your budget or preferences. To see some of them, check out the list on this site. While there are “standard” hotels on the island as well, I definitely recommend staying at a minshuku – a traditional Japanese bed-and-breakfast.

During my trip, we stayed at Minshuku Yakusugi-sou for about 8,000 yen (75 dollars) per person per night including breakfast and dinner. The minshuku was located about a twenty-minute drive from the airport and there was a supermarket where one could stock up on drinks, snacks, and so on just a three-minute walk away.

Yakusugisou Minshuku
Yakusugi-sou.
Yakusugi-Sou Tatami Room
Tatami room.

As for the rooms, we stayed at a tatami room with shared toilets on the hallway and a shared bathroom (a typical Japanese one) in a separate building. The room was fairly large and comfortable, and offered nice views of one of the island’s rivers with crystal clear water as well as some of its mountains.

Finally, if you decide to stay at Yakusugi-sou, I certainly recommend getting the plan with two meals included (if you like sea food) as the breakfast and, especially, dinner, were great.

Yakusugi-Sou Room View
View from our room.
Yakusugi-Sou Dinner
Dinner setup.
Yakusugi-Sou
One of the mains – fried shrimps and fish.

Shiratani Unsuikyo and Jomonsugi Hikes: A Must Do?

Hiking through Yakushima’s lush green ancient forest is by far the “number one activity” to do on Yakushima – and deservingly so.

Going to the island, I was a bit skeptical since I don’t consider myself to be an outdoors person, but I’m happy to say that I enjoyed both of the hikes that I did thoroughly. In fact, originally, I was only supposed to do a shorter hike, but the guide and my girlfriend convinced me to extend my stay and do a full-day one as well. And, it was a great decision. I can only recommend visiting Yakushima to anyone – even someone that generally prefers cities to nature and sitting on aircraft to walking.

The two hikes that we did were a hike to Shiratani Unsuikyo and to Jomonsugi.

The Shiratani Unsuikyo hike took about four hours and was the shorter of the two. The destination of that hike was part of the forest covered in moss which was inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s movie Princess Mononoke. Besides that, several Yakusugis (1,000+ year old Japanese cedars that Yakushima is famous for) could be seen along the way.

While we had a guide for both of the hikes (and I recommend you get one as well), the Shiratani Unsuikyo one could easily be done without a guide as well – especially if you are used to hiking.

Yakushima Shiratani Unsuikyo
Throughout the whole hike, the scenery was amazing.
Yakusugi Cedar
Some of the Yakusugi cedars had names (and signs giving details such as the tree’s height).
Yakushima Deer and Macaque
While making our way to the entrance of the hiking trail, we could see Yakushima deers and macaques.
Shiratani Unsuikyo
Shiratani Unsuikyo – the place that inspired the movie Princess Mononoke.

The Jomonsugi hike was much longer and much more tiring. We were picked up in front of our accommodation at 4AM. After driving for about an hour and a half, we had breakfast, and the hike begun before 6AM. Along the way to Jomonsugi – the oldest Japanese cedar on the island (est. 2,000 – 7,000 years old) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – we were able to see several other Yakusugis as well as the heart-shaped Wilson stump (“kabu”).

Wilson Stump
Wilson stump.
Jomonsugi
Jomonsugi.

About two-thirds of the hike consisted of walking along a fairly flat but narrow railway track, and the rest was moderate climbing and descending. Unlike the Shiratani Unsuikyo hike, I would certainly recommend you get a guide if you plan to hike to Jomonsugi.

If you need help with booking a guide or renting hiking equipment, make sure to check out this site that offers services in English.

Jomonsugi Hike
Large part of the hiking trail looked like this.
Yakushima Wildlife
Some wildlife could be seen along the way as well.
Jomonsugi Yakushima
This is where the more demanding part of the hike begun.

What Else Can You Do in Yakushima?

During my limited time in Yakushima, I could only do the two hikes mentioned above. However, if you have a chance to spend more time on the island, there are some other places that might be worth checking out.

The one thing I’m going to mention here is loggerhead turtle hatching. Japan is the only place in the North Pacific where these turtles lay their eggs – and about half of them do so on Yakushima. The hatching takes place at night and you can witness it between early May and the end of July.

You can read more about this phenomenon here.

Other than the above, there are several other places worth hiking (including Yakusugi Land which sounds like a theme-park but is, in fact, a portion of the forrest that includes quite a few Yakusugis and is fairly easily accessible).

For more information about what to do on the island check YES! Yakushima.

Summary

If you are planning to visit Japan for a prolonged period of time, I certainly recommend trying to include Yakushima in the itinerary. That is, if you are interested in nature and hiking. But, even if you are not, I recommend giving it a try.

I recommend you to at least do the Shiratani Unsuikyo hike, but if you have the time walking up to Jomonsugi is well worth it as well.

And, don’t forget the turtles! The turtles’ egg laying is something I didn’t have a chance to see and something that’s on my to-do list the next time I go to Yakushima.


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For your peace of mind: Travel insurance

Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage - whether through your credit card or through insurance policy purchased separately. This will help save your trip when you get sick or things stolen on the road, in other words, when things go wrong. In case you didn't get your travel insurance yet, I recommend getting a free quote from World Nomads.

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