Yakushima Island – A walk into Japan’s past

One of my favourite things about Japan is how fast and easy it is to travel. You can decide to travel anywhere in Japan without having to plan too far ahead. I decided one morning to travel from Fukuoka to Yakushima and by 15:00 I was checked into my hotel and drinking tea at a cafe on Miyanoura Port (one of Yakushima’s two main ports).

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Toppy 2 the Jetfoil ferry arriving at Miyanoura Port

Yakushima is a small island to the south of Kagoshima which is nicknamed the Alps of the Ocean. Yakushima has 45 mountain peaks, ancient cedar forests, numerous waterfalls, ocean-side onsens and a thriving community of craftspeople who carve homewares out of cedar and create shiny pottery pieces glazed with coral and shell.

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The view from Miyanoura Port

There are two main groups of tourists who make the journey to Yakushima. The first group are the Japanese hikers who come from around Japan to experience the ancient cedar forests. The main attraction for this group is a 7,000 year old tree named Jomon-sugi (a giant cedar tree that is said to have started its life in the Jomon era). The second group is a more international mix of animation enthusiasts who come to Yakushima in search of the landscapes which influenced Hayao Miyazaki’s (Studio Ghibli) film Princess Mononoke. The main attraction for this group is a hiking trail called Shiratani Unsuikyo. This hiking trail takes you through moss covered rainforests filled with monkeys and deer.

I fall into the second category. I have wanted to go to Yakushima ever since I read that it was the inspiration behind the Studio Ghibli film. Princess Mononoke was released in Japan in 1997 and was translated and distributed in the USA in 1999. It was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1997 and was the first Studio Ghibli film to be popularly received in the west.

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Me arriving at Miyourna Port

On the ferry on the way over to Yakushima the two different groups of travellers becomes obvious. The hikers are quiet and look like they are mentally preparing themselves for the pilgrimage ahead. The more relaxed Studio Ghibli fans are chatty and look like they may explode with the excitement of the journey.

As the ferry pulls up to Miyanoura Port both groups of travellers get to see their first glimpse of the Alps of the Ocean. Mountain ranges shoot up from where the water meets the land and they stretch into the distance like layers in a diorama. Miyanoura Port is one of the two main ports on Yakushima. Miyanoura Port has a supermarket, a hire car depot, a cafe, a tourist centre and a few accommodation options all within a five minute walk from the ferry terminal.

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View looking up into the mountains from the roadside near Kuriobashi bus stop

I have always loved hiking and when I see a mountain I instantly want to climb it. The mountains of Yakushima are both welcoming and foreboding. There are many tales about the gods that live in the Okudake Mountains (Yakushima’s central mountain region) and the Yakushima islanders have climbed these mountains since ancient times to take part in a traditional ritual known as ‘Takemairi’. The largest mountain in Yakushima is Mt Miyanoura-dake. Mt Miyanoura-dake is the highest mountain in the Kyushu region and sits 1,935m above sea level.

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Left: bus time table from Miyanoura Port. Right: Japanese hiking map

My first stop on Yakushima is the tourist information centre. I get given an English information pack which includes a bus timetable, map of the island and a number of hiking brochures. My hotel is right next to Miyanoura Port and the owner of the hotel is a mountain guide who speaks English (a bonus for me as I don’t speak Japanese). My initial plan is to head to the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail in the morning and spend the day casually hiking around the area famous for its link to the Princess Mononoke movie (a leisurely 1~4 hour walk). But after talking with a few of the Yakushima locals I become more and more intrigued by the 7,000 year old tree called Jomon-sugi. Every year hikers come from around Japan to visit this living treasure (a less leisurely nine hour walk).

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A yaku-sugi cedar stump

Yakushima’s ancient cedar forests were listed as a World Heritage Site in 1993. When a cedar tree reaches the age of 1,000 it is called a yaku-sugi and all yaku-sugi are considered sacred and given their own names. Jomon-sugi is the oldest known yaku-sugi on Yakushima. It is believed to be between 2,300 and 7,000 years old and most Yakushima residents believe that it is over 7,000 years old.

As I am only on Yakushima for a few days I decide to walk both the Princess Mononoke forest and the Jomon-sugi hike in one day. They are connected by a stretch of track called the Kusugawa Wakare. The total hiking time is a daunting 12 hours which will push my walking skills to the limit.

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A section of walking track along the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail

With a pack full of food, a raincoat and water bottle I headed to the start of the track, in a taxi, at 5 am the next morning. My planned hiking route starts at Shiratani Unsuikyo then joins the Ohkabu Mountain Trail via the Kusugawa Wakare. Heavy rainfall is a feature of Yakushima’s climate. It is said to rain ’35 days a month’. The weather station at Yakushima Airport records an annual rainfall of 4,600mm. Unsurprisingly it is raining heavily as the taxi approaches the drop off point. Although I start the walk by myself I soon meet a few other hikers that have planned to walk the same route.

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The view of the river at the head of the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail

The Shiratani Unsuikyo trail starts beside a river which is made up of a series of loosely shaped waterfalls. The views over the river are worth the trip alone. Thick layers of moss blanket everything and the trees, ground and rocks are covered in green. Within half an hour of the trail head there are plenty of scenes which relate back to the Princess Mononoke animation and it becomes clear why this place draws visitors from around the world. There are deer everywhere in this part of the forest and I feel like I am being watched although I haven’t seen any yet.

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The moss covered forest floor of the Shiratani Unsuikyo

After walking over a swing bridge and crossing the river the rainforest closes in and I see my first deer. Yaku shika deer are a subspecies of Japanese deer that live on Yakushima. They are smaller than other species of shika deer and their population is believed to be somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000. I see a mother and her fawn grooming each other on the side of the track and quietly walk by them. But they aren’t at all bothered by my presence and I get to watch them for a few minutes before they wander off.

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The sign signalling the end of the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail

The Shiratani Unsuikyo trail comes to an end after looping up to a view point called Taikoiwa Rock. The Taikoiwa Rock, with its spectacular view over the mountains, signals the point in the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail where the light hearted animation fans turn back and the hardcore hikers continue. I feel privileged to be among a passionate group of hikers who help me navigate (as all English signage stops after this point). The track heads off to the right down a narrow staircase made of tree roots. From this point on, the nature of the walk changes. It is no longer a tourist trail but a pilgrim’s path into Japan’s past.

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The walking track along the old railway circuit

Soon we are walking along the Kusugawa Wakare which leads to a section of track that follows the old forest railway circuit. The railway was built in the 1940’s as a way to haul out huge cedar logs. Full scale logging began on Yakushima around 1640 and by the 1700’s Yaku-sugi cedar products were Yakushima’s biggest agricultural product. Yaku-sugi cedar were felled on Yakushima until the 1960’s. Cedar wood has a high resin content which means it decays slower than other timber and Yaku-sugi cedar is prized for its longevity.

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The staircase/ladder that signals the start of the Ohkabu Mountain Trail

The entrance to the Ohkabu Mountain Trail is marked by a steep staircase that heads off to the right. I am told this is going to be the hardest part of the hike. Endless staircases head steadily upward for the next three hours. About an hour up the track is the remains of a giant Yaku-sugi cedar tree called Wilson’s Stump. The tree is thought to have be felled in the late 1500’s to build a hall for the Great Buddha statue at Hoko-ji temple in Kyoto. Wilson’s Stump is hollow and nestled inside its shell is a small shrine dedicated to the patron god of Yakushima. I walk inside the stump with another three hikers, and meet four hikers inside. The seven of us fit easily inside the tree stump which is five metres wide and has a total size of 16m2.

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Left: the view looking out of wilsons stump. Right: the view looking up at Wilson’s Stump from the walking track

Walking forward along the Ohkabu Mountain trail feels like going back in time. Each step gets us further back into Japan’s history. We started in 1997 at the place made famous by the Princess Mononoke film, then we stepped back to 1940 when we walked along the railway circuit from Kusugawa Wakare, the Ohkabu Mountain trail took us right back to the 1500’s with the history surrounding the remains of Wilson’s Stump and now with each step we are rewinding time right back to 5000BC when Jomon sugi is believed to have started life in the Jomon Era.

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The endless staircases which make up the majority of the Ohkabu Mountain Trail

The staircases on the Ohkabu Mountain trail are made of crude triangular slabs of wood attached to logs and braced against tree roots. The Japanese hikers use their umbrellas and walking poles to balance on these narrow staircases and I wish I had something to lean on too. I feel like I am under-going samurai training as I try to balance on the narrow planks of wood that keep heading upwards. When we get to the final staircase leading to Jomon-sugi the sound of congratulations ring out amongst the hikers. It feels like a real achievement to have made it to the base of this magnificent tree.

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All smiles at the base of Jomon Sugi. Jan helped me navigate the trails when the English signs ran out. Thanks Jan.

Jomon-sugi is protected from foot traffic by a series of viewing platforms. The mist and rain shroud the tree in a white haze and it is a privilege to be standing in front of one of Japan’s living treasures. Jomon-sugi has been the centre of this walk for many of the surrounding hikers. However I sense that the process of getting here is just as important as arriving at our final destination. Most of the hikers I have seen along the way are Japanese. There seems to be few international visitors who make the walk to Jomon-sugi. I haven’t seen another Westerner since getting off the ferry at Miyourna Port. I see now why there are no English signs on the last part of this hike. These trails preserve a part of Japan’s history which is made tangible by the authenticity of the tracks maintenance.

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One of the rest stops along the way – these were the spots where umbrellas went up and lunchboxes came out

I started my Yakushima adventure as an animation buff on a scene spotting trip but this island has exceeded my expectations and given me so much more. As I head back down the Ohkabu Mountain trail I feel honoured to have been allowed to walk in the footsteps of so many generations of hikers, explorers and village people before me. The walk to Jomon-sugi is a direct link into the past and embarking on this hike is to embrace the unique history of Japan.

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The view from Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen- looking towards the mountains

Getting There:
From Fukuoka take a train from Hakata station to Kagoshima-Chuo. The Shinkansen takes about 2 hours and runs approx every half hour during the day. From Kagoshima-Chuo (where the Shinkansen stops) take the local line to Kagoshima Station. The ferry terminal is at the South Pier, a ten minute walk from the Kagoshima Station. The Jetfoil ferry (also called the Rocky or the Toppy Ferry) is one of a few ferry points along Kagoshima’s port so a map is handy to make sure you are heading to the right terminal. The Jetfoil ferry runs 6~7 services a day (depending on the time of year).The Jetfoil ferry takes two hours. There is a slower ferry which leaves every day at 8:30am. This ferry goes from South Pier and runs only one service a day. Ferries go to either Anbo Port or Mijourna Port.

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The bus stop at Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen

Getting Around:
Hire Cars: If you can, hire a car. Buses are terrible. Hire cars are surprising affordable (compared to bus prices), they are available to pick up a short walk from Mijourna Port.

Buses: Buses are irregular and expensive. They run every two hours and don’t go all the way around the island. The last bus is 16:10 from some locations so make sure you don’t get stuck somewhere. Buses are expensive. 2, 3 and 4 day passes are available at a few locations, ask at the tourist centre on Mijourna Port or Anbo Port for your closest bus pass retailer. A bus pass for two or three days costs ¥3,000. Without a bus pass, a bus ride to one of the waterfalls from Mijourna Port costs ¥1,470 (one way). So getting a bus pass is the most affordable option. Buses are often late, and bus signs/shelters and timetable are only available on one side of the road (it can be hard to tell which timetable to read) If you are looking for a bus stop and there isn’t a sign on your side of the road, look for the sign on the other side of the road and stand opposite it.

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Entrance to the Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen

Places to stay:
• Hiring a car opens up the whole island for accommodation options. If you are relying on buses then its best to stay in walking distance from the port where you disembark.
• If you want to stay in luxury then head to the JR hotel or the Iwasaki Hotel. Both have their own onsens. The JR onsen overlooks the ocean, and the Iwasaki onsen overlooks the mountains. The bus stops right outside both these hotels. ¥14,000~¥18,000 a night
• There are many budget options on the island. Budget accommodation starts at ¥3,000 a night. If you have a car and have a small accommodation budget the best place to stay is Cottage Morinokokage. They have private cottages, English-speaking staff, packed lunches available for hikers and some cottages even come with their own bath. From ¥6,000 a night.
• As I relied on buses to get around I stayed at Minshuku Umikawa. It is a hostel a few minutes walk from Mijourna Port. It is budget, clean accommodation at ¥3,500 a night. The owner speaks English and knows the hiking trails well. But I wouldn’t recommend getting the meal package. There is a Korean BBQ place a few minutes away, a supermarket opposite and Cafe Jane on Miyourna Port offers a few good and affordable breakfast options (if you can wait till 9am for them to open).

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Left: Senpiro-no-taki waterfall, Right: Oko-no-taki waterfall

Things to Do:
• Sea Turtle tours (in Summer only). Cost ¥5,000~¥6,000
Visit the Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen ocean-side onsen. The bus stops a short walk to the entrance. At low tide, hot water comes up through the rocks and creates these natural hot springs. Pay ¥100 at the entrance and bring your own towel. It is a mixed onsen, so you may want to carry an extra towel for modesty. There was a local woman bathing in a sarong when I was there and I followed her lead.
• Waterfalls. There are a number of great waterfalls on the island. Senpiro-no-taki waterfall is carved out of a giant granite boulder and was a highlight for me. The same body of water feeds two other waterfalls, one of which is Torohki-no-taki. Torohki-no-taki is a waterfall that falls straight into the ocean. Senpiro-no-taki is best visited by car (it is a 2~3 hour return trip on foot from the bus stop). Torohki-no-taki can be viewed from the bus stop. Oko-no-taki waterfall is the most popular waterfall on the island. It is easy to get to by bus.
• Hiking is the main reason people come to Yakushima. There are a number of hikes for different fitness levels. Yakushima Sugiland is the most mellow of hiking areas (1/2 hour~1 ½ hour walking around well pathed and family friendly areas). If you want to get serious about hiking on Yakushima (and don’t speak Japanese) it might be worth buying a copy of the english travel guide produced by www.yakumonkey.com

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A shelter on the Ohkabu Mountain trail – where umbrellas went up and lunchboxes came out

What to Pack – Hiking:
It is always a good idea to be prepared for anything. I do a lot of hiking in New Zealand and will always bring a basic first aid kit with me on hikes. A good raincoat, and a waterproof pack are essential if you plan to do any of the longer walks on the island. Umbrellas are also surprisingly helpful (if the idea of carrying one appeals to you) as the ‘shelters’ marked on the hiking maps are just elevated wooden slabs (with no roof). The Japanese hikers bring umbrellas and then set up on these slabs in groups with umbrellas raised to get a rest from the constant rain. A good pair of walking shoes is a good idea. Make sure you have warm clothing, food, a water bottle (there are places to fill your water bottle along the way – look below at the tips section).
Hiking equipment can be hired on the island.

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One of the delicious lunch boxes available from some hotels for ¥500+

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A giant piece of toast with cream and jam – Cafe Jane on Miyourna Port

Where to Eat:
The local supermarkets stock the basics but don’t have a wide range of hiking foods, so you might want to bring some with you. Some hotels have lunchbox options for about ¥500+. There is a lunchbox shop and a Mos Burger near the Anbo bus stop. There is a Korean BBQ near Miyourna Port (with a number of meat and vegetable options). Most hotels have a meals package, and I heard good things about the meals at Cottage Morinokokage and JR Hotels. But I wouldn’t recommend the meal packages at Minshuku Umikawa. If you are staying near Miyourna Port then Cafe Jane is a good spot for breakfast (if you can wait until the 9am opening time).

Tips:
• Get a good hiking map. If you can’t read Japanese, still get the most detailed Japanese map you can find and get a Japanese speaker to highlight your intended route. There is no English signage along many of the longer walks. The English maps are only very basic, they don’t show any of the connecting tracks.
•Hire a car: Without a car you are relying on an expensive and irregular bus service. With a hire car you will be able to get around the whole island and see multiple sights in a day and you won’t be left waiting at a bus stop for 2 hours (or stuck somewhere over night).
•Take the slower ferry if you want to stand outside and watch the ocean pass by. The jetfoil ferries won’t let you stand outside (as they travel at high speed). I spoke to other tourists who saw dolphins from the deck of the slower ferry.
•If you have the budget, then stay at the JR Hotel. Then after a days hiking you can soak in their onsen over-looking the ocean.
•If you plan to hike, then stay somewhere that has lunchbox options. It will save you trying to find suitable hiking food at the supermarket.
•Take a normal sized water bottle. Don’t carry too much water. There are water points along the track and the water from these is safe to drink. Look out for areas of flowing water, there are grey pipes coming out of the ground in these areas and they carry a steady stream of fresh drinking water.

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Photos: Beck Wheeler & Benjawan Skulsujirapa
Author bio: Beck Wheeler
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Beck Wheeler is a New-Zealand native illustrator, children’s book author and pop surrealist artist who creates art from paint, wood, found objects and digital media. At the time of writing this article (July 2014) Beck was staying in Fukuoka for a four week residency at Studio Kura, Itoshima. Their Artist in Residence program is a chance for foreign artists to enjoy and draw inspiration from Japan’s rural environment, as well as for Studio Kura’s thriving local community to meet different artists and their work. As an illustrator Beck has helped develop campaigns for national and international brands. As an artist she exhibits regularly internationally, showing her artwork in the USA, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. While in Fukuoka, Beck held an exhibition at Studio Kura entitled “Itoshima Characters”. Official HP: http://beckwheeler.net

Originally published in Fukuoka Now (fn190, Oct. 2014)

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