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Yakushima: Exploring Japan’s World Heritage Destination from a Different Perspective

Monkeys, a rocket launch and a volcano eruption—all on one journey through this ancient island in Japan.

By 4 min read

Yakushima, located 135 kilometers off the coast of Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, is home to just 13,000 residents yet draws around 300,000 visitors every year.

The island, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, is known for its misty, shrouded forest and is home to ancient cedar trees like Jomon Sugi—the largest and oldest tree in Japan, estimated to be between 2,000 and 7,000 years old. The island’s moss forests and the gnarled, winding roots of its ancient trees partly inspired the beloved Hayao Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke. Yakushima incites mystery and adventure for the solo traveler and a sense of disconnection—a feeling that the island’s residents happily embrace.

35 days of rain

Welcome to misty Yakushima.

I awoke aboard the Hibiscus, a ferry and cargo ship that departs from Taniyama Port daily near Kagoshima for the 12-hour trip to Yakushima. A beautiful rainbow contrasted the rough looking waves.

But across the sea was Yakushima, blanketed in clouds, and my home for the next two months. The region has the highest annual rainfall in Japan, aptly recognized in several sites around the island, such as Shiratani unsuikyo or “the white valley of the clouds.” Due to its constant downpours, the locals say it rains for “35 days in a month” in Yakushima.

I spent weeks exploring the island, such as the Arakawa trail and lesser-known paths like Ja no Guchi Waterfall. I was even nearly blown away by one of the strongest typhoons of the decade. My true goal, however, was to visit Yakushima’s small seaside communities along the coastline.

On the road

The sights you’ll see.

My journey began on a sunny late October day in Anbo, the second largest town on Yakushima island. It would take a seven-hour walk to reach Kurio town on the island’s west coast.

Along the way, I viewed the scenic Torohki-no-Taki, a striking waterfall flowing into the Pacific, and Onoaida, a vibrant town with only 800 residents, famous for its centuries-old hot spring, Onoaida Onsen.

Unfortunately, about four hours after passing through Hirauchi town, I discovered I had left my wallet in Anbo, so I opted to travel back there by bus to retrieve it. Every cloud in Yakushima has a silver lining, and my return to Anbo coincided with the shuttle launch from the space center located on neighboring Tanegashima Island.

It took mere seconds for IBUKI-II to leave earth’s atmosphere and start its lonely journey in space. The moment strangely moved me emotionally. There was something about the ability to experience such an advanced technological achievement for humankind from one of the most natural places on earth.

Don’t look them in the eye

Who are YOU looking at?

I had an eight-hour-long walk before I reached Nagata, a coastal town overlooked by Mount Nagata. First, I passed by the beautiful cascading Oko Falls in the village of Kurio and, later, the Seibu Rindo forest—home to Yakushima’s macaques and yakushika (Yakushima deer).

I heeded the advice of locals, avoiding eye contact with the monkeys and not agitating them, and it seemed to work well. The deer were much shyer than their monkey friends but occasionally made an appearance.

Nagata and the volcano

He’s seen it all.

On the last day of my walk, I set out a little earlier than planned to enjoy the beautiful sunrise on Nagata Inakahama Beach. However, I noticed ominous smoke rising from nearby Kuchinoerabu Island.

Kuchinoerabu Island, an active volcano, had started erupting days ago. Although I was afraid for the inhabitants, it was only a minor eruption and not cause for alarm.

Like the rocket launch, it was my first experience seeing something so powerful. The locals fishing on the wharf barely glanced back at the volcano. To them, it probably felt like just another day on the island.

With that, I made the 10-hour trek back to Anbo, the starting point of my trip, but I wasn’t done just yet. The hot springs in Onoaida town were calling me with a well-deserved soak to relieve my aching legs.

Planning your visit to Yakushima

More accessible than you think.

Although I opted for a ferry across the ocean, there are direct flights to Yakushima from cities such as Osaka, Fukushima and Kagoshima.

For accommodation, several beautiful cottages are located around the island and are available for long-term rentals. Some excellent places to stay on Yakushima are:

The rainy season in June and July hits Yakushima hard, often closing down many trails. August and September are the hottest months and bring the occasional typhoon, while spring and October through December are considered the best times to visit.

I’ve been back to Yakushima many times since my walk. While I love the forest and mountain trails, my road walk, which took me through the island’s tight-knit communities, makes me feel more connected to the island.

Have you been to Yakushima? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!

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