A few hours southwest of Kagoshima by boat, the island of Yakushima offers a rare glimpse at an ancient Japanese cedar forest and was famously the inspiration for Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke film. Much of the island is a World Heritage Site, and it also hosts the largest spawning ground of loggerhead sea turtles in the north Pacific. Below was our four-day itinerary.
Day 1: Getting There
The adventure to Yakushima starts before you set foot on the island. For my girlfriend and my trip we first flew into Kagoshima Airport, then hopped on a highway bus taking us to Kagoshima Station. There we rented a hotel for the night, explored the downtown area and tried some of the famous shabu shabu. The next morning we rose bright and early to get to the Kagoshima Ferry Port. From the main station we took an above-ground trolley to the closest stop, then walked the remaining 10 minutes to the ferry terminal. We tried to take the slow ferry over to save money (it’s only about 1.5 hours slower), however to our surprise it was not running that day. So we hustled over to the Jetfoil (Toppy) terminal and paid the extra money. This ended up being a blessing because the ticket is flexible, and redeemable for up to one week after departure.
Once arriving on the island I would recommend renting a car. The island is small, it would probably take you about 3 hours to drive around non stop, but public transportation isn’t as frequent as the rest of Japan. We checked the English speaking rent a car offices but they were all full, so we had the lady at the information desk in the Cultural Center Building call Japanese speaking companies. Luckily she persuaded the rental car service to rent to us with our relatively low Japanese speaking ability, and quickly enough we were in the shuttle being delivered to the rental shop. We chose the smallest car available (I believe the motor was measured in CC rather than HP) and it ended up costing us about $50 a day with about an extra $20 for gasoline before returning.
Pro Tip: Yakushima’s weather is notoriously shifty, with one day being warm and clear and the next day holding heavy rains. I would say when planning your trip, make it flexible and adjust to the weather as best as possible.
Since the weather was warm and sunny upon our arrival, we drove the car down to the southern part of the island, past the airport, to the town of Anbo. We drove to the beach and visited Haruta Beach in the hopes of snorkeling but the water was a little too cold. So instead we opted to rent kayaks to adventure up the Anbo River, later learning this was one of the top kayaking spots in all of Japan.
Pro Tip: The kayaks are easy to spot, but the rental shop is not intuitive to find. The gear shop is located here, and the shop owner will drive to the docks, give you the gear and then trust you to put it back after you finish. This will save you from driving in circles like we did.
The kayaking was great, seeing forrest, sand bars, waterfalls and small rapids along the way. Take your time, it isn’t a long kayak so really soak in the scenery.
We got cheap food at the local CoOp and after eating our bentos in the car we found our way to a hike originating from a local Onoaida onsen. We hiked until dark, finding large granite boulder fields and streams along the way, then returned to the 50 degree Celsius sulfuric onsen bath after. The bathhouse was very quaint, full of locals, but it was almost too hot.
Pro Tip: Bring your own toiletries and towels to these onsens. They are not like the larger, resort style onsens you might have seen in other places. These are more like community bathhouses, so small sample sizes of shampoo and body wash are available for purchase.
Day 2: Hiking the Shiratani Trail
We woke up bright and early this day and started hiking. We wanted to make it up to Jomon Sugi, at an estimated 5000 years old, the oldest living tree in Japan, but unfortunately did not make it in time due to wanting to hike the empty Kusugawa Trail first.
I would recommend skipping this trail, and driving up to the start of the Shiratani Trail to spend as much time higher up in the mountains as you can.
After donating and checking in with the staff at the trailhead of the Shiratani Trail, we hiked over the suspension bridge, crossed streams and were engulfed in exactly the forest that you want Yakushima to look like. We hiked the short one hour taking us to the first free hut where we stayed the night.
This was a great day hike, but I really wished we had more time to make it further along the trail. After signing into the hut we hiked up to the ridge above and got a fabulous view of the valley below.
We stayed the night at the hut below, which when we went only had 2 other guests. It has a restroom attached, wooden lofted sleeping areas, running drinking water siphoned from the stream above and a large picnic area to eat. It was a little creepy at night because it looks like something out of a horror movie, but ultimately that was just my mind. Apparently the huts higher up on the mountain are wooden and more homey, as opposed to this concrete hut.
Day 3: Banyan Park and Oceanview Onsen
We woke up with the sun and had a wonderful breakfast made by a portable camp stove. After this we hiked down the mountain, only taking about 45 minutes this time, and looped around on a scenic detour close to the suspension bridge to see a majestic yakusugi. After getting off the trail we drove back down the mountain to the city below and did some omiyage shopping in town. On the way we went to the A-Co-Op market, where bentos and food were surprisingly cheap.
We decided to drive North to find another onsen to bathe off the morning hike, and on the way found Mam’s cookies where we stopped and got snacks.
After making a short detour to stroll through the Banyan Park near the ocean we found our way to a small cove with the smallest onsen I had ever been too.
This onsen, like the last, didn’t offer amenities but did offer a beautiful view of the ocean. We had lunch in the car outside, stopped in for a bath and watched sea life in the tidepools, and decided to camp there for the night. So we rented a spot from the older gentleman at the onsen who only spoke Japanese, and then continued our drive around the island. On the way we found a beautiful bay with crystal clear water teeming with life, and even saw a turtle!
We made it to the lighthouse on the north side of the island, driving through a national park on the way seeing countless deer in the forest alongside the trail.
We returned to the campsite by the onsen, and slept there for the night.
Day 4: Returning Home
We woke up with the sun and ate the remainder of our food from the trip. We drove back to the main town of Miyanoura to drop off the car, stopping again at the local A Co-Op to drop our trash and get some sushi for the boat ride home.
Pro Tip: Some grocery stores in Japan will have a sashimi sale where the pieces are only 50 yen. This is one of the few times I have seen Japanese people fight for food, but it is well worth it. Throw elbows if needed, don’t worry; grandma looks like she is frail but she is preparing to throw some right back at you while taking the last piece of tuna.
We filled up the car with gasoline at the service station right next door, returned the rental car, and then were dropped off back at the port. You have to show your receipt to select your return time and seat for the jetfoil back, so don’t think the receipt will allow you to get on the boat straight away. We boarded, ate our sushi, and reminisced about the amazing trip we just completed.
Pro Tip: If you are planning your trip, please also see Yakumonkey.com. This website was a lifesaver.