When I told my Japanese friend Tohko that we were going to be in Japan, she said she would meet us in Kyushu on one condition:
We go to Yakushima.
Yakushima? Where and what is it?
It’s the greenest and wettest place in the country, receiving more rainfall than any other location in Japan. On top of that, the island has a strong reputation for being a spiritual and mystical retreat, and rightly so; it did, after all, serve as the inspiration for the animated film Princess Mononoke.
I always told myself that, someday, I just had to go to Yakushima (similar to my desire to go to Kumano Kodo). Not only is Princess Mononoke my favorite Studio Ghibli movie, but when I googled Yakushima and looked at the images, the greenery blew me away.
But first, we gotta get one thing straight: Yakushima is not an easy side trip. It’s far away. Really far away.
Even from Kyushu (the bottom island) getting to Yakushima is no easy feat. You’ll not only have to take a 3+ hour bullet train from Fukuoka City to Kagoshima, but then you’ll have to ride a 2 hour speedboat from Kagoshima to Yakushima. Once there, it is possible to get around by bus or scooter, but I recommend renting a car.
To be honest, I thought the inconvenience of going to Yakushima wasn’t worth it; but then again, I really wanted to see Tohko.
In the end, I’m glad Tohko gave me the extra push to go to Yakushima. It was my favorite part of Kyushu–and here’s why:
Where to Go
Cedarland (Yakisuki Land) 屋久杉ランド
When the tourism office told us to go to Cedarland, Tohko and I were super skeptical. It sounded like a corny, cedar-themed amusement park for kids.
But don’t let the name fool you. It’s a protected natural par… and it’s stunning.
To say Cedarland was lush and green is an understatement. It’s a rainforest. There is moss and growth everywhere. The water is clear, transparent and fresh. It’s extremely wet. We were constantly slipping around on muddied trails (in fact, I even fell in a mud pit!), but the added hurdle only added to the excitement.
The main trail is well-maintained, but if you venture off into the lesser-traveled routes you’ll find trails in disrepair. While it’s exciting to go off road, travelers should exercise caution: its extremely slippery and one wrong step will send you sliding down a muddy hillside. Be careful!
Seaside Hot Springs (Yudomari Onsen)
Japan loves hot springs, so it’s not surprising that people are willing to strip down naked in public to hop into a seaside thermal bath.
That’s exactly what we did at Yudomari Onsen. I have to admit, even I was self-conscious about the teeny-tiny two foot bamboo wall that attempted to separate the male and female hot springs. Although the water was lukewarm, it was an experience: who else can say they bathed in a seaside hot spring watching the sunset?
If you want to bathe in more, ahem, private quarters–then here’s a list of all the onsens in Yakushima. Kyushu is a hot spring lover’s heaven, and Yakushima is no exception.
Waterfalls and More
So, we saw a lot of epic waterfalls–and trust me, there are a lot of majestic waterfalls all over the island. You can’t go wrong.
I highly recommend Senpiro waterfall. It’s a quick stop and the observation deck not only provides the perfect photo opportunity of the gigantic waterfall, but also gives you a stunning 360 view of the villages and surrounding island.
Plus, there’s picnic tables up there. Bring some bento boxes up to the top and enjoy lunch in the bliss of a perfect waterfall view.
Where to Stay?
If you’re staying in Yakushima, I just have one word for you: Minshuku.
As I wrote in my Kumano Kodo post, minshukus are my absolute favorite type of lodgings in Japan. They’re basically the Japanese version of a British bed and breakfast. You can also think of them as as a more intimate ryokan.
Tohko reserved a room for us at a minshuku called Shiki no Yado….. and wow. I cannot recommend this place enough.
Not only is Shiki no Yado located beneath a dormant volcano, but the rooms are spacious; wooden and clean. Plus, the staff speaks great English.
The Japanese family running the minshuku are wholesome and kind. The wife told us she’s originally from Yakushima, but went to Tokyo for about 15 years to work until she said–enough. Now she’s living the simple life, running a minshuku in rural Yakushima… and I can see the appeal.
Where to Eat
At the Minshuku
Minshuku meals are Japan’s cuisine at its finest. At Shiki no Yado the owners not only prepared the meals fresh from scratch everyday, but they used locally sourced ingredients from their own farm (!!!). This food was legit farm to table, and at a stellar price.
Iso no Kaori
Tohko’s friend also recommended a place called “Iso no Kaori.” It’s a tiny teishoku (set-meal) establishment on the side of the highway that loops around Yakushima. It’s fresh food at great prices. Definitely worth a visit.
Yakushima Travel Tips
- Watch the Weather: Yakushima weather is unpredictable–ensure that you avoid the rainy season when going to Yakushima. We were unable to go to Yakushima’s most famous site (Jomon Sugi) because of the heavy rains. Keep this in mind.
- How Long Should I Stay? We were only here for two days and one night. While we were able to have an enjoyable vacation, I would say three days and two nights would be an ideal time frame. If you’re looking for a place to relax for a long stretch of time, such as one full week, this would also be a good destination to kick back.
- What to Bring? Pack good hiking gear and water resistant clothes! I would also bring an extra pair of shoes in case you trip and fall in the mud, like I did.
- Get a Kyushu Rail Pass: If you’re going to have an extended trip in Kyushu ONLY, I recommend getting the Kyushu rail pass. It’s like the nationwide JR rail pass, but only for Kyushu. It’s an all you can ride, 5-day pass for about 180 USD.
Richard, his friend, Tohko and myself made many unforgettable memories in Yakushima. The beautiful sunsets, the hot springs, the spiritual forests, and the welcoming island locals made Yakushima a place I will never forget.