Yakushima Travel Guide
In 2007, my obsession with Japan began. I went to Japan via the working holiday visa program and lived and worked in Tokyo for a year, memories of which I'm still fond of today. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to travel back and forth to Japan for many years ticking off different places I'd like to see. Yakushima Island in Kyushu had been on my destination list for quite some time, perhaps being the final Japanese island that I really wanted to see. In July this year, I finally got the chance to hike through the beautiful green mossy forests that it was famous for.
Yakushima (屋久島) is a subtropical island off the southern coast of Kyushu and part of Kagoshima Prefecture. It is covered by a beautiful cedar forest that contains some of Japan's oldest and most epic trees. Some of the trees are over 1000 years old and are known as 'Yakusugi.' Another highlight (particularly for the photographers among us) are the atmospheric areas of forest covered in rich green moss, creating an almost fairy tale like scene. In fact, It is said that the forest scenes in the anime film “Princess Mononoke” by Hayao Miyazaki, one of the top directors in Japan, was inspired by this place. It doesn't surprise me. It's not all forests though, Yakushima also offers some beautiful coastline with crystal clear waters if you get the right weather conditions. All in all, it's a fantastic destination and perhaps still slightly off the beaten track.
I spent six days in Yakushima all in all. It was neither too short nor too long, although I would have happily stayed a few more days enjoying the nature. I'll admit though, I am a nature lover so for those who are little more into city life, a shorter holiday might be enough.
There are three different types of ferries you can take to Yakushima Island from Kagoshima; the Toppy or Rocket hydrofoil (2.5hrs) the Yaku 2 car ferry (4 – 4.5 hrs) or the overnight freight ferry: The Hibiscus (13 hours). I took the Toppy Ferry service with a return ticket costing 15000 yen. I believe a return on the car ferry (without a car) is 8900 yen and the overnight ferry 7200 yen. Spending that little extra meant I had a full afternoon on Yakushima when I arrived, and also some time to eat some Kurobuta (Black Pork) Ramen in Kagoshima before getting a bus to the airport. The pork was definitely worth it!
Although there are places to stay all over Yakushima, the main two areas to stay are at Miyanoura Port, or Anbo town. We spent some time at both and I think if I did it again, I'd stay at Anbo the whole time. Why? Well, we found an awesome Izakaya called Jiijiya which you can find by clicking here. I would have happily eaten there every night just for the deer meat gyoza!
This being Japan, I would recommend that you book a room in advance, particularly if you're travelling over a weekend or even worse, a national holiday. You may well be OK just winging it, but online bookings for foreigners are still a bit limited in availability. There are always far more options on the Japanese language version of Rakuten travel, for instance.
Day One. I arrived in Yakushima a couple of days ahead of my friends so I could take my time and get a few photos without annoying everyone for photo stops all the time (although it turned out they were quite the photographers too). I had arranged a motorbike rental online and the company picked me up from the port, took me to their office and I was out on the roads of Yakushima in no time at all. Buses are a bit limited in Yakushima outside the main tourist highlights, so if you're like me and like frequent photo stops and exploring off the beaten track, then your only option is to rent a vehicle. I just love the freedom a motorbike gives you, even more so than a car as you can stop anywhere!
First stop, Shiratani Unsuikyo. Having read about this place before arriving, I knew it was going to be my favourite photographic destination on the island (I went 3 times!). The lush green moss and great old trees make it a beautiful location to explore and photograph. I wasted no time driving up a beautiful stretch of mountain road feeling the change in temperature as I climbed higher and higher (another bonus point for motorbiking). At the end of the road you reach a car park and entrance to the trail. It's a small fee to go in but I think we can safely say the money is going into the upkeep of the forest unlike other places in the World.
There are a few different trails but I chose to do the orange route, the Bukyosugi trail. You'll have no shortage of photo opportunities here! I did sometimes find it difficult finding a nice composition in the chaos of the forest. There are roots and vines everywhere so it takes some hunting around to frame something well. All part of the challenge though right? I recommend visiting here on a cloudy day which creates better atmosphere and light for your photos. A tripod is a must as it can get quite dark inside the forest meaning slow shutter speeds at ISO 100. When the sun is shining, go to the beach, when it is cloudy, go to the forest.
Being one of the more popular spots on the island, it's nice if you can time visiting it a bit earlier or later than the main hoard of tourists. By 1600-1700 you'll have the place to yourself and the Yakusugi portion of the trail is where the main photo opportunities are. Just make sure you time yourself on the way in and know how long it'll take you to get back out - don't get caught out in the dark! In the end, I visited Shiratani three times and still wanted to go back for more! I met an American documentary film maker on the trail who was on his second trip to the Island. He said that for him, Shiratani was the most photographic place in Yakushima, whilst the more popular spots such as 'Jomonsugi' and 'Yakusugi Land' were nice, but less inspiring. Apparently it is a very long and boring hike to Jomonsugi and you'll rarely have the trail to yourself.
This trip was the start of something new for me. Previous visits to Japan had been intense photo trips trying to pack in as much as possible into the time frame. Perhaps partially influenced by friend Sonny, we took a more free flowing approach to the holiday. Once everyone had arrived we had a rough list of things we wanted to see and do if time permitted. It worked out great and even though I didn't see everything the island has to offer, including the main tourist spot Jomon Sugi, I don't feel like I missed out on anything. Holidays shouldn't be stressful trying to pack everything in and we simply enjoyed living in the moment, being together and enjoying the lush nature all around us.
The rainy season had just finished when we arrived in Yakushima and were treated to beautiful clear blue skies throughout our trip. This did have one drawback though, it was damn hot! Being keen hikers, we had planned to climb a mountain during the trip but instead found ourselves cooling off in the peak of the day at Yoggo Valley. This is a gorgeous spot to just sit and watch time flow away in the crystal clear streams coming down from the mountains. If you're a bit more adventurous, you can skirt around the river and follow it up the valley to a beautiful Canyon with one of the most zen like waterfalls I've ever seen. No camera for that part though!
Yoggo Valley makes a nice half day option, spending a few hours in the afternoon there cooling off and exploring before heading down to Nagata Inakahama beach for sunset. Make sure you grab a bite to eat at the small Tofu-ya restaurant on your way up to the valley (search 柴とうふ店 kumage on google maps). A very kind couple run the shop and whilst I'm not much of a tofu fan, this was delicious, especially the tofu chips! I love stumbling across places like this, they really make a trip and help you connect more with the local life.
Nagata Inakahama beach is also the spot where you can see the turtles laying their eggs in July. We didn't actually go as you need to phone and pre-book which seemed a little inconvenient for our free flowing style of holiday. I'm sure the turtles were happy not to see my camera anyway! It's just a few minutes down the road by car from the Yoggo Valley so the two do go together for a nice afternoon of adventure. I'm more of a Jungle and Mountain person myself, but I'm sure beach lovers won't be disappointed on a clear day with no wind at this idyllic spot.
One of our days was devoted to a drive around the entire island outer road which included a highlight of the trip, 'the Seibu Rindo Forest Path.' This stretch of road is part of the Natural Heritage Site area of the island and closes in the evenings to allow the wildlife some space. You're more than likely to encounter Deer and Monkeys blocking the way and walking around enjoying their stress free lives. It's also known that the Monkeys ride the deer purely for fun, although we didn't see this (check youtube).
There are so many sites to see and explore when taking a drive around the entire island - admiring the wildlife, coastal views, huge waterfalls and local hot springs. Okono and Senpiro falls are the bigger waterfalls to keep an eye out for on your journey around the island. It's simply a joy a to drive around!
Despite the heat, we couldn't leave the island without doing at least a little hiking so we opted for the Janokuchi trail. The walk makes a nice half day activity or even a bit longer if you really want to spend time swimming at the waterfall. It wasn't too challenging a trail but we were covered in sweat by the end of it. The trail is well marked and suitable for anyone with some directional sense and basic hiking experience. I can't remember how long it took us to reach the waterfall but the overall hike is generally said to be about 4 hours long. If you're hiking in July like we did, you'll be happy to reach the waterfall at the end to cool off!
I think the best time to do this trail is just after lunch. Why? Because you can time it so that you arrive back at the car park in time to reach one of the beach side hot springs! We went to Hirauchi Onsen (平内温泉) to rest our legs from the afternoon hike. I just can't think of a day that beats hiking, jumping into a cold fresh water forest pool followed by a beachside onsen at sunset. Perfect.
The rest of our days were spent cooling off at Yoggo Valley, Kayaking down the Anbo river, repeated visits to the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail and enjoying some of the local food. We even spent a night star gazing at some of the clearest night skies I have ever seen. The conditions were just perfect, no haze in the air, just clear skies and limited light pollution.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip and I really enjoyed the way we did it. Maybe we did miss out by not seeing Yakusugi land or Jomon Sugi, but I don't feel like we did. We got to spend some quality time in nature away from the crowds with no incredibly long hikes/slogs through the July heat. I wouldn't change it at all. The island is full of beautiful nature and if you're considering a trip there soon, I definitely recommend the following -
- Shiratani Unsuikyo Trail (try to avoid the crowds by waking up early or going later in the day)
- Rent a car (using buses will limit you to major tourist spots only)
- Drive around the entire island to enjoy the Seibu Rindo Forest path
- Janokuchi Trail - a nice walk with a great waterfall to cool off in at the end
- Yoggo Valley - yet another great cooling off spot
- Beach Onsen - hiking the Janokuchi trail one afternoon and taking a bath at sunset is bliss!
- Stay in Anbo and eat the Deer Gyoza at Jiijiya Izakaya
- Rent a Kayak in Anbo and kayak up the Anbo River
- Drive outside of the town you're staying in and look up at the night sky
- Bring a tripod for your camera; you'll need it for the forest and night sky shots
I guarantee you won't be disappointed if you try those suggestions out! Also, if you're finding it difficult to book accommodation or car rental in English, try my friend's travel service by clicking here. Here's a few more photos from an excellent trip to Yakushima Island, Kyushu, Japan.
To see more of my travel, landscape and outdoor adventure photography work, please take a look at my dedicated travel website by clicking here.
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All photos taken on Sony A7ii with the FE16-35 F4 lens and FE28 F2 lens.
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