You Can’t Always get What You Want: Yakushima

Heading from Kamikochi, we made the journey via JR to Kagoshima in one day. We arrived at our hotel in Kagoshima on the evening of the 15th. Intending to catch the ferry to the southern island of Yakushima the morning of the 16th. Kagoshima is the most southern port city on the main land and is the main jumping off point for people on their way to Yakushima, unless you fly directly there. Yakushima is primarily national park, and became a world heritage site in 1993. It is famous for it’s sea turtle population and ancient cedar trees. Our plan was to camp and hike for four days on the island. A huge part of our trip that was the only destination that all four of us expressed explicit interest in, and we all looked forward to. We didn’t realize until after that Yakushima is Japans wettest region, it has one of the highest precipitaion rates in the world, and we were going during rain season…

Kagoshima itself doesn’t have much to offer in terms of activity. The highlight is Sakurijima, an island composed of an active volcano. We took a 15 minute ferry ride to the island from the south port, and from there a tour bus that took us to a viewing point of the Sakurijima volcano.

However the coolest part of Sakurijima was the hidden naval base. We were walking down the street and ran into a tourist information board in front of what appeared to be an old stone wall. Upon looking further we saw that entrances had been built into the side of the volcano (they had since collapsed) and there was a small but fully functional base inside of the volcano. A kitchen, sleeping quarters, an armory, and ports for launching missiles out of the side of the volcano. Like a James Bond villains lair.

The morning of the 16th, we walked to the port to get the ferry to Yakushima only to discover that it had been canceled due to the impending typhoon. So lucky us, we got to see Sakurijima twice. After two days in Kagoshima we were antsy to get out. Luckily the ferry was running the morning of the 17th and the weather looked like it had cleared up a bit. We even had a special send-ff in the port as we left. 

We arrived to Yakushima at 12:30. From the port we hopped directly on the bus without going to the information center first, and tried to find our place in Anbo. In Yakushima there are two major “towns” Mioyonora and Anbo, We thought staying in Anbo, smaller of the two, would keep us out of a major tourist area and closer to camping and trails that we wanted to do. We figured there would be a town, or a tourist center, or something that said “Anbo” so we would know where to get off the bus. There was nothing. We passed our stop and the people sitting in front of us knew we were looking for Anbo, and got off at the next one and informed us that we missed it. So we got out at the next stop as well. We wandered for a bit with no information, we had a tourist map that I took from the ferry but it was very general and we could not determine exactly where on the map we actually were. We got back on the bus going the other way one stop to bring us back to Anbo. We were dropped across from a Mosburger on what looked like a main road and the bus stop said “Anbo”. We didn’t have directions to our hotel, or a map of where it was (an oversight on our part due to a last minute booking that morning in the Kagoshima hotel) so we decided we find an information center to ask for directions or possibly get wifi at Mosburger. Lucky for us we spotted Anthony and Merriam across the street on the way to Mosburger and used their wifi only to discover that our place was across the street. It looked like an extra cottage someone converted into a rental area. It was a small traditional style house with one bedroom and a living room, with a small kitchen area and a bathroom. A note was on the door that told us to let ourselves in. Sure enough the door was unlocked and the key was on the table. We never saw or talked to the owner the entire time we were there. We left our payment on the table with our own note when we departed.

We were slightly alarmed at the lack of infrastructure in Anbo, so we made our way back to Miyanora port to the information center to so we could plan our hiking and camping adventure. We got there right at 5 pm and quickly purchased a 3 day bus pass for 3.000 yen a person (100% worth it. It was by far the best purchase we made the entire time on Yakushima) and got a map and asked about camping. They did not have a list of campsites available but the rental place next door did. But they were closed so we had to go back the next morning.

The next morning we packed up all of our things and got the bus to Miyanora port again to try to figure out where to stay. We talked to the guy in the rental shop, the only one who spoke English, and he directed us towards two campsites in Miyanora area and one in Anbo. We decided it would be best to stay in the Miyanora area at least for the night even though I wanted to check out the campsite on the map listed next to the youth travel village on the southern side of the island. We also asked about day hikes, he basically told us we couldn’t do any and the buses only ran around the perimeter of the island. There were two forest park areas that had separate bus lines that did enter into the interior, and from one of those areas there was a 6 hour day hike we could do. He explained how to get there with the bus. However, the times that the bus ran (only one to and from Yakisugi Land each day) it would only leave us with a four hour window of being there. Not enough time to complete a 6 hour hike, plus the 150 minute forest path that it is off of.

We got back on the bus and went to the second campsite in Miyanora that he told us about. Off of the hand drawn map we were given it was supposed to be off a side street right behind the grocery store. It wasn’t. It started to rain as we were wandering with all of our stuff for about 30 minutes. We resolved to walk towards Miyanora port in hopes of coming across the other campsite on our way. But a little ways down the road we found the original campsite we were looking for. We set up our tent and tried to find someone in charge, but no one was there, except for a note in English and Japanese that the owner was not there and to call if we needed to contact her, but we had no phone. So we left a note inside and on our tent explaining that we would be back later.

There is a cluster of waterfalls on the south eastern side of the island that we wanted to check out. We caught the bus at the stop it looks like they were near on the map we had. When we got off it felt like we were on a deserted road. The last bus back was in two hours so we had to keep an eye on our time if we didn’t want to be stranded for the night. We found one of the waterfalls we were looking for, and a sign for another one, but it was a 6 km hike we didn’t have time for. The waterfall we actually found was nice, and we got to see some really cool forest crabs, but we couldn’t go in the water and could only look at it from a distance. We tried to walk further down the road to find the next one, but we never did. A few stops past we saw on the map there were open air onsen. After walking to the next stop we could find (in front of a building that said “cafe” but when I popped my head in the door the music was on with a half smoked cigarette in the ashtray and no one was there. Not being around was starting to seem like a running theme in Yakushima) we waited for about 40 minutes for the next bus. Hoping we could get to the onsen. When we got on the bus, the terminal stop was some hotel, about 3 stops away from where we were trying to go. There weren’t any more buses going out further for the rest of the day, so we had to wait for the next bus toward Miyaonora. We ran into our traveling companions in the port. They heard about a beach in Miyanora that was within walking distance so we all headed there. It had been a long hot day and a swim felt really nice. It started to sprinkle and a double rainbow appeared over the beach.

We arrived after 90 minutes of bus rides around 10:30, the only bus departing for the day was at 3:10 not enough time for a 6 hour hike. We planned to go anyway and do as much as we could before 3pm. The further inland we got the wetter it started to get. We began on the walking trail and started up the mountain path after an hour. The mountain path was steep and rocky and as we got higher up the harder it started to rain. We were properly equipped, but even so it got to a point where the rain made the trail too dangerous to continue.

Disheartened we turned around. As terrible as the conditions were it was hard to ignore the fact that we were in the most beautiful forest I have ever seen with my own eyes. Yakushima forests are characterized by their moss covered trees and ancient cedar trees. And by ancient I mean thousands of years old. The ones over 1,000 years old are called Yaki-sugi and the ones younger than 1,000 years are kagi-sugi. Yakushima has the same story as nearly everywhere else on earth. Indigenous people live in harmony with their beautiful nature and then someone from a mainland nation comes and forces them to murder it for money or religion. In this case it was both. Jomon people lived in harmony with the ancient cedar forest until a monk (born and raised in Anbo, educated in what is present day Kyoto) allegedly spent 7 days and nights in the forest praying and the gods gave him permission to fell the cedar to build a hall for the great Buddha. So, he convinced his people that it was okay to harvest cedar in the name of Buddha. (To his credit, their process of felling trees was extremely ceremonial and they did plant seedlings afterwards). A couple hundred years later however, a high official from mainland Japan ordered the Yaki-sugi to be harvested as tax and imported them to the mainland. This continued until the harvesting of these ancient trees was made illegal in 1921.The majority of the island officially became a national park in 1973. local craftsman still make items (mostly souvenirs for tourists and goods to import to mainland Japan) out of the fallen trees that have not decayed, though this is becoming less and less common.

The following day we also visited Shiratani Unsuikyo forest.Quite similar to Yakisugi Land, Shiratani Unsuikyo is said to be the inspiration for Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke). Like Yakisugi Land it has moss covered floors and small streams and small waterfalls throughout.

In the mist and rain it did serve as a great inspiration for any kind of nature themed artwork. Unfortunately for us, the walking trails were almost entirely washed out by the hard rain that morning. After a fellow hiker suggested that we turn around we ended up behind a group of older hikers. The man in the back of the line closest to us greeted us and cheerily hopped along in the puddles, at one point when we stopped to let a group pass, he pulled out two little plastic forest spirit figures from his bag and showed us. We smiled instantaneously recognizing them and nodded vigorously when he said “Mononoke Hime”.

We were absolutely drenched. My feet were squishing in my boots with every steep and I lost track of whether we were river tracing or hiking. I hate to admit it, but most of the time I was looking at my feet to make sure I wasn’t sinking into a puddle. We still had plenty of time, because for the second day in a row we planned for about a 5 hour hike and ended up hiking only 2 hours, so we went back to the short course and stopped again by the 3,000 year old tree. This time we stopped and I wrapped my arms around the tree and felt it in my grasp. A 3,000 year-old tree in my arms. I stayed like that for a while just taking deep breaths and feeling the tree breathe next to me. It is almost like all the negative energy I had been feeling the past few days transferred into the tree and dissolved, and in turn I was filled with the trees serene sense of being. After that point in the forest, we didn’t have all that much to go, I opened my eyes. I looked up and I was able to really see the forest around me.

After Yakisugi Land, we had to wait two hours to get the bus back, then another 30 minutes to our campsite. We got back to find our tent ripped out of the stakes pretty much in shambles. If we didn’t leave our bags in the tent it would have been blown right out into the East China Sea. We moved all of our things into the cement building that served as a bathroom and luckily when we went to the reception she was actually there. Between our zero knowledge of Japanese and her zero knowledge of English, we somehow got across the point that we wanted to stay inside. It cost us 7,000, we thought we were paying for 2 nights, however the next day when she asked us to pay again, it turns out we were paying for 2 people, 3,500/person. It was such easily the worst place that we have stayed in. there were the sea cockroaches running around all over, two of them crawled out of my wet boot this morning when I changed the newspaper, there was a guy smoking inside when we got there and you had to pay for the air conditioning and could only shower at certain times and we had a TV that didn’t work. We just stayed the second night because we didn’t want to spend the whole day moving again.

This morning we originally wanted to go to the beach where the sea turtles are said to lay eggs. But it stormed all night and when I got up at 6 it was pouring rain. So we decided not to go, as we were checking out around 10 am it had cleared up and almost looked like the sun was going to come out. It didn’t, I would have been quite upset if it did, and we sat at the cafe in the visitor center until the ferry left at 1:30.

Overall, Yakushima was extremely discouraging. Exploring this island was a big part of our trip and we dedicated a lot of time and money getting there and trying to make it work for us. But it just didn’t. The weather was terrible, the buses are so inconvenient and the infrastructure is just not there. It seemed like another country, not Japan at all. We spent four days there and I felt like we saw the same stretch of main road and coastline the entire time.

There is no such thing as a perfect vacation. In those times you just have to take what comes and try to look for the good with the bad. We had the worst conditions of our whole trip and ruined literally everything we tried to do each day, but we also saw the most beautiful forest in the world and ate the best sashimi imaginable. We marked Yakushima as a re-do for later, when we live in Japan and can rent a car and (hopefully) speak a little Japanese.

4 thoughts on “You Can’t Always get What You Want: Yakushima

  1. What a trip! So much waiting around (in rain) as if time does not exist in that island. Glad to hear you said the forest was beautiful and Sashimi was good at least. Yakushima is one of the places I really hope to go sometime. I heard that there is an English guide who fell in love with the island and decided to stay there as soon as he stepped on the island. Did you not meet him?

    • We ran into a few foreigners, but only ones that were visiting. We didn’t get to explore too far into the island, which is probably where a permanent resident would be. I would love to go back though because I feel like there was so much that we missed. But, no I did not get to see the guy you are referring to, is his website yakumonkey?

      • I’ve read about the English Guide on something and cannot remember his name. I googled about it and it could be Go Yakushima which is run by an English guy from Newcastle. I am amazed that lots of non-Japanese people go there. I love to go there too.

  2. I thought the big draw to Yakushima was its fame for inspiring Princess Mononoke, and that it is a national park. So I was actually surprised at the small amount of tourist infrastructure, but that’s a part of it being beautiful, generally the less people, the less spoiled.

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