Yakushima (Part 2) – Kagoshima, Japan

Out of all the places I’ve been to in Japan, I think hiking in Yakushima is at the top of the list. Part 2 covers the four very soggy but still incredible days I spent hiking on the trails, and if you missed reading part 1 which covers my zip around the island on a little scooter go and take a peek since the scenery is different.

I go from sunny coast to lush forest, making my way inwards to the centre of the island. The plan was to hike starting at Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine, and exiting at the Yodogawa Mountain trail entrance.

Note: Here is a really useful basic map that contains the distances and estimated time for all the hiking trails in Yakushima. I recommend printing a copy as I don’t remember seeing it available at the tourist centre in Miyanoura town.

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Onwards and inwards towards Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine

After dropping off my rental scooter at Miyanoura town I asked which direction it was to walk to Shiratani and began walking. The sign said 10km and this is how my brain decided it would be easy peasy to just walk it – if I could run 10km in roughly an hour, then walking would be like 2 hours, right? And the road seems to be mostly flat! I can do this!

I seemed to have forgotten about the 10kg of gear and food on my back when I made the decision, until an hour later when the road started to get steeper and my feet in sandals began to protest – I didn’t wear my hiking boots, too stiff to comfortably walk on tarmac. Looking ahead my eyes follow the road curving into the mountainside waayy across the ravine. The 2 hour walk doubled to 4 based on current progress, and already being early afternoon I needed to get started on the actual trail.

Follow road 594, how hard can it be?
And after an hour of walking uphill, I see the road cut through the mountainside ahead and realize… this is going to take longer than expected…oops.
So while hoping to hitch a ride to the entrance of Shiratani I stop and smell the mountain cherry blossoms.

So I flashed my friendliest smile and tried to hitch a ride, hoping I looked friendly instead of psychotic or desperate. Thankfully a really nice couple in the quintessential Japanese compact lego van gave me a lift to the start and my 4 hour ‘walk’ became a breezy car ride, saving my energy for the actual hike to come.

Note: There is a bus available from Miyanoura to Shiratani Unsuikyo and other points of interest. Drop by the tourist information centre in Miyanoura for the bus timetables available in English.

The suspension bridge at Shiratani Unsuikyo.

Most people make their way to Yakushima to see the famous Jomon-sugi tree (sugi means Japanese cedar), considered Japan’s oldest living tree. Said to be anywhere between 2500 – 7000 years old, and coupled with clouds of mist hanging in the air brought with the rainy weather you can’t help but feel lost in another ancient world. There are two ways of getting to Jomon-sugi, the most direct and popular Anbo trail starting at Arakawa or the Kusugawa Wakare trail which can be accessed through Shiratani Unsuikyo.

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The scenery around the entrance of Shiratani, all the calming hues of green.

There is a 300Y entrance fee to enter Shiratani, a small price to see the famous moss covered forests that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke animation which may have played a part in my decision to visit Yakushima. Another reason why I chose to hike the Kusugawa trail was to hike up Taiko Iwa (Taiko rock) which promised panoramic views of the interior mountains. And despite the rainy misty weather, the view was still incredible. The hike leading to Taiko Iwa from the entrance of Shiratani Unsuikyo is mostly flat, but the last very steep 300 metres to the top of Taiko Iwa makes you work more for the view.

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As tempting as it is to touch and roll in the soft mossy carpets and play forest fairy, considering the volume of visitors best to just admire with eyes only.
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No need for filtered water on Yakushima, you can safely drink from the many streams.
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River crossing on Kusugawa trail. With heavy rainfall, some river crossings may not be possible to do safely. Be sure to check the weather before your hike.
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A fun little diversion from the main trail.
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Moss carpets the trunks of the several old trees along the Kusugawa trail.
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Photos can’t capture the panoramic view from the top of Taiko Iwa. But here’s a taste.

There are signs in English along the Kusugawa trail, so I had no problem finding my way. That was until I reached the end of the Kusugawa trail, which then connected to the Anbo trail and the signs were only in Japanese kanji. Crap. Unsure whether to go left or right (and here is where I insert some wise words about having a map easily available and to know your route before you go) a Japanese tour group appeared on the right, returning from Jomon-sugi. I hurried along the old rail tracks that have now been converted to a hiking trial, aware of the limited hours of daylight left.

My goal was to reach Takatsuka hut before nightfall which was just pass Jomon-sugi and where I would camp for the night. One big bonus of hiking in Yakushima are the mountain huts available to use for free.

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A really cool way to repurpose the old train tracks that used to transport the large trees after being logged, now part of the Anbo hiking trail that leads to Jomon-sugi.
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The Anbo trail contains multiple bridge crossings, and my feet feel a little tingle when I look between the large gaps down into the river below.

After close to an hour of walking along the flat rail tracks, another trail appears and I’m forced to take off my pack so I can look at the basic map I took from the tourist centre. Thankfully the map had both English and kanji written in it, so after a few minutes I was able to match the symbols and confirm my direction.

This section of the trail weaves up and down through the forest still following the wooden walkways built to prevent damage to the forest floor from all the hikers.

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The trail becomes more interesting as it weaves through the forest and the mist adding some mystery.

Soon I reach a small clearing which reveals Wilson’s stump – named after explorer and plant collector Ernest Henry Wilson who came across the stump while on his expedition in Yakushima in 1914. A quick peek inside the stump revealed a space bigger than I expected, this tree was huge. I happened to find online the photograph that Wilson took of the stump in 1914 which shows how big the stump is and also being a historical tidbit.

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A sign indicating Wilson’s stump.
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A small shrine resides within Wilson’s stump. You could probably fit 30 people inside!

Moving beyond Wilson’s stump, another half hour of steady uphill and the quickly disappearing daylight I start to wonder if I should just pitch my tent on a small side platform and call it a day. Hiking at night on an unfamiliar trail with nobody else in sight wouldn’t be smart. Soon after this thought, I reach the viewing platform for Jomon-sugi! Funny how things work out when you’re close to calling it quits. 10 minutes later a sigh of relief at seeing Takatsuka hut and removing my pack from tired shoulders.

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A small part of Jomon-sugi. Even if I stitched a panorama shot together it still wouldn’t give an idea of just how big and ancient Jomon-sugi is.
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The small camping section by Takatsuka hut already taken. Darn.

Takatsuka hut is the newest out of all the mountain huts available and can sleep up to 20 people over 3 levels. The hut is narrow and was quite full when I arrived, so I preferred my tent instead of feeling like a canned sardine. Speaking of canned sardines, after settling down and looking through my food bag I realized I had packed very poorly and didn’t bring enough food for four days of hiking. My rations consisted of one big bag of granola cereal, 3 types of instant noodles for dinner, dehydrated miso soup packets, a small loaf of bread and a bag of party sized kit kat (the most important). I didn’t have my usual calorie dense bag of mix nuts because I was being cheap, fruits and nuts are expensive in Japan, but I was now regretting my choice. At least I had chocolate.

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My trusty MSR solo tent, providing home since 2015.

It seems the locals like a VERY early start to their hike, I woke up at 4am to the sounds of murmured conversation in Japanese and breakfast cooking on camping stoves. Pitching my tent on the platform connected to the hut beside the door was a mistake since groups used the space to get ready.

Note: Takatsuka hut has limited space to pitch tents, but another hour up the trail is Shin-Takatsuka hut which has more space to camp and a larger hut accommodating up to 40 people.

After managing a few more hours of sleep I pack up and at 8am (which I think is considered late here since I was the only one left) and continue along the Miyanoura mountain trail. This section of the trail leading to the peak of Mt. Miyanoura at 1936m, completely and undeniably kicked my butt. I’ve hiked up steeper incline, bigger gains in elevation, taller mountains than this one, but this felt like the longest slog up 3.5km of my life. At a snail pace of 1km per hour…

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Back on the trail with a yakumonkey companion.
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And the English signs are back on the Miyanoura mountain trail. I think I cried a little seeing the 2.1km left to the top of Miyanoura.

Feeling like I was dragging my body through wet cement, I got a pleasant distraction in the form of a small deer taking up the narrow trail. As I cautiously approached, it leapt off trail and disappeared into the mist. This section of the trail at higher elevation before and after reaching the peak of Mt. Miyanoura, was the highlight of my journey.

The trail becomes just wide enough for one, winds through low green vegetation that covers most of the surface of the mountaintop and giant boulders scattered across the landscape. The rain and mist adding to the surreal beauty of the hike.

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Despite the fatigue, I still couldn’t stop feeling swept away by how beautiful this section of the trail is.
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The trail narrows, just wide enough for one as I make my way through and look up at the giant boulders that tower over me.
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Boulders that look like giant dinosaur eggs.

Finally reaching the top of Mt. Miyanoura felt a little anticlimactic. Wind and rain whipped at the top, and there was no view from the cloud cover. I struggled to find a spot that sort of protected me from the wind, shoved some granola in my mouth and downed a cup of reviving miso soup. I looked enviously at the small group of day hikers who brought bento boxes filled with sushi and deliciousness.

Lucky the hike towards Yodogawa hut was a breezy downhill in comparison, and it took only 2.5hrs to hike 7km to the hut. I thought about pitching my tent but the campground was gravel and filled with puddles, so I opted to stay in the hut which was clean albeit a little old and damp from the constant rain.

Note: Keep food stored in a dry bag, there are forest critters that get too friendly if you leave your food out.

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The trail flattens out away from Miyanoura peak towards Yodogawa hut.
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Home sweet home for the next 2 nights.

Being Saturday night the hut slowly began to fill with groups of people. I met a group of 3 Shinkansen (bullet train) maintenance workers on a four day hike to Mt. Miyanoura and Mt. Nagata. Our conversation was animated despite my very basic Japanese and their limited English, and one particularly energetic member kept asking me questions beginning with “What-o…!” while waving around his arms as he struggled to find his words in English.

The next morning I wake to find the hut empty and peaceful. I stretch sore muscles and eat a small rationed breakfast deciding what to do for the day. The initial plan was to continue hiking the 12km Onoaida trail just across the Yodogawa trail entrance, to reach the town of Onoaida. But the relentless rain, hunger from my limited calorie diet, and tired body meant that I just wanted to take it easy for the rest of the trip.

So instead I opted to visit Yakusugi Land nearby, which sounds like a theme park but it’s more of an accessible area for day walks with well marked trails and routes in varying levels of length. I was also hoping there would be a souvenir shop that sold snacks but the shop only sold cedar wood products and now I have a very nice smelling but inedible Yakushima drink coaster.

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One of the many suspension bridges to cross in Yakusugi land.

The hike from Yodogawa hut to the bus stop by Kigen-sugi is an easy 3km that takes just under an hour. From here, the bus that services this route from Kigen-sugi to Anbo town only comes twice a day. Now comfortable knowing the trail and how long it takes to the bus stop, tomorrow I would catch the bus to Anbo and from there make my way back to Miyanoura town to spend the night and then catch the ferry to Kagoshima.

Since it would be another 3 hours before the bus back Kigen-sugi, after paying a ¥‎300 ($3.90 CAD) entrance fee and receiving a map around Yakusugi Land I chose the 80 minute route. Even though the rain was pouring down it was still a beautiful and relaxing way to appreciate the old trees and forest. You cross several suspension bridges depending on the trail, and the trails vary between 30 minutes to several hours in length. If planning just a day hike with minimal preparation and time, Yakusugi Land is a good way of experiencing the Yakushima forests.

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When it rains, it can pour. But still enjoying the views on the trails in Yakusugi Land.

I certainly strike lucky on my last day of the trip; getting ready to leave Yodogawa hut to catch the morning bus at Kigen-sugi, I come across a group of 4 super friendly seniors making their way back. They mentioned calling a taxi to take them to Anbo but after letting them know about the bus that goes there (the fare is ¥‎940 ($12.20 CAD) to Anbo), we hike out together and they invite me to have lunch and spend the day with them! I’m all too happy to oblige, not needing to figure out where to eat and be on the receiving end of freshly cooked steaming hot food…

After lunch we hop into a rental car for some quick sight seeing to Janokuchi-no-taki Waterfall in Onoaida and for a dip in the onsen. One of the biggest things I miss about Japan, being able to go to the hot springs after a long hike to soak tired muscles. There’s no better way to wrap up a hiking trip.

We part ways in Miyanoura at the doorstep of Kairakuen Minshuku (Japanese budget inn) and camping site. Thankfully I had their help in finding the place because it only had a Japanese sign by the roadside.

Many many thank yous to the kind members of the Kawasaki Hiking Club from Kanagawa Prefecture for helping a fellow hiker out!

The camping fee at Kairakuen is ¥‎800 ($10.40 CAD) which I was willing to pay despite the wind and rain outside (what’s one more day in the rain) but the friendly Yakushima islander kindness strikes again when he offers me a stay in a large shared room for the same price (it’s usually ¥‎1200 ($15.60 CAD)) which I had all to myself. The next morning brought sunshine which felt amazing after 5 days of rain, and a very smooth sailing back on the ferry to Kagoshima.

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Janokuchi-no-taki Waterfall near Onoaida town. Also very conveniently near an onsen (hot spring) for a relaxing soak after some sight seeing.

I absolutely loved my time in Yakushima. Despite the really rainy weather on the hiking trails, it was still incredibly beautiful to be surrounded by the old growth forest and Japanese cedar trees that are hundreds and thousands of years old. The island has something for everyone, if strenuous hikes aren’t your thing there are also beaches and coastline which I’m sure become really popular in the warmer summer months. It does take some time and effort getting to the island, either by air or ferry, but it’s definitely worth it.

Hiking Summary:

Best way to visit Jomon-sugi (in my humble opinion):
Start at Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine and stop by Taiko-Iwa rock on the Kusugawa trail. Continue until you reach the Arakawa trail which takes you to Jomon-sugi.
One way: 10.5km, 700m elevation gain, about 5hrs.

To exit you can use the more direct Arakawa trail from Jomon-sugi, 11km one way.
Hiking to Jomon-sugi in a day is doable but it’ll be a long 11-12hrs, and also depends on how many people are on the trail.

To Mt. Miyanoura (tallest peak in Yakushima at 1,936m):
Most forward way to Mt. Miyanoura is to start at Yodogawa.
One way: 8km, 580m elevation gain, about 5hrs.

Best way to come up with your own fun hiking plans, refer to this route map.

Top tips:

  • Yakushima gets ALOT of rain, it is the wettest part of Japan, and even ranks as one of the worlds soggiest places. Be prepared, and then more mentally prepared that your fancy rain gear will probably still soak through.
  • Bring enough cash for your trip. Most places on the island don’t accept credit/debit card.
  • If camping, notify the campground beforehand. My plan of just rolling up and expecting someone to be at the campground didn’t work at times. And know where the campsite is, they can be hard to find with limited signage in English.
  • Relax and refresh in one of the several onsens (hot springs) available, especially after a long hike in the mountains.
  • Donate at least ¥‎500 to the Yakushima Mountain Preservation Fund. Donation boxes are located in the tourist information centres and at main trail heads.
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Walking up the narrow road from Kigen-sugi bus stop back to Yodogawa hut. I felt like Totoro was hanging around somewhere.

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