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Join us as we tour the beautiful island of Yakushima and trek through the enchanted forest that inspired Studio Ghibli’s fantasy masterpiece, Princess Mononoke.
Our family previously visited Kyushu and had an amazing time visiting the hot spring city of Beppu and traversing across the island to Kumamoto and Fukuoka. We had always wanted to visit the other parts of Kyushu, especially Yakushima on the southern tip.
The island of Yakushima is a world heritage site, known for its otherwordly forests, ancient trees, wondrous landscape, and endangered wildlife. It also abounds with mythical tales and fables that brings to life the Japanese’s belief in the spiritual world. The atmospheric and heavily mountainous setting is so hauntingly magical that it inspired the legendary animated feature film Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli.
As a fan of Ghibli, we couldn’t be any more thrilled to make this trip a reality. To get to Yakushima, however, would take 10+ hours of train and boat rides from Tokyo. Spending that much time traveling just isn’t very appealing. After reviewing our transportation options, we decided to fly to Yakushima from Haneda Airport in Tokyo early in the morning.
How to Get to Yakushima
You can reach the island from Kagoshima on the Kyushu mainland either by plane or by boat. If you are visiting Japan from another country and arriving via Tokyo or Osaka airports, we recommend flying to minimize your travel time. There are no direct flights to Yakushima from Tokyo or Osaka. A layover and transfer to a small aircraft are required at Kagoshima.
If you take Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo, it’s 7 hrs to Kagoshima (5 hours from Osaka to Kagoshima). Flying takes about 2 hours to Kagoshima from Tokyo and a short 1 hr 15 min from Osaka.
Our flight took off from Tokyo Haneda Airport early at 6:25 am to Kagoshima. It worked out for us since we were jet-lagged so waking up early was not a problem. We stayed at the Royal Park Hotel connected to Haneda Airport and getting to our gate was fast.
When we landed in Kagoshima, it had just rained and the weather was cloudy but we were prepared. Yakushima is known for getting the most amount of rain in Japan. The locals have a saying, “it rains 35 days a month”. Whenever you visit, be ready to bring rain jackets.
After a brief layover in Kagoshima, we entered the terminal walkway to our flight to Yakushima. The walkway led us to a bus ride and then to our very small propeller plane. It was the first time Nami and the kids have flown in one and they were amused.
Getting around Yakushima
Since we were only in Yakushima for one night, we rented a car for getting around. Other ways to get around the island include public bus and taxi.
You can get more information at Yakushima Tourism Association. What we can share is that driving around Yakushima is very easy. There is one main road which circles around the island. The rental cars are quite small so don’t bring giant luggage with you. Our 4 carry-on suitcases could barely fit in the trunk.
At Toyota Rental Car (read more on renting and driving a car in Japan), we were given a map showing us how much time it takes to drive around the island between various points of interest.
Ready to discover Yakushima? Let’s go!
Hirauchi Kaichu Natural Onsen 平内海中温泉
From the Toyata Rental Car, we first headed west towards Ohko Waterfall which is about 1 hour away. About 40 min through, there’s a sign for Hirauchi Kaichu Natural Onsen (hot spring by the ocean). The hot spring has been there since 1599 and it is only exposed two hours before and after low tide. Otherwise, it’s covered by the ocean.
The hot spring is open to the public and there are a few rules to follow.
- Bathing suits are not allowed (and there is no dressing room)
- Please rinse yourself prior to entering the hot spring
- Place 200 yen in the money box for each person using the hot spring
Ohko Waterfall 大川の滝
Our next stop was Ohko-no-taki Waterfall (a top 100 waterfalls in Japan). The waterfall is 88 meters (289 feet) tall and one of the most famous sights on the island.
It was a splendid waterfall that split into two and the water sprayed everywhere at the bottom of the fall by the observation area (visitors will get wet).
Besides Ohko Waterfall, another popular waterfall for visitors is Senpirono Falls. It is about halfway between Anbo and Ohko Waterfall.
A wild monkey bid us goodbye when we were getting ready to head back!
Yakudon Noodle House 屋久どん
Two of the main commercial areas on the island are Anbo on the east coast and Miyanoura in the north. These are also the two ports where you can take a ferry to the mainland and other islands. On our way to Shiratani Unsui Gorge in the north, we stopped by Yakudon Restaurant in Anbo for lunch.
The restaurant is very spacious with lots of wood decorations.
The food on the menu ranged from 650 yen to 1,050 yen for various types of udon and quick diner dishes.
The food was delightful and the restaurant is right next to the ocean so customers can enjoy the relaxing views while eating.
After lunch, we headed to Shiratani Unsui Gorge.
Yakushima Nature Parks
Yakushima is most well known for its rainforest and yakusugi cedar trees that are over 1,000 years old (yaku sugi). It also has a unique ecosystem and 20% of the island is recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are long hiking trails in the forests and two of the best-known nature parks on the island are Shiratani Unsuikyo and Yakusugi Land.
We did not have enough time to visit both nature parks so we chose Shiratani Unsui Gorge to see the cedar trees. If you have time, definitely stop by both. It’s difficult to find the trail maps online, but you can view them in full size by clicking on the maps below.
Shiratani Unsui Gorge 白谷雲水峡
Shiratani Unsui Gorge is about 20 min by car from Miyanoura. When we arrived at the park administrative building, it had been drizzling and was continuing to rain for a while. In May of 2019 (1 month prior to our visit), it rained so much that hundreds of visitors had to be rescued from landslides and floods.
We asked the staff about the hiking routes and he recommended us to stop our hike at Nidaiosugi Cedar (#7 on the map) and then turn back. It would be difficult for us to continue on the trail because the water in the river was above our children’s waist and the danger was too high. We were disappointed as we had hoped to see the famed moss-covered forest and other famed cedar trees.
For reference, hiking to point 16 Taikoiwa Rock and back is about a 4-hour hike.
Our family had fun hiking the trail and taking in the peaceful green scenery, and we were glad to see some of the famed cedar trees.
Seaside Hotel Yakushima
We had been up since 4 am and a quick afternoon snooze was very much needed. Our hotel was the Seaside Hotel Yakushima near Miyanoura Port. It is one of the larger hotels on the island and many rooms have great views of the ocean. The hotel is dated but clean, and the staff was very friendly.
Dinner was served in the dining room at the hotel, but the food was not particularly delicious. For better dinner options, you could certainly explore a local restaurant.
Our hotel stay also included breakfast and it was buffet style consisting of mostly seafood and Japanese breakfast items.
The next morning after breakfast, we drove 25 min to the west to Inakahama Beach. Yakushima is the largest spawning ground for loggerhead sea turtle in Japan and Inakahama Beach is one of the main beaches where they lay their eggs.
We had actually signed up for the Yakushima Sea Turtle Hall spawning observation tour for the night before (female turtles mostly nest at night). However, the weather condition was bad and the tour was canceled.
At the beach, we can see the nesting area cordoned off with a rope and we did not try to get close. No need to crack any sea turtle eggs by accidents!
Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park
After the brief stop at the beach, we stopped by Shidoko Gajumaru Banyan Park on the way back to the port in Miyanoura. The nature park has many banyan and tropical trees. Some of the banyan trees are over 500 years old.
There’s a self-guided path through the park that visitors can walkthrough.
Plan on spending 45 min – 1 hour in the Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park if you visit.
Yakushima Toppy/Rocket Terminal
On our return route, we boarded the hydrofoil at the Rocket Terminal for Kagoshima.
The kids were excited about another interesting ride. Even the water was really choppy, the boat ride was super smooth and we did not feel any rocking motion.
Our trip to Yakushima was short, but it was nonetheless a memorable journey. The natural beauty and majestic forests truly lived up to the enchanting world of Princess Mononoke. We wished we had one more day to discover the island and hiked more of its trails and soaked up its tranquility.
Before our return to Tokyo, we took the opportunity to visit Kagoshima to taste its regional food and visited the famed garden – Sengan-en. As a gateway to southern Japan, Kagoshima is quite a destination in itself which I will be sharing more of next. Stay tuned!