Yakushima 屋久島

by Daniel Simmons

The World Heritage-listed emerald isle of Yakushima has been on the Japanese tourist radar for many years now. The island’s relatively remote location, old-growth cedar forests, seaside hot springs, and turtle-spawning beaches excite the imagination like few other places in Japan.

In the not-so-distant past, Yakushima tended to be one of those places that everyone talked about wanting to visit without ever actually getting around to it. That has changed, dramatically. In the last ten years, the number of annual visitors to the island has more than tripled. On a Golden Week holiday or during the summer months, the hiking paths can feel like the lines at Disneyland.

Still, outside of these holiday periods, Yakushima remains very much off the typical traveler’s path, and one can still experience this subtropical wonderland in all its mysterious rain-drenched glory without having to elbow aside the crowds. Best to visit before it becomes a year-round tourist’s playground, and before the island’s main attraction– its unspoiled woodlands– start to suffer the ravages of environmental degradation. Environmental engineers warned earlier this year that airborne industrial pollution from China may be damaging the island’s endangered pine trees, though the cedars remain as yet unaffected.

If you do pay a visit, be a conscientious visitor and respect the natural environment around you. Also understand that the island’s lack of central roads means that you’ll be driving– or hiking– long distances from one place to another. Bring your driving license (renting a car is easy, especially around Miyanoura port), bring a good pair of shoes, and by all means bring a raincoat. Locals joke that in Yakushima it rains “35 days per month.”

Perhaps the most popular hike in Yakushima is the 10-hour roundtrip trek (mostly flat, with a dramatic final ascent) to the Jomon-sugi, the most ancient of the ancient cryptomeria trees in the island’s center. Estimates of the Jomon-sugi’s age range from 2,600 to 7,200 years old. En route, make a stop at Wilson’s Stump, the trunk of a primeval cedar tree whose ruined interior you can explore. You may notice photographers stooped low in one corner, pointing their cameras upward in an attempt to frame the canopy overhead in the shape of a heart. Deer and monkey abound.

A much longer hike (usually requiring two days) leads to Mt. Miyanoura-dake (the island’s highest peak at 1,936m) and back. Less ambitious walkers can enjoy more modest 1-4 hour rambles around the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine, or strolls around Yakusugi Land, which offers the most easily-accessible taste of the surrounding wilderness.

Mid-May to mid-July heralds the spawning of loggerhead and green sea turtles at Nagata Inaka-hama on the northwest coast, and at Kuriohama on the southwest coast. Rhododendrons around the island are also blooming at this time, making this period a particularly special time to visit. Given the abundance of natural attractions to see and the unpredictability of the weather, you’ll want to plan on a stay of at least several days.









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