Travel

Starry-eyed and lost to the forests of Yakushima

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

Flying fish and dolphins accompany us to Yakushima, skipping at the bows of our ferry in synchrony before disappearing into the ship’s wake. Despite a strong headwind, our journey from mainland Kagoshima has been plain sailing, and the clouds that hung oppressively over the bay that morning have receded northward over mainland Japan.

Enticed by blue sky, we move our breakfast party out on deck where the five of us, a ragtag group of Brits and Americans, sit hunched over bowls of udon — bought from the ferry’s restaurant — slurping the noodles and relying on the wind to cool the scalding soup.

Three hours into the crossing, and ahead of us the north shore of Yakushima looms, a facade of mountains that grows from the sea, climbing almost vertically to peaks nearly 2,000 meters tall. What scant trace of human life that exists on the island is collected in the port town of Miyanoura, a speck of activity dominated entirely by its forested backdrop.

These forests are what draw people — what drew us — to Yakushima, and are famous for inspiring the scenery of Studio Ghibli’s 1997 film, “Princess Mononoke.” Through them, a network of trails traverses the island, where starry-eyed hikers can be found lost to the forests’ charms.

The longest of these, the Arakawa trail, is a 12-hour round trip leading to the Jomon sugi, a massive yakusugi (Japanese cedar native to Yakushima) that is thought to be over 7,000 years old and registered as a UNESCO heritage site. Other trails are significantly shorter and we choose a three-hour loop through the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine, which contains some of the island’s most accessible yakusugi.

Three steps along the trail and I, too, begin to lose myself. I feel I’ve traveled back to a Japan not yet inhabited, without industry or sprawling metropolises. In the forests, cedars predating Rome grow in spectacular formations, trunks and roots intertwined so that three trees become one. My skin is dappled with green light refracted through the leaves above and reflected off the moss below as we meander between stream and path, and traverse bridges made of the forest’s cedar. The trickle of running water underscores all.

Babbling brook: The Shiratani Unsuikyo trail meanders through a landscape of ancient cedar forests that provided inspiration for Studio Ghibli's 'Princess Mononoke.' | OSCAR BOYD
Babbling brook: The Shiratani Unsuikyo trail meanders through a landscape of ancient cedar forests that provided inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s ‘Princess Mononoke.’ | OSCAR BOYD

Our route leads up and above the forest to the great granite plateau of Taiko Iwa, where we pause to enjoy a late lunch. The view before us stretches across the island’s interior, through which the Anbo River cuts a scar on its journey to the Pacific on Yakushima’s eastern shore. Our lunches — bought in Miyanoura — are elegant creations of rice and fish, wrapped in thick banana leaves to keep their contents cool. Eagerly, we wolf them down.

With dusk fringing the afternoon sky, we leave the forest and come by car to the end of our journey. At the southern shore of Yakushima, hot water swells through cracks in the island’s igneous coastline to form natural bathing pools. Some of these exist permanently, while others appear and disappear on the tide, their locations a mystery to all but the locals and a few of their lucky guests.

As our knotted legs begin to soften in the waters of one of these pools, we watch the sun decline over the western horizon and the forest fade to black. Of all we have seen, only the mountains remain, silhouetted by the last vestiges of sunlight.

Located off the south of Kyushu, Yakushima can be reached by hydrofoil (2 to 3 hours, one-way ¥9,000) and car ferry (4 hours, one-way ¥4,900, cars extra) from Kagoshima Ferry Port’s South Pier. The island is served by Yakushima Airport from which Japan Air Commuter flies to major cities across the country. Car rental is available in Miyanoura. Trail maps are available at yakukan.jp/doc.

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