Trip date: June 24 – July 10, 2016
Part 1 of 3 will cover our first destination in Japan – Yakushima Island. We spent four days here.
A Magical Place
Yakushima was nothing short of magical. It placed first in my book, beating out Kyoto, which is a common favorite among tourists. For all the nature lovers and adventure seekers, I would recommend this little gem of a place.
The caveat is that getting there won’t be a straight shot. Sitting as a separate island off the coast of the southernmost tip of the main island, it’ll require catching different modes of transportation to reach.
From Haneda airport in Tokyo, we flew to Kagoshima, the closest airport to the southwest tip of the main island. We bused to Kagoshima port to catch the jetfoil (note: a jetfoil is a boat..), which then cruised us over to Yakushima island port. The flight took about 2 hours, and the boat ride also took close to 2 hours.
As we rolled up to Yakushima island, I admired the dark green forests that populated the island. Instantly, it felt calmer, quieter, and mystical. Along with a more tropical climate, it was a welcome into Jurassic Park 🙂 . We walked about a mile from the port to our ryokan (traditional Japanese style accommodation) through the quaint town.
N and I had plans to check off of our list everything outdoorsy that we could do in Yakushima. This included a beautiful hike, exploring onsens (hot springs), and chasing waterfalls.
What to do in Yakushima
Hike moss-covered forests
Upon all my research for hikes in Yakushima, Shiratani Unsuikyo came up as THE Must-Do hike. If you’re familiar with the anime film, Princess Mononoke, fun fact is the mystic forest setting stemmed from inspiration by the real life Shiratani Unsuikyo forest.
To get here, we took a bus from our ryokan (luckily, bus stop was right in front of the building) up the windy mountain to the hike entrance. Bus ride is about 35 – 40 minutes. These buses run on a schedule, so we had a timetable in mind as to when we were going to finish the hike and catch the bus back.
The hike itself took us about 3.5 hours round trip. As usual, we overestimated the amount of time it’ll take us to hike and underestimated our physical endurance. 😛 If you work out at least twice a week and go on hikes once every two months, I think you’ll be able to hit our world record time. As a result of being speedy hikers, we ended up having an extra hour to spare before the bus arrives to take us back.
Anyway, the highlight of the hike is Taiko-iwa Rock! You’ll be nearing the top as the path narrows into trees and bushes. Once at the top and as you step out onto the rock, a spectacular view opens up to the forest and rivers below. I felt terrified of standing on the rock since I wasn’t comfortable with the minimal surface area coverage. :O
Fortunately, it rained the day we hiked, so no crowds at the top. Otherwise, there would be a very long queue to get as awesome of a picture as we did.
The other hike that we planned to do the second day – but passed on because 1) we were tired and 2) duration of hike estimated to be 5.5 to 6 hours – was Yakusugi Land. The objective of this hike would be to see Jomon-Sugi, the oldest cedar tree alive! Similar to Shiratani, you’ll witness a magical forest landscape unlike anything you’ve seen before. I’ll plan to do this one upon a revisit. 🙂
Highly recommend at least one of these two hikes if you’re ever in the area!
Bathe in natural onsens
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to find any type of hot tubs to bathe in. Jackpot(!) because you can find onsens (Japanese hot springs) all over due to the country’s high volcanic activity. We visited two onsens in Yakushima, Yudomari onsen and Hirauchi onsen.
Note a couple rules of simple etiquette for the onsens:
- Thoroughly cleanse your body before you go into the onsen. No washing yourself of any kind in the water, once you’re in. Just relax and bathe.
- For most onsens, men and women will bathe together…naked. One of the ones we went to, we had to be naked but, there was a barrier to separate men and women (Yudomari). The other one we went to, men and women bathed together, but women had the option to cover themselves, which I did (Hirauchi). Simply an interesting experience. Everyone kept their eye gazes to themselves, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
- Tattoos are typically not allowed since they’re associated with gangs. However, if you are alone at the onsen, you could probably go in. Be respectful when others join you, thereafter.
Ok, we didn’t physically chase waterfalls, but we had an adventure driving around with locals to see them. I’m unsure if visiting the falls up close is allowed anymore since I remember hearing about accidents involved. Even so, just spotting the waterfalls from afar was a deal. We got to see Senpiro no Taki and Toro-ki no Taki (taki means waterfall).
From our ryokan, it took about 45 minutes to go halfway around the island to where the tourist sites (waterfalls, some onsens) are by bus. Another popular waterfall we unfortunately couldn’t visit is Oh-ko no Taki. It stands as one of the top waterfalls in Japan. It’s located about an hour and a half going clockwise around the island for us. Due to some improvisation and little planning on our third day, we decided to forego this site since it was the only attraction that far across the island to see. Truthfully, we got stranded because we relied on an outdated bus schedule (even though it was the most recent schedule available to tourists). All part of the adventure, am I right!
These waterfalls are pretty majestic even from afar!
Hangout with locals
By far the highlight of my trip in Yakushima! Everyone on this island is unbelievably kind and friendly. Through a series of untimed circumstances during our second day, the events, inadvertently, turned out way better than I could wish for.
The second day started out with missing a bus (Yakushima has two bus companies, and we mistook one for the other) to go sight see around the island. While waiting for the next bus, we decided to make a trip to the grocery store to find snacks for the trip around the island. On our way out, rain and pour halted our exit, so we stood in the waiting area of the grocery store, timing a run to the bus stop.
As we stood there, an elderly, Japanese man started to chat us up. He spoke a little bit of English and had this “love for life” aura about him (cue my immediate attraction on a human level for him). He proceeded to introduce us to his wife, and we chatted about each other’s background. Due to the friendly conversation, we missed the next bus. Finally, the rain stopped, so N and I parted ways with the couple to find a sit-down restaurant that we wanted to try for lunch. Upon reaching the restaurant, we discovered that it closed down for good. The rain started up again by this point.
As we stood there, once again, waiting for rain to subside and looking for another restaurant close by, a car pulled up next to us. Hello, elderly couple! They asked us if we needed a ride anywhere. Once we informed them of our plans to feed our stomachs, and then visit the waterfalls and onsens, they insisted in inviting us back to their place to cook for us as well as offered to take us around the island to sightsee! Naturally, we stayed vigilant but felt comfortable from our conversation with them earlier that they were simply kind people. 🙂
Long story short, our day consisted of visiting their lovely home and were fed cold, soba noodles, fruits, and dessert. We listened to the old man tell us about his many hobbies, watched him play the harmonica for us, and joked around with mutual broken English, broken Japanese exchanges.
Then, they drove us around to visit some of the sites mentioned above. When they dropped us off, back at our ryokan, we kindly asked for their address to send them a small, thank-you gift. As expected, they adamantly refused. He said it was their pleasure. We left it at that, and they took off. But really, it was our pleasure.
I continue to think about the couple living their happy lives and only wish them the best! I feel grateful for such an amazing experience. There’s no question that these genuine moments cement my love for traveling – meeting compassionate people and reaffirming my idea of we are one people of the world.
Eat unique food
Because Yakushima sits separately as its own island at the southern tip of Japan, different types of fish caught around here become unique delicacies in this region. There’s no question that sushi in Japan trumps everywhere else, but sushi in Yakushima can speak for itself.
We ate at the same sushi restaurant twice because of the friendly owner and atmosphere as well as for the unique food on the menu.
Yakushima will always be a gem in my heart. I highly recommend visiting this island if you crave for moments surrounded by natural beauty. The forests, the waterfalls, the river, the natural hot springs, and the people are way more than enough to satisfy that craving. You’ll get a mix of relaxation and exploration. Plenty of adventures to embark on, and you’ll emerge full of appreciation and awe for nature.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my visit in Japan – Osaka and Kyoto!
Thanks for reading!! 😀