Yakushima | Japan’s Mossy Mountain Retreat

I’d come across a random in-flight magazine blurb about Yakushima years ago, and had been captivated ever since. The pictures on google images are simply stunning: crystal clear rivers, mossy cedar forests, granite waterfalls, and even steep coastal highways with beaches. With Japan being fairly well connected to the USA, it was thus rather surprising that I’d never heard of anyone I knew making it out to Yakushima. But when it came time for us to look at logistics for our trip to Japan, I quickly learned why – it’s not that easy to get to. One can either hop a pricey flight from a limited set of cities in southern Japan (which are prone to cancellation) or take 2-4 hour ferry from Kagoshima over rough seas. We opted for the latter, but even splurging on the hydrofoil had us getting slammed by the biggest waves I’d seen since working in the Bering Sea as a reckless 22 year old. Despite getting hammered by 10-meter swells and pouring rain, our boat pulled in to Miyanoura port on Yakushima’s north coast right on time – Japanese efficiency is truly remarkable.

Our travel luck continued upon arrival, immediately hopping on a circle-island bus to the Orix rental car counter (near the airport) for the journey to our Airbnb on the south coast. Getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time in nearly a year was a bit daunting at first, especially since I hadn’t driven a car on the left hand side since Australia in 2019. But there’s little traffic on the island of Yakushima, and we quickly rekindled our love of road tripping again. The scenery around our Airbnb was impossibly picturesque, set amongst vine-wrapped boulders and dense forests with a view to the ocean. The host (whose husband built the sleek cabin out of local cedar that smelled incredible) was impossibly friendly and welcoming, setting the tone for an amazing week here. They even had a goat with his own little house for Andy to feed, who hilariously gave Tara a nice little nip when she got too close. It’ll be hard to top relaxing in the back porch hammock – and those sunsets/stargazing by the campfire.

For most visitors to Yakushima, whom are predominantly Japanese, seeing the island’s ancient yakasugi cedars are the top priority – with many trees having individual names and related historical relevance. The best place for us to get a first feel for this experience was at Yakasugi Land, about 3000 feet and an hour up the mountain from our lodging via scenic roads snaking along the cliffsides. The longest trail that they had open that day (due to flooding and washouts) was a 50-minute circuit along boardwalk staircases with numerous suspension bridges over raging rapids. Mossy rocks and tree trunks lined most of the route, eventually taking us to a few of the famous yakasugis – massive towers with gnarled branches, each looking completely different. It was easy to see how these 1000 year old giants had become so entwined with local folklore. A few days later we headed up to Shiritani Unsui on the north coast for another peek at the yakasugis, this time with sunny skies (Yakasugi Land was rather frigid and drizzly the day we went).  This time even a family of Japanese macaques came out to enjoy the weather!

Plenty more of these local primates joined us as we drove the island’s ring road, which is no longer continuous (as of 2024) following a massive landslide that sent part of the highway into the sea. The sections of the road nearest to the landslide were single lane and kinda sketchy, but had more deer than tourists and jaw-dropping views of the ocean. Another highlight near the end of the drivable road was Inakahama Beach. While it was too cold to take a dip there, the sight of a billowing volcano jutting out of the water just offshore was awesome. For swimming, there’s loads of onsen (natural hot springs) around the island – with the most famous being the coastal ones only usable at low tide. The settings for those onsen were undoubtedly gorgeous, but we felt kinda weird joining a bunch of naked local men out in the open (especially with a small child). The Japanese are oddly pretty insistent about being naked for most onsen – sans an incredible one that we went to in Hakone that I’ll write up soon.

Our favorite experience on Yakushima was probably kayaking on the Anbo River. Being slightly before the summer busy season, we had the entire river to ourselves. Water there is so clear that you can see 20 feet down to the sandy bottom (which looked even more striking from the bridge resembling a huge Torii gate above). At 55 degrees, the full sun made it feel pretty warm out and actually somewhat refreshing to get a little wet while paddling. As the river narrowed upstream from Anbo town, we had a blast navigating the weird currents where tidal flows met the river rapids. When we stopped for some bouldering and hiking near some rapids that were too big to pass, Andy unfortunately fell in the river and our focus soon turned to getting him warm and home. But man, that kid sure is a trooper – he still kept a smile on his face nearly all day long.

Perhaps Yakushima’s only real downside appeared to be a lack of open restaurants. We only managed to get into a single ramen joint (that new friends we met on a forest hike took us too) and a had a subpar burger at the ubiquitous Japanese chain called MOS Burger. Thankfully the grocery stores on the island always had ridiculously cheap and fresh sashimi, which we stocked up on pretty much every night and got stuffed for under US$30. We also found a great bakery that had musubis, our favorite Hawaiian treat that seems to have now made it solidly into Japanese cuisine.  Local brews from Yakushima Brewery exceeded expectations too.

On our last day, we finally visited Senpiro Falls – which featured heavily in the pictures that drew us to Yakushima in the first place. They were every bit as beautiful as I had hoped, which seemed to be the case almost everywhere we went. The people of Yakushima were super friendly too, our Airbnb host was even able to connect with the public bus operator to retrieve Andy’s jacket that he lost on day 1! Coastal drives reminiscent of California’s PCH, forests to rival Western Washington, rivers as clear as Barton Springs, and mountain retreats remining us of Kona – it was hard to leave indeed. Luckily our month in Japan had only just begun…

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