Yakul dashing through a lush ancient forest with Ashitaka on his back. Kodamas watch surreptitiously from mossy rocks as Moro approaches, with San, the Princess Mononoke, riding tall and ready to protect her forest. These images came easily to mind as my ferry, Yaku 2, pulled into Port Miyanoura one misty morning.
I’d been dreaming of visiting Yakushima and walking in Yakul’s and Moro’s footsteps ever since I found out that Yakushima had been a key inspiration for Princess Mononoke, one of Studio Ghibli’s best and one that sends a strong message about environmental protection. So when I found a volunteering opportunity in Yakushima on Workaway, it was a no brainer that I sign up immediately.
I am very grateful to my host for accepting me although I had only about a week. Yet, in that short time, I had the most wonderful experience in Japan, being so close to the community, culture and nature.
They say it rains 35 days a month in Yakushima. Indeed, it was raining heavily by the time I arrived at the pick-up point that was pre-arranged with my host, Harada-san. The volunteer program was his brainchild and he only had a couple of other volunteers before us.
My fellow volunteers this time came from Poland, Switzerland and China. He brought us to Senvus Village first, and introduced us to the scent cafe and museum at Senvus House, as well as the organic garden and farm where most of our duties would be based.
He then brought us to Ohzora High School(*Japanese Only), where we would interact with students from all all over Japan who come here for a one-week bootcamp before their graduation.
We would also stay at the teachers’ dormitory here during our volunteering period. As the volunteering program was just getting started, we had a more fluid schedule. Today, the program is even more enriching for volunteers with a well-designed program for volunteer interaction with high school students and activities at Senvus Village.
On sunny days, the four of us would begin our days on the verandah of Senvus House overlooking the garden and beyond, with coffee, snacks and sometimes ice cream. The cafe wasn’t receiving guests yet, so the cleaning was easy and quickly finished. As all of us spoke foreign languages, we would spend a couple of hours in the morning translating a Yakushima promotional video into our native languages – Polish, German, Malay and Chinese – especially when it rains … again.
We would make use of the kitchen at the café or at the staff quarters to prepare lunch. Two of the female staff, Megumi-san and Kazu-san, would guide us in the preparation of Japanese food like ramen, chirashi sushi and onigiri, as well as sweets like kakara dango. Simply heavenly!
We would also make juice from tankan and mandarin oranges picked straight from the farm, and make tea with peppermint and other leaves from the scent (herb) garden. It simply doesn’t get any fresher than this – they were the most delicious drinks I ever had.
We would join the high school students at Ohzora’s canteen for dinner. During this time, we would try to interact with them in English, as the program was meant to help Japanese student become more confident speaking in English with foreigners. The boys and girls were very shy initially, and we didn’t manage to talk much to them for the first two days.
But after we had some fieldwork together, they became more comfortable with us at the dinner table and we would adjourn to a game of basketball after that. It was really fun to share our experiences with each other, albeit in our limited Japanese and English. This kind of interaction is definitely recommended, especially for those of us who want to improve our nihongo!
Outdoor lessons were an important part of the students’ time in Yakushima. We had the chance to work with them in the paddy fields, tilling the soil in mud up to our shins, to prepare for the upcoming planting season. It was fun squealing with the kids as our feet sank into the soft soil – for most of us, this was our first experience working in a paddy field.
Next to the field was a giant water mill, measuring 8 meters in diameter, that was created by master water mill craftsman Hidehiro Nose for threshing, rice polishing and flour milling.
We were lucky to have a “sweet potato professor” visiting from a university in Kagoshima during our stay. He taught us the right way to plant and farm, and worked with us for a few hours in the field.
I am impressed at how farming is so important and respected here that they have professors who dedicate their careers to studying sweet potatoes. Come to think of it, that’s the way it ought to be, isn’t it? Because we’re growing food!
The organic farm at Senvus Village conveys the message of safe and sustainable farming through 3 No’s – No agricultural chemicals, No weed killer, No chemical fertilizer.
The arrival of the “sweet potato professor” is part of a commitment to find original and innovative farming methods based on the rich natural environment in Yakushima, such as using microbes and developing permaculture. As far as I could taste during my one week there, the food grown in Yakushima is indeed very special, and I hope to return for more.
Volunteering in this program was more fun than work. Volunteers are required to commit to 4-5 hours per day with the weekend off to explore Yakushima all on our own. Even during week days, our host would take us out in his car to major points of interest in the southern part of Yakushima, since these were the closest to Senvus Village and the school.
One time, we packed lunch and had a great afternoon lounging around by the seaside and hunting deer and macaques during our drive. Having personal transportation is great, since public transport is rare and expensive, as is the case in most Japanese countryside. Alternatively, hitch-hiking would be an option but large groups (like ours) would make drivers think twice about stopping.
The forests of Yakushima became Japan’s first UNESCO Natural World Heritage site in 1993, along with Shirakami Sanchi in Aomori/Akita, which also inspired the art of Princess Mononoke with its mystical mountains.
As Shiratani Unsuikyo – the “Princess Mononoke Forest” – was in the north of the island, we decided to skip it this time, and went hiking at the smaller but still worthy Yakusugi Land. The cedar trees here are considerably younger – not yet 3,000 years old – compared to the Jomon Sugi that is said to be 7,500 years old!
The hike was less than 3 hours in and out, and doable even for a novice hiker. We bumped into a seasoned hiker who was emerging from the forests after a five-day hike. He told us he’d been to many forests and mountains, but there’s nothing quite like these in Yakushima. We all nodded in agreement, even when we had only seen a small part of the island. In each of our little hearts, we vowed to return to this magical place to explore more.
There are two waterfalls in Yakushima, and they happen to be located in the southern part of the island. Although it was just the beginning of spring, the amount of water that came tumbling down at the falls was impressive. After all, Yakushima records by far the most rainfall in all of Japan, with its central mountainous area receiving more than ten times the national average each year. The amount of rain is the reason why Yakushima is famed for its misty mountains and mysterious atmosphere.
The “hidden” ocean onsen under a full moon at Yudomari Onsen
Nighttime Yakushima is a different kind of magic, and definitely my most memorable experience here. The island is known for its ocean onsen, two of which are very close to the Ohzora High School. The Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen is only accessible during low tide that happens twice a day, while the Yudomari Onsen is accessible anytime. When our host brought us for a recce during the day, we unanimously settled on Yudomari Onsen.
You see, there is a “hidden” onsen here and that was where we went to dip for 3 hours under the full moon. When you arrive at the onsen, walk past the main onsen area towards the rocky seaside. You will need to climb a bit of the treacherous-looking rocks, but it is generally safe. You will see a small oval-shaped rockpool on the verge of the ocean. Undress and go into the hot water for an out-of-this-world onsen experience.
The “Blair Witch” experience under a sky full of (shooting) stars
When our host had to go to Tokyo for business, he invited us to use his house – a wooden, resort-like villa that overlooks the ocean from the hill side where it stood. Megumi-san and Kazu-san came over to help us make sushi rolls for dinner and some onigiri for our hike at Yakusugi Land the next day. We made plans to venture out to the ocean at night. After dinner, we made our way down the hill and through a forested area, guided by the GPS and flashlight on our phones.
We kept talking and laughing to calm our nerves as we heard dogs howl in the distance. We were also a bit apprehensive as we weren’t sure if the GPS was right and where the dark path before us would lead us.
Luckily we had each other, and we eventually came to a little stony pier jutting out into the dark ocean. We lay down in silence for an hour or two, under a blanket of stars. We might be imagining it, but we were sure at that time that we saw quite a few shooting stars.
Very often, we meet interesting travelers during our trips, only to have to say goodbye the next day. With volunteering, we get to spend every waking moment together. We talk, we laugh, we share our experiences and discover we have so much to learn from each other.
The Polish volunteer had been in Japan for quite some time already traveling and working in Hokkaido, and would be headed to Okinawa after Yakushima. The Swiss volunteer had just won a scholarship from the Swiss-Japanese Chamber of Commerce and would soon move to Tokyo.
The Chinese volunteer had taught children for a year in Kenya and was to further her studies in Canada. I had just returned from a 6-year stint in China and taking a gap year to rejuvenate and re-evaluate my passions.
Volunteering brings like-minded people together. The four of us had all come from different countries and backgrounds, but we had chosen this place for a specific reason – perhaps a passion for the place, the lifestyle or the community and culture. We imagine ourselves as part of Yakushima’s magical biodiversity; for all our differences, a common passion for adventure has paved the way for a much treasured, lifelong friendship.
The Yakushima Workaway Program
Workaway is a platform that connects hosts who need help with volunteers who can render the assistance. It is a great way to travel as the hosts will provide accommodation and food, as well as interaction and insights into local communities, in exchange for volunteering hours.
There are many types of jobs available, so feel free to choose the ones that meet your own interests and travel needs. It is free to look up information on potential hosts, but you need to pay an annual fee to contact them – USD42 for one person or USD54 for couple/two friends – so do evaluate if you’re serious about volunteering before signing up.
Other than Workaway, there are also a number of other websites where one can register to volunteer for different causes, such as WWOOF that is focused on organic farming and sustainability. Most of these platforms charge a fee, but on forums like Couchsurfing, we can also find hosts who post openings, or we can inquire about volunteering opportunities at our travel destinations.
Access to Yakushima
Yakushima is accessible by air and sea. JAL operates flights to and from Osaka, Fukuoka and Kagoshima.
The more common way is by sea from Kagoshima. There are 3 types of ferry choices, depending on your time and budget. For a detailed schedule, please check here.
Additional Information on Yakushima