The island of Yakushima is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in Japan. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its scenery has inspired the anime film Mononoke Hime. While it is a fairly small island, there are many things to do in Yakushima. You can go snorkeling or white water rafting, walk along beaches, see waterfalls and visit an onsen. However, its main draw is its ancient forest with Yakisugi cedar trees that are over a thousand years old. If you take a trip to Yakushima, here are two of the best nature reserves that should be at the top of your list.
Shiratani Unsuikyo is one of the most famous spots on the island, and given its unspoiled beauty, it’s easy to understand why. It has various walking trails, the longest of which take around five hours to complete. The ten hour hike to Jomonsugi, the most famous cedar tree on the island, takes around ten hours to hike to, and is very popular with hikers. However, Shiratani Unsuikyo is arguably the better hike as it takes you through stunning moss covered forests, including an area called ‘Mononoke Hime Forest’. Non- hikers can also enjoy the forest. Shiratani Unsuikyo has a one hour course which consists almost entirely of paved paths and wooden stairs so it isn’t particularly challenging. Unlike the longer courses, proper hiking gear is not required for the hour trail. Regardless of which trail course you choose to explore, you will be treated to a breathtakingly beautiful forest. The trail winds around passing rivers with crystal clear waters and small waterfalls, but it is the gorgeous moss covered trees that are the most enchanting. While lush greenery is plentiful on the island, this is the best place for especially beautiful moss. Another highlight in this reserve is Yayoi Sugi, a huge tree estimated to be around 3000 years old.
As it is one of the most popular places, it can get crowded during the high season, but its reputation is well deserved as it is nothing short of magical. The entrance fee is 500 yen which helps to cover maintenance, and if you come by car there is ample free parking. It is about 30 minutes from Miyanoura port, and those without a car can access it via bus for 520 yen. When you visit be sure to check the weather warnings. Yakushima is prone to sudden showers, and while light rain poses no problem, parts of the trail can get flooded during heavy rainfall.
While the name may conjure up images of an amusement park, Yakusugi Land is a quiet, beautiful stretch of forest where you can find various trails which last between 30 and 150 minutes. Like Shiratani, the shorter trails are mostly on boardwalks while the longer ones vary in type. Regardless of which trail you choose, it is generally less crowded than Shiratani Unsuikyo, but the scenery is just as stunning. The Yakusugi trees are younger here and one of the oldest, the Buddha Tree, that all trails pass, is a comparatively young 1800 years old. While Yakasugi Land isn’t as mossy as Shiratani, there are still plenty of amazing moss covered trees and stumps. I was most impressed by the giant trees leaning over the path, and I found the scale of the cedar trees awe inspiring. Yakusugi Land is a great place to learn about the region as there are various signs around the park with both English and Japanese explanations. You can read about things like logging and regeneration in the region. Regeneration of tree stumps is a fascinating process where a new tree grows from the stump of a different one. You can see these amazing trees here.
Access is a bit more difficult. The road is not for the faint hearted as it winds through the mountains and is often quite narrow with some blind turns. I did, however, spot far more monkeys than cars so if you go in the low season (outside of the summer months), you’re unlikely to encounter too much traffic. It’s about 40 minutes from Anbo port or an hour from Miyanoura. There are buses from Anbo (740 yen one way), which come twice a day. Entrance is 300 yen.
The easiest way to access Yakushima is via ferry from Kagoshima, and it is possible to do both parks and various other sights in a weekend trip from Kagoshima. The trip takes two or three hours and costs 15000 yen round trip. There is also an airport on the island with connections to Kagoshima, Osaka, and Fukuoka. A car is the best way to explore the city, and you can find rental cars around the ports or airports, many of which will pick you up from the port.
Yakushima is well worth the trip, even for people who don’t usually go hiking. I typically avoid exercise like the plague, and I’m not what you would call outdoorsy. However, Yakushima was one of the best experiences of my life and I would go back in a heartbeat. Regardless of your hiking experience, everyone is sure to fall in love with the astoundingly beautiful and magical forests of Yakushima. Shiratani Unsuikyo and Yakusugi Land are both spectacular forests. They are less challenging than the famous Jomonsugi hike, but just as beautiful!
Yakushima Reserves Website *Japanese Only