Yakushima has much to offer nature lovers, and its spectacular Yakusugi – ancient Japanese cedar trees – are well worth the hype. However, there is far more to Yakushima than hiking its beautiful forests, and there are other trees that are worth seeing. While the Yakusugi are undoubtedly the highlight, I was just as enchanted by the amazing banyan trees in the area.
Banyans are also called strangler figs, a name that is well deserved. They are figs whose seeds are spread by birds, and they grow in the cracks and crevices of other trees. Their roots then stretch and grow down, thickening and entangling to form a trunk. The banyan can sometimes envelop the host tree entirely, which can cause it to die. When the host decays, it leaves behind a hollow core that often becomes a home for various animals. While this is unfortunate for the host tree, banyan trees are often breathtakingly beautiful. You can find banyan throughout southern Japan and other Asian countries, and it is, in fact, that national tree of India.
Banyans need moisture and warm climates so Yakushima is a good home for them. You can find them throughout the island, but some of the best are in Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park. The park is rather small and can be explored in under an hour, but the banyan it houses are massive and amazing. Some have roots that cascade down into a wall, while others have twisted into an arch. You can find young, smaller trees as well as giant older banyan, many of which have grown so large you can no longer see the host. The thick tree cover and its twisting vines and roots make you feel like you’ve just wandered into a jungle.
Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park is just as otherworldly as the more famous forests on the island, and I felt like I had stepped into a fairy tale. The park doesn’t get the same crowds that some of Yakushima’s more popular spots receive, but it is a relaxing place to bask in nature. There are even benches and gazebos around the park if you want to sit and take in the gorgeous scenery.
The park’s small size means that it is easy to fit into your schedule as you do not need to allocate the same time here as you would in Shiratani Unsuikyo or Yakusugi Land. It makes a great respite from hiking and a peaceful way to start or end your day.
Additionally, it is centrally located, and it’s an easy 15-minute drive from Miyanoura. It’s also right along the coast so there is no need to worry about mountain drives. Be sure to stop by Mam’s Cookie Studio on the way back for some delicious treats. For those without a car, it’s a five-minute walk from the Shitoko bus stop. Entrance is only 200 yen, and the park is open from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM.
While the trees at Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park are no doubt wonderful, the most impressive banyan on Yakushima is the Nakama Gajumaru Banyan Tree. It is a little out of the way, but it is nothing short of amazing and well worth a stop.
This giant 300-year-old tree arches over the roadway, forming an impressive tunnel you can drive or walk through. It’s an intricate weaving of vines, and it feels like the entranceway to an evil forest or a witch’s lair. The scale is astounding, and the banyan stretches to cover a few different trees, to the point where it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. If you walk around the town, you can find other banyan trees though none quite as good as the Nakama Gajumaru Banyan Tree.
The tree is an hour from Miyanoura, so getting there is a commitment. However, it is quite close Kurio Beach and Okono Falls, one of Yakushima’s best waterfalls, so it’s a great place to stretch your legs before continuing onward to the falls. If you crave even more trees, you can find Yakushima’s mangrove forest 15 minutes away along the Kurio River.
While the banyan may not be as well known as the Yakusugi, these two spots are well worth checking out if you have a few days on the island. These trees are no less magical than the Yakusugi, and they offer a chance to see a different side of Yakushima’s stunning natural beauty (and a great way to avoid the crowds). Both Shitoko Gajumaru Banyan Park and the Nakama Gajumaru Banyan Tree are hidden gems, and you will not be disappointed.