Yakushima is one of the most magical places I've visited in Japan. The mountains are profoundly spiritual (2000+ year old trees have a wisdom to them), the people are extremely welcoming, and the oceanside onsen is luxurious and adventurous all at the same time.
I know once you visit you'll want to return.
For a first time visitor, I recommend going for at least four or five days. That will give you enough time to do more than one day-hike as well as drive the entire island exploring the sites along the way. Easiest and quickest to fly to the island—there are direct flights from Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kagoshima. Or if you have more time, you can take the four-hour ferry or the two-hour jetfoil which both leave from Kagoshima. Once you arrive on the island, I highly recommend renting a car. There is public transportation, but it doesn't run so frequently. Having a car will give you the freedom to explore on your own time.
Hiking on Yakushima
For the hikers/nature enthusiasts, trails are well-marked and accessible, but to take full advantage of the natural wonders, I'd recommend working with a guide. Cameron from Yakushima Experience is my favorite. I've hiked a few different trails and can definitely recommend them:
- Miyanouradake (overnight hike) - Watching the sunrise from a granite rock, 1/2 way along the hike on the 2nd morning was something I'll never forget. Would do it again. Was also an experience to stay in one of the cabins on the mountain. Clean and the other hikers were very respectful/responsible. Jomonsugi, the oldest tree on the island, is part of the route.
- Tachudake (day hike) - Loved the view from the top of this hike, you are on top of a HUGE boulder overlooking the many mountains on Yakushima. Course was not too steep, and even using the ropes to get up to the boulder at the peak wasn't too scary! As someone who can be tentative around heights, I was nervous at first, but then got really comfortable and was able to enjoy.
- Shirataniunsuikyo (day hike) - This is the fabled moss forest that inspired Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. It's beautiful to hike through. There are many different trails, so you can go more than once depending on how much time you have, or what loops you do.
On every trip I love to dedicate one whole day to just driving around the island and visiting other areas than where I am staying.
Here is an some places to stop along the way around the island, going clockwise around the island from Shiki No Yado (my usual accommodations). This isn't an exhaustive list of everything on the island, but it'll get you going!
- Ohko Waterfall - the spray from this cascading waterfall is so refreshing. And the sound of the water falling is impressive! You can climb over the rocks right to the pool and the SUPER brave can jump in. But be aware, it is cold and the water is strong, so not for the faint of heart.
- Seibu Rindo Forest Path - this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along the road you’ll find families of Japanese Macaque and deer. The monkeys are very entertaining and have been known to have a few antics of their own.
- Nagata - A beach area where loggerhead turtles lay their eggs in summer! Also great for a picnic.
- Coffee at Issou -- they have been on the island for over 10 years. Have a really tuned-in design aesthetic -- take your coffees to the back patio and enjoy the waterfall that you can see in the distance and the hammock.
- Potential lunch places:
- By Nagata - Jarai Tei - small restaurant, only 3 tables, does set meals, normally has the option between a fish or a pork dish
- By the port - Panorama Restaurant -- small plates to share, washoku cuisine.
- By the airport - Il Mare -- Italian, it’s the most popular pizza place on the island -- and it’s nice because at lunch you can go without a reservation, at dinner time you have to reserve ahead. Last order is at 14:30 and it closes at 15:00.
- Alt - just pick up light snacks from any grocery store and enjoy bites along the way!
- Anbo - the whole town is cute. If you wanted you could also arrange some kind of Stand-up Paddle Board Experience that normally happens in the Anbo River. Here is a provider that offers it.
- Smiley’s -- lovely little cafe by the port -- good sweet treats!
- Senpirono Waterfalls - the whole mountain side is granite and the waterfalls cascade along one side. Really beautiful vista.
- Sankara is a resort on the mountainside overlooking the ocean. They have a great view at sunset over the water and I would recommend stopping in here for a cocktail by the pool.
You can use this shared Google map as an overlay on your map app to chart your way around the island.
Onsening on Yakushima
One of my favorite parts of the island is getting to soak in the baths. The water here comes straight from the earth, already warm. These are my three favorite baths. I feel they offer more than just a soak, but an opportunity to connect with the locals and with nature.
Hirauchi - The photo above doesn't do the oceanside onsen justice. The picture was taken around midnight, using a long exposure time to try and capture both the water and the human. There is really nothing like sitting in a warm bath and listening to crashing waves. Very tranquil. This is a co-ed bath, women should wear a wrap around towel (like in the photo) and men normally cover their privates with a wash cloth. It costs 100 yen per person - there is a donation at the ramp that leads down to the baths. Rinse off with the buckets provided before entering in the water. The baths are accessible in a window around low-tide (2 hours on either side). I recommend stopping by the baths during the day-light so you can get a better idea for where to park and where to walk.
Onoaida Hot Spring - This is the local neighborhood onsen that is HOTTER than HOT! It’s amazing to see how the Japanese can handle such warm water. This local bath house is frequented by most people every night before they go to bed, it is lively and the folks inside are chatty. Bring your own towels and soap, they do not provide it there.
Yudomari Seaside Onsen - Similar to Hirauchi, this is a donation based onsen next to the ocean, available 24 hours. Be sure to deposit 100 yen when you arrive. Rinse off before entering the baths. There are two different pools here, one closer to the parking lot that has a 'modesty screen' to separate men and women, and one closer to the ocean that is mixed sexes. Enjoy!!
Sleeping on Yakushima
- Shiki no Yado - a family run accommodation that provides breakfast, dinner and the best hospitality! You'll enjoy the comfortable rooms, the outdoor showers, and dining al fresco. You can message them in English to reserve.
- Sankara - Luxury resort, perched up on a hill overlooking the ocean. Has private villas and suites. Really lovely spa focusing on Thai massages. Two different restaurants and a pool that you'll want to spend all day at!
- Airbnbs - there are a handful of Airbnb's popping up on the island, so you can rent your very own home on the island if you'd like!
Who I Recommend to Visit Yakushima
When I'm speaking with a potential traveler and they mention that they love being active, the outdoors, or visiting rural destinations I immediately think they should go to Yakushima. The hikes I have done there are my favorite in all of Japan. But more than the hiking, Japan is a country of island, over 7000, they say. Yakushima is an thriving example of the supportive communities that form on these smaller, more remote islands. There is a very supportive nature of the islanders and I think they offer even more omotenashi (Japanese word for hospitality) that some of the finest ryokan in Kyoto! Cannot wait for others to experience it.