Yakushima is an island off the Southern most tip of the western most Island in Japan, Kyushu. It takes about two hours to get there by jet ferry or 4 by regular ferry. It is round. It is a mountain range that jets straight up from the sea bed with black volcanic rocky beaches and a slew of Alpine regions in the middle. There is virtually no flat land on the island. Also, due to its weather (rain 50% of the year) it contains some of the most ancient forests on earth, including 3 to 7 thousand year old cedar trees.
There are many routes into the ancient woodlands or to the high Alpine regiions. Many of them can be halfway accessed by bus from Miyonoura or Anbo, the port towns. We had the time so we decided to walk it all the way up from the little town of Kurio, where we camped near a beach scattered with black volcanic rocks. We had the luck of speaking to a local mountain guide who spoke fluent English who recommended the less traveled Hanayama trail up into the mountains, which begins as a dirt road or “sidewalk” according to the road sign. This “road” takes you to the Hanayama trail head where we had the luck of seeing three monkeys. Yakushima monkeys are more curious than scared. They are protected and have no reason to fear humans so the gazed at us from a distance of about 20 feet sitting in the road as we proceeded up the steep entrance to the trail head. They were going our direction but didn’t follow us far. The next 10 hours where a slow walk upwards. We made it to our destination, a primitive mountain hut by the name of Shikanosawa. We had a great deal of company and were lucky to get enough space on the top bunk level to sleep. When we arrived at the hut I had apprehensions because their were about 5 tents crammed in a space in the brush not big enough for 3 tents, so I was sure that the hut itself was booked solid. I poked my head in single room, four stone walls with two levels of floor for sleeping. While it was pretty full where was room for two and the inhabitants waved us in and welcomed us to their shared home for the night. It never ceases to amaze me that the Japanese seem to share a common philosophy that there is room for everybody. They will organize and reorganize to make room and make sure nobody is left out. Quite a contrast to our American cowboy dream of open spaces and living miles from your neighbor. Tolerance and even hospitality would be a good description of their invitation into the small stone room. We were the last to show up and received kindness rather than the cold shoulder.
Exhausted, we slept in the little room with 18 other people, I don’t think we stayed awake much past sundown. We woke to the stirring of the serious mountaineers who where cooking breakfast and packing for the next leg of their journey. We decided that they had the right idea and began to gather our sleeping bag and bed rolls. Within two hours we would leave the ancient tree line behind and climb though stunted bamboo grass trails, up boulders and through spring water beds to the top of Mount Nagata. Up just a little further by the same methods to Miyanoura Dake (peak) the highest point on the island where a crowd had gathered to take in the view. Today we have far more company on the trail, as we have come to the midway point between where we started and the place we are going to finish, which happens to be where most Yakushima mountain travelers start. Like going the wrong way on a one way street, the oncoming traffic greeted us, each and every one. “Konnichiwa. Sumimasen. Ee. Hai. Douzo.” The treeless mountain tops where bright green with spring bamboo grass and dotted with giant boulders through which the trail was weaving. From one peak to another they looked like a loosely strewn herd of elephants on a grassy hillside, except that the grass would be knee or shoulder high and the elephants would be the size of a three story house.
From Miyanoura Dake it was an alpine stroll past several more peaks before heading down into the ancient thickets again. The cedars grope the soil with thousands of interwoven roots that look like an overtentacled octopus standing on the ground, culminating into the giant stump ten fee above the forest floor. Then skyward an every direction, the cover of this spring’s dark green canvas. Water everywhere, springs coming out of rocks, the trail is half stream beds and our feet stay wet the entire way.
About 6 hours after starting the day we arrive at a road and a bus stop. This will be our route back to Anbo, the other small port town on the island. Then change buses then to taxi and finally at home in our tent on the ocean. The rest of our time on the island involved moving camp to Miyanoura and readying ourselves for the ride back to the mainland with a quick dip in an onsen hot spring. Time well spent.
Hints and Advice if you go: Give yourself at least 4 to 6 days on the island, reserve ferry from Kagoshima ahead of time if possible, especially if traveling in a popular travel season. The buses are not cheap in Yakushima but a pass is 3000yen for two days. Worth it unless you plan on doing a lot of walking or renting a bike .