Visiting Yakushima Island, a microcosm of nature on the Japanese islands
The majority of Yaksuhima Island, also known as the Alps of the ocean, is a mountainous area covered in forest. An impressive mountain landscape is formed by Mt. Miyanoura sitting in the middle of the island at its highest point, 1,936 meters above sea level, and the surrounding range of mountains standing over 1,800 meters high.
Yakushima Island is located in southern Japan and has a climate that differs at each elevation. The wide range of climatic zones varies from subtropical to nearly subarctic. One of the island’s major characteristics is a vertical distribution of the vegetation that can be seen in Japan. Because of this rarity and the beauty of the landscape, the island was registered as a World Natural Heritage in 1993.
When you actually take a walk on Yakushima Island, you’ll find an unusual landscape. While subtropical flowers such as hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom in colonies along the coast, venture into the mountains and you’ll see numerous giant cedar trees (Yakusugi) over a thousand years old and snowscapes on mountain peaks.
A lot of rain falls throughout the year on Yakushima Island. A certain Japanese travel account says, “It rains 35 days out of the month.” It’s not unusual for tourists to experience rain throughout their stay.
Yoshihiro Kikuchi works as a mountain climbing guide on Yakushima Island as well as a photojournalist who writes and edits sightseeing guidebooks on the island. He notes, “Summer is a popular season for sightseeing, but I recommend spring if you want to go hiking on mountains.”
Kikuchi: The rainy season starts after mid-May on Yakushima Island, so I recommend hiking between early April and early May when there is relatively little rain. The wild cherry blossoms bloom in April, so island residents also hike the mountains to view the blossoms.
The wild cherry blossoms in spring on Yakushima Island are distinctive for light pink flowers and red buds that appear together. If you want an especially good trekking spot, go to Taikoiwa (Drum Rock), which juts out from the mountain’s surface at approximately 1,050 meters above sea level deep within Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine. From there, you can look down on an expanse of newly budded wild cherry blossoms and trees with vibrant new greenery.
Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine is a natural recreation forest that is approximately 600 to 1,050 meters above sea level. It’s a designated recreational spot where you can experience the forest of Yakushima Island (when entering, visitors voluntarily pay 500 yen per person as a donation for the promotion of forest environment development). Although not included in the World Natural Heritage area, the location is popular for being able to view scenery that exemplifies Yakushima Island, such as giant Yakusugi and evergreen trees with foliage that reaches out as if covering the sky.
Taikoiwa is wide enough to seat several people and affords a sweeping view of the mountains of Yakushima Island that measure over 1,800 meters high. To reach Taikoiwa, follow the Taikoiwa Round-trip Course, a hiking trail from Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine that takes around three hours one way.
Kikuchi: The Taikoiwa Round-trip Course is fairly flat, so it’s an easy trail even for beginners to try. But, don’t walk in beach sandals or start a mountain hike in the evening. It’s dangerous. You could fall and injure yourself or get lost when it gets dark. When mountain hiking, you’ll need outdoor rain gear, hiking shoes, and a backpack. Also, if you have a headlamp, you’ll be safe if something were to happen.
Pass through the mossy forest into a landscape of new greenery and wild cherry blossoms
Shiratani Hiroba at Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine is the starting point for the Taikoiwa Round-trip Course. It’s also the starting point for the Yayoisugi Course for viewing the Yakusugi trees said to be an estimated 3,000 years old, and the Bugyosugi Course for viewing famous Yakusugi, such as the Sanbonyarisugi and Bugyosugi cedar trees. The starting point is busy with people about to set off on a hike.
Kikuchi: Yakushima Island asks for voluntary donations. In addition to a donation for the promotion of forest development collected when entering the natural recreation forest, hikers are asked to give 1,000 yen per person to the Mountain Environmental Conservation Donation program before entering the mountain as part of environmental conservation activities. There is no electricity or sewer system on the mountains, so it’s not easy to maintain the hiking trails and manage the toilets at the mountain huts. We’re calling on hikers to use portable toilets and encouraging them to protect the natural environment.
About 500 meters from the starting point, you’ll see Satsuki Suspension Bridge over a ravine. Up until that suspension bridge, you walk along a surfaced walkway, but from that point on it becomes a hiking trail as you enter an area thick with trees.
Yakushima Island is made up of granite. Around 15.5 million years ago, magma that erupted from the ocean floor cooled, turned into granite, and rose up to create Yakushima Island. That’s why you’ll often see huge granite rocks within the forest.
One of the highlights is the endless moss growing on tree roots and rock surfaces. You can’t help but gaze admiringly at that vibrant beauty.
Kikuchi: Flowing in the forest are several branches of mountain streams, which are small tributaries of the Shiratani River that flows in Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine. There are also numerous water springs. Of the 1,600 to 1,800 species of moss that grow in Japan, you can see 600 to 700 in Yakushima Island, so it’s also called a hallowed place for moss.
Kikuchi: Even when it rains, if it’s a little rain you can enjoy great scenery that is different from a sunny day. It looks as if the moss takes in the water and accentuates the beauty of the greenery. You’re lucky if you can hike just after the rain stops. When the air is damp, the light shining in the forest feels soft. It’s very pretty.
Kikuchi: In spring, you can see wild flowers, including the Rhododendron tashiroi Maxim that blooms pink flowers and Viola boissieuana var. pseudoselkirkii, which is a variant native to the Yakushima Island area. A lot of moss also grows beside the trail, so be careful not to stray from the hiking trail.
Walk through the area of beautiful moss and you’ll arrive at Tsuji Pass. After coming this far, it’s only about 15 minutes further to Taikoiwa. However, the trail suddenly becomes steep from here. After struggling up the steep slope while holding on to a rope for support, you’ll find yourself on top of Taikoiwa. The view is so expansive you’ll utter an exclamation of delight.
The forest that stretches out below is a mosaic of eye-poppingly vibrant new greenery, the pink of wild cherry blossoms, and the red of buds that creates a breathtakingly beautiful view. Slowly raise up your line of sight and you’ll see a sweeping panorama of mountains with Mt. Miyanoura, the island’s highest peak, at its center.
Kikuchi: From around 1923 there was a community of people who worked in the forestry industry in the area called Kosugi Valley where wild cherry blossoms bloom, but logging ended in 1970. Wild cherry trees have grown where Yakusugi trees used to be cut down. The scenery was created as a result of reforestation by secondary growth.
It’s the best landscape featuring not only the multicolored patchwork of forest scenery, but also the surrounding mountains, the sky, and drifting clouds. All of the vegetation is different, from the distribution of wild cherry blossoms at around 700 meters above sea level, to low thickets of Pseudosasa owatarii, a type of bamboo, that is scattered at the top of Mt. Miyanoura at 1,936 meters above sea level. From Taikoiwa, you can experience firsthand the vertical distribution of vegetation on Yakushima Island that’s the basis for being registered as a World Natural Heritage.
Looking closely at the area around the peak of Mt. Miyanoura, you can see its color differs from the smaller mountains around it. The area around the mountaintop is called the edge of the forest. Woodland doesn’t form there because the wind is strong and trees are unable to grow tall. Generally, places over 1,700 meters above sea level are grasslands of low shrubs and bamboo called Pseudosasa owatarii.
Drive through the evergreen forest tunnel on Seibu Rindo Road
In spring, there are other places of interest on Yakushima Island besides wild cherry blossoms. Seibu Rindo Road (West Forest Road) is located on the western edge of Yakushima Island and is part of the World Natural Heritage area. It’s a unique spot where you can enjoy the natural landscape of Yakushima Island while driving.
Kikuchi: Seibu Rindo Road runs along the coast on the western side of Yakushima Island. People don’t live in that area since the western side faces the ocean and has cliffs. This means that a wide expanse of evergreen forest still remains.
You won’t find any artificial afforestation, so when looking at the forest from Seibu Rindo Road, you’ll clearly see the abundance of new greenery looking like broccoli.
The area where Seibu Rindo Road is located is about 200 meters above sea level. If you get out of the car along the way and enter the forest, you can see scenery like a subtropical jungle where giant banyan trees grow.
Looking up to the mountain side from Seibu Rindo Road, you’ll see an expanse of thick forest growing on the mountain over 1,000 meters above sea level, while looking down to the ocean side you can look out on the seashore in a subtropical climate. You can see the landscape of vertical distribution only found on Yakushima Island.
Incidentally, venturing into the forest off the beaten path may be an enjoyable adventure, but participating in a guided tour is recommended because there is no cell phone service, no walking paths, and no signs.
Kikuchi: On Seibu Rindo Road, the branches and leaves of the evergreen trees hang over the road, making a continuous ‘green tunnel.’ The evergreen leaves are thick and often block the light, which clearly shadows the sunlight filtering through the trees. When you drive in the green tunnel, the light shines through between the leaves so that it looks like there are spots of light on the road.
From the car window you can get a glimpse of Yakushika deer watching you from the shadows of the trees, and placid mother and baby Yakushima monkeys walking right next to the road, so it’s also a spot that appeals to animal lovers.
Kikuchi: No one lives in the Seibu Rindo Road area, so you can frequently see wild animals. Animals in the forest live without being caught by humans or being exposed to harm, so they’ll appear without fear of humans, but that’s exactly why you shouldn’t get excessively close or raise your voice. Be sure to watch them quietly.
Actually, there are some hikers and tourists who feed the animals, and that’s become a problem. If animals get a taste of human food once, they’ll want to eat it even if they have to take it from humans. This results in residents and tourists being hurt, and there is the risk of impacting the ecosystem, so all islanders want people to stop feeding the wild animals.
Seeing a monkey relaxing on the road without fear of humans gives you a good understanding that this place isn’t for humans, but for wild animals. Drive safely and observe the animals without getting in their way.
If you visit Yakushima Island in the spring when the island is full of signs of new life with flowers blooming and buds sprouting, not only will you recognize their beauty, but you’ll also feel you’ve been imbued with some of the potent energy of Mother Nature.
Photos Provided By: Yoshihiro Kikuchi (Yakushima Messenger)
Address:413-76 Koseda, Yakushima-cho, Kumage-gun, Kagoshima Prefecture