Yakushima: A Japanese Island You’ve Never Heard Of

Traveling to Japan as often as I do, about three or four times each year, means discovering things.  Whether it’s a Japanese hip-hop club in Tokyo or a hidden whisky bar in Gion, each visit provides new experiences that are eye-opening.

Going outside of the routes of many vistitors is exciting, too.  Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Hiroshima are important places, of course, and offer limitless and deeply memorable experiences.  And it’s great to build on times in these places by going to Hokkaido, Japan’s largest and northernmost island, which was more or less colonized in the nineteenth century with the help of Americans.  A visit can also be rewarding to the region of Kyushu, center of early Christianity in Japan, which is the subject of, “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s new, brutal movie based on the classic Japanese novel by Shūsaku Endō.  (Ironically and tragically, Nagasaki was the capital of Christian life in Japan for centuries.)

But if you want to get way off the beaten track, you ought to head to the island of Yakushima, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been anywhere.  Part of the fun, as always, is getting there, which is easy, but requires a bit of planning.

Yakushima, located off the tip of Satsuma peninsula, in western Japan, can be reached in two ways.

You can take a boat from Kagoshima through the East China Sea.  The Yaku 2 Ferry leaves at 8:30 each morning (though the schedule may vary on time of year).  There is also a jetfoil, called “Toppy” or “Rocket.”  If you have time, the ferry is a cultural experience with tatami rooms, a small noodle bar, and a wide, open deck.  Both boats dock on the northern tip of Yakushima.

If you just want to get there right away, you can fly.  Direct flights are available from Osaka-Itami; return flights go through Kagoshima and land at Haneda in Tokyo.  To get to Yakushima from Tokyo, you go via Kagoshima and change planes for a second flight that takes less than thirty minutes.

The moment a visitor arrives in Yakushima, it’s clear that this place is different from most of Japan.  It’s a tiny airport and a tiny landing strip, and palm trees can be seen as well as ancient, verdant, volcanic mountains nearly 2,000 meters high.  In winter the mountaintops are decked out with crests of snow while below, in subtropical climes, jungle-like conditions exist.  No wonder at all that Yakushima, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is one long and narrow two-lane road circumnavigating Yakushima, and with speed limits of 50 kilometers per hour on open stretches and as little as 20 kilometers deep in the mountains when parts of the road become one lane, driving here is a bit like being in a theme park.

The theme is nature.

The coastal regions provide views of the ocean that are vast and open.  Peaceful blue and gray, the occasional fishing boat or transport carrier.  Just east of Yakushima one can see Tanegashima, which is a long, flat open island that is home to the Japanese space program.  Lining the road are orange orchards, tea farms, bed and breakfasts, farm stands selling fruit and vegetables and sweets, a few cafes, and fewer restaurants.

The base I chose for a week long stay is Sankara: Originally designed in a style more closely associated with Bali, this small hotel has a series of villas divided into halves.  Each half has a sprawling bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, and balcony.  Spread out on well-manicured grounds, the villas surround a main building in which there are a couple of restaurants, one that is French-Japanese, and one that is Italian-Japanese.  There are also a spa, swimming pool, and library.

The library has a small machine in it that dispenses draft beer all day, which is a very good thing.

The food at Sankara is refined, modern, and informed by sophisticated techniques and local ingredients.  So, depending on the season, guests might have mackeral, flying fish, taro flan, or even a bouillon of hibiscus.

The hotel’s sister property, The Castle Hotel and Spa, in Tarrytown, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan, serves as a training ground for the chef so that much of what’s served is as good as it can get in a major urban center.

Yakushima is of course more than good digs, draft beer, and delicious food, and with a rental car, exploring the island is easy.

The Ohkonotaki Waterfall Scenic Forest, along the southwestern coast, with a tiny, one lane road weaving through a thick forest alongside a sea cliff is splendid.  Give yourself plenty of time: The drive is harrowing at points, the road is crowded in areas with families of wild monkeys and very tame deer, and is that a bus coming right at you?  It is.  Better find a place to back up.

Nearby is a remarkable site: The Nagata Lighthouse.  Reachable by a long road, unpaved in parts, the lighthouse has simple grounds and its interior is closed to visitors, but the reason to stop by is to walk just behind it and look out to the string of islands, which stretch south to Okinawa.  One can feel as if it’s the end of the world.

The farms, vistas, wildlife, cliffs, and beaches are all magnificent on this magical, subtropical island.  Japanese like to say that Yakushima is filled with “power” centers that provide spiritual sustenance.

Best of all are the island’s national parks known for their dense cedar forests.  Hiking on Yakushima is first-rate, and it is possible to trek deep into the mountains, coast to coast, without meeting many others.  If you are inclined, however, to take days hiking rather than days and nights, choose one of the parks and plan to spend time wandering.

Yakusugiland is one of the island’s best.  You go up a long, curving road, and as you near the top, great views of the harbor are possible.  Within the park, there are three extremely well-marked trails, which include stone steps and wooden walkways, and take you over ravines on suspension bridges and through mossy and verdant forests with many variations of exqusite green.  Long ago, the cedar here was harvested for shingles of roofs, but nowadays and in recent history, the forests are preserved.  No wonder: These majestic trees, each unique and some with name plaques, tower over hikers and provide a kind of serenity not readily found anywhere else.

And after these hikes, it’s a lot of fun to head towards the port where you can find Cafe Jane.  This is a tiny place where recorded jazz plays, old greats like Dave Brubeck, on a terrific sound system, and locals hang out and sip beer or drink tea.  For 800 Yen, you get a bowl of delicious udon noodles in broth.  Just be prepared to wait a little, and your patience will pay off: It’s made from scratch, each order, start to finish.

Now that’s eye-opening.


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