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Journey to Yakushima

I look forward to when... wild grasses take over.

Miyazaki Hayao

Set 37 miles south of Kyushu, Yakushima is a famously rainy, subtropical island that feels eons away from the incessant rush of Japan’s big cities. Many travellers recall profound moments when they’ve realised just how far they are from home, and this will almost certainly occur on this otherworldly island. Yakushima has been recognised by UNESCO as a site of ‘outstanding universal value’, particularly for its extraordinary primeval forests dominated by ancient cedar trees, one of which is estimated to be between 2,000 and 7,000 years old. If the bigger figure is correct, it’d make it by far the oldest tree in the world. 

Yakushima
Kyushu
Japan monkeys
Kyushu
Kyushu

The cedars play a prominent role on the island, providing a striking backdrop to many activities and experiences, but they’re only part of the story. The coastline is peppered with attractive, swimmable beaches where you can spot nesting loggerhead turtles from afar and snorkel or dive in the pristine waters. However, Yakushima ’s single biggest draw is its phenomenal hiking; timeless hills and deep forests await. Over the years we have arranged a number of trips featuring this special and unusual destination, and now feels like the right time to talk about it a little louder and bring it to the fore. We value sustainability very highly, and know our clients do too, and there’s a good chance to bring that message back from this precious island. 

If Yakushima sounds like the place to centre your next Japan adventure, our Destination Specialists are ready to discuss how to fit it into your perfect bespoke itinerary. In the meantime, here are some ideas for the rest of the trip...

In search of Ghibli

Long wildly popular in Japan, the works of the famed animation house, Studio Ghibli (and perhaps more to the point its chief component and creator, Miyazaki Hayao) have had a major impact on popular culture around the world. We are often asked to seek out the locations dotted throughout Japan that have inspired these beautiful films, and Yakushima’s ethereal forests are just such a place: the inspiration for the 1997 animated historical fantasy ‘Mononoke-hime’ (Princess Mononoke), a fantastic film and a firm favourite at Selective Asia. The island receives a steady stream of travellers, both Japanese and foreign, paying homage to the film and seeking to find a sense of the power of its most captivating scenes, and the experience of the real thing more than lives up to the magic of the animation. Keep your ears keen for the whispered echoes of kodama tree spirits...

Hiking through ancient landscapes

There are walking trails everywhere on the island, ranging from the very easy to the semi-professional, but a great way to start things off is at Yakusugi Land. No, it is not a theme park (don’t worry!) but a highly accessible nature reserve where you can choose the length of your route. Majestic, ancient cedar groves rise up to greet you, and it makes a great introduction to the island. Trek to the extraordinary Shiratani-Unsuikyo Ravine (the inspiration for the forest spirit’s glade in Princess Mononoke) or opt for a more challenging goal and devote a day paying homage to Jomon-sugi (that ancient tree at the centre of the island’s mystique). Be prepared to leave very early in the morning, and if you aren’t confident in your fitness it’s a good idea to plan for a night’s rest in the nearby shelter. If you do, you can relax in the knowledge that Yakushima is free of large predators, but expect deer and macaque monkeys to make appearances. Wild swimming, river kayaking, canyoning, paddle boarding are all possible on Yakushima and we recommend at least 3 nights or longer, depending on what you want to experience.

Hakata ramen, a side of gyoza and a beer, please...

Before getting to Yakushima itself you need to get to Japan, and a good place to enter is the capital city of the southern island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is much more well known than it was a few years ago. Over time it has forged a reputation for its cuisine, exuberance and striking modern architecture. In fact It keeps appearing in Western magazines’ eclectic lists, ranking high up on several ‘best places to……’ top tens. Although it’s best not to attach too much weight to these articles, we can certainly understand the buzz that Fukuoka is generating. 

With its ultimate modernity (try finding an old building), not for one second will you forget that you are in Japan, and it will create great memories to juxtapose when you get to Yakushima. There aren’t a lot of headline sites, but you can enjoy just wandering, soaking up the youthful city’s high spirits, and sampling the excellent dining options. Many visitors arrive from Tokyo on food pilgrimages to eat the city’s famous hakata ramen. Join them and give it a try; you won’t be disappointed.

A poignant moment

Any visit to Nagasaki, on Kyushu’s fractured north west coast, brings your focus to the awful events of 1945, but the city has made the lasting message of this tragedy one of peace. Nagasaki takes its position campaigning for the end of nuclear weapons very seriously. It’s a genuine melting pot, incorporating influences from Europe, China and other Asian countries that really feels unique in Japan, especially concentrated in such a small area. Western mansions, Catholic churches, Japan’s oldest Chinatown, and a Dutch settlement sit alongside the hallowed park and museum commemorating ground zero. The Portuguese-inspired castella cakes, now popular all over Japan, first made an appearance here. Try a slice of this lighter-than-light confection with a cup of strong coffee in a cafe by the port. It’s a fascinating destination that feels distinctive and different. Whatever your interests, exploring Nagasaki with the advice of a local guide makes the city’s past, present and future accessible to all.

Smoking volcanoes and last stands

Mount Aso, in Kumamoto Prefecture, is Japan’s largest active volcano and casts an imposing, smouldering silhouette against an otherwise gentle horizon. The area around the crater is often closed off, but the fertile grasslands invite leisurely walks and a day spent here is well worth it. Kumamoto itself is a fairly unremarkable city, perhaps, but has an outstanding castle. Like much of old Japan, the castle is a recreation, but the beautifully designed rooms give an immersive insight into the atmosphere of 400 years ago, when Imperial soldiers held off Saigo Takamori, the real-life ‘last samurai’.

It’s easy to see why there’s a connection between Kagoshima and its twin city of Naples: both are southern, warm and dominated by huge volcanoes. Sakurajima - Japan’s most active volcano - sits 3.5km from Kagoshima’s port, constantly smoking and reminding all of its power. Take a boat ride over to hike the 3km lava trail. Kagoshima featured heavily in 19th century wars and was the scene of the final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion, marked by the excellent Meiji Restoration museum. Head downtown to try the local dish of torisashi, a sashimi-esque delicacy of raw chicken, washed down with a glass of strong shochu.

Black sand and ocean views...

One of Japan’s largest hot spring resorts, Ibusuki is most famous for its hot, volcanic sand. The staff will bury you right up to your neck on the beach for 15 or 20 minutes as a renowned health treatment, and it’s certainly a unique experience! Apart from that, there is blissfully little to do except enjoy your accommodation, which can be a full service ryokan, and stroll through town in your yukata, which is the done thing. It makes for quite a colorful sight with everyone walking around in their competing ryokan yukata robes. If you get the impulse, head back to your ryokan and slip into the healing waters of the onsen. The perfect, relaxing end to an adventurous trip.

A note on cost…

The guide price of £2,890US$3,490 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 3 nights in Fukouka, 2 nights in Nagasaki, 2 nights in Kumamoto, 2 nights in Kagoshima, 2 nights in Yakushima - all in our favourite mid-range hotels - and 1 night staying at a ryokan at Ibusuki.
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.

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