Craggy mountain peaks; wave after wave of dripping, subtropcial rainforest; towering cedar trees which predate the Roman Empire; the all-pervasive scent of moss and flowers. If this sounds a little like the setting for an anime, rather than real-life Japan, you’d be half-right – Miyazaki Hayao was said to have taken his inspiration from Yakushima’s lush forests when creating Princess Mononoke. Mystical deer are sadly off the agenda (though there’s no harm in looking), but the aforementioned natural charms of Yakushima (屋久島) are usually enough to knock the socks off the few foreign travellers who make it to this island, which climbs steeply from the sea some 60km off Kyūshū.
Pray, however, that the weather cooperates – locals joke that it rains “35 days a month”. Yakushima greedily gobbles up almost every passing cloud, resulting in an average annual rainfall of at least 4m on the coast and a staggering 8–10m in its mountainous interior. This feeds tumbling streams and a lush, primeval forest famous for its magnificent Yaku-sugi cedar trees, the oldest of which are well over 2000 years and honoured with individual names (trees under 1000 years are known as ko-sugi, or “small cedars”). Jōmon-sugi is known to be at least 2300 years old and thought to be the oldest; it grows high in the mountains. Logging companies worked Yakushima’s forests until the early 1970s, but much of the island is now protected within the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yakushima’s population of around 13,600 is concentrated in the two main towns of Miyanoura and Anbō or scattered in small settlements around the coast. An increasingly popular tourist destination, Yakushima now boasts a number of swish resort hotels in addition to simpler accommodation. Most people, however, come to hike and camp among the peaks, where the older cedars are found. For the less adventurous, Yaku-sugi Land contains a few more accessible trees and can be reached by public bus. Otherwise, there are a couple of good local museums, a seaside onsen and several beaches, two of which – Isso and Nakama – offer decent snorkelling. There are no dry months here, but the best time to visit is May or during the autumn months of October and November. June sees by far the highest rainfall, though this is when the rhododendrons are at their best, followed by a steamy July and August. Winter brings snow to the peaks, although sea-level temperatures hover around 15°C.