Go To Yakushima

Today I'd like to tell you about a very special place that not very many people will ever get the opportunity to visit.

After concluding my duties as a field reporter of RubyKaigi 2023, I found myself with a luxurious seven or eight days to myself. While at Kaigi, I asked several Japanese friends where I should visit in the southern island of Kyushu. Almost to a person, they said "Kagoshima".

So, I went. And it was great! The weather was warm, the nature was beautiful, and the people were easygoing.

Immediately, I wanted to go deeper. I got it in my head that if I went somewhere even more inaka I could prove I was a Real Vlogger by going on an adventure and then making a YouTube Short set to an epic piano score.

But… where to?

So I asked my friend Junko where she'd go if she were me, and she mentioned an island I'd never even heard of before: 屋久島. Pronounced "Yakushima", it's a remote island (taking between 2 to 4 hours by ferry) and is famous for its massive "Yakusugi" cedar trees—chief among them the ancient Jomon Sugi—which not only earned the forest a World Heritage Site designation in 1993 but even more impressively may have inspired Zelda's Great Deku Tree.

Anyway, those are all things I learned after showing up, because within a few hours of Junko's text message, I had booked the last lodge with availability on the island and started walking towards the port to figure out how to buy a ferry ticket.

Ticket in hand, I suddenly realized that I was woefully unprepared for this trip: cotton shirt, jeans, and sneakers were going to make me stand out when others would likely be decked out in proper hiking and climbing gear. I didn't have time to go to an outfitter's store, so I took only the most mild of precautions by buying a portable battery in case I got stranded and needed to recharge my phone.

When the ferry arrived, it felt like we were pulling into a Costa Rican island out of Jurassic Park. Lush and green, it was unbelievably beautiful. I could lazily whip my phone in any direction and with little effort capture remarkable photos.

I checked into my lodge, unpacked all the junk I wouldn't need for my hike the next day, and took a walk to one of the highest-rated restaurants on the island, where I had a fantastic meal before turning in early.

The best way to get around Yakushima is to drive yourself, but this would have required me to have thought to pick up an international driver's license from AAA in advance of my trip. And even if I could drive, I'm not sure I'd want to—I've had my fill of harrowing experiences driving up mountain passes in Japan and I was more than fine with putting up with Yakushima's… complex bus situation.

If you visit Yakushima and plan to rely on public transit, do yourself a favor and plan your entire trip around the bus schedule. There are two bus companies and they each run an incredibly limited schedule to each of Yakushima's major tourist destinations. If it's already 1pm and you're not already where you want to be, forget about it and wait for tomorrow. Taxi service is so limited that the odds of being stranded are high if you miss the last bus. In my case, the fact I was staying on the north side of the island for a single night ruled out my going to Yakusugi Land entirely, as I'd never have gotten back in time to catch my return ferry. This made Shiratani Unsuikyo the winner by default, and in hindsight I'm really glad it's where I wound up going.

I can't emphasize this enough: I'm really glad I double and triple checked the bus schedule, knowing that if I missed the 8am bus, it'd be incredibly unlikely I'd be able to take the next bus at 11am and make it back in time for my ferry home at 4:30pm. I saw a few people get confused about which bus to take and it was painful to empathize as one could read on their faces that such a small error just blew up their entire itinerary. You don't have to read Japanese to understand how this Japanese travel blogger summarized the difficulty of accessing the Shiratani Unsuikyo trailhead:

Once you get to the trailhead itself, things are refreshingly straightforward: pay a ¥500 entrance fee and start walking. There are three defined trails you can follow, but given that the two major destinations—the moss forest (苔むす森) made famous as the inspiration for the art direction of the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke and the breathtaking taiko drum rock (太鼓岩)—are only found on the longest and most challenging course, that's the route you should take if you're up for the physical challenge. In the map below, it's the straight-ish route running right-to-left and highlighted in green:

The course is estimated to take 3-4 hours to complete, round-trip, and I found that time estimate to be reasonable, as I moved quickly but stopped frequently to take pictures and ended up spending about 3.5 hours.

The path starts out paved and lined with very sturdy handrails and stairs, which lulled me into a false sense of security. Within 200 meters, I was scrambling over boulders that had foot-holds carved into the rock, beyond which point the trail was a lot less clearly defined. But while I tend to get lost easily, I was never confused about which direction the trail was leading me. This was due in large part to numbered signposts that corresponded to locations on the trail map and because the path itself was flagged with hot pink ribbons whenever the route might otherwise appear ambiguous. It was also a good excuse to turn on compass breadcrumbs and backtrack on my Apple Watch, which worked great.

There's not much to say about the rest of the trail, other than that it was surprisingly physically taxing. But more than anything, the experience overwhelmed my senses at times. The sight of bright, distinctive moss-covered stone and wood. The sound of fresh water rushing past. The smell of life teeming from every crevice. And while I could hear birds in the distance, I don't think I saw a single animal the entire day, making the forest feel eerily serene and tranquil. I'm not easily moved by nature, but I found myself awestruck as I ventured through the forest.

They won't do it justice, but here are a bunch of pictures:

In addition to the forests, a recurring theme of Shiratani Unsuikyo is the constant presence of water. It rains there more than any other location in Japan. Water hides in tree trunks, making them surprisingly cold to the touch. It swishes between stones to make its way down the mountain. It explodes between cleavages of rock as it eventually settles in small pools. A companion I met along the way told me the water is so pure that fish can't survive in it due to its lack of mineral content. I mean just look at it! The water was so clear it looked like a bad videogame render of what water is supposed to look like:

I felt pretty silly taking as many photos and videos as I did, but I was surprised to see the number of people who decided to try setting tripod legs inside a fast-moving creek to get the footage they wanted. (Based on their abysmal success rate, I would not recommend doing this.)

Eventually, I made it to the top: Taiko Drum Rock (太鼓岩), its name owing to a flat circular shape as well as hollow sections that make a billowing, drum-like sound when smacked. (That last bit is a justin.searls.co exclusive protip, because this seemed to wow even the most well-researched travelers.)

I was so exhausted by the time I reached the summit that I asked an older, wiser, and much more experienced climber ahead of me if he wouldn't mind if I followed him back down the return path. I learned his name was Kenji, and we descended the mountain together and he taught me a lot about the forest that I never would have learned on my own. (I also received some well-earned admonitions that I probably should not have attempted this hike in jeans and a t-shirt.) He was kind enough to drive me down the mountain in his rental car; something I'm incredibly grateful for, as when I saw the line to board the return bus, a quick headcount indicated it was going to be a close call as to whether I'd have been able to board the 1 o'clock bus to make the ferry in time. If you attempt this trip, be sure to plan to be at the bus stop long enough before the stated departure time to ensure you get a seat!

After stopping at the inn to pick up the remainder of my stuff and re-pack my bag, I was starving. I headed to the nearest diner and grabbed a beer and a corn-and-egg pizza and devoured both breathlessly.

Oh, and of course, I also got what I really came for: a one minute supercut of my favorite shots from the day, set to an epic piano score, and uploaded to a video service that managed to crush all of the fine-grained details of my 4K footage because it's optimized to show faces and not nature scenes. Here you go!

And it goes without saying, but if you ever make your way to Yakushima after reading this post, please let me know and send a picture! I'd love to hear from you.

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