Wild and mysterious, the secluded island of Yakushima is unlike anything else in Japan. It’s a nature lover’s paradise of untouched ancient cedar forests, protected by both the gods of folklore and a UNESCO World Heritage designation. This woodland kingdom served as the inspiration for the magical backgrounds of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. Though you can’t bound through the trees on the back of your own wolf companion, hiking through Yakushima’s hushed, pristine, mist-shrouded forests casts just as powerful an enchantment.
The island is ringed by small villages and a single main road that connects them, but the mountainous, wooded interior remains undeveloped, providing a plethora of hiking adventures.
Many make the 10-hour round trip pilgrimage to visit the venerated Jomonsugi, a yakusugi (ancient Japanese cedar tree) estimated to be up to 7,200 years old—which would make it the oldest tree in Japan, and one of the oldest in the world.
Shiratani Unsuikyo is the lush and mystical setting that inspired the artists of Princess Mononoke. The island’s wet climate gives life to dramatic ravines, flowing rivers, and unbelievably green coats of moss.
There are various well-marked hiking trails, ranging from 1 to 5 hours in length, which pass a number of yakusugi trees.
Multi-day hikes will lead you to the summit of Mt. Miyanoura, the tallest peak in Kyushu. The mountains are considered sacred by locals, who still make spiritual journeys through their paths. A few mountain huts stationed along the trails provide nighttime shelter.
Though the otherworldly cedar forests are Yakushima’s claim to fame, don’t overlook the island’s other unique treasures. The bountiful rainfall creates impressive waterfalls, one of which can be approached by kayak. Go snorkeling off the unspoiled beaches, or watch sea turtles nest in the summer. The island is home to some simple, rustic onsen, including the sea baths of Hirauchi and Yudomari, which offer natural rock pools right on the edge of the ocean.