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Hiking Princess Mononoke's Forest on Yakushima

Published by Elaine Wong, Writer

Country: Japan

The Experience

Yakushima (Yaku Island) is a UNESCO World Heritage site flooded by Japanese hikers every year, and remains relatively unknown to foreigners. Visitors go to Yakushima island, that lies south of Kagoshima, for only one reason—to see the magnificent cedars that are the inspiration behind the forests of the animated film Princess Mononoke.

Going all the way to an island to look at trees may seem extreme, until you walk between archways of roots that are as thick as the trunks of your average oak or maple. The twisting curves of the trunks and branches make Yukushima forest take on postmodernist sculpture. Moss carpets everything and glows in the filtered light that shines through the leaves. Hikers and nature lovers should put this on their to-do list, but even non-hikers can join in since the trails vary from mountain treks to flat man-made paths.

The cedars (known as sugi) only grow on Yakushima in Japan due to its semi-tropical climate and constant dampness. They are over 1,000 years old and called Yakusugi, and individual trees may be given special names to honour their age. The oldest tree is called Jomon-sugi, after the Jomon Period (the Neolithic era of Japan), and is reputed to be 7,000 years old due to its massive size (its diameter is a little over 5 meters long). Hiking Jomon-sugi is at least ten hours for a return journey, and travellers are recommended to start out early if they want to make it a one-day trip.

For visitors who prefer to sleep in, hiking Shiratani Unsuikyo (Shirani Ravine) may be a better bet. Shiratani Unsuikyo is also where one of the creators of Princess Mononoke spent his time walking, and a section of it is affectionately named Princess Mononoke's Forest. The trails are easier (going to the Jomon-sugi is a constant upward trek since it's located on the tallest peak of Yakushima), and most people agree that the scenery is actually better than the one you see along the trail to the Jomon-sugi. Most of the locals recommend Shiratani Unsuikyo over Jomon-sugi, and regard travellers who are going to see Jomon-sugi with bemused puzzlement; they happily offer advice to these “adventurous fools” though. Shirtani Unsuikyo also contains a number of Yakusugi, including the second most venerable cedar, the Yayoi-sugi (3,000 years old). There is also a route from the Shiratani Unsuikyo to the Jomon-sugi, and intrepid travellers can see both trees in one go. No matter which route you take to trek Yakushima forest, you will skip over moss-laden rocks and snack beside vistas of trees and birds, with views of drops and mountains on the horizon.

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Map

Puzzle

When to Go to Yakushima

There are three ways to get to Yakushima island, all via Kagoshima City, with five flights daily from Japan Airlines (US$139 one-way, $265 return). One-way is approximately 25 minutes. There are also different jetfoils running, and they take approximately two hours (US$65 one-way, $116 return). The slowest but cheapest method is to go by the Yakushima ferry, which takes four hours (US$52 one-way, $82 return).

The best time of the year to trek Yakushima is late autumn, which is warm with highs of 20°C (70°F) and relatively dry—ideal for hiking and strolling the beaches. Summer days are long but the semi-tropical climate means July and August are sweltering though dry.

It's wise to schedule your hike near dawn or sunset if going to Yakushima in the summer. Early autumn is good weather-wise, but typhoons may be common. Spring's temperature is similar to autumn, but rain is heavy and not ideal for hiking. Winters are also fairly dry, but colder, with highs hovering around 15°C (60°F). The weather up the mountains where the cedars are located is considerably colder. Visitors should also try to avoid Japanese holidays (specifically Golden Week in the first week of May) since Yakushima is very popular with Japanese tourists, and hotels may be full.

Odds n' Ends

While admission fees to the forest are negligible (free if you go early enough since no one is manning the booths), and the Yakushima hotel fees are comparable to the rest of Japan (US$5 for camping, $20-$30 for guesthouse, $40 for youth hostel, and $150 for twin at hotel), the transportation costs can add up. Buses are cheap but infrequent, and run approximately 4-5 times a day. They also start later than most hikers want to begin, especially those who want to climb Jomon-sugi, and the last bus is around 4-5 p.m. even in the summer. Taxis are convenient, and can be arranged with guesthouse owners or concierge, with prices comparable to North America.

Yakushima is wet all the time so travellers should be prepared for damp weather. Rain ponchos, rain boots and water-resistant bags are all recommended. There are stores that sell and rent equipment if you forget to bring any.

Finally, while the commonly-trod trails are well-marked, people have gotten lost in the forests before. Don't stray away from the paths unless you are an experienced hiker or you are with a guide. The forests are protected, and visitors should remember to keep them pristine for others.

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