A True Hiker’s Paradise
Yakushima’s verdant mountains are spread over three different vertical climate zones making them a true hiker’s paradise. In the past the island mainly drew keen Japanese explorers eager discover the island’s incredible beauty along its many hiking paths and especially the mystic massive ceda trees – the yakusugi, some are even almost considered deities, like the famous Yomon Sugi. Over the last few years this oasis has had a steady influx of foreign visitors, thanks partly to the temperate climate all year round, the national park status and its popularity with intrepid travellers. Perhaps, the popularity is due to the legend, that is was an inspiration for the fantastical Ghibli manga “Princess Mononoke”.
Our First Hike on Yakushima
Our recent return to Kyushu took us to Yakushima and besides exploring the extraordinary underwater world on our daily snorkel adventures we also ventured deep into the moss covered forests. Our first such hike was on a lengthy trial at Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine.
Access to Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine is possible by public bus (30mins), although it is probably preferable in your own car. We enjoyed the scenic drive from Miyanoura along the snaking road to the start of the hike. We deliberately parked our car on the second car park, from there the main hiking trails are accessible along a side path, avoiding possible crowds at the main gate.
Three Different Trails
The Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine Nature Park lies at an altitude of 600 to 1200m and its three different hiking trails take visitors through virgin forests, past many impressive yakusugi cedar trees. The level of difficulty depends on which hiking route you choose, the red course (Yayoisugi 2km), is the easiest and shortest on mostly well laid out paths, but the green course (Taikoiwa 5.6km) is the longest and most strenuous, including a steep incline to reach Taikoiwa Rock. Free maps are available at the entrance of the trail and the tourist information.
Choosing Your Hiking Route
As experienced hikers we chose to hike the longest route to Taikoiwa Rock, although we then added the orange course (Bugyosugi 4km) after having accomplished the route much faster than the suggested time. Families with younger children and less experienced hikers should possibly stick to the easier two routes. There are several points along the two longer hiking routes, where special caution crossing the creeks and streams is needed. After heavy rain the creeks swell and crossing can in these cases be dangerous and even impossible so please take care if there has been heavy rains recently.
Take Enough to Eat and Drink
We set out on the hike with a well stocked rucksack filled with all our usual hiking things plus a picnic and of course plenty to drink. Despite the altitude, the heat of the summer months was still present, and although less severe, the high humidity caused us to perspire heavily. If you take one of the longer paths make sure you are well prepared.
Venturing Deeper Into Ancient Cedar Forests
Walking along the well signposted path, we first followed the tumbling Shiratani River with its inviting, clear mountain water. After joining the main hiking route we ventured deeper into the ancient cedar forests. The canopies of the tall trees above were shrouded in mist, with mesmerising foliage below. Moss spread its bright green tufts across every surface imaginable. Entire tree trunks were encased in a soft, verdant cloak its feelers gripping onto due drops like raw diamonds waiting to be collected by the sunshine.
A Fairy Tale Wonderland
The shrill cries of the yaku monkeys sounded through the air, but sadly we never encountered one that day. Jerome strode ahead, keen to immerse himself in the fairy tale wonderland of Princess Mononoke and probably a few other manga like scenes. The mountain creeks were especially beautiful, the water gently flowing between the moss wrapped boulders and thankfully easily to cross, jumping from rock to rock.
Many magnificent yakusugis stood like giant soldiers beside the path. Some of these ancient trees are hundreds or even thousand of years old and their tangled roots are a truly imposing sight. Jerome enjoyed stepping into some of the hollow tree trunks, their openings creating enchanting shapes and light.
The Nidai Kugurisugi Cedar
The Nidai Kugurisugi Cedar roots grew over a once fallen host tree and have thus created a natural arch, once the older host withered and decayed. Especially younger children will enjoy the clamber below this yakusugi. Shortly after, Shiratani Hut provides shelter, drinking water from the river and a not so pleasant toilet. We quickly passed the hut heading on through yakusugi wonderland and onwards the Taikoiwa Rock.
Naming of Yakusugis
It is astonishing to witness the sheer number of cedar trees among the forest and it was fun to discover their names. A competition was held a few years ago among the local population of Yakushima to name the largest unnamed trees according to their appearances. Piggy-Back and Three-Spear Sugi are two of the name creations that can be found on the trees. Jerome chose his own nicknames for some of the other ancient cedar trees.
Steep Climb From Tsujitoge Pass
At Tsujitoge Pass the main mountain trail turns off to the right and the way marked path yakusugi route then divides into two narrow mountain tracks. Taking the right hand marked path to ascend higher (the left path is only used for the descent as it is tight and steep down), we climbed a steep stretch for about 15 minutes before we reached the highest point of the hike Taikoiwa Rock. Here we just missed a noisy school group and were glad they left voices echoing in he trees.
The large, smooth boulder of Taikoiwa Rock juts out over the central mountain range. On a clear day the views must be breath taking and you can even see Anbo River in the distance. For us we gazed out into a hazy sea of mist, giving the view mystic peaceful quality. We took a seat on the rock, resembling a giant egg, gazing at tree skeletons shrouded in the mist. Originally we had planned to picnic on Taikoiwa Rock but signs informed us that eating and drinking was not allowed in this spot. Therefore, after a few minutes of rest, we made space for other hikers and moved on to descent back to the col. The way down was twisty and in places steep and narrow cutting between the cedars and other trees.
Primeval Forest Hike
As mentioned earlier, we arrived back at Shiratani Hut much faster than anticipated and therefore decided to add the orange route through the primeval forest to the hike. We found this part of the hike equally beautiful and it seemed less frequented by walkers. It was certainly harder to follow and at times we had to keep an eye out for the pink ribbons tied around the trees to find the route among the lush forest floor. We also needed each others hand to cross one of the ravines and it was obvious why at times this part of the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine nature park might not be accessible during and after rainfall.
Completing the Trail
The trail zig zagged back towards the entrance finally joining back to the red and the green routes close to the bridge over the ravine where we had joined them at the start of the day. It was far short of our longest and more strenuous hikes but the humidity and steep climbs were certainly exacting, and the reward of the Yakusugi Wonderland more than made up for the efforts.the
Where we stayed in Kyushu:
Sankara Resort treat yourself to a truly luxurious stay on the island.
Kirishima Kokusei for those wanting to stay in Kirishima Onsen
Ryokan Shinsen if you fancy a luxury ryokan experience
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