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What is Yakushima?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Yakushima is an island off the coast of Japan. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1993. It is known for its lush beauty, magnificent trees, and incredible moisture. The island has inspired many novels and films, and remains a place of mystery and wonder for those who visit.

Roughly 15,000 people live on Yakushima, which spans approximately 190 square miles (500 sq. km). The island is located some 40 miles (60km) off the southern coast of the Osumi Peninsula. There are six major mountains on Yakushima, with the highest reaching nearly 6000 feet (1800m), giving it the nickname The Alps of the Ocean.

Yakushima island is located south of Kyushu in Japan.
Yakushima island is located south of Kyushu in Japan.

The "cedars" of Yakushima are perhaps one of the island’s most recognizable features. These mighty trees, the oldest of which are referred to as Yaku sugi, are often over a thousand years old. The oldest thus far discovered, in 1996, is thought to be anywhere between 2000 and 7200 years old, and the largest in the world. The sugi is not a true cedar — it is a member of the cypress family, and is the only species in its genus, Cryptomeria. The tree is the national tree of Japan, and is one reason Yakushima is so revered.

Yakushima is absolutely inundated by moisture. It is one of the wettest places on earth, and people remark humorously that it rains 35 days out of the month. Because of the copious water, and the range of temperatures the island has over its differing altitudes, a wide range of species make their home on Yakushima.

Two species of particular interest are the Yakushika deer and the red bottomed macaque Yaku monkey. Sea turtles also make their migratory home on Yakushima, and the tanuki has settled on the island as well, quickly becoming fully at home. For visitors looking for wildlife, Yakushima is one of the best travel destinations in Japan.

The real reason Yakushima is a World Heritage Site, however, has more to do with the flora than the fauna. The island contains some of the only warm-temperate ancient forest left on the planet, and it is a very surreal experience to walk among the mist and moisture through the enormous ancient trees.

Yakushima is undoubtedly best known in the popular imagination for its role in inspiring the forests of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The forest is also featured in a number of Japanese cartoons, video games, and comics.

Although Yakushima is very popular, it is remote enough that it is not inundated by tourists. Just over 300,000 people visit Yakushima each year, so that a visit to the island’s forests can be a profoundly solitary and haunting experience. For travelers who want to get a bit off the beaten track, and would like to experience something a bit different, Yakushima is a magnificent destination. The island is most often reached by plane, with the Yakushima airport servicing the entire island. Once there, visitors can wander the forest of Yakushima, bathe at Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, climb the Ooko-no-taki waterfall, or walk the coral-studded strand of Sango-no-hama.

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    • Yakushima island is located south of Kyushu in Japan.
      By: Alex Yeung
      Yakushima island is located south of Kyushu in Japan.