Yakushima was first registered as a Natural World Heritage Site in Japan in 1993. It is the 7th largest island in the Japanese archipelago at about the same as the 23 wards of Tokyo. Yakushima is famous for its wild forests and hiking trails, but beyond that many visitors discover the unique charm of this enchanting island. Going beyond the glossy magazine photos of moss-laden trails and dense underbrush, I’d like to share with you my own adventures and favorite spots on Yakushima. In 2020, the number of travelers visiting Yakushima decreased due to COVID-19. Luckily I can take you on a kind of ‘virtual tour’ of Yakushima thanks to RICOH THETA and the internet. You can experience a slice of Yakushima from your sofa! Unlike ordinary cameras, THETA offers a full 360 degree view, making for more immersive photography!
I hope everyone enjoys this way of experiencing Yakushima.
By the way, my name is Aki and I run a tour company in Yakushima called GREEN MOUNT. My goal is for our guests to feel close to people and nature by doing activities such as camping and trekking in mountainous areas, introducing interesting people and places in the villages, and doing SUP in the rivers and the sea, among many other activities. Today, I’ll take you on a virtual trip to Yakushima with THETA Z1, so let’s get started!
Our first stop is a very famous place called Shiratani Unsuikyo. This is the go-to place for anyone interested in Yakushima. It’s the source of all those photos of moss-covered rocks and ancient-looking trees—a truly mystical forest if there ever was one. It is said that about one-third of the moss that grows in Japan can be found in the forests of Yakushima. Yakushima is called a ‘water island’ because it receives about 8,000 to 10,000 millimeters of rainfall every year. All this water nourishes the lush forests of the island
When venturing deep into the forests of Yakushima you might come across ancient cedar trees called yakusugi.. Yakusugi specifically refers to cedars that are over 1000 years old, with some being as well over 2000 years old. Trees less than 1000 years old are called kosugi, literally ‘little cedars’.
The sheer size and age of the trees dwarfs our seemingly insignificant human concerns. It’s humbling to be in the presence of such magnificent creations of nature existing over millennia. Now we enter the Moss Forest, famous as the inspiration for the film Princess Mononoke. The forest overwhelms the senses with its verdant landscape of fallen trees and mossy stones. The atmosphere of the forest transforms as the sun tracks across the sky, encouraging us to spend our time mindfully taking it all in. Sometimes the sunbeams illuminate the forest like spotlights, and other times the rain gives the moss a deeper color. Fog is also fantastic and makes me wonder if I’ve lost myself in a fairy tale world.
*There are no people in this picture so that you can really feel the mossy forest in 360 degrees.
Next, we’ll visit the Jomon Cedar, which is one of the biggest yakusugi and the most famous location in all of Yakushima.
It’s a long trek to the Jomon Cedar: an 8.5 km walk on the trolley road and a further 2.5 km on the trail and only then can you meet the Jomon Cedar. Kosugi-dani village is just over a nearby bridge. Now abandoned, the village prospered by logging yakusugi during the Taishō and Shōwa eras. It seems that there was an elementary school and a junior high school in Kosugi-dani village, and you’ll reach this area by going down the river next to the schoolyard. These places have a creepy atmosphere these days, but it was once a playground for the children who grew up here.
The photo above shows one of the largest stumps found in Yakushima so far. It can be seen on the way to Jomon Cedar. It’s called Wilson’s Stump, named after English botanist Ernest Henry Wilson. The area inside of the hollow stump is about 13 square meters, and the opening above looks like a heart when looking up from the inside, so it has gained popularity with tourists.
This is the king of the forest: the Jomon Cedar. It is said to be the largest and oldest tree found on Yakushima. Nowadays, a viewing deck was built nearby and you can’t actually touch the tree anymore, but even from this distance, you’ll be in awe of its size and presence. Tens of thousands of travelers come to this island every year, all looking forward to seeing this giant tree.
So far we have visited all of the famous spots, but there is more to the island than just the “Yakushima bucket list.” Some people explore the island by car, while others spend their time on other fun activities.
The Sarukawa Banyan forest is located on the east side of the island where not many travelers tend to visit, but I’d definitely say it’s worth it. Yakushima is in a subtropical region, so tropical plants grow in clusters. Banyan trees, members of the fig family, are a keystone species. If you visit, you’ll realize that one of the charms of Yakushima is being able to see all the types of plants that thrive on the Sarukawa Banyan.
Ōkawa Waterfall on the southwest side of the island is a large waterfall with a height of 88 meters, and it is rated as one of the 100 best waterfalls in Japan. You’ll get to the viewpoint with a 5 minute walk from the parking lot. I was lucky that it rained before my visit as the flow over the falls was quite powerful.
Also, you can experience SUP in Yakushima these days. Yakushima is a granite island, so the water here is clear and beautiful. Every year, more and more people visit this island for exploring its rivers as well as the forests.
So, let’s take a journey deep into the lesser-known reaches of Yakushima!
The people living on Yakushima once widely believed in Shinto, and there are many shrines on the island. In previous eras, people used to do ‘take mairi’ (visiting mountains) which means to pray to the mountain god at the top of remote mountains a few times a year. This is Ushidoko-moisho Shrine. In the old days, women were not allowed to enter the mountains, so they would visit this shrine to see off the men who came here to undertake take-mairi, and they prayed while waiting for their return, expressing their everyday gratitude. Recently, that custom has been revived and each village on Yakushima does take-mairi, paying a visit to each mountain, as has been done by their ancestors in times long past.
This road is on the west side of the island, facing the East China Sea. It’s located within a world heritage site called Seibu-rindo Trail. The vegetation here is great, and the people on this island are enthusiastic about preserving it for future generations. So, they fought the national logging plan and registered the forest road as a World Heritage Site. The road remained too narrow to become a prefectural road and is now a haven for nature. Plants that grow all over Japan grow in Yakushima. There are many unique places where you can see the distribution of plants changing according to the altitude. You can enjoy the island from sunrise to sunset in one day, taking in a variety of views and locales as the light changes.
The highest trailhead on the island, at an altitude of 1,360 meters, is called Yodogou and leads to the Okudake area, the sacred heart of the mountains. Walking through the forest from here, you’ll find an evacuation hut called Yodogou hut, and the Yodogawa river runs beside it. The water is so clear that sometimes it looks invisible. Depending on the season, the plants around the river turn their colors from fresh green to orange to yellow, so you can enjoy this area in all seasons. Exploring the area around the hut gives us another perspective on Yakushima. If we focus on the feeling of such moments, we can get a deeper understanding of the place.
Yakushima has eight of the top 10 highest peaks in Kyushu Prefecture. This is the sixth highest mountain on the island, Kuromidake (1,830m). The mountain is found in the Okudake region, where the gods were believed to exist. This island is surrounded by the warm current known as ‘Kuroshio,’ so water vapor tends to accumulate in the air and seas of clouds can often be seen from the peaks. The mountain is quite accessible and even people who don’t climb mountains so often can come here.
This is the summit of Mt. Miyanoura (1,936m), which happens to be the 100th entry in Japan’s official 100 famous mountains. Mt. Miyanoura is very popular with hikers, many of whom make this their main destination on the island, rather than the Jomon Cedar or other attractions. After passing the tree line, a world of bamboo grass and alpine roses spreads before your eyes. On a clear day, you can see a 360° panoramic view all the way down to the sea. I can feel the majesty of the island while standing on the summit of this mountain. It’s an 8 kilometer trek one way in order to reach the summit of Mt. Miyanoura, so you need to have proper equipment and plenty of experience. But this place makes you want to come back again and again once you experience it for the first time.
This is around the Yakino Sansaro fork on the way to Nagatadake after passing through Mt. Miyanoura. Both Mt. Miyanoura and Nagatadake, the 1st and 2nd highest mountains in Kyushu Prefecture can be seen from this spot.
Nagatadake (1,886m) is the second highest peak in Kyushu. Its shape is completely different from Mt. Miyanoura, and this is my favorite mountain out of all the mountains in the Okudake region. After a short walk, you’ll reach ‘God’s Hollow,’ and you can see the village from here. On this day, clouds were ascending to God’s Hollow.
And to my surprise, I saw the Brocken specter! It’s a rare aerial phenomena that can be seen when the conditions are right. It appears as a rainbow around my shadow! On top of that, there was another circle of rainbow around my rainbow. I remember clearly that I was so excited about the rarity of the phenomenon since I had never seen it in person before. That’s why nature is fun. It always shows us a unique view, so there remains a sense of mystery and wonder, even though I’ve already visited this place many times before. And sometimes it shows us a miracle.
I used to shoot with a DSLR camera to share Yakushima and its natural beauty from my own perspective, but THETA Z1 allows us to enjoy the scenery together as if we were there. And with VR goggles you can look around these places as though you are really there!
Only with THETA Z1, you can enjoy the magnificence of nature while you are in the city, far from the wonders of Yakushima. Feel mother nature even in the city. And enrich your life!
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Guide to travel freely on Yakushima
(*In addition to the photos I uploaded in this article, I posted more on the THETA website, so please have a look.)