Yakushima: On a Quest for Princess Mononoke

Cut off a wolf’s head and it still has the power to bite.” Apparently, but alas I was unable to test this hypothesis during my recent trip to Yakushima, aka, the scenic inspiration for studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke/もののけ姫.

Setting off from Oita city with my travel companions, R & L, we didn’t depart until nearly 1830 – with a 4.5 hour drive ahead of us! We were traveling the length of Kyushu, from Oita down to Miyazaki, across towards Kumamoto, and sweep back down to Kagoshima. From there we’d take the ferry in the morn to Yakushima. Arriving around 2300 L made great time.

Saturday – Oh we’re going to Yakushima, da da da daa da da!

Awake at ridiculous o’clock, we packed and in the car with over an hour to spare to the ferry departed, so stocked up on snacks and headed down to the port.

Using my best Japanese we located the car entrance to board the vessel, but poor L had to remain with the car as R and I headed into the terminal. A cheeky ticket raffle saw me win a free draught beer on the ferry – what a good omen!

The ferry is the cheapest way to Yakushima, with the alternative sea-based alternative costing near double, though in half the time. So we stuck with a 4 hour ferry that departed once, each way, a day.

Despite having an onsen, it was out of service, so mucked around on deck, made friends with a German couple and took sweet-ass photos!

Kagoshima/Yakushima Ferry
All aboard to Yakushima!

Coming into port was easy and soon we were on the hunt for some grub, before setting off round the island anti-clockwise.

It’s a pretty small island, 132 km in diameter and so we endeavoured to loop the entire thing during the weekend. It was still early afternoon, so we set off, stopping and exploring everything of interest we saw en route.

Eventually we crossed the threshold into UNESCO World Heritage park on the West slide of the island – suddenly it was darker, the roads narrower and monkeys and deer were every few hundred metres – not a good thing when you need the toilet!

As evening pressed in, no day would be complete without a lil onsen! We checked out one built into a luxury hotel built on a short headland, with large windows that looked out onto the darkening sea, it was pretty cool.

We rocked up to the hotel around 7, lucky we weren’t much later, as the reception come konbini was closing and god knows how we’d have checked in.

We had conveniently arranged ourselves to stay on the East side of the island, since this was closest to the start of the trail head.

Sunday – Old Grampappy Jomon

Of course this wasn’t a convenient trail head, oh no! We awake around 0430 and head down to the Sugui (Cedar) Museum, the meeting point for catching the bus to the Arakawa trail head. These buses only run between 5-6am, and since it was within ‘the season’ there was no public access to the roads.

After a short nap on the bus, we arrived around 0630, just as the sky was quickly lightening. We hurriedly pooped and peed, and set of along the train tracks.

Oh what a beautiful morning! Near the start of the Arakawa trail

The first hour of the trail follows along the old rail tracks. What were the tracks used for? I don’t know! But it offered high up views of the valley below, and criss-crossed over wide gorges gouged out by rushing torrents and populated with such giant boulders, that between spending so much team watching your feet on the tracks and looking out at the view, the sense of scale was entirely lost, and I could no longer adjust my eyes to take in the entire view without feeling a lil nauseated. So bizarre!

It’s as if someone just decided to dump all these rocks here!

We passed by the stone remains of a former school that had been used until the 1970s, shortly after which the rail tracks began to fade out.

What we eventually learned was that the whole area had been home to a logging industry, the cedars in the area having grown old and tall due to their difficult accessibility. Up until around the 1600s, logging had been largely unnecessary, thanks to the cedars natural  longevity and immunity to insects, as fallen trees could be harvested and the wood used for building.

Those running the business had set up shop with a long term perspective.

They would harvest an area, bar a few select ‘mother’ trees, would would then go on to seed their surroundings. Many of the new trees would go onto grow up on the stumps of the previous trees, resulting in cool looking trees, stacked a bit like wedding cake, and twisting root formations.

Logging official stopped in 2001, with all products made from sugi nowadays coming from trees fallen in typhoons or from age, making them domaiboku, or buried trees in the ground.

From here the next highlight is Wilson’s Stump. Whilst I had hoped someone had gotten lost, and carved a home from a giant tree stump, it turns out the name is simply because Ernest Henry Wilson was the first person to introduce it to a Western audience. But with its 32m diameter, there is plenty of room to throw down a bit of tatami, lay down a futon and make a comfortable little home.

Getting here around 10am, we were quite hopeful we’d be at our goal, Jomon Sugi in no time!

We were wrong.

Following the path away from Wilson, it didn’t look far at all on the map, and we set off at quite the pace. The steep mountain steeps soon put pay to this.

Up and down we went – thankfully somebody had the foresight to build stairs

The rain set in, causing mist to wipe out whatever view there was between the tress, and we continued our uncertain walk/climb with and down, in and out of gullies and between trees, briefly pausing for lunch in a nice ravine.

Shortly after 12 we made it Jomon Sugi, and its viewing platform.

Jomon sugi is estimated to be between 2000 and 7000 years old, depending on your testing method, but it definitely made it our sempai! It sits on the north face of the tallest mountain on the island, at an elevation of around 1000m, and no matter what route you take, it’s still a 4-5 hour hike to reach it!

He’s small for his age. Clearly dangerous since we couldn’t get up close to it

After posing for a number of photos, it was time to head back the way we came! Ever-conscious that the buses only ran between 1500 and 1800, we headed down the trail, and made it back in good time and we back to the hostel before 1800!

What else was there to do but check out an onsen!

This time we checked out the local onsen, a short distance from the premium onsen of the previous day, though it felt more like a world away!

The onsen was a large room, with a few taps and stools around the edge for you to wash, with your own soap, and a large bath that was little under half the room. Along the floor were a number of older Japanese men, contorting their bodies into a variety of shapes along the floor, presumably stretching.

The bath was extraordinarily hot, but after a number of sharp, short breaths I was submerged, and trying to stretch under water, before abandoning all hope and getting dressed. I’ve never finished in an onsen so quickly! But at least I was able to watch anime as I waited for the girls.

For dinner we checked out a lil sushi bar around the town, then being so tired, decided we ought to get a relatively early night.

Monday – To see a Princess

Choices had to be made, and we sacrificed visiting the tidal pool onsen in order to visit the heavy-moss covered forest of Princess Mononoke fame. This in turn afforded us the luxury of lying in until 7am, and then setting off around to the north of the island, and thus completing our tour of the perimeter of Yakushima!

Arriving at the tourist centre, we had survived the scaling, dizzying heights of Yakushuima’s mountain roads, and sought to traverse the 2 hour walk to the Mononoke Hima no Mori in about an hour.

Success! We were soon at our destination – it was ridiculously green and moss covered, but definitely looked like the film!

If you look carefully, you might be able to spot a Kodama, or tree spirit

The walk back we took a lil slowly, giving us time to play by the river crossing, and take in the nature, before heading back to our comparatively urban lifestyles.

Back on the ferry, the time passed a little more slowly – alas no free beer this time for Molkie, and I spent most of the return on my back, feet on the wall, like a baby, thankful that somebody had designed the ferry with carpeted sleeping areas, because, Japan!

Thanks to Labour Day, we had been able to cram our holiday into a 3-day weekend, and so the girls needed to head back before school on Tuesday morning.

I, however, had taken an extra day off to allow me to visit Kagoshima, and so we parted ways in down town Kagoshima, just as the clouds parted and a torrential storm hit.

Instincts kicked in, and as a Brit, naturally I headed to the nearest pub. Online, labelled as an Irish Pub, the name Big Ben, coupled with Union Flags said otherwise, but all I remembered is that they did a lot of beer, including a good Guinness, and that Justin Bieber had A LOT of tracks in the UK Top50 as MTV played in the background.

After a good 5 or so hours, I set out with new bartender friend Luke for a night of adventure. Unfortunately Japan wasn’t so ready for us, it being a Monday night and all.

Unperturbed we set off from the pub and onto the streets, where by luck or design, we bumped into the very same German couple we had seen on the ferry on the way TO and FROM Yakushima, and suddenly we had a party on our hands!

After asking a number of drunk Japanese business men, we found ourselves a snack bar, and I introduced my new friends to the joys of Umeshu, shochu and my singing for a full 90 minutes.

When the show was over, I was still left the task of negotiating my way to my Tatami Time-share bed I had requested (a JET run network of people offering beds to fellow, but travelling JETs). Thankfully she had left the door unlocked, I crawled into my futon and welcomed some rest.

Tuesday – Home James, and don’t spare the horses

Obviously my host had school the next day, and so I was up at 7am and out the door not long after. What a prime opportunity to capture some sunrise photography I thought to myself as I sat in Starbucks munching on a panini.

On the itinerary for today – the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. This covered an interesting period of Japan when it was uncertain of its future as westerners forced Japan to open its doors to the world, bring with it new ideas and methods. That being said, this was still a turbulent Japan, with political and social tensions and divisions, merely added to by the adoption and rejection of foreign ideas.

Next stop? Kumamoto! Home of Kumamon!

This 170km journey would be completed in under an hour thanks to the ridiculously expensive, but oh so cool shinkansen! With its spacious seats it sure beat an aeroplane!

Turns out Kumomoto is a lil quiet and empty – either that, or the shinkansen stops a bit outside the main town – i’m not sure… But there was a temple!

Final leg of the journey was the 170km from Kumamoto back to Miemachi – an easy 2.5hr ride… WHY?!?

And back in time for curry!

Oh what a strange and beautiful holiday it was!

By J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.