To the Japanese, Yakushima is a mystical place, and it’s little wonder why: The island holds some of the country’s oldest living trees, a primeval forest tableau of ancient Japanese cedars (Yakusugi), some more than 3,000 years old. One famous tree, Johmon Sugi, is said to be 7,000 years old, with a massive and muscular trunk that measures 16m (52 ft.) around. It’s not the only thing on Yakushima that’s outsized. Giant loggerhead turtles emerge from the sea to lay their eggs—in 2008 alone there were 5,700 reported turtle landings on the beach at Nagata—3,000 of which lay eggs.
A subtropical island lying off the southern coast of Kyushu in the East China Sea, this World Heritage Site has been called the “Forest of the Sea.” This is the place that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s celebrated anime movie, Princess Mononoke; one area of the forest, Mononoke-hime no Mori, is even named for Princess Mononoke.
Three-quarters of the island is forested mountains, and the rainy climate keeps things wet and wild; in fact, this is the wettest place in Japan. It’s water, water everywhere: Moss blankets the undergrowth, and waterfalls tumble into sun-dappled plunge pools. All this humidity, combined with the fertile volcanic soil, makes for a bonanza of flora, with some 1,900 species and subspecies.
Mountaineering is a popular activity on Yakushima; the season begins in May. Hiking trails lead up to the summit of Mount Miyanouradake, the island’s highest peak, but you can find trails all over the island. Even though trails are clean and well-marked, it’s recommended that you have one of the official Yakushima guides lead you on a hiking trek into the densely wooded mountains.
Most visitors use a rental car to get around the island; agencies are located near the ferry docks and the airport. In high season, a shuttle bus runs from the Yakushima Museum to the entrance to the Arakawa Trail, which leads to the Johmon Sugi tree—the only way to see the ancient cedar.