Yakushima: Get Back to Nature in an Island Paradise

By Kelly Wetherille
July 18, 2013
Adventures, Lifestyle

A tiny island located just under three hours from Tokyo, Yakushima is well known for its pristine natural beauty. But what many people don’t know is that it is also home to one of Japan’s most relaxing luxury resorts, complete with spacious villas, a pampering spa, and a restaurant serving delicious dishes made with organic and local ingredients. It truly is a place to escape and shut out the rest of the world, and the best part is that you can do it in a weekend.

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Despite growing up in the suburban United States and participating in numerous family camping trips from the time I was a toddler and all through high school, I will be the first to admit that 11 years in Tokyo have definitely turned me into a city girl. I don’t even like to go to places that aren’t serviced by the Tokyo Metro, let alone outside the city’s 23 wards (and let’s be honest, there are many wards that I probably have never been to). But even the most hardcore urbanites sometimes need a bit of respite from the hectic pace of our daily lives. For a healthy dose of nature and fresh air, one place that’s hard to go wrong with is Yakushima, which also just happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Scientists have detected no signs of past tree cutting in the island’s roughly 12-square-kilometer “wilderness core area,” and the surrounding forest is no less dense and magical. It is said to be one of the world’s most pristine ancient forests. As if this alone weren’t enough, Yakushima also boasts beautiful beaches, more breathtaking waterfalls than should be naturally possible in such a small area, and roughly the same number of monkeys and deer as there are people living on the island.

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All this nature is great and everything, but at the end of a long, wet day of hiking (Yakushima gets more rain than anywhere else in Japan, and locals cheekily joke that it rains 35 days a month on the island), there is nothing better than relaxing at a luxury resort. This is where the Sankara Hotel & Spa comes in. With five suites, 12 two-story villas with one room on each floor, two full restaurants, a large pool, and a full-service spa, it’s the kind of place that seems like it would be more at home on Bali or Koh Samui. In fact, the hotel’s design and decor is modeled after a Southeast Asian resort, and all of the furniture was custom made for Sankara in Bali. But general manager Jiro Sato says he chose Yakushima as the site of his first hotel because it is “one of few islands in the world that has the unique combination of mountains, beaches, and naturally occurring spring water.” He was also drawn to the spiritual quality of the island, which is linked to its rare natural ecosystem.

Sankara bills itself as a luxury eco-resort, and attention has been given to the smallest details, from the biodegradable toothbrushes made from boar bristles and a cornstarch-based polymer to the organic herbal teas that are harvested onsite and placed in each room. The restaurants use as many organic ingredients as possible, as well as local fish and seafood. Many vegetables are grown in the hotel’s own gardens, as are herbs used in the spa treatments.

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Perhaps Yakushima’s best-known tourist attraction is the Jomon Sugi, the oldest and largest of the island’s many cryptomeria trees. The majestic tree is over 25 meters tall and has a circumference of over 16 meters. Its age is estimated between 2,170 and 7,200 years (clearly there’s a wide margin of error here, but you get the point—it’s old). Getting to the tree will take a four- to five-hour hike in each direction from the nearest road, so only the most diehard nature-lovers make the trip (no, I was not one of them, but I might try it if I ever go back to Yakushima). Not to worry—there are plenty of other worthy specimens of cryptomeria (also called Japanese cedar, despite being a member of the cypress family) on the island.

About a half-hour drive from the town of Miyanoura is the parking area for Shiratani Unsuikyo, a nature reserve with several kilometers of well-maintained hiking trails surrounding the Shiratani Creek. In addition to countless large cryptomeria trees, the area is also home to countless waterfalls, ranging from those that cascade several meters down a rock face to unexpected trickles amongst mossy trees. Hiking routes take between one and five hours to complete, but be sure to ask at the entrance (where you pay the ¥300 per person entry fee) about any special circumstances, as trails are sometimes closed due to high water after a heavy rainfall. Also, don’t make the rookie mistake that I made and arrive without proper hiking and rain gear—sturdy shoes or boots, a lightweight, hooded rain jacket, and a walking stick will all prove indispensable.

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There are hundreds of waterfalls on the island, including a few must-sees. Just a short drive from Sankara Hotel is Senpiro waterfall, which can be viewed from an observation area just a few minutes’ walk from the parking lot. Bordered on both sides by massive rock faces on which trees somehow manage to grow, Senpiro is actually a pair of waterfalls, with the smaller of the two lying slightly upstream from the larger one. On the west side of the island is Ohko waterfall, named one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls. Here the water cascades in several streams from a height of 88 meters into a crystal clear pool below.

Continuing along after Ohko waterfall, drivers will arrive at an area where the road narrows to one lane that twists and winds between cliffs and forests. This section is known as Seibu Rindoh Forest Path, with ‘path’ being the operative word. While the road is paved and well-maintained, it must be navigated with special care, and large vehicles are not allowed. Along this stretch visitors have the best chance of seeing Yakushima’s native deer and macaque monkeys. While there are no guarantees, sheer probability dictates that most people will run into at least one of the two, if not both species (they are not shy and come right alongside and even into the road, so drive with care, especially around bends).

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The perfect way to relax after a long hike through the primeval forest surrounding Shiratani Unsuikyo or a drive around the perimeter of the island is with a soothing spa treatment back at Sankara. The spa menu is based on Thai healing techniques, and treatments range from traditional Thai massage to oil and aromatherapy massages, which can also be combined with an herbal massage ball treatment. After a skilled practitioner administers a full-body massage, the herbal ball is steam-heated and then pressed against the skin, warming the body from the outside in and taking away the wet chill of the day. My trainers (the only shoes I brought) were also soaked through from hiking in the rain, but the a member of the spa staff placed them under a heater for me, so by the time I was finished with my treatment, they were dry and toasty warm, as was my entire body. To cap off the day, we refueled with a delicious dinner at Sankara’s French-inspired restaurant Okas, where the chef creates healthy European dishes with an island twist.

We only stayed on Yakushima for two nights, but because it’s so small we felt like that was enough to see most of the main sights, while still getting a restorative break from city life. For an invigorating weekend away, there are probably few better places.

The Deets

Getting There: Japan Airlines operates several flights a day from Tokyo to Kagoshima (just under two hours) as well as connections to Yakushima (roughly 30 minutes), and most flights are scheduled so that there is very little waiting in between.

Getting Around: While there are a few buses on Yakushima and group tours can be arranged through most hotels, the best way to explore the island is by car. Most of the major rental agencies, including Orix and Toyota, have a presence on the island, and many have branches near the airport and even offer a pickup and drop-off service. Be sure to bring your international driver’s license if you don’t have a Japanese one.

Reservations: Call Sankara Hotel & Spa on 0997-47-3488 (available 24 hours a day) or make reservations on the resort’s official website.