Yakushima – the place that inspired Studio Ghibli’s “Mononoke-hime”
To start off our bigger theme “6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan”, we chose Yakushima and its beautiful forest located in the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine (白谷雲水峡). This subtropical island is located about 61,3 kilometers south of the Osumi Peninsula in southern Kyushu. It has been a natural World Heritage Site since 1993 and is covered by an extensive ancient cedar forest which contains some of Japan’s oldest trees. These trees are more than a 1000 years old and are called yakusugi (屋久杉), a combination of Yakushima’s ‘yaku’ and ‘sugi’, the Japanese word for cedar. The most ancient tree on the island, Jōmon Sugi, is even estimated to be between 2,170 and 7,200 years old. This island was one of the most inspiring places during the creation of Studio Ghibli’s movie “Mononoke-hime” and is known for its eerie sights and stunning nature.
What is so special about Yakushima?
Yakushima is actually quite a rare sight. With a ecosystem unique in the Northern Hemisphere and an especially humid environment, the island is home to about 1,900 species and subspecies of flora, 16 mammal species and 150 bird species. It is the largest nesting ground for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle in the North Pacific and no record of tree cutting can be found in the Wilderness Core Area of the forest, which is over 12 square kilometers.
The first people to arrive in Yakushima, came there during the Jōmon period (12,000 BCE – 300 BCE). The island was traditionally used for forestry and the export of wood products. Now, export of oranges, tea and shōchū, and tourism have replaced the role of income for the island. Yakushima’s centre is mostly dominated by mountains reaching almost 2,000 m high. From the coast up to the central peaks, a sequence of natural progression makes this place significant for biological, scientific and aesthetic reasons. The flora changes from a coastal vegetation with subtropical elements to cold-temperate bamboo grassland and a high moor near the summit.
As mentioned before, the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine is a very famous part of Yakushima. Visitors can find some of the ancient cedars here or choose their own route along the well maintained hiking trails. This part was also the inspiration for the forest scenes in Studio Ghibli’s movie “Mononoke-hime” and the lead artist, Oga Kazuo, spent quite some time in these forests working on sketches for the movie. The longest trail you can follow takes you through the forest to Jōmon Sugi and back. It takes about twelve hours to finish and is one of the most difficult routes on Yakushima.
Ofcourse, there is more to Yakushima than the cedar forests. People also visit the island to scuba dive or visit museums and onsen. There is also a route around the perimeter of the island for driving that gives a beautiful view of the island. Especially the western side of the island is worth it, the World Heritage Site reaches the sea there and you can drive right through it on very small paths. The onsen are also very special. They are only reachable a few hours before and after low tide, the other times the onsen are usually flooded.
How to get to Yakushima?
There are quite some possibilities if you want to visit Yakushima. Most people go to Kagoshima first, to take either a high speed boat, a car ferry or a plane to the island. Kagoshima can be reached by train or by plane from Tokyo. However, it is also possible to get a direct flight to Yakushima if you depart from Osaka or Fukuoka.
This was our first unusual but fantastic place to visit in Japan. If you want to know more about the beautiful Yakushima, you can always leave us a comment, send us a mail or visit this page. If you ever get the chance to visit this wondrous place, just do it!