The Forgotten Cedars – Prepare to be Surprised by the Mega Flora on Japan’s Yakushima Traverse

In Stories
By Wes Lang

California has the giant sequoias and England’s got the ancient oaks of Sherwood. New Zealand boasts the mighty Kauri and Africa has its Banyan trees. While there are areas all over the world renowned for their gargantuan flora, there’s one place that rivals them all but rarely makes the list: Yakushima, Japan. This circular island floating off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture is blanketed with virgin forests and towering cedar trees, making it a must-see for travelers who are on the lookout for unspoiled greenery. The main trekking route is best explored over three or four days to immerse yourself in the lush surrounds. You can head out on your own through the prehistoric woods but we recommend teaming up with a guide to experience the true hidden gems of the island.

Day 1:

Most trekkers start their journey at Yodogawa trailhead, but if you’ve got an extra day in your schedule you can start directly from the shoreline hot spring baths of Onoaida. Enjoy a morning soak in the thermal waters before hitting the trail for the big climb to Yodogawa. Along the way, you’ll follow a stream past a couple of majestic waterfalls before turning towards the ridgeline. All in all, it’s an altitude gain of nearly 1400 meters (4600 feet) and you’ll be ready for a good night’s sleep when you reach the cozy emergency hut nestled next to the pellucid waters of the Yodo river.

Day 2:

The following day you’ll head through tranquil marshlands alive with bird and insect life before strolling among colossal boulders with inspiring panoramic ocean views on all sides. If the weather is cooperative, that is. Yakushima has some of the highest rainfall totals in the entire archipelago, and the summit of Mt. Miyanoura, sitting at an elevation of nearly 2000 meters (6500 feet), is often draped in thick cloud and strong winds. Even if you are denied a view, though, the fog brings an ethereal quality to the backcountry as the boulders start to resemble forlorn aquatic creatures, a relic of the past when Yakushima still lay at the bottom of the sea. After summiting Miyanoura, the route drops back into the forest and traverses the ridge to Shin-Takatsuka hut, your home for the evening. The woods shelter both deer and monkeys in abundance, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you may find the timorous animals foraging among the moss-covered terrain.

Day 3:

This is why you came on this journey. Now it’s time to visit the forest housing the highest density of giant cedars on Yakushima island. The first stop will be at the great-grandfather of them all, the Jomon tree. Estimated to be around 8000 years old, the tree is a sight to behold and a great warm-up for the lesser known giants loitering in the thick woodlands. The path to Jomon is one of the most popular trails on Yakushima during the tourist season and, if it’s a weekend or holiday it can become quite congested, so keep your patience until the trail drops to meet the ruins of an old train line.

Now it’s time to visit the forest housing the highest density of giant cedars on Yakushima island. The first stop will be at the great-grandfather of them all, the Jomon tree, estimated to be around 8000 years old.

Originally built for logging purposes, the old railway trail makes for a pleasant walk while preparing the legs for the next climb towards Tsuji pass. From here, the route drops down into what is known as the Princess Mononoke woods, a breathtaking display of nature’s prowess that provided the inspiration for the forest in the movie Princess Mononoke by acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki. If you’re fast then you could be back in civilization by the end of the day, but it’s much better to take it slow and stay overnight at the Shiratani hut in the middle of the greenery. There are several loop trails that split off and are well worth exploring. Bring a camera tripod because the low light levels make capturing the moss carpets tricky.

Day 4:

Finally, the end of the trek is in sight and you can stroll out of the forest to the bus stop, or simply continue walking downhill on the paved road until meeting up with the shoreline again. If you’re still feeling adventurous, then you could always rent a bicycle for the 135-km circumnavigation of the island, or head to one of the beaches where sea turtles come in the summer to lay their eggs.

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