This may just be the most rewarding hike you ever do.
One-Day Hiking Guide
If you are like many other tourists to Japan, then you probably tried to cram as many activities into your trip as possible. This may have left you with only a few days on the gorgeous Yakushima Island. The first day on the island will consist of: arriving on the island, finding your accommodation, checking in, dropping off luggage, etc. The last day on the island will be the day you wake up early and catch the boat back to Kagoshima. This means that you will most-likely only have one or two full days to hike on the island.
One of the great things about Yakushima is that there are so many different hiking options of varying distances, difficulties, and times. This is why I would recommend that if you only have one day to hike on the island, you take the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine hiking trail. This hiking route has three different trails you can follow depending on your experience level (shown below).
There is an entrance fee to hike this trail and it is only about 400 yen per person (prices may change). Also, you will be given a copy of this map when you enter, so no need to try to save or download this map, you'll get your own pamphlet!
For those of you Studio Ghibli fans out there, this is also the trail where you can see the famous Princess Mononoke Forest (A.K.A. the moss-covered forest).
Suggested Hiking Route
As you can see on the map, there are three different routes you can take and each is marked by a line of a different color: green, yellow, and red.
The green trail will take an estimated 4 hours from beginning to end, the yellow trail is about a three-hour hike and the red trail only takes about an hour to complete. If you are an experienced hiker then I suggest hiking all three trails starting with the green, then switching to the yellow trail on your way back at point 11, then switching to the red loop at point 7. Your course would look something like this (Don't mind my crude drawing):
I am an active person but I do not do a lot of hiking at home; I took my time hiking this trail and stopped for breaks and photos along the way and this loop took me a total of about 6.5 hours. I started by taking the local bus to the entrance and began my hike around 8:30am. It was perfect timing because I finished my hike around 3pm and the last bus down the mountain comes at 4:10pm, so I returned to the entrance with enough time to use the restroom, have a snack, and relax before the bus arrived.
*Note: you must either drive or take the bus to hike Shiratani Unsuikyo because it is not a walkable distance from the town. If you're relying on the bus for transportation, then find a copy of the bus schedule and do not miss the last bus down the mountain. If you do miss the last bus, you will probably have to ask the entrance booth employees to call you a taxi (if the booth is still open) and it won't be a cheap ride.
What to Expect on the Hike
Please read this section if you plan on hiking Shiratani Unsuikyo!
If you plan on hiking the green or yellow trails, please keep in mind that although there are ribbons to follow on the trees so you don't get lost, this is not an easy hike. In fact, there were areas where the trail became so treacherous that I was lucky that I didn't sprain my ankle.
The trail starts out easy enough and may give hikers a false sense of security. However, once you pass point 13 (the moss-covered forest), the terrain becomes dangerous. The path is very steep and because it rains quite often on the island, the moss-covered rocks that you need to walk on become extremely slippery. Also, many portions of the trail do not have a cleared route, forcing you to climb over exposed roots and wobbly rocks (as shown in the photo).
The most dangerous part is the path leading up to Taiko Iwa (Taiko Rock is an elevated lookout point) because the hiking trail becomes so steep that you need to hold on to a rope to pull yourself up the side of the mountain. And what you climb up, you must also climb down. If you aren't experienced, don't have proper hiking shoes, or are traveling with children, then I suggest turning around at point 14.
In addition to steep climbs, slippery rocks and exposed roots, there are some portions of the yellow and green trails that require you to hop rocks across flowing rivers. Depending on the level of the river at the time, some rocks may be partially submerged and a set path is not clear. Expect to get your shoes wet on this hike.
I am in no way trying to deter you from hiking Shiratani Unsuikyo, as this was the most beautiful and rewarding hike I've done in my entire life. However, I want you to be prepared because a broken ankle could ruin your whole trip to Japan. So if you're going to do all three trails, please:
1. Bring plenty of water
2. Wear proper hiking shoes
3. Bring a raincoat or poncho
4. Bring food (there is nowhere to purchase food on this hike)
5. Do not go off the marked paths
Also, please respect the nature. Yakushima is so beautiful because much of the island is untouched and preserved. Do not litter, do not destroy any of the plants or moss, and do not disturb any animals you may encounter along the way (deer and monkeys are the most common).
And most importantly, enjoy! This may just be the most rewarding hike you ever do, so remember take it all in. The dangerous terrain can have you watching your feet while you walk, so don't forget to take moments to stop walking and look up.
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See you soon!