Fall in love with the lush island that inspired the setting for Princess Mononoke, just two hours from Kagoshima Port by high-speed boat.
Studio Ghibli fans know that any Hayao Miyazaki film landscape is a feast for the senses, and Princess Mononoke is no exception. The thick-misted depths of the film’s ancient forest are haunting, wondrous, at times terrifying—and based on a real location: Yakushima, a stunning, sub-tropical island about 60 kilometres south of the southern tip of Kyushu. Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the island is almost perfectly round, the full circumference is drivable in about three hours and the population clocks in at just over 13,000. But jaw-dropping beauty abounds in this small space, which contains such a rich and unique variety of flora and fauna that it’s sometimes called the Galapagos of Asia.
The mountainous island is home to the highest peak in Kyushu, Mt. Miyanoura (1,935 metres), one of Japan’s famous One Hundred Mountains. The island is covered in majestic cedar trees, including the 7,200-year-old Jomon Sugi and the 3,000-year-old Yayoi Sugi, both of which managed to escape centuries of logging between 1600 and 1960. The island is also dotted with hemlocks, firs, banyans and the slender “candlestick” mangrove trees common to the cooler tropical climate, along with ethereal waterfalls, crystal-clear streams and healing onsen (hot springs). It’s no surprise that the island’s creaturely delights also abound, including the sika deer and red-bottomed macaque, both of which are smaller but scrappier than their main island counterparts. Right now, you can also find sea turtles in Yakushima’s beaches and surrounding waters, as they journey to lay their eggs between May and July.
Though locals in ancient times worshiped the island’s natural wonders, those wonders were once threatened by war and human greed. The first tree was felled at the end of the sixteenth century, when the Shimazu clan of Kyushu was defeated by a huge army sent by warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi. After that, the Shimazu clan was ordered to send giant trees to Kyoto to honour the victor. Not long after, Tomari Jochiku, a wandering priest and former island resident, returned to his hometown and convinced the locals that the gods had granted permission to cut down more trees for local profit. Thus began centuries of logging, which continued until conservation efforts really took hold in the 1960s. Those efforts are now boosted by Yakushima’s UNESCO protections, but traces of the old logging village, and the history of natural exploitation, can still be found on the same trail that leads to the ancient Jomon Sugi.
Contemporary travellers can still enjoy a luxurious vacation experience—like the swanky, hilltop Sankara Hotel and Spa—or something a bit more rustic that stays closer to nature. Regardless of where you lay your head, the main attraction is the abundance of natural beauty, like the many forest and mountain hiking trails, or the Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, which is carved right into the ebband-flow of the island’s southern shoreline. You can also swim with the turtles, or get a guided night tour during laying season, and have a guide take you to Nagata Beach to see the turtles journey onto the sand and deposit their precious cargo. Just remember to be respectful and leave your cameras aside, since turtles are sensitive to light. It’s a good reminder to slow down and enjoy experiences unadulterated by social media. And it may be this in-the-moment experience of nature that leads travellers to create something beautiful in the future. After all, Miyazaki brought a team of Princess Mononoke artists to experience the island for themselves, and the end result is an apt cinematic tribute to this ancient fairytale island.
Located off the southern coast of Kyushu, the island of Yakushima can be reached via high-speed boat or ferry from Kagoshima, or by air from Kagoshima, Osaka or Fukuoka.