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Visit Yakushima Island in Japan

The Island That Inspired The Setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke

Anyone who is familiar with the delightful animations of Japan’s Studio Ghibli will that know that its founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, created very distinctive locations for the settings of their films. Princess  Mononoke was one of the first Ghibli films really to break into public consciousness, albeit largely with animation fans, in western countries in 1998 (the smash hit Oscar winning Spirited Away in 2001 ensured that the studio’s fame was assured). Princess Mononoke’s setting was inspired by the island of Yakushima, located around 60km from the southernmost point of Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, which is part of the Osumi chain of islands. The island is almost perfectly round and mountainous. It’s also very beautiful indeed. And even if you aren’t familiar with the films of Studio Ghibli there are all sorts of things to do if you visit Yakushima.

67461743 Princess Mononoke Wallpaper - Princess Mononoke ...
The mossy forest of Princess Mononoke

Getting To Yakushima

Being big fans of Studio Ghibli and, having visited the fabulous Studio Ghibli museum on previous visits to Japan, we decided that we definitely wanted to visit Yakushima for a couple of days. On this trip we had decided explore Kyushu. We flew into Osaka and then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagasaki and then across to the southern city of Kagoshima. Kagoshima is a lovely laid-back city set in the shadow of the active volcano Sakurajima, which regularly emits rumblings of ash and smoke. It’s possible to visit the volcano by crossing the picturesque bay on a ferry.

In Kagoshima we chose a business hotel that was close to the port. The staff were happy to look after our luggage for a couple of days, so we just packed a small bag, which meant that we could travel light. The excellent YesYakushima company helped us to visit Yakushima – they booked ferry tickets, car hire and accommodation for us. (This isn’t an affiliate link but we’ll happily recommend their free booking service which was absolutely excellent.) We were happy to explore for the island for ourselves but YesYakushima do offer guided tours if desired.

We caught the mid-morning Toppy/Rocket hydro-foil from Kagoshima port. It’s a picturesque journey as you sail across the bay. There are other options, such as a car ferry, but this was the quickest means of transport and it took around 2.5 hours.

Visit Yakushima

Our boat stopped off at Tanegashima island before arriving at Yakushima. (Some boats go direct, so check the timetable.) When we arrived at Anbo port our hire car was waiting for us, so we picked it up and were on our way. Driving was mainly very easy but if you don’t fancy getting behind the wheel buses are available.

Visit Yakushima – Staying On The Island

We treated ourselves to a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Usually when we plan our trips to Japan we use a combination of cheap business hotels and then splash out on a few nights at a ryokan or two, which is more expensive but definitely worth the extra cost. The traditional inns usually have tatami (reed mat) flooring and you sleep on a futon, which is usually laid out for you while you eat dinner. We stayed at Tashiro Bekkan at Miyanoura.

Visit Yakushima ryokan

Visit Yakushima miyanoura river

The ryokan had a large tatami room, private bathroom and balcony with a view across the crystal clear Miyanoura river.

yakushima ryokan

We chose to stay on a half-board basis, so ate the most exquisite food which included local ingredients such as seafood, mountain vegetables and, of course, kuro buta (black/Berkshire pork), a speciality of the region. The staff were delightful and we managed to have a few conversations with them in bad Japanese (our Japanese was bad, theirs was fine!)

Yakushima sashimi

Yakushima food kuro buta

The ryokan was also able to offer us a bento lunch box – we simply placed an order the night before – and then picked it up before we went hiking the following morning.

Hiking In The Shiratani Unsuikyo Park

This park was the inspiration for the forest in Princess Mononoke and it is very clear to see how the artist Oga Kazuo used the stunningly beautiful landscape for the setting of the animation. It has ancient cedar trees and mossy paths as well as streams and waterfalls running through it. There are multiple trails from the car park and the walking is generally easy, although you need to take care of large tree roots that have grown across the path.

Visit Yakushima Shiratani Unsuikyo

Shiratani Unsuikyo cedar tree

Visit Yakushima

Visit Yakushima – Circumnavigate The Island

On our final day we decided to circumnavigate the island in the car before heading back to the hydrofoil. It’s largely a very easy drive but on the Seibu Rindo Forest path on the western part of the island the road narrows through the forest and becomes single track in some places, so you have to take care. We narrowly avoided a minor collision with a coach coming the other way.

From Miyanoura we drove north, stopping at the Shitoko Banyan Tree Park. Banyan trees are a complete contrast to the cedars of Shiratani Unsuikyo. These trees grow by dropping roots from the branches which eventually reach the ground and embed themselves in the soil creating additional roots to support the tree. They can also form around other types of tree and can eventually kill them as they choke the existing root system.

Isso Beach and Isso lighthouse on the peninsular.

Yakushima Isso beach

Yakushuma Isso lighthouse
Visit Yakushima

Swimming is only possible on the beach in the summer months when lifeguards are available. Also, turtles nest here during May and June, so care must be taken so as not to disturb them.

Then it’s a beautiful drive through the Seibu Rindo Forest. The road can be narrow and very winding as it wends its way through the mountain forest.

Yakushuma coastline

There’s an excellent chance of seeing Yakushika (native deer) and Yakuzaru (the Yakushima macaque) – and indeed we did.

Yakushima macaque

Yakushima macaque
Yakushika deer

Yakushima has a number of waterfalls to explore. The falls are usually well signposted from the main road and there is usually a car park close by.

At 88m high, Ohko no Taki waterfall in the south west corner of Yakushima is one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls. Sadly we didn’t have time to hike to the falls but even from a distance, it’s an impressive drop.

Yakushima Ohko no taki waterfall
Yakushima Ohko no taki waterfall

There are a number of outdoor onsen (hot springs) by the coast, which are worth a visit. Some of these are tidal, so are only accessible at low tide. There are a couple of neighbouring villages on the south cosast, Yudomari and Hirauchi, accessible by single track roads off the main circular route on Yakushima. It’s important to note that tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan as they are associated with gangsters, so is it worth covering any with sticking plaster. We enjoyed a warm footbath whilst looking out across the sea. (There are other onsen resorts at some hotels on the island if hot spring bathing is your thing.)

Yakushima footbath onsen
Yakushima footbath onsen

There’s an honesty box for payment (N.B. the price has increased to 200 yen since we visited).

Sempiro-no-taki is another impressive waterfall which falls across an extensive granite gorge.

Sempiro-no-taki waterfall
Visit Yakushima Sempiro-no-taki

Toroki falls are just downriver from Sempiro and can be seen after walking a short distance from the road. You can see the vermillion bridge in the background.

Visit Yakushima Toroki falls

Then it was time to head north towards Anbo port. There was a convenient petrol station right by the turn off to the port’s car park so we filled up the car and experienced the best in Japanese service – a full tank of fuel, windscreen cleaned and, best of all, the attendants running out to the road to stop the traffic so that we could exit the petrol station. Then it was a hop onto the boat to return to Kagoshima.

Yakushima hydrofoil

Yakushima is a destination that is off the beaten track but it is a beautiful island with plenty of walking, terrific food and delightful people. It’s a bit of a journey to get there but if you manage to visit you will not be disappointed.

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    • That’s very true – the mossy forest at Puzzlewood is really lovely to visit. Thank you for your comment.

  1. You guys always visit the most interesting and unique places! Those pictures, especially the first batch of the forest, are so beautiful. Mysterious in a way, even. I’m not an anime fan, but it’s easy to see how they would be the setting for fantastical stories.

    • Thank you so much. The forest was the place we most wanted to visit and it was magical – very easy to recognise it as the setting for the fantasy film. But we also discovered what a delight the island was.

    • Thank you so much! We love waterfalls too. We can’t recommend the food in Japan highly enough – we’ve never had a bad meal there. Eat, eat, eat is an essential activity!

  2. What an amazing destination and enjoyable blog. The photos were stunning and I know I’ll be back t check out more of your adventures. THXS for posting.

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment! It really is a wonderful destination, highly recommended.

  3. This would be a dream trip for me! Yakushima is so beautiful, and I didn’t know it was the inspiration behind Princess Mononoke. It really looks like paradise on earth. The food looks heavenly too.

    • Thank you so much. We were delighted to be able to visit as we are huge Ghibli fans. And, yes, the food was sooooo good!

  4. Thank you for introducing this off the beaten path destination to me! The Shiratani Unsuikyo and the Banyan Tree park look like they’re straight out of a fairytale… What a beautiful place to inspire a movie setting.

  5. The traditional Inn and the traditional food…it is all so perfect! Especially when you don’t have to carry all your bags, right? Thanks so much for the tips for visiting Yakushima. Saved for later!

  6. Wow, this trip has everything you want in a Japan visit: incredible food, beautiful island, traditional accommodation and Yakuzaru!! I want to do this trip and stay in that very ryokan because of how traditional it sounds and of course that amazing food you had!

    • Thank you so much for your comment. The ryokan was absolutely splendid – we would recommend it wholeheartedly – and the locally sourced food was just delicious. We so enjoyed our trip to this magical island.

  7. I have no familiarity with Studio Ghibli or Princess Mononoke but I am completely transported and mesmerized by your pictures. Stunning scenery and sounds like an incredible trip!

  8. I don’t know much about anime but I know the Japanese are hugely into it – I saw it everywhere when I was travelling there.
    That pic of the mountain near the sea with the cloud above it is very creative, like it’s just puffed up a big cloud.
    I never stayed in a ryokan, although I kept promising myself to do when I was there.
    The park photos look stunning, such beautiful scenery and brooks. It just reminds why I love Japan so much

    • Thank you. You’re absolutely right, anime is everywhere in Japan. It’s so lovely to hear about how much you loved Japan – it’s our favourite country. Staying in a ryokan is a wonderful experience, it’s something we try to do at least once on our trips.

  9. What a beautiful island, Mitch. I remember someone comparing the vegetation and geography to Puzzlewood on Twitter, and it does bear some resemblance, I guess. Those monkeys look really cute and you seem to have hit the jackpot with your tavern. By the way, I had not heard of the film studio before, but I’ve just started to check out their movies on youtube. 🙂

    In Germany I grew up with Japanese anime. Most of my favourite TV series were Japanese, like Wiki und die starken Maenner or Heidi or Biene Maya haha…

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Stefan. It really is a beautiful place and we could see how it influenced the anime. Hope you’re enjoying exploring the world of Ghibli. Curiously, the anime Heidi that you watched as a child was directed by Isao Takahata, the other half of the Studio Ghibli creative team!

  10. This sounds like the perfect trip. I’ve always wanted to stay in a ryokan, and when I can make it to Japan I will surely make it happen. The views from your room looked beautiful, and the food looked even better! My boyfriend and I love hiking and it seems like this would be a trip we’d enjoy. Bookmarking this post to revisit when I can plan my trip to Japan!

    • Thank you so much. We know how much you love Japan – and we’re totally with you there! We just adored Yakushima.

  11. I am always delighted to see the natural beauty of Japan. Too often my mental image is the urban chaos of the cities. Yakushima is absolutely gorgeous! I’m not sure if I prefer the beauty and serenity of the cedar or the banyan forest but I know I would enjoy soaking in hot springs, as part of my explorations.

    Thanks for introducing me to such a lovely place.

    Lyn | http://www.ramblynjazz.com

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, there are so many beautiful natural places in Japan. We do love the contrast between the hi-tech cities and the countryside. Both the cedar and banyan forests were absolutely delightful places to visit.

  12. I am not a fan of Studio Ghibli but I do know its impact on young people growing to be one of the most popular studios! So it is nice that got to visit. It is very helpful to include how to actually get there as some posts do not often include this info. Yakushima seems to have a beautiful landscape and wildlife so I can see myself planning a visit here! Isso Beach caught my eye. It looks like a serene place. Also, the Shiratani Unsuikyo Park looks magical!

    • Thanks so much! We adore Studio Ghibli’s films and it was the inspiration for us to visit but Yakushima is a great destination whether you are fans of their anime or not. The Shiratani Unsuikyo Park is so very beautiful and wonderful for hiking in. The whole island was very serene – a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities – although we do love Japanese hustle and bustle as well!

  13. Well I’m not familiar with the animations but I can see why this would be a must visit place to someone who is, and how this gorgeous area could inspire people. The journey to get there even looks fun. The trees are their twisty roots and branches are so interesting, and the hot springs sounds like a great place to relax. Plus the food you had looks so photogenic.

    • Yakushima is delightful even if you aren’t familiar with the animations. The trees in both parks are so interesting and really lovely to walk around. And the food was soooo good- really fresh and utterly delicious!

  14. Hands in the air for Ghibli Studio! I love their art and for making my childhood (and my adulthood until now) such a sweet experience full of magic and life’s essential lessons. I would love to retrace your steps and see the things you saw (in animated lens if I must). Visiting Yakushima is like stepping into a magical world – both real and in animation. Thanks guys for sharing another piece of Japanese delight #flyingbaguette

    Jan – https://flyingbaguette.com/

    • Delighted to hear that you are a fan of Ghibli! Their films are truly magical! Yakushima is a wonderful island to visit – very much off the beaten track but so worth visiting. We loved our time there.

  15. The Shiratani Park looks magical and I can see why this has inspired Studio Ghibli for one of their best known animation (like James I’m not a huge fan of them but I’m familiar with their work and the impact they have on our generation). It has some resemblance to Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, don’t you think? I imagine staying in a ryokan to be an incredible experience. I’m a fan of minimalism and even though I can’t eat seafood, the food you got on your half-board looked incredibly well made and presented.

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

    • Shiratani park is truly magical. You definitely don’t need to be a fan of Studio Ghibli to enjoy spending time there. You’re absolutely right about the resemblance to Puzzlewood, which was thought to be inspirational for Tolkein’s Middle Earth. I’m sure you would have loved the ryokan. You would have been fine with the cuisine, there were plenty of non-fishy options available, including delicious mountain vegetables.

  16. That’s so cool that you got to visit Studio Ghibli inspiration! The Shiratani Unsuikyo Park looks really good (and is obviously the animation haha). Circumnavigating the island seems like a great idea, the waterfalls alone are worth the drive. Wish we had more time in Japan to visit Yakushima Island.

    • Yakushima is difficult to reach, especially if you are limited on time in Japan, but definitely worth it. Circumnavigating the island was so much fun and it was great to be able to stop off at various attractions such as the waterfalls and hot springs.

  17. I’m not a consumer of animated films and I recognize that I have a huge lack of knowledge on the subject, although I know that animation culture in Japan (and Asia in general) has a legion of fans.
    The island is truly enchanting and the wildlife and unspoiled landscapes are a strong reason to visit.
    I’m very curious about visiting Japan and exploring Japanese culture, so this post is very useful for me to learn more about the country.

    • I’m so glad this was helpful. Yakushima takes a bit of planning as it’s a loooong train trip and a ferry ride away but it is most definitely worth visiting. We absolutely loved it. The landscape is just so very beautiful.

  18. Trip inspiration can come from anywhere, even animated movies! I live in another area with ancient cedar trees, and I loved reading about an ancient cedar forest on the “other side” of the world. It looks like a beautiful place. Staying in a ryokan also sounds like a fun adventure. How comfortable was the sleep on the futon?

    • Wow – how lovely to have cedar trees on your doorstep! We loved Yakushima – it was a truly beautiful place. The ryokan was delightful. Sleeping on a futon takes a bit of getting used to but was absolutely fine for us as we like a hard mattress. The room was very cosy.

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