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.
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.
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.
The ryokan had a large tatami room, private bathroom and balcony with a view across the crystal clear Miyanoura river.
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!)
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 – 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.
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.
There’s an excellent chance of seeing Yakushika (native deer) and Yakuzaru (the Yakushima macaque) – and indeed we did.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 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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