An Insider's Guide to Yakushima One of Japan's first UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites
Nature lovers rejoice! Ancient forests brimming with 1,000-year-old cedar trees, breathtaking beaches, the country’s largest sea turtle nesting site and home to microclimates ranging from subtropic to subarctic – the island of Yakushima lives harmoniously 60km off the southern coast of Kyushu.
Step behind-the-scenes of one of Japan’s first UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites with long-standing local and founder of Yakushima Coordinate and Guide Tabira , Takuya Tabira, as he takes us on an insider’s tour of the island. Takuya's experience extends beyond sharing his first-hand knowledge of the local land with tour groups, to imparting his passion for ecotourism and the island’s remarkable biodiversity as an active member of the Yakushima Tourism Association.
Photo Credit: Yousuke Kashiwakura
We understand you moved to Yakushima from Nagasaki some 20 years ago. What inspired you to move to Yakushima in the first place and what has kept you here since?
After university, I was keen to get a job in Australia or New Zealand working in nature. Though before that, I thought I’d spend some time studying forestry in Yakushima, working with experienced lumberjacks, understanding more about the Japanese attitude to nature. I spent a whole year working on trucks and helicopters transporting fallen stumps and branches from 1,000-year-old cedar trees (locally known as yakusugi) to be upcycled into handmade crafts.
I then left Yakushima for Australia to spend a couple of months working on a community arts program before returning. I still felt strongly drawn to the island and its nature. At that time (around 22 years ago), ecotourism had begun to take root and I decided to develop a career as an adventure tour guide.
Ten years ago, I opened a gallery and started guided photography and filming trips. This means I’m often in beautiful parts of the island coordinating photography exhibitions, concerts or working with production teams to shoot commercial videos, as well as continuing to run my adventure guide business.
I’m still here because I’m never bored! I’ve had the chance to work with many interesting people who want to experience and be inspired by the island’s unique beauty.
Credit: Yousuke Kashiwakura
What is the one thing travellers need to pack when visiting the island of Yakushima?
A foldable umbrella! It helps you enjoy Yakushima’s changing weather conditions even more. While many visitors come prepared with proper outdoor gear, having an umbrella when we’re deep in the forest really helps. It provides a protective cover and allows you to still take in the stunning beauty of the forests and the misty atmosphere. I should mention for overseas travellers that there are many outdoor shops in Yakushima where you can rent gear, including hiking boots.
What is something that Australians wouldn’t know about this part of Japan?
I think they may not be aware of the extent to which animistic beliefs* are still strongly held here. While this is not unique to Yakushima and can be found in other rural parts of Japan, many residents believe that gods inhabit the natural world all around them. For example, in some local villages, grandmothers will not let out the hot water of their goemon-buro bath (a traditional outside tub typically heated with logs) after the family has finished bathing until the water cools down. They believe that gods inhabit the ground around the bath and want to avoid scalding them.
Australians may not know that we have very high mountains. More than 50 are over 1,000 metres high, and our highest is nearly 2,000 metres, often capped with snow in winter. Yet at the same time you can find tropical hibiscus flowers on the coast and temperate weather. Our ecology is unique.
*Shinto, one of Japan’s native religions, is an animistic religion. Shinto followers believe that there are gods living in the natural features of the world, such as rivers, mountains and forests.
What is your favourite part of the island and why?
For me, it’s the rain. It expresses itself in so many ways. For example, as the fog deepens in intensity its whiteness turns slightly green – it’s as if the lush colour of the forest has dissolved and been absorbed by the fog itself.
Is there a particular aspect of your tours of Yakushima that guests most enjoy? Why?
I think it’s camping overnight in the mountains. When people wake, they’re greeted by the unique colours of the first light. We call this the ‘blue hour’. And then at the end of the day they experience sunset’s ‘magic hour’. There’s only nature and us. Everything is quiet. It’s a world away from our normal lives.
These days, tours incorporating some elements of filming have become popular. We take small drones into the mountains for spectacular shots of the island – areas the human eye has rarely seen. I think the rise of social media has also made such trips popular. The pandemic too, has had an impact. With the cancellation of wedding ceremonies, some Japanese couples come to Yakushima instead for photography tours where we capture the couple against the island’s backdrop.
Can you tell us about how sustainable tourism is developing on the island? Are there now a number of accommodation facilities actively committed to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
It is increasing little by little. For an old island community, it will take more time and education. However, I can see that many accommodation providers – from small guest houses to luxury hotels – are incorporating SDGs in how they source their food and the amenities they provide. Some places like Moss Ocean House and Sankara Hotel & Spa are good examples.
Is there a particularly good time to visit Yakushima, or does it really depend on the activity – e.g. mountain hiking, river trekking, wildlife watching, river or sea kayaking?
It really depends on the activity. You can visit the forests any time of year. If you’re keen to summit the mountains and walk along exposed ridges, then April-May or November is good as there’s less rain. July-September is a great time of year for kayaking – either river or sea – as the temperature of the water is warm.
Are there any special festivals or religious events in Yakushima?
In addition to the popular Goshinzan Festival which takes place in August, each spring and autumn there is a ritual called ‘Take-mairi’ where locals will gather sand from the island’s beaches in bamboo containers and then head into the mountains to pray to resident gods at local Shinto shrines. Sometimes I participate in this event and will pray for good health, family wellbeing, abundant harvests and business success.
Also, three times a year, there’s another event where it’s believed that the gods in the mountains descend to the lowlands to collect water from the rivers. It’s believed their movement causes dramatic changes in the weather and anyone who normally works in the mountains is advised to stay at home on those days and offer prayers for safety. Another example of those animistic beliefs at work!
How To Get Here
Despite its untouched wonders and remote location, Yakushima is surprisingly accessible. There are daily flights to the island from Kagoshima, Fukuoka and Osaka, as well as a number of high-speed boat and car-ferry services from Kagoshima and Ibusuki.