Li Kotomi’s Japan Journeys

A Rainy Day in Yakushima’s “Alps of the Ocean”


The island of Yakushima in 1993 was designated as one of Japan’s first UNESCO natural world heritage sites. Its rugged mountains, lush rainforests, and stunning coastline are well worth a visit, but perhaps one longer than that taken by the writer Li Kotomi on her first trip to the Kagoshima island.

Rushing Through the Rains of Yakushima

The island of Yakushima, about 135 kilometers south of the city of Kagoshima, is a rainy place. In her book Ukigumo (trans. Floating Clouds), Hayashi Fumiko writes that it rains “35 days a month” on the island.

The day I visited, it did, indeed, rain. A two-hour trip by high-speed ferry from Kagoshima Port brought me to the port of Miyanoura, which lay under thick, dark clouds. The air was chilled by drizzling rain. While I stood at the port taking pictures, all the taxis waiting at the taxi stand disappeared, and I was left without a ride. I called the taxi company to order a cab, but they said I would incur a ¥5,000 pickup fee, so I gave up on that plan. I found a rental bike shop twenty minutes’ walk from the port, and I rented a moped there.

Clouds over Miyanoura. (© Li Kotomi)
Clouds over Miyanoura. (© Li Kotomi)

Yakushima is almost entirely covered by mountains, with a road circling the island on the edges of the steep terrain. The mountains are all connected and center around Mount Miyanoura, which at 1,936 meters is Kyushu’s highest peak. This spectacular range of connected peaks is sometimes called “the alps of the ocean,” and is registered as part of a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. It also seems that the island scenery inspired the setting of the Studio Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke.

When I stopped by the Yakushima Environmental and Cultural Village Center near Miyanoura Port to gather local information, a staff member asked me, ”Where are you headed?”

I answered with my own question, “Since this is my first time visiting Yakushima, are there any places I really must see? I’m not going by car, though, only moped.”

The local had to think about that for a moment. “I think you should visit Shiratani Unsuikyō gorge.”

“What’s there to see? “

“There’s some looovely natural scenery. The Jōmon Sugi cedar tree and Taiko Iwa rock are famous. There are several courses to choose from, so you should take the one that looks easiest for you.”

I checked Google maps and Shiratani Unsuikyō not only looked relatively close, it was a straight shot from town. The name itself, meaning something like “white valley cloud water gorge,” certainly hinted at beautiful scenery, so I decided to go.

But as I drove my moped on that straight shot to Shiratani Unsuikyō, the clouds above grew ever more ominous. I was going higher and higher, like I was headed into the really deep mountains, and before I realized it, I was surrounded by green slopes. I could feel the gentle misty drizzle that had been over the port became full-on raindrops up in the mountains. There was no place to take shelter from the rain along this mountain road, so I just kept heading for my destination. There were sections of roadwork here and there, too, making for a rough ride.

The road to Shiratani Unsuikyō. (© Li Kotomi)
The road to Shiratani Unsuikyō. (© Li Kotomi)

A Frail City Girl Gives up

After a 40-minute climb, I finally reached my goal. Below me, a river rushed through peaceful green surroundings over the rocks, throwing up white clouds of mist. It was a quiet, beautiful gorge. The elevation was 650 meters, apparently. So, I had just rode a moped up 650 meters of mountainside. Good job, me.

Mountain grandeur (© Li Kotomi)
Mountain grandeur (© Li Kotomi)

I parked my moped and headed toward the gorge hiking trails.

“You going to hike the mountain?” asked a middle-aged staff member sitting inside the office near the entrance.

“Huh? No, I’m not hiking anywhere.”

I was just looking to take a stroll. He looked puzzled.

“This is the trailhead,” he said, looking me over with a critical eye. “You’re not really dressed for hiking.”

I was, in fact, rather lightly dressed, with a purse rather than a backpack, and sneakers on my feet.

“So, this is only for hiking? Is it a hard hike?”

“It’s pretty tough, yeah.”

The staff member took out a map of the area and explained it to me, pointing a finger. The entrance was at 650 meters, and the trail immediately went up a steep slope. The area that supposedly served as a model for Princess Mononoke, Kokemusu Forest, stood at 860 meters’ elevation, while Taiko Iwa was at 1,070 meters, and the Jōmon Sugi tree was all the way up at 1,300 meters.

I had somehow gotten the idea that these were gentle walking trails, but this was full-on mountain hiking. This was no place for a city-dwelling weakling like me. I had no choice but to give up on going in, get back on my moped, and head back the way I came. The idea that I had ridden 40 minutes on that rough mountain road to spend only ten minutes at my goal filled me with a sense of emptiness.

A view of Shiratani Unsuikyō available near the road. (© Li Kotomi)
A view of Shiratani Unsuikyō available near the road. (© Li Kotomi)

Racing the Clock on Yakushima

Heading down the steep mountain road, it took only half the upward time to get back down. Next, I decided to take the coastal road counterclockwise around the island. I had lost a lot of time on my fruitless climb to and descent from Shiratani Unsuikyō. I had gotten to Yakushima before 10:00 in the morning, but the last ferry back to Kagoshima Port left only six hours after that. It was already 1:00 in the afternoon by the time I got back near sea level. Considering the return trip and time to hand in my rental, I figured I’d have to head back to port an hour early. So, I had just about two hours to circle the island. I was feeling surprisingly rushed.

The rain stopped while I was riding. About 20 minutes in, I came to a place called Yahazu Cape, the the island’s northernmost point. I decided to get a view of the sea from Issō lighthouse, which stands at its tip. I took the road out to the lighthouse, but it ended up being farther than it looked on the map, and although paved, the road was bumpy and ridden with potholes. There was a parking lot at the end, but then I realized that from there it would be another walk of 10 minutes or more, each way, on a hilly path to get to the lighthouse. Making that round trip would leave me with essentially no time at all. I had no choice but to give up on the lighthouse, and head back the way I came.

After another 20-minute ride, I got to Nagata Inakahama beach. This is one of the few sandy beaches on the island, and along with the others is a designated Ramsar wetland site. This white sand beach of weathered granite about a kilometer long is apparently a breeding ground for sea turtles. Although the rain had stopped, the sky above the island was still shrouded in dark clouds, and the sea was leaden. There were almost no people at the beach, and I felt like I was walking alone on a deserted island.

A deserted view of the Nagata Inakahama beach. (© Li Kotomi)
A deserted view of the Nagata Inakahama beach. (© Li Kotomi)

Next Time, I’m Staying the Night!

After a short stroll and a look at the scenery, it was time to turn back. I headed back the way I came and got to the city streets of Miyanoura in around 40 minutes. Waiting at a stoplight near the rental shop, I was enjoying the sense of relief that I would make my ferry. And just then, I felt a thump from behind.

I was stunned for an instant, not understanding what had happened. I turned around to see what was going on and saw a car behind me, with the driver bowing apologetically through the windshield. Only then did I realize he had run into me. I had been stopped waiting at the light, and the car had rearended my moped. Which meant he was 100% at fault for the accident.

Luckily, the car been going slowly so the moped was only slightly scratched, and no one was hurt. The driver, a middle-aged man, got out of his car and apologized profusely.

“Are you all right? Are you hurt?” he asked with genuine concern.

“I’m not hurt. It’s just, this is a rental, and I have to turn it in to the shop. Could you come with me?” “

He agreed right away. I was glad that he seemed so nice, but I took a picture of his license plate just in case.

When we got to the shop, the driver explained things to the owner. As luck would have it, the driver and shop owner knew each other, so we were able to take care of things smoothly. Since I was purely the victim in the accident, someone from the shop gave me a ride to the port, so I made it in time for my ferry. I tried not to imagine what might have happened if the car had been going faster and the accident worse.

I got on the ferry and left Yakushima behind me. It was clear that a day trip was far too rushed to really enjoy the island, so I resolved to spend at least the night on my next visit.

I turned back to the island and saw a golden sunset shining beyond a thick layer of clouds.

One final bright view of Yakushima. (© Li Kotomi)
One final bright view of Yakushima. (© Li Kotomi)

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Shiratani Unsuikyō. All photos © Li Kotomi.)

Yakushima travel Kagoshima