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Feeling the Island

Yakushima, with its canopied forests and fertile natural environment, is a sacred island that a local Shinto priest once explained as being the earthly location where the gods touch down before making their way to their own respective shrines.

Put in more earthly terms, the island offers everything you could possibly want in a travel destination—ocean, mountains, rivers and forests—and its raw, wild energy continues to lure travelers and new residents alike.

Island of water

Locals like to say that it rains on Yakushima 35 days per month, and indeed, with 4,500 mm of rain per year—three times that of Tokyo—water is literally the element that keeps this island going.

One dramatic place to see water in action is the majestic Ohko-no-taki waterfall on the island's western coast. Plunging down from 88 meters on high, this soaring cascade – the largest on the island – is a superb place to stop, close your eyes, and experience nature at its most primal. While you can traverse the rocks to get up close, swimming is not advised.

Another ideal spot to comingle with the island's aquatic elements is Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, a natural hot spring located along the island's southern coast. Only able to be entered twice a day around the times of low tide, these healing waters have been enjoyed by locals for around 400 years.

This is a co-ed affair, so if you are not feeling up to bathing au naturel, you may bring a towel (and be sure to cover up your tattoos!), but no bathing suits are allowed. The onsen has an honor system, where you are asked to deposit your ¥100 fee in the provided box.

Creatures galore

Humans are not the only animals enjoying Yakushima's wilderness; in fact, we are somewhat of an afterthought. The island is home to lizards, frogs, snakes, tanuki (racoon dogs), and the greatest variety of fish species in the Japanese archipelago (particularly in the sea off the Kuchinoerabujima – a neighboring volcanic island that appears to be a sleeping gorilla). Sea turtles also swim year-round in the island waters, and come ashore to lay their eggs from May to August, while whales pass between Yakushima and Tanegashima island in February and March.

In a World Heritage zone located along the island's western coast, unpopulated by Homo sapiens, also roam tribes of red-bottomed Yakushima macaques and herds of Yaku shika. Otherwise known as monkeys and deer, these animals co-exist peacefully and may often be seen cavorting together playfully – something of which we humans should most definitely take close note.

While the deer, being deer, are gentle – the macaques may become aggressive if they feel they are being challenged. Take care not to approach them or look them directly in the eye. Island tastes

With Yakushima's originally-used kanji (Chinese characters) meaning “medicine island," numerous natural medicinal herbs may be found here, including plentiful amounts of ukon (turmeric), along with rich farmland – particularly in the island's sunny south.

Traveling around the island will bring you in touch with numerous atmospheric establishments dotting the landscape, including cafes and veggie/fruit stands, which you can visit at your leisure to enjoy the island's bounty.

Naa Yuu is a lovely café located in the center of the southern coast, near the seafront onsen in Hirauchi village. When we visited, the wholesome daily plate featured a creamy and warming taro root gratin, a rich coconut chicken curry, and a Chinese chicken salad, along with fragrant homemade bread.

Meaning something like “cozy" in Thai, the café is fronted by a terrace with beautiful views, and stands just adjacent to a yoga studio and overnight inn called Ananda Chillage. Could a name capture the vibe of this island any more perfectly?

For an evening dining option, try Sanpotei. Located near Anbo Port along the island's eastern coast, this two-story restaurant features a variety of hearty fare including pork and chicken dishes, fresh island fish, pizza, pasta and noodles.

The coffee and cheesecake are scrumptious. and the yummy cocktails on offer showcase the island's tropical fruits, including passionfruit, tankan and ponkan (both varieties of citrus similar to oranges).

Throw in the fantastic music selection and the extremely friendly staff, and this well may become your evening island hangout spot.

Photos by Solveig Boergen

Photos by Solveig Boergen

Solveig Boergen is a Tokyo-based photographer originally from Germany who has spent more than three decades living in Asia(Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Nepal). Her work aims to share human stories, and to show realities that might otherwise remain unseen.Besides travel photography, she specializes in portraits that convey deep emotion, such as newborn babies with their families.

Kimberly Hughes

Kimberly Hughes

Kimberly Hughes is a freelance writer, translator, and community organizer who is originally from the desert of the southwestern U.S. and has been based in Tokyo since 2001. She is somewhat addicted to global travel, and also loves cooking, gardening and reading.

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