Follow abandoned train tracks and hike through moss-covered forests to find Yakushima’s oldest tree, Jōmon Sugi, with this day-long hike.
Venturing to the heart of Kagoshima Prefecture‘s Yakushima to see the towering Jōmon Sugi is one of the main reasons many come to the island, but it isn’t for the faint-hearted (or ill-shod for that matter). Taking a solid 8–10 hours of walking, ladder-climbing and rock-hopping, the hike requires an early start if you’re keen to finish in a day. There are also overnight camping options with links to additional trails, however. The reward? Seeing many, many exceptionally large trees, including one that’s between 2,000 and 7,000 years old, getting to share sweets with well-dressed hikers and gaining a lifelong hatred of train tracks. Where do you sign up you say? Well, read on naive stranger, and be sure to bring that optimism with you on the day.
Words of warning: The gear
In the name of science, I did this hike to Jōmon Sugi in a woefully ill-prepared fashion, just to see how manageable it was. This meant old trainers, an additional bag that had no place being on a hike and unexplained optimism. When you arrive at the trailhead, you’ll find yourself surrounded by Japanese people in unnervingly pristine outfits complete with headlamps, walking poles and color-coordinated ankle warmers. You do not need these things (ankle warmers are optional though—we won’t limit your fashion prowess). We arrived at 6 am and by the time people had got their headlamps on and begun walking it was daylight. Unless you’re unsteady, poles aren’t required, but it’s probably easier to tell you what is required:
- Waterproof jacket: It rains A LOT here and it’s already chilly up there. Consider waterproof pants too if the weather forecast isn’t promising.
Warm layers: It gets pretty cold and as soon as you stop to rest you’ll want to layer up again, especially if you hike either end of summer. Elevation reaches around 1200 m, and misty weather mixed with occasional rain can mean you’re chilly as soon as you stop moving. Gloves and a hat are good if it’s early or late in the year.
Shoes with grip and ankle support : the rocks are slippy and while it can be done in trainers, you’re risking your ankles and holiday if you end up injured.
Water in a refillable bottle: There are *three* water refill points, so bring some with you but don’t overload.
Food: Seems obvious, but there are no restaurants in the forest. Prepare the night before, making or stocking up on simple onigiri is a good and travel-friendly option.
Not much else: There’s no storage at the museum bus stop or at the trailhead, so if you’re traveling by bus, you should minimize bags. Trust me on this one.
The Hike to Jōmon Sugi: A tale of two paths
The trail to Jōmon Sugi is divided into two sections—the Anbo Trail and the Okabu Trail—and all-in-all equals 22 km long. While the first section is basically just a walk, the latter is worthy of its hiking name, with ladders, rocks and plenty of roots. Before you start, you need to pay your ¥1,000 hiking fee which goes towards the conservation of the area and upkeep of paths. In return you get a cute charm and the knowledge that you’re supporting the forests.
First: The Anbo Trail
The 8 km–long Anbo Trail follows the old logging train tracks, so enjoy the impressive bridges and try not to fall off them. Initially following the river, you’ll find yourself getting into greener surrounds after a while, with moss-covered trees becoming more frequent. Eventually, you’ll come across an abandoned cart in an area called Kosugidani—this is the settlement of the old logging community. There is only Japanese information provided, but if you’re interested, there’s plenty of info at the Yakusugi Museum.
Further along, you’ll find a rest stop with toilets and a water source so you can fill up your bottle. The tracks then continue and continue and continue, until you reach their somewhat surprising final destination: a very modern-looking toilet block, which rather charmingly uses flowing river water in its toilets. Once you’ve admired this, head back across the small bridge and check out the next part of your hike.
Then: The Okabu Trail
A far more hike-worthy trail, this section is shorter (just under 3km) but far more exciting and a fair bit more difficult. The very first section, however, was apparently designed as a test to put you off—but persevere and you’ll find wooden platforms, ladders and steps which are far easier to handle.
Along the way you’ll find Wilson’s Stump, a large tree felled over 300 years ago and now home to a small shrine and a heart-shaped roof (once you’ve figured out the right position in which to see it, that is).
Continue onwards and upwards and admire the ancient trees—see how many times you shout the phrase “Oh my god, look at that tree” and generally enjoy the foresty nature of it all. In Japanese culture, the term shinrinyoku—meaning forest-bathing—applies to the belief that spending time in a forest can help your mind, body and soul achieve a kind of inner peace. While this is quite an extreme distance to go for the exprience, it’s a pretty amazing feeling when you find yourself in the near-silence of the forest. Drink it in, and continue in search of Jōmon Sugi.
Eventually, when you think you might just have to give up, you’ll reach some promising signage and find yourself at the base of a series of platforms. Behold! You have reached the ancient, the glorious, the very far-away Jōmon Sugi (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
It is indeed, an old, large tree. Admire it. Feel a bit cold, and head back down. You have a long, long walk ahead of you.
Getting to Jōmon Sugi
The Arakawa Trailhead is serviced by a special bus service from the Yakusugi Shizenkan (Museum) with buses running from Anbo and Miyanoura to get there if you’re not driving—check the timetables here. The trail buses run from around 5 am to 6 am up to the trailhead and the return buses run from 3 pm to 6 pm. From March to September there is no private access on this road, so you must catch the bus (you’ll see why when your bus takes those narrow, winding corners). Read our full guide on how to get to Yakushima.