The Forest that Inspired ‘Princess Mononoke’ in Yakushima

This mountainous island is teeming with natural wonders, from beaches with star-shaped sand to a virgin forest that inspired Hayao Miyazaki.


TexteClémence Leleu

With its almost round shape and area of 500 square kilometres, Yakushima Island quickly becomes lost among the string of islands that make up Japan (over 6000). Located a few dozen kilometres from Kyushu Island, one of the country’s four main islands, Yakushima is still relatively unknown to travellers from overseas, but is one of the natural treasures enjoyed by Japanese tourists. 

With around 75% of the island being covered by mountains and with a population of 15,000, Yakushima is a nature lover’s paradise. Its unique ecosystem, composed of 1900 species of plants, 16 species of mammals and 150 species of birds, was recognised by UNESCO in 1993, a first for a site in Japan. This recognition enabled the island to protect its virgin forest where over 1000-year-old yakusugi cedars stand proudly. One such cedar, discovered in 1996 and reaching a height of 1350 metres, is thought to be the highest and oldest in the world, its age estimated to be between 2170 and 7200 years. 


Untamed nature reproduced in the Studio Ghibli film

The island is relatively easy to access by plane (flights depart from Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kagoshima) or by boat from Kagoshima, a prefecture situated at the tip of Kyushu. Traffic on the island itself can be a little more complicated, however. There are buses once every hour, but they mainly serve the coasts, which makes it difficult to embark on any trip into the heart of Yakushima, where several hiking trails start (although some buses stop there, they only do so three or four times a day). Hiring a car to navigate Yakushima’s winding roads seems to be the most viable option for visiting this wild island. 

Visitors can therefore discover its dense forests, often enveloped in a light fog, its beaches (including Sango-no-hama, with its coral and star-shaped sand), and its waterfalls where the water crashes down onto the rocks from a height of almost 60 metres. 

This island has influenced no shortage of artists, like Hayao Miyazaki, who took inspiration from Shiratani Unsuikyo forest for his film Princess Mononoke. Filmmaker Damien Faure also made a documentary about Yakushima’s lush, wild nature, entitled Milieu


More information on Yakushima can be found on the island’s official website.