Ancient cedar trees that inspired Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli team are just one reason why this forest in Yakushima is so magical.

Our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa recently spent some time in Yakushima, an island way down south that’s perhaps most famous for two things: its pristine forests that have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and being the place that inspired the 1997 Studio Ghibli anime film Princess Mononoke.

Yakushima’s most famous forested area is Shiratani Unsuikyo, which Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki and his team visited a number of times during the making of the film. Seiji, a self-confessed anime geek, says he’s watched Princess Mononoke around 300 times in his life, and the chance to visit the real-world setting that inspired the film was the main impetus for his visit to the island, so it was a happy day when he finally got the chance to traverse the forest.

While in Shiratani Unsuikyo, Seiji had his eye on one goal in particular: hiking up to Mount Oita’s Taikoiwa (literally “Drum Boulder”), which is said to be the place where Ashitaka and wolf character Moro gaze out at a vast view of their forest world in the movie. 

▼ Seiji dreams of sitting on the boulder as Moro does in the film.

Image: Studio Ghibli

Like any good anime, a trek to a boulder requires some preparation, so Seiji has some tips for others wanting to walk through the forest in the footsteps of those Ghibli greats. His first tip is to travel by car, and to stop off at this local supermarket in Miyanoura to pick up water, food, and any other essentials you might need.

▼ A-COOP Miyanoura is the last store before the road makes its way up Mount Oita.

Once you’ve driven up the mountain and parked your car at the entrance to the trail, the round-trip hike to Taikoiwa takes around four hours. This is how the times worked out for Seiji, who kept a steady but relaxed pace during his hike:

9:30 a.m. Begin walking
11:00 a.m. Arrive at the entrance to Kokemusu Forest
11:30 a.m. Arrive at the trail to Taikoiwa
12:00 p.m. Arrive at Taikoiwa
1:30 p.m. Return to carpark

▼ The trail is suitable for inexperienced hikers so no special hiking clothes or equipment are needed.

Seiji stopped a few times to take photos and drink some water, so you could do the hike in a shorter amount of time if you simply walked without stopping. However, it’s important to rest and hydrate if necessary, especially during summer, and the forest is so spectacular you’ll likely be stopping along the way to take it all in.

▼ Kokemusu Forest, which translates to “Moss-Covered Forest“, is particularly breathtaking.

Fans of Princess Mononoke will be reminded of scenes from the film, like the one below, with every step making you feel as if you’re exploring the anime world in real life.

Image: Studio Ghibli

Seiji couldn’t resist taking a photo of himself in the forest for posterity, to remind him of the beauty…and his awestruck reaction when he first laid eyes on it.

However, the beauty of the forest turned out to be a prelude to something even more spectacular at Taikoiwa. Upon reaching the famous boulder, Seiji found himself in line as people took turns to climb the rock and take commemorative photos, and in front of him was a family who seemed so in awe of the scenery they kept turning to take photos of themselves with the landscape in the background.

Their obvious enthusiasm for the view made Seiji even more excited to see it, but nothing could’ve prepared him for just how stunning it would be. As the family ahead of him made their way down the rock, it was Seiji’s turn to make his way up it, to see what Moro and Ashitaka saw in the movie.


▼ Seiji struggled to find the words to properly explain the gravitas of what he was seeing, but words failed him at this moment.

It was stunning. Breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Magnificent. Superb. There weren’t enough superlatives to describe the absolute beauty of this lush green landscape.

It was also a little scary, though, given that there was a significant drop from here and no type of safety fence or barricade, so Seiji found it hard to stand on the rock, preferring to sit on it in relative safety instead.

▼ Seiji says it was so nerve-racking that just looking at this photo now makes his hands sticky with sweat.

Seiji wondered if Ashitaka’s hands would’ve been sticky with sweat while standing here with Moro, but in the movie he appeared totally at ease, with a calm and strong expression on his face.

Image: Studio Ghibli

If you look at the above image of Ashitaka from the movie, you can see just how much inspiration the Ghibli team took from this site, with the curve of the valley faithfully depicted over the character’s left shoulder.

▼ Seiji recreates the scene from the movie with surprising accuracy.

Being able to gaze out at the same view the animated characters enjoyed made Seiji appreciate the film even more. The characters in Princess Mononoke really were strong beings who had a sense of pride and respect for the natural world that surrounded them, and Seiji walked away with a greater sense of appreciation and verve to follow their worldview. 

If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli, you really should add a trip to Yakushima’s Taikoiwa to your itinerary next time you visit Japan. And for more Ghibli adventures, you’ll want to visit nearby Laputa Island, which served as the real-world inspiration for Castle in the Sky!

Photos © SoraNews24 unless otherwise stated
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