Wooded Wonderland: Yakushima

In Japan’s epic anime film Princess Mononoke, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki shrouds the real-life island of Yakushima with surrealism, its misty granite mountains the backdrop for a conservation message.

Yet this wraithlike landform, which rises from the turbulent Tanegashima Strait like a forgotten Shinto kingdom, scarcely needed the extra intrigue. Twenty years ago, the site became one of Japan’s first entries on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

A three-hour hydrofoil ride from Kyushu brings travelers to these fragrant forests, first settled during the Jomon period some 12,000 years ago. Later residents sold its virgin cedar to mainlanders building Kyoto’s temples and shrines.

Today the revival forest teems with raccoon-like tanuki, endemic horned sika deer and stocky macaques, colossal ferns, and up to 700 species of moss.

And though a recent uptick in visitors threatens this sensitive habitat, officials are taking steps toward eliminating carbon emissions by introducing new caps on vehicles, using renewable energy, and developing hydrogen cars for island use.

Such is the power of Princess Mononoke’s legacy: The preservation of even the most far-flung places is essential.

Tip: Soak in the Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, a thermal bath carved into the seashore rocks accessible only at low tide.

This article, written by Adam H. Graham, appeared in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.