Location, Location … LUXURY

by Julian Ryall
Location, Location ... LUXURYIsland of ancient forests, wild beasts and personal butlers

Until recently, the reasons for visiting Yakushima revolved around trekking into the ancient cedar forests of the island’s interior, diving, kayaking or climbing, and witnessing the ungainly loggerhead turtles emerge from the ocean to lay their eggs on Nagata Inakahama Beach. All of which are sound excuses for experiencing this World Natural Heritage Site — but the great outdoors is no longer the only reason to visit.

Colossal cedar trees — many several thousands of years old — tower above the forest floor, where all is coated in a thick green sheen of moss. Deer with white rumps are oblivious to the parties of hikers moving through their domain. Monkeys squabble over the choicest leaves of cherry trees. Rivers cascade through the narrow defiles that they have carved down the millennia, fueled by the regular and heavy downpours.

article_201003_07 The scale and remarkable beauty of the protected heartland of the island is enough to make the visitor catch their breath. Arriving at the Sankara Hotel and Spa has a similar impact. The hotel opened on March 31 and is stateof- the-art throughout — yet the designers of everything from the restaurants to the suite rooms, spa facilities, pool and the individual villas have cleverly combined a sense of timelessness with elegance. And that begins as soon as the guests enter the main lobby, where vast doors open out onto a pool of impossible blue and, beyond, the Pacific Ocean.

“We like to think of ourselves as a very high-class, auberge-style hotel,” said General Manager Jiro Sato. “We have put special emphasis on our cuisine within the overall concept, and the abundance of some truly topquality ingredients in Yakushima and mainland Kyushu means that our executive chef and his staff can really take advantage of those tastes.” Sato was the first to introduce the system of individual butlers assigned to individual guests for the duration of their stay, and has instituted the same system at Sankara — the Sanskrit word that means “bounty from heaven.”

“I don’t want the customer to walk in the front door and have the staff greet him or her,” he said. “I want our staff to be acting before the guest even moves, anticipating their needs.”

The result is a spectacularly high level of service and the belief among guests that the staff actually know them.

article_201003_09The hotel has 24 villas, each with balconies that overlook the surrounding forest or the ocean and Balinese-style day beds that are ideal for lounging around on, three junior suites, a villa suite, which is soon to have a whirlpool bath added to its balcony — and the full Sankara Suite.

At more than 125m squared, the top-of-the-range property enjoys a private spa room, and an open-air bath that looks out over cedar trees. The decor is chic and great attention has been paid to the tiniest details. Brass sculptures of crabs are a constant throughout the rooms.

In the main building, Sous Chef Tsutomu Seshimo serves breakfasts and “casual” dinners in the Ayana restaurant, while the decisions on what to eat at the French restaurant Oka are best left to Executive Chef Chiharu Takei, showing off skills he learned in Paris under Joel Robuchon. A good deal of the enjoyment is the almost voyeuristic pleasure derived from watching from the counter as Takei and his assistants delicately prepare each dish.

And just as you’re better off leaving yourselves in the hands of the staff within the hotel complex, you are better off taking tips from an expert when it comes to some of the more energetic pursuits that the island has to offer. The Yakushima Guide Club is run by husband-and-wife team Toshiaki and Asuka Ito, who can tailor-make trips to meet any requirement. Both certified divers, they know the best spots off the island for exploring the coral or meeting up with turtles.

article_201003_08Unsurprisingly, many of their clients want to explore some of the hiking trails of the island, which rises to a height of 1,936m, making Mt. Miyanoura-dake the highest peak in Kyushu.

I’m not feeling nearly that energetic and instead opt for the three-hour round trip along the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine, following the well defined, if occasionally challenging, path to the Shiratani Hut. The forest around us is a jumble of fallen trees and boulders all covered with some of the 400 varieties of moss that inhabit the island. The path actually goes through the middle of one tree that is several thousand years old. Famous as the wettest place in Japan — locals like to tell you that it rains 35 days a month in Yakushima — the forest inevitably gives off a strong earthy scent.

And after a half-day hiking, there can be no better way to get the knots out of an urbanite’s muscles than a long session at the hands of Ryoko Ado, the Sankara’s spa therapist. Trained in traditional Thai techniques, including the use of herbal balls that are steamed and pressed against the skin at the energy lines, Ado also uses a range of body oils to firmly but gently massage away any lingering worries.

The Sankara Hotel & Spa Yakushima
553 Haginoue, Mugio, Yakushima-cho, Kumage-gun,
Tel: 0997-47-3488

Yakushima Guide Club
Tel: 0997-46-3160

Japan Air Commuter (JAC), a subsidiary of Japan Airlines, operates five 30-minute daily flights from Kagoshima Airport to Yakushima. Kagoshima is served by regular JAL flights from Haneda Airport. JAC has one daily 90-minute direct flight from Osaka’s Itami Airport.