One thousand kilometers south of Tokyo Bay are about 30 small rocky islands, the product of undersea volcano eruptions and geologic upthrust as the Pacific Plate is subducted under the Philippine Sea Plate. These are the Ogasawara Islands and they are technically part of the Tokyo metropolitan district.
The islands are so remote that they were uninhabited until 1830 and even today, when only two of the islands are inhabited, have a total population of less than 3,000 people. But once every six days, when the Ogasawara-maru ferry from the mainland arrives at Chichijima, the population swells by around 20% and things spring to life.
Intrepid visitors have myriad reasons to make the 24-hour voyage on the open sea to reach the islands from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier. Many visitors are attracted by the islands’ blue waters, where one can snorkel and dive among coral reefs and tropical fish, surf and swim at beautiful white sand beaches, sea kayak, fish, take sightseeing voyages to neighboring uninhabited islands or even sail on to Hahajima, the other inhabited island of the archipelago.
The islands also have World Natural Heritage designation due to their unique flora and fauna. Finally, the islands’ human history, although relatively short, is unique and fascinating.
Enjoying the sea
The craggy coastline of Chichijima includes lots of small inlets with beautiful white sand, inviting to surfers, swimmers, and snorkelers. Futami Bay on the leeward side of the island, home to Futami port, the primary settlement on the island, has several fine beaches, many with coral just a short distance offshore, perfect for snorkeling.
Near Sakaiura Beach the wreck of the Hinko-maru, a World War II cargo ship sunk by a torpedo in 1944, has become a fish habitat that is especially popular with snorkelers.
Avid divers love the weird undersea rock formations and the plentiful coral that is home to beautiful tropical fish, sea turtles, and sharks. The diving is so good than many repeat visitors to the islands come just to dive. For those who don’t dive, an evening visit to Futami’s marina is a chance to see tropical fish, stingrays, sand tiger sharks, and ragged-tooth sand sharks swimming around and showing off for the tourists.
Whale watching is also popular in season. From December to April, humpback whales migrate near the islands, while sperm whales visit the area from August to October. Even when there are no whales nearby, there are often pods of dolphins and some operators offer swim-with-the-dolphins tours, a rare and mystical experience.
A visit to Minami-jima, a karst island south of Chichijima and just a 15-20 minute boat ride from Futami, is considered one of the must-do activities of the Ogasawara Islands. The island has such a unique biosphere that it can only be visited in the company of an authorized guide. When the waves are rough, such as when there has been a typhoon nearby, it is impossible to visit because of the narrow entrance to the only bay where it is possible to land.
The unique natural heritage of the islands
Ogasawara received UNESCO World Natural Heritage designation in 2011. The islands’ remote location has earned them the nickname “Galapagos of the East” due to the evolution of a number of unique plant and animal species.
There are at least 12 species of land snail that have developed on the islands. Ongoing research on propagation and protection of these special creatures forms the primary exhibit at Futami’s Ogasawara World Heritage Conservation Center (open daily 9:00-17:00; free admission).
The islands are also known for their hermit crabs, which particularly like to inhabit the shells of the East African Land Snail. The harmless crabs are plentiful near the beaches, but can also be found deep in the islands’ wooded areas.
Distinctive bird species include the red-headed wood pigeon, the Bonin white-eye, and the Ogasawara buzzard. There is also a large fruit bat that seems to especially enjoy feeding on the flowers of palm trees.
The Green Sea Turtles that are often seen swimming in the waters around the island come ashore between March and September to dig nests and lay their eggs. Volunteers comb the beaches to spot and mark nests to protect the eggs while they incubate.
The islands’ flora and fauna can be explored by self-guided walks and mountain hikes (maps are available at the Ogasawara Tourist Association about a five-minute walk from the Futami ferry terminal) or guided tours that make a point of finding some of the especially distinctive features of the island such as its bio-luminescent Green Pepe mushroom and its brilliant night sky.
A relatively short human history
The earliest known settlers on the islands were a group of five Western men and around 20 Polynesian women in 1830, although there is some evidence of prehistoric habitation as well.
The early settlers were self-sufficient, but also provided goods and services to whaling ships, particularly those flying American and British flags. Apparently those were heady times. Some of today’s islanders can trace their ancestry back to those first settlers.
The history of Japan’s claim to the islands is somewhat murky, but predates the early 19th century settlers. That is, the Japanese were aware of the islands and regarded them as under Japanese suzerainty from as early as the late sixteenth century. The Japanese referred to the islands as munin (without people), which was ultimately rendered into English as Bonin, the name by which the islands were commonly known in the West until after World War II.
Today the name Bonin is most often heard as Bonin Blue, a reference to the brilliant color of the waters surrounding the islands.
As a result of Japan’s early claim to the islands, after 1860 negotiations between representatives of the Japanese government, Western residents of the island and Commodore Matthew Perry on behalf of the United States, it was decided that the islands would belong to Japan.
For some time, the islands were the only place in Japan where coffee was grown. Sugar and “winter vegetables” such as pumpkins and potatoes, were also major exports to the Japanese mainland during the first decades of the twentieth century.
For more details on this history, visit the Ogasawara Visitor Center (8:30-17:00 on days when the Ogasawara-maru is in port).
During World War II, Chichijima became critical to Japan’s naval communications as Pacific battles raged. As many as 17,000 soldiers were stationed on the island, where a major radio communication center was established. Multiple caves were dug into the soft volcanic stone of the island to conceal anti-aircraft guns.
Among the American naval aircraft shot down near Chichijima was one piloted by George H.W. Bush. Bush was lucky to survive and be picked up by a nearby American ship. Some crew members of other stricken aircraft were not so lucky, dying as their planes ditched or surviving only to become POWs, many of whom later perished. War relic (senseki) tours visit a number of the sites associated with Chichijima’s war-time role.
After the war, the islands were under American control until December 1968, when they were returned to Japan. Many of the pre-war residents, forcibly sent to the Japanese mainland during the war years, never returned, or chose to take American citizenship and leave the islands at the time of reversion, leaving the island with its current small population and an economy driven predominately by tourism.
But the islanders are friendly, gentle, and generous of spirit, happy to share their island home with the visitors who arrive by ferry once every six days and usually leave on the same ferry four days later, seen off by a taiko drum troupe and nearly every boat in the marina.
This isn’t the most famous part of Tokyo, but it is certainly its most unique. A true island idyll.
The Ogasawara Islands can only be accessed by the Ogasawara-maru ferry service, which leaves Tokyo every six days. Berths on the ferry can be reserved from two months prior to sailing. Find details here: http://www.ogasawarakaiun.co.jp/english/.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today