Ogasawara Islands

Since I’m starting this blog a bit late in my Tokyo life I have to wash over the last ten months of anecdotes and try to sift out the ones most worthy of and translateable into a story. So as I continue this endless sifting process, and until I come up with a better strategy for selection, I’m going to take a somewhat pragmatic, almost superficial approach, and choose the story of the beauteous Ogasawara islands. I call this a superficial selection because the pictures are so aesthetically captivating as to make my story-telling abilities almost irrelevant, or at least far less important.

A few months ago, my sister came to Tokyo to visit me, and while she was here we decided to take a week-long trip to a warm place, as tropical as possible, since Tokyo was just coming out of winter at the time. I sort of carelessly suggested the Ogasawara islands at first. I had heard about these islands because a fellow English teacher on the same program as myself is currently living out there, and the choice sounded reckless and adventurous. As we started doing research, the plan started to formulate more realistically, until we decided to do it without any more deliberation: for our beachy vacation, we would take a 26-hour ferry ride to the sub-tropical islands of Ogasawara.

Ogasawara Islands
Ogasawara Islands

Honestly, that was probably a large part of the draw of the islands—the exotic remoteness of its hugely inconvenient and limited access. There’s no airport on the islands, so the ferry ride is literally the only way to reach them. I guess when we imagined the ferry ride, we assumed it would have to follow one of two concepts: either it’s a fully-outfitted cruise-ship-like vessel and therefore quite expensive (arguably unlikely), or it’s a bit rustic, leaves its passengers prone to some sea-sickness, and as such manages to be pretty affordable. Somehow this horrible ship managed to fail both conceptions.

Low class accommodations - yoga mats
Low class accommodations – yoga mats

Pictured above are our lovely second-class (third-class? whatever the lowest class is) accommodations. Those thin yoga-mats are our “futon” beds. Of course, this picture doesn’t really accurately capture the experience because it’s missing the 30 or so Japanese men and women strangers that we shared our room with. On the way down to the islands, the boat was so rocky that it was nearly impossible to stand up and walk on the decks, so we spent at least 23 of the 26-hour journey in a drugged Dramamine slumber. But even as we tried to sleep, the waves threw our yoga mats up and down the slipping floors, and threw ourselves onto our strange neighbors. After this description, you probably have a reasonable price in mind for the cost of this uncomfortable journey, but I am grieved to report that a one-way ticket on this slippery little rowboat was about $250 per person (and those are the cheapest tickets for the lowest-class steerage passengers, such as ourselves). But before I get too wrapped up in disparaging the journey, let me break with another mesmerizing picture as I try to convince you that our horrific passage was actually entirely, unremorsefully worth it.


Ogasawara coast
Ogasawara coast

It’s hard to describe the unusual beauty of these islands. I think part of the power of their beauty comes from how uninhabited the islands are. The Ogasawara Islands (also known as the Bonin islands) are comprised of about 30 different islands 1,000 km south of Tokyo (about the same latitude as Okinawa), though the islands are somewhat inexplicably part of Tokyo prefecture. We spent the whole trip on Chichijima (父島 “Father island” in Japanese), the main and most populous island, which still only has about 2,000 inhabitants. The name “bonin” actually comes from the Japanese word “bunin,” which means uninhabited. On our second day on the island, we left our mountain bungalow and hiked for about 45 minutes down to one of the island’s most gorgeous beaches (Kominato beach). A good portion of the walk was along a paved road, but we didn’t pass a single pedestrian the whole walk down, and maybe 2 cars passed us at most. That serene lushness and deserted emerald beauty was what made Ogasawara so incredible. From Kominato beach, we hiked through the mountains to Copepe beach, following the breezy, abandoned trail along the coast, flanked on either side by vast stretches of sapphire water.

Chichijima Island - Kominato beach
Chichijima Island – Kominato beach

Each of our limited days on the island followed a pretty similar routine: rise early and make our own breakfast at the bungalow in the mountains where we were staying (miso soup, rice, raisin rolls, strawberries, and coffee), walk to the main road and grab the local bus into town to grab bento boxes for our day’s hike (and maybe stop in leisurely for another cup of coffee at the cafe attached to Papa’s Island Resort, which we stopped in at literally everyday), and then choose our beaches for the day. As we arrived late in the day on our first day, we spent that afternoon settling into our rustic bungalow (an interesting place, to say the least– no flushing toilets, only handmade vinegar shampoo allowed in the shower, and a friendly, eccentric owner who was maybe more adept at eco-friendly practices and surfing than he was at the hospitality business), and venturing to a cafe in the mountains (literally in the mountains) called the “Forest Cafe” near our bungalow.

Mountain bungalow - rickety stairs connecting our bedroom to the bathroom cabin
Mountain bungalow – rickety stairs connecting our bedroom to the bathroom cabin
View from Forest Cafe
View from Forest Cafe

One thing that surprised us about the island was that there really wasn’t much in the way of “local cuisine,” since the islands don’t really cultivate their own crops and, as such, are almost frighteningly dependent on the rocketty little rowboat we took down as basically their life supply. We did learn, however, that they proudly cultivate unfathomably expensive coffee (~900 yen or $8 for one cup; we did not partake) and first-rate salt. Needless to say, by the time we left (so about 4 days after the ferry/rowboat had docked with fresh supplies) both grocery stores were starting to run out of food… Obviously not a terribly sustainable system, and actually our bungalow hosts discussed this issue with us at length, and how they’d really like to make the Ogasawara islands self-sufficient by expanding the amount of farming done on the island.

On our second to last night, my aforementioned English teacher friend and his girlfriend joined us at the bungalow for a huge feast (most food of which was supplied by the bungalow family, though my sister and I contributed a dish of stir-fry and edamame…classic Americans). After the feasting, the talking, the ping-pong playing with the kiddies, and an hour-long guitar-accompanied sing-a-long, my friend and his girlfriend took us on nighttime drive around the island, especially deserted at that time, though filled with such a pure and penetrating darkness. We stopped at their favorite outlook for some star-gazing , and then followed the sloping, quiet roads back to the bungalow.

Ogasawara send-off
Ogasawara send-off
Send-off continues
Send-off continues

It was hard leaving the island only a few days after our arrival. My sister said several times throughout the trip that she could contentedly live here for years or more, and I agree. Since the weekly ferry arrival/departure is a pretty big event, a lot of islanders came out to the docks to see us off. It’s a bit hard to see in the left-hand picture, but the flag they’re holding says “いってらっしゃい!” (itterasshai), a Japanese expression that basically means “Come back soon!” in this case. They also had a taiko drum that sounded off as the boat detached itself from the docks. But even after all of that fanfare, the motorboats out at sea took up the send-off and followed the ferry boat out to the ocean, waving continually all the while, until the driver cut the engine and the waving boaters jumped from the highest decks into the water (and then continued waving!!). Ah it was a very sweet end to such a wonderful trip. I miss you, my beautiful islands! And if it wasn’t so entirely prohibitively expensive, I would come back soon!


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