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Friday, June 16, 2005

HACHIJOJIMA ISLAND

Tokyo as a chilled-out paradise


Staff writer

So you think Tokyo is fast-paced and tiring? Think again.

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Mount Miharayama provides a panoramic view of the port of Sodoko and Mount

Semitropical Hachijojima is the southernmost of the seven Izu Islands, which are administered by Tokyo. The island is a popular destination for surfing, fishing and scuba diving but with everyone out at sea all day, the island feels almost deserted.

The gourd-shaped island, protected as part of Fuji Hakone Izu National Park, is covered in wild aloe and groves of tiny palm trees, whose harvested leaves are sold to flower shops nationwide. Most of the 9,000 residents live in the valley between dormant volcanoes Mount Hachijofuji and Mount Miharayama.

Despite there being several 45-minute flights per day to the island from Haneda, take the overnight ferry to enjoy the view of Tokyo Bay at night and see sister islands Miyakejima, eerily covered in dead trees caused by a volcanic eruption five years ago, and tiny Mikurajima, encased in rocky cliffs.

Island prison

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A free outdoor onsen at Uramigataki is perched on a hill overlooking a lush valley

Convicts were exiled to Hachijojima during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and on the west side of the island you still can see the tamaishigaki (round-stone walls), which were built using smooth, round stones they were forced to carry from the beach. The convicts were given one onigiri (rice ball) for each stone. The stones do not look particularly large, but considering that some of the walls are several kilometers from the sea, dinner could not have been much of a feast.

Another unfortunate landmark on the island -- one that islanders still do not like to talk about -- is the tunnel complex dug by Korean slave laborers during World War II. Untold numbers of slaves died of starvation and exhaustion. The Imperial Army had a large underground base on the island during the war, believing the Izu chain was a possible route the United States might take in an attack on Tokyo.

While no one is certain how long the tunnels are, some elderly islanders estimate they run for about 65 km.

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A wall built during the Edo Period from stones carried up from the beaches by convicts

These war-time warrens are easily accessible and detritus such as bottle caps, batteries and light-bulb ends still remain, left by the soldiers who lived and worked there. In the tunnel headquarters there is evidence of what were once offices, storerooms, soldiers' bunks and even a toilet. Fresh air still circulates through a sophisticated ventilation system.

The beat goes on

One of Hachijojima's unique traditions is Hachijo taiko, which is played by two people. One person plays a bass rhythm on one end of the drum, while the other improvises melodically at the other end. Because of this, drummers develop their own individual styles. In addition, the drummers sing local folk songs, breathing in time with the drums.

There are many trails winding up the two volcanoes, but the one to the top of Mount Hachijofuji is the most spectacular.

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Hachijofuji Hachijojima boasts many waterfalls and swimming holes

The well-shaped crater has become overgrown with thick, lush vegetation. The path around the crater's rim requires careful navigation, as one misstep may see you either plunging into the deep valley inside or see you rolling down the other side and probably into the sea. The wind can be fierce enough at times to force people to crouch down for cover.

Everyone wants to eat ashitaba, on a trip to Hachijojima. This member of the celery family is prized for its health benefits. Its name, meaning "tomorrow's plant," comes from the speed with which it grows. If you cut off a leaf, another will appear the next day. Ashitaba soba and ice cream are everywhere, but it is tastiest boiled and with a splash of soy sauce. Cooked, it has a sharp, almost minty taste.

Dubious grub

In contrast, kusaya is a food that few people are able to stomach. It can sometimes be an act of courage simply to sit in the same room where the dried horse mackerel is being served. The far-reaching smell can be so offensive to the uninitiated that it can cause them to flee the area.

The key to making kusaya is the salty water in which the fish is at first soaked. The process dates back to the Edo Period, when salt was rationed and brine had to be reused. The liquid is kept for years and ferments into a kind of gravy, which gives the fish its distinctive kusai (stinky) smell.

Steamy finale

At the end of the day, everyone crowds into one of the many onsen, a benefit of having two volcanoes on the island. One popular destination is the free outdoor onsen at Uramigataki, where you can sit in your bathing suit in the communal tub and look out at the lush valley below.

The most beautiful view, though, is at Sueyoshi Michigasawa Onsen, which sits on a southern cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There you can soak your troubles away and watch the sun set over a peaceful Tokyo.

ANA offers several flights a day to Hachijojima from Haneda Airport and a round-trip ticket costs 25,000 yen (tel. [0120] 029-222). Tokai Kisen operates a ferry service once a day to the island from Tokyo's Takeshiba Port, with one-way ticket prices starting at 7,610 yen (tel. [03] 5472-9999). For help booking accommodation on the island contact the Hachijojima Tourist office (tel. [04996] 2-1377). See The Anchor Pub's Web site at www.hachijo.net for information about the WWII tunnel tours and tips on places to visit on the island.


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