The morning sun and the humidity forced us to wake up before 8 am on a Sunday. We came out of the tent and as we stepped out barefooted into the wet grass, we were welcomed by vistas of lush green mountains, the scent of the ocean in the air, and an army of multicolored tents whose residents, like us, had come to spend a long weekend at Nijima.
As one of the seven islands comprising the Izu Archipelago, Nijima is administered by Tokyo metropolis, which means that although it’s located 163 kilometers away from the big city, we were technically at least, still in Tokyo. Nijima is well connected to Takeshiba port in Tokyo with express jet ferry services making the trip in less three hours or larger boats with sleeping berths and a restaurant completing the trip in 8 hours. Despite it’s accessibility, Nijima feels somewhat a remote place, perhaps due to its peculiar subtropical jungle, menacing looking bugs, or its turquoise waters and clear, starry night skies that allow you to catch glimpses of the Milky Way.
That Sunday morning some of our tent neighbors were already cooking pancakes in the public kitchen of the camping site, others had already finished eating and were brushing their teeth in the public bathroom, which although has modern facilities and a shower, is still full of giant spiders, a reminder that you are in the wild. The more active ones were already out there in the ocean riding the waves, as Nijima is a prime destination for surfers.
We grabbed our rental bicycles and rode a to the beach near the campsite to find almost deserted miles of white sand beach overlooked by imposing volcanic cliffs, and the perfect temperature for a swim. We then rode a few kilometers into Honson, the sleepy town where most of Nijima’s residents live and home to several small business centered around tourism, selling everything from bathing suits and floating devices for children to tacky t-shirts and cheap souvenirs crafted out of Nijima’s sea shells.
I could not explain to myself why on a long weekend, when most popular destinations around Tokyo are packed, you could still stroll the village undisturbed by hordes of tourists, or experience that feeling of stepping into the local residents’ lives. Coming from globalized Tokyo, it was refreshing to experience a group of teenage Japanese girls timidly saying ‘Hi’ and giggling as they pass you by, or have an elderly woman comment and being sympathetic to you because your legs are ridden with mosquito bites.
Riding through the village, after a stop for an addictive home-made ice-cream, we continued a few kilometers down the main road to the west coast of the island to explore Maehama beach, popular with windsurfers. We spend most of the day lazing out on the sand, swimming and exploring offshore cliffs with graffiti in unexpected places. As the night began to fall, we rode further down to Yunohama onsen, an admission-free, ocean-water hot spring on the edge of a cliff, featuring Greek-style ruins and spectacular views of the setting sun. After what had being a long day of intense ‘exploring’ I just soaked there, in the artificially heated water, entering a near comma state of relaxation, and thinking about the day that was finishing and how it had went by at a slower, more pleasurable pace.
Photo: Kenta Hayashi on Flickr
I guess each visit to Nijima is whatever the traveler makes it to be, as there are no must-see attractions, but rather natural beauty and plenty of deserted beach to roam about. Some people prefer to stay in one of the few guesthouses and dine at restaurant in town, while others, improvised outdoors amateurs like us, had fun setting up the inflatable mattress and lived on bento from the local supermarket. Some of our tent neighbors seemed to regularly enjoy camping and came prepared to cook a barbecue dinner and got drunk around the bonfire. We all had a unique and memorable experience.
The rest of our time on the island went pretty much the same way, waking up involuntarily early, toasting under the sun, indulging in sunsets at the hot spring, eating ice-cream, looking at the stars or simply drinking wine from plastic cups at a deserted beach. Nijima is the closest place to paradise I’ve found near Tokyo.