Hachijojima by Bicycle: Cycling Tokyo's Southern Island
From a raised park above Takeshiba Pier you’ve watched a sort of human surf, yukata-clad and convivially inebriated, pass by under you. The waves of returning passengers from Tokyo Bay’s booze-cruises have washed over Minato-ku’s piers, broken upon Tokyo’s streets, flooded its subways, trains and taxis with revelry, and are long gone.
You cool yourself with an ad in the form of a free plastic fan while watching large, swiftly moving hi-lows on the dock below, which are lit by enormous halogen lights. Shipping containers full of passengers’ luggage, gear, bicycles, and motor scooters, along with most of the necessities of life that the residents of Miyake, Mikura and Hachijo Islands don’t make for themselves are being loaded onto the ship.
The mostly empty ferry terminal is now the scene of both a tearful and giddy farewell. A logistics professional on a two-way radio, buttoning up operations for the night, is moving them out of the building. One ticketing window remains open and one ticketing agent is talking to two last-minute passengers who are anxiously clutching ferry timetables.
The last few stragglers make their way outside to the pre-boarding, flood-lit staging area where you are now waiting in line. Groups of giddy friends, amorous couples, fun loving families, smiling surfers, determined anglers and returning islanders are among those waiting to board. Coolers, bags and boxes full of favorite food and drink are piled up along with luggage and summer fun gear of every imaginable kind.
Bullhorn-wielding ferry line workers have kept the procedure orderly. Now loudspeakers announce it’s time to board, the chain on the gangplank is removed and the captain and crew welcome passengers as they trundle up it.
On board you claim a well situated spot along the edge of the patchwork of blankets and revelers’ blanket parties spreading across the deck. The ferry shoves off and with a blast of its horn heads out under Rainbow Bridge into Tokyo Bay. It continues over the Aqua-line, past Kawasaki and Yokohama, between the Boso and Miura peninsulas through the Uraga Channel out to open water.
Along the way you see Tokyo’s amazing urban light show like you’ve never seen it. You pass exotic freighters and robotic-dinosaur-looking cranes eerily feeding them. The coast of Chiba on the starboard side is like a string of lights that gets more and more frayed as you head south, and is the last of Honshu any night owls spy from deck rails tonight.
By the time the ship reaches open water the parties have petered-out and the revelers are asleep below. Even travelers choosing to sleep on deck have climbed into their sleeping bags and are also fast asleep. Lights dimmed, the ship carries her sleeping cargo through the night, like a big iron bed upon the water.
Around 5 AM the ship’s lights come up and passengers getting off at Miyake Island prepare to disembark. The volcano, which started as a small shadowy shape in the distance an hour ago, now fills the horizon in front of the ferry. Early risers have been watching it grow into a lush green cone poking up out of the north Philippine Sea.
The vessel docks, unloads passengers and goods, weighs anchor, continues south and does the same at Mikura Island an hour later. Finally at around 8:30, thirty minutes or so from completing its nightly journey, it sounds its horn, announcing its imminent arrival at Sokodo Port on sunny Hachijo Island.
You and the rest of the ship’s passengers are greeted by taiko drums being played in the local style by drum masters on the pier. After coming down the gangplank you pass, smile at and nod to the people behind the drummers and dock workers who are queued to board your ship. Their tans and grins hint at your future.
Gear, equipment and luggage is shouldered, bikes and scooters are retrieved from shipping containers. The island’s latest arrivals head up the pier to wherever they are going on Hachijo, by whatever means they’ve arranged, to do whatever things they plan to do today.
Some are picked up in groups by scuba instructors and driven to private resorts. You won’t see them again until you spot them boarding the ship for Tokyo two mornings from now. Others, whom you may or may not spot at an island grocery or general store, pack their fishing gear onto rented scooters. They are heading out to isolated rock outcroppings where they will spend, fishing and staring at the sea, most of the next two days and a night.
You’ve retrieved your bike, loaded your gear, and you ride the 1000 meters to the island’s campground, after a once-around the port area for fun. You find a corner campsite vacated by campers now on the ferry, which is turning around and heading back to Tokyo. After a dip in the blue sea you’ve been eyeing all morning, you unpack the bike and set up your site.
The campground is adjacent to a public beach with a cement pier perfect for diving or cannonballs. Tetrapod breakers create a calm swimming inlet, and along with a section of coral, attract sea life for close-up encounters with casual snorkelers.
Campers can cook at the pavilioned kitchen area, which has running potable water, on brick grills. There’s flush toilets and unheated showers available, which you’ve availed yourself to, and are now mounting your two-wheeled transport to explore the island.
First you ride uphill from the ferry port to the center of the island, the most populous area of this sub-prefecture of Tokyo. Hachijo is indeed a part of Tokyo but riding around this part of Japan’s capital there are some things you don’t find.
A partial list would include convenience stores, trains, subways, fast food, skyscrapers, harried salary-men and -women, billboards, department stores, smog, highways and the 24-hour din of modern urban life.
A partial list of what you do find would include Ma and Pa general and grocery stores, bicycles, sleepy island bus lines, hot springs, circumspect islanders, mountain vistas, surf shops, clean sea breezes, deserted trails and the stilled silence of mid-day sweetened with the song of an Izu Thrush.
There are two roads that circle the west end of the island around Nishiyama, also known as Hachijo Fuji. One at 600 meters up the cone and one hugging the coastline all the way. You opt for the high ground choice and make your way up the single southeast access lane. Reaching the lofty circle road you turn right and follow it north a quarter of a kilometer, then stop and park your bike at the 7th hiking station.
Now it’s up the last 300 meters on foot to the cloud-enveloped caldera, where you gape into the misty bowl of the lush green that fills the collapsed top of the volcano. The clouds and mist clear while you walk along the rim, and the Pacific Ocean, shimmering in the afternoon heat, presents itself for quiescent contemplation.
You are pretty sure you can just make out the hazy outline of Mt. Fuji rising up from Honshu, northwest on the horizon. The peak from which you possibly catch sight of Japan’s most iconic volcano is the tallest of all Mt. Fuji’s Izu-Island-tectonic cousins.
On the bicycle again, you ride back the opposite way past the access road that you rode up, and continue around the volcano’s cone a few kilometers to pick up the single northwest access road down to the coast. Along the way you see the hazy silhouette of uninhabited Kojima, Hachijo’s little volcanic neighbor.
Bucolic mulberry and palm groves, jagged lava plateaus, inspirational sea vistas and a spooky derelict hotel are all part of your rolling coastal ride around the north side of the younger of Hachijo’s two volcanos, back to the campground.
Early the next morning you head out east, past the silent ferry port you arrived at yesterday, to ride up the older volcano on the island. You follow a small empty roadway 50 meters up to terraced graveyards. The tallest granite grave markers are just now glinting in the long rays of morning sunshine that have made it over the mountains.
Among tombs holding the earthly remains of generations of volcano dwellers you find the narrow lane that follows innumerable cutbacks along deep ravines. Under a sun-dappled canopy of mountain foliage you make your way up 700 steep meters to the top and a breakfast of rice balls with pickled plums that you brought along.
A long baritone note from the departing ferry, far out on the unseen sea below, softly reverberates through the boughs of the trees above you. It’s already a familiar acoustic time marker in the daily island rhythm and somehow comforts as it hangs low in the still mountain air.
You ride southeast across a volcanic ridge and then down the mountain past terraced gardens to the southeast coast. After exploring the southern end of the island and its quaint villages, you grab a bowl of noodles for lunch and head back north to the center of Hachijo. Passing through the island’s only road tunnel, you ride back to the low strip of land across the center of the island.
After a stop along the way for groceries in town, and again at the small family-owned shop near the campground for ice and snacks, you arrive back at your tent. Still time for an afternoon dip before grilling dinner and one more night of peaceful slumber induced by the lullaby of surf and crickets.
The next morning after eating breakfast and breaking camp you spot the ferry on the horizon. You mount up and ride to the port terminal. You’ve already checked your bike in and are buying a bottle of water when your ship sounds its horn telling travelers it’s time to get back down the pier to line up and board her. You do so and soon the ship leaves the dock as streamers fly through the air and island hosts wave from the pier to departing guests, then corral newly arriving ones.
A couple of festive island stops, eleven hours and about 250 km of ocean later you are back at a deck rail nearing metro Tokyo. There’s some commotion on the port side of the ship compelling you to cross the deck to investigate. The rail is thick with passengers excitedly transfixed on the meteorological show now playing on the horizon. The sun, a big burly companion overhead all day, is now low in the west, bathing Mt. Fuji in soft orange light, thrilling everyone on board.
Further north, a jetliner, coming in from Kagoshima, flies over the ship from stem to stern. It then banks hard right to the east over Chiba and continues around back west. It descends across the bay and right over the bow of your ship, giving everyone aboard a roaring close-up view of its underbelly, before touching down at Haneda Airport.
The ferry cruises back under Rainbow Bridge and docks at Takeshiba Pier again. Passengers and crew disembark while teams unload and reload the ship’s cargo holds and fill her diesel engines’ fuel tanks. Soon the boat will be ready to head out for another night of navigating the waters of the Izu islands with a fresh crew and a boatload of island goers aboard, bound for Hachijo and her island neighbors.