Hachijojima: Tropical Tokyo

Palm trees gently swaying in the warm breeze, pristine beaches gently lapped by azure blue ocean waters. Guam, Hawaii, perhaps Okinawa? Actually, Tokyo. More precisely, the island of Hachijojima (八丈島). The city and prefecture of Tokyo contains an incredible diversity of landscapes. Mountains dominate the western area of Tokyo, and, of course, the Kanto (関東) Plain itself is home to the massive city which remains the world’s largest urban jurisdiction of 12 million people and metro area of over 30 million.

Directly South of the city, however, lie “Tokyo’s Islands”, the largest of which is Ooshima (大島). These islands are administratively considered part of Tokyo as much as Roppongi (六本木) or any place else on mainland Japan. In recent years, one island, Miyakejima (三宅島) has gained notoriety due to volcanic activity there which required the evacuation of most of its residents. In fact all of these islands are volcanic in origin, but in recent history, eruptions on the scale of the Miyakejima events are rare.

Despite their proximity to Tokyo, most of these islands are generally overlooked when considering travel options. I recently ventured to Hachijojima in search of a distinctly different “Tokyo” experience.

While the Tokyo Metropolitan Government does undertake a modest amount of advertising on behalf of these islands, my perception has always been that they are not too heavily promoted. Prior to visiting Hachijojima, my thinking about this was that this may be, at least in part, due to the island having been once used as a penal colony.

Hachijojima, and some of the other Izu islands served as locations for “internal exile” of criminals and other “undesirables” as designated by the Shogunate during the Edo Period (江戸時代) in Japan, what we’d call “political prisoners” in today’s vernacular. In fact, stories of life on the islands and the hardships (or lack thereof) encountered are widely told. Banishment to Hachijojima was inevitably a one-way journey and meant saying farewell to any hope of contact with mainland Japan. The era of using this and neighbouring islands as places to store undesirables is long over, though.

For any short trip, access is important. And, Hachijojima is, in truth, very accessible. There are three regularly scheduled direct flights from Haneda Airport (you can book yourself a flight on several websites) each day. Ferry service (check out the scheduled times here) is also available from Tokyo with daily arrival/departure. Travel by air took less than an hour!

Even before landing, I was excited to experience our arrival. The airport is situated on roughly the only large patch of reasonably flat land on the island. As we started our decent, it was clear that we’d be dropping in between two volcanoes which made the approach seem a lot narrower than it, in fact, is. In any event, I can imagine it might be fun to land as a pilot. As a passenger, well, it’s a little more nerve wracking.

“Your Treasure Island, Hachijojima”

Upon arrival, information stands at the airport give you all you need to know about local attractions. I had pre-reserved my hotel so, in this instance, I decided I’d head there first and then start exploring the island. For those who wish to plan more thoroughly, an excellent place to get information about what to do, where to stay, and how to get there is the website of the Hachijojima Tourism Association (八丈島観光協会). Its really a comprehensive website, but, its only available in Japanese.

Tourist Information Counter at The Airport

First, the basics, your options for getting around the island include bus, taxi (including multi-hour packages), rental cars, or rental bicycles and motorcycles. Access to transport of all kinds is readily available although if you do choose to rely on buses, take note of stop times as frequency can be an issue. Also, keeping the contact numbers of a taxi would be a good idea in case you find yourself in need of a pick-up from a remote location. On this visit, I chose to rent a car. The rental car kiosk attendant was visibly relieved at the sight of my Japan drivers license. While I can’t say for certain, it’s clear that at least one of the very limited number of rental car providers will only accept drivers who are licensed in Japan!

Since I wanted to test my theory that this island might, in fact, be an undiscovered tropical resort destination, I decided that my choice of hotel should reflect my intention. Lodging options on the island range from full service hotels to campgrounds. Most of the offerings are modest in size. Large scale resorts don’t seem to be in vogue here and there is some evidence of past failures of large scale development attempts (urban archeologists might have a fun time exploring what look to be the ruins of at least a few resort hotels that are no longer in operation, although it would be illegal to trespass on these properties, so please don’t take this as a suggestion). But whether you’re going to be camping or staying indoors, it’s certain that you won’t feel any kind of bustle that typically is associated with expansive resorts and many other destinations in Japan.

I chose as the hotel for my stay, the Resort Seapiross, which is one of the newest hotels (really, a motel in my opinion) on the island. The promise of “beach front” access enticed me. We arrived late, and the evening sky was blanketed in clouds. As such, it was difficult to discern our proximity to the ocean. That would have to wait for morning. The hotel itself was oddly themed (Bali?) but the room was clean, if not opulent, so, it was clear from the beginning that the best way to spend my two nights would be to get out of the room and find whatever the island was willing to reveal.

Feeling hungry, I decided to eat at the restaurant suggested by the front desk. A short drive from our location brought us to a very subdued and rustic eatery, Han (繁, 04996-2-7080). The restaurant is billed as a place for authentic home-cooked island recipes. In fact, it’s a very small, very informal place, more Izakaya (居酒屋) in tone and manner. As you enter, the day’s catch of local fish as well as island vegetables is on display and you can select as many of the items as you like for preparation. There is a separate menu as well if what happens to be freshly displayed isn’t quite enough. It was at this meal that I could experience two island staples, Ashitaba (明日葉), which is an herb which grows plentifully, and Shimazushi (島寿司), which is the Hachijojima take on sushi. These items are virtually ubiquitous on the island, owing to availability and necessity. Being a place with relatively steamy weather year-round, it is understandable that truly fresh fish is difficult to keep. As such, islanders, craving sushi just like anyone else, created a version of sushi which sees the fish dipped in a soy-sauce derived marinade, providing instant flavor and inevitably, due to the saltiness, a degree of preservation.

Local Ingredients Displayed for Ordering at “Han”.

The meal was basic, but enjoyable and we went to sleep looking forward to daybreak and being able to see what sunlight would reveal of the landscape.

At dawn, a bright sun pierced through the crack in the hotel room curtain. It was a sure signal to get up and get out to explore the island. First, after breakfast I took a quick stroll down to the “beachfront”. What a shock. Huge volcanic ejecta littered the beach. It looked like some of the boulders were fresh enough to have been spewed from one of the island’s volcanoes the night before.

Beachfront Boulders.

And the sand, as is was, was coarse grained and black as the darkest night. This was one of many reminders that Hachijojima was, and is still volcanic.

Sands of Hachijojima.

It also was a hint as to perhaps another reason why the islands tourist potential is under developed. I was beginning to understand that Hachijojima was perhaps less of a leisure destination and more of an adventurer’s holiday destination.

Having strolled the beach in front of the hotel and realizing it wasn’t really going to be conducive to a relaxing swim (if you choose to try, I’d recommend that you bring or purchase while you are on the island protective footwear for the beach). While walking barefoot on the sand/gravel was a bit uncomfortable, at least you could see and watch your step. In the water, visible just off the beach, there were a lot of small to medium size rocks, very sharp looking ones at that, which are potentially great for snorkelers, but undoubtedly dangerous to bare feet.

My curiosity about the waterfront now satisfied, and with the morning already giving way to afternoon, I decided to put the rental car to use and try to see as much of the island as possible.

I found driving around the island to be thoroughly enjoyable and it is probably the least stressful drive you could possibly experience in “Tokyo”. Having only the day to enjoy as much as possible, I took each curve as an opportunity to uncover a spontaneous travel experience.

Along the way, I was privileged to enjoy some spectacular roadside vistas.

Along The Road (View of Kohachijojima 小八丈島 From Hachijojima)

And everywhere, beautiful tropical flowers (mostly hibiscus), in red, white, pink, yellow, and rarely, orange.

Tropical Flowers on The Island

I could feel “island time” starting to overwhelm my usual punctual nature, and, as this was my only full day on the island, I decided to target a short list of destinations.

First, I targeted a visit to an onsen (温泉): Hachijojima has several hot springs open to the public. At least one is communal for those who are feeling particularly adventurous. I chose Miharashi No Yu (みはらしの湯), which was not. At the unassuming entrance, I was greeted by a friendly attendant who explained the basics and took care to make sure I knew the difference between the men’s and women’s baths. The temperature was soaring both inside and outside the bath house at that point, close to mid-afternoon.

The temperature was a great incentive to get outside and into the bath itself, which was refreshingly warm. Relaxing while soaking is a true joy, made just that much better by the spectacular view afforded to me and my fellow bathers.

View from The Hot Spring, Miharashi No Yu

While I was motivated to search out the other hot springs on the island, I knew if I did, I’d miss something else, so I opted to drive to the closest point accessible to the top of Hachijojima’s highest mountain, Hachijofuji (八丈富士, 854.3m above sea level). Near the summit is what I would generously describe as a meadow which contains Hachijojima’s only working ranch, Fureai Bokujou (ふれあい牧場). Visiting this place, which operates continuously, but only with regular public events during the tourist season or special occasions, provided not so much in the way of refreshing treats (the shop was closed by the time I arrived). It did, however, provide a spectacular vantage point from which to view the valley between Hachijojima’s twin mountains and the soothing pastoral scene which can only be imagined in the urban jungle of Tokyo proper.

Fureai Bokujou

Relaxing here was, in and of itself, quite refreshing, as were the gentle breezes blowing close to the mountain summit, not to mention the air itself, sweeter than any place else in Tokyo (unscientific assessment). I suppose I could have stayed the rest of the day and waited for what would surely be an incredible sunset, however, I still had one more destination in mind, and as the shadows were starting the lengthen, I knew I had best be on my way!

The island rewarded my perseverance by showing me perhaps one of its most picturesque locations on my last stop, the black sands of Muikagahara (六日ヶ原). Roadside signage which announces this visual gem is poor so you should be looking for it, but, once you spot the turnoff, a short drive brings you down a narrow road and to a very small parking area where you can leave your car to complete the rest of the journey on foot. Not expecting a trek, I was in normal casual shoes, and that made the going a bit tough. More experienced trekkers would probably have been shocked at my lack of preparation, however, you can’t plan for everything when you’re trying to be purposefully spontaneous.

As I progressed up the hillside under the cover of a tropical canopy, I could sense that I was getting closer to the ocean as the trees and brush started to thin out and the sound of the sea became ever more pronounced. Then, breaking through the trees, I was confronted with an almost alien landscape of black sands extended to the ocean, perched precariously on cliffs exposed to the ocean. The trail itself was very uneven and I regretted my choice of footwear even more as there was not so much room between me and one false step resulting in a potentially catastrophic fall.

A Steamy, Sweaty, Verdant Tropical Path

“Eyes forward” I told myself to encourage each step as I reached higher and higher to try and obtain the best view I could before the sun disappeared into the ocean. And, my reward…

Nature’s Canvas, Looking West from The Island

Unfortunately, we couldn’t linger as dusk was closing in fast and the trail was distinctly unlit. I didn’t relish the prospect of descending a narrow cliff side trail of loose black sand on a cloudy night. But the sight of the dunes against the ocean, and the power of the setting Sun as it descended into the ocean is a sight I won’t soon forget.

That evening, enjoying another meal of Shimazushi, this time at Takaratei (宝亭, 04996-2-0650) I took stock of what I had seen. I couldn’t shake the impression that I’d only touched very lightly on the potential of this ruggedly beautiful island. It’s a place which would clearly be overwhelmed if, for whatever reason, it suddenly became a “must see” destination. And, truthfully, I didn’t get the sense from any of the individual interactions I had with people living on the island that they were in a great hurry to have their home island “discovered”. It wasn’t that the places I visited and the people I talked to were unfriendly, far from it, but it was a place where there was an expectation that the visitors would adjust to the way of the islanders. In this way, the residents and tourists like myself, can find equilibrium.

Shimazushi: The sushi of the island.

My stay was brief, and so there was no way to reach all the possible attractions the island can offer. In addition to what I’ve described above, for those who are so inclined, there is an aloe garden, diving, and sport fishing options. There is also an archive which details the history of the island and a village which recreates pre-industrial life here. Trekkers will find this place an absolute paradise as almost the entire island is trekker friendly year-round. All these attractions can be accessed at the website I mentioned earlier and I’d strongly encourage you to “design your own holiday” as you see fit.

There Are Lots of Ways To Find Out More About Hachijojima!

Just remember, this island rewards the intrepid visitor, whether you are here for a day, or a week, or however long your stay will be. The charms of the island will slowly be revealed to you, but you have to be alert to the opportunities so you can forge your own connection with its people and unpolished beauty.

As I began my trip home, I couldn’t escape the feeling that with all the beauty, all the stunning vistas that Hachijojima presents, it was a little regrettable that the island hasn’t done more to cultivate its potential. On the other hand, this somewhat unpolished diamond seems to suite the islanders themselves. After all, it’s up to them, I suppose.

As for those exiles who called this island home long ago, to me at least, it seems like “Prison Life” couldn’t have been that bad here after all. Any visitor to Japan who’s interested in a brief “exile” themselves will surely find Hachijojima inviting.