Stunning scenery aside, the islands of Itsukushima and Ōkunoshima have one big thing in common – nobody has heard of them. Mention Itsukushima, famous for its iconic ‘floating’ orange torii (‘gate’), and you may well be faced with a blank look. This hugely popular tourist target is the home of the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which so dominates Itsukushima’s image that the island has become known to all as Miyajima (‘Shrine Island’ in Japanese). Meanwhile, Ōkunoshima is developing an international reputation under the affectionate nickname Usagi Jima (‘Rabbit Island’) following its colonisation by hundreds upon hundreds of bunnies.
Located off the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture, each of these islands can be seen in a day and is easily accessible from the city of Hiroshima by train and boat. Together they make a great weekend destination if you want to inject a spot of nature into your holiday or weekly routine. Top tips: plan somewhere to stay overnight on the mainland after the first day, be ready for a couple of fairly early starts to make the most your two island daytrips, and pack some decent walking shoes… oh, and a couple of carrots will come in handy.
For culture and history
You can catch your first glimpse of the Itsukushima Shrine torii from the boat, and once on dry land it’s just a few minutes’ walk along the coastline. The route to the shrine is lined with shops and restaurants selling mouth-watering sweet and savoury snacks. Try one of the momiji manjū, a soft, filled cake shaped like maple (momiji) leaves in homage to the island’s maple forests, which form another of the island’s celebrated attractions with their autumnal reds, browns and golds.
The towering torii in the bay at the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of the three most scenic views in Japan. Known in Japanese as the O-torii (‘great gate’), this orange-painted wooden structure with its turquoise roof contrasts starkly but attractively with the blues and greens of the surrounding sea, sky and forest. Tourists queue up to be snapped in front of it and at low tide you can walk right underneath. At high tide the sea washes in under a large part of the shrine complex, which can be accessed via a network of wooden walkways on stilts.
Not all visitors to Miyajima make it to the dizzying heights of Mount Misen, but once at the top you’ll be glad you made the effort – the views are magnificent. One way to get up there is by ropeway, which will leave you with a half-hour walk up a steep path to the peak. Alternatively, you can set off on foot along any one of a choice of trails up the mountain that lead away from the bustling tourist areas through tranquil, leafy parks and, eventually, hillside forest. The mountain stairway is mainly out of direct sunlight but you’ll be sweating profusely by the time you reach the top after a couple of hours of climbing. Once you’ve caught your breath you’ll be left with a real sense of achievement and the feeling that you’ve earned the breathtaking panorama that greets you. Take the ropeway back down as a reward!
Another way to get close to nature on Miyajima is by observing the numerous deer that roam the island’s streets. Observing, not feeding or touching, is recommended because these deer have voracious appetites for anything that appears even remotely edible – including the maps available from the tourist information centre! If they decide you have food in your hands or backpack and are selfishly keeping it from them they can become quite aggressive, so be on your guard. On the other hand, they are seriously cute, willing to pose with tour groups for photographs and, from a safe distance, are highly entertaining to watch.
From JR Hiroshima Station, take the JR line to Miyajimaguchi (about 30 mins). From the station it’s a short walk to the ferry terminal. The ferry journey is only about 10 mins and ferries leave several times per hour. You can find more detailed access information here.
It’s hard to know what to expect as the ferry approaches Rabbit Island. If the British press is anything to go by, you might be mobbed by hordes of bunnies the minute you disembark. The global media has done a lot to promote this tiny island to visitors to Japan, with a Guardian article in 2014 and a BBC mention in 2015, but have they been exaggerating?
Well, we didn’t see any stampeding rabbits, but the appealing rodents can be found quite literally around every corner on the island. It’s possible to walk round Ōkunoshima’s entire circumference in just a few hours – including making sporadic stops for bunny feeding and photos, as well as a couple of non-strenuous climbs to see idyllic hilltop views of the azure sea and nearby islands. With no permanent human population and just a few, mainly derelict, buildings, this island makes a refreshing change from urban Japan. Strolling along its white beaches and down its wooded paths, interspersed with bunny playtimes, offers a slightly surreal form of relaxation therapy.
The rabbits are surprisingly large and all appear sleek and well-fed, which isn’t surprising given the huge amounts of food supplied by visiting tourists which litters the island by the end of the day. (All the abandoned cabbages and carrots are no doubt hoovered up as a midnight snack.) Ōkunoshima’s furry inhabitants are friendly and even a little shy at times, but are persistent in their pursuit of food, so it’s a good idea to have plenty of rabbit pellets and perhaps some fresh vegetables if you’re prepared enough in advance. If not, you can buy rabbit food from the island’s single hotel, or be faced with some very disappointed bunny faces.
For culture and history
Rabbit Island, today a haven for nature, is afflicted with a chequered and somewhat mysterious past. During World War Two the island housed a top-secret poison gas factory and was obscured from maps for years. The empty factory buildings, now ruined, stand as gloomy, windowless reminders of this sinister operation. The rabbit population is rumoured to be descended from lab animals used for testing the gas, but an alternative story identifies their ancestors as a small group of primary-school pets released several decades ago.
The island’s visitor centre is a few minutes’ walk from the ferry terminal and chooses to focus on celebrating the island’s present incarnation as a peaceful paradise rather than informing visitors on its darker history. As well as giving information on the local flora and fauna it displays art and craftwork created using natural resources such as shells. The theme of rabbits, of course, features heavily in this collection – there’s even a bunny carved out of salt!
From JR Hiroshima Station, take the Sanyō Shinkansen to Mihara Station. Then catch the JR Kure line local train to Tadanoumi. The ferry terminal is a 7-min walk from the station. The ferry trip takes 12 mins and ferries leave every 30 to 60 minutes. It’s a good idea to check the return times either in advance or once you arrive on the island. Find more detailed access information here.
So, if you’re looking for a weekend filled with wildlife, sunshine and cultural interest, in beautiful, natural surroundings, take this trip on and tackle two islands in two days!