With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games coming up, the city of Tokyo is anticipating more tourist interests in visiting and exploring Japan’s busy capital and most populous city. The city is know for it’s mix of the ultramodern and the traditional cityscape, oscillating from neon-lit skyscrapers to historic temples.
As much as there is lots to see in just the city and urban areas, do you know that there is a group of islands within Tokyo prefecture which are also easily accessible, offering unparalleled natural splendors?
Yes, there are places where you can go hiking, diving and camping within Tokyo and I visited one such attraction recently – Oshima Island (literally translated as ‘Big Island’ in Japanese).
Oshima is located about 120km south of Tokyo. It is the biggest island in the Izu Island Chain, a group of islands within Tokyo prefecture. About 97 per cent of Oshima is protected by the National Parks Law in Japan concerning natural landscapes and the ecosystem; as such, the conditions are pristine and untainted by human tracks.
It is believed that people begin to live on Oshima island about 8,000 years ago. The island currently has a small population of around 8.302 people. Towering in the center of the island is Mt. Mihara, a volcano which has repeatedly erupted since ancient times and once worshipped by islanders as “Gojinka” or “Fire of God”.
This is a great place to learn about volcanic islands, geology while enjoying the natural sights of the island.
There are two ways to get to Oshima island easily from Tokyo – either by boat or by propeller plane. I tried both routes and I would recommend you to do that too for the experience.
By boat (Tokai Kisen’s high-speed ferry)
This takes around 1 hour and 45 minutes one-way from Takeshiba port in Tokyo city. The port is easily accessible via the JR train. Alternatively, you can also take a ferry from Kurihama port (1 hour) or Tateyama port (50 minutes).
By plane (New Central Air Service)
I flew from Chofu Airport to Oshima and it took just 25 minutes. Chofu is accessible by JR train. Note that travel times may be subjected to change due to seasonal factors.
Getting around on the island
There are several options. You can sign up with a sightseeing bus which runs from the ports of arrival to all the major sights. Do take note of the time of departure so as not to be left stranded.
There are also scheduled buses, offering five bus routes, connecting all major spots on the island. One or two-day unlimited ride passes are available.
For those who prefer more flexibility, you can rent a bicycle, a motorbike or a car to get around the island too.
Taxis are also available on call, with metered fares. It is relatively much more expensive and the other options are more cost effective.
Upon arriving on the island, the first spot to visit is really the Tourists Visitor Centre. There, you be able to get English language maps and consult with the service staff there on how to get around, prices and any other queries you might have.
Where to stay
There are several small hotels, hostels and homestays available. Check with the Tourists Visitor Centre for more information.
Things to do on Oshima Island
A recommended stay would be around 1 to 3 nights. There are much nature to be explored, hot springs, yummy local food and some specialty goods to shop.
Take a hike up Mt. Mihara, an active volcano that still emits smoke to this day. Along the way, check out the volcanic ashes, residues and landscape. The hike is not difficult and I saw young children on the trail, including parents carrying babies.
You can also jog along the sandy black beaches like I did and it feels really good in the morning, with breathtaking sceneries.
Visit the Ura Sabaku Desert, the only place referred to as a desert in Japan. The black sand dunes seen all around the desert are sometimes compared to the surface of the moon.
Check out the camellia trees peppered all over Oshima. It is said that there are about 3 million wild camellia trees on the island. Camellia oil, made from the seeds, are used by the islanders for cosmetic purposes. The trees are used as windbreakers to protect their fields.
As the island features an active volcano, there are many hot springs on Oshima Island and a visit is a must for the experience.
Two recommended hot springs are Hana-no-yu (Open Air Hot Spring) and Gojinka Hot Spring. I visited the latter which also include a restaurant and a nice swimming pool.
There are a few must-try items. To top being bekkou sushi/sashimi. This is a local specialty made from seasonal fish (such as sea bream or parrotfish) marinated in an island soy sauce containing green chili. Every home, shop and restaurant makes their bekkou with its own unique flavours.
Next up is the turban shell which grows larger in Oshima due to the abundance of seaweed. Aslo, there’s the spiny lobsters which thrive in the volcanic reefs at Oshima.
A small treat would be Oshima Milk. Locally produced milk from grass-fed cattle, delivered fresh for the day.
There are things which you can buy back from Oshima as gifts and the top item being Tsubaki-abura, oil distilled from the seeds of camellia trees, which grows naturally in Oshima. It contains oleic acid and can be eaten or used cosmetically for the skin and hair.
As the island is surrounded by seawater, pure seawater natural salt is produced on Oshima using traditional methods emplying the sun, wind and fire. These are easily available in just about every shops in Oshima.
There are also locally farmed fresh produce available at the farmer’s market and small stores. These are great if you are intending to do some cooking during your stay or to bring back for your home cooking.
There is a Izu Oshima Volcanic Museum located just about 20 minutes walk from the Tourist Visitors Centre where you can visit to learn more about volcanoes and geology in Japan. It is opened from 9am to 5pm daily. Admission is 500 yen for adults and 250 yen for children.
There is also a Oshimal Native History and Traditional Crafts Museum which exhibits on Oshima’s history, traditions, culture and customs. Admission is 200 yen for adults and 100 yen for children. It is open daily from 9am to 4.30pm.
Other sites include a walk along Habu Port to check out the townscape, with traditional wooden buildings lining the streets like in olden Japan; the Tsubaki-hana Garden to enjoy the view of camellia trees; and Metropolitan Oshima Park, one of the biggest camellia gardens in Japan, standing at 7 hectares with about 1,000 cultivars and species.
Next time if you are visiting Tokyo, maybe you can consider adding in a day trip to one of the Tokyo islands like Oshima for a bit of nature!