Exploring Japan’s subtropical Ogasawara Islands

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Pristine beaches, star-studded night skies, searing sunsets and whales splashing in tropical waters are not the usual things to expect on a trip to Japan. But venture about 1000km south of downtown Tokyo and that’s exactly what you’ll find.

The recently designated World Heritage Ogasawara Archipelago (also known as the Bonin Islands) sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and, despite the distance, is technically part of Tokyo prefecture. The main inhabited islands are Chichi-jima and Haha-jima. Chichi-jima is where the ferry from Tokyo docks and offers plenty of restaurants and accommodation as well as stunning beaches, while less-developed Haha-jima is better for those wanting a more solitary experience.

White sand tropical beach with clear blue water and coral rocks, Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Image by Ippei Naoi / Flickr Getty Images.

White sand tropical beach with clear blue water and coral rocks, Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Image by Ippei Naoi / Flickr Getty Images.

A nature-lover’s paradise, these islands offer activities galore, from exceptional snorkelling and sea kayaking to forest hiking and whale watching; it’s truly one of Japan’s great adventures.

Related article: The world's best secret islands

Image by pha pha. CC BY-SA 2.0

Diving and snorkelling

The Ogasawara Islands are world-class in terms of diving and offer the chance to spot manta ray, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and plentiful coral reefs. The main diving spot is Chichi-jima and the waters around Hyotan-jima, Minami-jima and Hirashima. Plenty of operators on Chichi-jima offer diving packages.

The two best beaches for snorkelling are on the north side of Chichi-jima – Miyano-hama and Tsuri-hama – both just a short walk over the hill from the main village. Miyano-hama is sheltered and has decent coral, making it suitable for beginners, while Tsuri-hama is a rocky beach with better coral but is more exposed.

Image by Forrest O. CC BY-SA 2.0

Whale watching

If you want the chance to see (and hear) humpback whales, your best bet is to visit between January and April. (But be aware that the wintry grey skies of January and February don't make this the ideal time to explore the islands.) From May to November you have the chance to see sperm whales. Plenty of operators run whale tours on the islands; check with the tourist information offices on Chichi-jima and Haha-jima.

Swimming

Good swimming beaches line the west side of Chichi-jima. The neighbouring coves of Copepe and Kominato-kaigan are particularly attractive. From Kominato-kaigan, you can walk a trail over the hill and along the coast to the dazzling white sand of John Beach. It’s a two-hour walk in each direction and there is no drinking water so be sure to bring plenty with you.

Sea kayaking

Skim across the sea to discover hidden beaches only accessible by kayak or boat. Kayaking is also a good chance to spot fish and coral through the clear waters. The Pelan Sea Kayak Club (www.pelan.jp; Japanese only) offers tours to some of the island’s more enchanting spots for around ¥10,000 per day. Fees include equipment rental and meals cooked Pelan-style, on a wood-burning camp stove.

Image by pha pha. CC BY-SA 2.0

Hiking and viewpoints

Trek through forests, spotting birdlife as you make your way to stunning viewpoints overlooking sheer cliff tops and dark blue seas. On Haha-jima, a road runs south from the village to the start of the Minami-zaki Yūhodō, a hiking course that continues all the way to the Minami-zaki (literally ‘southern point’). Along the way you’ll find Hōraine-kaigan, a narrow beach with a decent offshore coral garden, and Wai Beach with a dropoff that sometimes attracts eagle rays.

Above Minami-zaki you’ll find Kofuji, an 86m peak with fantastic views in all directions. Back in town, a four-hour hike loops through rare indigenous flora to Mt Chibusa (463m), the highest peak on the island.

Where to stay

For a rustic and authentic Ogasawara experience, spend some time at Pelan Village (www.pelan.jp) on Chichi-jima. It’s a sustainable eco-retreat in a leafy mountainside setting, with basic wooden cabins, solar showers and bush toilets. The operators grow their own food.

If you prefer to stay on Haha-jima, check out the cheery, bright yellow Anna Beach Youth Hostel (www.k4.dion.ne.jp/~annayh; Japanese only) overlooking the fishing port.

Practicalities

  • The only way to get to the islands is by a 25-hour ferry ride from Tokyo. The Chichijima-maru sails once a week between Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier and the main island of Chichi-jima (from ¥25,100 in July and August). The Hahajima-maru sails five times a week between Chichi-jima and Haha-jima and takes two hours. For both, contact Ogasawara Kaiun (www.ogasawarakaiun.co.jp/english) for more information.
  • Rental scooter is the best way to get around, available from around ¥3000 per day from many lodgings on the islands.
  • Make sure you have plenty of yen on you before you set out for the islands. There is no foreign currency exchange service and very few places accept credit cards.
  • The best time to visit is late June and early July to avoid the tourist season. If you plan on visiting Ogasawara in summer (July to August) make sure you book accommodation well in advance.

For more information, check out the excellent Ogasawara Village Tourist Information website, www.ogasawaramura.com/en.

Kopepe [Copepe] beach Ogasawara by yuukin. CC BY 2.0