Oshima may be officially part of Tokyo and only two hours away by boat, but it offers an experience that is worlds apart, with its unsullied old-world charm and unhurried pace of life.
The island is quite the haven for nature buffs, with as much as 97 per cent of its area preserved as part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park that includes the famous Mount Fuji.
Oshima – or Big Island – is the largest in the Izu chain of seven islands at 91 sq km. It has an active volcano and is home to 8,000 affable islanders, whose warm hospitality can be seen in the repeated offers to buy me and my travel companion drinks.
1 HIKE UP AN ACTIVE VOLCANO
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Start your weekend with a hike up Mount Mihara, a 758m-tall active volcano that is spewing smoke to this day. Its last major eruption in 1986, dubbed Gods’ Fire, sent a river of lava through the island before coming to a stop near the main hub of Motomachi. About 13,000 residents and tourists had to flee.
Admittedly, the volcano is not as challenging a hike as I would have preferred and we easily complete the climb within 45 minutes. But the desolate terrain of charcoal- covered rocks and hardened lava sediment, juxtaposed against the pristine blue waters in the distance, is an unforgettable view.
The hike up the volcano also offers the chance to experience some pop culture moments.
The volcano was where Godzilla was entombed in the cult Japanese classic, The Return Of Godzilla (1984), before the monster was subsequently revived in a later movie. As a result, Godzilla features in buttermilk cookies that are sold in souvenir shops on the island.
In horror flick The Ring (1998), the volcano was where the mother of the vengeful spirit, Sadako, committed suicide by leaping into the crater.
In reality, the volcano is revered as a holy site for the Mihara Shrine near its peak which, in what is seen as a miracle, escaped damage in the 1986 eruption.
For a closer look at the reddish- brown deposits in the caldera – a crater formed in a volcanic eruption – follow the rocky summit trail at the peak that encircles the crater which is about 300m in diameter. Where: Mount Mihara Admission: Free
2 BLACK SAND DESERT
Think of a desert and you are likely to picture an arid landscape of golden sand dunes. But Japan’s one and only desert – the Inner Desert or Ura-Sabaku – is nothing like that. Its vast plains of soft black sand are out of this world and some liken it to being on the moon. Where: Inner Desert Admission: Free
3 ENJOY MARINATED SUSHI
Fresh sushi is pretty much a guarantee on Oshima, where fresh catch is sold daily at a seafood market. But a must-have is its local speciality dish, Bekkou sushi.
Made using seasonal local fish, each piece of sushi is marinated in a piquant mixture of soya sauce and island-grown green chilli peppers, reminiscent of the green chilli that is a staple in Singapore.
While the dish is easily found at sushi joints on the island, we enjoy our meal at Sushikou, which was recommended to us by a kindly obasan (auntie). A set of 10 pieces of Bekkou sushi costs 1,850 yen (S$23). Where: Sushikou, 1-4-8 Motomachi; open: 11am to 3pm (lunch), 5 to 10pm (dinner), closed on Wednesdays Info: Call +81-4992-2-0888
Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines have direct flights to Tokyo every day.
Ferry operator Tokai Kisen (www.tokai kisen.co.jp/ english) runs the high-speed jetfoil services that ply the two-hour Tokyo- Oshima route, with about four trips daily, depending on season. Ferries depart from the Takeshiba Pier at Tokyo Bay, which is near Hamamatsucho station on the JR Yamanote line or the Takeshiba station on the Yurikamome monorail.
The ferry departure schedules vary by season and travellers should check the timetable on the website to plan their itineraries. Advance bookings of jetfoil tickets (varies by season, with tickets from April to June priced at 7,020 yen or S$90 each) are also advised. The earliest ferry into Oshima arrives by 10am, while the latest ferry back to Tokyo usually departs before 4pm.
WHERE TO STAY
- Hotel Shiraiwa (3-3-3 Motomachi; call +81-4992- 2-2571; go to www.ryokan.or.jp/english/yado/main/27410) is a pleasant place to stay, with hospitable hosts, an outdoor onsen and sumptuous traditional Japanese breakfast. We paid 11,340 yen a person a night.
Another option, especially if you visit in the balmy spring or hot summer months, is to camp outdoors. Oshima has well-equipped sites such as the Toshiki Campground (Sashikiji, Oshima-cho; make a free booking on +81-4992-2-1446) near what is purportedly one of Oshima’s best snorkelling spots; or the Umi-no-furusato-mura (Genya 2-1 Senzu, Oshima; call +81-4992-4-1137), which offers tents for rent. Renting a pre-pitched tent will cost 4,000 yen plus 300 yen a person, for up to six people. Renting a tent and pitching it yourself costs 2,000 yen plus 200 yen a person, for up to five people.
• Depending on the weather and tide conditions, jetfoils may arrive at and leave from either the Motomachi Port in the west or Okata Port in the north. The designated port changes daily and also affects local bus schedules.
• Rent a car or bicycle as buses are infrequent. We rent our car from Motomachi Car Rental (1-4-12 Motomachi; call +81-4992-2-3172) for 5,940 yen a day. Rates differ if it is peak season.
• Most places accept only cash. While there are international ATMs, they are in service only during office hours.
4 GEOGRAPHIC THRILLS
Put the morning’s hike in context with a trip to the informational Museum of Volcanoes. Its exhibits cover everything from the history of Mount Mihara eruptions to volcanic structures to geographic formations. English translations for the Japanese text are available for only a few exhibits. Where: Museum of Volcanoes, 617 Kandayashiki Motomachi Admission:500 yen for adults, 250 yen for children, 200 yen for film screenings; open: 9am to 5pm daily Info: Call +81-4992-2-4103
5 OSHIMA OF OLD
In Singapore, people geek out over the number of 1990s-style stationery shops that were once ubiquitous, but which have been phased out due to market forces.
Despite Oshima’s relatively small population, such mom-and-pop stationery and book shops are everywhere in the main hub of Motomachi and they offer a vast array of paraphernalia.
On this nostalgic note, the Machikado Freai-kan is also worth a visit. It is a photo gallery that doubles as a lounge which locals frequent. It also sells old-school knick-knacks such as matchboxes.
The gallery takes visitors back in time via pictures of Mount Mihara in the pre-war days, where there were steel and copper playground slides popular with domestic tourists. But these were dismantled as metals were in short supply during the war.
There are also images of the traditional Anko-san, an affectionate term used to refer to an elder sister or older woman in the Oshima dialect. In the past, they used to don kimonos and carried items with a towel wrapped around their heads, in what was once a common sight in Oshima. Where: Machikado Freai-kan, 2-3-8 Motomachi; open: 9am to 5pm daily, closed from noon to 1pm Admission: Free Info: Call +81-4992-2-1036
6 STUNNING SUNSET
Oshima, with its peerless horizon, offers one of the best sunsets I have ever seen. Catch the golden hour from the Sunset Palm Trail, a flat path popular for running and cycling; or from a mixed public onsen that offers unparalleled views. Swimsuits are a must at the Hamanoyu Open Air Hot Spring. Where: Hamanoyu Open Air Hot Spring, 882 Tonchibata Motomachi Oshima-machi; open: 1 to 7pm daily, closed during bad weather Admission:300 yen for adults, 150 yen for children Info: Call +81-4992-2-2870
7 IZAKAYA GASTRO-PUB
We are intrigued by Sakanaya, a modern-looking izakaya gastropub that seems out of place on Oshima.
To find out if the restaurant is open, check if the spotlight at the door is switched on.
The menu, including traditional items such as yakitori sticks and oyakodon – a hearty dish of chicken and egg on a bed of rice – is sumptuous. Expect to pay at least 2,000 yen a person for dinner. Where: Sakanaya, 2-3-3 Motomachi; open: 5 to 10pm (Tuesdays to Sundays) Info: Call +81-4992-2-4555
8 STARGAZE THE NIGHT AWAY
There is nothing much here by way of after-hours entertainment. Nonetheless, the minimal light pollution means any spot on the remote island could be ideal to simply while away time by staring up at the vast starry night sky.
We use the Star Chart app (free on the Apple and Android app stores) to identify constellations and planets in the night sky.
9 SMELL THE FLOWERS
Oshima is said to be home to as many as three million camellia trees that bloom in winter. Cultivation of camellias at the Tokyo Metropolitan Oshima Park began in 1940 and the 7ha site today boasts about 1,000 species. An adjacent zoo opened in 1935 and has a variety of birds and animals. Where: Metropolitan Oshima Park, 2 Fukuji Senzu; open: 8.30am to 5pm daily Admission: Free
10 A 200-YEAR-OLD PORT
Wooden huts line the streets of the historic Habu port town that started operating nearly 200 years ago. It was formerly a crater lake until it was linked to the sea by a tsunami in 1703.
The town was also the setting of The Dancing Girl Of Izu (1926), a story by Nobel Literature Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata about a young male student from Tokyo who meets and falls for a travelling odoriko (dancing girl) performer.
A stone’s throw from the harbour is the Odoriko-no-sato Museum, where mannequins of dancing girls can be seen, offering a glimpse of Oshima in its heyday. Where: The Habu Port is on the south-eastern end of the island. The museum (open: 9am to 4pm daily) is less than a five-minute walk away Museum admission: FreeInfo: Call +81-4992-2-1446
11 CURIOUS SIGHTS
While Shinto is the major religion in the country, a towering cross has been erected near an observation point where beautiful coastal views and a small islet named Fudeshima can be seen. It was said be a tribute to Christian martyrs who died on Oshima between 1603 and 1868, when Christianity was taboo. Where: About 2km north of Habu Port Admission: Free
• This is the sixth of a 10-part series. Next week, China Correspondent Chong Koh Ping strolls along the golden coastline of Xiamen and visits a beautiful campus with a link to Singapore.