Nishinoshima, Shimane, Japan

The Oki Islands are volcanic in origin, and are the exposed eroded summits of two massive stratovolcanoes dating approximately 500 million years ago to the Tertiary and Quaternary periods. The oldest rocks in Japan have been found on the Oki Islands.

— Wikitravel.

 

The Oki Islands are a group of remote islands in the Sea of Japan. Located 80km from the mainland, they are still relatively unknown even amongst the local population. Four of the islands are inhabited: Dōgo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima and Chiburijima, while the other 180 are not.

The islands are accessible by air and sea and on our January visit we plumped for the ferry, which runs to and from the islands once a day at that time of year. Early in the morning we departed from a Russian-friendly town (the signs in the town were all in Japanese and Russian) on the mainland called Sakaiminato and headed first to the island of Dōgo. The next day we jumped back on the ferry and made the 90 minute journey across to the second largest of the four inhabited Oki islands — Nishinoshima.

Second-class section of the ferry.

In the second class section of the ferry, the passengers made themselves comfortable by lying back, watching the TV, munching on vending machine snacks and snoozing. Their luggage, drinking bottles, electronics, socks and blankets were scattered with abandon all over the carpeted floor, as if it was their own living room. But it didn’t bother me a bit, adapting to new places had by this point become a daily routine, and so a shared “public bedroom” was by no means a culture shock. At least, not as surprising as seeing pigs in the kitchen in Taiwan or Chinese children in split pants .

The island’s relative isolation and mountainous terrain have helped to preserve a good deal of its local cultures and traditions, many of which have already disappeared from other parts of Japan. Unfortunately for us, one day wasn’t enough to even begin to scratch the surface of that culture.

We were the only travellers to disembark the ferry and at the information desk we were surprised to be greeted by a New Zealander called Nicola, who helped us arrange a place to sleep and bike rental. The bikes left a lot to be desired, mountain bikes they were not, but instead three-speed town bikes. Totally unsuitable for hilly terrain and Nishinoshima is nothing but hilly terrain. We were assured that the island was less hilly and smaller than Dōgo (the island we had just arrived from), and that the bikes should be fine. So despite our legs still aching from the previous day’s cycle, we figured this ride couldn’t be any worse, and set off for the cliffs on the other side of the island.

Only 10 minutes into the journey one of the bikes got a flat tyre, so we had to leave it at nearby gas station. “Everything will be Oki” — I thought and we continued the journey through the wind and cold, now with two people on one bike. Not the best of starts.

Pushing the bike with the flat tyre.

Under the new set of laws implemented by the Ritsuryō (historical law system) the Oki Province was designated ‘islands of exile’ from the 7th century to the 19th century. Noblemen who were on the losing end of the power struggles were banished to the islands where they would live out their sentences peacefully.

— Wikitravel.

Our host.

The island has a population of around 3,000, but as we cycled across it, it seemed more like 100. Most locals work in fishing or agriculture, with a small number of employees in the service industries. But historically, due to its remoteness, Nishinoshima was also an island of exile for disgraced noblemen.

When we were at the information desk we had been told “It’s low season, so most restaurants and guesthouses are closed, which is good, as nothing will stop you from getting a good rest”. Unfortunately that also meant that there was no one around to help when things went wrong. In fact, the island seemed deserted, and we felt like the only foreigners there. Although we were certainly not the only ones to have visited. Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-Irish writer, spent a month on the island in 1892. In his book, “Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan” he wrote, “Not even a missionary had ever been to Oki, and its shores had never been seen by European eyes.” – a pretty bold statement, nevertheless it highlights the relative isolation of the island back then.

A century old school.

In a bid to avoid the attention of local residents, eager to glimpse a foreigner, Hearn stayed in his room for several days. As soon as the news of his presence in the port’s only hotel spread, the whole street became blocked by a crowd and the building was besieged from both sides. The upper floors of the houses opposite were filled with onlookers, and several people even managed to climb onto the ledge under the window of his room. He wrote of how all the openings to his room “on three sides, were full of faces.”

“The public curiosity, however, lasted without abate for three days, and would have lasted longer if I had not fled from the island..”

The locals’ interest in foreign visitors has obviously waned since Hearn’s day. We received little more than a few nods and quiet greetings during our visit. In fact, upon seeing two people struggling along on one bike, passing cars didn’t even stop to ask if everything was “Oki”? In the end it was “Oki” — our struggle up the steep road to infinity ended and a panoramic cliff-top view opened out before us.

The landscape of Nishinoshima erupted from the sea; blistering hot lava was frozen into steep peaks as it emerged above the water, creating the dramatic terrain that can be seen today. In fact, the eruption may still be the most exciting event to occur on the island, and this striking scenery was what I had come here to experience.

In many ways Nishinoshima has remained just as it was thousands of years ago. But now the island’s striking cliffs are also inhabited by some 50 or so semi-wild horses. They have owners but are free to graze and roam as they like and most certainly cannot be ridden.

I tried to move closer to one of the female horses to take a picture, but the male moved towards me defensively. He was perfect. A majestic, beautiful golden haired beast with his mane fluttering in the wind. His reaction towards me seemed to say that I wasn’t to disrupt the harmony of the place and that I had to leave.

Kunig is the highest rocky coastline in Japan. Volcanic eruptions and subsequent erosion has created a spectacular landscape over thousands of years and the view from the top of these cliffs is breathtaking.

A trail runs to the other side of the shore, through wild pastures, essentially open-air enclosures for the local horses. It was enticing, and on any other day, I would have gladly walked along it. But the light was fading and to go there would mean getting lost under the night sky.

The clouds started to gather, the wind blew strongly, and we started the long journey back. Freewheeling downhill with two people on a bike was a hundred times easier than the journey uphill. However, once again misfortune struck and we got yet another flat tyre! Two people, no bikes, and still a long way back. So we continued the voyage home on foot, cold, hungry and with the useless bike in tow, stopping only to stuff our faces with whatever we could find at the lone grocery store we found along the way.

We eventually made it back to our ryokan (Japanese inn), which was perched on the edge of an inlet. Tired and hungry, we ditched the useless bike outside. Our host, in typically accommodating and kind Japanese fashion, was incredibly apologetic for the inconvenience, though it wasn’t his fault. He kindly called the lady who rented us the bikes, a friend, and offered to return them both for us and drop us at the port in the morning. After a meal of instant noodles and plastic packaged food from the store adjoining our accommodation, the day ended with a traditional Japanese hot tub to soothe our tired muscles.

In the morning, when I opened the window, it turned out that our room overlooked a small bay. And we were rewarded with a delightful view.

Local bay.

Before dropping us off at the port, our host wanted to show us a few sights along the way. He stopped off at the local power plant, a shrine and the local school. Knowing that I was Russian, he also showed me an article in English on his phone, about the good relations between Japan and Russia, specifically with Vladivostok. Shaking his head and smiling, he seemed to give his approval of my heritage. He took us to the port and repeatedly bowed, thanking us for having visited. In fact he stood and waved for a few minutes before we got on the ferry and set off.

Aside from a few transport challenges and a fairly exhausting journey we were lucky enough to experience the delights of this rugged and rocky island. For me, the charm of the island is encapsulated in its distance from the mainland, the uncomfortable floor of the ferry’s economy class, the long and exhausting walks and cycles and it’s golden-maned horses. Nishinoshima island is an amazing find for those looking for a change of pace and to explore the spectacular coastal scenery unique to the Japanese archipelago.