Okunoshima, aka Rabbit Island
Okunoshima is one of those very special experiences, and it will amaze your friends when you tell them about it. It is one of those places that is rare and unique, and having been there you can truly call yourself a traveller, not a tourist, but a Traveller.
In short, people go to Okunoshima for the rabbit experience. It must be the cutest and most heart warming experiences you can have in Japan. Like every coin has a second side, like for every yin there is a yang, the island also has a dark side; it was where the Japanese military made its’ illegal chemical weapons.
Getting there and breakfast
From start to finish the whole trip is like an adventure for my ten year old daughter and I. I didn’t tell her what to expect, I just said, “Let’s go on an adventure”, she replied, “Ok”, and so it began. Travelling from my home in Nagoya, it’s a two hour bullet train ride to Fukuyama, then a change to a local version of the bullet train to Mihara, then a change to a real local train for Tadanoumi. By this time it was dark, and we could only see the occasional lights. At Tadanoumi station we were kindly met by the AirBnB host, even though it was about 10pm at night. We could smell hints of the sea. I was dog tired and looking forward to collapsing in a bed. A habit of mine when nearly arriving at my hotel or AirBnB is to always keep my eyes peeled for restaurants, convenience stores, transport hubs, and other essentials. I spotted a Seven Eleven and felt relief. We dumped off our bags at the house, and walked back the five minutes to the Seven Eleven. Along the way, in the silence of the town and the mist of the seaside darkness we saw a fox bound out of the bushes ahead and leap across the nearby railway tracks, and he seemed to evaporate into the darkness. We picked up some drinks and breakfast, and headed home in the still, quiet night.
The bed was a typical Japanese futon in an old style house. It was thin and laid out direct onto tatami, and with a very thin pillow. Towels were like they were from the ¥100 Shop ($1 Shop), small, very thin, and I needed two to dry. Because this was mid August it was also mid-summer in Japan, so it’s really humid and oppressively muggy-hot at 8am in the morning. Showering in the morning means you don’t actually get dry; you go from shower-wet to sweaty-wet unless you stand in front of the dehumidifying-air conditioner.
Tadanoumi, as it turns out, is a seaside town. The name, I was told by my daughter, simply means, “It’s just the sea”, a very “duh” name made into an address; and it must raise a smirk for non-locals to hear. Seeing any town by daylight after arriving in the night is a surreal experience. Especially when discovering that the sea is right there. The ferry ticket office is is just off the high street (off the main road) right in front of the wharf where the ferry lands. It’s easy to find, just follow other people who are wearing hats, sunglasses, and backpacks, or else use Google Maps (link provided below). You may be lucky enough to stay at an AirBnB that provides a portable wifi for your use, otherwise double check your route and with Google Street View before you set off. FYI, now there are various small companies in Japan that can lease out portable wifi hubs if you would rather hold onto one for all your travels.
Getting to Okunoshima
Ferry tickets are ¥310 for adults and ¥160 for children, but you will buy them as return for ¥620 and ¥320 respectively. There are two types of ferries, one that takes only 100 people, and the main one that takes about 300 people and cars, bicycles, and light trucks. It costs ¥120 per bicycle, and up to large motorbikes and cars which are ¥500. Prices are current as of the 18th August 2017. The ferry time table is included in the Getting There section later. The ferry ride takes about 10 to 12 minutes, barely enough time to enjoy sitting, and barely enough time to cool down in the air conditioning on your return.
Moments after getting off the ferry my ten year old daughter was startled, “Oh! Look! A rabbit!”. “What?! No way! It’s an island. There can’t be any rabbits here!”, I coolly replied. “Yes there is! Look! Another one! That boy’s patting it! And another! Wow! Oh!”. And it continued. This is the definition of “shock and awe”.
First point to note is that they do not sell any rabbit food on the island. I’m not sure why, but my guesses are that in so doing, it doesn’t lead to overfeeding and overpopulation of the rabbits. This might be especially important as the number of tourists are not constant throughout the year. You can purchase a small bag of pellets at the ferry ticket office, or ask your AirBnB host for advice on how to get some cabbage. If you’re lucky, your AirBnB host might leave a bag of cabbage in the fridge for you, so please thank them very much if they do. Second point is, they are wild animals, not pets. That means there are rules for your safety, and for theirs. That means, don’t pick them up, and especially, don’t feed them by the side of the road. It’s dangerous for the rabbits if they become accustomed to expecting food right next to where buses and cars pass through. They also ask people not to abandon their pet rabbits on the island, which will have repercussions for the former pet who is not accustomed to life in the wild.
Literally, within the first moments of stepping of the ferry and setting foot on land you will see rabbits. Nobody knows how many there are, but probably a thousand or so that can be seen from the main thoroughfares. The island is small, and takes only a couple of hours to walk around. In this couple of hours you will stop a lot, and spend time with bunnies. There are so many that you can tire yourself out. At the start everyone says “Oh! How cute!” and are eagerly and sincerely trying to get close to the bunnies, and have a real authentic interaction with them. However, close to midday I saw hot, tired, weak, lethargic people simply dropping bits of cabbage to rabbits before stumbling on.
Just off the ferry, you will be confronted with a choice of either going left or right. Most people go left towards the camp-ground, hotel, the swimming beach, and the main museums. However, I recommend going right to where it’s a bit quieter, and you can have a less distracting experience with the bunnies. Head towards the creepy looking old power generation building that seem to deter most Japanese people, so you can have more bunnies to yourself. I don’t recommend circumnavigating the island, as it can be a too long-a-walk; you will be worn out and won’t enjoy the experience any more. So, meet and feed the bunnies at the old power station, then head back towards the hotel.
Feeding rabbits is one of the most unique experiences in your life. Interestingly, sometimes when they hop away they pee. It’s not squirted or dribbled, but by the hopping movement, it’s left like a trail frozen in the air for a moment before it falls to the ground. Also, watch out for where you put your hands, they can pee on them too! Another badge of honour that can be earned at bunny island.
Pro-tip: When photographing rabbits, don’t point your camera down at them from your eye level. Instead, put your camera down on the ground and photograph from their eye level.
My AirBnB host said that the beach at Tadanoumi is great, as it’s clean, nice, and not crowded, but the beach at Okunoshima is dirty and crowded. My verdict is that the beach at the island is nice, a bit ouchy to walk on barefoot with the gravelly sand, and there’s some rocks under the surface of the water. There’s also some tidal current there, but not too strong. Just the same, there were very young children playing there, and a lifeguard who a few times per hour jumped on his board to rescue a blow up toy that was attempting to escape the roped off area. I’m someone who always has to feel productive, so this was an amazing experience in itself. I put my phone down, had no book, no laptop, only my thoughts. It was the most intellectually clarifying times I have experienced in many years. Warning, there’s very little shade here, and so you must have a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen. If you don’t like beaches, the hotel has a pool nearby.
The beach at Okunoshima
The museums & ruins
The island today is a national park managed by the government. There are two main museums, one is the military related ones, and the other is the conservation one. There’s a lot of ruins on the island. The island was first settled by the army in 1902 during the Russo-Japanese War. They installed batteries (land-based naval canons), and a power station. Later, in 1927-1929 the Japanese army built facilities and began to create and store chemical weapons on Okunoshima. The 1925 Geneva Convention explicitly states that the use of chemical weapons was banned, but did not include the development, production, and storage of them. The Japanese army kept the development, production, and storage of them such a secret that the island was kept off many maps that were made. The island was chosen because it was considered far enough away from Tokyo to make the toxic chemicals like mustard gas. Ironically, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was the deadly one, and it was magnitudes closer to Tokyo. Within a year of the end of the Pacific war (ending in 1945), the remaining chemicals were destroyed at the orders of the US occupiers, so too the equipment, and so forth. The US military used some of the facilities to store munitions especially during the Korean War (1950-1953) before Japan was returned to self-rule in 1956. The ruins you will find there include observation lookouts, battery facilities, power house ruins, old bomb shelters, and so forth.
How did the rabbits get there?
There are a few theories about how the rabbits got to the island. It is said that the rabbits were taken to the island so that they could test the chemical weapons. At the end of the war, the remaining rabbits were supposedly set free rather than being destroyed. However, no one is sure if any of that is true. Other theories suggest that the rabbits were introduced or reintroduced in the 1960’s. There appears to be one species of rabbit, with limited number of variations, which suggests a small number seeded the island, certainly at some point in the last 100 years. A Japanese tv programme suggested it was a fisherman in the 1960’s who seeded the island with six (three breeding pairs), just to establish a local tourist industry. Considering the tourist industry there now, this final theory is the most likely.
The Shinto Shrine
There is a Shinto Shrine on the island, there is an information plaque, but nothing about it in English. This is strange as everything else is bilingual, but this. At the moment I don’t know anything about the history, the current status, or even the purpose of it. I hope to update this section eventually. Sadly, this monolingualism of Japanese temples and shrines is common, even though some monks and priests are bilingual speakers themselves.
Okunoshima is not accessible by land transport, but only by ferry from Tadanoumi. The ferry does a few runs before 9am, and then frequency of services drops dramatically through the day, and picks up again in the late afternoon. There are two ferries, a small one, and a larger one that can take cars and upto about 300 passengers a time. For use on Google Maps and other electronic search functions, you might need to use both “English” and Japanese variants of the name, or else just copy and paste from this post. Okunoshima is written as oo ku no ji ma おお く の じ ま which is converted to 大久野島 by the Input Method Editor on the iPhone. However, my Windows 10 IME struggled and failed to produce the correct Chinese characters.
The best way to get to the island is to plan your trip via the town Tadanoumi 忠海. The island is in Hiroshima Prefecture, and to get to Tadanoumi by bullet (aka Shinkansen in Japanese) and local trains it’s about:
- Three and a half hours south from my home base Nagoya
- Two hours south from Osaka, and
- One and a half hours north from Hiroshima
On Google Maps Okunoshima is here: https://goo.gl/maps/xNNVHZEfzVF2.
Ferry ticket office and wharf is here: https://goo.gl/maps/iedNLQYRsNE2. Zoom in on the map to see the precise location of the wharf and ticket office.
I didn’t stay on the island, instead I found an AirBnb at the closest town called Tadanoumi; more on that below. There is a hotel on the island, but it doesn’t look like it needs to compete for customers. The exterior looks like it was designed by a bored bureaucrat with a migraine on a late Friday afternoon in the 1930’s. Almost all hotel lobbies in Japan greet you with near-ice cool, welcoming, relieving, air conditioning; which helps humanise you before going to the reception. Even though I was hot, perhaps suffering from a little heat stroke, the lobby did not have air conditioning, instead it was stuffy and more muggy than the inside; it was actually cooler to sit outside in the shade. I didn’t see the rooms, but I suspect they are not quite three star.
The AirBnB place I stayed in was a very old Japanese style house that was modestly spruced up for travelling guests. I honestly didn’t feel comfortable there, as it was a real Japanese-like living experience. The towels were thin, and very small, which is apparently normal for Japanese. The house overlooked a busy road and didn’t have curtains on the windows. I think you get the picture. To my horror, I realised that the host can even rate the guests, even though they are the ones who are in it for the business! Luckily I was nice, and clean. The host was super nice, super friendly, and super helpful. I got a good rating as an AirBnB guest.
Surprisingly, you can camp on the island. You can rent gear that includes what looks like a four person tent, fly, hammock, camp table and chairs. Yes, I did say “hammock”! There are campfire hearths for cooking, and a shower block too. Of course, there’s bunnies all about the place when you wake up. So, what can you do for food?
There are four ways to eat on the island. Only one of them is vegetarian or vegan friendly.
- The hotel restaurant
- The hotel café
- The beach side stall
The hotel restaurant menu features octopus. Lots of octopus dishes. I do not eat seafood, and so I couldn’t find anything on the menu that I could eat (except for items in the drink and dessert menus).
The hotel café offers a lot of octopus dishes too, but also plain, cheap, Japanese cafeteria style bland curry with rice, which probably had bits of pork in it.
The beach side stall offered various meat-on-a-stick choices, and yakisoba, a pork and noodle food.
Yakisoba, which is pork and noodles. This seems to have been heated in a packet before serving. This food is also a popular festival food.
Of course you can bring your own food, but you cannot give it to the rabbits. There are lots of drink vending machines in Japan, and so you can find such things on the ferry, and at the main buildings on the island. The Seven Eleven near the Tadanoumi wharf has standard food and drink options, so you might want to bring your own snacks and lunch from Mihara city.
There are a few options to get about on the island. Ninety percent of people just walk. Some people hire bicycles from the hotel, but please don’t. The rental bicycles have really noisy squeaky brakes. However, the good part is the rabbits, like Pavlov’s Dogs, have learnt to associate squeaky brakes with food, and so they’ll come hopping. Very, very few people take cars, but hotel guests take the bus for the one minute ride between the ferry wharf and the hotel.
Dining at Tadanoumi
It turns out that there are just three choices in Tadanoumi. First is whatever you can find in the Seven Eleven. The second and third are the okonomiyaki restaurants. Luckily, the one we went to was great. We were tired, and it was amazing to watch how he made it right before our eyes. Okonomiyaki is normally made with batter, and a mix of basic veggies and a meat. This is Hiroshima style, and so it’s different. I won’t spoil it for you, but let you experience it for yourself. It was awesome!
The restaurant called Eshima was a little difficult to find. Since it’s one of two options in the town, the older lady at the petrol station knew exactly where it was and what I was talking about. The map shows three, but I was told there’s only two; feel free to explore. Here’s a map to help you get there. The guy running it is really nice and friendly. I hope you enjoy it. Google Maps link: https://goo.gl/maps/Fax6xgdwXVF2
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