Hachijo Island: way out there
Added In: Articles › Sightseeing
How far can you get from Tokyo in 45 minutes? Maybe Saitama, maybe Chiba. If you could fly, you might get as far as Sendai or Niigata. What if, only a 45-minute flight from Haneda Airport, would put you in the middle of a quaint little island that bears a striking resemblance to Hawaii? What if you’re less than an hour away from hiking a dormant volcano or scuba diving through crystal clear waters? Well, you can be. Welcome to Hachijo-jima, the southernmost island in the Izu Island chain. A mere 300 kilometers from Tokyo (and technically still part of Tokyo Metropolitan), this subtropical isle provides a quick and easy escape from the stresses of the mainland.
Because of its southerly location, the waters surrounding Hachijo-jima stay warm late into the fall. Without massive boat traffic, the water stays clear and clean near most of the island’s beaches. So dive in! Hook up with an English-speaking divemaster at Bientos (www.bientos.ne.jp; Phone: 04996-2-5322), where beach dives start at ¥7,000 (equipment is extra). You might spot a plethora of fish, as well as sea turtles, neon sea slugs, and hammerhead sharks. What makes the diving here truly unique is the underwater rock formations. Hachijo was formed by the eruptions of two now-dormant volcanoes. When lava poured into the sea, it formed tubes, caves, and bridges. Check out the diving point at Nazumado, which is considered one of the top scuba sites in Japan.
Since Hachijo is a volcanic island, don’t expect white sandy beaches. Smooth black rock paves the way to the sea on most parts of the island. If you’re dying for sand in your bikini, though, head to the black sand beach of Sokodo, where the passenger ferry docks. This is also a good spot for snorkeling, swimming, and people-watching. Other great snorkeling spots can be found near Yaene, on the opposite side of the island and at Aigae in the village of Nakanogo. Keep your eyes peeled for pufferfish, spiky black urchins, and other little critters. Snorkel and fin rentals are available from most dive shops.
Whether you ferry or fly into Hachijo, you can’t miss the island’s pride and joy, Hachijo Mt. Fuji. This picturesque volcano is a smaller version of its mainland namesake. Hikers can follow a well-marked trail to the top, where on a clear day they can enjoy spectacular panoramic views. Hikers should not overlook Mt. Mihara on the other side of the island, either. Trails of varying degrees of difficulty and length criss-cross the mountain. Pick up a hiking map from the visitor’s center in the Botanical Garden or from the information desk at the airport.
All that swimming and hiking is sure to leave you with some aching muscles. There is no better remedy for that than sinking into one of the island’s seven natural onsen. Fueled by Mt. Mihara, these onsen can be found along the volcano’s southern and eastern slopes. Check out the co-ed Uramigataki, which sits behind a rushing waterfall amidst jungle-like flora. Admission to this outdoor bath is free, and bathing suits are required. Close by is the more traditional Za Boon. This place boasts multiple bathing tubs, as well as a sauna. Admission is ¥700. Miharashi is the island’s most popular onsen…at least it used to be. Closed since last year’s typhoon (which caused some nasty damage), Miharashi will reopen in September. This onsen hosts the best bathing views on the island, and facilities are top-notch. Here you can sit in an outdoor tub overlooking the ocean for the oh-so-reasonable price of ¥500.
After you get your soak on, it’s time to sample some island cuisine. Just try to find fresher seafood anywhere. I am convinced it can’t be done. Order a sushi or sashimi platter at any local eatery, and you’re in for a treat. Try the shima zushi, in which spicy mustard is used in place of wasabi and the fish is lightly soaked in soy sauce. Ryozanpaku in Mitsune and Ginpachi in Okago are both good sushi spots. Hachijo is also famous for another kind of seafood: kusaya. The fish is gutted, soaked in brine, and dried. The taste is totemo oishii, but the smell is not. This island delicacy is a bit on the pungent side. So, proceed with caution. Wash it all down with locals’ favorite spirit: shochu. Usually brewed from potatoes or barley, this clear spirit is great when mixed with citrus juice or water. (And some locals swear by its medicinal properties…but that might just be the booze talking.)
Want to try some western fare? How about some fish and chips or a monster grilled burger? Check out the Anchor Pub at Sokodo Port for some filling grub and imported suds. Aussie owner Scott knows all the best hiking and swimming spots, or he can help you find a good sightseeing tour. If you’re down for a hands-on history lesson, sign up for one of his English-language tours of the island’s many World War 2 tunnels.
Hachijo is littered with minshukus, but if you’re hotel kind of guy, check out the recently-opened Hotel Lido Azzurro at the base of Mt. Hachijo Fuji. This hotel boasts the island’s most upscale rooms (both Japanese- and European-style), an unbelievable lookout for the sunrise, and friendly staff. Check out their website for more information and current rates: http://www.lidoazzurro.jp/index2.html. For some truly unique fare, pop into the attached restaurant, Il Pentolino. They serve a special blend of “island Italian” food. Who knew that spaghetti and kusaya could be so tasty together?
To truly feel like you’ve gotten away from it all, check out the Galaxy Guesthouse in Okago. Rooms are basic, but unadulterated views of the sea and a quiet atmosphere make this place a true gem. At night, curl up with one of the proprietor’s kitties and listen to her stories. Ask her to tell you about how Clive Owen babysat her children or the time she traveled across America in a train full of drag queens. Rooms are ¥4,000 per person per night, and airport or ferry pickup is free. Call 090-7940-3442 or go online to www.geocities.jp/paradoisejapan/.
Getting to Hachijo is a breeze. ANA operates three daily flights between Haneda in Tokyo and Hachijo-jima. Ticket prices start at just ¥10,800 each way. Another option for reaching the island is by overnight ferry. A boat leaves Tokyo’s Takeshiba Port every night at 10:30, arriving in Hachijo the next morning. The journey is considerably longer than the 45-minute flight (10 hours longer), but it does allow you to watch the Tokyo skyline melt into the night. You might also spot the volcano on Miyake-jima, still spewing out gas, or catch a glimpse of the dolphins swimming around Mikura-jima. Before booking flights and ferries in autumn, check the weather forecast. If heavy storms hit the island, you might face delays.
While the rest of Japan is battening down the hatches for winter, Hachijo-jima is still holding onto summer. Before you pull out the kotatsu table and switch to flannel pajamas, get in one last tropical weekend to ease you into the cold season. On the island you can swim till November, scuba year-round, and unwind any time you like.