[From February Issue 2010]
Located near the southend of the Izu Island chain, 287 kilometers from Tokyo, Hachijo-jima offers a relaxing yet slightly exotic environment just 50 minutes from Haneda airport. The plane lands on a small strip that cuts right through the center of the island on land formed from the lava of two volcanoes, which provides most of the islands habitable area. Once off the plane, the layout is simple, Mt. Mihara in one direction and the iconic Hachijo-fuji directly opposite.
Hachijo-fuji gives a lot of reward for very little effort. Most of the trail to the 854-meter peak consists of steps, and while it can leave one short of breath, it’s simple and relatively fast. At the top is a spectacular view of the rest of the island and its smaller but striking neighbor Hachijo-kojima. Walking around the narrow edge of the crater takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour depending on your speed.
Unlike some of the recently active volcanoes in Japan, Hachijo-fuji’s last eruption was as far back as 1605, allowing time for a small forest to grow at the bottom of its deep crater. A clear illustration of the old lava flow as it hit the ocean can be seen at Nanbara-senjojiki, a stark expanse of black rock by Yaene Port.
Back down below, it’s hard not to notice the island’s other natural wonder – its flora. Besides fishing, cultivating and harvesting flowers and other plants is a large part of the islanders’ business. Bright red hibiscus can be seen near houses and streets throughout the island along with aloe and the Colorful Bird of Paradise flower, which can be bought much cheaper than on mainland Japan.
The ashitaba (tomorrow leaf) plant can be found growing just about everywhere as well and is used in many foods like udon, tempura and even ice cream. The only thing more ubiquitous might be palm trees. They’re everywhere, lining the streets and decorating some people’s front lawn.
The plethora of tropical foliage owes much of its prosperity to the rich, volcanic soil and sunshine, as well as to the rain which frequently falls on the island. But there’s still plenty to do if a rainy day intrudes on one’s trip. Maybe the most obvious, and relaxing, would be to take advantage of Hachijo-jima’s numerous onsen (hot springs).
To learn about the island’s history – for example how it was used as a prison of sorts for exiles during the Edo period -, there’s the Hachijo History and Folklore Museum with loads of artifacts for the curious. The Hachijo Visitor Center in the Botanical Garden, which houses 140 different species of flora, focuses on the island’s plant and wildlife.
The TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) geothermal plant is also a fascinating place to visit to see exactly how they harness the island’s natural heat deep below the surface to provide over 20% of Hachijo-jima’s energy needs. More hands-on activities like slicing up your own sashimi with local fishermen or trying weaving on an old school loom, used to make local textiles, are also possible.
Last, but not least, one other must-see is the Ozato Tamaishi cobblestone wall, with its naturally rounded stones. The beautifully unique neighborhood has an old-fashioned feel reminiscent of Okinawa.
The journey to Hachijo-jima is not only possible by plane, but also by ship (about an 11 hour journey). Tours can be arranged, and once there, travel can be done by rental car or bicycle, city bus or tour bus, and taxi.
Text: Jeremy DROUIN