Travel much these days?

The whole concept seems unimaginable now.

With coronavirus soft lockdowns on and off, few people are getting in or out of Japan. Even travel within the country has been restricted during the state of emergency, though the government recently launched a rather dubious Go To Travel campaign that seems all but guaranteed to worsen the epidemic.

Anyway, all this has made me long for simpler times when travel was mostly risk-free. That’s not to say it was easy. In fact, the best places aren’t easy to get to at all. Case in point: Tokyo’s remote Ogasawara Islands. Here’s an article I wrote about my experiences along this enchanting archipelago, originally published in InTouch magazine.

Island hopping along Tokyo’s final frontier

I got off the ferry and stepped into a decent approximation of my idea of paradise. I had been on the ship for 25 hours, but I hadn’t even left Tokyo. Here in Futami port on Chichijima island, 1,000 km south of Tokyo Tower in the azure Pacific, I found it hard to believe I was still in Japan.

As locals gathered around the Ogasawara-maru, I noticed several faces that were not quite Western, and not quite Japanese. These were briny, weatherbeaten men who call themselves Bonin islanders first and Japanese second. Chichijima is part of the Bonin chain, known as the Ogasawaras in Japan. First settled by Westerners and Polynesians in the 1830s, the islands were later annexed into Japan and given unique names – one group is a wedding party, with Mukojima (Bridegroom Island), Nakojima (Go-between Island), and Yomejima (Bride Island), and another is a family, with Chichijima (Father Island) and Hahajima (Mother Island) being the only inhabited isles in the chain.

One of the Bonin men met me at the pier. A former U.S. soldier and Vietnam vet, John Washington could have easily won an Ernest Hemmingway lookalike contest. He took me to his hostel, the Banana Inn, where he had a room and a scooter set aside for me. He gave me some directions and a crash-course in scooter driving, and soon I was off exploring.

Home to some 2,000 people, Chichijima has very little concrete, no convenience stores, and no airport — the 25-hour ferry is the only way in. An unexpected bit of magic on the overnight sail was the diamond mine of stars over the waves; planets and distant suns seemed to burst out of the Milky Way like lights on a Christmas tree. The show didn’t stop there. As I scootered shakily from Futami, the cliffs rose in dramatic undulations beneath jungle peaks. Soon I was at Kominato Beach, a pristine spit of white sand that I had all to myself. After a brief swim to cool off, I took a short hike through the jungle to Copepe, another beach just north of Kominato. Along the path I came across armies of hermit crabs hauling their shells up and down the sandy path. While Chichijima is home to about 60 endangered species such as the Bonin flying fox (humpback whales can be seen within 500 meters of shore in winter), I kept running into crabs and feral goats roaming the hills.

Scootering up toward Mt. Chuo, I passed isolated cottages, the odd café and an immense radio telescope pointed at the heavens. After a 1-km hike down the east coast, including a steeply pitched 200-meter drop, I was on Hatsune-ura Beach, also deliciously deserted. I fell into a routine of hiking jungle trails to remote stretches of sand, some of which, like John Beach, still have decaying World War II gun emplacements. At night in Futami, I munched on Chinese mackerel shimazushi (“island sushi”) at Marujo, and sipped cocktails at Yankee Town, a chilled-out driftwood bar on the edge of town.

While visitors can spend many days exploring Chichijima’s jungles and beaches, sailing out to snorkeling, diving and fishing spots are the main draw here. I signed up with the Pink Dolphin, a day tripper skippered by Stan Minami. We motored out to Minami-jima, an uninhabited island with majestic karst formations and a delicate ecology that has been carefully protected. Next we were off to Hahajima, the other major island in the chain and the southernmost inhabited part of Tokyo. Near the high green cliffs of its shore, we came alongside a pod of dolphins leaping out of the shallows. The water looked too good to resist, and soon everyone was strapping on fins and masks. The corals were breathtaking and teeming with butterfly fish, angelfish and parrotfish.

Even sleepier than Chichijima, Hahajima is home to only 450 people, much fewer than in the past. Kita-mura, an abandoned village on the north side of the island, lies at the end of the only major road. I explored Oki port and found one of the most charming youth hostels I’ve seen in Japan, Anna Beach Hahajima. Overlooking the harbor, Anna is run by a young family eager to host foreign guests. They pointed me toward Minami-zaki, a southern promontory with panoramic views of outlying islands and a nearby mini-Fuji, Mt. Kofuji.

I envisioned whiling away several weeks on Hahajima, writing haiku and taking photos, but I had to get back aboard the Ogasawara-maru for the long journey home. As the ferry blasted its horn and set sail from Futami, dozens of islanders waved us off from the port and in speedboats that escorted us into the Pacific. I can still see them jumping off the decks into the sea, screaming their farewells. It was the best sendoff I’ve ever had.  

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