Attempting Oshima # 2: A weekend in Izu Oshima

Ok, by now, I guess everyone is familiar with how bad my trip to Amami-Oshima failed in September. As this was not enough to stop me though, a month later I tried my luck with another Oshima: Izu Oshima. If you are curious about the repetition of island names, it is because Ooshima (大島) means big island and is usually given to the main/largest island of an island complex. In this case the island complex is Izu islands, a long row of volcanic cones, starting next to Izu peninsula all the way to the middle of the pacific. Administratively, they islands belong to Tokyo metropolis and are recently promoted as “Tokyo Seven Islands” in order to gain some of the spotlight of Tokyo Olympics 2020 2021. In this post, I am going to describe a 3-day itinerary for Izu Oshima, which is sufficient for an island of this size, and try to explain why it is the best destination for a quick break out of the city.

Tokaikisen employees waiving goodbye to our boat

The Izu islands are easily accessible from the Takeshiba pier in Minato, Tokyo. There are 3-4 trips available for the bigger islands from early morning until noon with a fast-speed boat (~5k JPY one way) that takes 1.5h to arrive to Izu Oshima or a larger cruise boat taking 6hours. The company offering connection service is called Tokaikisen and provides student discounts, which makes Oshima a common university student destination. As the port employees with their clean suits were waving goodbye to our speed boat (an interesting view indeed), an announcement mentioned that the boat will be moving relatively slowly, in order to avoid hitting large mammals in the sea in front of us. Cruising out of Tokyo bay has its own charm; we passed under Rainbow bridge, next to Haneda airport, past Aqua line bridge/tunnel and exited the bay at Miura coast. The weather was clear with an unobstructed view to Sagami bay, Izu peninsula and Mt. Fuji.

A godzilla statue at the entrance of Sushikou (Local cuisine sushi restaurant)

As I mentioned, Izu islands are volcanic, with the most famous volcano among them being that of Izu Oshima, Mt. Mihara. In pop culture, Mt. Mihara has secured its rise to fame by serving as the place of imprisonment and later resurrection of Godzilla in two movies filmed in the 80s. As a result, Godzilla statues or posters appear with high frequency around the island. It could be a door guardian statue, a tissue holder or a random lava rock.

The lava formation on the right is said to be depicting gidzilla’s head

The Return of Godzilla, the movie where Godzilla was trapped inside Mihara volcano was released in 1984 and soon after, in 1986, the actual volcano erupted, causing the entire population of the island to evacuate. The urban legend at the time told the story of a furious Godzilla trapped in the volcanic crater, and so a sequel where Godzilla is resurrected was made to please the monster.

Bekko Sushi at Sushikou restaurant
Ashitaba Ice-cream as Buratto House
Local delicacies

Apart from Godzilla (an the not-so-spicy homonymous curry), local specialties feature bekko sushi and ashitaba leafs. Bekko sushi is fish slices marinated in chilly soy sauce, which gives it a strong amber colour. Ashitaba is a type of herb that grows endemically on the island and is used in everything, from ice cream and taiyaki to hand creams. It tastes bitter but interesting, but maybe not the best option for an ice cream as it kinda reminded me of parsley. You can find ashitaba ice cream and other local products at the farmers market Buratto House at the north of the island.

Small forest next to Hajikama Shrine
A local ‘power spot’ senzu kiritoshi (泉津の切通し)
Hand-drawn images of camellia flowers

Most of all, Izu oshima is characterized by the pink tsubaki flowers or camellia, the rose of winter. Tsubaki may well be the name of a shampoo brand, but first and foremost it is a pretty flowering bush with seed oil that is believed to do wonders as a cosmetic. The traditional costume of the women of Izu Oshima is a distinct checkered pattern dress with a matching hat with a tsubaki flower in the front. In the middle of the island there is Tsubaki-Hana garden full with mainly yabu camelia plants as well as other flowering plants. The owner, Mr. Yamashita planted single-handedly all the plants, as a promise to his cousin, if I understood correctly. He is a really friendly guy, eager to start conversation, with a pure love for tsubaki flowers. Apart from that, his garden offers an excellent view of mount Fuji and Izu peninsula as well as a chance to pet dozens of friendly bunnies.

Side view from Tsubakihana garden
The bunniez
A yabu tsubaki flower

Izu peninsula and the Izu Oshima are luckily?, unluckily? located at the meeting point of the Eurasian, North-american and Philippine sea tectonic plates, between Suruga trough and Sagami trough. As the Izu system is related to Fuji and Hakone volcanos, Izu Oshima belongs to the Fuji-Hakone-Izu national park. The seismic and volcanic activity of the area is high, but the island remains relatively safe. Mt. Mihara explodes regularly almost every decade, although it has been unusually silent for the past 30 years. The last big eruption of 1986 was accompanied by strong lava flow that covered the old path to the top of the mountain.

Mount Mihara as seen from the start of the path

Despite lava filling up the crater at that time, a later eruption caused it to collapse. The current crater has a bowl shape, is 350m wide and 200m deep. At the top, it is almost always extremely windy, and I had to hold myself from the protective ropes for support. Thick volcanic smoke is emitted from side formations around the crater.

The volcanic crater of Mt. Mihara

Since the volcano is not ceasing its activity, the authorities took precautions and have built at least 4 lava bunkers along the new hiking path to the top. Volcanic activity is well documented, with scientific equipment at every checkpoint. It makes sense to be cautious, since the diameter of the island is approximately 30km, leaving a narrow safety margin. Despite all the inconveniences a volcano causes, it is the main factor behind the popularity of the island, thanks to the abundant hot springs around the island.

Protective bunkers for the case of a sudden eruption

The hike from the start of the path until the top is easy, just 2.5km from the starting point. Afterwards, you can go around the crater and the go down to the black desert. A desert in Japan you ask? Well there are no camels, but there is one and only, properly classified as desert location in Japan, the Urasabaku of Mt. Mihara. Forget the sand dunes of Tottori, we are talking real desert here.

The path going down from the crater to the desert.

Urasabaku – or backside desert- is a large black area covered by basalt rocks, allowing a minimal amount of low vegetation. I arrived knowing that “it feels like being on the moon”, thinking that it was an overreaction for marketing purposes. Could I be more wrong? The landscape was black and there was almost now sound. It was so quiet and the color so unnatural that indeed seemed like stepping on extraterrestrial land. Don’t be afraid of the label ‘desert’, ignoring its breathtaking appearance it is tiny and perfectly safe, there is no chance to get lost despite the absence of a path. Worst case scenario, you can always head back to the volcano top.

Ura sabaku, the only desert of Japan

The hike up the mountain, around the crater, through the desert and back up is really easy and can be finished in 2-3 hours (details here). It is perfect for a morning day activity, so that you have time to relax at an onsen either next to the path entrance or at Motomachi port below. People describe Motomachi Hama Hot Spring as the best in the city, but the fact that it is mixed (you need to wear a swimsuit sorry, no nudes here) and so tiny, reminds me more of a pool rather than an onsen. Instead, I went to the larger Airando Center Gojinka Hot Spring just next door. It looks old, but is at least larger and offers also a lot of resting space as well as a restaurant.

The map of our hike up and down Mihara mountain

Now now, it is time to head back home. Always the biggest question when on an island is were to stay. A quiet village on the edge? Or the closer to the port the better? Well the first one is usually better, if transportation is arranged. In our case, we rented a car, which I highly recommend. Despite the island being relatively big, shops open at irregular times and a lot of the sightseeing spots are outside the main villages. Moreover, using a car to get around provides this wonderful view of the beautifully sliced Baumkuchen rocks. The rocks appear on the way from Motomachi port to the small picturesque village of Habu.

Baumkuchen rocks at the south side of the island

We decided to stay in Habu basically pure by chance, as everything else on the island was booked (apart from one hotel that looked more like a rundown shed). Our last minute booking was a thematic guest house called Rohan. Decorated in a romantic Taisho era western style and full of books and manga, the house itself invites you to stay in. The decor and furniture are a DIY passion project of the owners, a young couple that decided to take their chances in modernizing the hospitality industry on the island. Rohan takes its name from a character in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and unfortunately all reading material is Japanese. Nevertheless, skipping through manga pages can be interesting by itself. Two minutes away, there is a recently opened liquor store offering alcohol and snacks (Kobayashi shoten), as well as a soon to be drinking space called Ao to Cider.

The library living room of Rohan guesthouse

On the next day, a friend informed me that Habu port is actually the prettiest location on the island. The “floating wave” (波浮) port has a lot of preserved old houses, among which the previously a ryokan Odoriko-no-sato Museum, popular from Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘The dancing girl of Izu’. A handful of buildings are being rennovated and given second life as shops and restaurants.

The backside of Tokyovoneten, doubling as a guest house

For the best taiyaki that I have tried in my life (taiyaki is a fish shaped pastry with sweet red bean or other fillings) you should visit Tokyovoneten (島京梵天とうきょうぼんてん), a shop decorated with the aura of a yoga-meditation starter pack kind of vibe. The breakthrough of the shop is its ham and cheese taiyaki; never have I ever found a savory taiyaki until now – and couldn’t find any when I returned back to Tokyo. The other highlight is the cold, green taiyaki with ashitaba in the dough, which serves as a good souvenir as well.

Taiyaki selection and coffee at Tokyovoneten

The shop at the time of my visit had an indie photography exhibition on its outside walls. A photo of acropolis caught my eye, at a location so far away. As I was hanging outside, waiting for the taiyaki shop to open, the photographer Aki Tsuchiya, appeared out of nowhere, carrying a pot with cabbage to give to the owners of the shop in return for fresh pears. Turns out that he had visited Greece in the past, really liked the vibe and liked bouzouki as well.

An indie photography exhibition at Habu Port

Immediately next-door, there is an old house, former Jinnomaru residence, which is open to the public as museum. Although as empty as can be, it gives an idea about the general architecture principles of Japanese houses.

The east side of the island is relatively empty apart from a certain viewpoint close to Habu port. A single tall rock is the only remainder from an extinct volcano, after the erosion of its caldera and outer walls. The standing rock resembles an ink brush, thus the name Fudeshima.

The standing rock of Fudeshima

After two days on the island, it is time to get back to reality. However, Izu Oshima is too close to ignore from now own. I am looking forward to visiting again, for a quick weekend detox from noisy Tokyo.

The port at Motomachi

Below is a map with all the spots I visited during my stay on Izu Oshima.

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