The Ogasawara Islands (小笠原諸島) are a group of 30 islands located about a thousand kilometers away from Tokyo (東京) to the south of Izu Islands (伊豆諸島). These are also known as Bonin Islands (ボニン諸島) which translates to “uninhabited islands” in Japanese. The archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is mostly referred to as “the Galapagos of the East” due to its disconnection from the continent.
Although initially uninhabited, the islands were later discovered by the European and Japanese in the late 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. It is claimed that the Spanish explorer, Bernardo de la Torre, has discovered Ogasawara around 1543 A.D. The islands was under US occupation for a while and the inhabitants had a unique creole language.
Chichi-jima (父島) and Haha-jima (母島) are the two main inhabited islands in the archipelago. These two are referred to as “Father Island” and “Mother Island,” respectively, and both of which come under the Ogasawara Village of Ogasawara (小笠原村) Subprefecture of Tokyo.
Chichi-jima is the largest island that acts as an entrance to the archipelago. Formed due to underwater volcanic activity, it is rare to see flatland on any of the islands of Ogasawara. Chichi-jima is filled with short mountains and dense scrub forests with a total population of around 2,000 as per 2009 census. The highest mountain is Mt. Chuo (中央山) with an altitude of 319 meters.
With beautiful, pristine beaches, clear turquoise waters, and coastal vegetation, Chichi-jima is truly a tropical paradise. The climate is mostly dry with warm temperatures all year round. There is an observatory called the Nagasaki Observatory (長崎展望台) located on a cliff to observe the skies. One can find remains of World War II such as shipwrecks and aircraft belonging to the US Army on beaches such as Sakaiura (境浦) and Kopepe (コペペ). These beaches are also great spots for snorkeling. Scuba diving, snorkeling, and dolphin watching are some of the recreational activities you can do in Chichi-jima.
If you are looking for stores or bars to stroll around in the evening, you can head to the downtown area of Omura (大村) District near Futami Port (二見港). There are a couple of inns in the area for you to stay at.
There is a variety of marine life you could encounter during your activities in Chichi-jima. You can also see the rarest lava pillows on beaches like Kominato (小港) on the island.
Haha-jima, the second largest island, has a population of 450 as per 2009 census. It is located 50 kilometers to the south of Chichi-jima. There are a few unique species of snails and birds such as the Bonin white-eye on Haha-jima. You cannot find these animals anywhere outside of Ogasawara. It is said that there used to more number of unique birds and fish wandering but were put on extinction due to increasing human interaction.
The highest mountain on Haha-jima is Mt. Chibusa (乳房山) which has an altitude of 463 meters. There is also another mountain called Mt. Kofuji (小富士) which is termed as “Japan’s Southernmost Local Fuji,” from whose top you can get to see the sunrise and sunset before entire Japan does. During sunsets, you can see an interesting phenomenon of green flashes from the sun as it goes down the horizon.
There is a village called the Oki Village (沖村) on the southern part of Haha-jima whose residents make a living out of commercial fishing. The village is also famous for its unique blend of rum. Moreover, there are beautiful coral reefs on the southern tip of the island called the Minamizaki (南崎) peninsula.
The whole island was settled by Europeans before becoming a part of Japan. It was also severely destroyed during the World War.
There are a few small uninhabited islands that form as part of the Hahajima-retto (母島列島) or Hahajima Cluster such as Muko-jima (向島), Ane-jima (姉島), Imoto-jima (妹島), and Mei-jima (姪島).
There are a few more islands that come under Ogasawara which are called Volcano Islands or Kazan-retto (火山列島). Although geographically a part of Nanpo Islands (南方諸島), the surrounding “Volcano Islands” are administratively grouped under Ogasawara Municipality. The Volcano Islands are a group of 3 active volcanoes that lie to the south with a population of approximately 380. The Japan Self-Defense Force operate from an air base here.
Due to its long distance from the mainland, the Ogasawara archipelago has some unique species alive. The islands are home to more than 140 species of flora and fauna. There used to be many other unique species that are native to these islands but went into extinction.
There are some legends surrounding unique species that are spotted here. For example, the giant squid that can grow up to 13 meters has been first photographed near Chichi-jima. It is impossible to find these giant creatures as they live at a depth of nearly 300 to 1000 meters under sea level.
There are a few unique bats that are endemic to the islands called the Sturdee’s pipistrelle that were recorded only once in 1915, and the Bonin flying fox which is an endemic fruit bat. Some of the birds that are native to the islands are the Bonin petrel, the Bonin grosbeak, and the Japanese wood pigeon. These are either critically endangered or completely extinct due to the loss of their habitat. There are also different varieties of snails that are endemic to the islands which have been discovered.
Coming to the flora side, it is said that nearly 43 percent of the total number of species of plants one can see in Ogasawara are endemic to the place. The archipelago is home for some of the outliers of plant species that are seen elsewhere in the world. Because of long isolation, the plants here have developed some unique characteristics.
When it come to marine life, Ogasawara remains a natural habitat for species such as green sea turtles. These green sea turtles are present in the Pacific Ocean, in the warm tropical and subtropical waters. However, they are endangered due to increased human activity. The locals of Ogasawara used to hunt them for a source of protein. Now, the government has taken measures by curbing illegal fishing which is leading to an increase in their number again. There are also different varieties of corals and tropical fish that can be seen in the waters of this isolated archipelago.
Because of these interesting species of flora and fauna that have exhibited unique evolutionary characteristics, Ogasawara is proudly known as “the Galapagos of Japan” and “the Galapagos of the Orient.”
Ogasawara-mura or Ogasawara Village is an administrative subdivision that encompasses all the major islands of the Ogasawara archipelago. To reach the northernmost inhabited island of Chichi-jima, one has to take a ferry from Takeshiba (竹芝), Tokyo. It usually takes around 25.5 hours to reach the Futami Port of Chichi-jima from Tokyo.
To see different places in either Chichi-jima or Haha-jima, one has to take a bus or rent a bike. There is a regular ferry service from Chichi-jima to Haha-jima which usually takes around 2 hours on a clear day.
Here are a few things to do when you are in Ogasawara:
1. Whale and dolphin watching
The archipelago’s warm tropical and subtropical waters are famous for different varieties of whales and dolphins. Some of the most common species are humpback whales that frequent the waters mostly between February and April, spinner and bottlenose dolphins that frequent all year round, and sperm whales that are seen mostly between July and September.
You can also do stand up paddle boarding (SUP) to watch whales and dolphins. You can arrange a trip to the middle of the ocean to watch these animals by going to the Ogasawara tourist information center or any local tour operator.
There are many clean and turquoise beaches for you to explore the marine life of Ogasawara. The best time to go snorkeling is between June and October where the temperature is relatively warm. Some of the beaches where you can do snorkeling and other activities such as kayaking, scuba diving, and swimming are as follows:
- Miyanohama Beach, Chichi-jima – a sand beach located amidst rocky cliffs in a protected bay area and is within a 10-minute walking distance from the Miyanohama Iriguchi bus stop.
- Sakaiura Beach, Chichi-jima – a sand beach located 5 minutes away from the Sakaiura Kaigan bus stop where you can find sunken World War II-era battle wrecks.
- Minamizaki Beach, Haha-jima – a famous crystal clear blue water beach with rocky cliffs and corals located to the west of Mt. Kofuji. If you are interested in seeing corals, this beach is the best place to visit.
Due to the archipelago’s hilly terrain filled with dense scrub forest area, it has many popular trekking spots. The mountains of Chibusa, Kofuji, and Chuo offer hiking experiences for novices to experienced hikers. In Chichi-jima, the newly opened Ogiura-Yuhodo hiking trail passes through many sightseeing spots such as the Ogiura Beach, Renju Dam (連珠ダム), and some World War-era roads and tunnels. You can also encounter some of the rarest species of flora and fauna along the way.
The Ogasawara Islands have a subtropical to tropical savanna-type of climate for you to do sunbathing on any of its beaches. However, the best time to do beach activities including snorkeling and swimming is between June and October where the air temperatures are relatively warmer. Some of the best beaches to sunbathe or swim at are Kopepe Beach and Kominato Beach in Chichi-jima due to the facilities available there.
One cannot fish in protected areas due to the conservation efforts that are being done. However, in some places such as the Cabbage Beach (キャベツビーチ) in Anijima (兄島), you can catch many tropical fish.
There are ferries available for you to visit the islands of Ogasawara. The Hahajima-maru (ははじま丸) that takes you to Haha-jima operates regularly from Chichi-jima’s Futami Port. The availability usually depends on the weather conditions. One can enjoy the breeze of the Pacific Ocean and watch swimming whales and dolphins during the cruise.
The islands of Chichi-jima and Haha-jima have a land area of 23.45 square kilometers and 19.88 square kilometers, respectively. One can easily reach any spot on these islands on foot without worrying about public transportation. However, you can always rent a bike or a scooter for exploring them on your own.
There are many tour operators and rental shops who could help you in making your trip easy and comfortable. However, prior reservations may be needed especially during high season as the availability of ferry tickets or tour packages could run out. In order to visit World War affected areas such as Iwo Jima, special permits may be required as they are usually supervised by the Japan Self-Defense Force.
There are a few awesome restaurants in Ogasawara Village where you can try local Japanese cuisine including beverages. The islands of Chichi-jima and Haha-jima are famous for traditional sushi and sashimi. Although unethical, turtle meat in the form of sashimi known as “kame sashimi” is served in some restaurants here. One can also see turtle products, such as eggs, sold in stores on these islands.
The other famous variety of dish you can try in Ogasawara is the shimazushi (island sushi), sawara meat. Sawara (also known as Spanish Mackerel) is a type of tropical fish that is seen in large numbers in the waters here. Some of the famous restaurants where you can try traditional Japanese cuisine at affordable prices are Tetsuya and Gorosuke. If you are interested in trying Western food here, you may want to visit Buono Horizon that serves pasta and pizza.
If you are dreaming about having a delicious piña colada, you may want to go the Yankee Town bar and restaurant. This place is always crowded with tourists and locals enjoying drinks, eating barbecue, and watching live concerts.
There are also many hotels with bed and breakfast style facilities. However, you should note that not all accommodations or restaurants accept credit cards and traveler’s cheque. It is better to have cash ready to do these activities in Ogasawara.
If you are interested in cooking your own food, you can go fishing at some of the permitted sites such as Aotodai (青灯台) near Futami Port. You can bring the fish to your accommodation and the cooking staff can help you in making your own meal. Usually, many traditional inns on the islands of Ogasawara serve meals to their customers.
Ogasawara-maru is the main ship that runs from Tokyo to the Futami Port of Ogasawara. The ship’s fares vary depending on the type of accommodation you choose. There are private rooms and dormitories on the ferry to rest in during your voyage. There are also phones, lockers, showers, and vending machines available on the ferry to make your trip more convenient.
If you are in Chichi-jima, you can book tickets, tours, and accommodation at the Ogasawara Village Tourist Association. Take note that not all places in Ogasawara have English speaking staff to assist you in your activities. During typhoon season and unexpected natural disasters, the islands are inaccessible to tourists. It is advised to take proper precautions before trying any activities such as scuba diving or snorkeling.
What are you waiting for? Do not miss the opportunity to visit the beautiful Ogasawara Islands during your Japan trip!