April 30, 2015
Four tickets to Aogashima.
The other day as I was browsing the Internet I came across a story about a most unusual place in Japan. It’s hard to get to but really worth the effort as it’s both beautiful and interesting. It’s the island of Aogashima, several hundred kilometers south of Tokyo, on the border between the Philippine Sea and the Pacific ocean. ‘That’s worth a look,’ I thought. Next thing… we were there – spending last Saturday on the island. A very curious place; highly recommended!
Now, let’s see what kind of an island it is…
Aogashima is a volcanic still-life made up of an ancient caldera that collapsed inwards, and the rather fetching cone of a new volcano that started to grow within it a few hundred years ago.
Aerial photos report the following:
The first thing I did was call KL Japan to find out the details of this bizarre island, ask who might be ready to risk traveling there with me, and make other travel arrangements, which turned out to be rather complicated.
Yes, reaching the island proved anything but easy.
The only way to get there is from the nearby Hachijo-jima island, located 70+ km away and reachable from Tokyo’s Haneda airport on a regular flight. There are three flights a day, so getting to Hachijo-jima is not a problem. The complicated bit comes trying to reach Aogashima: you can get there either by helicopter or by an anything-but-regular boat. There’s one (!) helicopter flight a day, around 9am. To catch that, we had to leave Tokyo on the 7:30 flight. So yes, you can guess we were up at the crack that morning – that morning being a Saturday morning following a Friday night in Tokyo, which, for some not yet-experienced travellers, only ended around 7am!
As a reward for the early wake-up we were treated to an in-flight sight of Fuji-san, almost in full glory, through the windows on the plane’s right-hand side, as well as other, less notable but still beautiful sights of Japan…
Who could have imagined we’d be climbing this volcano the next day:
The connection in Hachijo-jima (that is, ‘the island of Hachijo’) :
A group of Japanese students about to travel to the mainland:
Here comes our rattletrap. The weather was fit for flying, so let’s go!
‘We’ve finally arrived to the island in the middle of nowhere,’ I remarked…
The island is in fact really small, some three by four kilometers… Population: 190 :).
There are quite a few roads here, but they’re all very narrow. And there’s a speed limit of 30 km/h all over the island. There’s probably nowhere to hurry anyway: you can get from one point on the island to any other in less than 15 minutes.
I imagine that, per capita, this place has more roads, hotels (one found) and bars/restaurants (two) than anywhere else. No movie theaters or night clubs detected, though :).
The island boasts a single gas station. Again, this island may well be the world leader in filling stations per capita, or close to being it.
There were no crowds to be seen at the gas station. No traffic jams on the roads, and no lines in the shop
s (there’s only one), or the local eateries. Just the opposite: if a car passes by, people wave at it and shout ‘konnichiwa’ (or ‘ohayou gozaimasu’, or ‘konbanwa’, depending on the sun’s position in the sky at that moment).
Non-Japanese visitors to the island (that was just us at that moment) also say ‘konnichiwa’, wave their hands and generally try to behave in the appropriate Japanese manner. At least, we tried our best! All the same, a little kid in the shop began to cry with fear and snuggled up to his mom when he observed us entering. Later, the local who rented out his car to us, said: “Well, we do get foreigners here every now and then, but this the first time we’ve had Russians!” There’s a first for everything :).
Incidentally, Aogashima is in the Tokyo prefecture, despite being 360 km away from the city. So we could easily say that ‘Tokyo roads aren’t the best and the tunnels are too narrow for overtaking, but the locals are polite and stop every time they see a car to wave in greeting!’
Anyway, we coped with our surprise, figured out what was what, and checked into the local ‘business hotel’. That’s what they call it – it’s what the sign says. One toilet to a floor, though :).
What next? The most important thing, of course – to climb to the very top and get our fill of the surrounding landscapes and sceneries: just the thing for me! All right, let’s get going…
It’s hot, it’s humid, it’s sweaty, it’s bamboos and tropics all over the place. But it isn’t all that high up – just about 100 or 150 meters above sea level. Beautiful! Still, it all came at a high cost – up at six in the morning and a plane journey and another in a chopper!
So, we got up to the top; now time for the views… Wooooh! Gorgeous! The old caldera is quite big, with a miniature valley inside it featuring a new volcano cone. Perfectly photogenic! The mini-volcano’s cone is mowed in stripes. Fetching!
We would have spent a long time standing (or sitting) there enjoying the views but for the local midges – small but with long bodies – which were really annoying. They’re larger than a mosquito, but smaller than a normal fly. And there are lots of them. Tons. You can’t see much of them in the pics, because they weren’t all that interested in the camera. Curiously, though, these midges congregate on your body, tickle you, but never sting. That must be the traditional Japanese politeness. When approaching a victim, they (apparently) buzz something like ‘sumimasen can-I-sting-you kudasai?’ The ignorant gaijins, however, never reply, so the midges get all catatonic and just ask for something – anything. But they never get what they want.
I’m not sure, but these midges could be seasonal. There just might be a season here when there are no flies around, the air is fresh and crisp, the sakuras are in bloom, and the gaijins get sake in their miso soup for free. I can’t tell. One thing’s for sure: it’s easier to get to this place than to get away from it. The weather conditions can be such that some not-so-lucky tourists can spend days and weeks here waiting for decent weather so they can return to the mainland. Winds blow, the sea rages, rains pour… So why rush? You’re better off staying here in safety on this cozy, hospitable island, where…
… where you can drive and walk around the entire place, visit and see and photograph it to distraction – all in one easy day. Climb to the very top and walk around the rim of the internal volcano cone, plus visit the new port – all in the same day.
Here’s us walking around the inner cone:
Always stylish, even up a volcano )
Then you can have a look at that new port from the old decrepit road above it, and try to drive to the old port. Then have your lunch cooked on ‘volcanic steam ovens’, and then visit the Japanese onsen bath which, in this place, runs on the free hot water and steam sources underground. Then simply walk along local streets going this way and that, taking care not to disturb the locals. Then inspect each of the two local bars-cum-restaurants. Next… hit the sack.
As for animals on the island, we only saw what looked to be white ducks, and also lots of cats. And of course those flies on the mountain top.
Erosion along the coastline (as well as attempts to control it) and the new port are also local attractions.
In the rain season, the slopes get badly eroded, right down to the bedrock. The consequences of this unfortunate phenomenon can be seen on the caldera’s outer slopes. Locals anchor the eroded areas with concrete cells. Seen from afar, these look quite unearthly, and if you squint hard enough you might even see something of the Gaudi style in them :).
And here’s the new port ! Such a huge construction for a local population of less than 200? It got me thinking: how many tons of concrete did they use here per inhabitant? But this being Japan, I’m not really surprised :).
Mirror? Selfie time!
More photos – here.