The Ogasawara islands are technically part of the capital city of Tokyo, but this string of subtropical islands are far from what one might typically expect from a trip to Tokyo. You’ll find no neon-clad streets here, no skyscrapers and definitely no shopping malls. Rather, Ogasawara is known for its abundance of nature, crystal clear turquoise waters and warm temperatures all year round.
A Turbulent History
Located approximately 1000 km south of Tokyo proper, lies the UNESCO Natural World Heritage site of Ogasawara (or Bonin Islands as they are also known as in English), an archipelago of over thirty tropical and subtropical islands. The only inhabited islands of the group are Chichijima, with a population of 2100 people, and Hahajima with a much smaller population of just 460. Archeological evidence suggests that some of the other islands in the group may have once been inhabited by members of an unknown group of Micronesian descent but it is unclear when and for how long.
The first recorded visit by humans to the islands was by the Spanish in 1543, although they didn’t settle. Shortly after that in 1593 the Japanese laid claim to the islands, when Ogasawara Sadayori of the Tokugawa Shogunate arrived by ship and stayed for a period of time before leaving for the mainland again. The islands remained largely untouched after that for over two hundred years, until 1830 when a small group of Westerners and Pacific Islanders arrived and established a small colony on Chichijima, descendants of which have stayed on the islands since.
The Japanese arrived again shortly after that in 1875, and this time they meant business and claimed the islands as a Japanese territory. The Japanese then lived in relative harmony alongside the already present group of Westerners and Pacific Islanders, until 1945 when the Americans took control of the islands and used them as a strategic military base for the remainder of WW2.
During the last days of war, the islands, specifically Chichijima and Hahajima, saw fierce battle between the Americans and Japanese and was sadly the site of mass loss of life.
Remnants and evidence of the fierce fighting that took place in Ogasawara can be found dotted around both Chichijima and Hahajima, including this wreck of a Japanese war ship in Saikura Bay
The islands were eventually returned to Japan in 1968, and were then designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2011. Today they are a popular getaway destination, offering plenty for those in search of a quiet break from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Traveling to Ogasawara
The only way to access the islands is by the Ogasawara-Maru Ferry from central Tokyo, which leaves just once a week and takes a staggering 24 hours to arrive! Rough seas or exceptional weather conditions like typhoons will mean the ferry is either delayed by a day or two or outright canceled. The boat ride is an adventure in itself offering great views of Tokyo’s skyline as you leave the city, excellent views of Chiba’s Boso peninsula and then clear views of some of Tokyo’s other islands as the boat makes its way south. Upon arrival at Futami Port on the island of Chichijima, you are welcomed with one single main road lined with three shops and a handful of restaurants and guesthouses, this is the downtown area in its entirety and more than likely where one will spend the majority of their time on the island. Those looking to travel on to Hahajima will take the Hahajima-Maru Ferry from this same port, further south for an extra three hours. Most days it is possible to leave Chichijima early morning for Hahajima and return the same day, although the schedule of departures can and does change occasionally according to weather and sea conditions.
There is no public transport on the islands, so those looking to explore a little further afield will need to either rent a bicycle, moped or car. Having said that, most of the guesthouses and hotels offer bus rides and/or tour guides to the islands various beaches, hiking trails and other attractions.
Chichijima is the largest of the Ogasawara Islands and will be your first port of call when making the long trip from central Tokyo. It is a mountainous island, covered in subtropical forest that is home to a number of interesting plants and animals, many of which are endemic to the island. The mountains offer a number of hiking routes that take you along rugged coastlines, through thick jungle-like forests and to secluded white-sand beaches.
A typical Chichijima scene – Turquoise waters, white sand and thickly forested hills
Popular activities on the island include diving, snorkeling, sea-kayaking and surfing. The waters are remarkably clear and being located on a similar geographic latitude to Okinawa, the island offers warm and very comfortable temperatures year-round.
Both Chichijima and Hahajima are popular destinations for snorkeling and diving, boasting crystal clear waters and an array of marine life
Swimming off the coast of Kopepe Beach in Chichijima
Much like Chichijima people visit Hahajima for its remote-island feel, relaxed hospitality and beautiful beaches. Hahajima also has an abundance of hiking trails and other outdoor activities that can be enjoyed against a backdrop of clear blue waters and jungle-covered hills – these include diving, snorkeling and sea-kayaking.
The port of Hahajima and a cluster of buildings that make up part of the small town on the island
Similar to Chichijima, Hahajima has vast swaths of jungle that runs run up to the edge of the ocean
Hahajima has ample hiking opportunities allowing fantastic views over the rugged coastline
Hahajima is also a popular place for bird watchers, with a range of rare and endemic birds calling the island home, including the Booby Seabird Ootahara, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hahajima is located some 40 km south of Chichijima, it is quite a lot smaller and also less-developed, meaning it has a quieter, more chilled vibe but also means plans for accommodation, car rentals etc need to be carefully considered and made in advance of traveling there.
Both Chichijima and Hahajima are also popular destinations for whale and dolphin watching. During the start of the year, typically between February and April, one can see Humpback Whales swimming off the coast. These are followed by Sperm Whales throughout the summer season. Bottlenose Dolphins and Spinner Dolphins can be seen all year round. It is possible to swim alongside them in some places, although it is advised to seek information from local guides regarding this.
Other Things to Consider
Being such remote locations with little infrastructure some may be surprised at the lack of facilities on the Ogasawara Islands.
Cash is very much king on these islands, with only a handful of places accepting credit cards. It is advised to bring enough cash with you from the mainland to cover your accommodation expenses and then some extra. There are ATM machines at the local Post Offices and Banks, but they operate between certain times of the day only.
It is completely possible to navigate the islands by foot only, or by using the shuttle buses provided by your accommodation and tour guides, although those wanting to visit some of the more off-the-beaten-track locations would benefit from considering a bicycle, moped or car rental. Rental places are few and far between and vehicles are limited, so it’s best to check with your accommodation before you travel where you can rent from and perhaps make reservations in advance.
The Ogasawara-Maru Ferry departs from Takeshiba Pier in Tokyo, which can be accessed via Takeshiba Station on the Yurikamome Line. Alternatively one can walk to Takeshiba Pier with ten minutes of JR Hamamatsu Station on the Yamanote Line.
For further information and to make enquiries about ferry reservations see the Ogasawara Kaiun website here > https://www.ogasawarakaiun.co.jp/english/service/