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October 25, 2021

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Oki island secrets

Warning: Do not read unless you promise not to tell your friends

Four reasons you probably shouldn’t visit Japan’s Oki Islands:
1. They’re hard to find – this large archipelago of almost 200 volcanic islands located in the Sea of Japan off the northwestern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island;
2. They’re hard to get to – streamlined Bullet Train from Tokyo to Osaka at 230km/hr, an old school express train rocking through striking mountain vistas, followed by a toy-like and extremely local train whose interior is painted over with murals of giant squid and mythical sea creatures and finally a hydro-foil ferry to reach your first Oki port;
3. They’re not ready for mass tourism – on the four main inhabited islands, there’s a single nine-storey hotel – everywhere else it’s family-run minshuku (guesthouses) or ryokan (traditional Japanese inns);
4. No Starbucks;
5. Spotty Wi-Fi.

So there. You really shouldn’t go. Probably not your kind of place at all. The Okis are so remote, Japanese warlords used to exile uncooperative emperors there. If you tell Japanese people you’re going, they’ll either look confused (“Where’s that?”) or envious (“So lucky!”).

If despite all this you persist in going, you have to promise in advance not to tell any of your friends or post gorgeous photos on Facebook or Twitter because it’s important to keep the Okis between you and me, okay? They’re that amazing.


Someone once told me all great travels articles should begin with a meal, and who am I to argue with that? I’m seated on a flat bean cushion set on the tatami mat of the dining room of a small guesthouse called Tajimaya on the outskirts of Ama Town, on Nakanoshima Island. On the low table, my legs are wedged under, fresh white squid, chewy spirals of turban shell innards, cool sashimi slices, a small curving fish, a rich seafood soup – and all of it pulled from the nearby sea this morning. Seaweed salad comes soaked in vinegar – the briny smell of the sea distilled – pearly rice straight from the family paddy and a local sake made with the sweet spring water that bubbles up from the volcanic rock aquifer.

This isn’t simply a guesthouse but also a small-hold farm – my spacious room looks out onto verdant rice fields and low hills – a pocketsize fishery and an all-round community centre, thanks to its ebullient innkeeper, Yoshi Uno. Early this morning the whole place rocked with villagers carrying large containers of today’s catch from young fisherman who’d gone out in darkness to bring it in.

But now, gorged with their findings, it’s time for a show. Mrs. Uno, accompanied by a three-string shamisen (like a fiddle but not) sings ancient Japanese folksongs in the warbled style Western ears often find discordant but that this evening sounds just right. Topping up my sake yet again, I’m startled when a masked demon leaps into the room to perform a quaking, lunging dance that in the candlelit room seems spookily menacing until the dancer removes the mask to reveal she’s Mrs. Uno’s mother, who looks to be in her 80s.

Next day I rent a bike from the Ama Tourism Association and head along the coast in search of a beach. It’s early October with temperatures in the high 20s, but for the punctilious Japanese summer ends in September. After that no one swims or even hangs out at the beach. Well, no one except two young women – in their office worker togs – wetting their toes in the waves of the narrow beach I’ve come upon. The water’s a rich dark blue, the sun’s hot and high, the surrounding mountains enveloped in a violet haze. When I strip down to my trunks and dive into the warmish water, the young women scream in unison, whether at my daring or my impropriety, it’s not clear.

On nearby Nishinoshima Island, a two-hour walk along a virtually deserted blacktop road brings me to a high sloping pasture that ends abruptly in the sheered off Matengair cliff that plunges almost 300 meters to the sea below. Grazing this highland pasture are horses whose coats range from roan to palomino and whose manes and fetlocks shine a glamorous blond. A narrow slippery path takes me down to a series of intricately sculpted rock formations that jut into the sea. These formations, striated in shades of blue-grey and copper, ochre and saffron, are where locals and visitors come for Technicolor sunsets.

Nishinoshima and the three other main islands have been inhabited continuously for 30,000 years. In interacting with islanders, whose families have lived here generation upon generation, there’s the sense that change comes slow here. Unlike their mainland cousins, Oki people lack that typical Japanese reserve. Strangers greet me on the street or on hiking paths. Everyone has time to talk, to have that extra cup of tea or sake at the end of a meal. When someone moves to another island – say, to lovely Chiburijima, a 20-minute ferry ride away – the whole island turns out to perform an elaborate farewell.


Shinto, Japan’s animistic religion, has a particularly prominent place on the islands, for at the end of the 19th century an anti-Buddhist movement sprang up here. In a bout of nationalistic fervor, Buddhism was condemned as foreign, coming as it does from India, and many temples and monasteries were destroyed. Shinto was seen as the true and original Japanese religion. Attractively, it has no commandments or concept of sin, doesn’t proselytize, involves thousands of different gods or spirits and is worshipped using mirrors, hemp rope, rice, salt and, yes, sake in its rituals.

Nishinoshima has two prominent Shinto shrines. The Yurahime Jinja, AKA “squid shrine,” dates to the 10th century and is set back in a grove of trees next to a small bay. Its tori, the ceremonial arch that marks the entryway to a Shinto shrine, actually stands with its legs in the bay’s waters. The shrine’s a simple structure of weathered wood, with an enormous knotted rope over the sanctuary entrance.

The goddess enshrined within is Yurihime-no-Mikoto. In mythical times, she was sailing by Nishinoshima in a tub. She dangled her fingers in the water and a squid bit her. Ever since the squid have come in great numbers to this small bay every autumn to express their regret. Local fisherman scoop them up by the thousands. Some repentant squid are said to throw themselves onto the shore to make the fishermen’s job easier.

The oldest shrine on Nishinoshima, Takuhi-Jinja, is found well up Takuhi mountain. The oldest part of the shrine, which dates to the 9th century, is embedded in the rock face, surrounded by ancient cedars and smelling faintly of incense, its intricately carved walls and gables rubbed silver by age and weather. If you’re lucky, the shrine’s priest, the 21st generation of his family to preside here, will invite you in for green tea and a chunk of barley sugar, while he smokes a cigarette and produces his iPhone to show you Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1853 woodblock print of the shrine. You can also spend timeless moments looking out at the sea and the other Oki islands’ small villages and green mountains, or avail yourself of the shrine’s free Wi-Fi.

Dogo Island’s the largest and most populous of the Okis at 16,000 inhabitants – this is also where the largish hotel’s located, and rumour has it there’s a shopping centre here too, although I didn’t search it out. The western coast’s particularly rugged and mountainous, with frequent bays that offer sea-kayaking and superb fishing.

But it’s inland Dogo that lingers in my mind, with its forests dotted with ancient Japanese cedars ranging from 600 to 2000 years old. Some grow straight up and are thick as houses; others have formed into gigantic candelabra, with as many as 15 interjoined trunks. In keeping with Shinto tradition, many of these leafy giants are shrines where people have worshipped for centuries, even millennia. At one of these I met a group of young guys, all Dogo natives. One of them – Kenji, a cook in a local ramen restaurant – spoke English. Curious about how young people feel about living in such an isolated place, I asked what they do for fun.

Kenji’s face lit up. “When the moon is full we come here wearing only our fundoshi (traditional loincloths) and get really drunk. Then we run up and down the mountain and tear down all the vines we can. We bring all the vines to this big tree and wrap them around it.”

“Why do you do this?”

Kenji shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s what guys like us have always done here. It’s a lot of fun.”

Yet one more reason – as if you needed one – to visit the uncannily beautiful Oki Islands.

For tourist information and help with booking accommodations and travel for the main Oki islands, contact Nicola Jones at the Nishinoshima Tourist Association:

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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