By Pamela Barrus
This is part of a continuing series of some of our more challenging places to get to.
Is it difficult?
It’s not difficult but the Ogasawara Islands (known as the Bonin Islands during the time of American occupation) lie off the beaten path some 1000 km southeast of Tokyo. There are no commercial flights.
Aside from a private boat or the odd cruise, there are only two ways to reach the Ogasawaras: 1) by joining an occasional military commemorative tour offered by Military Historical Tours to Iwo Jima, or 2) by booking a year round, 24-hour ferry from Tokyo to Chichijima.
How to do it
The ogasawarakaiun.co.jp website is where you can book the Ogasawara Maru. The site is also in English. There are travel agencies in Japan who can do the booking for you, but it’s just as easy to book on your own. You’ll get an e-mail voucher which you’ll exchange for your ticket at the passenger terminal in Tokyo.
The most inexpensive one way fare is about US$250, which includes a mat on the floor in a communal room cheek-to-jowl with a lot of other passengers. For US$35 more, you can sleep in a sex-segregated berth with a curtain to pull across for privacy. This is worth it! There are four levels of accommodation above this.
Also on the website there’s a link to packages that sell accommodations and tours in Chichijima. It’s a little tricky to book hotels or guest houses on your own because most websites are in Japanese. Outside of the busy school holiday season, you can simply show up at the Tourist Office in Chichijima and they’ll set you up.
Many guest houses are self-catering and the main town of Omura has a couple of well supplied grocery stores. There are plenty of restaurants around, plus the ubiquitous Japanese vending machines. Credit card acceptance is limited, so bring plenty of yen.
Why is this place interesting?
Many islanders today are descended from Nathanial Savory, a native of Massachusetts, who permanently settled in Chichijima along with a few Brits and some 20 Hawaiians in 1830. During WWII the islanders were relocated to Yokohama. The islands were administered by the U.S. until 1968 when President Johnson ceded them back to Japan. At that time, the islanders could choose either American or Japanese citizenship. Today, the Ogasawara Islands are part of Tokyo Prefecture. A conversation with any of these descendents is utterly fascinating.
A vital Japanese communication and surveillance base during WWII, it was here where a young pilot, George H.W. Bush, was shot down. Chichijima and the rest of the Ogasawara islands feature in the book Flyboys: a True Story of Courage by James Bradley. Many relics from the war can still be found on the island.
What to do and see
The Ogasawara Islands are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its unique natural habitat. Eco-tourism is emphasized throughout the islands.
You can arrange to go whale watching, swim with the dolphins, trail hike, or go green turtle spotting. There are botanical tours to learn about the islands’ unique flora and photography tours. The tourist office can set you up with an English speaking guide, of which some are descendents from the original settlers. Beaches are gorgeous.
With a few extra days, you can travel by boat to the island of Hahajima, which is even quieter than Chichijima.