Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is the quintessential expression of the modern, futuristic and chaotic aspects of this country, with its skyscrapers, trains whizzing everywhere, thousands of restaurants and dozens of museums, among the most diversified.
Yet Tokyo, if considered as an administrative subdivision, is not totally a concrete jungle. In fact, only the eastern part of the metropolitan city consists of the densely populated and urbanized area you imagine (especially the 23 special districts -ku), while along the “tail” that extends to the west, in addition to several cities and towns, extend vast areas covered with forests and mountains (the area called Oku-Tama).
However, even fewer people are aware that Tokyo owns several subtropical islands. In this article we talk about some of them, in particular the Izu Islands, consisting of a hundred islands, islets and reefs, but they fall to 9, if we consider only the inhabited and thus visitable ones.
The Izu Islands
The islands of Izu are sprayed on a stretch of the Pacific Ocean of about 400 km, starting with the island of Izu-Ōshima, located off the Sagami Bay, up to the remote and difficult to reach (but we made it!) Aogashima Island.
Going almost another 1000 km to the southeast, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, are the islands of Ogasawara (also known as Bonin Islands), also under the administration of Tokyo, and they are an authentic tropical paradise, however we will dedicate them a separate article in the future.
The main islands of the Izu archipelago are:
- Izu-Ōshima (伊豆大島)
- Toshima (利島)
- Niijima (新島)
- Shikinejima (式根島)
- Kozushima (神津島)
- Miyakejima (三宅島)
- Mikurajima (御蔵島)
- Hachijōima (八丈島)
- Aogashima (青ヶ島)
What’s special about the Izu islands?
As we said, the Izu islands are in a certain way tropical, or sub tropical islands.
Ok, if you are thinking of polinesia like beaches and turquoises seas, you’ve gone a little too far with imagination (but in Okinawa you’ll be satisfied), yet on these small islands at the mercy of the rugged Pacific Ocean, maybe you’ll find that bit of adventure that you may be trying to add into your trip to Japan!
These islands are basically volcanic, created by the eruption of underwater volcanoes that, over the years, have produced magma and lava until they come out of the surface of the sea, similarly to Hawaii (this phenomenon is also “creating” an island to the south, off Okinawa).
For this reason the composition of the soil is volcanic, with black sand and rock formations resulting from the solidification of magma.
The vegetation is subtropical, with dense forests that are more reminiscent of a Southeast Asian jungle than cypress forests typical of the “continental” Japan, as well as fauna, which includes dozens of endemic species (present only on these islands), such as the lizard Plestiodon latiscutatus, or the beetle Lucanus gamunus.
At the same time, from a human point of view, it is interesting to observe the lifestyle, relaxed and far from the stressful rhythms of Tokyo, of the villagers that populate these islands.
In many of these islands, you won’t even find a convenience store, and services and amenities are limited.
What to see and what to do
Each island has its own specialty to offer the visitor, from climbing an active volcano, to snorkeling, to beaches perfect for surfing. Or, again, fantastic spas, with outdoor tubs from which to observe the sunset and silhouette of distant Mount Fuji, incredible starry skies at night, and a wide range of tasty and inexpensive cuisine (in particular, the sashimi produced with fish from the archipelago).
Let’s sum up in a nutshell, waiting for ad hoc articles for each island, the features of the main islands below.
Izu Ōshima (伊豆大島)
Ōshima, which means “big island”, has a surface of 93 square km. This volcanic island has at its center the Mihara volcano, a mighty mountain of 758 meters, with a large caldera inside.
This other large island is known for its elongated shape, and the extensive (over 5 km!) Habushiura beach facing east, on the Pacific Ocean, where you can find some of the best waves for surfing in Japan!
Among other activities, in Niijima you can easily meet dolphins and other cetaceans, being on the Kuroshio current.
On this dormant volcano of about 500 meters (Mount Miyatsuka) that rises from the waters of the ocean, live less than 350 people, mostly dedicated to fishing. Toshima is famous especially in winter, for the flowering of red camellias, whose trees make up 80% of the total vegetation!
Located west of Niijima, it is often visited on set with the latter. If Niijima is a surfer’s paradise, Shikinejima attracts many snorkelers, thanks to its calm, wave-protected coves, ideal for safely exploring the shallow seabed.
The name of this island, translated means “port of the gods“. And it is not difficult to understand why in ancient times she was given this name, given the emerald green color with which the waters welcome the ships that arrive there!
As large as Favignana (18 square km), the island consists of two volcanic cores, while the main village is located on the west bank, where the beautiful Maehama beach is also located. A little further north, accessible by bus or bike, the rocky area of Akasaki, with a beautiful transparent sea ideal for snorkeling!
This island, in 2000, due to an imminent volcanic eruption, was completely evacuated, and remained uninhabited for about 5 years. This has allowed the wild and harsh nature of this island to take possession of many of the human artifacts. Miyakejima is still on the hidden side of the Izu Islands, so you can be one of the few visitors of this piece of land in the Pacific Ocean.
Hundreds of dolphins live and swim around this small island, 190 km from Tokyo. In fact, one of the most famous activities available in Mikurajima is the opportunity to swim with them, with a local tour you can book!
For those who prefer to stay on the dry side, the island is home to many centuries-old trees, which with their roots and screwed branches, transmit what they have seen over the years, when, perhaps, still no man had set foot on these lands.
With about 70 square km of extension, after Izu Ōshima, it is the second largest in the archipelago. An elongated shape, there are two volcanic complexes to the north and south, and a town is located in a flat area in the center.
Pastures, spas, starry skies, and incredible trekking trails will take you to mystical calderas filled with millennial forests.
This small tropical paradise has an airport large enough to allow scheduled flights with Tokyo. From Haneda, you can fly with ANA in just 50 minutes or, why not, a slower but enjoyable ferry ride!
Here we are at the limit between travel and madness. Aogashima, in fact, is perhaps the most difficult place to reach in Japan after Iwojima (the famous island the scene of battles during the war, only for military personnel). No, for Aogashima you don’t need any special requests or permits, it’s just very remote (and you need some luck to get the transportation tickets)!
But once you get here, almost 500 km from Tokyo, in the middle of the ocean, you will find yourself in a world apart, populated by only 150 people, who despite being, technically, residents of Tokyo, will look like forgotten people in a remote island.
Sometimes nicknamed “the last frontier of Japan”, this island, which by the way has a double caldera inside, will represent a real achievement, in your journey,if you like this kind of places!
Hoping to have given you more curiosity about this unknown side of Tokyo, we will soon be back with some information on how to get to these islands.
To the record, by 2020 we can say that we have been on 4 of these islands: Izu-shima, Kozushima, Hachij-jima and yes, even Aogashima (this last one hasn’t been easy!)!