Unusual Islands in Japan
With Japan containing an amazing 6852 islands, how can you decide which to add to your ‘must-see’ list? Well, hopefully our guide to two unique suggestions – Okunoshima (aka Rabbit Island) and Naoshima (aka Art Island) – might help. Go for the day, or stay overnight. The choice is yours.
Okunoshima – Rabbit Island
Within about five minutes of arriving upon Okunoshima, I’m in love. The object of my affection is blonde, has ears too small for their head and is currently holding my hand and looking up at me with huge big brown eyes. He or she doesn’t want my heart though, they want a handful of the rabbit food I’m carrying – and of course I’m going to give in.
Yes, Rabbit Island gets its name as it’s entirely populated by bunnies. No-one knows exactly how hundreds of rabbits ended up here, but when you exit the ferry and the first floppy-eared cutie hops towards you hoping for a fuss you’re very glad they did.
Over the next few hours I’m climbed on by brown bunnies, white bunnies, brown and white bunnies and the most adorable baby bunnies (sometimes all at once). With such cuteness literally in your lap, it’s hard to tear yourself away to explore but do as tree-lined Okunoshima is so peaceful it would be a shame to miss the silence and views.
Wind your way up the hill to the island’s peak and you’ll be greeted with a stunning view of nearby Kogunoshima and the vast expanse of sea and blue sky around it. During summer, you can even swim from one of the island’s sandy beaches.
A more eerie beauty is found in the overgrown ruins of the old buildings dotted around the island. During the war, Okunoshima was a chemical weapons plant and while its dark history seems hard to believe now, the small, but fascinating museum on the island doesn’t shy away from the facts.
With a circumference of around 4km, Okunoshima is small enough to explore in just a few hours, making it an easy day trip from many nearby cities.
How to get to Okunoshima
Coming from Kyoto and Osaka it takes around 1 hour 40 minutes to reach the main shinkansen stop at Mihara.
Here you’ll connect by a pretty 20-minute local train ride to the port of Tadanoumi and your ferry to Bunny Island. Right now, the train lines are under repair so there’s a 30-minute bus hopping between Mihara and Tadanoumi instead.
If you’re coming from Hiroshima, the 2 hour journey to Tadanoumi is normally by local train, but again, this is currently under repair so either jump on the bullet train 25 minutes to Mihara and follow the instructions above or, take the direct rail replacement bus to Tadanoumi Port from Hiroshima Bus or JR stations. Find the latest updates on transportation at rabbit-island.info.
When you arrive in Tadanoumi, head to the Visitors Centre to buy your ferry ticket (620 yen return) and some rabbit food (it’s not sold on the island), before the short 15-minute trip to meet your new furry friends.
At the weekend, you can also catch the Rabbit Line ferry direct to Okunoshima from Mihara. Find more details at habushosen.com/rabbit-line.
If you’re coming to Okunoshima for the day, come armed with snacks and drinks as facilities are limited on the island.
If one day of bunny fun isn’t enough, you can also stay overnight at the island’s hotel, the Kyukamura Okunoshima. It can get busy, particularly in summer, so do book in advance. Sadly, there’s no rabbits in the rooms!
Naoshima – the Art Island
As the red and white polka-dot covered ferry pulls up alongside a field of tiny silver mushrooms behind which looms a giant pumpkin covered in ladybird-like spots, you know Naoshima is going to a place that’s going to test your iphone/camera battery to the limit. My advice, bring a charger!
Naoshima is the larger of three art-filled islands, located in the Seto Inland Sea just south of the town of Uno in Okayama Prefecture. With two large museums, two smaller ones, a group of installations based in old houses, heaps of outdoor art, and two quaint towns to see, exploring everything on offer can easily take a day or two. And, trust me, this art is fun so you’re going to want to see as much as you can.
Probably the most recognisable works on Naoshima are the two giant spotted pumpkins by artist Yayoi Kusama – and they don’t disappoint.
While the red pumpkin that greets you at the ferry port is playful and even allows you to climb inside, its bright yellow brethren further in to the island looks almost lonely, sitting on its concrete pier with nothing but waves and clouds behind it.
But there’s more to Naoshima than pumpkins. Other must-sees include the underground Chichu Art Museum which uses light and space to display works by Monet, and other artists, in a way you won’t experience anywhere else in the world. Don’t miss the cavernous Benesse House Museum and the trail of amazing artworks perched on the cliff tops and beaches surrounding it. And I’ve not yet mentioned the Naoshima Bath “I Love Yu”, a working onsen with art!
My favourite of all of the exhibits though was the Art House Project in the town of Honmura. This has seen six local houses given over to artists to do with whatever they like. Photography is banned inside and in this age of Instagram it was amazing to walk into places having no idea what to expect – I’m not going to spoil the surprise for you, but don’t miss heading underground at the Go’o Shrine and make sure you ask for the hidden meaning of the numbers in the house called ‘Kadoya’.
The other thing I didn’t expect was how enthralled I’d be by Honmura town itself. Despite the tourists visiting every day it’s serene, quiet and utterly unspoilt. Every corner revealed a tiny café, a small shrine or let us peep through an open gate to a secret garden behind. There’s also unexpected art dotted around the island made from yarn bound to the walls or even from old soda cans. It’s a place you really need to keep your eyes open at every turn.
How to get to Naoshima Island
You reach the island by ferry from Uno. This is just 50 minutes by local train from the bullet station at Okayama. And Okayama is around 60 minutes from Kyoto and Osaka or 40 minutes from Hiroshima.
Once you arrive at Uno station, just cross the road and catch one of regular ferries to Naoshima. You’ll be on the island 15-20 minutes later.
You can see Naoshima Island in a day, with some careful planning (see more about the art and book tickets here) but if you do want to stay overnight the island offers a wealth of accommodation options from simple backpacker dorms to the 5-star Benesse House hotel. You’ll also find around 40 restaurants and cafés on the island. Just be aware that most things on Naoshima close on Monday.
If you want to see Naoshima and Okunoshima in two days – which is how I did both – you might want to consider staying overnight in the town of Okayama. It’s a short train journey from Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and very close to both Uno and Tadanoumi.
So, just another 6800+ more islands left to see now then.