Ogasawara
Ogasawara Photo/Pixta

Guide to Ogasawara: Tokyo's island paradise

Ogasawara is technically part of Tokyo, but these remote islands are a subtropical paradise unlike anywhere else you've seen

By Taryn Siegel
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Just a hop, skip and a 24-hour ferry ride from mainland Tokyo, you’ll find the exotic Bonin islands, better known as Ogasawara. Despite transport to the 30-island archipelago being discouragingly expensive and tedious, it’s impossible to oversell this little subtropical paradise.

It’s 1,000 km away, but this volcanic chain of islands still comes under the administration of Tokyo – and it couldn’t be more different. The name ‘Ogasawara’ comes from a ronin (masterless samurai) named Ogasawara Sadato who falsely claimed in 1727 that the islands were discovered by his ancestors. He was later exiled from Japan when his fraud came to light eight years later, but hey, the name stuck. The islands passed through the hands of several European imperialists after the first recorded visit by a Spanish fleet in 1543, meaning that some of the current residents are descended from European settlers. There are also some World War II ruins on the islands, which you can explore.

Since 1875 the islands have been an official part of Japan, although they were controlled by the US military for 23 years after World War II, and they became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011. Although the 2,000-resident main island (and our focus here) is Chichijima, keep in mind that there are dozens of other islands in the archipelago – including Hahajima, the only other inhabited island – which are also worth a visit if you have time.

But you probably won’t be coming here for the history. The wildlife on the islands is the main draw – it’s rife with endemic species, many of which have undergone a unique evolution, earning the archipelago the nickname ‘the Galápagos of the Orient’. So if the enchanting remoteness and emerald waters aren’t enough to lure you here, there’s always the chance of getting a pic with a giant squid. Yes, that’s a real thing – the first ever photo of the 12-foot-long sea creature was taken off these islands in 2004.

Since the islands are subtropical rather than tropical, don’t expect year-round balmy temperatures. The best time to go is early summer (June/July), just before the tourist season kicks in and when the weather is superb. But even if you make it out as early as late-March it should be warm enough to swim in the sea and relax on the beach.

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What to do

Ogasawara, beach, island
Photo: Ogasawara-Photo/Pixta

Hiking and beaches

Chichijima boasts pristine beaches on all sides, the two most popular being Kominato and Kopepe in the west. Here’s one easy coastal walk: starting at Kominato Beach, hook on to the Nakayama Toge (Nakayama Pass), a snaking trail that overlooks both beaches and brings you up to the lookout point, which boasts 360-degree views of cliffs and sapphire water. If you carry on for about two hours along the same trail, you’ll eventually reach the white sands of John Beach. All these beaches are great for swimming, so pack your swimsuit, and bring lots of drinking wateras there are no shops (or vending machines) along the way.

Ogasawara

Sea life

The exotic marine life and crystal clear water make Ogasawara a world-class diving and snorkelling spot. While the west-side beaches are gorgeous and perfect for swimming and hiking, the beaches in the south make for better snorkelling, especially Miyano beach and Tsuri beach, both walking distance from the main village. 

For more ambitious divers, there are plenty of packages on sale in the main village offering opportunities to spot everything from manta rays and sea turtles to dolphins and sharks. There’s even whale watching around the islands – sperm whales in summer, and humpback whales in the chillier months (January-April).

Where to eat

Ogasawara

USK

Coffee is one of the only products of the island, and this is the only place that grows, roasts and serves Bonin coffee. Not only is the coffee superb, it also makes a perfect pit stop after a hike, with its beautiful outdoor deck enclosed within a forest near Kominato Beach. They also offer homemade cakes and unusual cookies stashed in giant mason jars. 

Chichijima Kitafukurozawa, Ogasawara. 04998 2 2338. Sat, Sun, Mon & hols 11am-5pm

Green Pepe

Green Pepe

One of the oldest restaurants on the island, Green Pepe offers traditional Japanese comfort food with a bit of a Western twist. The owner is a painter by trade who spent three years studying art in Paris, and you can sense the French influence in the typical Japanese café fare of hamburg steak (a meat patty with demi-glace), omurice (omelette over rice), Neapolitan pasta and menchi katsu (breaded and deep-fried ground meat patty). The dishes’ unusual, earthy flavour comes from the fact that they are all cooked (and served) in a cast-iron skillet. And to extinguish any doubt that this restaurateur is an artist at heart, the walls are decorated in his beautiful paintings.

Chichijima Higashimachi, Ogasawara. 04998 2 2604. 5pm-12midnight, closed Sun

Where to stay

Eco Village-Pelan
Photo: Taryn Siegel

Eco Village-Pelan

A sustainable, organic eco-village, Pelan consists of a series of wooden cabins and decks connected by some precarious ladder-like bridges, all nestled into the mountains. The owner, Chika Shimizu, takes the ‘organic’ part of the concept very seriously – no flush toilets and no shampoo or products of any kind are allowed in the showers,except the organic stuff they make themselves. One of the cabins is a kitchen that guests are free to use and any night you’re welcome to join Shimizu and his family for dinner. You’ll be expected to contribute your own dish as a nice gesture, and then feel free to gorge on their infinitely superior food. For an additional fee you can join Shimizu on a kayaking adventure where he’ll take you out to some remote beaches and brewup a tea break by boiling leaves from one of the eco-village trees –a lot more tasty than it sounds.

Chichijima Komagari Mountain, Ogasawara. 04998 2 3386. Open daily

Papa's Island Resort
Photo: papasds.com

Papa's Island Resort

If you’re looking to stay in the main village with a few more creature comforts than the aforementioned organic bungalow, Papa’s Island Resort is a good bet. Room rates start at ¥14,850 per person and include breakfast at the beautiful downstairs café, which serves excellent coffee. The attached Papa’s Diving Studio offers a range of diving tours, starting at ¥6,875 for a quick nighttime beach dive and ¥10,175 for a daytime boat dive.

Chichijima Nishimachi, Ogasawara. 04998 2 2373

Getting there

Ogasawara island

The only access to Ogasawara is via the Ogasawara-maru ferry. In August, the ship departs Tokyo twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) at 11am from Takeshiba Kyakusen terminal, arriving in Chichijima at about 11am the following day. The ship then leaves Chichijima for Tokyo on Saturday and Wednesday at 3.30pm. Outside August, the frequency goes down to once-a-week departure from Tokyo. 

A one-way trip in July starts at ¥29,450 for an economy room, which fits about 20 passengers sleeping on a mat that’s not much thicker than a yoga mat. Note that prices can change slightly every month – check website for details.

There’s a restaurant and café on board, open at specific meal times, and offering dishes like pasta, ramen and pizza. If the journey gets really rocky, they may shut down some facilities temporarily, so best bring your own snacks. Pro tip for female passengers: be sure to answer ‘yes’ when you board the ship as the boat staff ask if you’d like to be placed in a ‘women-only room’ (josei senyo heya).

Check the official website for boat schedule and ticket reservations.

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