Time apart on Kozushima

by Felicity Hughes

Floating on my back in the azure blue of Sawajiri Bay, I found myself falling under the spell of this tiny volcanic island — a little piece of paradise that bubbled up from the depths of the Pacific Ocean many millennia ago.

Swirls of dark volcanic rock rearing up out of the sea bear silent witness to Kozushima’s violent past. But trek higher up the rocky slopes and you’ll find them covered in a blanket of thick forest that lends an almost benign appearance to Mount Tenjo as its table-top 572-meter peak towers over this 19-sq.km speck of land that is administratively part of Tokyo — though separate and apart in just about every other imaginable way.

A mere 35 minutes from the capital by plane, Kozushima — which is home to fewer than 2,000 residents — is less touristy than its neighbors in the Izu Islands chain. For the visitor, that translates into it offering a particularly peaceful experience, albeit one without many of the usual amenities — most notably, the absence of any stores or eateries within easy reach of the campsite.

But it does have an abundance of old-world charm that even starts the moment you arrive at Chofu Airport in western Tokyo to take the 10-seater biplane hop over there. In its heyday, the airport must have been buzzing with stylish types wearing dashing neckties and clenching cigarette holders between their teeth as they took to the skies in a variety of fabulous flying machines. For us, it was sheer fun to take to the skies in a ridiculously light plane that lifted easily off the ground and soared out over the glittering expanse of ocean.

After landing, we took a taxi to the Sawajiri Bay campsite and pitched our tent on a tiny strip of grass that flanked the white-sand beach. It was free to camp and the site included clean toilet facilities, cold showers and a barbeque area. Apart from us, there was just one lively and friendly family group there — who seemed to have brought everything but the kitchen sink over on the ferry.

I was impressed that we plebian campers were so well catered for since, nestled back in the undergrowth, squatted the grubby concrete edifice of the Hotel Fiesta. Though the place must have seen better days in the era of Japan’s economic bubble, it seemed remarkable that they hadn’t managed to keep the riffraff out and retain this idyllic beach for the use of hotel guests.

After setting up camp and frolicking in the sea, we took the bus over to the port area to stock up on supplies and grab lunch.

There, we found a restaurant called Tears Blue that served unpretentious yet extremely tasty fare. Starving after our swim, we wolfed down deliciously fresh seafood pasta and a crisp pizza. The restaurant has a fabulous covered veranda offering wonderful vistas across a long stretch of beach to the blue ocean beyond — a great place to while away a lazy afternoon with a good book and a cold drink.

However, being nervous about making it back to the campsite before nightfall, we shook off our delightful lethargy and began laboring up a steep hill in search of the local store. We were rewarded for enduring the punishing climb when we stumbled upon Namihibiki Temple.

The inhabitants of Kozu village keep the temple’s graveyard stocked with a profusion of flowers, and 5:30 p.m. appeared to be the nearest thing Kozushima had to a rush hour, as the place was full of old women who had gathered to gossip and tend the graves.

While the genteel ladies were friendly and welcoming, exchanging cheerful “hellos” with us, the cicadas were screaming blue murder and the mosquitoes did their best to oblige by gorging on blood from our exposed ankles, forcing us to beat a hasty retreat.

Then, as the light began to fade, my partner took that as his cue to crash out — leaving me sitting on the concrete steps leading down to the beach with a cool beer in hand, listening to my personal stereo and drinking in the nighttime atmosphere.

Apart from me and the family of happy campers, there wasn’t a soul around. As I’d experienced before in rural Japan, most people go to bed and rise with the sun. Yet surely there’d be people from the hotel about?

I turned round and contemplated the poured concrete edifice of the Hotel Fiesta behind me; the balconies cut into its sloping facade resembling empty eye slots. But as the stars began to flicker on, I noticed something wasn’t quite right: Not a single light appeared in any of the windows. It became obvious that it had been some time since anyone had stayed at this dead hotel; somehow this made me uneasy.

The next day I faced a less insidious fear as I teetered on top of a wooden plank about five meters above a deep rock pool. Kozushima’s best attraction is Akazaki Promenade, a series of wooden walkways built across volcanic rocks from which you can jump — or, in my case, ease your way down — into the cool waters below.

It’s a snorkeler’s paradise, and just a few yards away from the plunge pool a profusion of colorful creatures swam among the coral; tiny shoals of blue fish glinting silver as they whirled away, while angel fish puttered elegantly by fluttering their ornate dorsal fins.

When you’re done snorkeling, or making death-defying leaps, there’s a shaded balcony overlooking the pools on which to relax. The atmosphere was extremely sociable, and we made friends with a family who generously offered me some cream for my mosquito bites. I also admired the crabs their small boys had caught and displayed in glass jars, as we all cheered the intrepid divers below.

When we returned to the campsite after lunch, my partner suggested we explore the mysterious Hotel Fiesta. As we headed up the driveway, the sounds of children playing on the beach began to sound muffled in the still atmosphere. The doors to a once-plush lobby were locked with a rusty chain and a yellowing sign indicated the place was off limits.

Undeterred, my partner headed round the back with me reluctantly in tow. Plastic lounge chairs spun with spider webs were set out round a keyhole-shape pool filled with brown goop — the air suddenly felt thick with suspense. Beyond, in the impenetrable undergrowth, insects made whirring sounds as if they were operating some mysterious kind of machinery.

A staircase round the back led to an open corridor off which one of the hotel doors gaped open. This was clearly paradise for haikyo (ruins) enthusiasts: an abandoned hotel still filled with furniture left to slowly molder away.

If decaying grandeur is your thing, this place is definitely worth a visit. Personally, I was torn between curiosity and the urge to dash outside and drink in gulps of fresher air. It was the broken elevator, bleeding with rust, that finally got to me and had me jumping straight out into the sea to shake off my unease.

I wondered if the hotel’s demise reflected a decline in the island’s tourist industry. Kozushima is a paradise that’s somehow been forgotten. By day, when you have the beach to yourself, that’s a boon; but by night, when the abandoned streets take on a more sinister feel, it’s hard not to miss the buzz of a city.

For a weekend escape, however, it was absolute bliss, and once we’d returned to Tokyo via the jet boat, that ghost of Japan’s bubble-era past was put to rest when confronted with the gleaming futuristic vista of Tokyo Bay.

Flights to Kozushima leave from Chofu Airport in Tokyo and cost ¥14,900 one way; call (0297) 621 271 to book. The jet boat leaves from Takeshiba Pier in Tokyo and costs ¥9,760 one way. Take a taxi to Sawajiri Bay campsite from the airport, or a bus from Kozu port. Alternatively, inquire at the tourist office (04992 8 0321) on the port for details of guest houses and traditional inns at a range of prices.