Mikura: Tokyo’s island of natural wonders

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Last week, while much of the metropolis continued to reel from aftershocks following the March 11 megaquake, and worries about radiation leaks from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactors lurked in most people’s minds, there was a part of Tokyo blissfully removed from all that madness.

That was Mikura Island, one of seven Izu Islands in the Pacific Ocean 200 km south of Tokyo — and 415 km from the Fukushima power plant. Though it falls under the jurisdiction of Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), with cars there all bearing the capital’s Shinagawa Ward number plates, its 316 people lead lives utterly different from others in that central Tokyo ward.

To begin with, just getting there or back depends on the weather. Especially in winter, the warm Kuroshiro Current running northward around the island often brings strong winds with it that prevent either of the ships that together provide a daily service to and from Tokyo — the 4,973-ton Salvia Maru and the 3,837-ton Camellia Maru — from disembarking their passengers.

When that happens, the passengers are taken to the next port of call, the bigger island of Hachijo a further 80 km south. There, they either scramble to buy a seat on the once-a-day, eight-seat helicopter service back to the island, or stay aboard the ship (at no extra cost) to try their luck at landing on the return trip.

On this reporter’s two visits to the island — last September and then last week — the service was “conditional” both times, and I was lauded by villagers just for twice landing there as scheduled.

Fortunately, though, the other side of this coin is that precisely because of its limited communications with the outside world, Mikura’s wealth of natural resources, including many rare plants — has remained intact for centuries. The island is also rich in human history, from the first settlement records dated at 5,000 to 6,000 years ago to an incident in 1863 — when Japan under the shoguns was still largely isolated from the rest of the world — when islanders rescued some 400 Chinese and Americans whose ship ran aground on the island.

Today, Mikura receives around 10,000 tourists a year, an overwhelming majority of whom go there for its dolphin-watching tours.

While nobody knows exactly why dolphins are almost always found in large numbers in the vicinity of the island, villagers have long known of their presence, said Toru Hishii, an official with the local tourist information center who first went to the island in 1994 as a volunteer researcher with the Japan branch of the Australia-based International Cetacean Education Research Centers.

“Mikura started offering dolphin tours because they were asked by tourists in around 1993,” said Hishii, who has since settled on the island and is raising his two children there. “But locals were hesitant at first, wondering if it was OK to accept such tourists when they themselves didn’t know anything about the dolphins.”

So, jointly with ICERC volunteers, villagers started researching the marine mammals off their island, plotting their movements and building up records of each individual by noting characteristic scars and other features. Before long, they had identified 260 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. To keep tourists from flooding the island, the village also worked with TMG to have the island and its surrounding sea designated as an “eco-tourism” site in 2004.

Now, Mikura’s dolphin tours operate for seven months of each year, from March 15 to October 15. Even in that period, though, the number of tour boats is limited to 30 a day from Mikura, and 15 from neighboring Miyake Island in order to reduce their impact on the dolphins. Most of the tour participants are women in their 20s and 30s, and many are repeat visitors who apparently find swimming around dolphins “palliative,” according to tourism officials.

As part of the eco-tourism designation, the island also places numerous other restrictions on visitors’ activities. Most hiking trails into the mountains are off limits to them unless they are accompanied by licensed local guides, and all tourists must book a room at one of the nine inns before landing. Likewise, tourists are prohibited from camping or cycling on the island, and there is no rental car service available.

Even with such restraints, though, villagers are increasingly concerned that the number of dolphins has declined to about 220 in recent years.

However, Yuichi Nishikawa, director of the industry promotion section at the village office, said that 94 residents — half the village’s working population — now have tourism-related jobs, and few are engaged in farming and fishing.

Hence the village government is striving to promote production of ashitaba (Angelica keiskei), a mineral- and vitamin-rich green vegetable whose Mikura variety is less bitter than others, as well as the cultivation of nioi-ebineran, a variety of orchid endemic to the Izu Islands.

In addition, the village has some tsuge (Japanese box) trees — an important local source of income during the Edo Period (1603-1867) — that were planted 80 years ago and are ready to be shipped as lumber, Nishikawa said, pointing out that for this to happen they need people to log them.

The truth is, however, that what’s driving all these ideas for new businesses are fears that the villagers are becoming too dependent on dolphins, since about the only local product Mikura now ships out is its mineral water.

“If all the dolphins disappear, what are we going to do to support ourselves?” Nishikawa said. “If we can make money out of primary industries, we can reduce the stress felt by dolphins as well. We also want more people to come here to hike in the mountains.”

Resident eco-tour guide Mio Yanagase echoes Nishikawa’s view, saying that as far as villagers are concerned, the island’s rich greenery is just as rare and precious as the dolphins.

And certainly, by hiking up toward the 851-meter peak of Oyama, the island’s highest mountain, a wide variety of vegetation comes into view both close up and as you scan the island from on high — including several species endemic to the island and giants such as sudajii (Castanopsis siebolii) and those box trees, many of which are more than 500 years old. In fact, more than 590 trees on the island have been confirmed as having trunks at least 5 meters in circumference.

“Because Mikura is surrounded by high cliffs, the wind shoots up, creating a thick fog over the island in summer,” Yanagase said. “Trees in the forests absorb the moisture and create a sauna-like moist atmosphere. This is the source of our superb mineral water, which all comes from the central parts of the island.”

Mikura Island is 7 hours 45 minutes on a Tokai Kisen passenger ship from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier near JR Hamamatsucho Station. One-way fares range from ¥7,390 to ¥22,180. For more details, visit www.tokyo-islands.com/v3/e_contents/mikura/top.html. Mikura authorities politely request that visitors have a basic command of Japanese, as people running the inns don’t speak any other languages.