Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Slow-paced Izu Oshima is anything but sleepy

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

Of all Tokyo’s backstreets, the most remote await exploration on the city’s outlying islands.

The largest and closest of these, Izu Oshima, beckoned to me this spring, a green gem set in an azure sea. I reserved the high-speed Jetfoil from Tokyo Takeshiba Terminal, which I’m told “flies” to Oshima in one hour and 40 minutes, provided the weather behaves.

Wind snaps nautical flags and swipes passenger’s hats as I board the Tairyo, which is emblazoned with a giant rising sun, illustrator Ryohei Yanagihara’s (1931-2015) jaunty take on Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force flag.

As I search for my seat, loudspeakers warn passengers to fasten their seatbelts because the craft veers to avoid pods of dolphins or the occasional whale. Once we “take off,” on the hydrofoil wings, however, the Tairyo glides smoothly over white caps and serious rollers. A lesser craft would have had passengers hurling breakfast over the side.

En route, I glance over tourist pamphlets that assure me I’ve missed all the popular times to visit Oshima. I’m too late for the camellias that bloom in picturesque tunnels of trees in early spring and too early for the summer months of beach fun. “Perfect,” I tell myself, alighting at Okata Port.

Via rental car, I head south on route 208. There are no other vehicles in sight, so I pull over briefly for a breathtaking vista of ocean. For 15 minutes, I savor the sound of bush warblers and wind in the hills behind me, and the tang of salt that comes off the turbulent ocean. Not a single car passes. Perfect, indeed.

With the car windows down, I zip by small enclaves of weathered wooden homes and concrete bunker-style businesses. Occasionally, I glimpse Oshima’s black volcanic coastline, where waves roil up in pellucid blues and crash in lacy curtains of foam. At one point, I spy cliffs that look exactly like slices of German baumkuchen (thinly-layered cake), and pull over to admire them.

Known as the Senba Stratum Section, the cliffs are the result of millennia of ash deposits from the island’s active volcano, Mount Mihara. It’s a sobering “tick, tock” reminder that Oshima’s volcano explodes fairly regularly, every 30 years or so, with the most recent event in 1986.

By lunchtime, I’ve wound my way down to Habu Port, a tiny harbor “town” of wooden homes, a fish processing center, a sundries shop and a few restaurants. I pop into Minato Sushi, where the clientele sport rubber boots and have the deeply etched faces of old salts.

The specialties here, I learn, are Oshima’s bekkō-zushi (raw white fish marinated in a sauce of soy and fairly mild island chilis) and ashitaba (Angelica keiskei leaf) tempura. I order both. The fish is freshly caught, its texture firmer than the flesh of farm-bred seafood. In its local sauce, the sushi looks a bit like the bekkō (tortoiseshell) that it’s named for, and tastes sweetly picante. But it’s the ashitaba leaves that I want to write home about; faintly herbal and in a light, crispy tempura batter, they verge on addictive.

Chatting with the owners of Minato Sushi about the history of the harbor, I find myself being guided down a narrow lane to meet two natives of Habu. Masayasu Uyama, 80, and his wife Hisako, 76, were born and raised in Habu, and recently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. I ask if they were childhood sweethearts. Hisako shakes her head.

“In a town this small, it would have been bad form to reject a neighbor’s marriage proposal,” she says, laughing.

The couple welcome me into their home faster than I can say “go fish,” and I’m surprised to find the water so close to the house that one could conceivably cast a line outside their living room window. “It’s a fairly protected harbor,” Masayasu says, “but when hurricanes come, it’s really scary.” As though to emphasize his words, a gust rattles the windows of their home. “We’ve had to evacuate up the mountain,” adds Hisako, pouring me a cup of tea and offering an island treat, gyūnyū senbei (milk crackers).

As I nibble on the delicious caramel-flavored crackers, Masayasu explains that before the 1700s, Habu harbor was an enclosed freshwater lake, but a tidal wave in 1703 breached the land separating the lake and the sea. Akihiro Heiroku, a construction engineer from Chiba Prefecture visiting in the 1780s saw potential in the situation. Commandeering 12,000 men and using ingenious flotation devices to help remove large boulders from the port’s mouth, Akihiro created a harbor that helped spawn a booming port town by the 1800s.

“It may not look like it now,” Masayasu says, peering out the window at the harbor, “but we used to have fishing boats packed in here.”

“They were four rows deep,” Hisako says, “and people placed gangplanks between the boats to get to shore.”

“Our fishermen would ferry mackerel to Tsukiji, and come back with wooden chests of money,” Masayasu says, recalling his days in the fishing trade. “It was as crowded as Ginza here!”

The Uyamas tell me I can find traces of this grand past at the former Minatoya Ryokan, up some steps behind the town. I hate to leave the couple, but their suggestion intrigues me and I bid them a good day.

Minatoya Ryokan is no longer in business, but now houses the Odoriko no Sato Museum. Odoriko (dancing girls) once lent color to the thriving port, and one from Oshima was featured in Nobel laureate author Yasunari Kawabata’s (1899-1972) work, “The Dancing Girl of Izu.”

Inside, the museum is empty but for life-size mannequins and walls of black and white photos with peeling emulsion. When I push a display button, though, shamisen music starts up and some of the mannequins begin to move. It’s an eerie evocation, like wandering through someone else’s dream.

Leaving the museum, I climb steps past various poetry monuments to the highest lookout point over the harbor. I note the weather has worsened and sure enough, as I descend, the local PA system announces that the island’s ports have closed.

Part of planning any island trip has to take such things into account. Luckily, I secure night lodgings at Mashio, a three-room resort in the mountains near Motomachi. The rental car barely manages a twisting 40-degree slope up to Mashio, but once there, I find the room beautifully designed, with views out to the ocean. The air is sweet, and I want to leave the windows open, but a note in the room warns of monkeys in the hills. Late into the evening, under a clearer sky with bright stars, I hear their barks.

When the sun rises, I set off to climb Mount Mihara’s modest 758 meters, for a peek inside the volcano that created Oshima. I choose the Ohachi Meguri trail, a 6-kilometer hike across a volcanic plain, which finally veers sharply upward to the volcano’s summit.

I start out in a sea of fog, reminded that it’s never the height of a mountain that matters so much as the mood of the mountain one climbs. The winds increase dramatically as I gain altitude, making the steep switchbacks either a breeze (literally) or comically hard.

By the time I reach the tiny Mihara Shrine, famous for surviving the 1986 lava flows that oozed right up to the foundations but spared the structure, the skies have cleared. The winds, however, force me to grab the ropes strung out along the final climb to the crater’s rim. Twice, I’m nearly toppled. Though access to the crater is restricted, the view from afar gives a clear idea of its magnitude.

Climbing down, I set off to explore the interior roads of Oshima, passing tidy farms and small paddocks of rough-furred horses, more leonine than equine. Toward the northern tip of Oshima, where the airport is located, I discover a dairy farm. Outside, next to a corral of cows, local toddler, Miran Shirai, squeals with delight. “She knows the names of each cow,” her grandfather says with pride. Burrata House, a nearby local farm stand, uses these cows’ milk in its homemade ice cream. I can’t pass up a scoop of the island’s seasonal passion fruit flavor, which comes “with seeds or without.” I try both, of course.

Working off the ice cream necessitates one final climb around Mount Mihara. This time I locate the elusive trail known as Tsuki to Sabaku (Moon and Desert), which leads to the volcano’s urasabaku (back-side desert). A short hike through tunnels of flowering trees eventually opens up onto a breathtaking moonscape of black volcanic scoria. The sound of cinders crunching underfoot and the lunar-like slopes painted with wind-whirled ash make for an unforgettable experience.

At last, I head to my departure port — travelers need to check which will be used each day — in Motomachi. Just before heading to the docks, I pop into Ebisuya, one of the island’s three milk senbei purveyors. Masami Takada, 56, says that her biscuits are hand-baked, with a distinctively rich milk flavor. I long to bring a bit of the island’s sweetness home with me. Memories and milk biscuits fit the bill.

Izu Oshima can be reached by Jetfoil in under two hours from the Tokyo Takeshiba Terminal (¥7,500 one way). Regular ferries take four to five hours (from ¥4,500 one way). Flights run between Tokyo’s Chofu Airport and Oshima Airport and take 25 minutes (¥11,800 one way).