Kojiro Hayashi vividly recalls the image of swaying palm trees, crystal-clear blue seas and a sense of peace when he first visited Lubang, a small island in the western Philippines, in May 1996.
It was also a thought-provoking trip for Hayashi as he was part of a group accompanying Hiroo Onoda, a former intelligence officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. Onoda was making his first trip back to the island, where he fought and stayed on with his comrades until he was the only remaining survivor for almost three decades following the end of World War II — unaware that the war had ended.
“I thought to myself it must be fun to live on an island like this as Robinson Crusoe or Tarzan,” said the 68-year-old Hayashi who, like Onoda, is from Wakayama Prefecture.
“But then I saw the tense face of Mr. Onoda and I realized that this place was a battleground where he gave 30 years of his life,” Hayashi recounted. “The sounds, the moving shadows, all these must have been hostile to him.”
Until news of the emergence of the Japanese holdout grabbed headlines, the 24,626-hectare, heavily forested island about 150 km southwest of Manila was little-known to the world.
Now, more than three decades since Onoda repatriated from the island to Japan in 1974, locals are hoping to cash in on their island’s historical link with Onoda to revitalize its fledgling economy by opening up sites, including the former soldier’s hideouts, as an eco-tourism spot.
“Lubang has a big potential for eco-tourism with the mountain trail, virgin forest and pristine beach,” said Benjamin Tria, a Rotarian from Looc, the site where Onoda “surrendered” upon orders from his superior.
Tria said there are many unexplored areas on the island that can be developed to offer visitors an experience to enjoy nature and learn history by incorporating the story of Onoda in the so-called Onoda Trail tracing the man’s survival in the jungle.
Unlike the country’s large-scale commercially developed, well-known tourist islands such as Boracay, Tria said Lubang will be “unique” as an eco-tourism destination linked with Onoda’s history and vital to bolster the community’s economy.
Creating a historical tour could “help hype up” eco-tourism in Lubang and spark tourist interest in the island, thus paving the way for other attractions, including scuba diving and fishing, said Jet Boiser, who was part of a team that surveyed Lubang.
The idea is to take the visitors from the lowland through the jungle, passing through rivers and taking a peek into various spots where the ever-moving Onoda hid to avoid capture, including a small cave.
Other sights of interest are a peace monument and the Philippine Air Force’s Gozar Air Station, which is located on a hill at an elevation of about 500 meters and is about 1 km from the cave. The U.S. military used the radar station for its operations.
Despite its lush and diverse tropical forest and historical stories, Lubang is not a designated tourism spot by Philippine tourism authorities.
Grace Horii, a public relations officer at the Tokyo office of the Philippine Department of Tourism, said there is “big tourism market potential” for Lubang, but it simply needs to be developed.
Horii said Lubang could be attractive for the senior market of Japan, given the island’s proximity to Manila and wartime historical significance in connection to Onoda.
She said she believes the baby boomer generation would be particularly interested in seeing for themselves Onoda’s hideouts as they are keen on making trips that offer a learning experience.
Munehiro Hanada, a 70-year-old Wakayama resident who has visited Lubang several times, agreed, saying the Onoda Trail would be “interesting” for middle-aged people.
When lured to the island, the people will then discover Lubang as a wonderful respite from the city bustle, locals say.
The island’s biodiversity will also be a “plus for eco-tourism,” said Nathaniel Bantayan, an associate professor of forestry at the University of the Philippines Los Banos who conducted an environmental assessment on Lubang.
As the island makes all-out efforts for development through eco-tourism, he also warned of potential environmental hazards that may detract from this potential, citing encroachment on forests and the lack of effective waste management that, if neglected for long, may pollute the beach.
“For the eco-tourism project to be successful, it has to be comprehensive to include waste management, and for this, strong political will (from the local government) is needed,” Bantayan said.
On top of that, locals and visitors are calling for improved basic infrastructure, including roads, electricity and sanitation, and more convenient access to the island to ease tourist discomforts.
Travel to Lubang takes four to five hours by ferry or 30 minutes by plane from Manila, but ferry trips and flights are limited.
While the government will be solely responsible for providing the infrastructure for eco-tourism, what is needed to push forward the project is the private sector’s aid to invest in the island, the way the private sector had developed the Philippine island resorts of Boracay and Cebu, said Boiser, who worked at the Philippine National Economic and Development Authority.
Hanada also stressed that the island is better off with simple, cozy lodgings to give a more relaxing feel.
Santiago Tria, a 31-year-old entrepreneur and contractor of development projects in Lubang, meanwhile, laments the lack of aid to Lubang, which ends up relying on its mainstay livelihood of agriculture and fishing. Aid is insufficient and slow, he said.
Tria indicated he understands Onoda’s complicated sentiment toward the island, alluding to Onoda’s killing of islanders during wartime, but called for Onoda’s support to help uplift their lives.
Moving beyond his harrowing ordeal on Lubang, the 85-year-old Onoda is now in Japan and, as he writes in his autobiography, “is staking the rest of my life” on a youth nature camp he opened in 1984 in his country.
Tria voiced hope the former Japanese soldier could help his community to give a better future to the local children.
“We want to see the island develop and hope Mr. Onoda or countries like Japan could help us through eco-tourism and basic infrastructure, especially access roads,” he added.