It was 11pm on a Tuesday night when I found myself happily clutching my first Wendy's frosty since August. Along with a few of my Pac Rim friends, I was prepared to board an overnight ferry bound for the Izu-Shoto islands south of Tokyo. I knew little of my destination, other than the fact that there were several natural hot springs there, which were called onsens, and that it would be a test for my Japanese phrasebook. Within fifteen hours, however, my knowledge of island life would be vastly multiplied. For one, “south of Tokyo” does not mean warmer and overnight ferries are very difficult to sleep on. Natives seemed to overcome this restless hurdle with many, many visits to the beer vending machines.
After arriving at our first stop, Shikine Jima, we stumbled off the ferry along with several very hung-over Japanese. Lonely Planet warned that folks on the islands would be unlikely to stop for hitch-hikers. With this in mind, we began the trudge across the island, carrying more pounds of luggage than I would like to consider. As we turned the corner, only to see another uphill climb, I dropped one of my packs to the ground and carried on walking, only thinking, “hmm, maybe I should grab my rail pass from that bag before I leave it behind.” Just as I recovered my bag, a truck pulled up.
The man introduced himself as Tokoro and offered to drive us to our campsite, only he first had to deliver some fish to the local market. I'm generally not one to feel real safe hitchhiking, but I took solace in a kind smile, our numbers, and the simple fact that I could probably deck him if necessary. After the brief but fishy detour, he turned down a street (which was obviously not for cars), zigzagging in between the landscaping and finally depositing us safely at our campsite.
The campsite was directly on the coastline. As we set up our tents, we enjoyed the sound of the waves crashing against the rocky shoreline, reminiscent of many of the “beaches” back home in the Pacific Northwest. We shared the campsite with an older Japanese man, four Tokyoites who had been on the same ferry as us, and about two dozen cats. We first noticed the yellow cat, which we learned was not naturally yellow but was encrusted with the sulfuric waters of the nearby onsens. There was also the cat with the goopy eye, which we frequently found curled up amongst our bags, taking in the shelter of the vestibule. At first, the great number of cats all over the island was surprising. Soon, it was a tad creepy. A conspiracy perhaps? It seemed that all the markets found on the small island had dedicated about a quarter of precious store space to the sale of cat food and other feline products. The general population on Shikine Jima seemed to have banded together to support all the diseased stray cats the island could produce. With no natural predators, these cats flourished, slowly taking over the island like a cat version of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.
Despite the cats hacking up fur balls outside our tent, the island was incredible. Shikine Jima is the smallest island in the Izu-Shoto chain, and it is infamous for its unique onsens, two of which we solicited. The first was located directly on the beach, only a short walk from our campsite. It warmed with the low tide to steaming temperatures. The other, more dramatic one was the Jinata Onsen. This hot spring appeared to have been cut from the cliff line with a large hatchet, hidden between two large cliff faces, and tucked against the sea. After descending through a wooded path of switchbacks, we arrived at sea level and were greeted by the iron sulfite rich waters of Jinata. It had several different baths of varying temperatures, each mixing with sea water a little less than the last. The warm waters were algae-filled yet healing, and I sat until adequately pruned, taking a break only to crunch into an Asian pear.
The next day we embarked on a food mission. The mission being to find some. After being turned away from one restaurant that was closed from 2 to 5pm, we decided our best bet was the grocery store—one of the many dedicated to the sale of cat food. Perusing the aisles, we found jam, bread, and what appeared to be peanut butter. Upon returning to our campsite and busting out what we anticipated to be a very American dinner, we soon discovered that our peanut butter was not peanut butter at all, but rather peanut butter pudding.
After two nights in Shikine Jima, armed with a batch of jam and peanut butter pudding (which turned out to not be so bad), we caught a late-morning ferry to the nearby island of Niijima. It promised to be a larger island with white sandy beaches, a great campground, surfing and a Roman-style onsen complete with columns surrounding the warm pools. After spending some time wandering around the island that day, we found the locals to be just as welcoming and kind as those on Shinkine Jima. That night, in the midst of a wind storm, we found scrap wood, lit it up, and grilled squash, sweet potatoes and egg plants before crawling into bed. The next morning, the date caught up to us, and we realized it was time to head back to the mainland. Once again, we loaded our houses onto our backs and got to the road just in time to see the bus fly by.
Thus we began what we anticipated to be a long, arduous walk across the island with fifty pounds of home on our backs (I realize now why turtles move so slowly). That was until one of the guys at our campsite rode up to us on his motorbike. When he asked us where we were headed, we replied “fune,” or ferry. He proceeded to hop off his bike, signal down a motorist, explain our needs, and within moments they were helping us load up our homes into the back of his car.
By the time we made it to the ferry terminal and reattached our homes to our backs once more, our friend on the motorbike pulled into the driveway. He waved us down and told us he had just wanted to make sure we made it okay, and ensure that we were finding the place to buy tickets without any trouble. I am finding that it is gestures like these that make traveling worth it.
After a four-hour nap on the ferry from Niijima to Shimoda, we returned to the mainland of Japan. We spent 28 magical hours in Shimoda, hanging out in a jazz club called the Cheshire Cat and dining in an Italian restaurant owned by a woman named Sasha. But as our week had been spent, we prepared to conclude our stay. We reluctantly boarded the train bound for Osaka, but not without a couple of squashed jam and peanut butter pudding sandwiches buried in my bag. We were ready for the next adventure.
(Article and photos by Tara)