An alpine skier once told me he climbs mountains in order to “earn his slope.” Our trip last week to Shikine Island was a similar excursion in that we had to “earn our vacation.”
My wife Lisa had a week-long vacation Aug. 6-14 for Obon, a traditional family holiday. So did everyone else in Japan. Thanks to my lackadaisical work schedule I am always on vacation.
A friend RJ and one of Lisa’s co-workers both recommended we visit Shikinejima, a tropical island in the Pacific, still technically located in Tokyo. (“Jima” is Japanese for “island”)
Shikinejima is part of the Izu Islands chain, a group of 8 islands formed eons ago by erupting volcanoes. Shikinejima, at 3.9 square km, is the smallest of the islands. It is also the most primitive and least popular for tourists due to its lack of amenities.
The other islands feature more modern facilities as well as popular spots for surfing and scuba diving. Shikinejima is considered to be a second peak to the nearby larger island Niijima, thus the water surrounding Shikine is much shallower and not as conducive to those two popular attractions among Japanese tourists.
However, because of its shallow waters, Shikine’s gorgeous snorkeling locales are alluring and perhaps most importantly, Shikine features a trio of outdoor onsen, or hot springs filtered with natural-healing minerals.
The camping is also free on Shikine, and outdoor enthusiasts flock to the island to vie for some of the most beautiful spots overlooking Ouha Beach.
So while more well-to-do travelers who can afford luxury abodes and expensive hobbies head for the larger islands, Shikinejima attracts a more Bohemian crowd. At night it wasn’t uncommon to see people stretched out on blankets sleeping in random spots along the seawall or even on hiking paths. There were also a lot of naked dudes. The outdoor showers were free, and these freewheeling Shikine campers used them quite liberally at all times of the day and night.
Our 4-day and 3-night trip to Shikinejima was an eye-opener in more ways than one.
We had a difficult time getting tickets on the ferry to Shikine, mainly because of the Obon holiday. There are two ways to get to Shikine Island from the Takeshiba Sanbashi Pier in Tokyo. There is the jet ferry and the long ferry. The jetfoil takes about 3 hours, and you ride on these colorful boats that were designed by this famous Japanese painter who none of you know and none of you will remember if I tell you anyway so I’m not going to bother with a google search.
The long ferry takes anywhere from 8 to 11 hours. You leave at 11 p.m. and arrive around 8 a.m. This is usually the preferred route by college kids who like to party all night on the boat. It is about $500 cheaper (about 13,000 yen compared to about 80,000 yen) one-way depending on the season.
Since Lisa and I are responsible adults who work for a living we chose the jet ferry. I have enough trouble sleeping on an airplane or the bullet train, I figured there was no way I would be able to sleep on a loud, rockin’ party boat.
We felt we made the right choice. The jetfoil was quiet and comfortable (more so than economy-class on Delta) and we had no problems with sea sickness.
We took the last ferry of the day and arrived at about 4 p.m. Most of our fellow travelers were staying at the local minshuku, which could be compared to a sparse bed and breakfast. They were picked up at the pier and taxied to their locations. Lisa and I hoofed it with our full backpacks to the Oura campsite, which was less than 15 minutes away.
I will admit, upon our arrival at the campsite, I was crestfallen. I had envisioned a private bungalow tucked away on the hillside where we could relax in our camp chairs and watch the sunset while whimsically sipping on hot cocoa.
This was not so. We had arrived late on the busiest weekend of the year. The campsite operated on a first come, first serve basis. You have to fight for a camping spot, or at least arrive at a reasonable time.
Tents were set up within inches of each other, rain fly tethers criss-crossing left and right. After roaming about aimlessly, we finally decided a rocky, lopsided spot in the weeds might be the best spot. I went for one last jaunt around the camp just to make sure there wasn’t a better spot, but I really just wanted to pout, and when I came back a group of campers were taking down their tent.
Lisa, being more aggressive and a much more effective negotiator than myself, fought off a large family to thankfully find a small, flatter spot in the sand for us to set up our tent. We were surrounded on all four sides with other tents, but at least we had spot we could claim for our own.
By the time the tent was erect, it was dinner time. We made a run to the small grocery store, if you want to call it that, which was about a 10-minute walk away, to buy water and beer, and then we settled down in a picnic area along the beach to heat up water for Cup-O-Noodle over our small camp stove. We had brought along 6 refill packets of Cup-O-Noodle which turned out to be our saving grace.
Besides the crowd, the other de-motivator was the heat. During the day it was pushing the 90s. While it wasn’t too humid, there was very little shade. As it turns out, volcanic islands don’t tend to grow a lot of shade trees. Within minutes I was drenched in sweat and the sweating never really stopped.
Night wasn’t much better. The air temperature dropped below 80, but the sand conducts heat quite well, so while the cushiony ground was comfortable, like sleeping on a bean bag chair, it was also like sleeping on a bean bag chair filled with molten lava.
By 3 a.m. it had finally cooled down enough to fall asleep, but sunrise was shortly after 4 a.m. and the sun was blazing again by 8 a.m.
Luckily, we were on the freakin’ ocean. The best way to beat the heat was to get in the water. After breakfast (every day we had instant coffee, energy bars and dried fruit) we went back to town and rented a couple of mountain bikes. We stopped by the first rental shop, against the recommendation of RJ. We paid 1,000 yen ($10) for a full day rental (they had to be back by 5 p.m.). If we had walked a little further we would have found a store that rents bikes for 500 yen, but we weren’t about to quibble over $5.
Bike riding is definitely the way to travel around Shikine. There is little car traffic and you generate your own breeze. The island is quite hilly, but that made for some nice downhill cruising.
We took the bikes to Nakanoura Beach, which provides more amenities than the beach at Oura campsite. We were able to rent a beach umbrella for 1,500 yen a day, as well as snorkeling equipment. We also bought water and snow cones. The concession stand sold beer as well, but we were already dehydrated enough as it was. You know it’s hot when I am declining a beer while on vacation.
The snorkeling was amazing. One of our neighboring campers said that since this is one of the hottest summers they’ve had, the water temperatures are also higher than normal, which means the tropical fish are swimming closer to land. The underwater sights were amazing.
We were able to float along the top of the water and gaze at the hundreds of fish milling about the rocks and plankton. It was like swimming in the fish tank I had in my bedroom as a kid. There were neon tetras, angel fish, parrot fish and dozens of other species I couldn’t identify. My favorite was the Betta, or Japanese fighting fish. This colorful bastard was aggressively attacking all of the other fish within spitting distance of his home. When I reached my hand out he even went after my fingers.
We had Cup-O-Noodle again for lunch and then we took the bikes to the Kanbiki lookout point. From the parking lot it was an easy 2-minute walk to the edge of the cliff overlooking the entire northern side of the island (per Japan’s aggressive public works policy Shikine is covered in concrete). You could see the beaches below as well as Niijima off in the distance. The hiking trail continues from there and follows the entire western shore of the island, and it is the only way to access to observation points at Tojinzushiru and Kumanoi, but early on Lisa and I both agreed that we would do no hiking on this trip.
We returned to Nakanoura Beach for one more go at snorkeling before heading back into town to buy groceries for dinner. One thing we had talked about doing on this trip was going fishing and catching our dinner. Besides the snorkeling and onsen, Shikinejima is known for its abundant fishing. Supposedly all you have to do is throw your hook in the water and the dumb shits will bite.
This idea was tempting, but it also required ambition and commitment, which the heat and comfortable white sandy beaches quickly sapped out of us. We decided that lolling around on the ocean snorkeling and relaxing in the hot springs sounded like a much better way to spend our vacation.
Any sort of elaborate cooking was out of the playbook. We just bought some potatoes, onion, carrots and frozen beef at the store and wrapped them in tinfoil. We made a fire in the communal barbecue pit and grilled our tinfoil packages over our fire.
Some of our neighbors were impressed with how quickly I had our fire blazing. All I used was one sheet of newspaper, a wooden firestarter and kindling I whittled myself. If there is one thing I learned from years of Boy Scout training is how to start a fire in under a minute.
Back in the day at the Klondike Derby competition Jon Jansen helped us boil a pot of snow in under a minute, the fastest of any other troop. Of course we were last in first aid and orienteering, but by god we could build a fire better than anyone out there. Jon could also breathe fire using only a butane lighter. It was really cool. (Jon is now a surgeon. True story.)
But I digress. Our tinfoil dinner was simple but effective. We noticed that the other Japanese campers took great pains to cook large family meals. Some families slaved all day long over the communal fire pits, baking, grilling, stirring, cleaning. There was one family who had commandeered one of the barbecue pits and morning, afternoon and night they were cooking something, with four or five people at a time tending to the pots and pans.
It didn’t seem like much of a relaxing family vacation to us. We ate our vegetables and beef (we also boiled some rice) at the picnic area and watched the sunset and drank beer. No clean up!
Another aspect of Japanese camping that Lisa and I snickered about was their affinity for laundry. The campsite was like the scene from Mission Impossible when Tom Cruse infiltrates CIA headquarters, except instead of red lasers there were clotheslines strewn about the landscape. There was laundry hung on fences, tents, bathroom doors, you name it. It’s like nobody even considered wearing the same underwear two days in a row.
Needless to say we didn’t do any laundry. What we did do was go to the Ikoinoie onsen every night. This was an indoor hot springs about a 20-minute walk from the campsite. It was cheap and we were able to shower with soap and shampoo (not provided) and relax in the hot spring. Of course, there were more naked dudes, but after two days I had adjusted to the heat and nudity.
We slept much better on the second night, mainly because we were exhausted, but also because our bodies had adapted to the environs. I still sweated balls. This spare tire around my midsection works well as a flotation device and also as a heat pouch.
By the morning of day 3 we were in good spirits and were finally in vacation mode. We rode our bikes to the south side of the island to walk along the hot springs trail and visit all three of the island’s natural outdoor onsen. We visited the Jinata hot springs first, which is the most renowned and definitely our favorite.
When the port was being built in 1908, three stonemasons from Shizuoka used their own free time to build a stairway down the cliff to the Jinata hot springs. The pools along the rocky coast are subsisted from the piping hot volcanic groundwater. Then the ocean water surges in to cool it down, providing a natural whirlpool effect. Before visiting Jinata be sure to check the tide chart. High tide is the coolest point, which was when we visited, and I found it to be perfect (probably too cool for most). If you arrive at low tide, the water can reach near boiling points (90 degrees C) and are uninhabitable.
The sea creatures crawling around Jinata springs – the crabs, silverfish, etc. – were also delightful.
The hike to Ashitsuki hot springs was a 10-minute downhill hike (make sure you don’t take the uphill branch to the observation point). This onsen was okay. The water was scalding, and you are only meant to dip your feet. It didn’t quite seem worth it to tip-toe barefoot over the sharp rocks and sand to dip our feet in hot water, but the view was nice.
The third onsen, Matsugashita miyabi hot springs, was another 5-minute hike, and was more modern. The hot springs are carved into the rock with stone benches surrounding the two pools. Water pipes pump in hot and cold water to control the temperature, making it more comfortable to dunk in your entire body. I should mention that all three of these outdoor hot springs require you to wear a bathing suit.
Matsugashita had a lovely manicured garden as well as an outdoor shower to help cool down. (By the third day I had also learned to take a brief cold shower whenever the chance allowed in order to help curb heat exhaustion.)
After this we set up camp at Oura Beach. I rigged the rain fly from our tent to act as a sun shade and we laid out on the beach for naps. We did some more snorkeling and later in the afternoon I had the brilliant idea of riding the bikes along the entire coast. I hadn’t seriously ridden a bike for over 5 years, so I thought a bike ride would be a nice way to revisit my childhood.
While the downhills were a rush, the uphills were a bitch. We spent most of our time pushing the bikes up the steep hills. I swear, they were like mountains.
Licking our wounds, we cut our bike ride short and returned to the beach for one last snorkeling venture.
That evening we returned to the indoor onsen for a bath. It was at this point I realized how badly sunburned my back was. I had applied sunscreen numerous times throughout the day, but the bright sun reflecting off of the glassy surface water had turned my back into microwaved bacon.
When we first arrived at the beach two days prior, I had mocked the people wearing full wetsuits to go snorkeling. The water was bathwater warm after all. Lisa pointed out they were protecting their skin from the sun, not the cold water.
By day 3 this made perfect sense to me and next time I promise not to be such a damn asshole.
However, considering the circumstances, my back could have been a whole lot worse. I didn’t develop any blisters like I have in the past, just a nice dark pink sheen.
For supper we went to the one izakaya-style restaurant on the island and had fresh sashimi and the local shochu.
We slept beautifully that night. The next morning we packed up rather quickly and sat on the beach for another hour just soaking in the view before heading back to the mainland.
We had come to be familiar with our tent neighbors, who were quite friendly and perhaps the only normal people camping at Shikine that week. They came to the island often and gave us great advice. For instance, they told us that most of the campers at Shikine mailed their luggage to the campsite through the post office. This seemed like cheating. But it only costs 1,500 yen, or $15, per package. Meanwhile, we said our goodbyes and Lisa and I lugged our luggage back to the port.
The jet ferry was exactly on time and it was a peaceful journey back to Tokyo. Our apartment was a welcome sight. The air conditioning, the ready shower and laundry, the toilet that wasn’t a five-minute walk away, were all conveniences we would not take for granted again.
Sure, the camping conditions didn’t meet my pre-conceptions and the heat was nearly unbearable at times. But this made the natural attractions of Shikine just that much more attractive and wondrous. The tropical fish, the views, the shooting stars at night, the private outdoor onsen along the coast, these were treasures you can’t experience anywhere else, and the hardships paid off in double.
Someday I would return to Shikine. We missed out on a few things, such as the fishing and hiking. The beaches and onsen are also worth revisiting again. We didn’t even get to lounge on Tomari Beach, if not the most beautiful, at the least the most photogenic beach, at Shikine.
The trip was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and it allowed for Lisa and I to recharge our batteries and spend some well-earned quality time together.