Izu Oshima: The volcanic island that time and Tokyo forgot

Izu Oshima: The volcanic island that time and Tokyo forgot

A tropical-island escape without leaving Tokyo -- officially
Izu Oshima
Izu Oshima
Izu Oshima
Izu Oshima
Izu Oshima
Lack of crowds and clear waters make Izu Oshima a closer, cheaper option than Okinawa for a beach weekend. (image by Flickr user *_*)

Let's be honest: Nobody in their right mind picks Izu Oshima as their first holiday destination. Go ahead, tell a Tokyoite you're shipping out there for the weekend. You might as well tell them you're planning to spend a few days in Timbuktu. The name doesn't exactly fill mainlanders with the warm and fuzzies. Until the early 20th century, social undesirables were banished to the island. More recently it's become associated with the more grisly side of Japanese pop culture. In "Godzilla 1985," the Japanese government dumped the eponymous monster into the bubbling caldera of the island's Mount Mihara volcano, and the mother of Sadako in the J-horror classic "The Ring" was born here.

Though technically part of Tokyo, Izu Oshima is a two-hour hydrofoil ride from Tokyo's Takeshiba port terminal, or a 45-minute plane hop from Haneda or Chofu airports. But this physical and psychological distance is precisely what's preserved its natural charm. Rugged coastlines, plunging cliff faces, strange topography, black-sand beaches, lush forests scarred by lava flows and clear seas that teem with life make the island feel utterly distant from the urban madness of Tokyo.

One thing the island definitely isn't is glamorous. Its inhabitants dwell in the same suburban prefab housing that blights the mainland. Hotels tend toward 'rustic' (a charitable description). But for those who prefer Japan's quieter, subtler charms over mindless tourist glitz, Izu-Oshima can offer a tropical-style weekend excursion that's every bit as satisfying as Okinawa -- minus the hassle and expense.

Drive it

Izu Oshima's circumference is almost exactly that of a marathon -- 26.2 miles. In fact, the island is often used by professional runners as a training ground. Circumnavigating the whole thing by car takes about an hour.

Since buses run sporadically and taxis are expensive, rental cars are the best way to get around Izu Oshima. Rentals can be arranged through a travel agent or a local rental agency, which often send agents to meet boats as they dock in the harbor.

Dive it

Chigasaki Point is a popular site for scuba divers and snorkelers. In the shallows, snorkelers can expect to encounter luminescent comb jellies, a variety of crabs, anemones, swaying kelp beds, spotted moray eels, dozens of tiny rock-hugging fish and even the occasional (harmless) nurse shark. For the scuba-certified, there are a variety of dive operations on Izu Oshima catering to Japanese-speaking divers.

Climb it

The hike up Mt. Mihara is the quintessential Izu Oshima experience. It's a relatively easy climb. A paved path snakes up the side of the volcano, linking to a half-hour loop trail that rings the caldera. Spectacular views abound from both the slopes and peak. The wonderfully desolate landscape, mainly jagged volcanic rocks and boulders, is unlike anything found on mainland Japan. The trailhead is accessible via bus, taxi, or car via the Gojinka Skyline, a scenic highway that snakes through the hills leading to the volcano.

Beach it

Izu Oshima's isn't as warm as Okinawa, but the black sands and vodka-clear waters are a perfect antidote to the blazing summer sun. Noda-hama and Hinode-hama are popular beaches on the western and northern sides of the island. Aki-no-hama and Memezu-hama are family favorites on the eastern shore.

Eat it

Not surprisingly, the island's cuisine is seafood based, with lots of fresh sashimi and bekko-don (strips of raw fish marinated in a pungent sauce and arranged over rice). The local delicacy is the aptly named kusaya -- literally 'stinky fish.' Salt-cured using a traditional process, its aroma is legendary -- something like a cross between sewage and decomposing flesh. For some the flavor is mellower than the smell. For others it's a hard-fought 'acquired taste.' They say it goes better with a glass or three of the local shochu -- but then again, what doesn't?

Otomodachi (1-17-3 Motomachi, Oshima-machi, tel + 81 (0) 4992 2 0026), an izakaya located a short walk from Izu-Oshima's ferry terminal, is a great place to get a feel for local cuisine. It's open daily for lunch and dinner, with lunch sets priced at ¥1,200. A variety of seasonal kusaya is offered separately at ¥1,000 a plate, with more than enough food for two.

Soak it

As a volcanic island, Izu Oshima is filled with natural hot springs and several good onsens. Island Center Gojinka Onsen (1-8 Aza Naka no Hara, Motomachi, Oshima-machi, tel +81( 0) 4992 2 0909, adult admission ¥1,000) is good for a hot bath. It has a pool, as well.

Hotel

The Akamon (1-16-7 Motomachi, Oshima-machi, tel +81 (0) 4992 2 2860) is a charming if slightly rundown ryokan located minutes from Izu Oshima's main port. Built on the site of a former daimyo mansion, it features a display of vintage weapons and armor in the lobby and has its own onsen. Excellent multi-course ryokan breakfasts and dinners are included with room fees. Much of the food is prepared with local ingredients.

Getting there

The easiest way to arrange travel to Izu Oshima is through a local travel agent, such as Kintetsu Tourist. During the July-August high season most agencies offer packages that include transport and lodging.

The cheapest way to get to the island is via hydrofoil 'jet boats.' There are multiple departures daily from Tokyo's Takeshiba Pier. Sea travel is dependent on the weather, with heavy fog sometimes shutting down hydrofoil service -- flexibility and patience are required, particularly in June when the rainy season can wreak havoc on schedules.

Daily flights to Izu Oshima depart from Haneda and Chofu airports.

For English-language tourist information on Izu Oshima, click here.

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt run AltJapan Co., Ltd., a Tokyo-based  company that specializes in translating video games and other pop culture. They are the co-authors of "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide," "Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws," and "Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide."

Read more:

Matt Alt, for CNN Travel
Hiroko Yoda, for CNN Travel

Read more about Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt