Shimane by the Sea

Shimane by the Sea

When you weary of the crowds in Japan’s cities, head to the Oki archipelago. These four islands in the Shimane Prefecture offer a sublime dose of nature.

Imagine Japan. What do you see? Likely the cloud-tickling skyscrapers of Tokyo and ancient teahouses of Kyoto. In reality, those two images are far from representative of Japan’s compact but diverse landscape. Less than two hours by boat north of the mainland of Shimane Prefecture, I find myself surrounded by the Sea of Japan, at the doorstep of the Oki Islands, a volcanic cluster of unrefined beauty and drama.

From largest to smallest, the rundown of the Oki Islands goes like this: Dogo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima and Chiburijima. Together they’re home to spectacular coastal scenery, including epic cliffs and pristine beaches, lush mountain walks through ancient forests, diverse populations of wildlife and, in more recent times, UNESCO Global Geoparks Network recognition.

While you can get to the islands by aeroplane, it’s far more scenic and affordable to catch the Oki Island Ferry. By the time the ship has sailed, it’s clear this is also the best way to understand the locals’ love of the sea.

While the other three of the Oki islands are clustered together in tight formation, like three pieces of a slowly separating jigsaw puzzle, Dogojima is a separate entity. Compared to Tokyo, the large, lonely island’s population of just 15,000 residents seems minuscule, but it plays the role of the capital of the islands. It’s the biggest fish in a small pond. What Dogojima lacks in population, however, it makes up for in unparalleled scenic views and ecological diversity.

If you were to ask the locals to pick just one location on the map that was representative of the island, they’d likely pick Candle Rock, also known as Rosoku-jima. Sitting just off Dogojima’s northwest coastline of, Rosoku-jima is a 20-metre-tall rock formation only accessible by a sightseeing boat.

At 4pm we head out on the cruising boat, cameras poised and skipper primed to manoeuvre his charge into position. While the rock’s uniquely tapered, candle-like shape is impressive throughout the day, it’s especially so pre-sunset. With boat, rock and setting light source correctly aligned, the sun plays the role of the candle flame, glittering gold and red light atop the slim rock.

Battling greying skies and a mischievous ocean breeze that coated camera lenses in a fine layer of sea water, we take shot after shot in an attempt to capture the balanced fragility and compelling beauty of this icon of Dogojima.

A little closer to shore sits another of Dogojima’s famed attractions: the humble boathouses that line the rocky beach. With roofing held down by oversized stones and at just ¥1,500 (about AU$20) a year to rent, they are a perfect example of Dogo’s laid-back yin to the dramatic yang of Candle Rock.

While Dogojima is the largest of the Oki family, when it comes to coastal attractions, biggest doesn’t necessarily mean best. Nishinoshima is the home of the Kuniga Coast, a rugged 13-kilometre-long fringe of the island with eroded cliff formations that resemble oversized abstract sculptures.

At 257 meters tall, with its blood red face contrasting against the impossibly blue water of the Sea of Japan, Matengai is the centrepiece of Kuniga Coast. Walking tours take visitors to admire the stunning site, but the best way to get up close is by boat.

On an almost impossibly perfect day, we depart Beppu Port to cruise Nishinoshima’s most dramatic side. Chugging past the monstrously tall Kanabo-iwa and So Butsuzo-iwa cliffs, and intermittently dipping in and out of sea caves Otohime-goten and Takimi-no-iwaya, we’re treated to endless naturally crafted masterpieces, each more dramatic than the last. But if the preceding cliffs are masterpieces Matengai Cliff is the Mona Lisa, such is its perfection.

While the Oki islands are without question a boat lover’s paradise, when the waves are rough – no rarity here – it doesn’t mean the opportunity to admire the coastal beauty is only out at sea. You can easily be swept away by incredible views while still having two feet planted on solid ground.

In a northeastern corner of Dogo Island is the Joudogaura Coast, a pocket of picture-perfect views that’s easy to hunt down if you can write in Japanese (search 浄土ケ浦海岸). To get to its most scenic section, our guide tells us to take the slippery, foliage-covered walking path. It isn’t an easy trek but is well worth the extra 15-minute slog to arrive at a primo spot for photography. Around 2.65 million years ago, volcanic activity crafted this dramatic scene. Thick basalt lava spewed 10 metres into the air then settled along the coast and nearby Cape Sakiyama to create a black layer-cake effect. It feels somehow prehistoric but sea erosion and wind constantly sculpts and reforms its shape in a type of live art performance. You can almost read the history in every sagging lava rock and sharp cliff edge that towers above the deep ocean.

Dogo’s other must-visit viewpoint is the Shirashima Coast Lookout, located on the northernmost tip of the island. The geological formations that make up the neighbouring landscape are yet another example of the almost logic-defying diversity of this small landmass. Just moments ago we were snapping photos of the dramatic black landscape at Joudogaura, and now we’re admiring the pure white rocks that make up the cliffs of Shirashima.

While they’re better known for their outdoor pursuits than their artistic output, you can certainly get a little creative here on the Oki islands. After a long few days trekking along the coast and bobbing in the ocean, we head to Dogo’s Kurui Port to experience the marine world in a different way.

The paints are set out in the classroom, newspaper is laid down and there’s a box of clean, palm-sized shells from which to choose for an oyster decorating class. The teacher shows us a few example pieces before giving us a rundown on the process. Basically, there are no rules; just do as you want and let your creativity run wild. Others in the class outline maps of the island and re-create beach scenes. I decide to paint the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog), a mischievous symbol of Dogo. These fuzzy Japanese natives can be spotted across the island, weaving in and out of the bush. Painting the shell is more tranquil art therapy than class and much more fun than I had thought it was going to be. After about 40 minutes of almost zen-like concentration, carefully tracking the tiny peaks and valleys on the shell’s interior, I have a tanuki-adorned oyster as a souvenir of my time exploring this untouched island corner of Japan.

This story is sponsored by JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization).


Get there


There are about seven flights a day from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Yonago Kitaro Airport, the closest place to fly to to access Sakaiminato Port. Alternatively, you can catch a train to Matsue and connect by bus to Shichirui Port. There are regular departures to the Oki islands from both.


Get Informed

Find out more about what you can see and do in the Oki archipelago at the Travel Oki Islands website or the official JNTO site.

Words Lucy Dayman

Photos Lucy Dayman

Tags: island hopping, japan, natural japan, oki islands, sea of japan, shimane prefecture

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