While they’re surrounded by sea, it’s on land where this cluster of volcanic islands embodies everything that makes regional Japan so special.
With rolling green hills dotted with grazing cows and views of sapphire-blue oceans on the horizon, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re on the English coastline. This scene, however, also describes Japan’s Oki Islands, in the Shimane Prefecture. It’s still a mystery why they aren’t swarmed with tourists.
The peacefulness of the islands – from largest to smallest, Dogo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima, and Chiburijima – has much to do with their isolation. It’s not the easiest place to reach, and travelling between islands requires catching ferries, but that’s the charm of it. Like an ice-cold Asahi is better after a steamy summer day exploring the city or a bowl of ramen more delicious after hours spent conquering pristine slopes, the effort to reach Oki makes you appreciate its charms even more.
At Shichirui Port on the mainland, I hop on the Oki Kisen ferry bound for Saigo Port on Dogo. In the year 724, Oki’s islands were designated as a prison for both criminals and exiled noblemen, including 14th-century emperor Godaigo. As I begin to explore these scenic islands, with their stunning views, sacred sites and abundant seafood, it’s difficult to believe being sent here was a punishment.
My first stop is Tamawakasumikoto Shrine, the main shrine on the islands and one with a recorded history that can be traced back to the Heian period (784–1185). These days it has been designated an important cultural asset of Japan. Despite the impressive architecture of the temple, it’s the Yaosugi tree I can’t stop staring at.
At 30 meters tall, this Japanese cedar, thought to be almost 2,000 years old, is the largest in Shimane Prefecture. It’s almost as if you can read the history of the island in this rugged and powerful tree’s branches and the cracks that penetrate the thick bark. It has been adorned with shide, zig-zag paper cut-outs most often seen hanging on the front of shrines, and a signifier of the Japanese spiritual appreciation for nature and beauty.
The next stop on Dogo is the roadside Kawai-no-Jizō, a freshwater spring where water levels remain constant. Even during drought or after a typhoon, everyone on Dogo knows this is a safe, accessible source of fresh, clean water.
Oki is a cluster of islands formed from volcanic activity. During the lifespan of the archipelago, layers of porous volcanic rock have built up. Rainwater passes through the volcanic layers where it’s naturally filtered. It pools deep inside this rock until pressure from the surrounding ocean pushes it back to the surface. The water is clean enough to drink, and locals often fill up bottles to use for drinking, making shochu (Japanese spirit) and cooking rice. I take a sip while statues of Jizō Bodhisattva, one of Japan’s most loved enlightened figures, watch over the spring.
Intrigued by the volcanic heritage of the island, I head by ferry to Mt. Akahage, the highest point on Chiburijima Island. From here, my guide points out that the four smaller Oki Islands are, in fact, sub-sections of the same volcanic crater. The ocean between them is the volcano’s crater, which erupted about 10 million years ago.
Trekking down Mt. Akahage, I make my way to the Sekiheki Red Cliff, a dramatic one-kilometre-long feature that follows the west coast of Chiburijima. Its gorgeous colour is another example of the island’s fascinating volcanic history. During an eruption, splashes of molten lava, rich with iron, shot from the volcano. Once it hit the air, the iron oxidised to create this firey red wall that cuts a striking figure over the blue sea.
From Chiburijima I make my way to the island’s northwestern neighbour, Nishinoshima, to witness a stunning display of untouched natural beauty. For 2.5 kilometres, the Kuniga Coast Hiking Track – the locals call it the skywalk – follows verdant hills, where cows and horses graze, with the deep blue ocean playing backdrop. While walking the serene trail you may feel as though you’re traversing the edge of the world.
Back at sea level is Nishinoshima’s immaculately decorated Yurahime Shrine. In a far cry to the serenity of the Kuniga Coast trail, the shrine holds some rather raucous festivals. During July, it is home to the Yurahime Shrine Matsuri, a traditional festival where tipsy local men carry a mikoshi (portable shrine) through the streets, chanting and swaying like the ocean tide.
Nishinoshima isn’t all about the past, though. I visit Sailing Coffee, a trendy third-wave cafe tucked between aging houses and sake shops. This coffee shop, gallery and retail space only opened in the second half of 2019, but is already gaining traction with the locals and guests who enjoy a masterfully crafted espressos while sitting in the afternoon sun. It’s places like this that are breathing fresh energy into Oki’s tradition-rich landscape.
One of the last places I want to visit on the itinerary is Chichi Sugi Tree, a mystical and mysterious cedar growing near the top of Mt. Daimanji on Dogo. Chichi means breast in Japanese and this is a reference to its unique root formations that dangle from the tree, as well as the 800-year-old cedar’s motherly energy.
Similar to Tamawakasumikoto Shrine’s cedar, where I started my journey, Chichi Sugi is a reminder of how spiritually connected the people of Oki are to their natural surroundings. Practising spirituality isn’t a duty or something separated from everyday life, but as natural and honourable as these trees that sprouted long before this generation exited and will continue to live long after all who look over it have gone. There’s something inherently humbling about that thought.
Before hopping back on the boat, I stop by Dogo’s Tsuki Akari Cafe to get my last fix of Oki’s incredible seafood and am treated to a live shamisen and folk songs performed by Oki locals. The traditional songs come from tradespeople, sailors and people from far away, but are today performed with a narrative shaped by the Oki Islands.
I ask one of the staff members about a kite hanging from the ceiling, and she tells me that, during a festival in April, two giant kites similar to this are made and inscribed with the names of the children born in the previous year. It’s an ode to the future generations who will continue to shape these magnificent islands.
This story is sponsored by JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization).
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 ferry departures to the Oki islands from both. oki-kisen.co.jp