Niijima; the official region of Tokyo you’ve that probably never heard of. It sits 160km offshore from the city in the Izu Islands, a cluster of volcanic isles known for their azure waters, lush green forests, onsen (hot springs) and seafood. Part of the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park, the island chain are like the peaks of a submerged mountain range that arcs seaward from Japan’s iconic Fuji.
After a few days enjoying the manic energy of the big city we set our sights on Niijima, which varies from many of the other islands in the Izu chain as it also has surf. Although on paper its classified as a part of Tokyo, the island is so quiet and relaxed that it feels a billion miles removed from anywhere on earth, let alone one of the busiest cities in the world. And the water colour isn’t the work of photo shop – it’s truly something else!
While we hoped to score waves, we chose Niijima over more accessible Tokyoite surf favorites like Chiba as Niijima is typically less busy outside peak summer months, and offers a range of other experiences. OK, plus we saw pretty pictures online (we’re completely shallow when it comes to scenery). Even without waves, Niijima offers a tropical getaway vibe with a distinct Japanese twist.
It’s small enough that most visitors opt to hire a pushbike to get around (the island is just 24 square kilometers, or 9.3 square miles), but just because it’s tiny doesn’t mean there’s little to do. Here’s just a few of Niijima’s many draw cards:
No matter where you venture in Niijima you’ll find giant stone carvings. In local dialect, moyai means to come together as a team, and the island’s artisans have done so by creating hundreds of sculptures and structures and peppering them right across the island. You can also spot these distinctive moyai statues gifted by the Island to greater Tokyo in places like Shibuya and Takeshiba, but there’s no beating actually seeing them set against the brilliant blue hues of the island’s waters. Our boys loved discovering new ones at each area we ventured to around Niijima – there’s even a stone ‘zoo’ with carved animals and a slide built just for kids to explore, to find it look for the painted pandas outside sports centre beside the campgrounds (free admission).
When your open air hot spring bath is on a cliff overlooking the ocean, only thing left to do is just soak it all in. The bay views from Niijima’s open air free hot springs, Yunohama, are pretty spectacular. Unlike onsen in other parts of Japan, this one is for all genders and requires a swimsuit – making it epic for families wanting to share a Japanese onsen experience without getting nude or having to split up into male/female areas. It’s open 24/7, has change rooms and lockers, offers a variety of pools of different temperatures all with amazing views, and did I mention it’s free? Amazing.
There’s also a more private paid onsen spa nearby, and aside from hot baths it offers hot sand saunas where you’re completely covered by Niijima’s volcanic sand for a therapeutic twist.
Tokyo’s Niijima island is more than just beaches, bays and onsens (although clearly we dig those!). Jūsansha Jinja is a Shinto shrine at the base of the cliffs of Mt. Miyatsuka in the north-western corner of the main village on Niijima. It’s so lush, green and tropical here, it looks as if jungle could swallow the shrine whole if it wasn’t cared for. Built in the Edo period, this shrine is recognized as caretakers of kagura music and sacred dancing, known as shishi-kiyari.
Chōei-ji Temple is also fairly close by, and is devoted to Nichiren Buddhism. It’s besides this temple that the Exiles’ Cemetery lies – where the gravestones of the 118 exiles who were banished to Niijima by the Tokugawa Shogunate. (Apparently there’s also an execution ground from this era somewhere else on the island too, but we didn’t seek this out).
Both sites are fairly modest in size, and unlike more famous shrines and temples in other parts of the country there’s absolutely no crowds here – so serene, and dare we say spiritual, that we felt like we’d stepped back in time.
PLAY & HIKE
To stretch little legs, Habushiura Park is a beachside green space that offers lots of room for kids to play. It’s also close to the stone zoo mentioned earlier, which has a great little playground and is dotted with painted moyai in a variety of animal shapes.
Water Park, a hillside parkland area designed to look like ancient Greece with more stone sculptures surrounded by water fountains and ponds, is also bound to be a kid pleaser.
For a more strenuous walks there’s trails around the various beaches and peaks – Mt Miyatsuka is highest (432 m) point on the island, with views back to the mainland, or seek out the hiking trails around Mt Tangoyama.
When heated, Niijima’s distinctive volcanic sand creates a famous and coveted olive green coloured glass, a hue only achieved from the sand found in two places in the world – Niijima and Italy. Not far from Yunohama hot spring perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, Niijima Glass Art Centre and Museum buildings house glass creations both functional and fantastical. Both buildings are open to the public, and you’ll be able to witness closehand how they fashion the molten-hot glass into works of art. Admission is free.
It may sound like a tricky place to visit with kids (bull in a china shop, anyone?) but the staff were very friendly and accommodating, even allowing us to go into the workshop to see the glass being made – both our children were fascinated with the glass production process, and spent forever marveling at the finished art.
The island also has its own museum, Niijima Musuem, which documents the history of the island and its people. It’s full of lifesize displays and a replica of a giant ancient fishing boat, and would be another great wet weather fallback spot to keep kids entertained.
SNORKELING & ISLAND HOPING
The bays of Niijima offer good snorkeling and diving opportunities, and daytrips to nearby Shikine- jima with its calm rocky coves and reefs is also highly recommended by the locals. Shikine-jima is also bubbling with natural hot springs, with several rocks pools that require the tide to be cooled by seawater to reach swimming temperature.
There’s no shortage of other islands nearby to explore too. As mentioned, Nijima is just one of an island group known as the Izu Seven (also consisting of O-shima, To-shima, Kozu-shima, Miyake-jima, Mikura-jima and Hachijo-jima). O-shima is the closest to the mainland, and subsequently the most visited. It’s dominated by an active volcano, Mt Mihara, that erupts every 30-40 years – it’s thought to be sacred and was once called gojinkasama (a mountain that lights the fire of a god). It’s dotted with hot springs and hiking trails.
To-shima, the second island from land, is also favored for snorkeling and scuba. Nijjima lies third out, while fourth is Kozushima, which also has a couple of active volcanos and amazing hiking terrain. It’s also got Akasaki boardwalk, a platform for snorkeling and diving that has to be seen to be believed.
The last two big islands in the chain offer even more remote hiking and scuba, and towering active volcanos in a chain that has erupted six times in the last century. Miyakejima has Mount Ayama, while Hachijo has both Mt Mihara and Mt Hachijo-Fuji (854 m) which can be hiked to see the volcanic vent. Hachijo also has a surf beach at Shioma. (For a visual layout, see map at base of page).
BEACHES & SURF
Habushiura Beach is Niijima’s most well known surf beach, and ‘Main Gate’ refers to the break near the big iconic white building that straddles the beach. On the eastern side of the island, it’s a nationally protected reserve koga volcanic cliffs, the highest of which is 250 meters.
Though you can’t tell from looking at its clear blue water along the shoreline there are lots of little rocks and boulders getting thrown around in the shorebreak, making it a tad unsafe to swim or body surf with kids – be careful getting in and out. Still, it’s supposed to offer fun barreling left and right peaks in the right conditions
Trek to the end of the stunning white volcanic ash cliffs of Shiromama, at the end of Habushiura Beach, and you’ll find one of the most coveted break on the island, Secrets. It’s quite the mission to get there – the nearest carpark is 2km away – but once there it was surprisingly busy with surfers (lots of the locals drive their 4×4’s in).
In the off season (Dec-April) you might just scored this left hander roaring into life. Even when there’s little to no waves, the scalloped coastline on this side of the island offers lots of little secluded spots to admire the view, including Mt Fuji on a clear day, and it’s right next to that stunning open air hot spring mentioned above. And the tiny rocky island accessible from the beach at low tide? You may not be able to see it from the shore, but it has the coolest carved staircase to help you climb around oceanside to watch the sunset in complete seclusion.
Close to town and the port, this 4km arc-shaped beach located in the western side of the island has generally calm seas and is easily accessible – making it the most popular spot for beachgoers and wind surfers.
There’s also plenty more beaches scattered around the island to explore, each with their own charm.
Surf Station at Habushiura beach has boards for rent, while Kye Surf in town also has boards from 3000 Yen per day.
For rundowns of the island’s breaks (and others around Japan) visit Surfing In Japan
Niijima’s known for its fishing and abundant seafood, so there’s a distinct sea theme going on. The island delicacy is kasuya, a fermented fish that we weren’t game to try, but for fresher fish here’s a sushi place and a couple of little restaurants peppered around, and we enjoyed amazing Hawaiian style poke bowls at Pool and Park, a cool little café and gift shop tucked away in the backstreets near the museum in town.
There’s only one western style hotel on the island, and the rest of the accommodations are mainly minshukan, a Japanese style bed and breakfast that usually charge per person as opposed to per room. But this is where Niijima truly starts feeling like a time warp. Remember before the internet how you’d actually have to call to book a hotel, and you never knew if you really had a booking until you showed up? Well, don’t be distressed if you can’t find a way to book any accommodation for the island online. All bookings for the island seem to go through the local Tourism Board, and they prefer phone bookings (if time differences make it tricky to call you’ll find an email address on their website,) but you won’t be able to pay until you arrive – in cash! Yes, you’re still in one of the tech cities in the world, but it’s on island time.
We stayed at Surf Station positioned right by Habushiura Beach and parklands, like little simple self contained cabins with a central restaurant/cafe run by a lovely surfing family who really made us feel at home. It’s the absolute perfect spot if you’re here for surfing, but otherwise if you’re travelling with young children you may be best to stay portside in town closer to shops and amenities – Habushiura is quite isolated and there’s no public transport. For solo travelers or couples, newer Hostel Nabla is reportedly good.
Many travellers opt for the free beachside campsite down at Habushiura, which is one of the coolest freecamping spots we’ve seen anywhere – bathroom and cooking facilities, gorgeous natural setting, and lots of wide open space. You can’t book a site – it’s a first come first in basis.
BEFORE YOUR GO
There’s only two ATM’s on the entire island, and as mentioned above most accommodations expect payment in cash, so be sure to get enough money out to get by before you go. To get more information about the island or plan or book activities ahead, visit the island tourism site.
The Izu chain can be accessed from Tokyo in two hours by jet ferry or nine hours by overnight ferry, while daily turbo-prop flights from Chofu Airport in western Tokyo take about forty-five minutes. A ferry is also available from Shimoda in southeast Izu (about three hours). For a family it is expensive to get there (high speed ferries and light planes don’t run cheap), but we opted for ferry and justified the expense figuring once we’re there many of the main attractions are free. Besides, the high speed ferry is like a hydrofoil and a bit of a novelty for the kids to experience in of itself – it jets across the water in a breeze, swooping past islands. Seeing Tokyo Bay and Mt Fuji from the water at sunset made it even more enjoyable.
The high speed ferry runs once per day, while a slower overnight ferry only runs over the peak summer months. For ferry times and information visit the Tokkai Kissen website.
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