Okinawa is undoubtably the best known for being a tropical jewl in the South of Japan. Many flock there each year to escape the dog eat dog world of Tokyo for some R&R. What many don’t know is that if you are looking for an island getaway, there are a few options closer to home. Niijima is one of those options.
Niijima is a small island located 2 hours and 20 minutes away by jet boat from Takeshiba Sanbashi Pier, in Tokyo, operated by Tōkai Kisen. Tōkai Kisen also operates a 9-hour overnight ferry. The ferry leaves Takeshiba Sanbashi at 22h00 (23h00 in the summer months) and arrives early morning in Izu Ōshima(approximately 6h00), before continuing on to To-shima (7h00), Nii-jima (8h00), Shikine-jima (8h30), and Kōzu-shima (9h30). The ferry then returns following the same route, leaving Nii-jima at 12h00 and docking in Tokyo at 17h00. It is possible that in rough weather, the ferry is unable to dock in Nii-jima.
There are daily flights, weather permitting, from Chōfu Airport located in western Tokyo. The flight takes approximately 45 minutes.
Niijima-mura also operates a high-speed ferry between Nii-jima and Shikine-jima with 3 boats per day, and 4 per day in the summer months.
Habushi Beach, on the eastern side of the island, is a nationally protected reserve with its waves and white sand, and is a good location for surfing. The beach is approximately 6.5 km long and is overlooked by koga volcanic cliffs, the highest of which is 250 meters.
Moyai Hill, overlooking Yunohama and Maehama beaches, contains more than 100 large stone carvings. In the local dialect, moyai means ‘to work together in effort’, and these statues make evident this effort. On the western side of JR Shibuya in Tokyo proper is a giant moyai statue, a gift from the people of Nii-jima.
Yunohama Onsen hot spring, on Yunohama Beach, is a large outdoor bath built in the style of pseudo-Greek ruins that provides stunning panoramic views of the setting sun and the Pacific Ocean. The bath itself accommodates up to 100 bathers. Water used in the bath is drawn from the ocean below.
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 the island. This shrine, built in the Edo period, is recognized as caretakers of intangible cultural assets by the Tokyo government for the kagura music and sacred dancing, known as shishi-kiyari that are held every December 8.
Nearby Jūsansha is Chōei-ji, Chōei Temple, a temple dedicated to Nichiren Buddhism. Beside the temple lies the Exiles’ Cemetery. The cemetery, covered with the local white sand, is dominated by the gravestones of the 118 exiles, banished to Niijima by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo era for non-political crimes.
A short walk from Chōei Temple is the Exile Execution Ground. Eleven exiles who committed crimes on the island were executed here. Komori Yasu, from the kabuki story ‘Yowa Nasake Ukinano Yokoguchi’ is buried here.
Niijima’s glassblowing museum
For thousands of years the Japanese have known how to make glass. But, only one area in Tokyo, and indeed Japan, can offer a truly unique take on traditional glass production in – and a take matched in only one other place in the world – a small island off the coast of Italy.
That place is Niijima Island, roughly 150km South of Tokyo in the midst of the Izu Island chain, commonly called the Izu Seven, and whilst not a real part of Tokyo to many, is as politically and geographically as much a portion of the Japanese capital as Shinjuku or Ginza.
The island and others in the chain were formed of volcanic activity over a period of several millions of years, and although effectively cut off from the mainland in the era of recorded human history, have served as an integral part of Japanese domestic expansion and history – especially in the years since the early 17th century when they were, for a time used as a place of exile.
The sand on Niijima – the core ingredient of any form of glass around the world – can only be matched in form and make-up by the same silica based sandstone found in a small area of Italy.
On a worldwide scale, this sand truly is unique and when processed into its molten form, heated and reheated numerous times on its way to becoming a simple drinking glass, household ornament or exquisite paperweight, the Niijima sand appears as any other form of the superheated material in a hundred thousand glassmakers the world over.
Only upon cooling does it attain its green hue; a hue that can be dark or light – the variation found primarily in the thickness and purpose of the piece produced and then the shade of green is largely dependent on factors relating to the actual production process.
This glass, although sold elsewhere and seen in exhibitions is only produced in the Niijima Glass Art Center, itself in operation since 1987.
A decade later, in 1997, a museum on the same site started to display the works of masters in glass production from around the world but primarily from the EU, USA and Japan. At any given time, one or more of these individuals may have their pictures hung on the wall of the main production center not far from the main port on the island along with a number of his or her students.
Indeed, several of those invited to Niijima over the years have gone so far as to donate pieces of their work to the annual Niijima International Glass Art festival with in excess of eighty pieces now received in such a manner – reasons as varied in form and as unique – some might say oddball – in form for visiting both this gorgeous little island and the aptly named Niijima Glass Art Center that could, literally, exist nowhere else in Japan, in Asia and in only one other place on earth.
Niijima Glass Art Center is a world-renowned site which hosts the Niijima International Glass Art Festival every autumn. At the center, visitors are able to create their own glass work to take home. Next to the museum is the Niijima Glass Art Museum which houses works from guest artists at the festival.
If you are a history buff, the Niijima-mura Museum is the place to go. The museum houses artifacts from the island’s pre-history up to its modern-day surfing culture. Included is a replica fishing vessel and house from the Edo period. Details of the criminal exiles are given. A collaborative effort between the education board and the English department at Niijima High School ensured that the museum is completely bilingual: Japanese-English.
Where to stay
If you are looking for a place to stay on Niijima, just click here for a nice hotel, B&B or a Japanese style Ryokan.
Should you prefer to go ‘back to nature’ or you don’t have a big budget, Roughly halfway down the shore is a free campsite, which comes complete with a field kitchen and showers. If you want to stay the night, you’ll need to register at the Sports Hiroba next-door, but this is a quick and painless process. Over on the west coast, meanwhile, Maehama Beach offers prime surfing, windsurfing, sport fishing and scuba diving.
The best way to get around Niijima is by bicycle, which can be rented for about ¥1,500 a day. Cycling around the island is a reason to go in itself, with the mountains to the south and the isolated shrines and village to the north proving particularly attractive destinations. If you’re hiking or walking, head south to the stunning white volcanic ash cliffs of Shiromama, at the end of Habushiura Beach.
Niijima is sufficiently compact that you can enjoy an ocean sunrise in the morning and then head to the other side of the island in time to catch the sunset.
Photo by Charles Glover
One of the best places to view it from is Yunohama Onsen, located just south of the port. This spacious outdoor hot spring has a faintly absurd Greco-Roman motif and numerous pools, including one built 15 meters atop a boulder. Entrance is free, and bathers are required to wear swimsuits, meaning that you can share the experience with your friends or significant other.
Though Niijima is doable as a day trip, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to stay a lot longer. With its relaxed pace of life and welcoming locals, the difference from central Tokyo couldn’t be more pronounced. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself considering moving there and creating your own self-imposed exile.