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The Galapagos of the Orient

For those seeking a taste of the tropics, along with some serious isolation from the masses, look no further than Japan’s Ogasawara Islands. Often referred to as one of Tokyo’s lesser-known getaways, it’s a stretch trying to pass these off as a “Tokyo destination” seeing as how they lie approximately 1,000 km (620 mi) due south of the city. Yet despite the distance, yes, this group of islands is still technically part of Tokyo Prefecture.

Also known as the Bonin Islands, those familiar with WWII history in the Pacific might know that Iwo Jima is one of the many in this archipelago of some 30 islands.

Apart from the rare few joining the annual military historical tour of Iwo Jima, visitors to the Ogasawara Islands must take a ferry to Chichi-jima (“Father Island”). This is the most developed island in the chain, with a population of approximately 2,000. Haha-jima (“Mother Island”), about 50 km (30 mi) to the south, is less developed and is accessible by daily ferry from Chichi-jima. All other islands are uninhabited.

The trip is definitely a bit of a commitment, and probably not recommended for those who get seasick easily. There are no flights there so the only way to reach these islands is by overnight ferry, departing 1–2 times per week from Takeshiba Pier in Tokyo. The journey takes about 25 hours (not a typo) under normal conditions and can cost anywhere in the ¥25,000–¥65,000 range (US$200–$500) for a one-way ticket, depending on season as well as cabin class. More information on schedules and fares can be found here.

What’s the attraction of such a long-haul journey when one can just fly to Okinawa or any number of other picturesque islands in the region?

For starters, due to the isolation of these islands, they have been dubbed the “Galapagos of the Orient.” As with their namesake, many species of plant and animal life can only be found here, having developed in relative isolation from any other landmasses. Many islands are also still free of invasive varieties of flora and fauna. Given the importance of their location and features, these islands were added to UNESCO’s list of World Natural Heritage sites in 2011.

Many tourists come here for the ample opportunities to experience world-class scuba diving, whale watching, snorkeling, and sea kayaking. There are dozens of dive spots around these islands, providing a chance to swim with dolphins, green turtles, eagle rays, sharks, and even a few WWII-era wrecks.

The islands are characterized by their rugged, pristine beauty—complete with white sand beaches, coves, lagoons, and sea cliffs. Minami-jima, a small island just off the southwest coast of Chichi-jima, is one of the most famous attractions, and features a limestone arch and beautiful lagoon. There are numerous other beaches and snorkeling spots only accessible by kayak for those who want a bit more adventure.

To get the lay of the land, there are hiking options as well, often leading to spectacular hilltop viewpoints. Haha-jima has a four-hour hiking loop including a way up the 463-meter tall Chibusa-yama (literally, “Breast Mountain”).

The added benefit of spending time in this unique environment is being virtually guaranteed the chance to take in some of these sights with no one else around, especially if spending some time on Haha-jima during the “off-peak” tourist season.

Experiences like this can be a rare thing indeed for the vast majority of travelers hopping around Asia.