The islands where foxes fly

Located 1,000km from Tokyo, Japan’s 30-island Bonin archipelago was never part of a larger land mass – leading to a wealth of biodiversity that’s worth the 25-hour ferry ride.

Our ship eased out of Tokyo Bay, leaving behind the noise and neon of the city. It was well before 11am, but a few of the old men on deck were already tipping back cans of Asahi beer.

In fairness, we had time to kill. The ferry voyage out to Japan’s Bonin Islands (called the Ogasawara Islands in Japanese), which is the only way to reach the country’s most isolated archipelago, covers 1,000km, takes 25 hours and leaves just once a week. The ride is choppy too. Yet no shortage of people want to visit: I shared a cabin floor with more than 100 other passengers, a space that promptly filled with blankets, instant noodles and the beeping of game consoles.

Bonin’s popularity, despite the archipelago’s isolation, says a great deal about its allure. We were headed for an island group that has never been part of any other landmass, a phenomenon that has led to an unusually high number of endemic animal, bird and plant species – including 441 native plant species, 379 endemic insect species and 134 native land snail species. Thanks to these numbers, in 2011, Unesco added the more than 30 islands – nicknamed “the Galapagos of the Orient” – to the World Heritage List.

Since then, the islands have, strangely enough, grown. A undersea eruption resulted in a brand-new volcanic island poking up above the waves in November 2013. The island continued to grow throughout December and by January 2014 had ballooned to some 60,000sqm in size. Authorities excitedly christened it Niijima, or “new island”. Then, as quickly as it appeared, Niijima became too big for its own good. No sooner had the barren outcrop asserted its existence, belching out a steamy greeting to the world, than its expanding girth fused it with the nearby island of Nishinoshima.

The Bonin Islands’ tectonic commotion is apt. While the archipelago might give every impression of calm and quietude – more than evident when I checked into my tiny, slippers-only guesthouse, the Banana Inn, on Chichijima, the group’s largest island and home to the majority of the island group’s 2,400-strong population – it is certainly no stranger to change. Once known as the Bonin (or “uninhabited”) Islands, the archipelago was settled by an opportunistic US trader in 1830 before being claimed by Japan in 1862. In World War II, the islands became an arena for fighting between Japanese and US troops. Former US president George Bush was shot down in a torpedo bomber just off the coast in September 1944, an accident in which his two co-pilots perished. After falling into US hands in 1946, the Bonin chain returned to Japanese ownership in 1968.

Today, the grouping still bears the influence of decades of American rule. Many residents have joint Japanese-US ancestry, and the occasional Star-Spangled Banner still flaps in the tropical breeze. Officially, however, the islands are 100% Japanese; indeed, despite sitting in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000km south of the capital city, they’re technically part of the Greater Tokyo prefecture.

While Tokyo itself might be defined by the presence of millions and the march of technology,  the wildlife takes undisputed centre stage on Bonin. An afternoon boat trip from Chichijima Island transported me into a realm of 2m-long stingrays and hyperactive humpback whales; at one point a seething mating pod turned the waters around the boat into a froth of tail-slaps and spouting blowholes. Strapping on a snorkel in a quiet bay off Miyano-hama Beach on Chichijima, I found leopard-patterned sea snakes and bulge-eyed groupers lurking above lavender-coloured coral. 

The show continued on land. Endemic giant hermit crabs traced paths along the beaches, bush warblers sang from red hibiscus plants and each day at sunset the skies came alive with Bonin flying foxes – disconcertingly large, bat-like creatures that exist only here.

For the people that live on the Bonin archipelago, the arrival of the weekly ferry from Tokyo is an income lifeline. But foreign visitors are hardly treated as walking wallets. On my last night on Chichijima, a local man with poor English decided that I, with my even poorer Japanese, would be treated to tuna sashimi, seaweed rice balls, chicken skewers and a seemingly never-ending supply of shōchū (barley spirit). I was ushered from counter-top restaurant to karaoke bar, all the while having my offers of payment steadfastly refused. “You are our guest here,” one of his friends advised me at the end of the night. “It’s the local way.”