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The Ogasawara Islands are a chain of over 30 subtropical and tropical volcanic islands of various sizes lying in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) south of Tokyo.

The first group in the chain is the Ogasawara Archipelago, made up of Muko-jima, Chichi-jima and Haha-jima islands. The Io Islands and three other islands make up the second group. The third group consists of three islands: Nishi-no-shima, Minami-tori-shima, and Oki-no-shima islands. The rest of the Ogasawara Islands were formed around 48 million years ago. However, in November 2013, a new volcanic island formed and joined the chain, which has been provisionally named Nii-jima.
 
The Ogasawaras occupy a total area of 84 square kilometres (32 sq mi). The whole area belongs to the Ogasawara National Park. The sole way to access the islands is by a weekly 24 hour ferry ride from Tokyo. Interestingly, despite their great distance from the Japanese capital, the Ogasawara Islands are administratively part of Tokyo!
 
The islands are also known as the Bonin Islands in Japanese. The name comes from the Japanese word “bunin”, which is an archaic reading of the Chinese characters now read as “mujin”, meaning “no people” or “uninhabited”. In fact, even today Chichi-jima and Haha-jima islands are the only two inhabited islands in the chain. They have a total population of 2,440 people, made up of 2,000 on Chichi-jima and 440 on Haha-jima.

 

Beach on Chichi-jima Island ©Ogasawara Village Tourism Bureau

Because since their original formation they have never been connected to the Japanese mainland or any continent, the Ogasawaras are home to many unique animal and plant species - including various birds, insects, crabs and trees - that are only found there, and have undergone unique evolutionary processes. This has led to the islands’ garnering the nickname of “The Galapagos of the Orient”, and their confirmation as a World Heritage site in 2011. 

The islands were formed by the protrusions of an ancient underwater volcano, so flat stretches of land are rare, and most of the islands have steep shorelines, often with sheer cliffs ranging from 50 to 100 metres (160 to 330 ft) in height. However, the islands’ coastlines are also fringed with beaches, coral reefs, and jungle-clad hills, and these, along with their remoteness, relaxed atmosphere, and hospitality attract many visitors all year round.

Chichi-jima’s sea-eroded high cliffs lend a dramatic air to its surrounding scenery, and the island is a popular spot for divers. Meanwhile, the seas surrounding Hyotan-jima, Minami-jima and Hira-shima islands are exceptionally clear and teeming with colourful coral reefs and tropical fish.

Ogasawara Islands ©Ogasawara Village Tourism Bureau

The Ogasawaras are home to 441 taxa (groups) of native plants, of which up to 70% are endemic in some species, such as vascular plants and woody plants. They are also inhabited by over 100 species of land snails, of which over 90% are endemic. They are home to many unusual and unique flora and fauna rarely or never seen anywhere else in the world, including several species of palm trees, the Ogasawara damselfly, the tiger beetle and the Bonin flying fox, as well as many rare birds, such as the Bonin petrel, the Japanese wood pigeon, and the Bonin white-eye (formerly known as the Bonin honeyeater). The giant squid was filmed in the wild for the first time off the coast of the islands in 2005, and an individual specimen was captured in 2006.

Popular activities when visiting the iIslands include whale watching, scuba diving, swimming with dolphins, surfing, sea kayaking, snorkelling, windsurfing, sport fishing, bird-watching, hiking, photography, traditional crafts, and organic farming. Recently, SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) has been gaining popularity.

Tropical fish in Ogasawara Islands ©Ogasawara Village Tourism Bureau

The islands have no airport, nor is there any prospect of one being constructed. Access is only by ship from Tokyo. There are only a limited number of sailings each month and they may be affected by sea and weather conditions, so it is recommended that you build plenty of spare time into your itinerary, for example, before catching homeward international flights.

The islands’ remoteness causes a few minor inconveniences. Credit cards are not accepted by the majority of hotels, shops and restaurants. Cash withdrawal of Japanese Yen is possible via ATMs at the JA Bank branches on Chichi-jima and Haha-jima, however with limited opening hours. Mobile phone coverage is limited to the populated areas of Chichi-jima and Haha-jima. Internet access is available at the visitor centre on Chichi-jima as well as a small number of hotels and shops. Needless to say, for most visitors these inconveniences are well worth enduring in order to visit this stunning and unique place - there is truly nowhere else like it on earth.

Ogi Pond, Minami-jima Island ©Ogasawara Village Tourism Bureau/
Access: From Tokyo - By train and ship. Train: 6 minutes by JR Yamanote Line to Hamamatsu-cho Station; a 10-minute walk to Tokyo Takeshiba Port. Ship: 25 hours 30 minutes by Ogasawara Maru liner operated by Ogasawara Kaiun Co. Ltd. to Futami Port on Chichi-jima Island. Four or five crossings per month, dependent on weather and sea conditions. 
 
To get to Haha-jima, from Chichi-jima a further 2 hours by Hahajima Maru liner.