Hachijojima is a tiny volcanic island—only a 55-minute flight from Haneda Airport—that fuses the best of Japanese culture with a subtropical paradise. Popular with the Japanese for its lush green forests, onsen and marine sports like surfing, diving and snorkeling, the island is still off the beaten path for most foreign visitors. Here are five things to do on Hachijojima that made the trip unforgettable for us:
Top tip: Check out this article on how to get to Hachijojima and plan your itinerary.
1. Take a dip in a mountaintop onsen with a panorama of the Pacific
Relaxing in onsen (hot springs) is a quintessential Japanese pastime. Outdoor onsen, called rotemburo, are preferred and usually come with enticing views of trees, waterfalls, rocks and the like—things you would expect to see in a watercolour painting. Miharashi no yu on the other hand offers quite a unique vista: Set high on the side of the Hachijo-Fuji volcano, with its dense subtropical vegetation, this onsen offers unobstructed views of the Pacific unfolding in front of you.
It’s quite a new experience to bathe in subtropical weather, but the water is not too hot at around 40°C. Dipping in the hot outdoor bath before stepping into the slightly cooler indoor one, and finally cooling down with a lukewarm shower can actually help your body to regulate its temperature on hot days!
Bonus: The onsen on Hachijojima is cool with tattoos (many onsen in Japan are not).
Take the local bus to Sueyoshi Onsenmae Stop or a rental car will get you here.
2. Enjoy jungle superfoods aka ashitaba
Ashitaba, literally meaning “tomorrow’s leaf” due to its fast growing nature, is endemic to the Izu Islands that Hachijojima is part of, as well as the Izu, Boso and Miura peninsulas. The shrubby looking plant is part of the Angelica family and clocks in really high on the nutrition scale. It even beats the beloved kale and has shown cytotoxic, antidiabetic, antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, antihypertensive and antimicrobial properties in in vitro (read: lab condition) studies.
It is definitely a healthy thing to eat and tasty and unique on top! Island favorites include ashitaba ice cream, soba, pesto and tempura. Try the tempura version at Ryozanpaku Izakaya, and Coco Moon Café is well-known for their ashitaba pasta.
3. Be mesmerised by glow-in-the-dark mushrooms
Any Ghibli fans here? Take a walk in the woods of Hachijojima in the evening and you will feel as if you have been transported right into one of their movies! Japan is home to the bioluminescent Mycena chlorophos mushrooms. These mushrooms have long been thought to exist only on Hachijojima and the Ogasawara Islands but recently have been discovered deep in the woods of Honshu and other places as well.
The soft green glow looks more like the forest spirits in My Neighbour Totoro than nuclear, making this a really magical experience. The mushrooms grow in the summer months on the bark of a species of palm tree and you can either go see them yourself in the Visitor Center’s gardens.
4. Dive with the newly discovered endemic Hachijo pygmy seahorse
This one is for the scuba divers, explorers and hobby naturalists out there. Ever complained that everything has been discovered and that you can’t sail off to new worlds like Charles Darwin and claim to be the first to have seen something? Well, Hachijojima has another surprise for you in store. In August 2018, a new species of endemic seahorse was discovered here: Hippocampus japapigu, or the Japanese pygmy seashorse. Yep, that’s right, not some beetle or plant—an actual vertebrate animal!
How did they hide so long? They are a pygmy species, only about 1 cm in length. I went down with Boomerang dive center for a beach dive, right off Sokodo Pier and my guide Atsushi Yamamoto made sure I saw one. Beside the seahorse, there was also some of the healthiest coral I have witnessed, all the tropical fish you would want, and octopus, squid, and turtles.
Boomerang offers both discovery dives for non-certified folks and is a PADI dive resort for certified divers. It also offers English-language support.
5. 90% guaranteed sea turtle sightings
Hachijojima’s black volcanic beach at Sokodo Pier is not only stunning but also turtle central! Right below the water lies a big coral reef and sheltered by the breakwater, so the seas are calm. This brings all the turtles to the yard and they come in to rest or to get cleaned on the reef. Look out for turtles hanging out around the coral with their heads down—chances are they have a blue and white cleaner wrasse or some tangs around them, picking off algae or little parasites.
If you are a marine sports veteran, you can go out with your own snorkel equipment or rent it in town. If you aren’t so used to venturing into the ocean, take a snorkel tour.
Bonus: See the milky way and shooting stars at night
Due to its remote location, Hachijojima Island is also known for its great stargazing spots where you can catch shooting stars year-round.
Top tip: While there is very little light pollution around, make sure not to stare at your mobile screen during star gazing sessions, which desensitises your eyes and makes you miss the magic that is going on in real life!