In some ways, the island of Okunoshima, in western Japan’s Setonaikai Inland Sea, seems like a terrible vacation spot. It’s already in an out-of-the-way region of the country, and with no connecting bridges, the only way to get there is by boat.
Then there’s its dark past. During the 1920s, ‘30s, and early ‘40s, Okunoshima was the site of a secret chemical weapons lab for the Japanese Imperial Army. The clandestine work being carried out there earned it the sinister nicknames Poison Gas Island and The Island Erased from the Maps.
Happily, the postwar years have seen a return to more peaceful, benign activities on Okunoshima. As a matter of fact, in the last few years it’s become one of the area’s most beloved tourist destinations, and the reason why is easy to see from the other name Okunoshima is called by, Rabbit Island.
In contrast to the numerous cat islands that dot Japan’s waters, Okunoshima, with a coastal length of 4.3 kilometers (2.7 miles), is home to some 700 wild rabbits.
Ferries from two ports connect the island to the rest of the country. For travelers coming from Kyushu or one of the cities on the main island of Honshu, such as Tokyo or Kyoto, the most convenient route is to travel by the Shinkansen bullet train to Mihara Station in Hiroshima Prefecture. From there, it’s about a 20-minute ride south on the Kure Line to Tadanoumi Station, which is within walking distance of the port where ships depart for the 13-minute cruise to Okunoshima.
Alternatively, you can do what we did and take the ferry from Sakari Port on Omishima Island in Ehime Prefecture. Since Omishima is part of the beautiful Shimanami Kaido Cycling Road, this is a great option for those getting around the region by bike, as getting to Sakari involves only about a 20-minute detour from the regular course. Ferries from here also reach Okunojima in under 15 minutes.
▼ The Shimanami Kaido
It goes without saying that you should only make the trip to Okunoshima if you’ve got a thing for rabbits. Depending on the timing of your visit, being OK around large groups of kids would also be a plus. We stopped by on a Sunday morning and shared the ferry and island with several families, tykes in tow, who’d come to see the island’s bunnies.
No sooner had we set foot on the island than we came across a contingent of Okunoshima’s long-eared residents.
We’d caught the first ferry from Sakari, which departs at 9 a.m., and the animals were up and ready for breakfast when we arrived. Many of the people who’d come over on the boat with us carried bags of cabbage, chopped carrots, or other vegetables to give to the rabbits.
Still, these are wild animals, and there are a couple of ground rules and safety precautions visitors are asked to observe. Signs caution against feeding the rabbits out of the palm of your hand. They’re likely to nick you with their sharp teeth, opening up a wound and the risk of infection at the same time.
As cuddly as they may look, visitors are also asked to refrain from picking the animals up. Chasing after them is also against the rules, and to be honest we can’t see why you’d even be tempted to. They’ve become incredibly comfortable around people, and won’t scamper away no matter how close you get.
▼ Hey guys.
▼ “Oh, hey, welcome to our island.”
While some rumors speculate the descendants of test subjects from the poison gas lab, former workers say that all such animals were disposed of when the facility was shut down by the Allied Forces at the end of World War II. Instead, it seems that the current rabbit population traces its roots to the early 1970s, when a group of eight rabbits that had been raised at the elementary school on a different island were set loose on Okunoshima.
If eight healthy human beings were trapped together on an island, we imagine it wouldn’t be long before some of them stopped spending the night alone. The same goes for rabbits, and with their well-known diligence in carrying out their biological duty to keep the species going by creating the largest next generation possible, Rabbit Island turned into what it is today.
If you’d like to be in close proximity to rabbits 24 hours a day, you can even spend the night on Okunoshima, which has both a seaside campground and a hotel. The animals aren’t allowed inside the latter though, and a low fence keeps them out of the area where campers pitch their tents.
While we were never more than a few seconds away from our next rabbit spotting, the greatest concentration of them is on the grassy fields near the hotel. There’s a shuttle bus that runs between there and the port, but should you miss it, it’s only about a 10-minute walk, which includes some nice views of the Inland Sea.
Along the way, you’ll pass by the visitor center, where inside you can learn more about the island’s ecosystem.
▼ And where outside you’ll find these rabbit ear simulator/sculptures
Japanese manners stipulate that it’s good form to bring a gift when visiting the home of another. If you made the cultural faux pas of showing up on Okunoshima without anything for the bunnies, the hotel sells cups of rabbit feed for 100 yen (US $1), or small bags for 540 ($5.27). We doubt you’d have any trouble going through a whole sack, since we saw dozens of animals frolicking and enjoying the food being provided by their numerous doting visitors.
▼ Remember: The water in this tank is for rabbits, not people.
▼ This seems as good a time as any to point out that Japanese carrots are amazingly delicious.
Being surrounded by so many bunnies, you might think they all start to blend together, especially since they all seem to be the same breed. Even still, many of them find little ways to stand out, sometimes by literally standing.
Then there’s this little guy, who pulls off the trick of somehow being even cuter than his already adorable brethren.
Cute as they may be, there is one danger to watch out for. As you might have noticed in some of these pictures, the rabbits on Okunoshima like to dig little bunny-sized pits to rest in.
While they sure do look cozy in there, they obviously don’t go to the trouble of filling the compact trenches back in with soil every time they crawl out. The result is that during the midmorning, when the animals are actively moving about and searching for food, the ground of Okunoshima is littered with holes.
You’ll want to keep an eye out for them when you move off of the paved road, since one misstep is a good way to twist an ankle or tweak a knee, something cyclists travelling the Shimanami Kaido will especially want to avoid.
▼ Don’t expect the rabbits to let you ride them back home if you injure yourself, either.
That minor concern aside, though, we wholeheartedly recommend spending a couple hours on Omishima. Really, the only downside is how badly we want to go back.
In the meantime, we may have to tide ourselves over with an afternoon at Tokyo’s rabbit cafe.