Japan City Guides: Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture
Oki Islands 隠岐島
Known collectively as Okinoshima in Japanese, the Oki Islands are a cluster of small islands in the Sea of Japan about 80 kilometers off the north coast of Shimane Prefecture in western Japan.
The four largest islands are inhabited with a total population of less than 22,000 people spread over a total area of about 350 square kilometers. The largest island, Dogo, is somewhat separate from, but still within sight of, the other three inhabited islands, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima, and Chiburijima, which are collectively known as Dozen.
The abundance of natural beauty in the islands led to them being included in the Daisen-Oki National Park in 1963, and more recently being classified as a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2013, one of only eight located in Japan.
The Oki Islands can be reached by air or ferry from mainland Japan.
Oki Island Scenery
The islands are blessed with some fantastic natural scenery, including of course mountains, some of which are populated by ancient Japanese cedars (Crypotomeria), others covered in grass with horses and cattle grazing on them, a most unusual sight in Japan.
The coastal scenery is unsurpassed with majestic cliffs including Matengai, at 257 meters one of the highest sea cliffs in Japan, coves, sea caves, islets and rock formations with evocative names such as Candle Rock, Three Brothers, Elephant Rock etc viewable from viewpoints on land as well as by sightseeing boats.
The islands are ideal for a multitude of marine leisure activities with beaches and swimming being most obvious, but the waters surrounding the islands are very clear, making them ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving.
If you want to be on the water rather than in the water there is sea kayaking as well as various scenic pleasure boat trips including the Amanbow on Nakanoshima with its glass sides.
The primary sea based leisure activity though is fishing. The Okis are a mecca for fisherman from all over Japan who come for the sea bream, yellowtail, sea bass and other fish that teem in the rich waters.
Oki Island Culture
Being some distance from the mainland, the Oki Islands have developed their own unique culture, but each individual island is also quite distinct from the others.
There are many festivals throughout the year including some based on the sea like the Shara-bune (Spirit Boats) and the Yurahime Shrine festivals on Nishinoshima, or a unique festival involving horses, the Gorei Furyu Festival on Dogo.
The Okis are home to several unique folk dances as well as their own particular styles of Kagura, the masked theatrical dance often performed at shrines in the summer but also seen here at other times of the year. Perhaps the most unusual cultural tradition of the islands is Bull Sumo (held only on Dogo) where two large, black bulls go head to head in a competition of strength on and at various dates and venues throughout the year.
There is plenty to see and do on the Oki Islands, but probably the greatest attraction is their tranquility. With no large towns and with very minimal traffic on the islands, relaxing and enjoying the views, such as the spectacular Kuniga Coastline on Nishinoshima in peace and quiet are what make the Okis different from so many other tourist destinations in Japan.
However, the addition of another thing the Oki Islands are known for - delicious food - makes the experience even more enjoyable. Obviously, extremely fresh fish is a big part of the islands' cuisine, but there are a couple of specialties worth mentioning: the rock oysters here are huge and command high prices on the mainland, and unlike oysters from other parts of Japan these can be eaten raw.
Also, the signature dish of the island is Sazae, a shellfish known in English as "Turban Shell", and widely available all over the islands. Sazae Curry is the most popular form in which they are eaten, and there are packs available to take home from all the gift shops.
Cattle have been raised on the islands for about 800 years, and it is not uncommon to be driving and suddenly come face to face with cows on the road (on Nishinoshima and Chiburijima), as they are raised outdoors, grazing naturally, so Oki Beef has the reputation of having a grass-fed flavor. On Dogo the cattle are in fenced off fields.
Some of the rocks found on the exposed summits on the Oki Islands are among the oldest rocks so far found in Japan, and date from a time when what are now the Oki Islands were part of mainland Asia.
Over time what is now Japan separated from the mainland and the Sea of Japan formed. Around six million years ago volcanic activity caused the sea bed to rise above the water and this is when the Oki Islands were created. In essence they were two extinct volcanoes, with the collapsed caldera of one was subsequently filled by the sea, forming the Dozen group.
From about 10,000 years ago global warming caused sea levels to rise and the Okis separated from the mainland and became islands.
When the Japanese state was consolidated in the late 7th century, the Okis were made a province. From the Heian Period on, the islands were used as a place of exile, and over the ensuing millennium about a thousand people were exiled here including, famously, two emperors: Gotoba (1180-1239) and Godaigo (1288-1339).
In the Kamakura Period the islands came under control of Izumo, and in the following centuries passed through the hands of various clans until Japan was unified under the control of the Tokugawa, who put the Okis under Shogunal control through the Matsudaira clan of Matsue.
During the Edo Period the Okis were a port of call on the shipping route between northern Japan and Osaka. Towards the end of the Edo Period the Oki Islands rebelled and claimed independence, though it was short lived.
With the redrawing of political boundaries at the onset of the Meiji Period, the Okis were briefly a prefecture before being joined to the new Tottori Prefecture, but in 1876 they became part of Shimane where they remain today
There is a range of accommodation options throughout the islands, though the larger islands have more choice. There are some good hotels as well as many traditional simple ryokan and minshuku. Some of the islands have self-catering cabins to rent and there are a several campgrounds with good views, but many are quite simple, with only a few places having tent rental. Be sure to book your accommodation before arriving on the islands to avoid disappointment.
See www.e-oki.net for accommodation listings.
Getting Around the Islands
Each island (except Chiburijima) has a bus service but the buses are not frequent enough to base your travel plans on. Taxis are available, as are reasonably priced car rentals. You must have a valid driver's license in order to drive in Japan.
Most of the islands have power-assisted bicycle rentals which can be picked up and dropped off at the tourist information center (in the port building).
With prior arrangement the larger accommodation facilities will provide pick up and drop off.
The people are very friendly and happy to help, but English language at accommodation and for activities is still limited. If you want a challenge and like to discover rural Japan, then Oki is a good place for you.
Getting Between the Islands
A fairly frequent and fast ferry service connects the three islands of Dozen, but between Dozen and Saigo Port on Dogo you need to use the car ferry or fast ferry.
Read more about access to the Oki Islands and getting around the islands.