Japan City Guides: Chiburijima, Oki Islands, Shimane Prefecture
Part of the Dozen group of islands, Chiburijima is actually the rim of an ancient volcanic caldera that collapsed and sunk below the water, and though only a little over five square miles in area it rises quite steeply out of the sea and the highest point, Mount Akahage, is 325 meters above sea level.
The meaning of the name Chiburi is not exactly clear. Over the years different Chinese characters, kanji, have been used to write the name, but one theory is that it refers to the smoke signals used to communicate with the mainland.
Another theory is that it relates to the name of a local kami to whom sailors would stop and pray to on their way from the other islands in the archipelago to the mainland. Not surprisingly being the smallest of the inhabited islands, it also has the smallest population, less than 600, spread over seven hamlets collectively called Chibu.
There are a lot of things you won't see on Chiburijima - traffic lights, convenience stores, people rushing about - all things you wouldn't normally associate with rural Japan, but one of the things noticeably missing are rice paddies.
There is almost no land flat for paddies, so the islanders have supported themselves primarily from the bounty of the sea, but also with raising cattle on the island's hilly slopes.
Cows grazing freely dot the grassy slopes, and it is not unusual to come face to face with some just standing in the middle of the road.
Something else you are likely to run into are tanuki, raccoon-dogs. Not native to the Okis, and not found on any of the other islands in the archipelago, a few raccoon dogs were accidentally introduced onto Chiburijima about 60 years ago and now outnumber the humans by at a least three to one.
There is not a lot to do on Chiburijima, which is kind of the whole point. Part of the Daisen-Oki National Park, and now part of the Oki Islands UNESCO Global Geopark, it is the natural beauty and stunning views that are the main draw, as well as the obvious peace, quiet, and relaxing atmosphere.
There are swimming beaches, which would also be great for snorkeling, you can go sea kayaking, take a sightseeing cruise on a tour boat, or like many Japanese visitors to the islands, go sea fishing.
Two sites that should be visited are the top of Mount Akahage from where there are fantastic 360 degree views and it provides a great overview of the sunken caldera that forms the Dozen Islands. In late spring and early summer the hillside is covered in the flowers of the Wild Daikon.
The second is Sekiheki, literally "Red Cliff", that lives up to its name, although other colors than red make up the palette of the sheer cliffs that rise from the sea.
The result of volcanic activity followed by sea erosion has created this technicolor natural marvel, and signs in English, as at the other main sites on the island, give clear explanations of what you are seeing. Sekiheki is particularly stunning viewed from the sea in the evening from on board the tour boat.
Festivals & Events
Throughout the year there are festivals and events. In June there is a Squid Fishing Contest, in late July, Ikku Shrine, the main shrine on the island holds its festival with mikoshi parade and performances on the stage in the shrine grounds (even years), in early August, a Sazae harvesting festival during which Sazae (Turban Shell), are collected. The Okis are well known for this mollusc and an Oki food specialty is Sazae Curry. On the 14th August a firework display takes place.
In late September in even years is the Minna-Ichi Odori, a unique folk dance performed at Ikku Shrine. In mid-November the new Dossari Festival features lots of food and drink as well as numerous exhibitions and displays. On November 28th each of the seven hamlets holds its own Jamaki Festival when a new rope snake made of woven rice straw is wrapped around a sacred tree. This tradition was once widespread throughout Japan but nowadays only exists in remote and rural areas and is unknown to most Japanese. It is however widespread in the three regions of Shimane, Izumo, Iwami, and the Okis.
Accommodation on Chiburijima
Chiburijima can easily be visited and explored on a day trip from the other Oki islands, but for those who want to spend longer there is currently the Hotel Chibu-no-sato (Tel: 08514 8 2500) that features an outdoor bath and a free Ground Golf course. The Chibu-no-Sato also has a number of log cabins that can be rented.
At present there is a single minshuku, Nakahama (Tel: 08514 8 2268), though there are plans to open more. There are also two families that offer minpaku (homestay/farmstay) but this must be booked in advance.
There are also several campsites, including one on the tiny island of Shimazushima connected by bridge to Chiburijima.
Guest House Nakamura is on the adjacent island of Nakanoshima, providing good Japanese-style budget accommodation, and with a restaurant on site where they prepare food according to your budget..
Getting Around Chiburijima
There are no public buses on Chiburijima, and as of 2017, no rental bicycles, though you can bring one from the other islands on the ferry for a small charge.
There are taxis, and small cars can be rented at the Tourist Information Office (remember you must have a valid driver's license in order to drive in Japan), but walking is a great way to get around. Many people take a taxi up to the top of Mount Akahage and then walk the 13km back to the port at Kurii.
The tiny port of the island, Kurii, has a small Tourist Information Office (Tel: 08514 8 2272) that can often give help in English and French.
The people of the Oki Islands 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
The Oki Islands can be reached by air or ferry from mainland Japan.
A fairly frequent and fast ferry service connects the three islands of Dozen, but between Dozen and Dogo you need to use the car ferry or fast ferry.
Read more about access to the Oki Islands and getting around the islands.