In the southern part of the Izu island chain, approximately 300km from Tokyo, lies the idyllic island of Hachijō. Formed by tectonic uplift and volcanic activity, the gourd-shaped isle is home to excellent hiking and breathtaking hot springs, if the tourist literature is to be trusted. An in-depth investigation was necessary to determine the validity of such claims.
I set off from Takeshiba port on the Tachibana Maru, a high-speed, energy-efficient vessel that bears a striking resemblance to a Norwegian passenger liner. The color scheme, designed by renowned illustrator Ryohei Yanagihara, is apparently a tribute to the original Tachibana Maru ship that sailed these very waters in the Taisho era. The ship bobbed up and down in the turbulent sea like a rubber duckie in a hot tub, but the ferry eventually reached Sokodo port an hour behind schedule under strong gusts and menacing skies. After dropping off the kit at the nearby hostel, I set off on bicycle to explore the island. Thick cloud smothered the upper heights of Hachijo-fuji, so I simply needed to wait until a fair-weather window presented itself.
The guy manning the tourist-information counter recommended an electric bicycle and for good reason – the island is anything but flat and getting to the secluded hot springs on the southern tip of the island was an immense challenge without some kind of mechanical support. The ride was smooth enough, and after an hour of steady pedaling I reached the main cluster of hot spring baths at Nakanogō. My eyes were immediately drawn to a signpost pointing to Urami waterfall. I parked the bike and hit the trail into the jungle, following the narrow path as it crept deeper and deeper into the thick, vine-laced interior of the island. After twenty minutes of steady climbing the falls came into view. The water fell from a rock face about 10 meters above the jungle floor into a small pool stained brown with runoff from the higher reaches of the rain-sopped massif of Mt. Mihara. The path went directly behind the waterfall. I stood there some time admiring the spectacle of the wind sculpting the water into a twisted palette reminiscent of a typhoon-fueled rain squall. The hike was just the appetizer, however, and the main course awaited back at the parking lot.
A small narrow path just opposite the entrance to the falls led down to a small open shelter housing an exquisite open-air bath. Ever the bastion of modesty, the Tokyo-controlled island requires all visitors to wear a bathing suit into the mixed-bathing facility. Ill-prepared as I was, I bowed my head at a small shrine, asking for permission to use my boxer shorts in lieu of a proper suit and slowly eased into the steaming waters.
The first hot spring had lived up to its reputation, but how about the mountains? The next morning provided the answer. I awoke to clear skies and bright sun. Although the trailhead starts at the 8th stage point high on the flanks of the conical volcano, the only true way to appreciate the scale and immensity of the Fuji lookalike was to start from the beach, kitty-corner the hostel. I strapped on the day pack shortly after 9am and hit the trail, er I mean pavement of the main road leading inshore. The road from the ferry terminal led directly to the trailhead – all I needed to do was to follow the switchbacks and resist the urge to stick out my thumb. In search of lunch, I ducked my head into the first shōten I came across, shelling out 250 yen for a two-liter bottle of water. The convenience store, if you could call it that, only sold dried food, but the elderly woman behind the counter informed me of a larger supermarket just up the hill that sold onigiri. I marched up the road, eyeing the lines of the volcano as they converged towards the skyline that was starting to thicken with cloud. I picked up some yakisoba and a couple of rice balls at the store, wincing at the 88 yen signs affixed to the two-liter water bottles next to the checkout counter.
The road up to the trailhead meandered through the forests choked with tropical vegetation as steady streams of rental cars glided past. All I needed to do was stick out my thumb and any one of them would have come to my aid, but I was set on doing the entire mountain, road and all. It took about an hour to reach the start of the trail which, I found to my horror and disgust, was also made of concrete. The original trail consists of over 1200 steps made out of volcanic pumice, but a newer concrete channel snakes alongside the route, as if to beckon lazy hikers onto its slithering back. Is this what the suits in the government offices of Tokyo do with their extra budget money?
I pushed on in utter disappointment, but the state of the trail was the least of my concerns. A thick blanket of fog had engulfed the mountain, blotting out the views and my motivation to continue further on. I had reached the crater rim and was less than 50 vertical meters from the summit, but sat stooped on the volcanic pebbles cursing my ill-fated timing. If only I had hitched a ride earlier in the climb. The yakisoba helped lift the spirits as did the row of hikers dotted about the crater rim, drifting in an out of the cloud vapor. I pushed on, opting to head in a clockwise direction in an effort to get the buddhists on my side.
I reached the summit a short time later and raised the hands in triumph: it’s not everyday you can spend the morning on the beach and enjoy lunch on the top of an 850-meter high volcano. The crater rim was beautifully sculpted, both by the eruptions throughout the centuries and by the strong storms that often batter the summit highlands. The path consisted of ankle-deep mud in places and waist-deep bush in others. Every now and again the mist would start to break up only to be replaced by another layer of cloud. I reached a small clearing which apparently offers wonderful vistas, and a voice deep inside of me ushered me to pause. I surveyed the crater rim and spotted a group of four hikers heading counter-clockwise in the direction of my vicinity. As they crept closer, their fuzzy silhouettes came into focus. At the same time, a small pointy island floating offshore also came into view. By the time the quartet had arrived the cloud veil had miraculously lifted.
I peered down into the crater, the sheer drops forcing me to take a few steps back. It was frightening to think about how close I may have come to sinking into that void with such poor visibility earlier. There was a sheer drop of around a hundred vertical meters into what I now recognized as a double-crater. Hachijō-fuji had graced me with her awesome presence and I was star-struck and enamored with her searing beauty. When I completed the circumnavigation of the volcano the sun had made a much-welcome appearance, transforming the ash gray waters of the Pacific into an aquamarine paradise. A pair of hikers sipped on hot coffee at the junction back to the trailhead. I chatted with them a while before ducking down a path that led directly into the crater floor. A shrine was set up in the center, lined with smooth rocks that looked like they were picked from a riverbed. Messages were inscribed on the stones in a variety of styles and colors, the meanings of which I could not perceive.
I did eventually make my way back to the junction and down to the parking lot, where the latte-drinking couple from earlier were resting in the warm sunshine. They offered me a ride down to town and, in homage to Yuichiro Miura, I took them up on the offer and was soon back at the supermarket where I had purchased my provisions earlier in the day. I stumbled back to the port and collapsed in my bed, hatching up another insane climbing plan for the following morning.