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Mat Kearney

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Feb 12 | Strange Dreams from Oshima

In which I sleep walk 20km across an island 120km away from Tokyo, while taking weird photos and searching for warm drinks in the freezing cold.


Samyang 14mm f/2.8, 15 second exposure on 5D Mark III, Magic Lantern, shooting once every 1 second at ISO 3200 with mirror lockup to prevent shaking

It’s 6:57 when I check my phone for the last time to get directions to the nearest ATM. I’m a bit less prepared than usual, but that’s not saying much. Most of my travel is last minute, anyhow. At 7:02, when I’m withdrawing money, I decide it might not hurt to bring by 17-40mm f/2 lens, so I head back home.

7:35 I arrive at the Takeshiba passenger ferry terminal, and I realize that the real place I wanted to go was Niijima, not Oshima (the former is smaller and about 40km south from the latter), but I figure that since they’re so close to each other there ought to be a ferry between them during the day. The lady behind the counter proves me otherwise; the only ferry to Niijima leaves at 11pm from Tokyo and connects between the two islands in the morning, around 6am. I decide given that I had prepared to take photos during the one time in the month when the moon is least bright, I buy tickets to Oshima.

By “prepared to take photos”, all I intended was to get sufficiently far away from Tokyo enough to be able to take photos of the sky. A friend, Kevin, had made it to Niijima and taken some splendid photos, so I was hoping to replicate some of his success. I had with me my Canon 5D Mark III, my Samyang 14mm lens, as well as the last-minute addition of the 17-40mm lens. Inside my backpack were my Giotto Vitruvian tripod, a 13″ Macbook Pro, a change of clothes, a thermos and some snacks.

I didn’t even book a place to stay.

8:05 The jetfoil leaves Tokyo, slightly late. The Boeing 929 engines whine into action just outside the port, and the boat stabilizes, running at about 80km/h. They’re pretty strict about the seat belts; I munch on Walkers biscuits from work while distractedly reading a book.

10:20 The boat glides into port, and I try to get my bearings. I’ve arrived at Okata port, on the northern tip of the island. Usually the ship stops at Motomachi port, further south, but it appears the wind and sea conditions merits this change. I decide on a bus to the volcano in the middle of the island, Mihara-yama, which erupted in November of 1986. It was a nice walk, though relatively unremarkable (as you might notice, from the lack of photos of the actual mountain. Instead, I offer you a photo of a tiny VW van).

13:20 Back at Okata port, I grab lunch and hop on a bus connecting to Motomachi port, where I wander around for a little before taking yet another bus to the southern tip of the island, Habu. This takes about 40 minutes. Along the way, I try to do some last minute planning. If I am to connect to the 6am boat to Niijima, I have to either be at Okata port at 6am, or take a 5:40am shuttle from Motomachi. There isn’t a bus from Habu, so I can either attempt a (potentially expensive) taxi ride or walk or bike the distance from Habu to Motomachi or Okata, covering one side of the island. The one lady who could rent a bike for me on the island mysteriously is now out of reach, so walking seems like the only option. That, or give up going to the southern part of the island.

The thing is, the one appeal to the southern part of the island is a small shelf of a rock called Fudejima, and the fact that I would most definitely be pointed away from the Tokyo city lights. This last point is particularly important for photos of stars. As it turns out, there ended up being another reason to like the area.


Fudejima turned out to be pretty underwhelming, and I couldn’t make my way further left without hitting the beach — in the dark

For a district still a part of Tokyo prefecture, I forgot that the natural conveniences of Tokyo did not extend to this place, either. It might have been written in some guide somewhere, but given how little I planned this escapade, chances are I would have missed that memo too. Perhaps it might have been nice to see a sign at the port that said “LEAVE ALL YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT LIFE’S LITTLE CONVENIENCES ASIDE”. The one cafe I thought I might take a bit of a rest at before embarking on the cold long-exposure photos I wanted to take was closed.

18:34 With sundown complete for an hour I started my timelapse star photos, using Magic Lantern on my 5D Mark III, shooting once every 1 second at ISO 3200 and 15 second exposure with mirror lockup to prevent shaking. I set an alarm for 60 minutes, put on my podcasts, and proceeded to start wearing everything I had in my backpack in layers. It was probably around this time that I decided that I would try and see if any hotels in the area could take last minute bookings.

20:00 as the clock turned to dinnertime I was faced with two outcomes: I was done with my timelapse, and all the hotels in the area were booked. The eastern end of the island looked decidedly void of signs of civilization, so I opted to retrace my steps back to Motomachi by foot. Google Maps told me it’d take 3 hours and 16 minutes.

Along the way I spotted this. From the sounds coming from the building it sounded like a gym, though its windows were made darker by curtains.

21:11 It turns out it was only 9pm when I stumbled across this oasis of a building, just a few steps outside Habu. You see, by 9pm, nothing in Habu resembling food or shelter was open. Not that there were a lot of choices.

Inside the shed wasn’t anything more than a bank of 5 vending machines, 3 with drinks and 2 with several sandwiches and instant food. In the corner was a microwave machine. Handwritten signs on the glass explained the merits of each of the sandwiches, while tiny labels on each described how long to warm them up. I briefly considered buying a bottle of water so that I could heat it up and pour it into a bowl of instant noodles, but I opted instead for a ham and cheese sandwich, popcorn, a bag of Oreo cookies, and a hot tea. Whether it was the vending machines or some heating element in the building, I didn’t know, but I was made sufficiently comfortable that I curled up in the corner and slept for an hour, before being interrupted by a guy buying a late evening snack.

Sensing the awkwardness of it all, I moved on.

22:00 By 10pm I had found another small shelter, presumably one of those where people would gather in the event that the volcano erupts. The building was completely dark, but at least it was sheltered from the wind, and had wooden slats for flooring. It was cold, bitterly cold, but I was able to catch an hour nap.

00:00-03:49 Though I didn’t keep a strict record of my whereabouts, Google Maps did, and I appear to have stumbled into Motomachi just before 4am. To my extreme disappointment, the port visitor centre was closed (should I have hoped otherwise?) so I took shelter in a nearby phone booth, catching a cat nap for another 2 hours.

05:40 The yellow Oshima Bus sidles into the bus stop, taking me to Okata port. Thankfully, owing to the early boat making its way into port at 6am, the visitor centre is open, so I take a rest at the waiting room and charge my phone and laptop, toying around with Photoshop and StarStax in the mean time. I give up on the idea of heading to Niijima, given one additional key data point: today is National Foundation Day (建国記念の日), and the boats arriving in Oshima and Niijima should be full of well-prepared Japanese old people with reserved places to stay. In other words, I’m unlikely to find a place to stay in Niijima at the last minute.

06:16 I spot the sun is rising outside, and rush out to take several shots. I realize somewhat belatedly that had I taken the early morning shuttle bus to the eastern side of the island, or to the volcano, both of which leave Okata, I could have maybe been better positioned for some sunrise shots. At least the fishermen on the wharf only look at me with hardly any suspicion.

10:20 Looking up at the clock and the fact that no one is in the visitor centre for what is supposed to be an 11am jetfoil back to Tokyo, I realize that the port of entry today is Motomachi, not Okata, and therefore I need a way to get from one to the other, again. I phone for a taxi, but as I’m waiting a kind old gentleman in a van lets me ride along with him to Motomachi.

Oshima’s gems lie in the rough volcano-strewn landscape, the beautiful ocean, and the fact that it lies sufficiently far from Tokyo that it reminds you what life can be without the hustle and bustle of a crowded city. With a population a little less than 9,000, the lifestyle is decidedly more quiet and calmer. Forget the convenience store, the restaurant with variety, the morning bakery, the outdoor cafe. The better way to enjoy Oshima is to spend it sleeplessly walking 20km from one end of the island to the other in an onsen, at a hotel, enjoying the oceanfront views. Or at least make sure you know what times the bus leaves.

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