Two days in Niijima and Shikinejima

The view from the deserted Habushiura beach

Ever since my failed trip to Oshima 3 years ago, I’ve been meaning to make it to its more charming little sister island, Niijima. Niijima and nearby Shikinejima are sufficiently remote from Tokyo that they feel a bit like a different country altogether: slower paced, quiet, beautiful, and surprisingly delicious food options.

Day 1: Niijima

We start the morning at the crack of dawn and head to Takeshiba ferry terminal. Unlike my last trip to the Izu islands I’m a bit better prepared, so we head to the coffee shop and convenience stores to stock up on snacks. I had reserved tickets online for the 3-hour jet boat (about 10,000 JPY each way per person), so all I needed to do was go to the ticket booth and pay for them. The boat is somewhat confusingly relatively empty, leaves promptly at 7:45, and we’re on our way. The smooth gliding of the boat lulls us to sleep, as with most of the other passengers on the boat.

Getting off the boat, this is the view looking northwards on the western coast of the island. It takes all of a 15 minute bike ride to get to the east coast. The boat in the photo is the jetfoil headed back to Tokyo.

10:15: We get off at Niijima, where our host from Guest House Iketa is waiting to pick us up in her van. What with the holiday season picking up I wasn’t able to book two evenings in the same place, though everything is within walking distance of each other so it turns out not to be too much of a hassle. Our rooms aren’t ready until 12:30, but for 1000 JPY we can rent bikes for a day, so we decide to do that and head to the northern side of the island, to Habushiura beach. Habushiura is famous for being a fantastic surfing destination, though the waves are relatively calm when we get there (lifeguards were there though, and they did warn us from going in for fear of being pulled out into the ocean because of the strong currents). We marveled at the fact that there was really no. one. else on the beach.

The life guard watching station, and presumably where the big announcements happen at large surfing events

12:00: Going by the online brochures I had printed out before our trip we grab lunch at a cafe called pool/park, where I’m introduced to the phenomenon that is gapao rice, a Thai chicken satay dish that seems to be a staple of this island. I grab an island poke dish, which is also delicious. Food coma sets in.

13:20: After lunch, we head back to the guest house, check in and unpack our stuff, and then bike to glass arts museum, where we walk into a hands-on glass blowing session that some other folks were engaging in. When I asked if they had other sessions available, the staff was kind enough to let us join on the spot, so we made our own cute little drinking glasses, each customized a bit to the way we wanted it. The process itself was fairly fast, but it certainly was nice to have the expert guidance of the staff, who explained each step along the way. Blowing glass in a room with multiple furnaces going full blast when it was 95° outside was, let’s just say, an exercise in sweating profusely.

Trying my hand at glass blowing, with tons of guidance

14:15: After leaving behind our works to pick up the following day (after a slow cool-down process), we crossed the street on our bikes to Mamashita Onsen, the one with sand baths. Unfortunately it turned out Wednesday was the one day of the week they’re closed, so we decide instead to take a siesta at the nearby beach. It’s a tad bit windy, but the water is sufficiently warm and the sun is out enough that it doesn’t feel chilly at all (I would later learn that it’s a perfect recipe for getting hopelessly burned). I fiddled around with my stunt kite (I really like how easily and compactly it folds), but I probably end up making a fool of myself more than anything.

16:30: There’s yet another onsen, the public one (Yunohama), just nearby, so we walk over once the school kids are gone, and dip into and out of the various pools. Each one’s a bit different in temperature, so we can find the one that suits us best. Along the way, a few of the locals warn us about the hot areas of the pool and the not-so-hot corners as well. Apparently this one is open all day and night, so we make plans to come back at night too.

18:30: We lazily bike back to the guest house, change, and head out for dinner. The place that I had hoped to go, Yakitori Daisan, is full, so we amble around town until we get to Izakaya Nihonbashi, which was theoretically supposed to be closed on Wednesdays but had just enough space for us both. The food is delightful, fresh, and surprising — we order everything from deep-fried skewered fish to sashimi, tempura and the like.

20:45: Just as I think none of this can get any better, we find that the local shaved ice stand is just about still open, and I grab one to top off the evening dessert.

Day 2: Shikinejima

8:00: Our hosts are gracious enough to bring us to the ferry terminal where we’re off to catch the 8:20 boat to Shikinejima, which is a mere 15 minutes away. Once we’re on the other side, we decide to rent bikes (and I go for the slightly pricier electric bikes at 2000JPY each for the day). Again, something I learned from my visits to Oshima and Naoshima was to realize that if bikes were available to rent, it was generally for good reason.

We then cruise fashionably to a small roadside coffee bar at a place called Ninz, where we contemplate our next steps and discuss what it might be like to live on an island like Shikinejima (population, apparently, ~500).

The next stop is an overlook on the western section of the island, and then southwards to two onsen spots.

Admittedly, an onsen when it’s fashionably at least 85°F or over 20° C wasn’t the first thing on my mind, but I was surprised at how mind-bending it was to be simultaneously in an onsen and also in the ocean. What turned out to be two onsen areas immediately adjacent to each other — Ashitsuke Onsen and Matsugashita Miyabiyu — were almost too hot to get into, so I followed the onsen stream out to the ocean, where the cooler water mixed together nicely.

The next spot was Jinata Onsen, which requires a careful walk down a bunch of steps and past some warnings about falling rocks.

It was secluded and empty and the warm water was divine.

13:00: Feeling a bit hungry, we head back inland and grab lunch at Shima Cafe 963 (curry for her, gapao rice for me) and then feeling just a bit crunched for time (since our boat was to leave back to Niijima at 3:45), we head to the last beach, Tomari. It’s shallow, exceedingly warm, and was suitably where all the family and kids were splashing about.

15:55: We’re back on Niijima, so we head straight for the glass arts center to pick up the little cups we had made the previous day. We then head to Mamashita onsen, where we delve into the black sand baths. Again, we’re the only ones there, which is simultaneously eerie and luxurious. We pick up our luggage from the guest house and traipse 400 yards to our next inn, Jigohei. The place has a little more of a Japanese aesthetic to it, and the breeze coming in from the window is warm, but comfortable. As perhaps a testament to the safe and laissez-faire attitude to the place, we never get, and never even ask for, a key for our room.

17:30: We walk slowly back towards town, and grab dinner at Yakitori Daisan (it turns out it wasn’t worth the hype, and we both preferred the izakaya more). We walk back towards Yunohama for a nice romantic evening onsen session (and the water is, now, with fewer people, nice and warm).

Day 3: Return

8:00: Since check-out at Jigohei is a rather atrocious 9am, we dump our luggage at the entrance and grab coffee nearby. And it’s time to say goodbye to a beautiful island experience, a total combination of surreal, nothing like the Tokyo prefecture it actually belongs to, the Tokyo that’s only 3 hours away by jet boat.

An evening shot from Yunohama onsen

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