Located in the Philippine Sea is the volcanic island of Aogashima, the most southern and isolated inhabited island of the Izu Islands chain administered by the Tokyo metropolitan government. Its unique double volcano caldera gives the island the distinctive shape and amazing views it is most known for.
But there’s so much more to Aogashima—there’s the incredible ecosystem supported by geothermal steam vents, the unique crane set-up at the port to hoist landing boats up the steep cliffs, the locally produced liquor that is 60 percent proof, and the numerous small shrines and gravestones that shed light on its history.
By sea or by air
Before I arrived at Aogashima, the fun began simply by trying to get there. From central Tokyo, I took a 55-minute flight from Haneda. Alternatively, you can take a 10-hour ferry from Takeshiba pier. Both arrive in Hachijojima from where you can get the 2 ½-hour ferry ride to Aogashima.
These crossings can often be canceled due to weather, so it’s best to leave a few days of leeway on either side of your trip if you do decide to take the journey. If you really want an adventure, however, why not go by helicopter? I took the 20-minute, nine-seat helicopter flight that costs around ¥12,000 per journey. It’s about four times more expensive than the ferry, but a great way to see the island from above—and what an amazing sight it is!
The only place in Japan to be listed in One Green Planet’s “13 Amazing Natural Wonders You Should See Before You Die,” Aogashima is a volcano inside a volcano. Its steep outer crater slopes run down into an open expanse home to amazingly fertile land and geothermal steam vents, from where steep slopes rise again to the smaller, second volcano.
Don’t despair if you are not coming by helicopter, though, as this phenomenon can be seen by taking the well-marked path to Otonbu, the observation point on one of the crater’s outer slopes. From here you can see breathtaking views across the volcanic caldera to Mount Maruyama in the center of the island as well as a 360˚ vista of the ocean. I certainly found it a top view and well worth the trek to the viewpoint.
Most visitors hire a car to explore the island fully as there is no public transport, but until the mid-70s the main mode of transport was cow-pulled carts.
Geothermal steamed cuisine
These days the cows on the island can be seen enjoying a more leisurely life grazing on the mountainsides, as there are now plenty of cars on the island and even a car rental company offering visitors rentals from around ¥4,000 for eight hours. Reservations are taken over the telephone and are best done before arriving on the island.
Once you have collected the rental car, head towards Ikenosawa Fumaroles, the geothermal steam vents. On route, you will pass through the outer volcano wall via a tunnel to reach the area that lies between the two volcanoes. This land is home to geothermal steam vents where local people and guests alike can use the natural heat emitted from the ground to cook any food they bring or simply enjoy the warmth.
There are a number of stone-lined pots built into the ground for cooking. Popular items to pop in are eggs, potatoes, corn and even fish, which are steamed naturally. I enjoyed a simple boiled egg, which tasted amazing as we sat on the geothermally heated ground, looking up at the steep volcanic slopes surrounding us.
Camping and the Aogoshima spirit
The area is also the location of the island’s lone campsite, which is free for anyone wishing to use it. Anyone interested needs to make a reservation (Japanese) and should bring their own camping equipment as there is none for rent.
The facility has been closed periodically due to the coronavirus pandemic, so it’s best to check the island’s website for up-to-date information regarding opening times before making an advance booking. Waking up to the view of the sun coming up over the edge of the outer volcano and experiencing cooking your food using the geothermal steam vents certainly makes the effort of bringing your own camping equipment worthwhile.
For a unique tipple, try Aogashima’s liquor, hanatare. This 60 percent shochu (Japanese spirit distilled from sweet potatoes, rice, wheat, etc.) is only available on the island. It certainly helped warm me up after a day’s trekking around the island. Tours of the shochu factory and tasting sessions are available by pre-booking through the island’s website. If a factory tour is not your thing, you can enjoy this beverage at one of the two izakaya (Japanese eatery bars), which also offer delicious local cuisine.
Dotted around the island are many shrines and gravestones that reflect the unique history and geography of the island. One shrine worth a visit is Konpira Shrine, which is located next to the helipad. Local people leave offerings at this little shrine in the hope of favorable winds and safe travels on the ocean, showing how important good weather is to the people of this island due to its remote location. The views from the shrine are spectacular. On a clear day, you can see Hachijojima.
Other shrines were established due to the unusual practice of women not being allowed to live inside the outer crater during their menstrual cycle for fear of upsetting the island gods. During this time, they had to relocate to a dedicated hamlet on the external side of the outer volcano—a practice that only stopped in the 1950s.
Another notable shrine is Todaisho Shrine, often referred to as “the red shrine” due to its color. The red contrast against the blue background makes the shrine stand out and is a landmark on the island.
The vast number of graves around the island are due to a great eruption in 1785 that led to the development of the current second cone inside the crater. The eruption took the life of 140 islanders and led to the evacuation of the remaining 163 residents who escaped to Hachijojima. The eruption and related pyroclastic flow lasted for two years and it took a further 50 years for the majority of the evacuees to return to the island.
All these sights and more can easily be enjoyed on a two-day, one-night visit. Aogashima may not be the easiest island to get to, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed and I don’t think any visitor would be. It’s full of character, incredible views and like no other place in the world.
For more information, visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government “Tokyo Treasure Islands Project” official website.