Rabbit Island Japan: Okunoshima
Hiroshima Prefecture is a popular tourist destination, well-known for the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima City and the sacred island, Miyajima. Very few people know that there’s another “treasure” to explore: Okunoshima also known as “Rabbit Island Japan”.
Yes, that’s right! There’s an island full of rabbits here in Japan. Well, if there’s “Cat Island” and even a “JR Station Master” who is actually a cat, then why not also have an island inhabited mostly by rabbits?
How to get to Rabbit Island Japan
The small island, which is also known as “Rabbit Island” (ウサギ島), can be reached by ferry from Tadanoumi (Hiroshima) or Omishima (Ehime).
Access via Hiroshima
The vast majority will approach “Rabbit Island” from Hiroshima Prefecture. Just take a train or a bus to get to JR Tadanoumi Station. You can find the ferry schedule (and connecting train times) here.
From JR Hiroshima Station it takes less than 2h, from JR Mihara Station (with Shinkansen stop) only about 20 mins to get to JR Tadanoumi Station. There are also buses, but usually less frequent than trains.
The ferry terminal is literally around the corner from the JR Station. I managed to walk there in 2 mins, but I’m quite fast. As long as you have about 5 mins, that should be enough. A one-way ticket from Tadanoumi (忠海) to Okunoshima (大久野島) costs 300 yen. The ferry ride only takes about 12 mins.
Your 1st Stop: Hotel Kyukamura
Once your arrive on Rabbit Island there will be a free shuttle bus (normal-sized bus) waiting for everyone. It will bring you to the only hotel on the small island “Kyukamura” (休暇村大久野島). If you have a lot of luggage you can store it there. I’m sure they’ll take it even if you’re not a staying guest.
You can rent a bicycle there. They have a lot, even smaller ones suited for children and motorized ones for older people. The island is quite small with a circumference of 4.3km, so I recommend walking instead! After all, you’ll have to get off the bicycle a hundred times to feed the rabbits. It’s just going to be in the way – and there are a few slopes as well. Cars are not allowed – only the people working on the island and the bus can drive around at a VERY slow pace in order to protect the rabbits.
As it’s a hotel, you can of course stay overnight. There’s also a small (souvenir) shop and a restaurant – pretty much your only chance to get food on the island.
That’s also where I ate lunch, trying the local speciality called “Takoten Zaru Udon” (タコ天ざるうどん). Delicious!
The restaurant is only open during lunch time, not in the evening!
The hotel is also the place where you can buy dry food for the rabbits. One plastic cup for 100 yen. I bought one and it was enough for the whole day. The cups have no lid, so if you’re alone it might be difficult to hold the cup and take photos at the same time. I prepared a little plastic bag that I could wrap around the cup / the food and put it into my bag when I didn’t need it.
Of course, you can also bring food suited for rabbits from back home such as cabbage or carrots. There are pamphlets in the ferry telling you how to treat the rabbits and what kind of food they can and can’t eat. If you’re unsure, definitely read it. Even if your Japanese is not so good, they have a lot of pictures in the pamphlet, so you’ll understand.
The “Dark” History of Okunoshima
Okunoshima has not always been a tourist destination. In fact, it has a very dark past.
A few fishermen families used to live there, but everything changed when the Imperial Japanese Army decided to develop chemical weapons on the small island. From 1927 to 1929 a plant was built where poisonous gas was produced.
As Japan had signed the Geneva Protocol it wasn’t allowed to use chemical weapons. The production and storage were not forbidden, though.
Okunoshima was chosen as the place of production for poisonous gas because they wanted to keep it a secret. The remote island was far away from Tokyo and other major cities in case there was an accident while experimenting with the chemical weapons.
Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum
The “Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum” (毒ガス資料館) opened in 1988. For 100 yen you can go inside (open 9:00 – 16:30). Photos inside were not allowed.
You’ll find a lot of shocking photos and information about what has been kept secret for a long time:
Residents and potential employees were not told what was being produced in the factory. Working conditions were extremely hard and the “protection suits” were a joke. The workers wore rubber uniforms, anti-poison gas masks, gloves and long boots, but that was not enough to keep the gas completely away from them. Many got sick after being exposed to poisonous chemicals every single day with diseases such as conjunctivitis, respiratory illness.
In the plant, balloon bombs, signal barrels, pipes and different kinds of toxic gases were produced. However, the priority was given to the production of Yperit gas. The latter can cause severe pain and skin blistering within 2-3h. When inhaled it can lead to injuries all over the body.
After the war the Allied Occupation Forces got rid of the gas by dumping, burying or burning it. They got rid of related documents and all the people involved were asked to keep silent about the fact that kilotons of poisonous gas were produced there from 1929 until 1945. Okunoshima was even erased from WWII-era maps at that time.
It was not until 1984(!!) that it became public that Japan had carried out chemical warfare.
Ruins of the Former Power Plant
In the photo below you see the ruins of the former power plant of Okunoshima.
A very spooky atmosphere that is disrupted by the cute rabbits that hop around everywhere nowadays. As it is a ruin, you’re not allowed to get too close to it, let alone to go inside.
It’s a great spot for “haikyo” (廃墟, ruin) fans!
Ruins of Former Batteries
Besides the power plant you’ll find some other remains on “Rabbit Island”.
Here’s a map of the small island, so if you have a bit if time and can bring yourself to get away from the rabbits for a second, there’s more to explore.
There are ruins of former batteries. Here you see the ones of the “Middle Battery” (中部砲台跡).
Even there were rabbits! Can you spot one?
This also belongs to the “Middle Battery”. From there you can walk to the “Northern Battery” which is close to the shore while the middle one is on a hill.
From “Toxic Island” to “Rabbit Island”
We learned a lot about Okunoshima’s dark history. Of course, it doesn’t sound like a place people would want to visit, right?
Furthermore, it’s a super tiny island, so why even bother?
Yet it’s a tourist destination nowadays. There’s a hotel, a golf and tennis court, a camping site, beautiful beaches, an observation deck offering views of the Seto Inland Sea and of course the uber-cute rabbits.
But how come there are all these rabbits in the first place?
There are actually two theories about the origin of the rabbit population on Okunoshima.
Theory 1: The guinea pigs were freed after the war.
It is said that rabbits were kept as guinea pigs to test the effects of the poisonous gas. After WWII when the factory was closed, workers freed the remaining rabbits.
However, the former director of the “Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum swears that no rabbits were used to test the effects of the chemical weapons.
Theory 2: School children on a field trip brought them.
According to a second theory a group of elementary school kids, who were on a field trip, brought 8 bunnies with them in 1971 and left them on the island.
It seems nobody knows what really happened, but it’s a fact that the island is populated by a few hundred rabbits now.
Rabbit Island Japan Nowadays
It’s great to see that an island with such a dark past could turn its fate into something good after all. The image of the island has certainly changed – although some people think that it’s still dangerous as there has never been a thorough decontamination operation and poisonous gas might still be buried somewhere.
According to Oddity Central the water supply was found to contain arsenic in 1996. The Environment Ministry reported in 2005 that the level of arsenic in the atmosphere was 49 times the environmental standard.
As for the cute bunnies, they are wild, but used to people. They’ll even hop onto your lap or eat out of your hand.
However, I noticed that none of them wanted to be petted.
You’ll get to see very cute scenes if you are patient. This rabbit was cleaning itself.
A “rabbit kiss”. So adorable! ^___^
As it’s still very hot at the end of September (we had 30°C that day), most rabbits were dozing somewhere in the shadow.
And wherever I went, a lot of expectant stares were awaiting me: “You have food for us, right? RIGHT??!!”
Oh, well. Who can resist those adorable bunnies?
I think we have a winner for the most stupid (and yet cute) stare! *g*
Let me introduce “Grumpy Rabbit“. Size-wise it was one of the most adorable rabbits on the whole island and from far away it really looked cute, but once you got closer, it gave you this “Piss off or die” glare. What a shame!
Rabbit Island’s Visitor Center
If you manage to get away from all the rabbits, you can check out the “Visitor Center“. It’s free of charge and open from 9:00 to 16:00 (closed on Wed, Jan-Feb: also on Thu).
There’s some information about Okunoshima and also cute photos of the rabbits.
It’s just a short walk away from the hotel and across from the “Poison Gas Museum”.
The visitor center is facing the Seto Inland Sea, offering a great view. You can sit outside and just relax or play around with the rabbits (that were sitting nearby in the shadow).
Or you can squeeze your head between those “rabbit ears” and listen to the sound of the ocean.
A few steps away from the visitor center on the way to a small lighthouse (see below), there’s also a little shrine.
It’s another good spot to find a bunch of rabbits, so check it out!
There’s a small lighthouse from where you’ll have a breathtaking view on the beautiful ocean. It’s not too far from the visitor center, the hotel and the museum.
If you walk a little bit beyond the small lighthouse, you’ll get an even better view of the Seto Inland Sea.
Back from the lighthouse walking towards the visitor center and the camping site, there’s a beach.
In late September swimming season seemed to be over, although it was still very hot.
Another highlight is the observation platform, but it’s quite a walk from the rest of the attractions. If you go there without stopping even once (which is impossible with all the rabbits along the way), it’ll take about 20 mins.
It doesn’t matter if you have a bicycle as the slope is really steep. Most likely you’ll have to get off and walk up.
Once up there, you’ll have a great view, so it’s definitely worth it – if you have enough time.
On the way you’ll also run into a few ruins from WWII and older.
There are several ways that lead up to the observation platform. I went up from the camping site near the visitor center and went down to see the “Middle Battery Ruins” and descending to finally check out the “Northern Battery Ruins“.
Usually the last ferry leaves from #1. If in doubt, just ask at the hotel lobby. They’re very helpful and friendly.
Travel Tips For Okunoshima:
- Try to come during the week, so you have all the rabbits mainly for yourself.
- Best rabbit spots are: visitor center, hotel, observation platform, ferry terminals and the little shrine.
- You can easily do this as a daytrip. You can spend as much time there as you want. If you’re short on time then even 1-2h are sufficient.
- It’s a great destination for families with young kids who can stay overnight at the camping site.
- Onomichi with lots of temples, cats and the starting point for the cycling tour to Imabari as well as Fukuyama with its nice castle are nearby – just in case you want to check them out.
- There are enough vending machines on the island, so you don’t have to worry about drinks. However, you might want to bring snacks for yourself (not only for the rabbits).
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Events in Jan/Feb 2017:
- Jan 15: Matobakai (Kumamoto)
- Jan 15: Toh-shiya (Kyoto)
- Jan 17: Bonden-sai (Akita)
- Jan 28: Yamayaki (Nara)
- Feb 3: Setsubun (nationwide)
- Feb 3-12: Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi
- Feb 6-12: Sapporo Snow Festival
- Feb 7-12: Asahikawa Winter Festival
- Feb 15-16: Yokote Kamakura Festival
- Feb 17-19: Tokamachi Snow Festival
- Feb 18: Naked Festival at Saidai-ji (Okayama)