Sunlight was streaming in through a tiny gap between the curtains of our hotel room in Hiroshima. Like most mornings, my first physical instinct was to reach for my phone, which I blearily looked at, wincing at the too-bright digital display as the screen came to life. There was a stream of notifications all containing the same sentiment: happy birthday. It took a few seconds before the realisation set in.
“You’re 30,” came the silent reminder.
When I was a teenager, for some reason, I was convinced that the age of 30 carried particular definites. By 30, I thought, people had it together. They had jobs, they had children, they – naively thought on my part – probably had already done something great and meaningful with their life. Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that I was deeply religious at the time, convinced that I would marry the first boyfriend that popped into my life.
Instead, at 30, I was in the midst of doing something that other people normally do as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. I was on a gap ‘year’, my first real experience of long-term travel. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have children, I hadn’t written that prize-winning novel, and I certainly didn’t feel like I had stumbled onto a path that made me feel like I was doing the right things with my life every single day. On this landmark birthday, though, when I compared my current state to what I thought was destined for me, I felt content about it. It felt right. This is what I needed to be doing on my 30th birthday: following my biggest passion, which has repeatedly revealed itself to be travel.
Travelling has brought so much good to my life, such as the new experiences, new friends and its role as a major help in my ongoing battle against depression and anxiety. It made sense that this would be exactly what I would be doing on a big occasion like a 30th birthday.
In addition, when I was planning the trip, there were several different things I could’ve chosen for my birthday. In the end, I decided that I wanted to be in Japan, a country that I had wanted to visit for years. Not only that, but I decided that I would spend my birthday in the company of some new furry friends, as I’ve been an animal lover for as long as I can remember.
I had first heard about Japan’s Rabbit Island from friends and fellow bloggers who had already been there. Now, it should be clarified that there are plenty of animal-related opportunities in Japan; from fox villages to a cat island up north, there are so many quirky adventures that you could add to a Japan travel itinerary.
But, since our itinerary was already sending us to Hiroshima, Rabbit Island seemed to be the obvious choice, as it’s a perfect day trip from the city.
– Getting to Japan’s Rabbit Island –
Getting to Rabbit Island is an easy task if you have the JR Rail Pass. From Hiroshima, we took the bullet train to Mihara station, and then changed here for the local train to Tadanoumi station. We bought tickets for the earliest transfer, so that we could have more time on the island itself. Once at Tadanoumi, it’ll be immediately apparent that you’re in the right place due to the number of cartoon bunnies decorating the platform. From there, we found posters showing us the directions to the nearby ferry terminal.
The terminal is a short walk from Tadanoumi station, and – again thanks to the many visual cues of rabbit pictures – this is where you’ll buy your ferry tickets and other essentials for the day. There’s a vending machine where you can buy return tickets (620 yen for adults; just over £4 at the time of writing) for the ferry to the island, thankfully with some English translations so that you don’t end up buying the wrong tickets. You can also store luggage at the terminal for an all-day fee.
While you wait for the ferry, this is a good opportunity to buy the most important item for a trip to Rabbit Island. You can’t buy rabbit pellets when you’re on the island, so stock up on a few bags of these at the mainland terminal. My advice? Buy more than you think you need; we only bought two bags each and regretted not having more.
From there, it’s a short journey on the ferry to Rabbit Island, where one of the most unique welcome parties awaited us.
– The rabbits of Okunoshima –
When it comes to the subject of how the rabbits of Rabbit Island, or Okunoshima if you want to go by the island’s official name, got here, there are a few different theories. Some say that the rabbits were the test subjects for the island’s darker role of poisonous gas production during World War Two (more on this later) and were released once the operations had been shut down. Others say that a few rabbits were introduced by children on a school trip, and these rabbits went on to, well, breed like the little rabbits that they are, leading to the hundreds of bunnies that now live on this tiny island. Yet another explanation is that rabbits were released here once it was decided to turn the island into a park, moving away from its former negative reputation.
Regardless of how they got here, these were the first figures we spotted when our ferry approached Okunoshima. Thanks to the large number of tourists coming here to feed them, the rabbits have taken to waiting for the each ferryload of potential feeders.
Okunoshima’s rabbits are not scared of humans at all, and will approach anyone holding out rabbit pellets. One chap was extremely well prepared, bringing along a massive bulk pack of rabbit feed, which ensured that he had a crowd of the long-eared creatures around him at any given time.
Despite being fed at regular intervals, the rabbits act like they’re starving, resulting in them running after people or even climbing onto them in order to beat out the competition to get to the pellets first. Even the babies have learned that humans = food, and there were some youngsters who would be the first to venture over to us.
We didn’t want to linger at the arrival area too long, though, as rabbits can be found all over the island and the ferry landing can get a little crowded at times. Instead, there’s a roadway that leads into the centre of the island, and the views are pretty spectacular along the way. Gorgeous panoramas aside, this was also where we found the friendliest rabbits of all, as evidenced by the following images.
Getting smothered by a blanket of rabbits may not be everyone’s idea of fun (especially when the rabbits seem to think that everything, including earrings, could be food) but I don’t think I’ve giggled so much since I was a child. I remember lying on the ground and realising how surreal it all was: I was 30, I was on a Japanese island and there were about ten bunnies sitting on me at any given time.
Even though I could easily write about Okunoshima’s cute inhabitants for the rest of this post, there are other things to see on the island beyond its sizeable rabbit population.
– Other things to do on Rabbit Island –
Okunoshima may be small, but there are plenty of things to do to keep you occupied while on the island. If you’re short on time, there’s a bus that picks up ferry passengers and takes them to the island’s only hotel, where you can also find a restaurant, a souvenir shop and drinks vending machines. This is also a good starting point for your island explorations.
Visit the Poison Gas Museum
It may not be a particularly cheery idea to visit a museum focusing on chemical warfare, but this small museum tells the story of Okunoshima’s role during World War Two. Before the island became a tourist hotspot thanks to its rabbits, a top-secret project was being carried out on Okunoshima. Considered ideally secluded from the mainland, it was decided that the island would be used for the production of poisonous gas, such as mustard gas and tear gas.
Since Japan had signed the Geneva Protocol in 1925, which banned all signatories from the use of chemical warfare, the government went to great lengths to keep its operations on Okunoshima secret, even removing the island from official maps of the country. The real tragedy here was what happened to the people who worked in the Okunoshima gas factories. Since they were not told what they were making, the after-effects could be gruesome, with many former employees experiencing respiratory illnesses and skin conditions.
Much of the museum’s information is available in Japanese only with broad summaries provided in English. It’s still worthwhile to visit, however, as it explains the presence of some of the other structures you’ll spot while walking around the island. Be warned, though, some of the images within the museum are disturbing and it might be better to take kids elsewhere.
Photograph the ruins of Okunoshima
At the end of the war, anything related to poison gas production was shut down, with buildings being partly demolished or burned. This explains the appearance of the structures left on the island, such as the eerie, looming power plant building and empty storage facilities now slowly being reclaimed by plantlife.
But these aren’t the only sorts of ruins you can find on Okunoshima. During other wars, the island was heavily fortified, and we stumbled upon a few of the old batteries that once protected Okunoshima from foes. Like most of the people that come to Rabbit Island, I was unaware of the island’s role in military history, but I left Okunoshima feeling like I could’ve taken photos of those ruins all day.
If you’re keen to discover all of the island’s ruins, these are well signposted as you stroll around the island.
Walk around the island
My favourite thing about Rabbit Island, partly due to the extra opportunities to run into new bunny friends, was that we were able to walk around the whole island in just over an hour.
The variation in the sights we chanced upon was vast: from spooky ruins to stunning views across the Inland Sea of Japan, it felt like an extremely rewarding stroll. While the island has a sleepy feel to it, thanks to its lack of regular human inhabitants and its single hotel, we came across signs that it was once thought to be destined to be a busy holiday destination. We passed tennis courts that looked like they hadn’t been used in decades, as well as other ancient-looking sports facilities.
Perhaps it was because our visit fell in the off season, but I loved how quiet the island was as soon as we walked away from the arrival area. It almost felt like we had the whole place to ourselves, especially as we neared the farther reaches of Okunoshima – apart from the rabbits, which seem to be ever-present. I know that there are only supposed to be hundreds of rabbits on the island but, judging by how many we saw on our visit, I don’t think I can be blamed for thinking that the real number is much higher. Not that I could ever complain about that.
If you’re planning to walk around the island, take note of the returning ferry times as, especially in the off season, these can be rather spread out. Leave aside a decent hour-and-a-half or two-hour window to complete the circuit.
Later that day, we returned to Hiroshima for an evening of okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes) and my first-ever experience of karaoke (I was terrible). Even though I ended my 30th birthday by deafening all bystanders, my day on Rabbit Island will go down as one of my favourite travel memories of all time.
I may not be the perfectly developed person I thought I was going to be by 30, but I couldn’t be happier about how and where I chose to spend my birthday. The only thing missing was my wonderful parents and sister, but I may or may not be already formulating a plan to get all of us visiting Japan together in the near future.
Do you also like to travel on your birthday? Where was the most memorable place that you celebrated a birthday? Let me know in the comments below.
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