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Okunoshima ('Rabbit Island')

  
 4Stars10px  - darkometer rating: 6 -
  
Okunoshima 04   super cuteA small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, near the south-west coast of Honshu, in Hiroshima Prefecture. It is mainly known these days as 'Rabbit Island', for the large number of feral rabbits that live here and that tourists come to feed and interact with. Yet the island has a very dark secret: before and during WWII it was the site of a production facility for chemical weapons! There are a few relics of this on the island, as well as a dedicated small museum telling this story.
More background info: This small island was relatively insignificant until it became fortified in the run-up to the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, when several forts and coastal gun emplacements were constructed on Okunoshima.
  
The really dark legacy of the island, however, came later and is of a totally different and much more disturbing nature: Okunoshima was one of the main centres for the secret production of mustard gas, cyanic acid and other toxic substances used in chemical warfare. It was set up from 1929 and remained operational until the end of WWII. It is assumed that poison gas from Okunoshima was actually used in the Japanese war against China, during which as many as 6000 civilians and military personnel alike may have been killed in this cruel way and tens of thousands injured.
  
The island was selected for its sinister purpose of chemical weapons production because it was secluded and far away from Tokyo and other major conurbations. The production site was shrouded in secrecy and the island even erased from maps of the region during that time.
  
Production and storage facilities lacked sufficient safety measures, and often leaks poisoned the staff working with these substances, despite their protective clothing. At its peak over 5000 people were on the island and involved in various aspects of the production, storage and transport of the substances made here. In the latter years of the war this included “mobilized” schoolchildren.
  
In addition to the production of poison gas, pupils were also involved in the production of another kind of “secret weapon”: balloon bombs. These were hydrogen-filled balloons intended to carry small explosive or incendiary bombs (hence the alternative designation “fire balloons”) on the Pacific jet stream all the way to the USA. They were thus the longest-range weapons ever used up to that point. This pure terror weapon, deployed from mid-1944 onwards, would indiscriminately target civilians in random places. Yet only very few even got that far and those that did proved extremely ineffective. Only one bomb caused any fatalities in the US (in Oregon).
  
Towards the end of the war, in July 1945, it was feared that a ground invasion by the USA might be imminent, and some of the poison gas in storage on Okunoshima was relocated, some stocks were incinerated on the island, and dismantling of the production facilities began – again “mobilized” schoolchildren were involved in this. They were also given military training so that if US troops attacked they could fight back ... using bamboo sticks. Such was the desperation in August 1945 in Japan! But as we know, no invasion came, instead the USA used two atomic bombs and Japan surrendered (though not necessarily just because of those two bombs – see under Nagasaki!).
  
After the war, the production facilities were destroyed, alongside the plant's records, and the remaining toxic substances were disposed of by the Allied Occupation Forces. Later Okunoshima was incorporated into the Inland Sea National Park and tourist facilities were developed. The dark history of the place remained untold.
  
It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the dark legacy of the poison gas production on Okunoshima was brought to the attention of the general public, when victims began speaking out. In 1988 the Poison Gas Museum was opened and is now part of Okunoshima's commodification.
  
It is thus a place with a very odd and unique “juxtaposition of dark tourism and cute tourism” (Sawyer 2018:187). The cute factor comes, of course, from the ca. 700 rabbits that roam the island freely – there are no natural predators, and cats and dogs are not allowed on the island. The rabbits are NOT, as is sometimes claimed, the descendants of any lab rabbits the poison gas facilities may have had. The rabbits you see today descend from ones released on the island after the war and who then naturally multiplied (breeding as rabbits proverbially do).
  
Some 100,000 tourists visit Okunoshima annually, and let's face it: the vast majority will come for the rabbits and few will have heard about the poison gas legacy before coming here … but they will find out once on the island. This part of Okunoshima's history is by no means hushed up or hidden. On the contrary, maps and info panels point out the various relics and the Poison Gas Museum is right on the main road between the ferry pier and the tourist village centre and hotel. So it's impossible to miss this legacy. Still, the cuteness of the rabbits is obviously the focal point for all visitors but the most hardened dark tourists and war history buffs.
  
I admit I hadn't been overly enamoured with rabbits before. I've always been more of a “cat person” (and used to have four). But I concede that I had totally underestimated rabbits' interactiveness and their undeniable cuteness. Within the first few minutes of me setting foot on the island they had won me over. But of course that didn't make me forget why I had primarily made my way to Okunoshima: to research the dark-tourism aspects. And I dutifully report my findings in the following section:
  
  
What there is to see: First of all, those interested in Okunoshima's dark legacy of poison gas production during WWII should head to the dedicated museum about this, which is given its own separate entry:
  
     
In addition there are various war relics and vestiges of the chemical weapons facilities on the island. Right next to the island's hotel (see below) two concrete shelters can be found and an information panel (in both Japanese and English) in front of it informs visitors that this was a poison gas storage facility. Further up the western side of the island there's an even bigger such ex-storage facility, and another, also larger, (again bilingual) info panel explains its former function. Access to the facility as such, however, is not allowed, as a sign makes clear (also in Japanese and English, plus with the international standard sign meaning 'off limits', so that there was no mistaking it).
  
The very largest of the WWII-era relics is the former power station that supplied the facilities on the island with electricity. You come to it through a concrete arch-cum-tunnel leading to an open space in front of the huge three-storey main building. It is a mostly empty shell these days, and atmospherically part-covered in ivy.
  
There were signs by the low fence in front of this ruin, but these were in Japanese only. I can only guess that they may have said 'no entry' too, but since I couldn't actually understand them I didn't feel too much like a trespasser when I stepped over the fence and went inside to explore (there were no other people around either, so nobody saw me). What an unexpected stint of urbexing, and a very cool one for photography (see gallery below). Inside the approach tunnel there was a mysterious inscription on the inner wall that clearly contained Latin letters and something in English, but it was so weathered that only the string “...ited in this ar...” was legible.
   
In addition there are yet more surviving buildings that once formed part of the chemical weapons production plant, especially to the east of the hotel complex. Some of these also come with info panels and include the former laboratory and the bunker-like remains of the inspection building. Some of the other relics of the chemical-weapons legacy were inaccessible at the time of my visit because the paths leading inland and up the hillsides were cordoned off.
   
Near the visitor centre and south beach (see below) is a dedicated monument (erected in 1985), but the inscription on it is in Japanese only. However I read in a brochure that it is dedicated to the victims of poison gas production and “prays for permanent peace”.
   
There are also several relics from Okunoshima's earlier military history, namely of the fortifications constructed in the early 20th century, including forts, ammunition stores and gun batteries. However, not a single actual cannon survives today. The gun emplacements are all empty. 
  
All in all: except for the ex-power plant and some of the museum's contents, the relics of the poison gas production facilities of Okunoshima aren't visually all that striking, but it is still remarkable that these relics and the extremely dark heritage they're associated with are so commodified at all. And for the unique cute-meets-dark factor alone, a visit to this island can only be recommended.
  
  
Location: right in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, about 2 miles (3.2 km) off the coast at Tadanoumi in Hiroshima Prefecture. Hiroshima City is a good 30 miles (50 km) to the west, Tokyo ca. 400 miles (650 km) to the north-east.
  
Google Maps locators:
  
ex-power plant ruin: [34.3087, 132.9974]
  
Large former poison gas storage facility: [34.31303, 132.99001]
  
Smaller poison gas storage facility: [34.3065, 132.9908]
  
Former laboratory: [34.3063, 132.9932]
  
Holiday village & hotel: [34.3063, 132.9918]
  
Main ferry pier (Pier 2): [34.3084, 132.9989]
  
Secondary pier (Pier 1): [34.3049, 132.9955]
  
Visitor centre: [34.3054, 132.9943]
    
  
Access and costs: doable as a day trip and not too complicated to get to; not necessarily expensive, though the hotel isn't exactly cheap.
  
Details: To get to the island you first have to get a train to Mihara – which is on the main shinkansen (bullet train) line from Hiroshima a mere 40 minutes away from there. From Mihara get a local train (Kure Line) that runs along the southern coast and get out after ca. 24 minutes at Tadanoumi. From the station walk down the road in the direction the train had come from, turn right, cross the railway tracks and you'll be at the ferry pier. The souvenir shop/cafe at this “Gateway to Rabbit Island” also has ticket machines for the ferry. A single crossing costs 360 JPY, return 720 (prices as of May 2019; note that JR Passes are not valid for this service).
  
There are two types of ferry, a smaller passengers-only boat and a larger ferry that also takes vehicles and connects further to the neighbouring island Omishima. Crossings take ca. 15 minutes and are scheduled between 7:30 a.m. and 7:10 p.m., return between 8:10 a.m. and 7:15 p.m.; most of the day the ferries use Pier 2 further away from the hotel, only some morning and evening ferries use the smaller but closer Pier 1 near the beach on the south of the island. Make sure you go to the correct pier for your departure from the island and if you're on a day return trip do not miss the last ferry off the island.
  
Getting around on the island itself is mostly on foot (and only that way can you interact with all those bunnies!), though you can also rent bicycles. In addition there is a free shuttle bus between Pier 2 and the hotel, which is (only) useful if you have luggage. 
  
If you want to stay on the island overnight (recommended!) then book your room at the island hotel, “Kyukamura Okunoshima”, in advance (room availability for walk-in guests cannot be guaranteed and the language barrier may also be a problem if you don't have a reservation when you turn up at reception). Room rates are generally for dinner, bed & breakfast, which is good since the hotel's restaurant is the only evening eatery on the island anyway. Dinner and breakfast are buffet style and offer a vast range of both Japanese and international dishes/items. Most rooms at the hotel are “traditional Japanese”, meaning you sleep on the floor on bedding that staff roll out for you on the tatami floor mats in the evening. The rooms have toilets and hand-wash basins, but no showers. There are however communal ones as well as onsen baths (male and female separate). The hotel also has a cafe that is open during the day and next to it is quite a large shop selling souvenirs as well as local edible specialities.
  
The only other option for staying overnight is camping. There is a camping ground by the road between Pier 2 and the visitor centre and Pier 1. When I was on the island in April I saw only two tents. It's obviously more a summer thing. I wonder, though, how the bunnies are with tents and whether they'd invade them if you don't keep them securely closed …
   
  
Time required: For the dark sites alone a couple of hours would do, but you will also want to have some time for the rabbits, so add extra time. In theory you can do the trip to Okunoshima from Hiroshima and back as a day-return excursion, but staying overnight has its benefits (see below) too.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: Since a visit to Okunoshima can be done as a side strip from Hiroshima, that city is the most obvious combination, of course. 
  
For things further afield see under Japan in general.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Need I even spell it out? First and absolutely foremost those hundreds of cute hoppity rabbits. They are mostly very friendly and fearless and come up to you immediately when they see you – obviously expecting to be fed. Since no rabbit food is available on the island, make sure to buy some in advance if you don't want to miss out on the fun of feeding the bunnies. The Gateway shop at the ferry terminal in Tadanoumi has bags of pellets, but I'd recommend bringing some suitable vegetables such as cabbage or carrots instead. It's great fun holding on to a carrot while a rabbit (or two or three) chomp forcefully away at it (you have to hold on tight!).
  
Note that there are rabbit rules! These include 'no chasing', 'no picking up', 'no feeding them human food' and even 'do not take rabbits home' … all rather obvious and common sense, but presumably worth pointing out to children – and as you can imagine, children form a sizeable proportion of the island's clientele.
  
It's a good idea to stay overnight on Okunoshima for two reasons: a) it's much less crowded once all the day trippers have left, and b) the rabbits are more active. Naturally they are almost nocturnal, or at least at their most active at dusk and around sunrise. So make sure to get up early too, before breakfast, to make the most of it.
   
Other than the rabbits, non-dark things to see on Okunoshima are the visitor centre, which is just south of the Poison Gas Museum and is about the Inland Sea National Park and its flora and fauna and geology.
   
South of this is one of the island's beaches and the lighthouse. More beaches are on the north side but are less accessible. Hiking trails and some dual-function hiking-and-cycling paths (watch out for bikes!) criss-cross the island and one path allows a full circumnavigation, which takes approximately 45 minutes (walking time without stopping – in reality you'll obviously need much longer, unless you are prepared to ignore both the rabbits and any sights en route). At the time of my visit, however, most of the inland hiking trails were closed, so that various points of interest, such as the lookout at the island's highest elevation, were inaccessible.
  
See also under Japan in general.
  
  
 
  • Okunoshima 01 - a short ferry ride from the mainlandOkunoshima 01 - a short ferry ride from the mainland
  • Okunoshima 02 - bunny heavenOkunoshima 02 - bunny heaven
  • Okunoshima 03 - hopping around outside the hotelOkunoshima 03 - hopping around outside the hotel
  • Okunoshima 04 - super cuteOkunoshima 04 - super cute
  • Okunoshima 05 - little familyOkunoshima 05 - little family
  • Okunoshima 06 - on rabbit eye levelOkunoshima 06 - on rabbit eye level
  • Okunoshima 07 - bunnies by nightOkunoshima 07 - bunnies by night
  • Okunoshima 08 - figuratively dark heritageOkunoshima 08 - figuratively dark heritage
  • Okunoshima 09 - poison gas storage facility next to the present-day hotelOkunoshima 09 - poison gas storage facility next to the present-day hotel
  • Okunoshima 10 - another former poison gas storage facilityOkunoshima 10 - another former poison gas storage facility
  • Okunoshima 11 - off limitsOkunoshima 11 - off limits
  • Okunoshima 12 - short tunnelOkunoshima 12 - short tunnel
  • Okunoshima 13 - to the former power stationOkunoshima 13 - to the former power station
  • Okunoshima 14 - insideOkunoshima 14 - inside
  • Okunoshima 15 - industrial relicOkunoshima 15 - industrial relic
  • Okunoshima 16 - high hallOkunoshima 16 - high hall
  • Okunoshima 17 - a bit of urbexOkunoshima 17 - a bit of urbex
  • Okunoshima 18 - pre-war fortificationsOkunoshima 18 - pre-war fortifications
  • Okunoshima 19 - more remnants of fortificationsOkunoshima 19 - more remnants of fortifications
  • Okunoshima 20 - lighthouse and beachOkunoshima 20 - lighthouse and beach
  • Okunoshima 21 - another beach at the northern end of the islandOkunoshima 21 - another beach at the northern end of the island
  • Okunoshima 22 - power station on the mainlandOkunoshima 22 - power station on the mainland
 
  
  
    
  
  
  
  
  

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