July 7, 2013
“Even if it rains you will not get wet” – that is the first thing I read in a sign last Summer when we arrived to Niijima (新島, 新: new, 島:island). At the same time we were seeing the cloud of drizzle that seemed to have followed our boat from Oshima (大島, 大: big, 島:island) turn into a rainbow.
“Hello! Are you the guys staying at Fujiya pension?” – a girl asked us.
“Yes, that’s us”
“My name is Michi. How was the trip? You just arrived with the Friday night boat coming from Tokyo, right? You should be very tired” – she kept asking us.
“It’s been long but we have slept almost all night”
“Perfect, in any case I will take you to the pension right away. It will take us five minutes by car”
Soon we were on our way to Fujiya pension in a road bordering the sea. We passed under another cloud of rain that sprinkled our car during some seconds. Michi was driving.
“The good thing about driving around Niijima is that there’s barely any traffic lights!” – Michi told us with a proud smile while she looked at me out of the corner of her eye, as I was sitting on the front passenger seat.
“And you know what’s the best of all? You can park anywhere.” – she said knowing how difficult it is to park in downtown Tokyo.
When we arrived at the pension an old woman received us with a smile, we guessed she was Michi’s grandmother. She looked like she was older than 80 but she moved inside the pension nimbly. She opened our rooms and when we still hadn’t had time to leave our bags on the tatami she asked us:
“Have you come here to surf?”
“No, we just came here to visit the island”
“That’s weird, most of the young people that come to Niijima, just come here to surf” – she told us while she spread a couple of maps of the island on the table.
“Could you tell us where can we find the missile test range of the Japan Self-Defense Forces?” – I asked, as I had read about the island being an strategic location to protect Tokyo in case of it being under attack.
Since the Senkaku islands dispute, we all have been more informed about this kind of things. It is quite sad that two neighbour countries like Japan and China have such a bad relationship. Why don’t we share the three Senkaku rocks? One of the first things that I tell Japanese people when they ask me what do I miss the most about Europe is that one of the best things we have in Europe is “our union”; although sometimes we disagree about money, uncontrolled migrations or how to deal with international conflicts, we never feel threatened or have to worry about a not very friendly military around the corner like China or North Korea. In Europe the conversation between countries is fluent, here in Asia the leaders of the different countries barely talk with each other.
“Rocket launchers… They are in the South, but I don’t know where exactly…” – she told us while she looked closely at the map squinting her eyes.
I then decided to check Google Maps but in the south of the island there’s absolutely nothing. However, eventually she told us quite convincingly:
“I am sure it’s to the southwest. You should go there in the morning, I am sure the sunrise will be lovely there.”
On the next day we woke up at 3:30 a.m. and we set out to head south. We crossed the Honson village, one of the two villages in Niijima and we soon were on the only road that can be taken to go to the south of the island: a narrow and dark road which was full of tree branches. We drove slow, we were not in a hurry, we had until five to find the military area which is a good spot to see the sunrise.
We finally arrived until the end of the road, we were at the top of a reef. It was still night time, the only light came from the stars.
We got our cameras ready for the sunrise…
And the light didn’t let us see where exactly the road ended.
We found part of the military compound, but it seemed that it was not the rocket launch area. It was the electrical substation that provides energy to the rocket launch area and also to the nearly 3,000 civilians that live on the island.
We continued with our search going down a secondary track but again we bumped into a fence with a sign that said “技術研究本部航空装備研究所新島支所, 防衛庁: Research & Development Centre for equipment (weapons) of the Air Force in Niijima, Ministry of Defence”. On the other side of the fence we could see a couple of hangars and two or three trucks all surrounded by the forest. I hope it will always be used as a R&D centre and it will never have to be used to launch missiles.
We came to the conclusion that that was all we could ever see of the military compound and we decided to go on and look for our next objective, the largest moai in the island. Yes, like the moais in Easter Island but much smaller. There are several moais in Niijima, all of them are sculpted by an artist that lives in Honson, two streets away from our pension.
Niijima is a volcanic island, in fact locals say that it was “born” from the earthquake of 1703, which divided one island into two different islands Shikinejima and Niijima. And that is why it is called “New Island” (Niijima, 新島, 新: new, 島:island). Its volcanic nature makes the island orography spectacular: forests, mountains, deserted beaches, cliffs with impossible formations…
Best thing to do in Niijima? The 24-hour open-air onsen (hot springs) decorated to imitate the ruins of a greco-roman temple. Bathing in volcanic waters enjoying the sea breeze:
Can you spot the moai in this photo?
Or maybe the best was to walk on the beaches with my new camera lens, a Sigma 500mm 😉
We spent three days exploring every corner of the island, it was almost always raining intermittently, but… we never had to use an umbrella! I wonder if this is the island of the eternal intermittent rain. It should be true what the locals say about Niijima:
雨が降っても「濡れないぞう」- Even if it rains you don’t get wet – Niijima island proverb
We got in Michi’s car. Her grandmother, always smiling, came out of the house to bid us farewell. While standing on the middle of the pavement she waved us goodbye, it seemed like she couldn’t stop waving her hand from left to right until we turned right in the first crossing and we couldn’t see her any more.
“My grandmother has been working for 46 years in the pension and it seems like everyday is like the first day for her” – Michi told us when we entered the road that had to lead us to the pier.
You can buy tickets for the boat trip to go from Tokyo to Niijima in this website.
More photos in this Flickr set.