Its eyes are looking straight at you, and it is clear there is a calming intelligence behind them. Swimming with a dolphin is unforgettable. I was lucky enough to encounter one briefly while scuba diving in the tropics once, but I never imagined I might repeat the experience in Japan—and certainly not in Tokyo.
So when a friend told me it was possible, I had my doubts. Sure, maybe in one of those watery prisons called aquariums that make gill nets look almost merciful. Yet she insisted, and she shared her secret. I would discover that within Tokyo’s official limits lies one of the jewels of the ecological world: a wildlife mother lode that is the island of Mikurajima.
I had heard from several sources that it is a major hassle to get to Mikurajima. People seemed tight-lipped. As it turns out, organizing a trip there on your own is not so difficult, but must be done well in advance.
Getting there is actually quite pain-free. Ride the Yamanote to Hamamatsucho, and board the ferry by 10pm. The boat leaves within half an hour and you wake up next morning having been transported to another world. The transformation is dramatic, as the grimy waters of Tokyo Bay give way to the aqua blue splender surrounding the Izu islands. Believe it or not, it reminded me of the Aegean Sea.
Mikurajima, like most of these islands, is volcanic. Yet unlike neighboring Miyakejima, which still burps sulfur, Mikurajima is dormant but still has an imposing physique. The 20km2 landmass thrusts dramatically out of the Pacific, staking its claim to the area. No beaches, just dramatic 50-meter cliffs falling to shores with bowling ball-sized “pebbles” ringing the oval island.
The dramatic terrain becomes more apparent as you arrive at the dock, hewn out of a curl of land. The rest of the settlement is perched atop a dizzying series of switchbacks and inclines. Bicycles are banned—the rationale being that the hills are just too tsurai, or tough. The lone, quaint village is home to 260 people. Seven minshuku inns, a few tiny grocery stores and one restaurant pretty much represent the economy.
All of the inns have their own boats and can arrange dolphin excursions and rent equipment. The tourist information folks blithely told me occupancy is strictly limited to 140 visitors a night, as that is the number of futons. The island council carefully limits the number of people in the water per day with the dolphins. This is a fragile ecosystem, and they are in no hurry to over-develop and wipe it out.
The dolphin excursions do not disappoint. There are roughly 200 of the animals circling Mikurajima, likely year-round, meaning visitors are almost guaranteed to see the resident spotted Pacific bottlenose. Boat operators will simply go around the island until they come upon a group. Snorkelers—scuba diving is not permitted and would not be practical, as there is lots of jumping in and out of the boat—slip into the water, and with any luck, the dolphins will come close for inspection. I was lucky enough to play with one extended family “pod” for almost 20 minutes.
By mid-summer, the pods are often bored with people, and boat excursions often last two hours. Your swimming prowess is not essential for enjoyment.
If you prefer, excitement can be had watching from above. The terrain of Mikurajima can truly be appreciated as you circuit the island. The wispy, gentle drop of the Shirataki waterfall is a savory invitation to the interior. The village covers barely one-tenth of the island, saving the rest for virgin forests, home to some truly ancient trees on the northeast side. Night excursions can give you an up-close look at a flock of streaked shearwater, albatross-like marine birds that curiously roost underground. For me, though, the real unsung lure of Mikurajima are the vast inland hills and forests. I was lucky enough to go far south to Inanejinja, where I could hike through thick, dense forest. One lookout point has a 300m drop, straight down to the ocean. My next trip, I hope to go over-island via Oyama. This requires the help of a guide, who is available for around ¥4,000 for half a day.
I am already planning my return trip to this lost world of friendly, laidback locals, exquisite nature and world-class mammalian encounters. My final time in the water, a large female dolphin seemed to know what was on my mind; I swear she winked at me. Mikurajima is a wonderful treasure, indeed. With proper tourism management, hopefully it will remain that way.
Tokai Kisen (www.tokaikisen.co.jp; 03-5472-9999) offers ferry rides to Mikurajima, departing nightly from Takeshiba Port, near Hamamatsucho station. One-way fares cost ¥7,200-¥21,600, depending on class. Return trips leave Mikurajima around 1:30pm and arrive back at the port around 8:30pm. Other options include flying to Oshima, Hachijojima or Miyakejima (one-way flights on ANA start from around ¥12,000), and helicopter rides to Mikurajima can be arranged for around ¥11,000 (Toho Air: 04996-2-5222). The island’s minshuku start from around ¥7,000 per night, including dinner and breakfast. Shigeokobo (04994-8-2131) is well-established and friendly, and Chouya (04994-8-2165) is a bit newer. Bungalows can also be rented from ¥2,000. The helpful Tourist Information Office can be reached at 049-948-2022.