Think of an island surrounded by clear blue water, white sand beaches and long stretches of empty coastline. Picture lush green mountains sloping down to the water’s edge. Thinking Tokyo? Probably not, but tucked away in a magical corner of Tokyo is an island called Niijima.
Niijima is a small dot on the map 88 nautical miles south of downtown Tokyo, yet with densely forested hills, friendly locals and the scent of the sea riding in the wind; it feels as if you are thousands of miles from one of the world’s largest cities. The island is actually part of the Izu Honto, a group of seven islands under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Niijima is a great place for a weekend getaway. Among surfers, it’s known for its waves. After seeing a Japanese surfer’s eyes light up every time the island’s name is mentioned, followed by stories of great waves, white sand beaches and clear blue water, my girlfriend Alicia and I decided we had to go.
We jumped a hydra-foil at Takeshiba Pier in Tokyo and, less than three hours later, we pulled up to Niijima. There is an overnight ferry for half the price, but it only runs during summer, so this was not an option.
Surfers should note there is a ¥1,000 fee per surfboard. We strapped two boards together and convinced the ticket master it was only one fee, but on the return journey our cunning plan failed, so you may want to try stuffing your boards in one large travel bag.
When you arrive on Niijima, two things strike you: How quiet the little port is and how the rich green surroundings blend with the blue sea. Small rocky islands are scattered off to the south, and rugged looking mountains extend along the island to the north. The highest peak, Mt. Miyatsuka, stands just 432 meters high.
The tourist information office at the end of the pier helped us book into a minshuku but advised it is best to book ahead in summer. The old woman who owns our place laughed as she explained things to us in a mix of Japanese and English.
She was especially proud to show us photos of Andy Irons, a top professional surfer, who had stayed there. Free bicycles were available and we soon found they were the perfect way to leisurely explore the island like the locals. You can also hire bikes in the village, a good option since it’s an hour walk from the free campsite to the local hot spring.
Surfboards in hand, we biked across the island to Habushiura, the main surfing beach. We arrived at the long arcing beach to the sight of almost pure white sand, idyllic blue water and—best of all—waves. There were waist-high waves, an offshore wind and no one surfing.
A post card perfect beach, technically in Tokyo, with no one in the water. Amazing! By the time we got in, a few local surfers had joined us, and we were actually happy to have some company waiting between waves.
After a long surf on Niijima, there is only one place to go – Yonohama Onsen. We peddled over and were greeted by a sign in Japanese, English and Spanish asking, that we remove our wetsuits before bathing. Damn, I was really looking forward to that rush of hot water as I peeled off my wetsuit, yet nothing could detract from the pleasure of this free, outdoor hot spring in such a magnificent setting.
Yunohama Onsen is a nice mix of man and nature. Soaking in the natural onsen, with the sound of the waves lapping the cliffs below and the view of the green hills and nearby islands as the sun sets, is enjoyed in a majestic Greek-style building, complete with fallen archways and raised rock pools at different levels that catch the hot water at varying temperatures as you relax. As we kicked back and let the water warm our souls, we pondered Niijima’s simple pleasures.
That night a storm blew in from the southeast. We expected Habushiura to become a stormy cauldron of wind and waves, but island perfection prevailed. By morning the wind was blowing offshore and fanning head high waves as they reeled off. At one point, I looked down the beach and could see three barrelling waves all breaking in empty perfection.
The waves hitting Habushiura were fast and breaking close to the shore. Fast, hollow shore breaks aren’t my favorite type of wave, but I couldn’t pass up the empty waves, so I had a go. Habushiura won that round of man versus ocean.
The northern end of the island is far less populated and a great place to hike or seek solitude. It’s also home to Awaiiura, a right hand point break we had heard about. A point wave offers a long ride and is generally easy to paddle out to. Evidently, it’s not as easy to peddle to. We soon discovered bicycles were not allowed in the only tunnel to that part of the island.
And it’s a long tunnel. If you were to walk or cycle, the lack of oxygen and the exhaust fumes could be toxic. There is a free local bus three times a day that doesn’t allow surfboards, so the only other options for surfers are taxi or flagging down a willing local heading that way. We couldn't find either, but a friendly local found us. He took time out of his day to take us to some rocks at the northern end of Habushiura Beach that formed a quality, peeling wave we surfed alone all afternoon.
Later that day, he came roaring past in his truck and stopped. We got off our bikes thinking something was wrong, but he just went over to the vending machine, bought a couple of drinks for us and then insisted we meet him later that night at Bar Kolumbo for karaoke. For us, Niijima seemed like a place where random acts of kindness occurred all the time.
The next day the waves were small, but we had another solitary surf at Habushiura. By afternoon they were even smaller, so we decided to take a stroll down the beach past high, sandstone cliffs eroded over time by wind and water into a complex pattern of crevices and cracks.
Along the way, we came across some surfers at a point curiously named “Secret” since the spot is on every surf map and has a signpost pointing toward the car park. At Secret there are rocky outcrops that form a rock-and-sand-bottomed reef extending off a small headland creating nice left and right waves.
Secret seems to pick up a bit more swell than most places, so on a small day it may be your best bet. If you walk far enough, you are rewarded with a view of Jinaijima, an uninhabited island. You may even have a beach all to yourself.
No matter what time we visited the onsen, there were a few old timers catching up on local gossip. We didn’t understand much of what was said, but we definitely heard it. It seemed like the descriptions of old Japan I’d read where the onsen was a focal point of the community. We’ll remember the local hospitality as much as the surfing. We were met with friendly greetings whereever we rode and were invited to eat with people several times.
On one occasion, a local shop owner down by the port smilingly motioned us into his ramshackle souvenir store. He was as disinterested in his shop as we were but wanted us to share a meal with him.
At the back of the store bubbling away was a pan full of pork and udon. He lit a grill and threw on some kusaya (Nijima’s specialty of dried fish soaked in brine). It was only 10 a.m., but he kept offering us beer and appeared puzzled when we declined. We met an Australian couple in the campground later who had a similar experience with the guy.
The last day the waves were too small at Habushiura, so we tried Secret. We found a much shorter route via a set of stairs on the road heading south between the airport and the beach. While we were checking the surf, a local farmer pulled up and offered us breakfast. It actually looked like his lunch, so we asked to make sure, but he said he could always get more. And with a “ja mata,” he drove off.
Niijima has surf options for most swell-and-wind combinations, so it’s worth looking around. The island can also turn on some big waves in typhoon season, but be prepared to wait it out, as ferries don’t run in rough seas.
We were lucky to score Niijima at a peaceful time but were told repeatedly the entire ferry unloads at the island in summer, and we saw photos of the packed campsite. Yet even at peak season there is still potential to find uncrowded places, as long you are prepared to look a bit further and do some walking or peddling.
Area: 27.77 square kilometers
Population: 2,500 (April, 2008)
Distance from Tokyo: 163 kilometers
By Sea: 2 hours, 50 minutes (high-speed boat) or 10 hours, 35 minutes (large passenger ferry) from Takeshiba, Tokyo.
Web: www.tokaikisen.co.jp (Japanese only).
By Air: 35 minutes from Chofu Airport, Tokyo. (New Central Air Service)
Niijima has one hotel, a few ryokan and more than 200 minshuku. Most minshuku offer a good deal with breakfast and dinner included. Call the Tourist Information Center for reservations. Tel: (04992) 5-0048.
Magic Seaweed: www.magicseaweed.com
Beach Combing Magazine: www.bcm-surfpatrol.com