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Dolphin dances, WWII relics in blissful, remote Japanese islands
Seattle Times business writer
CHICHI JIMA, Japan — As I slid into the ocean west of Chichi Jima, I wasn't thinking about the island's role in World War II. Nor was I thinking of George Bush the Elder parachuting into these waters after his Navy plane was shot down in 1944.
As I cleared my snorkel and saw five dolphins headed my way, I had but one thought: Swim. Fast.
Our Sea-Tac guides — more on the name later — located the posse of porpoises less than an hour into our dolphin-swimming tour. Twice, 12 of us had rolled awkwardly into the water, only to watch the dolphins dive out of view.
Now they wanted to play.
As the undulating mammals approached, I kicked my fins as hard as I could without making a ruckus. I propelled myself in sync with their graceful arcs and matched their pace. Below me, a baby hitched a ride on its mother's dorsal fin. Above me, the largest dolphin twirled onto its back and gave me the once over.
We convoyed together for a magical 30 seconds. Then the dolphins accelerated, I got winded and we parted ways.
Tour companies and lodging
Sea-Tac dolphin swimming and whale watching guides: www.ogasawara.or.jp/sea-tac/eng/index.html
Grace Ocean Tours (in Japanese): http://www.h2.dion.ne.jp/%7egracesea/
Bonin Blue Shima guide service (in Japanese): www.d3.dion.ne.jp/%7Ek_shima/
Taiyo-so guest house (in Japanese)
Japan National Tourist Organization — Ogasawara Islands page: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/RTG/RI/kanto/tokyo
Ogasawara Islands channel (Japanese): www.ogasawara-channel.com/
History of the Ogasawara Islands: www.bonin-islands.com/history/
Fish stories like these are common in Ogasawara, a refreshingly secluded island chain 600 miles south of Tokyo in the crystal blue heart of the Pacific.
Active vacationers can scuba dive with sea turtles, snorkel above coral reefs or watch whales flip their tails high in the air. Landlubbers can hike to inland peaks, bicycle on quiet roads or nap on secluded beaches.
Yet the Ogasawara islands are much more than South Pacific idylls.
They are time capsules teeming with World War II artifacts and reminders of the battles that cost thousands of Japanese and American lives 60 years ago.
Iwo Jima, where U.S. Marines famously raised the American flag after the horrific struggle that left 20,000 Japanese and 6,000 Americans dead, is the most famous Ogasawara island. Today it is an uninhabited memorial.
Chichi Jima and Haha Jima — "father island" and "mother island" in Japanese — lie roughly 120 miles north of Iwo Jima. They are the largest Ogasawara islands and the only two with year-round inhabitants. Occupied by American troops until the Ogasawaras reverted to Japan in 1968, Chichi Jima and Haha Jima are peppered with ruins of Japanese bunkers, armament and American planes.
Yet somber history and peaceful paradise coexist with surprising ease. Throughout our 4-day visit to Chichi Jima last spring, my friends and I alternately marveled at the beauty of the place and discovered stark reminders of the War of the Pacific.
Still, nothing surprised me more than Chichi Jima's peace and quiet.
I had been pinballing my way through Tokyo's crowds since January, and I had resigned myself to foregoing seclusion in a country with 120 million people in a land the size of California.
What's more, the group I had joined from the International Adventure Club — a friendly mix of Tokyo-based Japanese and foreigners with a love of the outdoors — was visiting Chichi Jima during Golden Week, a 10-day period in late April and early May when, thanks to a flurry of public holidays, nearly all of Japan goes in motion.
Kayaking, mellow night life
My visions of packed beaches and overflowing sidewalks seemed justified when we boarded the Ogasawara Mara, the ferry that makes the 25 ½-hour voyage to Chichi Jima twice each week.
The ship was close to its 1,000-passenger limit when we set sail from Tokyo Bay. Our second-class quarters were in one of the ship's large, open sleeping berths, each of which holds about 150 people. A tatami mat, a blanket and a small square pillow for each passenger were scrunched together in long rows.
First-class cabins for two- to four-passengers can be had, but at $425 to $530 per person each way, the cost is more than twice the already steep $210 one-way fare in second-class.
Fortified with books, DVDs and earplugs, the trip was not as uncomfortable as I feared. Still, I was not excited about spending my vacation in similarly crammed conditions.
Thankfully, we and our shipmates dispersed with incredible efficiency once we hit Chichi Jima. Throughout our stay we never encountered lines in restaurants, bars or shops, and each day we traveled in small groups to pristine and lightly-visited corners of the isles.
After checking into Taiyo-So, our modest but cheerful guest house ($30 to $60 per person per night), we inhaled bento box lunches bought from the back of a pickup. Minutes later, a van from Grace Ocean Tours whisked 10 of us off for an afternoon of sea kayaking.
Ei-chan, our energetic and voluble guide, led us through a creative stretching routine and a safety tutorial, and then onto Futami Bay. Soon we were slicing through aquamarine waters above coral reefs and darting schools of fish.
Forty-five minutes of paddling took us one cove north, where the rusting remains of a Japanese cargo ship lolled in the water 25 yards from the beach. Miho, the organizer of our IAC clan, donned pink scuba fins, snorkel and mask and surveyed the fish exploring the ship's remains.
Three hours later we were back at Taiyo-so, showered and enjoying a large Japanese dinner of miso soup, fish, pork and rice. A post-meal tour of "downtown" ended two blocks away at the beach, before a steady rain drove us indoors.
We landed at Creyon, a convivial locals' pub with an electronic dart board and a 4 a.m. closing time that were the island's only nods to Tokyo's frenetic nightlife.
We were on the go again early the next morning. This time, five of us took an inland jungle tour hosted by Katsumi Shimada, a patient and knowledgeable guide with Bonin Blue Shima. Soon, we were high in the hills above the cove we kayaked to the previous day.
Hiking into the past
As we hiked, Shimada pointed out fast-growing trees and delicate flowers native to Chichi Jima, as well as aggressive non-native species that threatened the island's ecosystem.
We turned a corner and suddenly stood above the remains of an American fighter plane. It had been shot down in late 1944, Shimada said. A small white cross was placed respectfully nearby. Large sections of the plane's wings and landing gear were visible, as was rubber from its tires.
Phil, an Australian software engineer, and I showed inordinate interest in the plane, so Shimada changed our itinerary and drove us inland for a hike deeper into the jungle.
We passed a former Japanese troop campsite, complete with two massive rice-cooking stoves and a large sake bottle that, miraculously, had not been stolen or smashed in 60 years. A few minutes later we came to another crash site, this one an American P-51 Mustang. Introduced toward the end of World War II, this plane was shot down in April 1945, Shimada said.
The plane's massive Rolls-Royce engine sat immobile in a creek bed. A few yards uphill, a large wing section lay wrapped around a small tree.
Surrounding the somber scene was lush green forest, pristine air and a slow, misty rain that felt like it had spent decades trying to soften the spot's harsh past.
On the third day, we swam with the fishes.
When I discovered we'd be going with Sea-Tac guides, I figured the business had intricate ties to the Pacific Northwest. Not so. Tomoko Takahashi and her husband vacationed in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. They liked the airport's name, and decided to take it back to their business as a sort of souvenir.
Nonetheless, the Takahashis and their 34-foot "Dancing Whale" were as capable and friendly as the best Puget Sound outfitters.
We frolicked with the dolphins for an hour or so in the morning.
Then we headed further out to sea, where other guides had spied a mother humpback whale swimming with its young offspring. Every five minutes or so the baby whale's snout emerged, followed by its mother's huge sloping back. Each would blow a jet of water high into the air and then dive forward until first one then the other flapped its large tail above the waves.
Later we swam onto the beautifully remote South Island, an environmental sanctuary devoid of buildings where day-trippers are allowed to admire the views from a central hill, provided they stick to designated paths and do not trample the island's delicate vegetation.
Lunch back on the boat and two sessions of snorkeling filled the afternoon. We searched without success for more dolphins, but four sea turtles entertained us along the way.
Our final evening found us on the balcony of Charley Brown's, a spacious surfer-themed eatery that was said to have the best hamburgers on the island (and not a single image of a certain Peanuts character). Windsurfers and skateboards dangled from walls and ceilings, and reggae bass lines thumped beneath the steadily rising banter of sun-seared vacationers.
While our group waited for dessert we met a group of island schoolteachers, one of whom treated us to a spirited rendition of a local Ogasawara song and dance. I was helpless to decipher the lyrics with my weak Japanese. But it didn't matter. The easy sway of his arms and his soft, smiling song were unmistakable as native to this serene place.
Back on the Ogasawara Mara for the trip back to Tokyo, we were treated to one more surprise. As the ship pulled away from the pier, a flotilla of the guide boats that had spent the previous days taking us snorkeling, whale watching and dolphin-swimming escorted us out of the bay.
In a pink kayak, Ei-Chan and an assistant paddled madly in the ferry's wake, pausing only to wave farewells. Up and down the length of the ship, smiling passengers waved back.
Decades-old wars were not on my mind, nor was the urban bustle that waited a few hours in my future. For a few minutes, there was room in my brain only to savor a few days well spent in a beautiful slice of the Pacific.
David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company