Call it Okinoshima or Tomogashima — this mysterious tiny island has big history.
There is a good reason why most visitors to Japan haven’t heard of Okinoshima: Even getting to the island in Wakayama Prefecture is a challenge.
While places like Kyoto guide visitors from sight to sight with maps, signposts and convenient buses, simply finding the port where you take the ferry to the Okinoshima involves navigating a poorly signposted mishmash of pathways, waiting for the ferry that seldom comes and enduring a crossing with waist-high waves that shake the unfortunate passengers from side to side like a ragdoll in an overly excited spaniel’s mouth.
In the past, its inaccessibility was an intentional choice as during World War II, the area was fortified heavily and intended to be used as a last-gasp defense against possible naval attack. As the war wore on and it became apparent that the greater threat was from the air, the area was abandoned and left to its own devices. With the humans gone, the natural elements quickly took advantage of the sudden absence of people to quickly reclaim their land.
While other war ruins look so clean and orderly that it is hard to imagine them being used during such a horrific conflict, Okinoshima’s remains are covered with greenery, used as domiciles by wasps and reclaimed by the unforgiving sea, letting visitors see that fighting with the Allies wasn’t the only struggle going on here.
The only locations that haven’t been completely overrun are the ammunition rooms and bunkers below the crumbling forts. Entering into at the claustrophobic spaces with their thick bomb-proof walls has a fascinating effect on your senses. The rooms were so heavily fortified that they let in almost no natural light. With such total sensory deprivation, every sound becomes magnified and even usually insignificant noises like the sound of a camera’s flash sparking or the ringtone on your phone seem deafening. A torch or an utterly unflappable sense of adventure are definitely necessary.
After the total isolation of the war ruins and their surrounding area, completing the course by making your way to the western side of the island offers visitors a pleasant surprise: a large, starkly white lighthouse that still remains in surprisingly good condition. Intriguingly the building is now covered with the flags of all the countries that fought in the war, even those that fought against the Axis powers, serving as a testament to how much the post-war events have improved Japan’s relationships with other countries.
On leaving the island, the one thing that vividly stays in my mind is the sort of hardships that men who defended Okinoshima were willing to endure just on the chance that they could make a difference in a losing war… even if these days the war is more likely to be against vegetation rather than battleships.