Okinoshima will be forever imprinted in my memory as an island that required big effort, for an even bigger disappointment.

The Oki Islands is a group of remote islands located in the Sea of Japan, which is somewhere between Korea and Japan. Many people have heard of the island of Okinawa (no I didn’t go there) but very few know about other islands of Japan – the Oki Islands. This island group is located 80km away from the mainland and consists of four inhabited islands and 180 uninhabited ones. The four largest islands are Dōgo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima and Chiburijima — I visited the first two. Okinoshima is a town on Dōgo island — the largest of the Oki Islands — which occupies the entire island and has a population of 15,000 people.

Clouds gather over the sea as the ferry departs the mainland from Sakaiminato.

There are two ways to get to the island — by ferry and by plane, as it was January and the low season I chose the ferry. There was only one ferry a day to and from the island. I wasted no time and left early in the morning from the small city of Sakaiminato on the mainland. With no understanding of the mad rush to board the ferry I stood at the back of the queue and waited my turn to experience life on a Japanese domestic ferry. The main passenger area was simple, clean and warm, with no seats but a carpeted floor area. Initially I thought I was in the wrong area, but it was the right place, economy class for budget travellers – where we all sleep side-by-side on the carpet. Just as for the Koreans the floor is an important mainstay of Japanese culture.

People getting comfortable on the floor of the ferry’s economy class area.
The bright morning quickly turned dark and windy, with a miserable view over the sea as we departed Sakaiminato port.

Three hours later and we reached the quietest place in Japan. So why the hell would I take the trouble of travelling to such a forgotten place in the low season? Because these islands are one of Japan’s lesser-known travel destinations and well off the beaten track. Which made them the ideal place for me.

Fishing and agriculture are the main industries here. Port with fishing boats in Okinoshima.

My “story of effort” began from the moment I arrived on the island, decided to rent a bike and then ride across the island. The day was already half over by the time I hit the road. The route to the other side of the island was a 40km round trip, luckily the road was smooth and straight without bumps and potholes, I wish the same were true for London. I crossed over a bridge and left the port of Okinoshima to begin my journey.

After a few kilometres, gradually shifting gears, I realised that the road would not be an easy one. I felt the road start to get steeper and my legs started to burn. I used to commute 20 kilometres a day to and from work in London for about a year before I started travelling, and riding such distances was of no difficulty at all. But the ride up and down the hills of Okinoshima proved a cruel surprise, for which I was unprepared.

Forester's house.
A smooth road runs through the hills to the other side of the island.

Over time, a micro-climate started stirring under my jacket with my body heating up and cooling down in quick succession. After an hour of riding uphill it became unbearable to continue even at low speed. Sweat was pouring off me as I continued my ascent, then when descending the wind blew through the gaps of my jacket to give me a chill. So as not to get sick I put on another layer — better to be sweaty than ill.

Hawks circling in the sky above, like vultures sensing impending doom.

During this workout I completely lost track of time, as I was focused only on pedalling. After the next hill that rose some 200 meters above sea level, I finally reached the end of the road.

Leaving my bike on the path, I just then realised how dark it had become. I couldn’t see anything at all, no sea, no rocks, no trees, why did I come here? And behind me was the second half of the horror, the half I had yet to face.

View from the cliff over into the sea. Korea is in the same direction as the light on the horizon.

I rested a while and then rode back. On the way the only light shed on the island roads came from my blinking flashlight, the occasional passing car and the glowing telephone booths.