The serene island of Hachijo is just a 55-minute flight from the Tokyo International Airport, and it offers a sharp contrast to the high-rise and futurist architecture of the inland. The landscape is taken over by a lovely tropical climate and vegetation (not to mention bioluminescent mushrooms!), and it is the perfect epitome of Japan’s rich natural heritage. You’d even forget that you were still in Tokyo, hence the island’s sobriquet “Hidden Tokyo,” but the lovely landmass is still very much a part of the capital. A fact well pointed out by the majority of the local number plates which bear the tag Shinagawa, which means “this is Tokyo!”
Beyond the beautiful terrain and the enticing shorelines, Hachijo also holds significant administrative ties with the first political delegation thought to have toured the island about seven centuries ago in the Muromachi era. Perhaps more importantly, during the Edo Period, it served as a banishment camp for those who committed political sacrilege against the then in-power Tokugawa Shogunate. However, that ended in 1881 as a result of the Meiji Restoration.
Hachijojima is home to an endangered dialect, which arose due to the geographical difference between it and the mainland. It has strayed from customary Japanese tradition with Hachijo harboring ancient words that have since fallen out of memory across other parts of the country. That reputation has seen it further christened Shima Kotoba or the “language island” with linguists frequenting the landmass to study the unique tongue of Hachijo.
Hachijojima’s unique culture also extends beyond speech and into local wear. The most significant evidence of that is the authentically distinct fabric that is the colorful Ki-Hachijo. The traditional attire is strewn from the hues of indigenous trees and grass, boasting vibrant combinational shades, including black, amber, and yellow. Kabuki performers have typically worn it over the years, and the fabric’s popularity is on the ascendency in modern-day Japan.
Concerning unique foods, the Kusaya stands out as the island’s trademark. This pungent delicacy is essentially a dried and fermented fish that offers a surprisingly mellow- and inviting- taste. The meal is made from a blend of different ingredients aside from the fish, which ensures an abundance of vitamins and amino acids. Its strong smell might put some people off, but if you have a sweet tooth for fermented delights like blue cheese, you’re sure to appreciate the Kusaya.
Meet Takahiro Nagata: The Kusaya Specialist with an Infectious Passion and a Lifelong Dream
Mr. Takahiro Nagata, a young native with decades of experience under his belt, has become somewhat of an ambassador of Kusaya in Hachijojima and beyond.
His love for the peculiar fish started at a young age, influenced by the fishing household that he grew up in. It was only a matter of time before the baton of the family business was passed on to him, and that came after his own successes. Mr. Nagata was the best for abalone production (a variety of sea snail) in Hokkaido, a feat that no doubt had a lot to do with his academic background in fisheries. He has brought to his father’s business, which is now his, the educational insight and experience necessary to make informed decisions.
Mr. Takahiro Nagata is also into technology and is fueled by the desire to help others. He played a significant role in making Hachijojima the first remote island to have Yahoo!BB broadband after he successfully convinced Softbank chairman, Mr. Masayoshi Son, to create a favorable IT environment for the children of Hachijo. Mr. Son, who visited the island on August 4th, 2003, was delighted at the idea of a world where broadband accessories had substituted telephone lines. He needed very little convincing as to its importance to the local people.
In the same year, Mr. Nagata expanded the reach of his Kusaya business by tapping into the online space to create a sales website for his goods. His efforts saw him earn a coveted EC online shopping accolade, which proved he was head and shoulders above his competitors.
The future of Kusaya making in the Nagata family seems to be quite safe, as the children were born into a world where they lived and breathed the fish. They learned the basics while in elementary school and could well pass for Kusaya experts by the time they were in high school.
Mr. Nagata has long had a vision that Hachijojima Kusaya making will become a part of the country’s syllabus, a dream that is beginning to actualize. School students in Hachijojima are already studying it as part of their curriculum, and there have been some inquiries from schools in mainland Tokyo and school teacher visited Mr Nagata and learned about Kusaya, and arranged total 11 hours Kusaya study.
The Dairy Treasures of Hachijojima
Not too long ago, during the previous century, to be exact, the island haven of Hachijojima also held an accomplished dairy reputation. It was among the planet’s most respected dairy producers during the Taisho era, revered for its delicious milk and plump cows. It even had an impressive factory to show for it!
The island blossomed in the aftermath of the Second World War, becoming the first in Japan to accompany milk with lunches for elementary schools. That happened a decade before institutions countrywide followed in Hachijo’s footsteps. Unfortunately, the dairy giant of Japan has succumbed to the pressures of competition as the influx of cheaper products led to the demise of the industry and the island’s reputation as one of the world’s dairy heavyweights. However, Mr. Takayuki Utoani is spearheading the charge to get back those glory days.
Mr. Uotani moved to “Hidden Tokyo” in 2013 with a revolutionary idea to introduce a new breed of cattle to Hachijojima that could thrive in the setting in a bid to start up cheese production. That breed was the jersey, a small cow with lower space and feeding requirements compared to the popular Holstein variety. Additionally, he also implemented a natural system of rotational grazing that was relatively unheard of in Hachijojima and the country at large.
His ideas were good, but there were two sides to that coin. The benefits were that the milk had a scintillating taste that makes pudding, yogurt, and other dairy products irresistible. It is for this reason that the milk made its way onto the breakfast menu of the popular Reed Hotel & Resort. However, milk production from the Jersey cow was insufficient to realize profitable returns with it offering only half the output of a Holstein. After a while, the numbers didn’t look good, and it seemed as though Mr. Uotani’s efforts would soon hit a dead end. However, Shinya Utagawa, General Manager of Reed Hotel & Resort, offered a helping hand just in time to ensure a breakfast favorite didn’t fade out of existence.
In light of the relief, Mr. Uotani went back to the drawing board to determine where he could cut down on operational costs. He came to the realization that, long before the foreign dairy distribution networks made inroads, dairy farming on the island was reliant on grass grown naturally across the seasons. He aims to hopefully revert to those times, as he learns native grass techniques of old from the secrets that past-century books hold. Mr. Uotani hopes to attain complete sufficiency soon.
Hachijojima Dairy, Mr. Uotani’s company, has become famous for its “Hachijojima Jersey Pudding.” A radio show sparked the conversation about a lovely treat from “Hidden Tokyo” whose delicious reputation has since spread like wildfire. It now features prominently in discussions alongside other Hachijojima specialty products like Shitake, Shima Shochu, and Sweet Potatoe, as locals and tourists cram for the island’s dairy treats.
The island’s “Jersey Café,” which opened its doors in 2016, is proof of this escalating love for Hachijo’s dairy. Further evidence of that proficiency lies in the 2018-edition of the “Japanese Cheese Award.” Every cheese variety from Hachijojima Dairy scooped an award in the competition with the Mozzarella, in particular, earning a first-place, podium finish.
Beaming in the knowledge of these accolades, Mr. Uotani was optimistic about the fate of dairy farming in Hachijojima, saying that it has the edge over other forms of agriculture. He argues that this kind of farming defies environmental obstacles compared to fisheries and agriculture, which are heavily affected by the weather. What’s more, he adds that cattle can graze even on farmland unfit for agriculture and that it wonderfully complements other island foods such as shochu, sweet potatoes, and Ashitaba.
Mr. Uotani has started rearing Jersey bull as well, and his long-term vision is to one day produce “Hachijo beef” as his new brand product.
Shiitake Mushrooms are yet another Hachijojima Specialty!
Hachijojima is an island blessed with many of Mother Nature’s treasures, and the Shiitake- an edible and medicinal mushroom- is another of its countless gifts. Dairyu Farm has made a successful business harvesting Umikaze Shiitake-Mushroom to sell to an ever-increasing market base. Founder Mr. Ryuji Osawa acknowledged the skyrocketing demand via the company’s Facebook page. He says that they have their hands tied with orders, and that new deliveries can take up to six months to fulfill!
The Shiitake mushroom craze traces back to a popular TOKIO TV show, which sort to explore the rare mushroom from Hachijojima. In that star-studded episode, the hosts visited Hachijo and harvested Umikaze Shiitake to make a gourmet strewn only from ingredients indigenous to the island. The meal certainly impressed, and so too did the show, as it sent the national audience into a frenzy.
Inquiries came in thick and fast the day after, as people from all over Japan wanted to get a taste of the famous mushrooms. According to Mr. Osawa, tourists thronged Diaryu Farm, causing a sudden surge in demand way beyond what they had to offer.
Almost as intriguing as the mushroom themselves is the way that Dairyu Farm cultivates their Shiitake. Typically, these fungi grow on raw wood, but things are done a little differently at this farm as natural wood is swapped out for Kinsho (wood chip) blocks. Initially, the plan was to raise stag beetles with the edible mushroom fungus serving only as food for the larvae. Mr. Osawa thought of the sprouting mushrooms from the fungi as nothing more than by-products of breeding the beetles. But all that changed one day when he decided to give Shiitake a shot as a result of some large mushrooms he had seen.
He found a compatible bacteria four years later in line with the Hachijojima climate, which is known for its salty winds called Umikaze, hence the naming of the unique mushrooms as the Umikaze shiitake. This variety has a characteristic and subtly appetizing salty and umami taste, and it’s easily distinguished by its larger-than-average stature.
Dairyu Farm gives visitors the chance to get up close with the towering mushrooms via a one-of-kind hunting tour using specialized tools. Many are usually baffled by the sheer size of them, which makes them a social media favorite. After rounding up your collection, there is also a gourmet plan that involves grilling the harvested mushrooms.
The fun doesn’t end there as there’s still one more exciting thing to do on the farm’s itinerary and that is to explore Mr. Osawa’s “Hobby room.” There, you’ll find the enormous stag beetle that gave him the idea to venture into farming shiitake as well as several huge larvae. The intriguing room is, in fact, one of the many reasons the TV show mentioned above was such a big hit, as many sought to take in the sights for themselves.
The tales of Dairyu Farm’s Umikaze shiitake has earned it another TV appearance in early October, as revealed by Osawa on Facebook. He and his intuitive farm are set for a four-hour special on NTV, and he’s over the moon about the recognition. In the same social media post, he acknowledges the magnitude of the honor and appreciates the chance quite heartily. The Umikaze Shiitake bandwagon certainly shows no signs of slowing down.
Hachijojima Nature Guide is Continually Impressed by the Islands’ Enchanting Greenery
Hachijojima Nature Guide Service (Shiinoki) Yuriko Orui
Cast within the beautiful reaches of the Philippine Sea, the volcanic Island of Hachijojima has blossomed over the years into a paradise of diverse plant and animal life. It is perhaps the most notable member of the Izu archipelago, boasting a vast lineup of green riches with peaceful nature walks a significant highlight of the 69 square kilometer landmass. Views from atop the 854m high Mt Hachijo Fuji- named so due to its uncanny resemblance to the tallest mountain in Japan, i.e., Mt. Fuji- are particularly panoramic. You can also say the same of the breathtaking mountain trail that is the Karataki/Ionuma course. It is brimming with colorful seasonal plants swaying to breezes from the nearby sea.
One nature guide has had a front-row seat to this wondrous world, and she is prepared to walk visitors through the island’s appeal and the stories that lie beneath the lush foliage and the colorful canopies. She offers a scenic tour that traverses the aesthetic beauty of the island.
Ms. Yuriko Orui works for the Hachijojima Nature Guide Service Shiinoki, and she offers guests a look at some of the island’s best parts. You’d think that after two decades on Hachijojima that she would be used to its heavenly outlook by now, but she says the fantastic show by Mother Nature never ceases to amaze her.
Originally from Yokohama City in Kanagawa Prefecture, Ms. Orui says that she does all she can to ensure the program is pleasing for guests without disturbing the eco-system that has survived countless generations. She factors in the environment, sea, and weather conditions to ensure a safe stroll that encompasses a pristine look at the islands many flora and fauna treats.
Ms. Orui is exceptionally knowledgeable of the landscapes and the different varieties of plants and flowers on Hachijojima. On tours, she’ll pinpoint geographical features that the inexperienced eye cannot spot. She’ll also expound on seeds, flowers, seasonal flowers, and fern plants that you come by during the stroll.
Explaining how the nature in Hachijojima has remained so well-preserved to this date, she says that is mainly due to the island’s separation from the mainland. She reports that Hachijo is a secluded island where plants thrive without the interference of animals, which cannot cross over from mainland Tokyo thanks to the watery difference in-between. Consequently, plants have thrived over hundreds of years, breeding an extensive eco-system with remarkable biodiversity.
Shiinoki also offers other sightseeing opportunities beyond the beautiful island itself. The nearby sea is home to intriguing sea turtles, and the company provides snorkeling plans which pit visitors close to the magnificent creature, not to mention the lovely coral reefs and serene coastline. The best part about that experience is that the turtles venture close to shore, so you don’t have to dive deep to get a glimpse.
These ecotours, which include unrivaled views of mountains sinking into endless azure backdrops, are a critical lifeline for the island’s economy, seeing to it that conservation efforts get the needed funding. The programs also contribute to the historical and cultural preservation of Hachijojima while they go a long way in helping the local nature survive and thrive. Shiinoki’s efforts in showcasing Hachijo’s beauty has not gone without notice from the Japan Ecotourism Association and the Ministry of Environment. The two bodies combine to regularly host an Ecotourism award ceremony with the tour company earning a special accolade during the 14th edition of the showpiece event in February 2019.
Are you afraid of traveling alone? Have you never hiked mountainous landscapes before? Or do you not know how to swim? Ms. Orui encourages all to apply nonetheless as everyone’s concerns and limitations will be addressed to the fullest. She is an adept snorkeler and mountain climbing expert and is willing to show learners the ropes with regards to the Hachijojima terrain.
In addition to the tremendous experience and extensive set of skills, Ms. Orui also has the “Atelier Shiinoki” store to her name. When the weather is smiling down on the island, you can sample the many outdoor goodies that it has to offer. When it decides to act up, you can spend some time at the variety store. There, she can tell you all about how she and Hachijojima’s nature were a match made in heaven, and countless secrets of the island with the tallest peak in the Izu chain.