The Tokara Islands (トカラ列島 Tokara-rettō, sometimes 吐噶喇列島) are a small archipelago in Japan, south of Kyushu and north of the Amami Islands. They are also sometimes known as the Toshima Islands (十島), lit. "Ten Islands", and the name is preserved in the name of the administrative division, Toshima-mura, that covers them.
The Tokara Islands are about as off the beaten track as it gets in Japan. Of the 12 islands in the chain, 7 are inhabited, all of them barely: populations range from 40 to under 200, with a total of less than 600 people living in the entire archipelago. From north to south, scattered over 160 km, the inhabited islands are:
- Kuchinoshima (口之島), the closest to the mainland
- Nakanoshima (中之島), the largest of the islands in size and population
- Tairajima (平島), where the defeated Heike clan are said to have escaped to
- Suwanosejima (諏訪の瀬島), with an active volcano
- Akusekijima (悪石島), lit. "Bad Stone Island", ringed by cliffs and known for its ancient festival
- Kodakarajima (小宝島), area 1 sq.km. and easily walked around 30 minutes
- Takarajima (宝島), or "Treasure Island", supposedly the burial place of Captain Kidd's treasure
So why "Ten Islands" if there are only seven? The answer lies in a quirk of history — after the Allied occupation of Japan, the line between the mainland and US-held Okinawa was drawn between Kuchinoshima and the three Mishima Islands to the north, and the division persists to this day.
In July 2009, the Tokara Islands received some unusual media attention when the longest solar eclipse of the century swept over the archipelago, with Akusekijima having the longest eclipse duration (6 minutes and 25 seconds) in the entire world. The islands were so swamped with eclipse-spotters that a limit of 1500 visitors had to be temporarily imposed.
There is only one practical way to get to the islands: the Ferry Toshima (フェリーとしま) , tel. 099-222-2101, which sails between Kagoshima and the islands twice a week (6 hours to Kuchinoshima, 13 to Takara), dropping in at the port of Naze on Amami Oshima (3 hours from Takara) once per week. As of 2009 — and it hasn't changed for over 10 years — the schedule looks like this:
|Kagoshima →||Tokara||→ Kagoshima||Kagoshima →||Tokara →
|→ Tokara →
|dep 23:50||arr 13:05||dep 07:15
|dep 23:50||arr 16:20||dep 04:00
The 2nd-class one way fare varies from ¥6010 (Kagoshima-Kuchinoshima) to ¥11,620 (Kagoshima-Naze). Schedules are subject to change at short notice, especially in the event of inclement weather.
In addition, there are (very) occasional charter trips to the islands, mostly by dive operators on Amami or Kagoshima. A 5-day, 4-night cruise costs on the order of ¥300,000 (diving included).
Since the Ferry Toshima is the only way to travel, island-hopping is time-consuming: once you get on an island, you're generally stuck there for several days.
Deciding how to get around that island is easy enough, since there are no buses, taxis, rental car, rental motorbike or even rental bicycle services: your only choice is to walk. However, most minshuku are located near the port, and those that aren't will usually pick up guests.
There isn't much in the way of sights on the islands.
- Nakanoshima Observatory (中之島天文台 Nakanoshima-tenmondai), Nakanoshima, ☎ . The largest telescope in Kyushu, with a 60-cm mirror. Open most evenings, but reservations required.
- Tokara Museum (歴史民俗資料館 Rekishi-minzoku-shiryokan), ☎ . The only museum in the islands. A modest affair, and the exhibits are only in Japanese.
The islands are very volcanic and they all have public hot springs. Most are just free, open-air, concrete tubs, but a couple have facilities and token entrance fees (¥200-300).
Most of the islands are surrounded by coral, and scuba diving would normally be one of the main draws for the few visitors in these parts. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any local dive operators anymore.
There's one festival that draws visitors from elsewhere as well:
- Boze Matsuri (ボゼ祭り), Akusekijima. A local variant of Japan's Bon festival, held yearly on the 16th of July in the old calendar -- meaning sometime between August and September. The island's men dress up in bizarre, spectacular costumes made of palm leaves and husk, representing the Masked God Boze, and dance to scare away the devils and bring in a new year.
There are no ATMs or banks on the islands and credit cards are generally not accepted, so bring enough cash to tide you over.
Eat & Drink
There are no public restaurants, pubs or bars on the islands, so you'll be eating and drinking at your lodgings.
All islands are equipped with a couple of minshuku, which are usually just spare rooms in fisherman's houses.
- Minshuku Kurashio-no-Yado (民宿くらしおの宿), Kuchinoshima. ¥9500 incl. 5 meals.