After seeing all the pictures of Tokyo’s record snowfall over the weekend, it may surprise you to learn that some Tokyoites live in a place where snow, or even frost, is completely unheard of. And that’s because there are a chain of islands 1,000 km south of the densely populated Japanese megapolis under the same political jurisdiction officially known as Tokyo Metropolis. So while the word “Tokyo” may conjure up images of gleaming skyscrapers, bright city lights and bustling train stations, get ready to learn about Tokyo’s tropical side and its huge role in World War II.

About 30 islands make up the islets, also known in English as the Bonin Islands, and are all part of Ogasawara Village political subdivision of Tokyo. Only two of the islands hold permanent populations—Chichijima and Hahajima. And the Ogasawara Islands also include Japan’s easternmost territory of Minami-torishima and its southernmost territory of Okinotorishima, making Tokyo’s reach in the Pacific Ocean a lot larger than you may have thought.

2014.02.08 ogasawara map iiImage: Ogasawara Village

Although the islands are Japanese territory, the first settlers were actually a group of Europeans and about a dozen native Hawaiians who started living on Chichijima, then known as Peel Island, in 1830. Descendents of the original settlers still live there today.

▼A picture of native Ogasawarans from the early 20th century

2014.02.08 ogasawara whitiesImage: Wikipedia

Being volcanic, the island chain has added a few new spots to the map as recently as last November. But it has also “lost” islands, such as Nakanotorishima, a phantom island whose “discovery” was first reported in 1907 by the then-governor of Tokyo who claimed the land as part of Tokyo. It stayed on official government maps until 1946 after no one could confirm the island’s existence.

▼A close-up of a 1932 German map showing the location of Nakanotorishima, which was also known as Ganges Island

2014.02.08 ogasawara ganges island copyImage: edited from Wikipedia

During World War II, the islands’ strategic location made it a battleground for the U.S. and Japanese militaries, including the Battle of Iwo Jima on the island now called “Io-to.” Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush was part of a squadron that attacked a Japanese military installation on Chichijima when his plane was shot down and he parachuted into the waters nearby. After the war, the islands were occupied by American troops until they were returned to Japan in 1968.

Now a UNESCO natural World Heritage site, one of the biggest industries is tourism. But travelers with weak stomachs may want to stock up on sea sickness meds as the only way to get to this tropical part of Tokyo is by taking a 25-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Takeshiba Pier on “mainland” Tokyo to the main port on the largest island, Chichijima. And poor ocean conditions can make that journey longer, and no doubt an eternity for those on board with weak stomachs. But islanders are probably thankful for the advances in technology in the form of the newest ship, the Ogasawara Maru, which has almost cut the journey time in half over the past 40 years.

▼A view of the Ogasawaramaru docked at Takeshiba Pier

2014.02.08 ogasawara ferryImage: Wikipedia 

Because the ship only comes in about once a week, visitors to the island are given a royal welcome by local residents. They also gather when the ship leaves with a special farewell party, complete with a fleet of speed boats to thank the travelers for visiting their home.

▼The fleet of speedboats serve as Ogasawara’s welcome committee

2014.02.08 ogasawara goodbye biglobe iImage: biglobe blogs (oitabi42)

▼Islanders welcoming tourists in style at the ferry terminal…

2014.02.08 ogasawara goodbye biglobe iiImage: biglobe blogs (oitabi42)

▼…and waving goodbye

2014.02.08 ogasawara goodbyeImage: livedoor blogs (tabichu551)

Besides the beautiful beaches and the very unique flora and fauna of the so-called “Galapagos of the East,” the islands are known as one of the best places in the world to see a natural phenomenon known as a “green flash.” This happens right before the sun dips below the horizon during sunset and the sun emits a bright green flash of light. Although a green flash can be seen almost anywhere on the globe where there is an unobstructed view of the horizon, Chichijima is famous for having the right atmospheric conditions to make it so that the green flash can be seen almost every night.

▼A group of very enthusiastic Japanese visitors to Chichijima witness the natural phenomenon

Video:  YouTube (2011kazukazu)

Despite the island’s beauty and tranquility, life for residents there isn’t all relaxing on the beach with a cocktail in hand. The remoteness of the island makes life very expensive since everything must be shipped from Tokyo. Gasoline is normally about double the price of what the average Tokyo driver pays and that includes a rather generous 50-70 yen ($US0.50 – $US0.70) per liter government subsidy. Housing, too, is very expensive since all of the building materials have to come by ferry.

Property prices are also driven higher since a considerable amount of the land is publicly owned and not available to private owners. And if you’re lucky enough to score a good piece of land at a decent price, you have to make sure it is close enough to connect to the local utilities unless you want to build your own power lines and sewage pipes.

Another gripe of the islanders is the lack of daily newspaper deliveries. Instead, locals must come to the ferry terminal the one day a week it comes in to one of the many newspaper shops to peruse the past six days of news. But on the bright side, snakes apparently never made it to the islands! 

So if you love ferries, hate snakes and really want to see the sun emit a bright flash of green light, then Tokyo’s lesser-known tropical islands are probably the place for your next vacation! Let us know what you think in the comments below about this little slice of heaven and we would also love to hear from any of you that have visited the Ogasawara Islands.

Feature image: Nakanishi 
Soure: Naver Matome