A brief online search of “things to see in Japan” will bring up a plethora of results, from the weird to the wonderful and everything in between. Perhaps one of the most interesting and adorable results is Okunoshima, or as it’s affectionately called Usagi Shima (Rabbit Island) – an island overrun with cute and friendly bunny rabbits.
Rabbit Island is one of the most interesting places to visit in Japan for reasons you might not expect. In addition to being overrun with adorable fluffy creatures, it has a rich and somewhat unsettling history. A trip to Rabbit Island puts these somewhat contradictory facts side by side as visitors traverse old historical sites while being accosted by completely tame rabbits hungry for snacks. How did Usagi Shima come to be called Rabbit Island, and why is it worth a visit during your time in Japan?
We’re going to discuss what kind of experience you can expect when visiting Rabbit Island, but first, let’s look into the history of Usagi Shima, and find out how it came to be the tourist attraction it is today.
A Dark Unfluffy History
Okunoshima is a small island within the Hiroshima prefecture, in the city of Takehara. Modern-day visitors can access the area by ferry from ports at both Tadanoumi and Ōmishima, but for a long time this small, unassuming island was inaccessible to the general public and was erased from many maps due to the secret activities that were taking place on it. Why? The island of Okunoshima played an important role in Japan’s WWII efforts. Factories on the island manufactured the poison gas that contributed to Japan’s chemical warfare.
In the early 1900s, Usagi Shima was a cultivated island – only three families lived there until the Russo-Japanese war when forts were built to protect it. Around 1925, though, a secret program was initiated by the Imperial Japanese Army Institute of Science and Technology. This program was a direct response to intelligence that suggested the United States and most of Europe were doing the same. Okunoshima proved to be the perfect place for such dangerous research, as it is remote, isolated, and far enough from major cities that should a disaster occur it would not be detrimental to said cities.
Okunoshima was also chosen because its remoteness and secluded location allowed for secrecy as to what was being done there. During the program’s 16 years of operation, it was erased from many maps and shrouded in secrecy. Even the residents and employees of the island’s factories weren’t informed of what was being manufactured. Sadly, many on the island suffered from toxic exposure-related illnesses, and the working conditions for most were unrelenting and harsh.
A Hopeful Post-war Future
At the end of WWII, the plants were closed, and any documents that discussed or referenced Okunoshima were burned. The island was evacuated, and people who had worked in any way on the project were told to be completely silent on the matter. It’s rumored that Allied Occupation Forces disposed of the gas on the island itself, burning, dumping, and burying it, although it’s difficult to confirm this because all documentation was burned. The harsh working conditions were later compensated for by the government, and workers were given government aid.
In 1988 a poison gas museum was opened on the island, in an effort to educate people on the dangers of poison gas and what was done on the island many decades before. The small museum still stands today and serves as a somber reminder of the people who suffered in silence during the experimentation that took place here. In an interview with the New York Times, the museum’s curator Murakami Hatsuichi stated “My hope is that people will see the museum in Hiroshima City and also this one, so they will learn that we [Japanese] were both victims and aggressors in the war. I hope people will realize both facets and recognize the importance of peace.”
So how do free running wild rabbits factor into the island’s history? The initial cause for Okunoshima’s furry inhabitants has been widely disputed. Some say the rabbits were brought to the island by children during a school trip in the 1970s, although evidence to support this is almost non-existent, which would suggest it is nothing more than a long-lasting rumor. Another theory suggests that the rabbits used within the gas factories for testing escaped after those factories were shut down, yet the former director of the poison gas museum Murakami firmly said that this is not the case.
Even the most intensive research yields no concrete, undisputable theory (yes, I’ve been on an online deep dive), but the most widely accepted explanation simply suggests that rabbits were intentionally released on the island in an attempt to develop it as a park sometime after WWII. We’re going to go with that one.
What is Ōkunoshima like today?
Okunoshima is a small tourist spot that has seen a boom in visitors in recent years. The island has one hotel that incorporates hot springs which until a few years ago was mostly popular with the elderly. Children would also visit Okunoshima on school trips to see the museum. In 2015, however, a video of a girl being “chased” by a hundred hungry, friendly rabbits went viral and attracted a completely different kind of tourist. Today people from across Japan, and indeed the world, travel to this small island to experience their own fluffy muggings. So much so that it actually affected the lives of the rabbits themselves (we’ll get into that a little later).
The present-day island of Okunoshima could be described in two ways: a 2½ mile historical monument to the history of the island itself, and the tourist-friendly home of around 1000 wild, mostly docile rabbits, complete with hotel and hot springs. Like many places in Japan, the two concepts seem diametrically opposed – warm fluffiness vs. cold ruins; a place teeming with life vs. the empty shells of buildings that people used to call home. During my first trip to Japan, I was taken by how often contradictions like this one were present in day to day life – things that appeared to be in opposition to each other coexisting together. Okunoshima is a prime example of that juxtaposition.
On Okunoshima today sits the gas-museum, the ruins of the old forts and factories, abandoned parks and tennis courts, a hotel that’s booked indefinitely (another extensive deep-dive), and strangely the Chushu Powerline Crossing – a stark contrast of the modern world, and Japan’s tallest powerline. And of course, intermingled with all that history and modern structures are a thousand or so rabbits. Hungry rabbits. Yes, the tourist boom of the last 5 years has caused a little bit of a population problem within Okunoshima’s rabbit community. Their numbers have boomed due to the influx of food, but the number of visitors isn’t always consistent, and this, unfortunately, causes some problems for the rabbits.
Are The Rabbits On Okunoshima Safe?
This is an important question for any animal lover and one that should be considered before attending any place that features animals. For the most part, the rabbits on Okunoshima are content. They have no natural predators on the island whatsoever, which means that they aren’t afraid of humans and can actually be quite dozy – it’s not unusual to see sleepy bunnies falling asleep in the most unusual of places, including the edge of a curb or the middle of the road. It’s why you’re not allowed to drive on the island, but slow cycling is encouraged.
While the clumsy bunnies aren’t scared of humans, they can, unfortunately, catch bugs and germs from them, and so you might see one or two with an illness. People should keep this in mind when visiting, making sure that they are clean and don’t touch the rabbits if they’re unwell (the humans or the bunnies). Anyone who’s owned one might not think of this as much of a problem since domesticated rabbits are often jumpy and hard to catch, but this is not the case on Okunoshima – these rabbits will hop straight up to you in swarms for one simple reason – food. Unfortunately, the sheer number of them means that most of the time, they’re pretty hungry.
This is caused in part by the tourist boom we mentioned earlier – the rise in food caused a rise in numbers, but there’s simply not enough natural food on the island to feed all those rabbits. They rely on humans for the bulk of their diet. Some days there might be many visitors to the island carrying plenty of food, while other (particularly colder) days might only see a few visitors, which means the rabbits could eat well one day and starve another. Not only does the amount of food fluctuate, people often bring food they think that the rabbits will like, without realizing that it’s harmful to them. Cabbage, for example, which causes gas, is a common food that tourists choose, but since rabbits aren’t able to produce gas this seemingly harmless snack could prove fatal for them.
With all that in mind you’ve likely got a couple of questions: does this mean you shouldn’t visit Usagi Shima? Absolutely not. It’s a fascinating place with an important history, and the hungry rabbits will benefit from regular visits from well-informed tourists. Do the abandoned buildings mean that Okunoshima is not a family-friendly place to visit? In short, no! This quirky little island offers both fun and history for visitors of any age – both kids and adults will love it. The ruins are more interesting than scary for young children, and most kids will solely be focused on their new furry friends anyway. Finally, perhaps you’re wondering “will I be bored if I don’t enjoy history, ruins, or rabbits?”. It’s possible but unlikely. As well as the fascinating things we’ve already discussed, Okunoshima boasts breathtaking scenery, a beach, and unbeatable views of the ocean.
6 Tips To Know Before Going To Okunoshima
So now you’ve decided to go because come on, who wouldn’t want to be chased by adorable balls of fluff hungry for a snack, here are some things you should definitely consider before making your trip.
1. Pick a day that might be less popular than others
As we’ve mentioned, the rabbits now rely on regular visitors to ensure they have a balanced diet. If the island were left to its own devices, the rabbit population would level out to a smaller, more sustainable level, but of course that isn’t likely to happen. Most Japanese tourists choose to visit when the weather is warm and sunny, so if you want to keep the best interest of the rabbits in mind, it would be a good idea to pick a cooler day that might not be as busy. Not only does this mean you’ll be helping the rabbits out on a day where they might not get as much food, it also ensures you’ll get lots of time with plenty of rabbits without battling the crowds.
During my visit to Ōkunoshima, the day was overcast and there was a chill in the air. We certainly weren’t alone on the island, but groups of people were separated enough that we found plenty of rabbits not being fed. We walked around the entire island, which takes around 90 minutes to do, and took our time sitting with big groups of rabbits sharing the food we had brought. It was an incredible experience, and not just because of my aversion to crowds!
2. Bring food that’s good for the rabbits
I can vividly remember the night before our Ōkunoshima trip – I was incredibly excited to finally be visiting a place I’d been dreaming of since reading about it years earlier. My husband stood laughing at me as I picked up 2 rather large bags of vegetables to take with us. The next day he laughed again as I bought around 8 bags of the pellets that are available at the ferry port, while other families were buying one or two – he did not think I would be able to get rid of all this food in the few hours we were going to be there. Well, he was wrong (I’m not gloating, I promise). I could have taken twice as much and easily found some grateful fluffballs to eat it.
The best food the rabbits could be given is natural, rabbit-friendly pellets, some of which are sold at the ferry port in Tadanoumi. If you do want to take vegetables to share, pick ones that are healthy for your new fluffy friends, and try not to let any bunny bully you into handing it all over. There’s plenty of foods that are good for wild rabbits so feel free to do a little research, but if in doubt – you can’t go wrong with pellets. They’re inexpensive, healthy, and you can hand the pellet bags back at the shop and they’ll exchange them for some lovely Usagi Shima postcards – a perfect memento.
3. Don’t pick the rabbits up
You’re welcome to sit and be with the rabbits on the ground, and they may even hop up onto your lap to be closer to the food, but no wild rabbit enjoys being picked up. Trying to grab or chase them could cause them to panic or fall, and the island does not have a vet if one of them gets injured.
4. You can’t take them home
These marvels of nature will undoubtedly capture your heart during your time on the island, but you must not be tempted to take a couple home. This might seem like an outrageous request, but many people have tried over the years. The bold and friendly creatures are intoxicating, but their home is Ōkunoshima, and to remove them from their home would be detrimental to their health. In a sad but similar vein, some tourists bring their own unwanted rabbits to leave on the island in what they assume is a utopia for all bunnies, but domesticated rabbits cannot survive among the wild residents of Ōkunoshima, so don’t even think about abandoning your own pets here.
5. Plan ahead
Depending on where in Japan you’re staying, Ōkunoshima could be quite a trek, which can be problematic if you’re hoping to spend a good few hours there. It took us 4-5 hours to get to the port from Tokyo station, so we chose to spend the night in Hiroshima, but if you’re staying in a nearby city the journey will be considerably quicker. One important thing to keep in mind is that Tadanoumi is a small place, and therefore not quite as easy for tourists who don’t speak Japanese to maneuver.
Try to plan your route in advance and download any maps or translation software you need so it can be used offline. We had to catch a small-town bus to get to our hotel from the port, which was quite intimidating after a week of tourist-friendly Tokyo, but because we’d downloaded the name and address of our hotel in Japanese, we were able to show the bus driver, who kindly stopped where we needed him and showed us where to go. If it’s your first time in Japan don’t be caught out – plan ahead.
6. Cycle responsibly
There are bicycles available for hire on the island, but you should cycle with care. The rabbits are docile and get distracted easily when they are eating. If they’re startled by an oncoming cyclist they may panic and run in your direction, so travel with care. With that in mind, it’s also recommended that you feed them away from the roads.
How Do You Get To Okunoshima?
Ōkunoshima is accessible via a ferry from Tadanoumi port, which is a very short walk from Tadanoumi station. The town is relatively local to Hiroshima station, which can be accessed from every major rail station in Japan, too. You can find everything you need to know about getting to Ōkunoshima on the official rabbit island website here.
And if this article has still left you unsure of whether the island will be worth your trip, let me reassure you – I still have fond and vivid memories of warm, fluffy little chins as they softly ate food right out of my hand. Ōkunoshima is a truly unique experience that you’ll struggle to replicate anywhere else, and you’ll remember for a very long time.
Have you been to Rabbit Island? Tell us about your experience in the comments!